In today’s competitive environment, where some toddlers attend maths development classes and other youngsters are pushed to start reading fluently before they enter Grade 1, parents can be forgiven for being concerned about the future of their children who show signs of struggling academically or otherwise.
But one of South Africa’s leading education experts says that the situation can and must be turned around before it spirals out of control and negatively impacts – unnecessarily so – on a child’s entire sense of self and self-esteem. And the way to do this is to cultivate a “growth mindset”, she says.
“Children who think their intelligence and ability is ‘fixed’ – that they are stuck at a certain level of smarts — tend to do less well than those who think that they can, with perseverance, achieve at anything they set their minds to,” says Traci Salter*, Strategic Academic Development Advisor at ADvTECH, Africa’s largest private education provider.
“However learners who understand that their intelligence or skill level can be improved by effort and experimentation seek more challenges, learn from mistakes and don’t give up in the face of failure,” she says.
The concept of the Growth Mindset was pioneered by Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, and draws on neuroscience showing that a learner’s brain can improve with dedicated effort. Her research showed that personal qualities and abilities are not fixed, but can change with a simple change in approach.
Dweck’s research further showed that how children think about themselves has a significant impact on learning; with a strong connection between students’ motivation to learn a new skill and how they perceived their intelligence.
“Cultivating a growth mindset in one’s child is not a complicated process, and it can be given immediate and significant momentum with just one little word: yet,” says Salter.
For instance, if Anna is having trouble with language learning skills, explain that she isn’t good yet. If Mandla can’t get to grips with algebra, it is because he hasn’t grasped it yet. Emphasise that with effort, they will eventually master these skills.
Carol Dweck recommends we ensure that children know “it is okay and safe to fail, and that taking risks and learning from failure can lead to invention and creativity”, notes Salter, adding that the way we praise our children also plays an important role.
“Dweck advised that, rather than using general praise, for instance saying ‘you can do it because you are so smart’, parents and teachers should praise specific efforts that lead to improvements such as focus, persistence and work habits. For instance, one could say ‘you’re doing a great job organising your science fair experiment. It will give you plenty of time to practise presenting.
“This takes the spotlight off fixed ability and puts it on the process of learning and developing.”
Following Dweck’s strategies, Salter says there are 3 steps parents can take to help their children develop a growth mindset:
1) HAVE DAILY LEARNING DISCUSSIONS
At dinner, in the car or at bedtime take time for both children and parents to share the answers to these types of questions:
“What did you learn today?” (Instead of “How was your day?”)
“What mistake did you make that taught you something today?
“What did you try that you found hard today?”
It is important for parents and guardians to share their learning as well, because it models to children that even grownups learn new things every day, and learn from failures.
2) GIVE FEEDBACK ON PROCESS ONLY
Praise effort by children – for instance persistence, thinking of alternate strategies, seeking new opportunities, setting ongoing goals, planning for achieving these, and considering creative alternates to the challenge at hand.
Don’t praise personal abilities like being smart, pretty, or artistic. This kind of praise could actually lead to a loss of confidence since children won’t be smart at everything. They’ll doubt their ability to master something that is difficult initially.
3) ENCOURAGE RISK, FAILING AND LEARNING FROM MISTAKES
Failure teaches our children important life lessons. For one, it’s how they learn resilience, perseverance and self-motivation. Now is the time to let our children risk and fail. But we often want to prevent our children from failing, from feeling upset or sad. Don’t.
“We must let our children experience some failures while they are young, so that they can strengthen their growth mindset muscles. If we don’t, they will become adults with no perseverance, or belief in their abilities to work hard and succeed,” says Salter.
“And when the going gets tough, and challenges feel extra challenging, we should help our children celebrate the fact that they are learning and building mental muscle. Tell them about all the famous people who failed and didn’t give up, like Albert Einstein, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey, and remind them that every challenge provides an opportunity to become more empowered.”