Incorporating Growth Mindset Strategies to Help Children Thrive

By FCPS and Fairfax County Government
July 24, 2020

Mindsets are groups of beliefs that guide how we interpret the world around us. They shape our behaviors and decisions, and they play a major role in how we set and obtain goals. Research pioneered by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that people function on a continuum between having a “growth” mindset and a “fixed” mindset. While all of us have bits of both, finding ways to incorporate more of a growth mindset into our lives can help us to thrive and achieve our goals.

Growth vs. Fixed Mindset

Growth mindset recognizes that we all have the capacity to change, grow, and develop. A key belief in growth mindset is that our abilities are not fixed – that is, they can improve with effort, practice, use of strategies, and seeking help from others. Challenges, failure, and setbacks are seen as opportunities for learning. In fact, the focus of every growth mindset endeavor (social, academic, athletic, etc.) is to learn and develop one’s skills. Under a growth mindset, this is just the starting point; we are all are born with a certain set of skills, but our true potential is not yet known. Having a growth mindset creates a passion for “stretching” ourselves, increases perseverance, and helps us to thrive in challenging times.

Within a fixed mindset, abilities are seen as unchanging, permanent traits – you’re either born with it or you’re not. Having a fixed mindset creates a sense of needing to prove oneself over and over. The focus is how you will be judged by others. When people operating under a fixed mindset are doing well, their self-confidence is just as high as those with a growth mindset. However, being confronted with failure can be devastating. Under a fixed mindset, failure can threaten your status, define you, and reveal your flaws to the world. Those with a fixed mindset tend to take fewer risks and avoid more challenging tasks due to the possibility of failure. Approaching tasks with a fixed mindset may prevent people from reaching their potential because they tend to stick to activities they have already mastered and avoid or show limited perseverance on those activities that might “stretch” them.

Each of us may have a growth mindset in one situation and a fixed mindset in another depending on our comfort level, past experiences, and current skill set in that area. The great news about mindsets is that, just like learning to ride a bike or play the piano, we can train our brains to think in a way that helps us take on life’s challenges. In fact, research has shown that having a growth mindset can, among other things, lead to an increased rate in learning, enhanced coping with depression, and improved athletic skills. So how do we go about developing more of a growth mindset in ourselves and our children?

Strategies for Developing a Growth Mindset

Developing a growth mindset is a process that involves three main components: increasing effort, showing a willingness to try new strategies, and asking for help when needed. All three of these factors are important, and it is necessary for each to be taught, emphasized, and practiced. The following strategies can help teach these principles.

Praise

Praise effort over ability or talent. As much as possible, try to avoid praise that labels your child, even that which generally seems positive such as, “You are so smart!” For children with a fixed mindset, this can lead them to believe that natural ability is most valued. This kind of praise may also lead to black-or-white thinking when the child experiences a setback (“I failed my test. I’m not smart.”). Instead, try praising the effort and process that contributed to the outcome. For instance, “"You studied hard for your test and the improvement shows it. You read the material, outlined your notes, and quizzed yourself. It worked!"  Doing this connects the child’s effort and process to the outcome, which further emphasizes the power of effort and strategy use. Even when the outcome is not quite as expected (for instance, the child did not get an A on a test or win a game like they had hoped), focusing on the improvement can go a long way.

Welcoming Challenges and Trying New Strategies

To get better at any skill, we must take on challenges that help us grow. If we simply stick to the activities in which we already excel, it is difficult to improve or expand ourselves. Encourage children to view challenges as a way of “stretching” their brain. Research shows that the more effort and practice we put into any skill, the stronger the connections in our brain become. Children often enjoy thinking of their brain as a muscle that can become stronger over time. In this way, we can think of any challenge as a puzzle that helps “exercise” our brain.

For children who put forth the effort and still have difficulty, welcoming challenges can be especially difficult. In these situations, you may try explaining that we all learn differently and that you, as a caring adult, are there to help find the way (or strategy) that works best for that child. 

When your child gets stuck using the same strategy that is not working, encourage them to ask themselves, “What is a different way I could try this? How else could this be done?” Asking for help can be another strategy. In a fixed mindset, this may be seen as a sign of weakness. In a growth mindset, asking for help is simply another way of growing and adding new ideas to one’s personal toolbox. 

Reframing, Reflecting, and the Power of “Yet”

Reframing is a way of looking at the same issue in a different way. When any of us gets stuck in a fixed mindset, it is natural to think, “I can’t do this!” Instead, try reframing with “How can I do this?” Similarly, using the word “yet” can be another powerful reframe. When we think, “I can’t do this,” adding a simple “yet” at the end transforms one’s thinking from a fixed to a growth mindset. “I can’t do this” becomes “I can’t do this yet.” Adding the “yet” implies that you are still on the journey of learning and growing, and that with continued effort and use of strategies, you will reach your goals.

When we experience a setback or failure, the last thing anyone wants to do is think about it more. However, reflecting on these setbacks can be a useful tool. The next time you or your child experiences a setback, try asking, “What can you learn from this experience? How can you use this to help you grow? What can you do now that you couldn’t do yesterday or last year?” Taking the time to reflect can help us to gain new insights, motivate us, and help us see small increments of change we may otherwise have overlooked.

Modeling

Perhaps the most impactful strategy of all is modeling. Children naturally learn through observing others in their environment. When they see growth mindsets in action around them, they are much more likely to internalize and apply this way of thinking for themselves. As adults, we can model a growth mindset by practicing the above strategies in our own life. While children learn through observing actions, they need to observe the language in use too. A great way to do this is to verbalize your own successes and setbacks using growth mindset terms. Once children get the hang of it, they may become terrific “growth mindset coaches” to themselves, their families, and their peers!

Want More Information?

If you are interested in learning more, much of this information is summarized from Carol Dweck’s research shared in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Updated Edition.

Healthy Minds is for parents, educators, and community-based providers who are interested in supporting student mental health and wellness. It represents a collaboration between FCPS’ Office of Intervention and Prevention Services and the Fairfax County Government. SUBSCRIBE to Healthy Minds and receive a periodic digest of our most recent articles.