We want our children to be resilient in the face of adversity and be able to feel confident to persevere in difficult situations. This will help them in a range of daily life situations from struggling with friendships, life changes such as moving house or school, coping with physical illness or learning new skills at school or in sport.
Common wisdom over recent decades agrees that encouraging or praising our children’s achievements will lead to confidence and resilience. While this is true, a particular style of praise and encouragement has been found to be the most helpful: that which encourages a growth mindset in children.
Carol Dweck is a professor of psychology at Stanford University who studies mindset in children and its relationship to success. She is the author of the book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” which discusses growth vs fixed mindset and how we can best set up our children to develop a growth mindset.
Dweck’s defines fixed vs growth mindset as:
“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”
While certain skills and abilities come more easily to some children than others, brain plasticity teaches us that we can always learn and develop new skills. Our brain is like a muscle and working it makes it stronger and more capable in a particular area. We might find that maths does not come easily to us, but the more we practise math, the more skilled we become.
A fixed mindset regarding ability or intelligence is particularly unhelpful for children. If they believe that maths ability is fixed, they will easily give up when they come across a new maths problem that they cannot solve. This means they miss the opportunity to learn and grow their ability in this area as well as their confidence with maths. This can also lead to unhelpful beliefs about themselves such as “I’m just no good at maths” or worse still, “I’m not smart”. When children believe that their successes are the result of innate ability or talent, rather than attitude or effort they can give up easily when tasks are difficult or in fact not even try new tasks or tasks in areas that they do not feel confident in.
Dweck suggests that there are a few simple steps that we can take to help develop a growth mindset in our children:
1. Ensure children understand that our brains grow and develop through hard work and practise, just like a muscle.
2. Try to avoid praising children by telling them that they are ‘smart’, ‘intelligent’ or ‘talented’, as this implies that these abilities are fixed and unchangeable.
3. Direct your praise and encouragement instead towards effort, practice, strategy and actions, rather than results. This helps children to learn that success is more connected to what we do rather than our innate abilities.
“You’re such a smart cookie.”
“You’re the best soccer player I know, you never miss a shot!”
“I’m proud of you for getting an A.”
“I’m so proud of you for sticking at this even though it’s hard.”
“I can tell that you’ve been practising this.”
“I love how you tried out lots of different ways of working out this problem until you found the right one.”
“I can see how hard you worked on this project, its really payed off. Well done!”
“It was great how you stuck right on your opponent through the whole game tonight.”
4. Importantly, encourage children to try out new things and stretch their abilities often. Embrace and praise failures and mistakes as this is such an important part of the learning process and is growing a child’s mind, abilities and confidence. The reward for overcoming something is also much sweeter when we have struggled and worked hard to accomplish it and this is a wonderful and rewarding lesson for children to learn early in life.
“It’s so great that you’re giving this new thing a go. You haven’t quite got the hang of it yet but we know how getting it wrong helps your brain to grow and learn. Jump back in and give it another go.”
“Getting it wrong sometimes means you’re working hard and learning something new. I’m really proud of you.”
Through encouraging a growth mindset in our children, we can help them to build resilience, perseverance and confidence in their abilities to overcome difficulties: some of the best resources for a happy and successful life.
Written by Cause Effect Psychology
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.