“I can’t do this homework. I don’t understand math.”
“I can’t do this homework yet. I don’t understand how to make sense of this math problem.”
Do either of these statements sound like something your child would say? Which one? How your child takes on challenges isn’t just about being motivated or resilient. It may be the result of having what’s known as a growth mindset.
This term describes how we face challenges and setbacks. People with a growth mindset believe their abilities can improve over time. On the other hand, people with a fixed mindset think their abilities are set in stone or can’t change, no matter how hard they try.
Having a growth mindset can have real benefits. It helps kids (and their families) reframe how they approach challenges. That’s the power of the word yet in the above complaint about homework. Even though the homework is hard, it shows growth mindset to recognize it may not always be that hard.
Learn more about growth mindset and what it can mean for your child.
The concept of growth mindset has been around for a while. It was developed by professor Carol Dweck. Dweck and her colleagues did studies that found that kids who pushed through challenges believed they could improve. Kids who pulled back from challenges believed their abilities couldn’t improve.
Take kids who struggle with writing, for example. They’ve gotten low grades on a bunch of papers. If they’re convinced they’re “just bad at writing,” and that no amount of work will change that, that’s a fixed mindset. They’ll probably stop trying. But if kids say they have trouble with writing but keep working at it, that’s a growth mindset.
Whether or not we have a growth mindset isn’t set in stone, according to Dweck. It’s a myth that either you have it or you don’t. In fact, we all have a mix of fixed and growth mindsets that change based on our experiences and the feedback we get.
Having a growth mindset means more than just accepting feedback and being open-minded. It’s about taking feedback, learning from experience, and coming up with strategies for improving. It’s believing that even if you fail at something, you can still succeed.
Growth mindset is more than just effort
Another misconception about growth mindset is that it’s the same thing as effort. Knowing the difference can help you give your child the best kind of praise.
Praising your child’s talent or “smarts” — “You’re really good at math” — can actually promote a fixed mindset. It’s like saying that the ability to do math is just something your child “has.”
But that’s still not enough to promote a growth mindset. If kids don’t use the right strategies, they might try hard but still not improve.
The most important thing to praise is how they approached the challenge, not how hard they tried or how well they did.
For example, you could praise the way your child solved a math problem. Or the system your child used to make sure homework got done on time all week. This is called process praise. And it’s the most helpful type of praise for promoting a growth mindset. It puts the emphasis on the steps your child took to get to the end result.
By focusing on process, it shows that getting stuck, asking for help, and trying new strategies are important, too. For instance, you could say to your child:
“I’m impressed by how hard you worked to complete that science project. I know you had trouble getting started, but it made a lot of sense to ask your teacher to help you figure out how to break down the assignment. It seems like working with a partner really helped keep you accountable for getting all your work done. Your grade reflects all that hard work!”
In this video about growth mindset, watch expert Ellen Galinsky explain how to encourage your child to take on challenges.
Growth mindset and kids who learn and think differently
We all have times when we feel like we’ll never get better at something, or that we’re destined to fail. Some kids face more challenges and setbacks than other kids. That may lead them to have more of a fixed mindset about their difficulties.
Kids who learn and think differently can feel judged and criticized. They know they’re not doing as well as their peers, and they may feel “stupid.” That can make them insecure or defensive, which can get in the way of growth.
The mindsets of the adults around them can also get in the way. They may tell kids to just “try harder” to use the same strategies or ways of learning that haven’t worked before. Doing that isn’t going to make kids feel good about the effort they’re putting in.
How to help your child develop a growth mindset
A big part of having a growth mindset is not letting failing at something stop you from working to improve. It’s important for kids to know that setbacks can actually provide a way forward. Tell your child it’s OK to speak up when something isn’t working. Encourage self-advocacy and asking for help.
Kids also need to know that the people around them believe they can find ways to fix mistakes. It’s natural to want to say something like “Don’t worry about it. Maybe science just isn’t your subject.” That reaction can promote a fixed mindset, though. It teaches that science is something your child can’t improve at.
Instead, it’s better to have a conversation about next steps. Talk about what your child learned from the experience: “How would you study differently next time? Would it help to talk to your teacher? Would a study guide help?”
Developing a growth mindset is an ongoing process. Getting and taking feedback from others, learning from mistakes, and finding new ways to approach tasks isn’t easy. But it’s a valuable way to help kids learn that talents can be developed.