As K-12 schools increasingly recognize the importance of social-emotional learning, many schools are trying to help kids cultivate a “growth mindset.” What does that mean?
According to Carol Dweck, the Stanford University professor who coined the phrase, having a growth mindset means believing that your basic qualities — like how smart you are or whether you’re good at math — are things you can change, through your own efforts and help from others. In her pathbreaking 2006 book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Dweck contrasted this with a “fixed” mindset, which is best summed up as “you have it or you don’t.”
The difference matters. Research has shown that kids with a growth mindset embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks and learn from their mistakes. They feel a greater sense of control over their lives and become more motivated. All of that translates to an academic impact: For instance, one 2021 report from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that students identified as having a strong growth mindset scored significantly higher on all subjects than those who believed their intelligence was fixed.
Dweck and other researchers have found that simply teaching kids about growth mindset can help them develop it, and that can have a direct impact on their achievement. Schools have taken note and attempted to help kids see effort as the path to ability. But several common missteps have been identified over the years.
What Schools Teach About Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset
If you believe that intelligence, skill and strength are fixed, then every test, every project and every sporting event feels like an invitation to prove your greatness or reveal your deficiency. There’s no third option. With a fixed mindset, if you have to work hard, it means you’re not smart. You can’t admit to a misstep, let alone learn from it. The worry about being found lacking is constant. These kids, says Laura Markham, author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids,” “would rather [you] think they’re smart, but just not trying, than think they’re not smart.”
With a growth mindset, kids see the goal as development, not perfection, and can ditch this binary thinking, says Kristin Smith Alvarez, who has seen growth mindset coaching in action in dozens of schools as a teacher educator in the San Francisco Unified School District. When teachers cultivate a “culture of error,” she says, with “that tone in the room of, ‘We are here to make mistakes as learners,'” kids who face setbacks say things like, “I don’t know it … yet’ and ‘I’m a work in progress.'”
How Adults Can Help Kids Develop Growth Mindset
We all slip in and out of the two mindsets. To help kids get in a growth mindset more of the time, Sean Talamas, the executive director of Character Lab, a nonprofit that connects researchers and educators to improve students’ well-being, says in some ways, “It’s probably easier to think about the things you should try to avoid than the things to do.”
The first no-no seems unrelated: Don’t be overbearing. Experiments show that when adults step in to take over a challenging task, kids are more likely to give up sooner on the next one. Why? If you swoop in to help, you imply they’re not capable.
Parents often send hidden messages like this. “Without realizing it, we evaluate kids constantly,” Markham says. Even if it’s positive — e.g., “you’re a natural” or “you’re so smart” — our assessment transmits a fixed mindset. Alvarez says compliments should avoid communicating, “You have fixed traits that I like” and instead commend specific aspects of performance, with a focus on hard work, practice, problem solving and persistence.
When kids whiz through a task, she recommends saying, “Let’s get you some problems that will challenge you so you can continue to build and get stronger!”
Modeling is essential. Alvarez recently watched a teacher realize she’d made a phonics error in front of the class. “She used it as an opportunity to say, ‘Look, I made a mistake here. We are all learning and growing.'” At home, parents can do the same by sharing stories about setbacks at work and saying things like, “I’m not great at navigating Snapchat yet, because I haven’t put time into learning the features.”
[Read: What Is a Montessori School?]
Growth Mindset Activities
Beyond shifting their own behavior, teachers and other adults can try a few kid-friendly activities.
Read kids stories about characters learning from failure and persisting through challenges, like “Rosie Revere, Engineer,” suggests Markham. Tell them stumbling is part of the learning process. Markham says to let kids know they’re supposed to feel challenged, and it’s OK to be uncomfortable. The goal is to eschew what Character Lab calls “the myth of the lazy genius” and glamorize striving instead.
Alvarez agrees that the trick is making challenge desirable. Make sure kids know that another student’s work product is like an island that’s the top of an underwater mountain, she says. Ask them what invisible effort could have gone into a peer’s achievement to help kids avoid thinking of others as naturally more talented. It loops them back to “yet,” she says: “It’s a simple three-letter word, but it really does shift that power of possibility and interrupts the narrative of ‘I’m not good at it.'”
In one study, supported by Character Lab, ninth graders who spent 15-20 minutes writing about a failure and how it changed them for the better — or a success story and what they did to make it happen — demonstrated greater academic persistence and got better grades. The effect lasted for weeks before fading. Alvarez says even young kids can engage in this sort of reflection exercise to get a persistence and resilience boost.
Common Pitfalls of Growth Mindset
But watch out for a few ways growth mindset coaching can go wrong.
First, you can’t fake it. Alvarez says she’ll have elementary educators come in who believe deeply in the concept of growth mindset for their students, but then say, “I’m not a math person.” Markham sees the same thing in the way parents talk about themselves: “I messed that up” or “I’m just not good at tennis.”
“Parents and educators that don’t themselves have a growth mindset but are trying to follow a script to try and promote it, I think can be … more harmful than helpful,” Talamas says.
And it’s easy to miss the mark on the “hard work” piece. Parents sometimes say, “You worked so hard” when the kid didn’t.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there are limits to how much hard work is healthy. Researchers warn that growth mindset messaging can contribute to “grind culture” in high-achieving schools. Talamas makes a related point: Kids often need to stop and try a different tack, and they should be encouraged to ask for input when needed. Markham says, “This is where it’s an art and not a science.” Let them problem-solve and build up a frustration tolerance, but provide enough support so they don’t get to “the point where they throw it across the room,” she says.
J. Luke Wood, a professor of education at San Diego State University, says growth mindset assumes that children have a baseline level of confidence in their ability, “and what you find is that with students of color, many of them have never heard someone say, ‘You are intelligent, you are capable.'” In fact, the reverse may be true. They don’t see themselves reflected in positions of power in the wider world the way white children do. And in schools, Wood’s ongoing research confirms what other studies have long established: Black students are forced to grapple with an assumption of academic inferiority. Knowing this, he says, “You can validate the effort that they put in, their perseverance, but you also have to give them that life-giving message” that they are capable.
Wood says parents and educators should aim for a combo-message — expressing faith in children’s effort and their ability — with any student who may feel marginalized, including kids with disabilities, English-language learners and girls in STEM classes.
Finally, context is important, especially for disadvantaged students. Growth mindset coaching can send the message, “If you haven’t done as well, it’s because you haven’t worked as hard,” Wood says. But some kids have more resources and support systems than others. And there isn’t equity in the opportunity to work hard academically when some kids have to commute two hours to school, work a job or take care of siblings. Wood sees a danger of sending “a myth-of-meritocracy, bootstrapping message.”
Navigating these concerns is easier if adults also embrace a growth mindset. Think of stumbles in your own messaging as opportunities to grow. If you keep at it, pretty soon you’ll have kids who react to a challenge that way, too.
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