A few years back, my first-grader stepped off the school bus in tears. The words he squeaked out between sobs cut me to the soul. He said, “My teacher hates my reading because I’m stupid.”
This school year, his teacher had been placed in remedial reading, a group of five students pulled from the classroom for specialized instruction. When I asked around, it seemed my son was the only student struggling with self-image over the placement. So why do certain children fall apart when faced with negative evaluation while others roll with the punches?
A Fixed Mindset
Part of the answer may be due to what Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck refers to as a fixed mindset. Due to the interaction of genetics and environment, some children react with more hopelessness than others. Since academic success at school is evaluated pass/fail, some children may be reinforced to regularly think in narrow terms and constantly monitor themselves, “Am I a winner or a loser? Will I succeed or fail?”
In Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck writes, “People with a fixed mindset believe that their traits are just given…and nothing can change that.” Here are some indications your child may have a fixed mindset:
• They worry excessively about their inadequacy.
• They believe intelligence/athletic ability/talent are fixed traits rather than qualities which can be developed.
• They are compelled to prove themselves over and over because of a strong need to confirm that they are smart, athletic, or talented in every situation.
• They overfocus on judging.
• They often react with hopelessness.
Responding to a Fixed Mindset
Be careful how you praise your child. Believe it or not, Dweck says praise, more than criticism contributes to fixed mindsets in children. If you repeatedly praise your daughter for being smart, she may grow to expect schoolwork comes easy. If she goes on to encounter failure in math or reading, this failure may feel like proof she is not smart as you say.
Praise more effectively. Dweck recommends that when your child brings home an excellent grade you should avoid making comments of the variety “Wow, you are smart!” Instead, reference her effort and the payoff. “You worked so hard on that subject, and this is a great reward for it.”
Educate him about intelligence. If he bombs a test or comes home with a disappointing report card and says, “I’m dumb” it is important that you explain how tests and report cards are indicators of performance but not intelligence. Children need to understand that hard work and extra help can lead to greater success. It may also help to have a conversation about emotional intelligence and the value of it to their life’s success.
6 Ways to Help Your Child Develop a Growth Mindset
1. Think PET. Growth mindset thinkers recognize people can grow and succeed through Personal effort, Experience, and Training. Dweck notes that when kids think the qualities they desire are attainable, their passion is sparked for learning.
2. Ask, don’t judge. Without a growth mindset, when your child struggles with school her self-image may be at risk. Fixed mindsets focus on judging (“This means I’m dumb,” or a “bad kid”) so a shift to a growth mindset needs to occur. A child’s inner voice could ask, “What can I learn from this?” or “How can I improve?” Dweck says developing this mindset “allows people to thrive during the most challenging times.
3. Help them heighten their sensitivity to negative self-talk. When kids grow more aware of what their fixed mindset is telling them (“Face it — you’ve got no talent!”), they will be in a better position to do something to change that internal monologue. Talk to them about the ways their self-judgments hold them back.
4. Explain alternative ways to evaluate themselves. In the face of failure, there is always more than one response available. If your child bombs a math test after studying hard, “You’re a horrible math student” is only one potential reaction.
5. Teach them to talk back. They will love this. Rather than allowing a fixed mindset to drag them down — they should talk back to the voice who says they are not good enough. Encourage them to embrace a growth mindset which, without judging, sees the possibilities and the opportunities that come from a setback.
6. Discuss how a new mindset may be put into practice. Dweck challenges individuals to embrace life’s trials and learn from setbacks. She says, “Hear the criticism and act on it.” Action based on a healthier mindset will expand the opportunities available to our kids now and through adulthood.
Michele Ranard has a husband, two children, and a master’s in counseling.
Michele Ranard, M. Ed.