Kids Grow When Encouraged to Apply Effort to Any Problem, Reenforcing That It’s Effort That Gets Results.

In the United States, it is common to hear the well-intentioned phrase, “Oh, you’re so smart,” or some variation of this statement, reinforcing in our children what Stanford University Psychologist, Carol Dweck, considers to be a fixed mindset; the notion that our basic abilities are immutable traits, and resistant to change over time.

There is a high cost to such a way of thinking. One drawback is that children with a fixed mindset prefer to engage in activities that make them appear “smart,” while avoiding activities that threaten that image. In addition, they draw the conclusion that if they can’t complete a given task immediately, the task must be insurmountable and, therefore, not worthy of effort. Thus, persistence is decreased in activities for which they don’t display immediate competence. Instead, students respond with “I can’t do…,” or “I’m not good at…”

To illustrate this point, Jin Li, a professor at Brown University, calculated the persistence of American and Japanese first-graders. He gave them an impossible math problem and recorded how long they worked on the problem before giving up. The American students persisted an average of 30 seconds. The Japanese students, however, persisted for 60 minutes, which turns out to be an underestimate of their persistence since the researchers limited the sessions to 60 minutes.

One can debate the merits of persistence to the level of the Japanese students, but few would disagree that American children would benefit from more persistence. At Stanford, Dweck has discovered that a child’s belief system can be shifted from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, to increase persistence, simply requires a small adjustment in language. Instead of saying, “I can’t do….,” say, “I can’t do…..yet,” which implies that the skill can be achieved sometime in the future. This simple adjustment, along with explicitly teaching students that effort leads to positive physical changes in the brain, resulted in an increased confidence and persistence among study participants. Regarding this process in students, Dweck has stated, “Before, effort and difficulty made them feel dumb, made them feel like giving up, but now, effort and difficulty, that’s when their neurons are making new connections, stronger connections. That’s when they are getting smarter.”

To promote a growth mindset, Dweck recommends praising children for engaging in the process of learning, for persisting when met with challenges, and for improvement in performance, while avoiding trait-based reinforcement. Instead of saying, “You’re so smart,” say, “You worked really hard on that, and succeeded.” If a student says, “I can’t do it,” remind them, “You can’t do it yet. When something is difficult it means your brain is growing, so keep trying.”

Developing a growth mindset in tandem with grit and self-control create what I refer to as the “trifecta of success.” Each is a worthwhile endeavor in the pursuit of excellence in ourselves and our children alike.

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