Do Your Kids Have the Right Mindset to Succeed?
How to Create Grit With a Growth Mindset
I live in Gainesville, Florida which is the home of the University of Florida, and I see a lot of college students in therapy. They come in with many different issues, but there is an overriding issue that has surfaced a lot over the last five years which propels me to write this blog.
The issue is:
An inability to accept less than perfection when it comes to academic achievement, and subsequent anxiety and depression in the face of less than perfect performance.
Most of these kids excelled in high school, finishing with high GPAs, good scores on standardized testing, and stories of success and achievement.
They get to college, and in either their freshman or sophomore year, they find themselves in a situation that is wholly unfamiliar which is that they are unable to make all As and Bs per usual, and they can’t keep up with the amount of studying required to maintain the level of performance that previously set them apart. Sometimes, even with intensive studying and tutoring, they are unable to “succeed” (by their standards), and so they feel like failures.
They are often chronically anxious, or they become depressed, or both. Usually both.
A Mindset Problem
As I’ve worked with these kids, I’ve noticed some commonalities. These can be summed up by a particular mindset that they all seem to have. Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychologist, writes about this mindset in her book, Mindset. In her studies, she has uncovered some basic beliefs that characterize this mindset which she refers to as the “fixed mindset.” Here are some of those beliefs, and especially the ones that most commonly crop up with the students I see:
Performance is equated with intelligence.
If you don’t understand something or can’t get the material easily, then you’re not smart. The belief is that smart people don’t have to try hard.
This is a huge letdown for kids that have always been able to succeed, and have identified their success with their level of achievement.
When challenged with something that is hard, and can’t be understood without a lot of sustained effort, their identity as a “smart person” is shattered. They become depressed, and often emotionally paralyzed.
Any failure means a total failure of the person.
If you don’t do well on an exam, or have to drop a class because of poor performance, you’re a total failure. The action becomes the whole identity.
Not only am I not smart, I am a complete failure.
For kids whose identity is built on their academic performance, this is a huge fall from grace. They go from feeling like a worthy, smart individual to an unworthy failure who doesn’t deserve to be in school.
IQ is static. You either have it or you don’t.
They believe intelligence is a static thing. You can’t grow it, and you can’t change it with practice or experience, so if you don’t get it quickly, you might as well hang it up. You aren’t smart.
They begin to compare themselves with kids that appear to perform at much higher levels than they do, and who seem to do it easily. One of my students recently reacted to this with "I just feel so dumb!"
When you're in college, there are always kids who perform at levels both higher and lower than you do. This does not equate to intelligence, but these students don’t know this and don’t believe it even when told. They are very fixed in their view.
From the Fixed Mindset to the Growth Mindset
I bring all of this up because I think parents can have a real impact on preventing this problem long before kids get to college. You can help them develop the right mindset for dealing with challenge.
Dr. Dweck prescribes developing what she calls a "growth mindset." Here’s a review to give you a quick overview of the differences.
The Fixed Mindset
- Intelligence and talent are fixed. You can't change or increase them.
- Effort is a bad thing. If you have to try, it means you're not smart or talented. You either have it or you don't.
- Success is about proving you're smart or have natural talent.
- Performance is the measure of everything, and it should be perfect and effortless. The end goal is what's important.
- Focus is on self-validation.
- Hates negative feedback, even if constructive. Means you're dumb, unworthy, not good enough.
- Outcomes are what's important.
- Avoids challenge because you may fail.
- Must be perfect immediately. Anything less means you aren't valuable.
- When afraid of something, avoid it.
- Your worth is measured on the first test. If you fail, then you are a failure forever.
- If it isn't easy, don't try it. Means you're not smart.
- Lies about performance to look good.
- Geniuses don't need effort. They're already there.
- Needs to feel special and better than others.
The Growth Mindset
- Intelligence and talent can be developed through effort.
- Effort is key. With effort and practice , you can develop your intelligence, talents, personality, memory, attention, judgment, and character.
- Success is about meeting challenges, growing, learning, expanding, and overcoming obstacles.
- Learning is the measure, and it requires effort. The process is important, and it is characterized by challenge, trial and error, and persistence.
- Focus is on curiosity and learning.
- Loves feedback. Helps you make improvements.
- Process is what's important.
- Seeks challenges because you want to grow.
- Things are accomplished over time. Value is in persistent effort.
- When afraid of something, jump in and try harder even while afraid.
- Repeated evaluation is an aid in the process of success. One test drive gives information about what's next.
- If it isn't easy, work harder at it. Get some help, get more information, try another strategy. Meet the challenge.
- Doesn't see worth from performance, so no need to lie.
- Some of the most successful people are those that had to work hard and try repeatedly.
- Appreciates others' talents and successes and encourages them.
As you look at these lists, you will undoubtedly find a lot of ideas in the fixed mindset that resonate with your own experiences growing up. The beliefs of the fixed mindset are embedded in our academic system from preschool all the way through college and even into the work force.
As parents, most of us have been raised with this mindset unless we had some particularly enlightened parents who had figured it all out ahead of everyone else. Not only were we raised this way, we have internalized it, subscribed to it, and we are passing it on.
The big “but” is that we can change that, and you can start right now with your kids whatever age they may be.
The Nitty Gritty
The most prominent aspect of the Growth Mindset is the emphasis on effort as opposed to performance.
People who operate from a growth mindset do not worry about the end result as much as they do the process. They focus is on ever increasing effort to meet a challenge.
They intend to meet a goal, and they strive for excellence, but their energy is on the process to get to the goal. And because effort is the central activity, failure is an acceptable part of the process.
- Trial and error
- Learning from mistakes
- Intensive focus
In fact, practice is a central feature of the growth mindset.
Intelligence is defined as the ability to continually work at something, often trying different methods until you find the right ones to move forward toward a goal.
It is the ability to exert a strong effort, step back and evaluate where you are, revise, and keep going. You do this until you succeed.
Challenge is something that is sought out. It’s not scary. It’s a path you embark on and stick with until you get to where you want to go.
With the growth mindset, you do not equate yourself with the outcome. Your success or failure does not define your worth. It may define a need to change directions, but never your value.
How to help your kids develop a growth mindset.
Here are some things you can do starting early on, and if your children are already older, you can still help them revise their mindset. This is a lot of what I do with the college students I see.
Praise effort rather than outcome.
Point out the specific actions or thoughts your child has put into solving a problem and praise those.
You figured out how to solve that math problem by trying it several ways. It worked! You stuck with it until you got it.
Compare that to,
Good job! You’re really smart!!
In the first one you praised the effort to stick with it. In the second one, you equated figuring it out to being smart. That means that if your child can't figure it out, she isn't smart. That's the way she will interpret it.
Teach kids how to evaluate failures and make use of them.
When your kids make mistakes, walk them through thinking out the steps they took and evaluating where things went wrong. Then brainstorm ideas to correct or improve the outcome.
You are teaching process: Take action > Evaluate > Revise.
Keep your emotions level. If it’s a big mistake and there is a lot of upset, you can empathize with the upset and then move toward repairing or correcting by teaching how to analyze and evaluate. Make the failure useful instead of it becoming a hit to the self.
Grit is the name of a book by Angela Duckworth, and it’s really worth the read. She found in her research that repetitive practice of something does two things:
- It strengthens the “grit” muscle which means being able to push forward when things get tough.
- It increases interest and passion in something. When we get good at something, we like it more.
Our current culture promotes “finding your passion” and promises that if you do, everything will follow and you will find happiness. Maybe, but more likely, you start with an interest, and then you apply a lot of sustained effort and practice to it, which in turn increases your interest and develops your passion for it.
Michael Jordan is such an example of this. He started out as a very mediocre basketball player in high school, but his intensive practice and sustained work ethic developed his initial interest into a life-long passion with a performance that wowed the world. His focus was on effort.
Many of us shy away from a challenge that seems too hard, or that we think might take far too much effort and still not lead to success.
People with a growth mindset actually like challenges. They’re like puzzles to be solved. Sometimes 5000 piece puzzles!
Challenge is fun because it doesn’t determine who you are. It’s something you take on and work at with determination and a sense of adventure.
That may not work for a kid who really has a hard time with math and is struggling with homework. Even so, when you consistently present kids with the idea that challenges are a regular part of life, and have rewards when pursued, then your kids will internalize this idea and have an easier time with situations, tasks, or projects that require more grit and practice. Focus on the rewards.
Focus on the idea of growing grit, and use that word to describe it as you teach it. Talk about raising your grit meter, and attach it to every day successes.
A Side Fact to Know
The brain is an amazing thing! When you focus your attention on something, even if at first it’s hard to do, your brain will reward you by making it easier to focus for longer periods of time and more intently. This is called voluntary attention. It’s focus that requires effort. The more you do it, the easier you can do it, and the more you want to do it.
When your kids practice something repeatedly, they are sharpening their ability to attend voluntarily, and their brains are helping them to do it more easily and like it at the same time.
Duckworth, Angela. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverence. New York: Scribner, 2016.
Dweck, Carol S. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, Inc., 2006.