Unlocking Children’s Desire to Excel


By Kate Rogers, Special to the Independent

The most recent Coffee Break provided parents a simple and powerful tool for transforming their children’s learning experience from one of anxiety to one of excitement and success.

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From left: Emily Diehl of Mindset Works and Cindy Newman-Jacobs of the Coffee Break committee.

Emily Diehl, of Mindset Works, described the research-based thesis of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, which holds that children enjoy learning when encouraged to develop a “growth mindset,” where hard work and persistence win praise as well as success. Maintaining such an attitude allows kids to take on more challenges and perform consistently better over time.

While it may seem obvious that hard work leads to success, Dweck’s research reveals a pernicious negative effect of giving children praise for innate abilities like being smart.  In one study, two groups of middle school children were given puzzles, and when completed, one group was praised for being smart (the “fixed mindset” group), while the other was praised for their hard work (the “growth mindset” group), Diehl said.  Later, when given an opportunity to work on a more difficult set of puzzles, over 90 percent of the growth mindset kids chose to do so, while less than 30 percent of the fixed mindset group did.  Those who had been praised for their efforts were excited by the challenge.  The fixed mindset kids had their “smart” reputations to protect, which made trying the difficult puzzles risky, she said.  Furthermore, when each group was later given the same level of puzzles, which they had completed earlier, the growth mindset kids performed better, while the fixed mindset kids actually performed worse.

Revealingly, when asked to report how they did, nearly 40 percent of the fixed mindset kids misrepresented their scores, while a little more than 10 percent of the growth mindset kids did.  All this was the result of a single sentence of praise.

The empowerment of a growth mindset is derived from the neuroscience of learning, Diehl said.  Through practice and ongoing effort, the brain continues to grow and learn, forming more connections between the neurons.  The erroneous concept that intelligence is a fixed trait actually limits activities, which would grow the brain.  Effort becomes negative (because if one is “smart,” then things come easily). Paradoxically, through protecting this self-image of looking smart, kids actually disadvantage themselves by curtailing experiences, which would further develop their brains, she said.

Younger children are especially sensitive to this message, Diehl pointed out. Parents often unconsciously reinforce a fixed mindset with praise such as, “You are a natural at that,” or “You’re so smart.”   This is also conveyed when we discourage kids from participating in tasks for which they haven’t shown talent.  To support a growth mindset, parents should praise effort, grit, and questioning.  Parents should acknowledge when kids handle mistakes well, praising their determination.

When children do fail, it is important to reinforce that most successes have had failures along the way.   Remind them that if one doesn’t try, one automatically fails, Diehl said.

Finally, help children recognize their own self-limiting statements, such as “I got it wrong again, I’ll never get this.”  Help them develop their own language to undercut negativity. “I am willing to learn new skills to improve, and know it will be hard at times.”

Diehl encouraged parents to be inquisitive about their child’s work by asking, “How did you figure that out.” This will reinforce that the process is as important as the result, she said.


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