“No pain, no gain” … Anyone who has ever tried to get fit or sculpt that perfect summer body knows that you really must work at it to succeed. Yet when it comes to school, many people assume that superior intelligence or ability is the key to success; you’ve either got it or you haven’t; your capabilities are fixed and there is nothing you can do about it. This is fixed mindset thinking.
Fortunately, thirty years of research is debunking this myth. Growth mindset is the idea that we can grow our brain's capacity to learn and to solve problems. It is believing that success is 1% talent and 99% percent hard work. It’s knowing that effort, planning, persistence, and good strategies are what it really takes to succeed.
This research illustrates two important facts about growth mindset: it works, and it can be developed. It is not something children are born with, but parents and teachers can help to develop it. Here are a few strategies that are effective.
Parents and teachers should teach children that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use. Learning prompts neurons in the brain to grow new connections and practice strengthens these new neural pathways. Understanding this simple model of the brain allows children to take control of their own brain development.
Emphasising effort through a growth mindset gives children a variable they can control as they learn. Conversely, focusing on natural talent takes success out of the child’s control, and crushes resilience after a failure.
Carol Dweck, the growth mindset guru, highlights the crucially important role that praise from parents and teachers can play in building a child’s mindset.
If we praise children for their intelligence (“You got it – you’re so smart!”), they get the message that ‘looking smart’ is all-important.
They will soon avoid challenges where they may fail and ‘look dumb’. They won’t like to be seen to be working hard because ‘smart’ kids should ‘just get it’.
Instead, we should provide focused process praise that emphasises the child’s persistence or use of successful strategies. Children praised for working through difficult tasks want to show they can do so again. They relish challenging situations, build their repertoire of problem-solving strategies and learn from their mistakes.
Here are some examples of effective praise:
“I like the way you tried all kinds of strategies on that maths problem until you finally got it. It wasn’t easy, but you kept trying.”
“You studied effectively for your Humanities test. You read the material over several times, summarised it and tested yourself on it. It really worked!”
Learning is a journey. It is about growth and becoming the best we can be. Parents and teachers can help by providing children with challenges that are a little beyond their current capabilities. Encourage them to take calculated risks, to be creative. When offering support, empower your child by suggesting strategies to try rather than providing solutions.
Celebrate your child’s ‘personal bests’ and guide them to reflect on their learning journey to identify the strategies that led to their success.
When children push their boundaries, there will inevitably be failures. Helping your child to learn from setbacks and to bounce back with new ideas will build their resilience.
Parents and teachers can help by remembering ‘the power of yet’. Encourage your child to describe their failure by saying “I can’t do it … YET”. This helps them to recognise that they are on a learning journey and will have opportunities to try again after more practice or with different strategies until they succeed.
Success in learning takes practice and perseverance, a passion for long-term goals. Parents and teachers can help by providing engaging learning activities with appropriate support and frequent opportunities for feedback and encouragement. Helping children to reflect on their progress towards their goals and to plan strategies for the next phase of their learning can also be helpful.
In helping your child to develop a growth mindset you will be laying the foundations for success at school and in life. Mindset can affect the quality and longevity of personal relationships. Being willing to work at relationships, learn from mistakes and to grow through difficult times helps bring people closer. In the workplace, a focus on continual improvement and a willingness to learn from constructive criticism are desirable traits.
Developing a growth mindset isn’t something only relevant in early childhood. It is a life-long quest. Dweck says it is never too late for change, so why not try it on yourself, too, and see how it goes!