How to Instill a “Growth Mindset” in Children | K-12 Schools
As K-12 schools increasingly recognize the importance of social-emotional learning, many schools try to help children 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 your intelligence or your good math skills — are things you can change, through your own efforts and the help of others. In his groundbreaking 2006 book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Dweck contrasted this with a “fixed” mindset, which is best summed up as “you either have it or you don’t.” .
The difference matters. Research has shown that children 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 this translates into academic impact: for example, a 2021 report from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that students identified as having a strong growth mindset scored significantly higher in all subjects than those who thought their intelligence was fixed.
Dweck and others the researchers found that simply teaching children the growth mindset can help them develop it, and it can have a direct impact on their success. Schools took notice and tried to help children 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 think intelligence, skill, and strength are fixed, then every test, every draft, and every sporting event feels like an invitation to prove your greatness or reveal your deficiency. There is no third option. With a fixed mindset, if you have to work hard, it means you’re not smart. You can’t admit a misstep, let alone learn from it. The worry of being found missing is constant. These children, says Laura Markham, author of “Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids,” “would rather [you] think they’re smart, but they just don’t try to think they’re not smart.
With a growth mindset, children see the goal as development, not perfection, and can let go of this binary thinking, says Kristin Smith Alvarez, who has seen growth mindset coaching in working in dozens of schools as a teacher trainer in the San Francisco Unified School District. . When teachers cultivate a “culture of error,” she says, with “that tone in the room of ‘We’re here to make mistakes as learners,'” children who face setbacks say things like “I don’t know…yet” and “I’m a work in progress”.
How Adults Can Help Children Build a Growth Mindset
We all slip in and out of both mindsets. To help kids adopt a growth mindset more often, Sean Talamas, Executive Director of Character Laba nonprofit that connects researchers and educators to improve student well-being, says in a way, “It’s probably easier to think about the things you should try to avoid than things to do.”
The first no-no seems unrelated: don’t be bossy. Experiments show that when adults step in to take charge of a difficult task, children are more likely to give up on the next one sooner. Why? If you rush to help, you imply that they are not capable.
Parents often send hidden messages like this. “Without realizing it, we’re constantly evaluating kids,” Markham says. Even if it’s positive—for example, “you’re natural” or “you’re so smart”—our assessment conveys a fixed mindset. Alvarez says compliments should avoid communicating, “You have fixed traits that I love” and instead praise specific aspects of performance, emphasizing hard work, practice, problem solving and perseverance.
When kids complete a task, she recommends saying, “We’re going to give you problems that will challenge you so you can keep building and getting stronger!” »
Modeling is essential. Alvarez recently saw a teacher realize that she had made a phonetic mistake in front of the class. “She took the opportunity to say, ‘Listen, I made a mistake here. We all learn and grow. At home, parents can do the same by sharing stories of setbacks at work and saying things like, “I’m not good at navigating Snapchat yet, because I haven’t taken the time to ‘learn the features.’
Growth Mindset Activities
In addition to changing their own behavior, teachers and other adults can try some child-friendly activities.
Read children’s stories about characters learning from failure and persisting through challenges, like “Rosie Revere, engineer,” suggests Markham. Tell them that tripping is part of the learning process. Markham says to let kids know they’re supposed to feel challenged, and it’s okay to be uncomfortable. The goal is to avoid what Character Lab calls “the lazy genius myth” and glamorize the effort instead.
Alvarez agrees that the trick makes the challenge desirable. Make sure kids know that another student’s work product is like an island on top of an underwater mountain, she says. Ask them what unseen effort could have gone into a peer’s success to help children avoid thinking that others are naturally more talented. It brings them back to ‘again’, she says: ‘It’s a simple three-letter word, but it really shifts that power of possibility and breaks up the narrative of ‘I’m no good at this’.”
In 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 get there – have demonstrated greater academic perseverance and obtained better grades. The effect lasted for weeks before fading away. Alvarez says even young children can engage in this type of thinking exercise to build their perseverance and resilience.
Common pitfalls of the growth mindset
But watch out for a few ways growth mindset coaching can go wrong.
First of all, you can’t pretend. Alvarez says she will bring in elementary educators who deeply believe in the concept of a growth mindset for their students, but then say, “I’m not a mathematician.” Markham sees the same thing in the way parents talk about themselves: “I messed it up” or “I’m just not good at tennis.”
“Parents and educators who don’t have a growth mindset themselves but are trying to follow a script to try to promote it, I think that can be… more harmful than helpful,” says Talamas.
And it’s easy to miss the mark of the “hard work” coin. Parents sometimes say, “You’ve worked so hard” when the child hasn’t.
Another thing to keep in mind is that there are limits to the amount of hard work that is healthy. Researchers prevent that growth mindset messages can contribute to the “culture of grind” in high-performing schools. Talamas makes a related point: children often need to stop and try a different approach, and they should be encouraged to ask for feedback if necessary. Markham says, “That’s where it’s an art and not a science.” Let them problem-solve and develop a tolerance for frustration, but offer 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 the growth mindset assumes that children have a baseline level of confidence in their abilities, “and what you find out, with the colored students, many of them have never heard anybody say, ‘You’re smart, you’re able.’ In fact, the reverse may be true. They don’t see themselves reflected in positions of power in the world as white children do. And in schools, Wood continues. to research confirms what other studies have long established: Black students are forced to wrestle with an assumption of academic inferiority. Knowing that, he says, “You can validate the effort they put in, their perseverance, but you also have to give them that invigorating message” that they are capable of.
Wood says parents and educators should aim for a combined message – expressing faith in children’s effort and their ability – with any student who may feel marginalized, including children with disabilities, English language learners and girls in STEM classrooms.
Finally, context is important, especially for disadvantaged students. Growth mindset coaching can send the following message: “If you haven’t done as well, it’s because you haven’t worked as hard,” says Wood. But some children have more resources and support systems than others. And there is no fairness in being able to work hard academically when some children have to commute for two hours to school, to work, or to care for their siblings. Wood sees a danger in sending “a myth of meritocracy, a priming message.”
Managing these concerns is easier if adults also adopt a growth mindset. View stumbles in your own messaging as opportunities for growth. If you continue, you will soon have children who react to a challenge in this way too.