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Cultivating a Growth Mindset
Children and teens face daunting levels of stress in our fast-changing world today, but when they are taught how their brains are able to adapt and change in keeping with their environments, for their whole lifetime, it can reduce much of the stress.
Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, teaches that people with a growth mindset believe that they can develop their abilities through dedication, hard work and self-belief. They embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism and find inspiration in the success of others. In contrast, those with a fixed mindset believe that their character, intelligence and creative abilities are fixed traits that cannot be changed. They don’t seek to improve themselves and strenuously avoid failure. They side-step challenges and give up easily when faced with obstacles. They see effort as pointless, ignore useful negative feedback and easily feel threatened by the success of others.
Unfortunately, children may internalise limiting beliefs and grow up assuming that they are only capable of poor or mediocre results. For example, early on, children can start to believe that they are useless at art or sports and feel ashamed about their perceived lack of ability. Additionally, when children are constantly praised for their inherent talent or not making mistakes, rather than success attained through effort, they are likely to avoid new challenges that may disconfirm their ‘smartness’ in a certain area. It is our responsibility as parents, teachers and caregivers to show children that their brains grow and develop as they adapt to new challenges, just like muscles strengthen through exercise. By tackling difficulties, pathways are built and reinforced between brain cells (neurons) like a bridge over a ravine. The brain physically restructures itself based on repetitive practices. When things go wrong and they choose to keep trying new ways, rather than giving up, that is when they learn the most. Through repeated efforts, new nerve pathways will grow and strengthen.
The magic of the growth mindset is that it creates a love of learning and stretching one’s capacity, rather than a fear-based hunger for approval. Success is not the preserve of those who are naturally smart or talented but is the reward of persistent hard work.
The growth mindset is applicable to relationships too. Relationships become better and better when people can recognise their faults and, expecting problems and conflicts, encourage each other to learn new ways, rather than expecting perfection of each other. Communication skills and trust develop over time and with practice.
A growth mindset can be cultivated in our children and teens in the following practical ways as we help them to:
- Recall activities that were once difficult for them that became easier with practice.
- Replace saying “I can’t do it” with “I can’t do it yet”.
- Set small, achievable steps along the way to reaching goals.
- Understand that there are multiple strategies that can be used to reach goals – there is not just one fixed and correct way.
- Accept and embrace mistakes as normal and as opportunities to learn, not signs to give up.
- Ask others for fresh perspectives and ideas.
- Inspire themselves by listening to stories about others who have overcome difficulties.
- Develop self-talk that is positive. The internal monologue that children repeat to themselves is very powerful, and the voice of their inner critic needs to be challenged by a more self-compassionate voice. We model this voice for our children by being compassionate rather than critical when they make mistakes or feel discouraged.
- Answer questions like: “What did I try that was hard today?” or “What mistakes did I make that taught me something?”
In all contexts of life, we can better prepare our children and teens for what lies ahead by helping them internalise a strong conviction that they are agents of change in their own stories.
Written by Valerie Shayne
Counsellor & Life Coach (SACAP)
Email: [email protected]