Adults and children alike can benefit from adopting a growth mindset – or suffer from being shackled to a fixed mindset. As kids get older they often increasingly believe that their abilities and intelligence are fixed – that is, that they won’t get any smarter and that their abilities are pre-determined. Many kids fall into a fixed mindset pattern in their earlier years, often reinforced by their parents’ reactions to failure and challenges.
Younger Kids and Fixed vs. Growth Mindset
From learning to walk to learning to tie their shoes, younger kids face many challenges that lead to frustration. For example, when a child has a difficult time coloring inside the lines or even going down a tall slide, he or she may develop a defense mechanism to cope with the lack of immediate success of accomplishing the task. This often includes avoiding the activity or insisting he or she doesn’t want to learn how to do it.
Further, younger and older kids alike with a fixed mindset are prone to giving up easily when faced with a difficult or challenging task. Some younger children might feel so stressed over a task that a tantrum can follow. Each subsequent time the child encounters the situation, his or her unchecked thoughts and feelings can trigger a meltdown, such that they refuse to even try the activity that gave them difficulty in the first place. Some will even show signs of regressive behavior in an attempt to avoid the activity.
All kids occasionally show hesitation after a challenge or facing failure, so it’s important to note that a fixed mindset usually develops over time. Because of their age and lack of experiences, many younger kids lack the emotional intelligence that is necessary to process the feelings that can impact their mindset.
A good example of an individual with a growth mindset is an infant learning to walk. This is often not an easy task: the child falls, struggles to pull himself or herself up, takes off, falls, and must start over. But the child is determined. Most infants persevere in the face of this challenge until they are able-bodied walkers. And none of them plop down on the ground and compare themselves to the other babies learning to walk.
Observing a child tackle this milestone can teach people that there will be challenges, but success is on the horizon when they get balanced, take a breath, and move forward, comparing their success to no one else’s.
Fixed Mindset Among School-Aged Children
Because most older kids are part of a school community and/or participate in after school activities, the fixed mindset concept tends to vary in presentation. When parent and child connect after school, the parent might hear statements such as: “I’m not a math person,” or, “I’m just not good at spelling,” or, “I’ve never been a great artist.” If a poor grade accompanies the conversation, some kids will decide to not put forth as much effort, because they believe they won’t get any better.
When parents affirm these doubts with statements such as, “Well I was never any good at math, so you probably won’t be either,” or “You’d better stick with xyz instead,” many kids further believe that they’re either good at a subject or they’re not. As many kids sit in their classrooms, they often look around and think that there are two groups of kids: the ones who are smart and the ones who aren’t. But, of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Parents and teachers can work together to show kids that their success is not rooted in some elusive talent. Success comes with hard work, a positive attitude, practice, persistence, and effort.
Unfortunately, well meaning parents can undermine a child’s progress with their eagerness to boost the child. Statements such as, “You are the smartest kid in the class!” or “You were the fastest runner out there!” often force the child to internalize the expectation.
The consequence of communicating that one’s child is the star of the team or the prodigy of the class is often anxiety and stress for the child. Expectations based on a child’s capabilities can fuel fixed mindset thinking, as the standard is sometimes unrealistic. The child can only think of disappointing the parent and wallowing in the muddied waters of failure.
It’s not always in an academic context that kids can develop a fixed mindset – some kids shut down when they make a mistake at a music lesson or even when initiating play or social interaction with another child and it doesn’t go well. In addition, some kids develop a fixed mindset when they see siblings or peers experience success. This is especially the case for middle school students who rely heavily on peer approval.
Some kids feel this way when they don’t do well the first time they try a task. Because many kids are immersed in the immediate gratification of a digital culture, it can be frustrating when it doesn’t transfer – though there are many variables that can factor into the ways mindsets are formed. These situations can set parents and kids alike up for future difficulties when kids decide not to try new activities or sports, for example, for fear of failure.
Helping Kids Achieve a Growth Mindset
Parents have the power to set the tone for a child’s mindset. More specifically, a family’s culture can help set the foundation for the type of mindset a child comes to adopt. If parents are negatively reactive when a child fails or has a difficult time, the child learns to avoid the task and often adopts a fearful attitude when it comes to trying new activities. On the other hand, if parents are able to remain calm and supportive when a child is steeped in a challenge or faces failure, then the child often is able to mirror this stability and move forward with a positive attitude and a new plan for tackling the task. Kids look to their parents for cues on how to respond to life’s difficulties. When parents are knowledgeable about having a growth vs fixed mindset, they can help kids process the many challenges they are sure to encounter on life’s journey. With the right mindset, all kids can be successful.