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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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