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