by Stacey J. Sage – September 9, 2019
Last year, my son hit an academic rough patch. As far as grades were concerned, he was still doing well, but in Spanish he seemed especially discouraged. He hurried through homework disinterested, and while he achieved decent grades on some of his tests and quizzes, he often made careless or silly mistakes which caused his grades to slip. The inconsistency in his achievements completely discouraged him and because he typically establishes mastery of most subjects with ease, his attitude toward Spanish leaned in the direction of defeat.
I received a midday email from his teacher in reference to his “attitude.” In response, I requested that we speak in person. During our scheduled meeting she told me that there were times when my son seemed to be “negative,”and that she believed his “negativity” to be the cause of the decline in his grades. When I asked her to give me an example of a time when my son displayed “negativity,” she shared the following incident: She witnessed my son fiddling with something in his backpack and “in order to bring his attention back to the lesson” she called on him saying “…I bet you can’t conjugate the next verb.” He asked her what was the next verb and to her surprise, he was able to conjugate the verb correctly. In a moment of pride (and a little bit of middle school gloating) he said to her “see, I got it right,” and she felt that was “disrespectful.” What she neglected to share, and what my son later informed me of during my check-in with him about the incident was that after he said “see, I got it right,” his Spanish teacher responded saying: “But I bet you won’t do good on the next test.” My son went from achieving a B+ on the previous test to a C on the follow up test. That C was the beginning of a roller coaster effect (grades wise) that would leave my son feeling discouraged and disappointed in himself. His teacher continued to draft weekly emails to me. They culminated in a very smug email she’d written to let me know that my son’s overall grade had “yet again” dipped because of his inconsistent grades on quizzes, his “inability to master Spanish” and his “defeatist attitude” and that she believed that part of the problem was that he was not “punished” for his low grades nor his previous behavior towards her.
Through a series of conversations with my son, trying to figure out how to help him, he shared with me that his teacher had habitually embarrassed him and other students in front of the entire class when they didn’t perform well. He openly shared that his decline in grades along with her chiding [whether he had gotten the answers right when called on or when he didn’t do as well on tests] made him feel like there was no point in trying. The next morning I went to school for an impromptu meeting. Learning of children being teased gets my goat every time! Especially when the child being teased is mine. During the meeting, among other things that were discussed, his Spanish teacher said that while she didn’t mean to embarrass him by teasing him, that in her class “this is how we do.” Shocked and angered by her admitting to teasing him, and struck by the absurdity of her admittance to her classroom environment being one where teasing was “how [they] do;” and the convenient use of such colloquialism, I told her that she would 1. need to apologize to my son and 2. that he would no longer be her student. On so many levels her behavior and teaching method was wrong, and certainly inconsistent with what I and the school believed to be a healthy learning environment. Unfortunately, the one thing that she was right about was that after having done good in Spanish without much effort and then having his grades slip, my son had begun to exhibit and cling onto an attitude of defeat which left him feeling like he was “just no good at Spanish.”
Carol Dweck is a Stanford University Professor of Psychology most known for her work on the mindset psychological trait. She popularized the idea of mindsets by comparing varying beliefs about where our abilities come from. Carol Dweck and her colleagues became interested in students’ attitudes about failure. They noticed that after a failure, some students rebounded while other students seemed devastated by even the smallest setbacks. After studying the behavior of thousands of children, Dr. Dweck coined the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence.
A mindset refers to whether you believe qualities such as intelligence, talent, and mastery are fixed or changeable traits. People with a ‘fixed’ mindset believe that these qualities are inborn, fixed, and unchangeable. Mindset also orients the way in which we handle or adapt to situations, and the way we sort out what is going on and what (if anything) we should do about it. Our mindsets can also help us recognize opportunities, or they can keep us trapped in self-defeating, self-sabotaging cycles.
When someone has a fixed mindset, they spend more time documenting their intelligence or talent(s) instead of developing them. They also have the tendency to believe that talent alone creates success, and that effort plays a very minimal part, and they’re wrong. A fixed mindset supports the belief that our ability is innate. As such, failure can be unsettling because it makes us doubt how good we are. However, when children have a growth mindset, they search for missing links that may be keeping them from completing or mastering a task. They grasp that they can at any time improve or build upon skills. They find ways to ‘train their brain’ to get better. When students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them a stronger student, and they see the way forward past their academic challenges. Therefore, they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement.
There are several ways in which we can better support children through their academic challenges. Unfortunately, my son’s teacher was was not committed to the process. Allowing her ego to get the better of her, and indoctrinating pessimism into her classroom atmosphere, she explained repeatedly that “teasing” was how she motivated students. At home, while I had the best of intentions telling my son that there was “no reason” he couldn’t ace Spanish,” I was adding a certain level of pressure on him by repeatedly reassuring him how naturally smart he was. Suffice it say that teasing, shaming, embarrassing, punishing, and pressuring children into doing well, does not grow a growth mindset. Thankfully, his new Spanish teacher got it!
After doing some online research, I found a live online Spanish class for my son. During the first online session, the new teacher Mr. Luis simply had a conversation with my son, incorporating some of the materials from his former class lessons and tests. Ten minutes before the end of the class he asked my son what he thought about Spanish and my son said “I used to think I was good at it but now I just don’t think so.” Mr. Luis responded saying “hmmm, before you began learning Spanish did you believe you’d ever be able to speak it…did you believe that one day you would be telling someone in Spanish – “Tengo doce años y estoy en sexto grado. Me gustan las matemáticas y mi deporte favorito es el fútbol.” My son said “no” and then Mr. Luis added, “you ever notice how sometimes there are things we think we can’t do but really can.”
The best teachers get that intelligence, critical thinking, and mastery are skills that are cultivated through encouragement, persistent effort and sustained periods of hard work. It’s imperative that parents get this too, and that teachers and parents in partnership, help students see this as well. One essential way in which we can help children develop the growth mindset is to change the language of a child’s self-talk. Self-talk is the voice of our mindsets and Dweck identifies self-talk as one of the key elements to how mindsets are established and maintained. Below, are five steps that parents and educators can take that will help shift a child’s mindset from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.
1. Explain to your child/student the dynamics of mindsets. You know that old adage ‘knowing is half the battle’? It definitely holds truth with regard to explaining the nature of fixed and growth mindsets to children. Understanding the dynamics behind the way we tick, help us tick even better. When I began talking to my son about mindsets and how they work, he was able to make connections between his mindset with regard to not just school, but sports, and friendships, and building success in those areas.
2. Become aware of how mindset is expressed in thoughts. When you encourage a child or student to take on a challenge, pay attention to the initial response. Do they respond in a way that is overly critical and demoralizing? I.e. “It’s useless, I’m just no good at that!” “Everybody else is so much smarter than me!” “I’ll only end in an epic fail.” And what about you. When your child presents you with a challenge they’re having, how do you respond. Perhaps you’ve said – “You’re not a science person so it’s going to be hard for you.” or “You’ll be fine, you’re a smart kid.” It’s crucial that we pay attention to the thought that is expressed behind the words. What is the response expressing about the child, the challenge, the overall experience, and the mindset behind it. It’s a good idea to ask children and even ourselves “what is the thought behind what I just said and what does it say about how I am thinking. This can help verbalize internal/self-talk and help change it if need be.
3. Clarify for/with your child that they always have a choice.
This is a key area for adults to pay attention to. Our years of experience can sometimes convince us that we have the best solution. But children are driven by a sense of autonomy. It’s empowering for children to know that they are in control of their self-talk, and that they can choose how they think about their abilities and skills. It also boosts self-esteem when children understand that they can choose how to approach a challenge. Our job is to support them in discovering and executing their individual process.
4. Actively use the growth mindset to talk to yourself, and help your child get in the habit of doing the same. As parents/teachers, there can be a tendency to assess and over assess and even incorrectly assess children’s abilities and skills. So much so that we can forget that children are still developing; their brains are still in training. Instead of thinking of their failures as proof that they are not skilled or competent, or will always struggle in a specific area, and rather than make predictions based on prior challenges, coach children to see failures as an opportunity to learn. Help children use their challenges or failures as a way to pinpoint what doesn’t work for them, and figure out strategies that do work for them. Helping them understand that the way they talk to themselves is important. It’s even a good idea to have a visual reminder of what fixed mindsets sound like vs. what growth mindsets sound like. Create a bulletin board with fixed mindsets such as “I’m just no good at math.” paired with growth mindsets and self-talk like “There’s something I’m not getting.” “How can I work on this?”
5. Take Action. Once children clearly understand mindsets and get how they work, how they’re able to determine which mindset currently influences their inner voice, understand that mindset and the type of self-talk we use is a choice, and take action by learning how to talk to themselves from a growth mindset perspective, they will be able to apply what is revealed in the research of mindsets. Rather than avoiding challenges as potential avenues for failure, they will be able to pursue academic and personal challenges as opportunities to learn and grow. As parents and educators, once we do the work of shifting mindsets, we will place less importance on outcome, and shift our focus, support, and even praise to the process of growth.
Whether at home or in the classroom, teaching children to develop a growth mindset isn’t a quick and simple process. However, the return on your work is rewarding and lasting. Find teachable moments where you can easily pinpoint the fixed and growth mindsets at work, and allow children to make their own assessment of the process and outcome relative to both. Be sure to check yourself to see if you are modeling optimism or pessimism for your child or student. Whether a person is optimistic or pessimistic can often be picked up by children. I find little tweaks in the way I encourage my son is shifting his mindset from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset. Rather than emphasize how smart he is, I talk to him about how hard he works at things. When I hear him speaking negative or demoralizing self-talk, I process it with him. I ask him to think about what the end goal is. Recently, I talked to him about the developing brain and how at his age, he is actually feeding his brain the things it will come to repeat and know. Do you want to train your brain to think and come to know that you’re “just no good at this” or that you can figure it out. I’ve even began doing visualization work with him where I ask him to picture himself running a marathon, and on the sidelines are all the people who love and support him. We’re all rooting for him and cheering him on with shouts of encouragement and signs. I ask him to shift his focus from the finish line which is further ahead, and turn to look at one or a few signs being held up on the sidelines that stand out to him. I have him sit for a minute or two with that visualization. When I see the muscles in his face start to relax and his breathing changes from quick and shallow breaths and becomes deep and regulated, I ask him, what does the sign(s) read? That’s when he usually smiles and says, “Okay mom I get it.” I then usually ask, “well tell me, describe it to me, what does the sign read.” He used to almost always visualize a big sign with red block letters that read: “You Can Do This!” Now, he tends to visualize signs that read: STICK WITH IT! KEEP PUSHIN’! GIVING UP IS NOT AN OPTION!