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Imagine walking into a gym for the first time in your life, heading straight for the dumbbells and trying to lift the heaviest one straight overhead. There’s no chance of that happening. That’s a given. It’s what happens next that’s interesting: The person who heads out the door, never to return, will always be too weak to get it to budge. The person who starts with the lightest weight and works their way up – or takes a class or finds a trainer - they know they aren’t weak; they’re not strong enough yet. One day, with enough hard work, they’ll pick up a weight that’s heavier than they ever imagined.
Our muscles are primed to be able to grow: They respond to stimuli in the environment that signal its time to get bigger and stronger. And our brain is a muscle, too.
Developed by Stanford University psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, the growth mindset lives by this principle: we are not a static identity, a set of fixed traits, but instead a work in progress.
As they go through the rapid changes of childhood and adolescence, kids benefit profoundly from this belief. However, so much of the messaging they hear – from schools, family and peers – emphasizes a fixed mindset: “I’m a fast runner,” “I have a bad memory,” “I’m not good at math,” “I don’t know how to…”
Constantly presented with opportunities to try new things, kids can absorb more of this messaging with every success and stumble, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the positive messaging is as problematic as the negative. With their self-esteem tightly linked to a narrow set of traits, they give up trying new things that they aren’t already “good” at, before they even get to high school; and the things they are good at, they do without effort, failing to access their true potential. Worse, when they hit their first roadblock, they won’t have developed the necessary skills to keep going. Instead, it will feel like their identity is being challenged, even shattered. Over time, a fixed mindset can take a toll on mental health, leading to burn-out.
The most authentic form of empowerment, a growth mindset teaches that success comes from effort, not some magical quality.
It’s also an invaluable asset for engaging with the real world, because it provides a reframe for the inevitable roadblocks and detours everyone has to face, sooner or later. Instead of viewing failure as game over, a child who develops a growth mindset will see it as part of the game. A negative outcome isn’t a reflection on who they are as a person, for which they should be ashamed; at the same time, a positive outcome isn’t a golden ticket to success either – if they want to play at their best, the goal posts will keep moving.
To increase the likelihood of your child buying into the growth mindset, explain the science behind it: neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to adapt and develop throughout life. Scientists have shown that the brain can recover from injury, rewire functions (such as compensating for a compromised sense by heightening another), improve memory and learning. Moreover, when we do activities that promote wellness – creating art, getting a good night’s sleep, practicing mindfulness, and even travel – we increase our neuroplasticity, making it even easier for our elastic brain to help us improve.
When you’re teaching kids to keep at something, you’re tapping into their body’s natural ability for growth – explaining to them why and how could go a long way in getting them to work through a tough spot.
The best way to make an inroad towards this growth mindset is to have them experience it in action. Have them set a goal; start with fun activities, whether it’s to be able to shoot 20 3-pointers in a row, build a robot on their own, or master a new dance technique. Pick a time commitment that seems achievable (20 minutes daily, or a longer block of time a few times per week), and have them track what happens along the way. (If they feel comfortable in front of the camera, they can record a little video diary where they discuss the status of their goal.)
In the early days, there will be lots of misfires while they’re engaging in these growth mindset activities; that’s when you help them practice positive self-talk. Encourage kids to take fixed mindset statements like, ”I can’t do this,” and add a three-letter word that psychologist Carol Dweck recommends incorporating into their vocabulary: yet.
As they turn a statement of defeat into an affirmation -- what Dweck calls, "the power of yet“ -- they’ll start to see what happens with consistent effort in one area of their life. This becomes a powerful point of reference for other areas that you can draw on when the next challenge arises: “Remember how you couldn’t even shoot one 3-pointer, but after six weeks of practice, now you can shoot 20? Imagine what you can do in six more weeks!”
The important part of goal-setting – a regular part of our curriculum at Prisma – is that the child picks something that’s meaningful to them: to pass the swim test so they can go on the slide with the older kids, to learn a few sentences in a foreign language so they can talk to a relative, or to be able to play their favorite song on guitar. When there’s positive meaning attached to a goal, we’re more likely to put in that extra oomph.
One of the challenges of fostering a growth mindset in traditional classrooms is the letter grading system. Grades tend to inspire a “get it done” learning process which ends up being lose-lose, no matter what you score: with grade inflation, if you get anything less than an A, it can kick up feelings of failure; and if you do get an A, it confirms that you’re already good enough and can keep doing the same thing over and over again – not a recipe for growth.
At Prisma, our project-based approach lends itself to the kind of iterative feedback that teaches the value of process. Developing a growth mindset means our learners regularly go back and revise; no one turns in an assignment and is finished in one round. This allows them to start to see how effort can create much better end products. Rather than shutting down when they get feedback, they learn to see it as an opportunity to grow -- which fosters problem-solving skills and a love of learning that stays with them throughout their life.
Even if this kind of iterative feedback is not part of your kids’ school environment, you can instill these values when you spend time together at home, as the next two tips discuss.
Talented artist, gifted athlete, math genius… When we see our kids excel, get excited, and praise them with labels, we contribute to the fixed mindset. We also provide them with extrinsic motivation rather than allowing them to intrinsically follow their passions and curiosities. When your child asks, “How did I do?” try turning the question around to encourage self-reflection, “How do you think you did?” At first, you’ll likely get one-word answers, but keep practicing and you’ll likely help them get to a place of genuine exploration. Questions like, “What did I do really well and where could I have done better?” are a great way to get kids to reflect on their ownership, so they make the connection between the effort they put in and the outcomes.
Self-reflection is an integral part of learner life at Prisma, for example, as preparation for their parent-coach-learner conferences, which begin with their thoughts on their strengths and opportunities for future growth. But you don’t have to homeschool your children to encourage self-reflection: When your kids come home with their report cards, get them to talk about where they stretched themselves, where they came up short, and how they plan to move on next time.
When we see our children make a mistake, it can feel natural to want to fix it for them or distract them from it. Seeing your kid meltdown when they realize they skipped a step on their LEGO build, you might want to snap up the toy, undo the mistake and return it back to them, good as new. Looking over a test paper, you might want to keep their focus on all the answers they got right and not be the cliche perfectionist parent who dwells on the missing two percent.
But while parents seek to cheer their kids along with the best of intentions, research has shown that the real setback is not the mistake, but the attempt to smooth over a bumpy road: The learning happens in the bumps, not the straightaways. So when we tell them to avoid the bumps, we’re also missing a chance for them to realistically build their confidence and understand that they’re capable of navigating the rough patches. The important thing is for kids to have trusted adults with whom to talk about the experience: a parent, a coach, a mentor or a teacher can help children reframe a plan that didn’t quite hatch -- and make a game plan for the next time.
To drive this point home, model it; show them how you continue to learn new skills all throughout life. Even something as mundane as a burnt dinner or a botched outing can be a chance to talk through your troubleshooting process – and get their input, too. As much as you might want to sweep a failure under the rug, facing challenges with your child can do more for their long-term well-being than watching you hit it out of the park.
The more they can understand that the adults in their life went through struggles, the more likely they’ll be to start viewing challenges in a positive light. So, take time to dig into your own past and share stories of difficulties that ended up being, in retrospect, great opportunities. If there are public figures they particularly admire, reading books about their past can help your children see how people’s early missteps can lead to a meaningful achievement.
When teaching a growth mindset for kids, the science is on your side: Children’s brains are incredibly elastic. So lean into their development, and don’t beat yourself up if you fall into old habits. It’s good practice.