Why Students Can’t Grow without a Growth Mindset

Have you ever heard your child insist, “I’m bad at reading,” “I’m just not good at spelling,” or “I’ll never be able to be good at math?” When I was in high school, I used to claim that I would never be good at math. I felt like I never understood what we were learning in class, and I was too embarrassed to ask questions or seek help. I remember hearing one of my high school math teachers repeatedly tell my peers, “wow, you’re so smart!” when they answered questions correctly, and this made me feel so much worse about myself.

Hearing my teacher call my peers “smart” reinforced my insecurities about math and conveyed the message that my peers were smart because they were able to solve the problems quickly. It also convinced me that I must not be smart or there must be something wrong with me because I kept making mistakes.

I eventually gave up during class and stopped even trying to solve problems, because I was afraid that making mistakes would make me look “dumb.” I thought that there were “smart at math people” and “dumb at math people,” and I would always be one of the “dumb at math people.”

Many students that I work with at La Jolla Learning express very similar thoughts to the ones I had as a high school student. I see students say that they are “bad” at fractions, hesitate to work on spelling new words, or claim that they are “so stupid” for not being able to immediately answer a question about a reading passage. Not only do these mindsets make children feel awful about themselves, it gets in the way of their growth.

How can we, as parents and educators, help children to think more positively? Understanding our brains, changing our language, and modeling a growth mindset can greatly help students experience success and feel confident.

Smart or not? With a “fixed mindset,” there is no in between.

When students hear their successful peers receive praise for being “smart,” this encourages the idea that there are individuals who are naturally “smart” and others who simply are not. It sure feels great to be labeled as “smart,” but what happens when these “smart” students make a mistake? Does this make them not smart all of a sudden?

It can certainly feel that way. Individuals who are called “smart” are more likely to avoid challenges because they are scared to make mistakes, which are an imperative part of learning and growing. Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in motivation, calls this type of thinking a “fixed mindset.” According to Dweck, a fixed mindset means that traits such as intelligence are fixed, and success is due to natural talent. Someone with a fixed mindset, such as my high school self, might insist that they are “bad” at a particular skill or academic area and feel powerless to change.

Embracing a growth mindset

In contrast, encouraging individuals to foster a growth mindset can help foster success. According to Dweck, a growth mindset is the opposite of a fixed mindset. Individuals with a growth mindset believe that intelligence and abilities can be changed with learning, effort, and perseverance. Instead of saying “I am bad at spelling,” an individual with a growth mindset might say “This may take some time and I might need to seek out some new strategies, but I can learn how to be a better speller.”

During my senior year of high school, my experience of working with a tutor helped me develop a growth mindset about math. I realized that with extra one-on-one coaching, more study time, and additional strategies, I had improved at the math concepts I once struggled with. Working one-on-one with my math tutor helped me to see how making mistakes could help me improve. I stopped thinking that I was “bad” at math and realized that I had persevered through challenges and improved as a result. This lesson has helped me persist through challenges in all aspects of my life since then.

How can we help children develop a growth mindset?

  1. Stop praising children for being “smart.” Instead, praise your child for hard work, effort, and perseverance. Acknowledge when your child is working hard on something difficult and not giving up! I love to praise my students during sessions when I notice that they are demonstrating perseverance while working on reading a challenging passage, solving a multi-step math problem, or trying different strategies in order to self-correct a spelling error.
  2. Celebrate mistakes. Encourage your child that mistakes are opportunities to learn new things and grow! Celebrate progress towards understanding and learning rather than focusing on “right” and “wrong” answers. Teach your child that mistakes are inevitable and teach us valuable lessons. When a student makes a mistake during a session, we spend time talking about what can be learned from the experience and how this has helped strengthen the brain.
  3. Encourage your child to try something new. Focus on the experience and the pleasure of trying something new, rather than mastery. Sometimes during sessions when a student tries a new activity or learns a new concept, we don’t even discuss the number of questions that he or she answered correctly. We focus our conversation on how the experience of trying something new felt, what was learned, and how improvements can be made for next time.
  4. Be a role model for positive self-talk. Children notice when we speak positively about ourselves and others. Teaching children to think and speak positively about themselves helps build their self-confidence, which allows them to feel comfortable taking risks and trying new things. Dweck encourages adding “yet” to our language in order to acknowledge a learning curve and maintain a growth mindset. For example, saying “I can’t do this yet” reinforces the idea that with hard work and perseverance, it can be accomplished.

I encourage you, if you haven’t already, to work on developing a growth mindset with your children. Try to stop labeling kids as “smart” and instead, celebrate mistakes, encourage your child to try something new, and be a role model for positive self-talk.

Please share your questions and feedback below. I am happy to answer any questions you may have and I look forward to hearing your experiences! Adapting a growth mindset can take practice and patience for most children (and adults) so you might not have it down perfectly…. yet!

About the Author

Paula Gately is an educational coach at La Jolla Learning, where she shares her passion for individualized education and her knack for creative, hands-on learning experiences with her growth-bound students.

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