Fixed vs. growth mindset: The benefits of believing your brain can learn

Child playing with cardboard boxesWhat phrases do you use to praise your child? “You’re so smart!” and “Good boy (girl)!” are probably on the list. Unfortunately, these phrases, which praise the child for being a certain type of person, can shape children’s notions of learning for the worse.

The problem is that telling children they are [fill-in-the-blank] types of people leads them to have a fixed mindset, an attitude about intelligence that discourages learning, as originally described by Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford. 

Kids (and adults) who have a fixed mindset believe intelligence is unchangeable, that we are stuck with whatever intelligence/ability level we are given.  Those who have a growth mindset believe that intelligence can grow or change. These beliefs shape the way kids respond to learning situations like school.  Dr. Dylan touched on mindset a few weeks ago, but I expand here because it’s an important idea.

Kids with growth mindset . . . Kids with fixed mindset . . .
focus on learning focus on performing
persist in the face of challenge give up easily
think of failure as an opportunity to learn avoid failure because it displays a lack of ability
choose more challenging activities choose easier activities

The differences are striking and consequential.  Kids with a fixed mindset tend to approach challenging learning situations with the attitude of, “I can’t do it.”  This eventually affects their academic achievement, with fixed-mindset kids showing a decline in grades during middle school compared to growth-mindset kids.

Praise for preschoolers, it turns out, affects their mindset development.  Phrases like “you’re so smart” discourage a growth mindset because they reward traits rather than process. They teach children that it’s important to be a smart person or a good person without acknowledging the process it takes to get there.

If you would rather your children develop growth mindsets, try these methods:

1. Praise the effort, not the child:  Say, “Wow, you worked so hard on that,” rather than, “You’re so smart.”
2. Praise the activity, not the child:  Say, “You did a great job singing,” instead of, “You’re a great singer.”
3. Challenge children to try activities that are slightly too hard, and celebrate the struggles whether they are successful or not:  “Good job trying to put away the book.  You’ll get it soon if you keep practicing.”
4. Point out when learning happened: “Remember when you couldn’t tie your shoes?  Now you can!  I’m so proud of you for learning that!”
5. Teach children that the brain can learn:  Brainology, a program that teaches brain anatomy and what happens in the brain during learning, has successfully increased growth mindset and achievement for adolescents (and reportedly has had good responses from younger children as well). In Brainology, students learn that with every instance of learning, the brain strengthens a little or a new connection is formed. This gives students a sense of control over their brains and their intelligence. The program emphasizes the metaphor of the brain as a muscle, which leads students to the notion that exercising the brain (i.e., challenging themselves to think) helps them learn.

It may take some effort for us (me included!) to stop praising children’s traits and instead praise their struggles, but given the evidence, it’s worth it.  The effects of mindset have been shown over and over again, and now provide a foundation for federal efforts to increase grit and perseverance in education.

I’ll close with a solid insight from a friend, who writes,
A brief introduction to being awesome:
Step 1: Think of doing something awesome.
Step 2: Get scared you can’t do it.
Step 3: Try anyway.
If all of our kids were this awesome, just imagine where they’d go.

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