No Fear: How a Growth Mindset Shapes Kids

Kids meet many challenges – big and small – but their ability to work through challenges has a lot to do with mindset.  Dr. Mary Beth Leibham shares how mindset affects our kids and how parents can foster improved mindset.  At Villeau, mindset also represents a chance for our kids to think beyond a specific hurdle or concern.  The ability to see possibility is the beginning of living outside of fear.

Promoting a Growth Mindset in Kids

Multiple factors beyond actual ability are related to children’s learning and achievement. One such factor is mindset. More specifically, children who have a growth mindset respond more adaptively to academic challenges compared to children who have a fixed mindset. Consequently, children with growth mindsets are more likely than children with fixed mindsets to persist with academic challenges and experience success.

What is Mindset?

A mindset is a set of beliefs or a pattern of thinking that determines one’s behaviors, perspectives, and attitudes. Children’s beliefs about abilities and intelligence are examples of mindsets, and these mindsets are further classified into two types: growth mindsets and fixed mindsets.

Children who have fixed mindsets believe that abilities and intelligence are static and determined at birth. They believe that they have little control over their abilities and intelligence and their ability levels won’t change. Comments reflecting fixed mindsets include:

  • “I did poorly on that math test. It’s because I am not good at math.”
  • “It doesn’t matter what I do, I’ll always be the worst basketball player.”
  • “Even if I try harder I still won’t get it.”
  • “It’s just the way it is. Other kids are better than me at reading.”

Children who have growth mindsets believe that abilities and intelligence are malleable. They believe that hard work and instruction from others can enhance ability levels. Comments reflecting growth mindsets include:

  • “Maybe if I let my teacher help me, I can get a better math score.”
  • “I bet if I practice all summer I can make free throws like the other kids on the team.”
  • “If I try harder I might get a better score next time.”
  • “I know I’m not the best reader, but if I keep reading I probably won’t be the worst reader.”

Why is a Growth Mindset Important for Children’s Success?

Various studies have found that mindsets shape students’ responses to academic challenges. Those with growth mindsets:

  • Focus more on learning the content than on the ultimate grade or how they compare to others
  • Believe that effort plays an important role in performance
  • Are more persistent
  • Prefer challenging work
  • Are less likely to cheat
  • Make more appropriate attributions for academic outcomes (e.g., they are more likely to take personal responsibility for an academic outcome rather than blame the teacher)
  • Engage in effective self-regulatory (e.g., goal setting, monitoring one’s behavior) processes

(Blackwell, et al, 2007; Corpus & Lepper, 2007; Haimovitz & Dweck, 2017; Haimovitz, et al, 2011; Mueller & Dweck, 1998; Yeager & Dweck, 2012)

How Can Parents Encourage Their Children to Have Growth Mindsets?

1.  Be mindful of how you praise children.
  • Praise should focus on the process (e.g., “I like how hard you worked when you were practicing those spelling words.”) rather than the product (e.g., “I am proud of your grade.”) or person (e.g., “You are really smart.”).
  • Praise should be sporadic. It loses its impact when we overpraise children. Only praise them when what they have done is remarkable and warrants praise. They don’t need to be praised for each and every task and achievement.
  • Praise should be genuine. Don’t say “that’s great” or “wow, I’m impressed” when you really aren’t that impressed. Children are clever and detect meaningful vs. false praise.
  • Praise should be specific. Rather than say “I like how hard you worked,” be sure to praise specific strategies such as “I like how you were trying your best to sound out each letter of those spelling words.” Again, make sure the specific praise targets the process rather than the product or person.
  • Praise should be contingent. Don’t praise children for the sake of praising them. Make sure that your praise is connected to a desired behavior and delivered as close to the observed behavior as possible.
2.  Consider how you respond to your children’s setbacks or failures.
  • Do you consider failure to be a negative experience? Do you believe that failure hinders learning? Or, do you believe that failure promotes learning
  • How do you react to your children’s setbacks? Do you ruminate on the experience? Are you feeling sorry for them? Do you attribute their failure to a lack of ability? Or, do you engage them in discussions of how they could benefit from this experience and how failure is a common experience.
  • Parents who view failure as a growth opportunity and use their children’s setbacks as opportunities to discuss alternative strategies are more likely to foster growth mindsets in their children.
  • It’s also important for parents to help children understand that failure and setbacks are a common experience for everyone, especially when people are willing to take risks and embrace challenge.
3.  Remember that you serve as a model for your child in terms of your own mindset.
  • When you have setbacks, demonstrate a growth mindset by making comments such as “I should probably practice that a little more and then I’ll get it.”
  • Don’t hide your imperfections and struggles from your children. If there were academic areas that you struggled with, let them know that. If there are skills you currently have, but you had to work hard to master, share those experiences with them. When you make parenting mistakes (e.g., you become impatient with them and make a snarky comment), take responsibility for that in front of them and remind them that your parenting skills are a work in progress and sometimes you make mistakes too.
4.  Help children understand that learning and achievement require hard work.
  • As with many accomplishments in life, academic achievement takes effort. Don’t perpetuate the message that ‘smart’ children learn things quickly. Instead, help children realize that the most optimal learning comes through challenge, and working through challenge requires time and effort. In fact, if various learning tasks do come quickly to children, one could argue that these tasks fall below children’s potentials. Children are most likely to learn and reach their full potentials when they are being challenged.

The simple tools outlined here are a great way to build awareness about mindset and begin to improve mindset in ourselves and family culture.  When we give ourselves the opportunity to see possibility and growth, we see outside of fear and so can our children.

Picture of Dr. Mary Beth Leibham

Dr. Mary Beth Leibham

Mary Beth Leibham, a professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Loras College (Iowa), a master's degree in developmental psychology from Miami University (Ohio) and a Ph.D. in educational psychology from Indiana University. Her early research interests focused on children's cognitive development, particularly the family and home factors related to young girls’ emerging science interests and science academic motivation. More recently, her research has focused on academic motivation, perfectionism, self-compassion, growth vs. fixed mindsets, and overparenting. Mary Beth teaches courses in child psychology, adolescent development, educational psychology, and exceptional children. Despite her extensive formal training in child development, Mary Beth’s most significant, impactful, and humbling learning experiences have come from her own four children and husband.