The Proven Way to Improve Academic Performance

A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence, ability and human traits are not fixed, but can be improved with time, effort and help from others. The impact this belief can have on achievement is remarkable, with an abundance of research showing it can improve academic performance. The good news is that is something that can be instilled in anybody.

With a growth mindset, achievement is attributed to effort, rather than natural ability or genes.

Carol Dweck, a Professor of Psychology at Stanford, has lead research in the area and findings from decades of research clearly demonstrate that mindset frames behaviour. 

The Effect of a Growth Mindset

A growth mindset – the belief that intelligence and ‘smartness’ can be learned and that the brain can grow and change – can significantly improve academic performance. People with a growth mindset:

  • interpret challenge as an opportunity to learn and improve, rather than as a threat to inherent ability;
  • value effort (because ‘trying makes you smarter’);
  • show persistence and resilience in the face of difficulty;
  • are more likely to seek help rather than hide their struggle.

The Effect of a Fixed Mindset

Those with a fixed mindset on the other hand, believe that that intelligence is finite and unchangeable and either you are smart or you are not. Success is attributed to ability rather than effort.

Research has shown that a student (child, adolescent or otherwise) with a fixed mindset is:

  • less resilient;
  • less likely to ask for help;
  • more likely to give up in the face of failure;
  • more likely to shrink from challenge, preferring instead to choose easier work that makes them look and feel smart;
  • more likely to hide their setbacks and misunderstanding.

Not surprisingly, a fixed mindset has been shown to predict lower academic achievement.

Can Mindset be Changed?

Yes. Absolutely.

Teaching the principles of a growth mindset can redirect thoughts such as ‘I’m just not a science person,’ or ‘I’m hopeless at maths,’ towards, ‘If I work at it I’ll get better at it,’ refocusing students on their potential and subsequently influencing behaviour.

Dweck has found that in the US, around 40% of students have a growth mindset, 40% a fixed mindset, with the remaining 20% mixed.

Growth mindset is now broadly accepted as having a profound affect on learning and achievement.

Nurturing a Growth Mindset

The shift from a fixed to growth mindset has been facilitated by teaching about the plasticity of the brain and explaining how the brain can grow and change with time and effort.

Brain plasticity is widely accepted in the scientific community, with evidence coming from people who have suffered major brain lesions. Despite their brain injury, those people have been able to learn reading, writing, bike riding and other abilities that require the brain to grow in response to effort.

There is an excellent free resource here that explains how to develop a growth mindset in kids and teens including a video that helps with Step 2 by explaining the science simply, in a way that younger kids will understand and teens (hopefully) won’t feel patronised by. Here is a brief summary. :

Step 1

Explain that people can strengthen and change their brain and that with effort, people can become more intelligent and better at learning. Try something along the lines of, ‘Working at a particular task or learning for a particular subject not only makes your brain better at that particular thing, but it actually strengthens and grows the brain so it’s better at things in the future.’

Step 2

Talk about the science underlying the growth mindset by explaining how certain experiences (such as studying) strengthen connections in the brain, making the brain smarter by ‘rewiring’ the brain. 

Explain that there are plenty of real life studies done by scientists that have shown this works. Here are two of them which are also shown in the video:

  • In one study, one group of mice were put into an empty cage and another group were put into a cage with puzzles and other mice, providing them with plenty of opportunities to learn and grow their brain. When they tested both groups of mice, the mice from the stimulating cage were smarter and their brains were heavier.
  • In London taxi drivers, the part of the brain that deals with spatial awareness is bigger than it is in other  Londoners. The longer the taxi drivers have been in the job, navigating their way through city streets, the larger that part of the brain.
Step 3

Share a story where you’ve become better at something with effort. A real-life example will help give backbone to the research you’ve just spoken about. Hearing about the research is one thing, but hearing a real life example … well that’s unbeatable.

Step 4

Ask what they would tell other people, given what they know about mindset. This draws on extensive research on persuasion that confirms the ‘saying-is-believing’ persuasion technique. Research in this area has found that this can lead to long-term changes in behaviours.

Step 5

Praise them for their effort (‘You’ve worked really hard on that,’) rather than for their innate skills and intelligence. This will help to foster a growth mindset by emphasising that effort is more powerful than innate ability.  

This was demonstrated in a study by Carol Dweck involving 400 5th graders. The students were given a relatively easy IQ test and then praised for their intelligence ‘Wow, you must be really smart at this!’ or for their effort, ‘Wow. Great job. You must have worked really hard at this.’

Later, each student wasoffered one of two options – either they could do a harder test, in which they  they ‘would learn and grow,’ or an easy test, which they ‘would surely do well on’.

Of the group who were praised for their intelligence, 33% chose the harder option. Of the group who were praised for effort, 92% chose the more challenging task. Think about that.

Any  conversation that exposes kids and teens to the idea that people can change will make a difference. Have the conversation and keep having it until it becomes a part of their reality and it would never occur to them that it might be otherwise.

The research around growth mindset is compelling and is expanding all the time. Academic success can be greatly influenced by a growth mindset but many of our schools (despite having brilliant teachers) are getting it wrong. See here for why. For this reason, it’s important that we do as much as we can to nurture a growth mindset in our children. 


As a personal aside, I’m such a believer in the importance of a growth mindset because I’ve seen the effects of it for myself (as if the research wasn’t convincing enough but anyhoo …). I have a 12 year old and a 17 year old and I’ve been actively nurturing a growth mindset for about while now. When I say actively, I also mean gently. Many kids, (tell me it’s not just mine!), will rarely be convinced of anything straight up but with consistent and gentle conversation important messages will get through. I’ve seen a big difference in the way they approach study, the way they apply themselves to their work and their results. Mindset isn’t magic, but it works. Have the conversation with your kids or your teens and watch them go. There a few things better than watching people live up to their potential, especially when those people are the ones in your tribe who you’ve known had it in them all along.

4 Comments

Irene

My children have just moved from an international school that supported and encouraged a growth mindset abroad back to a community secondary school that does not seem to have developed this important skill (yet). I have been searching on line for more information without needing to buy several books or pay a subscription for some genuine advice and direction, that will help me as a parent to encourage my children to maintain their growth mindset even if many around them have not quite learned how to use theirs yet.
I just wanted to thank you for sharing this information in a very clear and approachable way. I hope to use some of these methods with some of the young adolescen children I work with. Thank you so much.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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