Are children born smart, or do they learn to be smart through effort and practice?
How our chidren think about intelligence–whether they believe they are smart through nature or nurture–has a big impact on their ability to learn, how they respond to challenges and perceived failures, and ultimately their success! It comes down to the fact that: believing we can learn and grow helps us learn and grow! And believing that our intelligence and abilities are inborn, or "fixed," can actually prevent us from learning and growing to our full potential.
Psychologist and Stanford professor Dr. Carol Dweck has spent her career studying what makes children successful, both inside and outside of the classroom, and has found that a primary determinant of childrens' success is their minset. Specifically, whether their mindset can be characterized as "fixed" or "growth."
- A "fixed" mindset: Views intelligence, talent, and ability as innate–you're either born with it, or you're not. Challenges are scary because failure is a reflection of self-worth.
- A "growth" mindset: Views intelligence and ability as things that are acquired with a great deal of effort and consistent practice. Understands that effort and practice change the brain in ways that make it easier to learn and grow–they actually make us smarter!
In a 2014 TED talk, Dr. Carol Dweck said that "the more we learn that basic human abilities can be grown, the more it becomes a basic human right for all kids, and all adults, to live in environments that can create that growth." Here at Heart-Mind Online, this idea lies at the core of our mission to nurture the 5 Heart-Mind Qualities in children and adults alike. In order to do so, we must open up our hearts and minds to the immense potential for growth that lies within us all.
6 Ways to Nurture a Growth Mindset in the Young People You Care About
Dr. Carol Dweck and colleagues at Mindset Works have developed a free, easy-to-use tool to assess whether young people approach the learning process with a fixed or growth mindset. Most children have a mixed mindset, with stronger tendencies towards growth or fixed overall.
Regardless of what type of mindset your child is starting out with, there are many simple and effective ways to nurture a growth mindset in young people of all ages. You just might find that these tips, adapted from Dr. Carol Dweck and colleague's work, help you, as an adult, to learn and grow better too! Nurturing a growth mindset holistically supports the 5 Heart-Mind Qualities - read on to learn the linkages between Heart-Mind Well-Being and the growth mindset.
1. Talk about the brain. You don't need to be a neuroscientist to learn how effort and practice change the brain!  Share with the children you care about, at an age appropriate level, how we can increase intelligence and ability when we train our brain like a muscle - with dedicated effort, practice, and consistency over time.
- This practice supports the Alert & Engaged Heart-Mind Quality, as it motivates children to stay focused and stick with their goals when the going gets tough by teaching them how effort and consistent practice change the brain for the smarter!
2. Embrace mistakes as opportunities to learn. A much-loved kindergarten teacher once said "there are no mistakes, only lessons." When we try and fail, not only do we learn how NOT to achieve our goal (which is valuable learning in and of itself), but we also gain valuable insight into how to refine our strategies, stay persistent, and handle failure with self-compassion and grace. Try to catch the young people you care about making mistakes, and support them through the humbling process of trying again, and again, framing each mistake as a successful learning opportunity.
- This approach boosts the Solves Problems Peacefully Heart-Mind Quality, as it reframes "problems" as invitations to learn, grow, and move forward in a new way when at first we don't succeed.
3. Understand how emotions affect learning. Have the young people you care about ever blanked on a test, frozen on stage before a speech or performance, or seriously underperformed in a high-pressure situation in their sport? Chances are, intelligence and ability are not to blame - the stress response is. Talk with the young people in your life about how the stress response - which is sometimes referred to as "fight-flight-freeze" can get in the way of doing their best. Then brainstorm strategies together to help them stay calm and cool in order to learn and perform better.
- This practice enhances the Secure & Calm Heart-Mind Quality, as it teaches us how to best support our children through the highly emotional terrain of acquiring new knowledge and skills.
4. Harness the power of "yet". Studies have shown that using the words "yet" and "not yet", when a child encounters a setback, increases their confidence and persistence. The power of "not yet" is that it transforms difficulty and failure into future success that just hasn't happened YET - but will!
- This practice supports the Alert & Engaged Heart-Mind Quality, as it encourages youth to stay focused and engaged with their work and goals.
5. Praise wisely. Focus your praise on effort, persistence, and focus, rather than talent or intelligence. This type of praise is called "process praise," and is linked to a healthier mindset and greater success than "intelligence praise", which focuses on children's innate abilities.
- This practice boosts the Compassionate & Kind Heart-Mind Quality, as it leads us to praise in a conscious, compassionate way that best supports our children's growth and success.
6. Seek out challenges. Encouraging children to try really, really hard to gain a new skill is an effective way of boosting their growth mindset - especially when we teach them that challenging our brains in this way is what allows them to get stronger and smarter! Even though children may feel more "successful" when they achieve an easy goal with little effort, doing so does not provide adequate stimulus for their brains to adapt to challenge in ways that actually boost intelligence and ability.
- This practice supports the Solves Problems Peacefully Heart-Mind Quality as it helps the young people we care about learn see challenges as positive, desirable, and beneficial.
Image: jcomp for freepik.com
Healthy ways to respond to young people when they encounter difficulties embody a "not yet" message, and include:
- When you think you can’t do it, remind yourself that you can’t do it yet.
- I admire your persistence and I appreciate your mental effort. It will pay off.
- Mistakes are welcome here! Our brains grow if we learn from our mistakes.
- Yes, it’s tough – we come to school to make our brains stronger! If it were easy you wouldn’t be
Process praise comes in all shapes and sizes. Some examples to get you started include:
- That’s a tough problem/task/concept that you’ve been working on for a while. What strategies are you using? They are really working for you.
- Hey! You were working on this for a while and you didn’t quit!
- Look at how much progress you’ve made so far! Do you remember how difficult this was when
you first started?
- I am very proud of you for not giving up, and look what you have to show for it!
The "effective effort rubric" can be used as a self-reflective tool in order to shine a spotlight on areas for growth. Be sure to approach it in a positive way. Young learners would best benefit from completing it with the participation and support of a trusted adult; older learners would likely be fine to complete it on their own.
Children with a fixed mindset may be challenge-avoidant or become highly anxious when they are not sure they are up to a task. They may also stop trying or greatly decrease their effort when they are uncertain if they will succeed - that way, failure is something they control (by choosing their level of effort) rather than something that happens to them and reflects negatively on their ability.
Children with a growth mindset actively seek out challenges, as they see them as opportunities to acquire new skills and knowledge and "grow" their brains. They tend to exert a great deal of effort, even when success is uncertain, because they know that trying hard is necessary ingredient in achieving worth-while goals.
The nerve cells in our brain, called neurons, transmit information in the form of an electro-chemical impulses, called action potentials. They are connected to one another in a complex, high-speed network. The places that they connect and communicate with eachother are called synapses.
It can help to think of the neurons in our brain like roads on map - popular places, like shopping malls, often have many roads leading to them (some of them might even be super-fast highways!), while less popular places, like the woods outside of town, typically have less roads leading to them.
Its the same thing with our brains: skills that we practice a lot and are good at, such as counting, or spelling our names, are supported by many connecting neurons in the brain. Some of these connecting neurons might even be ultra-fast "highways," which have an extra fatty coating around them (called myelin) which functions much like insulation on a wire.
But skills that we are not as good at, are just learning, or have never even tried, are supported by fewer and weaker connecting neurons, just like the woods outside of town has less roads leading to them. Unless we try really, really hard and keep trying to learn and practice these skills, our brain simply won't build new neurons to support them (new roads).
The good news is that when we DO consistenly try to learn and practice these skills, and exert a great deal of effort in the process, our brain will respond by building new, stronger, and faster neural connections to help us! In otherwords, it will call out its construction crew to create many new roads to support this skill - and you bet that quite a few of them will be myelinated super-highways!
Click "more" for an intermediate-age reading on how effort and practice change the brain from Mindset Works.
In a 2007 study, Carol Dweck and colleagues found that when they encouraged students to push really, really hard to learn something very difficult, their neurons formed new, stronger connections and over time they could become smarter. Kids who learned this lesson showed a sharp increase in their grades, while kids who did not showed a decrease in grades.
For more ideas on how to praise wisely, with explanations, click "more" to visit Mindset Works Growth Mindset Parenting page and view the "Say this, not that" table.
A team of researchers led by Elizabeth Gunderson (which included Dr. Carol Dweck), studied how parental praise at 14 - 38 months affects children's mindsets in later childhood. They found that praising children's efforts led them to demonstrate a growth (also called "incremental" mindset) at 7-8 years old. Previous laboratory studies have shown that a growth minset is associated with the following characteristics that may predispose children to success: belief that ability is malleable, attibuting success to hard work, enjoying challenges, and ability to generate strategies to improve over time.