Q: When my son fails to get something right after the first or second try, he gives up. In math, a class he once loved, he says he’s no longer good at it because he isn’t immediately grasping new material. He just started playing soccer, but he already wants to quit because he let in a few goals while playing goalie during the last game. He’s given up drawing because he can’t get his pictures just so, complaining that he’s no longer any good at it. How can I help my child develop a growth mindset that will allow him to see—and reach—his potential?
It’s about effort, not intelligence
Kids develop a growth mindset, a term coined by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, when they’re praised for their effort and not their intelligence and learn that they can grow their abilities over time.
In a series of studies, Dweck and her colleagues have shown that a growth mindset can have dramatic impacts on a person’s achievement and outcomes when compared to a fixed mindset, which is the belief that a person’s talent or smarts are fixed and can’t be changed. And even if your child has a fixed mindset now, Dweck’s research finds that a growth mindset can be learned and developed.
In a study of seventh grade students whose math grades were dropping, for example, one group received study skills lessons, and another took part in sessions that included information about how to boost their study skills and the importance of a growth mindset.
Students who attended growth mindset sessions learned, according to Dweck in a talk about her work, that each time we push ourselves out of our comfort zone, science shows us that neurons in our brains form new connections.
Because of those new connections, “over time, if they did hard things and stuck to them, they could get smarter,” she said during the talk. “Kids were thrilled by this idea. Think about it: In a fixed mindset, kids tell us that when they are applying effort or experiencing difficulty, they feel dumb because they think if they were really smart, they wouldn’t have to try hard and they wouldn’t be experiencing difficulty. But in a growth mindset … they know that effort and difficulty, those are the times they’re growing new connections and getting smarter.”
After the sessions, according to Dweck’s research, students who learned about the growth mindset improved their math grades while the students who learned only study skills continued to watch their scores drop.
Developing a growth mindset for kids, however, may require that parents shift the way they talk to their own kids about abilities, intelligence, effort and strengths. A key, said Michael Postma, executive director of Supporting Emotional Needs of the Gifted, is providing a supportive environment where kids have the opportunity to learn about themselves.
“From the very basic simple pieces, it really is about a support mechanism, a support network and really learning who you are as a child, as a learner, as a son or daughter and how you fit into the family and how you fit into the greater community,” Postma said. “To me, it’s about developing metacognition, an awareness of how we think and what we understand.”
“We need to have kids understand not only who they are, but also how their mind works,” he said.
- Think about the mindset messages you’re conveying when you talk to your kids. Spend time talking about how their brain benefits when they try something hard and how we all can bolster our own intelligence by not giving up.
- Don’t praise their intelligence or talent. Instead, celebrate their hard work, effort, concentration or creativity to get something done.
- When kids mess up on a math test, for example, don’t tell your child that math is probably just one subject they don’t excel at. Instead, offer constructive criticism that will help them do better the next time.
- Put the focus on expanding skills and knowledge, not developing some inborn talent.
These kinds of lessons, said Postma, are essential and need to begin at home.
“To me, it starts with that little nuclear family, that village,” he said. “Who is around the child, who is encouraging them, who is listening to them and who is allowing them to fail. Building that positive mindset … is a skill we need to teach.”
Emphasize the process
Kids in fifth grade, especially, suddenly start getting very hard on themselves about whether or not, for example, their artwork looks very realistic. They’re much less willing to wing it in the way a younger child might. So, using artwork as an example, instead of saying, ‘Wow that looks so much like a horse, that’s so pretty, it’s such a realistic rendering of a horse,’ say, ‘I really admire how you were able to focus and think creatively about what you wanted your horse to look like.’ You’re thinking carefully about how you’re acknowledging your child’s work.”
Not just about effort
“Perhaps the most common misconception is simply equating the growth mindset with effort. Certainly, effort is key for students’ achievement, but it’s not the only thing. Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches—not just sheer effort—to learn and improve.”
Carol Dweck, Professor of psychology at Stanford University