Embracing a growth mindset

Being resilient in the face of adversity is an important life skill and it is especially significant during challenging times. Sandy Calleja Portelli discusses the importance of teaching children to persevere in whatever they do, not just academically.
Mistakes are an inherent part of learning. Photo: Shuttestock.com

If you have ever watched your child struggle to learn something, only to get frustrated and declare “I can’t”, you know how difficult it can be to persuade them to persevere until they ‘get it’.

As adults we know how important it is for children to be resilient and not give up but this can be a very challenging skill to pass on. We may try reasoning, cajoling, rewarding, or perhaps threatening them with consequences at school but over time, we may find our child even more resistant to learning new things, homework and study becomes a daily uphill struggle, exhausting for parents and children. There is a growing movement that believes these patterns of behaviour can be overcome if we teach children to adopt a ‘growth mindset’.

In 1998, Dr Carol Dweck published a series of research studies that examined the differences in children’s attitudes to doing jigsaw puzzles according to whether they were praised for their effort (“You must have worked hard”) or for ‘being smart’. She concluded that children who were praised for their efforts were more likely to tackle harder puzzles next time round then children who were labelled as clever.

Dweck and her team concluded that children who are taught that the brain is a muscle that can be exercised and grow were likely to achieve much better grades over the long term than students who are not taught this and are therefore more likely to have a fixed mindset.

“Self-belief and attitude have a significant impact on what one can achieve, regardless of the talents they are born with”

A fixed mindset is the belief that one is born with a set of natural talents and intelligence which cannot be changed and, it is argued, that people with a fixed mindset are more likely to conclude “I am no good at x, y or z.” Proponents of a growth mindset propose that whilst every individual is born with a different level of intelligence and talents, self-belief and attitude have a significant impact on what one can achieve regardless of the talents they are born with.

Although there is some dispute about the levels of improvement in children’s school grades, parents and teachers who have adopted growth mindset strategies with their children, report that their children have become more willing to try new things, and less likely to get discouraged at initial failures or mistakes. There is also some anecdotal evidence that suggests that the adults have also changed their outlook in many ways. So, what does it mean to embrace a growth mindset in your family?

Teach your child about neuroplasticity

The brain is a muscle that becomes stronger and builds patterns depending on how it is used. When we first learn a skill, the knowledge is stored and the more often we repeat the task the less effort we need to put into completing it. This is how the skills we learn as toddlers become second nature to us as we master them – learning to walk is a process that involves a number of bumps and scrapes for a toddler but becomes instinctive in time. On the other hand, if you stop practising something for a period of time (e.g. a language or instrument) it will take time to regain the fluency or mastery you once had. 

Learning is a process that requires effort

Value and emphasise the importance of effort in learning new things in all areas of life, not just academic. When children are praised for ‘being smart’ or learning new things quickly they may interpret struggle as a sign they are ‘dumb.’ Children should be encouraged and praised when they make a mindful effort and find ways to overcome their struggle. It is very tempting to praise children for getting good grades but there are more long term benefits from focusing on the effort – a ‘C’ grade that required focus and study to achieve may be more valuable than an ‘A’ on a test they barely had to prepare for at all.

Mistakes and failures are opportunities for learning

Mistakes are an inherent part of learning, regardless of age or what is being learnt but we often tend to beat ourselves up and feel shame at ‘messing up.’ Instead, individuals with a growth mindset views mistakes as opportunities to evaluate their process, learn what can be done better and use that knowledge going forward. This approach lessens the fear of failure which holds so many people back from grasping new opportunities, from speaking up in class or at work possibly resulting in lost opportunities for the individual and their community.

Grades and achievements do not define a person

Rather than praising children only for being a good student, for winning at sports etc, it is important to value qualities such as their ability to work in a team, community spirit, responsible attitude, tenacity and persistent. More importantly, encourage your child to recognise and value these positive traits. One suggestion is to set up a jar in which parents and child add daily positive notes noting instances where the child has displayed a good personal trait building a jar of affirmations.

Embrace the power of ‘yet’

‘Yet’ is such a small word but laden with so much power – “I can’t do this yet” strongly suggests “I will be able to do it in the future”. Our self-talk colours our beliefs and attitude towards life and if children embrace the belief that they have the potential to master a challenging skill or topic they are more likely to stretch themselves to reach their potential.

It’s not a competition

Discourage your child from comparing themselves to others and encourage them to celebrate their own progress and achievements.

Emotions affect learning

In times of stress, anxiety or fear, our capacity to learn and focus is greatly diminished. Teach your child to recognise when they are starting to feel anxious or frustrated about their learning and encourage them to adopt relaxation techniques. In some instances, taking a timed break away from their studies and focusing on something else may help them come back to their problem with a clearer mind later on.

Set an example

Children are more likely to model your behaviour than what you tell them, so be mindful of your own mindset – how often do you say “I’m no good at …”? Let your children see you try, fail and learn (when appropriate) and set an example by embracing new challenges yourself – whether this is at work, learning a new skill or taking up a new hobby.

Children today are growing up to an uncertain future where their ability to adapt to new methods and learn new skills is predicted to be crucial to success. If they grow up afraid of taking on new challenging, afraid of failing, then they are likely to struggle to thrive in the future. Teaching children that their brain is flexible and can continue learning new skills is possibly one of the greatest things we can do to help them reach their full potential.

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