Why do some children relish a challenge and others, though just as able, fall apart and become helpless if something is harder than they can handle? The answer can lie in a “fixed mindset” versus a “growth mindset”—a basic belief that talents and abilities are fixed versus a belief that they can be developed. A child with a fixed mindset is likely to see a difficult task as a threat, whereas a child with a growth mindset is likely to perceive a difficult task as a welcome challenge and opportunity.
Why do they have such different reactions? Children with a fixed mindset tend to see difficulty or failure as a reflection of their fixed ability – something they cannot control. But those with a growth mindset see difficulty as something they can surmount through new strategies and effort; this is how they grow their abilities.
In a very young child, a mindset can be influenced by how adults respond to a child’s mistake. Most kindergarten children do not mind if they make a mistake (unlike children two years older), but if an adult is present and criticises the mistake, about one-third of the children in one experiment showed some aspects of a helpless reaction. They felt like “bad” children and had formed the belief that badness is a fixed trait.
An opposite adult response—praise for a child’s intelligence—has a similar end result. Though nice for the child when the praise is delivered, this approach can encourage a fixed mindset, with a focus on immediate success and a tendency to give up in the face of a difficult task later on.
Instead, praise needs to be focused on the process the child is engaged in – the effort, the strategy, the focus, the persistence. This kind of praise increases perseverance and performance.
When it comes to reading, it’s important for young minds to be exposed to topics beyond the fundamental, technical ones. Reading material with an emphasise on self-worth, diversity, and character get kids thinking about their own value, and the value of others.
Students can be taught to change to a growth mindset. Thirteen-year-olds who took an eight-lesson mindset course performed better and were more motivated than children in a control group. A shorter course consisting of just one or two lessons online, which has been delivered to thousands of children, has produced positive results on achievement for lower achievers and more challenge-seeking across all achievement levels. The courses are carefully constructed to promote student involvement – students are told they are helping to develop the program, they are asked for their opinion and feedback, they are asked to write a mentor letter to a struggling student, and the neuroscience of learning is explained to them (that learning a new task builds neural connections and can increase intellectual abilities).
The method has been used in disadvantaged communities – inner-city areas and on Ntive American reservations in USA—to motivate students and improve performance. A growth mindset approach, therefore, can potentially make a big contribution to equality.
The assumption that adults who endorse a growth mindset approach will treat their children in a way that promotes a similar growth mindset has, surprisingly, proved to be false – there is little correlation between mindsets of parents and children and of teachers and their students. Some parents with a growth mindset themselves can respond to their child’s setbacks not with learning-oriented suggestions but with anxiety and concern about the child’s ability, which can transmit a fixed mindset to the child.