‘You’re so smart’, ‘you’re a natural’ and ‘you’re the top of your class’ are phrases we often say to children when they do well. But this kind of praise, if repeated often enough, can be harmful.
Carol Dweck, a psychologist in the United States, has spent years studying what she calls ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindsets. A fixed mindset is the belief that abilities and social traits are fixed and permanent (e.g. the belief that you are smart or not smart and that this can’t change). A growth mindset is believing that abilities and social traits can be changed and built upon. Dweck and her colleagues followed children over 2 years and found that those with a growth mindset improved in school while those with a fixed mindset stayed the same or even declined .
One reason for this is that children with a fixed mindset believe they have no control over how they do. If a child thinks that they are not smart they won’t have the confidence or motivation to try and, every time they do badly as a result, their belief that they are not smart will be reinforced. Similarly, if a child thinks that they are smart just because they are they won’t have the ability to cope with a situation in which they do not do well because they won’t be able to explain why.
The growth vs fixed mindset is even important in social situations. If a child thinks that social traits are permanent and unchanging they are more vulnerable to social challenges such as exclusion and bullying. Children who believe that social traits change over time and situation build up greater resilience and ability to cope with these types of challenges .
The good news is that growth mindsets can be taught. As the new school year kicks off try to foster a growth rather than a fixed mindset in your child. Use phrases such as ‘wow, you worked really hard and look how it paid off’ or, when they don’t do as well as they wanted to say ‘every time you learn something new your brain gets smarter, let’s figure out what you can do to improve’. Avoid telling children that they are good or bad at something and instead help them to see failures as challenges and important learning experiences. This will not only help them improve in school but give them an important set of resilience tools to cope with life challenges in future.
1. Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child development, 78(1), 246-263.
2. Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302-314.