When I was still in practice as a child psychologist, it was a disheartening reality that, by the time most children were walking through my door for a diagnostic evaluation, their struggles were longstanding. Often, it had gotten to the point of failing grades (or having to repeat a grade!), ineffective school interventions, or a tumultuous home situation with parents at their wits’ end). In any of these situations, as you can imagine, the child themselves is just as frustrated as the adults who are trying to help them.
During diagnostic testing, there is a lot of one-on-one time with the child, engaging them in conversation and tasks. These tasks, by design, push children to their limits. It is in these moments that I really got a glimpse into their (usually) internal dialogue… and it was, more often than not, not very kind.
“I’m not good at math so I can’t do this problem.”
“This is too hard.”
“I’ll never be able to do this.”
“I give up!”
Ouch. My heart hurt for these children, many with learning and attentional challenges. They had an established mindset that intelligence is fixed… that they were either good or bad at something and there was no changing it. They had learned that, when things are difficult, it’s not worth the effort to try. They were discouraged and it showed.
Carol Dweck, a psychologist and professor, developed the concept of these two competing mindsets: Fixed Mindset vs. Growth Mindset. The main underlying tenant of a growth mindset (what we want!) is that intelligence can be developed. Individuals with a growth mindset tend to:
- Embrace challenges
- Persist despite setbacks
- Recognize effort as the path to mastery
- Learn from criticism
- Find inspiration in the success of others
In the spirit of full disclosure and our commitment to science-backed information, I think there is room for the research to grow when it comes to fully understanding how much we can intervene upon a child’s mindset and the full effects of such intervention. BUT… can positively changing the way we talk to our children, and changing the way we encourage our children to talk to themselves, be harmful? Probably not. So, let’s help your child take a deep breath and proceed with 4 key ways you can start to encourage a growth mindset in your child:
1. Praise the effort, not the outcome or ability.
When we praise our children for things that seem like innate talents, such as being smart or athletic, we are actually contributing to a fixed mindset. In this, we are sending the message to our children that these characteristics are something they either do or don’t have, and there is no changing it. When presented with a difficult task, they are then more likely to succumb to the belief that they don’t possess the necessary innate talent to complete that task, and they give up.
Instead, let’s praise what has been called “effective effort”. Essentially, effective effort is hard work that results in some kind of learning or progress. We don’t want to fall into the trap of praising any effort, or we may inadvertently praise a child for low effort and we miss an opportunity to help them grow. Aim to praise effective effort, knowledge seeking, persistence in the face of difficulty, and focus.
Instead of this: ”Great job on your math test! You’re so smart!”
Try this: “Great job on your math test! You studied hard for that test, and it shows!”
2. Acknowledge and embrace mistakes.
As parents, it’s very tempting to protect our children from failure. In our desire to shield them from the emotional response that often accompanies failure, we actually take away an opportunity for them to grow emotionally.
First, we must let our children know that mistakes are allowed and embraced. We, as parents, must also make mistakes. Nobody is perfect, and our children need to see us learning and growing from our own mistakes. Allow your children to feel the emotions that come with making mistakes, and when they are ready, help them problem-solve and decide on next steps.
Instead of this: “It’s okay if you’re not great at art… you’re so good at math!”
Try this: “What can we learn from this?”
3. Model growth mindset self-talk.
When we externalize our usually internal dialogue, we provide our child with a great learning opportunity. From our children’s perspective, things come easy to us. We don’t often let them in on all of the problem-solving and effort that happens behind the scenes. By problem-solving aloud, sharing when things are difficult (but persisting), or speaking positively of the success of others, we can show our children what a growth mindset looks like.
Instead of this: Saying nothing.
Try this: “Wow, this task is more difficult than I thought. Maybe I need to try a new approach.”
4. Replace failing with learning, and the power of “yet”.
When struggling with something, remind your child that they haven’t failed, they simply haven’t mastered it yet. By adding the word “yet” to fixed mindset comments, we switch the narrative from failing to learning. The word “yet” reminds us all that learning and progress takes time. We can all stand to give ourselves a bit more grace and remind ourselves that there are many things we simply haven’t mastered yet.
Instead of this: “It’s okay, you don’t have to be good at everything.”
Try this: “It’s okay if you’re not good at this yet.”
Please, keep in mind that nobody has a growth mindset all of the time. We’re all a work in progress! Leave us a “yet” comment below, letting us know something that’s a work in progress for you.