Why do some children relish a challenge and others, though just as able, fall apart and become helpless if something is harder than they can handle? The answer can lie in a “fixed mindset” versus a “growth mindset”—a basic belief that talents and abilities are fixed versus a belief that they can be developed. A child with a fixed mindset is likely to see a difficult task as a threat, whereas a child with a growth mindset is likely to perceive a difficult task as a welcome challenge and opportunity.
Why do they have such different reactions? Children with a fixed mindset tend to see difficulty or failure as a reflection of their fixed ability – something they cannot control. But those with a growth mindset see difficulty as something they can surmount through new strategies and effort; this is how they grow their abilities.
In a very young child, a mindset can be influenced by how adults respond to a child’s mistake. Most kindergarten children do not mind if they make a mistake (unlike children two years older), but if an adult is present and criticises the mistake, about one-third of the children in one experiment showed some aspects of a helpless reaction. They felt like “bad” children and had formed the belief that badness is a fixed trait.
An opposite adult response—praise for a child’s intelligence—has a similar end result. Though nice for the child when the praise is delivered, this approach can encourage a fixed mindset, with a focus on immediate success and a tendency to give up in the face of a difficult task later on.
Instead, praise needs to be focused on the process the child is engaged in – the effort, the strategy, the focus, the persistence. This kind of praise increases perseverance and performance.
Students can be taught to change to a growth mindset. Thirteen-year-olds who took an eight-lesson mindset course performed better and were more motivated than children in a control group. A shorter course consisting of just one or two lessons online, which has been delivered to thousands of children, has produced positive results on achievement for lower achievers and more challenge-seeking across all achievement levels. The courses are carefully constructed to promote student involvement – students are told they are helping to develop the program, they are asked for their opinion and feedback, they are asked to write a mentor letter to a struggling student, and the neuroscience of learning is explained to them (that learning a new task builds neural connections and can increase intellectual abilities).
The method has been used in disadvantaged communities – inner-city areas and on Ntive American reservations in USA—to motivate students and improve performance. A growth mindset approach, therefore, can potentially make a big contribution to equality.
The assumption that adults who endorse a growth mindset approach will treat their children in a way that promotes a similar growth mindset has, surprisingly, proved to be false – there is little correlation between mindsets of parents and children and of teachers and their students. Some parents with a growth mindset themselves can respond to their child’s setbacks not with learning-oriented suggestions but with anxiety and concern about the child’s ability, which can transmit a fixed mindset to the child.
Header photo: Heather @thedomesticdiva. Creative Commons.