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Got Growth Mindset? Don’t start the new school year without it

Jul 12, 2018
Growth Mindset Fall blog

As we round the bend from July to August, it’s time to start thinking about the new school year. While summer has been filled with outdoor fun and memories, many of us are exhausted from entertaining our bored kids for the past two months, and trying to find the time for a parental recharge. Without betraying our enthusiasm, we jump right in to preparation mode with Step One-- tackling the school supply list. We grab a shopping cart and fill it with an assortment of multi-colored folders, properly inched binders, an exorbitant amount of composition books, the right amount of blue, black, and red pens, highlighters, erasers, white out, loose leaf paper, backpacks, lunch boxes, and while we’re there, might as well grab some fresh socks and underwear. In the event of an obscure supply (Mod Podge for art and ultra specific scientific calculators for math), we’ve given ourselves plenty of time to order online. Some of us even jump straight into Step Two on the same day and head to the mall for shoes and clothes, since nothing from last year fits anymore. We’re ready! Well, almost ready. There’s one more thing we need to send our kids off with on their first day of school, and it’s the one school supply they’ll need and use the most... a growth mindset. You’ve probably heard the term growth mindset before, but let’s take a moment to really dissect what it is and why it’s so important.

One of the more talked about topics in psychology, particularly educational psychology, is growth mindset. Over thirty years ago, a Stanford professor and psychologist named Carol Dweck began studying children in a variety of challenging situations to learn more about what made some children give up so easily and others the courage to push through. It was clear to her that children approached, handled, and overcame challenges differently. The common denominator in the children who didn’t shy away from a challenge, or better yet, found success after multiple attempts, wasn’t gender or race or socioeconomic status, but rather, how each of those children approached a challenge and ultimately felt about failure. After observing thousands of children, Dr. Dweck recognized that some children were more positive than others in the face of a challenge, and it was this positivity that set them apart from the rest. Dr. Dweck introduced the terms “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” to describe either the limiting or liberating beliefs one held about their own ability to learn.

In a fixed mindset, people believe they are either good at something or they are not. For example, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to the frequency with which I’ve said, “I’m not techy,” in the past twenty years. Whether it was to a salesperson trying to sell me a new phone with all the current bells and whistles, or my CEO asking me to lead a webinar, I will be the first to admit that I had a very fixed mindset about my ability to learn anything tech related. I was intimidated. I preferred to stick to what I knew. If someone wanted me to host a book club in my living room, well then I was their girl. But add the word “virtual” in front of book club and I would have politely bowed out to avoid the torture of having to navigate a new technology. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my behavior and my words were the very definition of a fixed mindset. Like many people, I had to learn to fight that impulse to avoid something uncomfortable and new. Instead, I had to retrain my brain to think of the possibilities within each fresh challenge.

For those out there that are visual learners, such as myself, the image below is one that clearly illustrates how a growth mindset is an intrinsic part of success. In full transparency, it is scotch taped to my refrigerator at home and my kids know all too well, when the going gets tough, mom starts talking about this picture.

In a growth mindset, every problem is an opportunity to grow and improve, not a risk for failure. Within a growth mindset, there is a strong belief that your abilities can be developed through hard work and dedication. A growth mindset creates internal motivation, resilience, and productivity. While it’s great to be motivated by external forces such as a reward from your parents or a bonus from your boss, it’s motivation from within that will foster the greatest resilience. In my early twenties, my racing coach would always say, “No one will ever push you harder than you can push yourself,” and it was that drive from within that fueled me. Win or lose, each race was an opportunity to do my best and learn from the process. Within a growth mindset, the possibility of failure no longer feels like a risk, since there is greater focus on effort and attitude than on the final result.

It is also important to note that when a child understands their brain’s capacity for growth, they are more inclined to get out of their comfort zone and try new things. Research has proven that students who are praised for effort outperform students who are told they are smart. Therefore, how we talk to our children, as parents and educators, is incredibly important. In the following examples, Dr. Dweck illustrates not only how the message is delivered, but also how it is received, and why it is so important to praise the process and not solely the person:

“You learned that so quickly! You’re so smart!” 
“Look at that drawing. Martha, is he the next Picasso or what?”
“You’re so brilliant, you got an A without even studying.” (Dweck, 174)

And although we are trying to support our children in raising their self-esteem by delivering praise such as this, ironically, what our children are hearing is vastly different than what we are intending:

“If I don’t learn something quickly, I am not smart.”
“I shouldn’t draw anything hard or they’ll see I’m no Picasso.”
“I’d better quit studying or they won’t think I’m brilliant.” (Dweck, 175)

We must learn to praise the process and be clear about the expectations we have set for our children and students, and in order to do so, we must choose our words wisely. We need to remind ourselves that their accomplishments are not solely tied to something innate, like the final grade on a report card. It’s not about the grade or the award or the scholarship or the trophy. Don’t get me wrong, those are fantastic, but it’s the journey, the effort, and the failures along the way that hold much more meaning at the end of the day. For many of us, this adjustment to praise the process will most likely require a growth mindset of our own!

The good news is there are many resources available to help parents and students alike. Incoming students enroll in Halstrom’s very own Mindshift: The Science of Learning course, which also consists of a parent component. One of my favorite lessons within this course is where students consider the early failures of some very well-known historical figures and celebrities. These real-life examples resonate with them as they learn to overcome any obstacles or challenges along their current path. And while students are learning to see the opportunities in challenges, it is within this course that parents are also learning to give their children space for growth from their mistakes. In addition, Dr. Shinn will be joining us on our August webinar to dive deeper into this topic, including providing families with seven strategies for fostering a growth mindset in their children.

Dweck presents many liberating aspects of thinking positively in the face of a challenge, the most powerful being the value of “not yet.” That little word, “yet,” tacked on to the end of a sentence makes for a huge shift in the meaning. I’m not good at math, yet. I am not techy, yet. I’m not good at praising the process, yet. That small addition leaves a world of room for optimistic opportunity. This is important for teachers to note when working with their students, particularly with students who are already feeling anxious in the classroom. How a teacher communicates with his/her student can have a big impact on a student’s mindset. Similar to the examples from Dweck above, if a teacher takes the time to recognize a student’s effort, no matter how small, that student will be far more encouraged to choose a challenge than to play it safe.

Cultivating and practicing a growth mindset is not an individual sport. It is a team sport that starts with the overall culture of the environment, and extends to the teachers, students, and parents. In an environment that fosters a growth mindset, learning is seen as a process and the students on the team are encouraged by their teachers and parents to tackle challenges in order to grow. When things become difficult, everyone recognizes that effort is key, and as a result, taking risks are encouraged. In a culture where mistakes are seen as an expected part of trying difficult things, not only is a growth mindset present, but also the internal belief that one can accomplish anything they set their mind to. Imagine the possibilities!

Dweck, Carol S.. Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success. New York : Ballantine Books, 2008. Print.