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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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