It may seem like the best students are those who breeze through classes without breaking a sweat--acing the tests without studying and writing papers in only one night. But when those same kids come across a class that they can’t pass in their sleep, they may quickly crumble in the face of a challenge. While it could feel a bit counterintuitive, sometimes the best way to teach kids to be successful is by making things a little more difficult for them. If you’re wondering how that could possibly be true, take a look at Carol Dweck’s famous research on mindset, which she summarizes in this Ted Talk. The main ideas she describes are having a growth versus a fixed mindset. People who have a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is set--you’re either born smart or not, and there’s nothing you can do to change it. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe that intelligence is malleable, and if you work hard you can get smarter.
Mindset isn’t just about your internal thoughts--it also affects how you approach learning. As Dweck discusses in the Ted Talk, when students with a fixed mindset are given a challenging problem they do things like avoid answering the problem or even consider cheating. However, students with a growth mindset were energized by the challenge of learning something new, and, based on scans taken during the study, the brains of students with a growth mindset were actually more electrically active than the brains of students with a fixed mindset.
What does this mean for you and your child? It means you should encourage your child to take on challenges that are outside of their comfort zone so that they can stretch their thinking. But don’t just hand your third grader a seventh grade workbook and say, “Good luck!” You should also explicitly teach your kids that if you work your brain like a muscle, your brain can get stronger just like your arms would if you were lifting weights at the gym. Tell your children that while they may finish work quickly when it’s easy, it’s not building the intellectual strength that they’ll need to face difficulties that will come down the line. Make sure your children know that sometimes it’s okay to struggle with learning a new topic, because once you work through the challenge you strengthen your brain and prepare yourself to handle higher-level activities in the future. In addition, when your child is working on a new task, try to praise them in a way that further supports the ideals of a growth mindset. For example, instead of saying, “You’re so good at math!” you might say, “That was a tough problem and I’m really impressed with the way you kept trying until you solved it.” Keeping the focus on your child’s effort rather than their innate ability will help them see that they can achieve even difficult goals if they work hard.
When we teach our children to appreciate the value of grit, hard work, and perseverance, we set them up for lifelong success. If you’d like more ideas for parenting strategies that use the growth mindset, check out this article from Mindset Works.
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