Updated: Jun 8, 2020
“He can’t write.”
“She doesn’t know the numbers.”
“He doesn’t listen to the lessons.”
I understand parents’ anxiety over their children’s progress, their preoccupation with what their child can and can’t do and how much their kids ‘know’ compared with their friends and classmates. Too often though I hear comments like these made about kids that I teach and even made to the kids by their parents and it makes me sad. Statements like these are damaging to children because they insinuate to kids that their current abilities are fixed whilst dismissing their potential to continue learning, growing and developing. Comments like these are evidence of a parent's fixed mindset and won’t help promote future learning and growth in kids lives and could damage self-esteem and achievement.
What is a growth mindset?
A growth mindset is a belief or understanding that almost anything can be achieved and that intelligence can be increased through embracing challenges, perseverance and hard work. Those with a growth mindset don’t give up or ‘fail’ or even believe that they ‘can’t’ do things. Instead, they see challenges as learning opportunities and know that their success is possible depending on their attitude and efforts.
Fixed Mindset vs Growth Mindset
People with a fixed mindset believe that abilities are fixed and can't be changed. If you're not good with numbers, you'll never be good at maths. They tend to focus on natural talent and intelligence and don’t believe in improvement with effort. They might describe people as 'smart' and others as 'not smart'. In contrast, those with a growth mindset see that our abilities, talents and even intelligence can be improved with effort and hard work.
Whereas someone with a fixed mindset might make excuses to avoid doing things that they aren’t good at, people with a growth mindset would be more likely to do them anyway and make an effort to improve.
Throughout high school, I believed that there were kids who were 'sporty', who did sports, and kids who didn’t because they weren’t good at them. I saw myself as ‘not sporty’ and never did anything active that I didn’t have to do. As an adult though, I have become an enthusiastic runner, one time (so far!) marathoner and genuinely love being active in my free time. I’m not as fast as some and not that flexible (yet) but that doesn’t stop me and the amount of enjoyment I get from it motivates me to keep on learning and improving.
What does the power of yet mean?
The examples of comments from parents that I gave are missing one important word at the end - ‘yet’. What’s referred to as The power of yet, cheesy but true, shows how the implications take a dramatic turn for the better with the addition of just one word. If these parents had added ‘yet’ to the end of their statements then they could have been perfectly fair comments about a child’s current ability that still acknowledge the ability to grow and learn.
What does a growth mindset look like?
A growth mindset for Early Years
Part of the UK's early years curriculum specifies Characteristics of Effective Learning which should be promoted and encouraged in kids from birth. The traits for an effective learner correlate perfectly with a growth mindset's characteristics. This shows how important it is even for very young children to develop a positive attitude towards their learning and provides some specific criteria that parents could encourage at home.
Not just about effort
It’s not just about effort though as Carol Dweck, mother of the mindset concept, reminds us; it’s also about how kids strategise the actions that they will take and resources they will need to move themselves forward towards their goals. Lots of effort is no good if it’s put into the wrong things.
Not fearing failure
Kids encounter failure all the time but those with a growth mindset might not even realise it because they will see mistakes as chances to learn from their actions and improve. Kids with a growth mindset have been shown to be able to ‘bounce back’ from failures better because of their heightened ability to pay attention to mistakes they have made and learn from them. In her writing educator and author, Diane Tavenner describes watching her son play Cut the Rope, a physics-based puzzle game, for the first time. Her son failed repeatedly but persevered unflinchingly and she realised that he was learning from each and every failure and improving with each attempt.
An example of growth vs fixed mindset
Imagine two students - one with a fixed mindset and one with a growth mindset. They both complete an essay assignment at home and hand it in but when they get their grades back neither has done as well as they wanted to because they have been marked down for having too many spelling and grammar errors in their writing.
The student with a fixed mindset accepts that they are not good with spelling and will never do better than a C in their essays. The student with a growth mindset, on the other hand, would know that they could improve if they put in some effort in the right places. They would wonder what they could do to improve their spelling and grammar for next time. They could decide to practise their spellings regularly, learn how to use a spellchecker and ask a friend or a parent to proofread their essays before submitting them in the future.
The student with a fixed mindset will continue to achieve low grades even if they write great essays whereas the student with the growth mindset’s academic achievement will improve all round because they have become better at spelling and they have developed some useful study skills that they can apply in any subject. They also feel proud when they look back on their achievements and get a sense of fulfilment from being able to set challenging goals and succeed. Their problem-solving skills are sharpened and they can even use them to improve other areas of their life, as well as later on in life when they begin work.
People with a growth mindset are very open to trying new things and doing things that they know they find difficult at the moment because they know that they can learn and improve. A growth mindset means that they have belief in themselves, that they need to take action and are empowered and motivated to achieve.
Once engaged in an activity, kids who show perseverance tend to see it through, whereas those with a fixed mindset will give up or lose interest at the slightest hint of difficulty. Kids that persevere keep on putting in the effort and trying different ways to do things until a problem is solved or a goal is reached rather than giving up.
Why is it important for students to have a growth mindset?
Students with a growth mindset will achieve more academically, be happier and grow up to live more successful, fulfilled lives. A growth mindset means kids do better but with less help. They will be more prepared for going to college or university and for starting their careers because they are already developing the skills they’ll need to succeed like decision making, planning and problem-solving.
How does a parents mindset affect their kids?
Children of parents with a fixed mindset have been shown to have lower reading and writing skills whereas kids with a more of a growth mindset have been found to achieve better academically. A parent with a growth mindset has been shown to promote a love of learning in their children which in turn boosts school achievement. Mindsets are not forever though so don’t worry if you suspect yours has been a little on the fixed side and would like to make a change for the better.
How can parents encourage a growth mindset at home?
Just knowing about what a growth mindset is compared with a fixed mindset is extremely important and the fact that our brains can grow and develop is important to teach children. If you feel you’d like a better understanding of mindsets and why they are important there are many resources available to help you and I have listed some of them at the bottom of this post.
Explaining the brain to a child
Our brains work because of networks of neurons which communicate using chemical and electrical signals. Brain plasticity is the brain’s ability to continue to grow and change. This happens when new experiences and challenges trigger neurons to fire which trigger other neurons to fire as a result. Neurons that trigger together develop connections which change the physical structure of the brain, making us smarter! You can see in the picture above how the number of connections increases as children are exposed to new experiences.
Making your kids aware of the brain’s ability to change when confronted with a challenge has been shown to help them to develop a growth mindset. You can teach your children some brain basics, namely the fact that their brains can grow, to help kids develop a growth mindset. Kids who understand the potential for their brain's growth are more likely to display characteristics of a growth mindset because they'll see the value in persisting with challenging tasks.
Modelling a growth mindset
It’s important for parents who encourage a growth mindset in their kids to make sure that their behaviours align with growth mindset values too. Research has shown that if they fail to practise what they preach then their kids could end up with a more fixed mindset instead. So as with encouraging any kind of behaviour to kids, don’t just talk the talk! Show them how it's done!
Be careful what you say
Praise effort rather than achievement. Recognise your kid's struggles and the positive ways that they deal with them. Studies have shown that just telling kids that they are ‘smart’ can actually reduce IQ whereas recognising the effort that kids have put in or the way they solve problems is much more beneficial for their learning. Be careful not to just praise effort mindlessly though as this can be just as detrimental if kids are putting effort into the wrong things.
See what Carol Dweck suggests when it comes to talking about kids achievements and struggles:
Focus on the process
It’s been found that continued focus on the actual process of kids learning helps to pass a growth mindset on to kids from the adults around them.
What does this mean?
Try not to dwell on the outcomes of your children's learning so much as you talk about the process. Don't get carried away with grades, scores or passes and fails. Discuss how your kids feel about their learning, what has challenged them and what have they enjoyed? Did they learn about themselves or others? Is there more they want to do now? This indicates that you care about your kid's learning process and will encourage them to as well. If they are only interested in the grade or test score, there won't be sustainability in their learning.
This sustainable learning cycle's headings are based on the SFCOHTGGAS or the Self-Fulfilling Cycle Of How To Get Good At Stuff by Trevor Ragan at The Learner Lab but I have broken down each stage into the things a learner with a growth mindset might do.
For me, this sums up perfectly what growth mindset is at its core and more importantly why parents and students need it if kids are to be successful and enjoy fulfilled lives.
Growth mindset resources for parents:
Book: Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck