How to Cultivate a Growth Mindset

The way we think about ourselves as learners directly impacts our performance. If we think we’re capable, we become capable. If we think we can’t do something, we probably won’t even try. This applies especially to students, who often hear messages that reinforce a “fixed mindset”– a concept of self defined by the idea that one’s strengths, challenges, and abilities are predetermined, “fixed,” and simply a part of our nature. When grades are the only tangible reward students get for their learning, it can be hard to use anything else as a metric for success. Even in the lower grades, students often earn points, cute smiley faces, or even little tschotskes when they get or do something right. This is how they know if they are on the right track. It’s also usually how a student’s fixed mindset begins.

What are growth and fixed mindsets?

When your kid comes home, beaming about the A they got on their test, but unable to tell you anything they learned…that behavior is the result of a fixed mindset. When she comes home the next day with a C on a paper filled with helpful comments on how to improve next time, then immediately throws it in the garbage…another product of a fixed mindset. With a fixed mindset, one believes that their inherent intelligence, talents, and value are unchangeable, and that their successes and failures in school and in life are a reflection of their abilities and not their efforts. Fixed mindsets are made, not born, and they are unfortunately all-too common in students.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, comes with the belief that one can always improve if they put in the effort. For a student, actually practicing a growth mindset is easier said than done. It requires the child in the example above to not only be proud of the A she got on her test, but to think about how she might further apply the knowledge that she worked so hard to demonstrate. It also means reading the comments on that less-than-perfect paper, taking them to heart, and applying them to her next piece of writing. A growth mindset not only requires one to work harder, it also requires the emotionally difficult task of looking at one’s mistakes head-on in an attempt to strengthen areas of weakness. This level of self-awareness is hard for adults and sometimes impossible for students, especially when not facilitated by a teacher.

Why is a Growth Mindset Important?

Believing that we can grow and develop our skills is directly related to our learning and how we interact with the world around us. If we all believed that our potential was fixed, there would be no patience or compassion for when others fall short. We wouldn’t feel the desire or motivation to seek out potential or root for the underdog. The course of one’s life would become painfully predictable. But thankfully, we weren’t built that way! Everyone can grow and improve when they apply themselves.

How do I help my child develop a growth mindset?

Start by changing the language you use at home. This chart gives helpful replacement language for some of the (well-meaning) things we often say to our kids:

And encourage them to use “growth mindset” language with themselves, too:

Finally, read your children stories of people who persevered and overcame adversity with their growth mindsets, and model a growth mindset yourself. Choose something you think you’re bad at, change the narrative you tell yourself, and watch yourself improve. They’ll follow your example!

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