April 3, 2015

“Growth mindset”: building your child’s work ethic

Everyone has heard that maintaining a positive outlook will improve long-term outcomes. Positivity increases success rates, improves physical and mental well-being, and contributes to growth in work ethic, social support, cognitive flexibility, and more. This series of causes and effects, also known as the “self-fulfilling prophecy,” is well-supported and has been proven across a number of studies and circumstances.

However, world-renowned Stanford psychologist, Carol Dweck, has recently extrapolated the idea of mindsets, adding a new spin to the age-old idea of positive outlooks and outcomes. According to her theory, a specific type of optimistic outlook, a “growth mindset,” acts as a major catalyst in helping children cope with and overcome challenge. Having a “growth mindset” means believing in one’s own ability to grow and change. On the other hand, when children have a “fixed mindset” they believe they cannot grow, that they will always either succeed or fail at a given task. When children can move past a “fixed mindset,” one that misinterprets an isolated failure as an inevitable and fixed outcome, they can truly succeed, according to Dweck.


The Power of “Yet”

Dweck opens her conversation about growth and fixed mindsets by referencing a school system with unusual grading policies. When a student has not passed a course, at this school, they receive the grade “Not Yet.” Dweck explains how this grading system encourages students to understand a temporary “failure” as part of a journey: When students receive a “Not Yet” on their report cards, they know that their teachers believe they will grow and achieve their goals eventually.  Even if they have not yet reached their potential, they maintain a “growth mindset,” knowing that, with continued effort, they will pass the course and excel.

Dweck explains that some children and students already have a growth mindset, while others have a more fixed mindset. She researched a group of 10-year-old students, and gave them a series of problems that were a little bit too challenging for their grade level. She observed that some children responded in “shockingly positive” ways, understanding that “their abilities could be developed.” Other students felt that it was “tragic, catastrophic” to have their intelligence judged in this way, and for them to fail at the difficult problems. These students had a “fixed mindset,” and reacted in a number of different ways. They admitted that they might avoid the challenge next time, cheat on a similar test, or even look for someone who performed worse than them, to assuage their feelings of defeat. The students with the growth mindset embraced hard work and challenge, because they believe in the power of “yet.” Meanwhile the students with the fixed mindset were “gripped by the tyranny of now.”

Building Grit and a Growth Mindset

Dweck raises the obvious next question: What kind of children are we raising? Do parents and teachers develop their students to dream big and seek challenge? Or, have we raised children who are stuck in the “now,” looking only for their next award, high grade, or source of validation? What can we do? How can we build that bridge to yet?

Parents and teachers can apply the concept of “Not Yet” grading to their everyday interactions with children with a few straightforward changes:

  1. Praise Wisely: Don’t praise intelligence or talent, which can and will fail, eventually, in the face of challenge. Instead, praise the process that children engage in to reach their goals. Praise their effort, their perseverance, their focus, their strategies, their improvement, NOT just their achievements. This will help students to see that growing is more important than immediate success.
  2. Build Habits of Seeking Challenge: If possible, include tasks, assignments, and exercises in your child or student’s everyday life that celebrate learning something new and difficult. When we stop putting value on immediate grades, and instead transfer value to overcoming challenges and developing work ethic, growth mindsets will emerge.
  3. Show that Anything is Possible: Do not lead any student or child to believe their potential is limited. Dweck notes that chronically underperforming schools struggle because messages in their classrooms or homes develop fixed mindsets. Students are taught to believe they have a glass ceiling preventing them from achieving dreams. However, when even the most underprivileged classrooms promote the growth mindset, these schools have been able to outperform consistently high-ranking schools nationwide.
  4. Transform the Meaning of Effort and Difficulty: Explain to children that, when they are facing a challenge, effort and difficulty are not indications of a lack of intelligence. When facing challenge, many students see themselves as “dumb” or “failures,” but when we show them that challenges actually make them smarter, they can understand difficulty as an opportunity to better themselves and improve.

When you develop a growth mindset, you help your child to develop one of the key skills that leads to success in all aspects of life. Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied motivation and success at lengths, incorporating many of Carol Dweck’s major findings into her own psychological inquiries. She has found that the main predictor of success is a characteristic born out of a growth mindset. Resilience, or “grit,” was the single most powerful predictor of performance among rookie teachers, spelling bee contestants, West Point cadets, sales people, and more. Duckworth says that grit is “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals,” and that all of the most successful candidates she studied have grit. Grit is stamina and endurance. Grit is “sticking with your future.” Grit is the skill that students can learn when they have practiced a growth mindset, and when their parents and teachers have fostered the same mentality.