Last night after a particularly heated game of Pick-Up-Sticks, my son threw the sticks across the room in fury, before exploding into tears and screaming “I hate this game! I’m so bad at it!”
Once he’d calmed down enough to gather the sticks back together and sit down with me, I delivered the same old speech I’ve given a million times: “Blah blah…good sportsmanship...blah blah...finding joy in the game, not just in winning…blah blah…not being a sore loser.”
But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that this was about more than just bad sportsmanship – the roots of his explosive behaviour lay in his mindset.
What's All This Talk About Mindsets?
When I did my post-grad Certificate of Gifted Education, we studied the work of Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck. Her research focused on the question of whether one’s intelligence was determined at birth, or flexible – something we could manipulate over the course of our lifetimes.
Dweck found that if children were given puzzles to do, and were told upon completion “You’re so smart! Look how clever you are for finishing that puzzle!” they would soon reach a point where they didn’t want to try more complex puzzles – they feared they wouldn’t be able to complete them, and their cleverness would be brought into question. However, the children who completed the puzzles and were then told “Wow! You tried so hard on that puzzle! I love the way you put in so much effort!” were much more likely to continue to try harder puzzles. They viewed their own intelligence as something that they could control – they could learn from their mistakes and were willing to have a go at more challenging activities.
From these tests was born the idea of fixed mindset versus growth mindset, and in recent years there has been an increased focus on these concepts in the educational landscape. Dweck explains:
People with a fixed mindset believe that their traits are just givens. They have a certain amount of brains and talent and nothing can change that. If they have a lot, they’re all set, but if they don’t... So people in this mindset worry about their traits and how adequate they are. They have something to prove to themselves and others.
People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, see their qualities as things that can be developed through their dedication and effort. Sure they’re happy if they’re brainy or talented, but that’s just the starting point. They understand that no one has ever accomplished great things—not Mozart, Darwin, or Michael Jordan—without years of passionate practice and learning.
What can we do at home?
Aside from playing a big part in the classroom, as parents we can have a huge impact on whether our children develop a fixed or a growth mindset. By praising our kids for the effort they put into a task, or the strategies they use when they address a problem, they begin to realise that they can always develop their skills and abilities with hard work and determination. Here are some examples of the type of language I use to help kids develop a growth mindset both at home and in my classes:
Instead of saying:
"You're so clever"
"You're so smart"
"You're so good at that"
1) Good effort!
2) That was so cool how you kept trying until you got it!
3) It's so awesome how you just ________.
4) You never gave up on that, even when it was hard.
5) You have such a positive attitude.
6) You’ve improved so much on ________.
7) You thought of such a creative way to solve that problem
8) It’s great to see you guys working so well together.
9) You’re being so independent!
10) It was really responsible of you, the way you just ___________.
11) You handled that situation really well because________.
12) It was so brave the way you just _________.
13) You did a great job of helping ________.
14) It’s awesome to see you looking after your belongings so nicely.
15) I know I can trust you because________.
16) I can see that you’re listening really carefully to the instructions.
17) You thought of that all by yourself!
18) You remembered to _________ - great thinking!
19) I’m so proud that you made that choice!
20) You’ve been putting in so much effort – well done!
A Big Life Project
I recently bought each of my kids a Big Life Journal – a book which is designed to be filled out together over the course of six months, with activities, stories, questions and drawings to complete each week, which help them understand the idea of growth mindset. Happily, they are absolutely loving it so far, and look forward to filling it out at the kitchen table during each Sunday night session. The Big Life Journal website is also full of fantastic resources to help along the way, and is a great place to start if you’re wanting to explore this concept further.
Growth for Grown-Ups
Many studies have been conducted into how a growth mindset helps people at all ages and in all areas of life. Developing this way of thinking during childhood not only cultivates resilience, love of learning and many other life lessons, but it also sets kids up for success as adults. And let’s face it – most of us have struggled with feeling “bad” or “hopeless” at something during our lifetime (Parenting? Cooking? Hula hooping?), and a growth mindset is an essential tool in reaching our full potential.
So tonight, with the Pick-Up-Sticks safely stowed out of harm’s way, my son and I sat down for another discussion. This time we thought back to the phrases he had used last night, and how we could re-frame them in a more positive way, reflective of a growth mindset. It was actually a really powerful experience for both of us, and showed us what a simple and awesome tool this framework can be for working through challenges together.