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Growth Mindset: Understanding that Abilities and Intelligence Can be Developed

Facing challenges is difficult and requires effort and determination. Too often, setbacks prompt feelings of failure and discouragement; these outcomes can decrease self-esteem and feelings of competency. Growth mindset occurs when a child is willing to face challenges, display resiliency and keep working despite setbacks. Overtime, this viewpoint helps them believe that abilities can improve, and they begin to understand that when they put in extra time and effort it leads to higher achievement. Those who have the perspective that things will never improve and that their abilities are unalterable have a fixed mindset.

Developing a growth mindset is an ongoing process. Learning from mistakes and finding new ways to view challenges are key steps that help kids move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. This process begins with self-efficacy, which is an individual’s belief in his or her innate ability to achieve goals. Psychologist Albert Bandura defines it as a personal judgement of “how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations.” Self-efficacy helps students exhibit coping behavior and effort in the face of obstacles. Every area of human endeavor is affected by self-efficacy. The belief a child holds regarding his or her power influences how they face challenges. Parents and educators can help kids choose to build a growth mindset by encouraging them to see the positives in all things. Prompt them to say, “I can” instead of “I can’t.” Low self-esteem and negative messaging will deter optimism. A growth mindset helps kids perceive their mistakes as an opportunity to learn, adapt and work hard.

Mastering challenges and persevering through difficult situations requires kids to recognize and believe that their abilities can improve overtime. This concept was developed by Stanford University professor Carol Dweck. Through a series of studies, she and her colleagues found that kids who pushed through challenges held the belief that they could improve their abilities and those who didn’t have this belief were fixed. Growth mindset can have several benefits for kids with learning deficits and attention issues. It’s critical to teach them to reframe perceptions of themselves, their abilities and personal challenges.

University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth suggests that a person’s grittiness has a bigger impact on their success than their IQ. Her definition of girt is defined as a “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Duckworth’s research shows that the strongest performers don’t always have the highest IQs and she’s found grit to be a common factor in the high-achievers she studied. She encourages people to live life like it’s a marathon not a sprint.

Parents, educators and academic therapists can assist with this process by sharing praise, support and identifying which teaching styles will benefit kids and help them be  successful. It’s also important to be aware of behavior confirmation or sometimes called the expectancy effect, which claims that to some degree, a student will become what others expect him to be. A child who repeatedly gets low scores on writing assignments and is not expected to perform well at writing will begin to believe that he or she is just “bad at writing” and that no amount of effort will change that. To alter this fixed mindset, he or she needs to be treated as a high-expectancy student. When encouraged to be a better writer and writing skills improve, he or she displays a growth mindset.

According to Robert Rosenthal’s four-factor theory (Rosenthal, 1973b, 1973c), some students will perform better in the classroom because they’re seen as high-expectancy students. He claims that high-expectancy students perform better because their teachers treat them differently. His research reinforces that all students should be treated in the ways that high-expectancy students are treated, because it encourages them to perform better and demonstrates examples of positive teaching practices.

One of the misconceptions of growth mindset is that a child’s approach to challenges is set in stone however, a combination of fixed or growth mindsets change based on experiences, feedback and personal labels. Another misconception is that growth mindset is the same thing as effort and it’s not. Understanding these differences can help parents and educational professionals help promote the growth mindset process.

Praising a child’s academic abilities and talents may be viewed as helpful, but it can send the wrong message. Saying “You’re really great at math,” promotes a fixed mindset because the message focuses on person-praise not performance-praise. This feedback causes the child to believe that his or her ability to do math comes “naturally.” Professor Dweck believes, “When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes.” It’s better to focus on performance not “smarts” by saying, “You worked really hard and I’m proud of your effort.” Performance praise reinforces the concept that the child did something to contribute to his or her success, and their success was the result of an effort that he or she controlled.

Growth mindset improves when kids are encouraged to face challenges with “grit.” Performance praise is effective at building growth mindset because it helps students recognize that in the face of setbacks, they can think about what is needed for success. Using strategies that work, performance praise and treating all children as high-expectancy students increases growth mindset and encourages them to build an arsenal of strategies to help them achieve success.

Additional resource: Grit: the power of passion and perseverance | Angela Lee Duckworth 

About the author

Vikki Carrel

Academic Language Therapist, Multi-book Author, National Speaker

Vikki empowers people! She is an Academic Language Therapist, multi-book author and a national speaker. Vikki grew up in Salt Lake City, met her husband at the University of Utah, and has owned several companies across the United States. In 2010, Vikki and her husband moved back to Utah from Doylestown, Pennsylvania and she founded Vikki Carrel & Company, a speaking and training organization. Read more about the author

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