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When we think of preparing kids for back-to-school, we often think of buying them flashy pens or trendy clothes to boost their confidence in the new year. While fresh sneakers and school supplies can make your kid feel sharp when school starts, material items can’t prepare their brains for engaged, motivated learning. To get the most out of their academic experience, children need to enter the school year with the right attitude towards learning. But positive outlooks aren’t exactly sold in the back-to-school aisle, so what can parents do to get their kids in the right mindset?
What type of mindset does my child have?
Most people have one of two attitudes about learning. Some people think that your level of intelligence is something that you are born with and can’t change, like eye color. This attitude is called a “fixed mindset.” People with fixed mindsets don’t believe they can improve their abilities – they believe everyone is either smart, average, or dumb and there’s nothing that can change that. Other people have what’s called a “growth mindset”; they view the brain as a muscle that is capable of growing, developing, and strengthening through challenges and effort.
Why is a growth mindset important?
Kids with a growth mindset see challenges as opportunities to develop their intelligence. Their positive outlook on learning helps them view school as an exciting and motivational environment. For kids with fixed mindsets, however, school can be a terrifying place. Since they don’t see their potential to grow and improve, they often avoid studying or asking questions in fear of looking dumb. Whether a child has a fixed mindset or a growth mindset can have a significant impact on their emotional well-being throughout their academic career.
Can parents support a growth mindset in kids?
As adults, we tend to view each new calendar year as an opportunity to achieve certain goals and experiences. For children and teens, the academic year represents their fresh start - a time that can be both exciting and intimidating. The new year can be especially scary when they are transitioning to a new school with unknown teachers or peers. While it’s normal for children to work through anxieties and obstacles in school, there are ways that parents can help them gain excitement for learning and believe in their ability to strengthen their intelligence:
To foster a growth mindset in your child, start by asking yourself the following questions:
1. How does my mindset measure up?
When you do something well, what do you attribute your success to? Intelligence? Luck? Talent? Or do you tend to attribute your success to someone else altogether? What about when you struggle with a task? Consider your attitudes toward your own learning capabilities; if you aren’t giving yourself enough credit for your brain’s ability to adapt and grow, you’re probably not sending a “growth mindset” message to your children. When you find yourself thinking with a “fixed mindset,” challenge your thoughts and model persistence through challenges.
2. Does my child understand that brains grow?
Teach your child that their brain is like a trainable muscle rather than a fixed attribute. Remind them that like the muscles in their arms that grow with physical activity, their brain also strengthens with effort and practice. Let them know that advancing to the next grade level means their brain will have new opportunities for “growth spurts.” This lesson can be especially powerful for children with learning or attention disorders who need reassurance that their abilities can improve with time and effort.
3. Am I praising appropriately?
While praising your child for being smart or talented can increase their self-esteem, this type of praise can actually backfire by supporting a fixed mindset. When you praise them for easily mastering tasks, it can give the message that it’s more desirable for them to do things they are automatically “good at,” rather than working hard to improve in challenging areas. As a result, many kids who are praised for talent and intelligence try to avoid tasks that require more risk and strategic thinking. Acknowledge your child’s talents, but also make sure to also praise their efforts and strategies to show them that you place value on more than just performance.
4. Does my child have “resiliency role models”?
Share stories with your child about underdogs who weren’t necessarily “naturals” in their field but were able to reach their goals through hard work and persistence. It can be famous individuals like Walt Disney who went bankrupt before building his empire, or people in your life like a family member who overcame obstacles to get where they are. These “resiliency role models” can inspire your child to have faith in their potential when they are feeling discouraged.
5. Am I applying a growth mindset beyond academics?
Let’s face it, academics aren’t the only things learned about in school. Friendship, conflict resolution, and young romance are all topics that may fill your child or teen’s school day. Remind them that their brain will grow and adapt in every area of life; if they are having trouble making friends the first few weeks, view it as an opportunity for them to learn new ways to build relationships. If they said something totally embarrassing to their first crush, remind them that their brain has plenty of room to grow in the romance department as well!
6. Am I teaching affirming language?
When your child feels frustrated and on the verge of yelling a 4-letter word, empower them with one of the most powerful 3-letter words in the English language – yet. Adding a simple “yet” to an exclamation of, “I can’t do this!” opens up a world of possibility. Teaching your child affirming language will help them adopt a resilient attitude. Turn, “this is too hard,” into, “this may take some time and effort.” Turn, “Plan A didn’t work,” into, “Good thing the alphabet has 25 more letters!” Affirming language will let your child know that they are able to master the challenge at hand, as long as they put in the time and effort to do so.
7. Should I talk to a specialist?
Anxieties revolving around the new school year can make it difficult for children and teens to focus on their learning; a higher grade level, new teachers and peers, puberty, or starting in a new building can discourage a child from focusing on their intellectual growth. It’s important that parents learn ways to support their child’s emotional health and growth mindset as they enter each school year. If you think your child needs support in developing a growth mindset, or you need educational or psychological consulting to support your child’s growth, Variations Psychology can help.
About the author:
Dr. Marta M. Shinn, Ph.D., is an expert in child and educational psychology. She provides educational consulting to evaluate each child’s emotional and behavioral development and assess if there are other factors such as learning or attention differences that may impact their academic experience. Dr. Shinn works with parents and children to overcome obstacles and help children strive for their academic potential and emotional well-being.