Positioning Kids & Teens to Thrive: 11 Practical, Powerful Ways to Build a Growth Mindset

Not All Praise is Good Praise - But This Type is Powerful

There’s something that every child and adolescent needs to believe with every cell in their bodies. When they do, they will thrive. There is a powerful way that we, as the adults in their lives, can nurture this belief and set them up to learn, grow and flourish.

They need to know that their brains can grow stronger – measurably stronger – with time and effort. It sounds simple, but the effects of believing this are profound. Some children will have been born believing this, but others will be certain that they are as they are and that nothing will change that. 

There is no doubt that encouragement and praise are vital for kids of all ages, helping to lift them to great heights – but not all praise is good praise. The research around this is robust, leaving little doubt that different types of praise, though given with the most loving intent, can potentially be harmful to our kids and teens.

‘The wrong kind of praise creates self-defeating behavior. The right kind motivates children to learn. Carol Dweck

Carol Dweck is a leader in the field and according to an abundance of research conducted on children from as young as four, right through to adolescence, praise that focuses on intelligence (‘You’re so clever!’) will ultimately undermine achievement and performance. One of the main reasons is because of the effect it has on their mindset.

Children generally tend towards one of two types of mindsets – a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Praise that focusses on intelligence promotes a fixed mindset, which is the belief that intelligence cannot be changed in any meaningful way. Children with a fixed mindset believe that they are born with certain character traits and a fixed amount of intelligence and creativity, and that nothing they do will change that in any meaningful way. 

In contrast, praise that focuses on effort (‘You’ve worked really hard on that!) promotes a growth mindset, which is the belief that intelligence can grow and be strengthened with effort. Children with a growth mindset believe that they are capable of achieving what they want if they put in the time and effort to get there. 

Fixed Mindset v. Growth Mindset. The Mind-Blowing Differences.

The effects of mindset are remarkable. Here are some of the big differences between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

  • Giving Up (Fixed) v. Persistence (Growth)

    A growth mindset fosters motivation, resilience and persistence. A fixed mindset kills it.

    Children who believe that intelligence lies with the genetically blessed are quicker to give up, believing that if they can’t do something, it’s because they aren’t smart enough, creative enough, good enough, whatever enough. 

    Children who have a growth mindset on the other hand, are more likely to keep working hard towards a goal, believing that all that stands between them and success is the right amount of effort. 

  • Lack of Confidence (Fixed) v. Confidence (Growth)

    Children with a fixed mindset are more likely to interpret difficulty as confirmation that they don’t have what it takes. If success means they are clever (‘You did it! You’re so clever!’), then a lack of success means they aren’t. Once children believe this, their lack of confidence spills into other tasks, eventually wearing down their motivation and their love of learning.

    Praising children for effort will lift them above the times they don’t do as well as they would like – which, let’s be honest, happens to all of us. They will interpret a lack of success as a sign that they need to work a little harder or differently, rather than as evidence of a personal deficiency.

  • Avoid Challenge (Fixed) v. Embrace Challenge (Growth)

    When given the choice between a challenging task or an easy task, children with a fixed mindset will be more likely to choose the easy task. If children believe their intelligence is fixed and impossible to change, it is understandable that they will choose easy tasks to prove themselves. This leaves very limited scope for the vulnerability needed to learn and grow. Learning is all about starting at the edge of our capabilities and pushing beyond them. That will mean sometimes failing, sometimes falling, and sometimes admitting that, for the moment, we haven’t got a clue. 

    Children with a growth mindset will embrace challenge, seeing it as an opportunity to learn and grow. 

  • Failure: Personal Deficiency (Fixed) v. Opportunity to Learn (Growth) 

    Children with a fixed mindset will be more likely to interpret failure as evidence of their lack of intelligence or capability.

    Failure isn’t so bleak for kids with a growth mindset. They have a healthy attitude to failure, seeing it as an opportunity to learn. Even when they are disappointed, they are able to keep their confidence intact and bounce back from the stumbles, believing they have it in them to succeed if they keep working at it. 

  • Hiding the Struggle (Fixed) v. Seeking Help (Growth).

    Children who believe their performance will be attributed to intelligence, or to something about themselves that can’t be changed, will be more likely to hide their struggles and lie about their mistakes. In Dweck’s research, almost 40% of children who had been praised for intelligence, compared to 10% of children who had been praised for effort lied when they were asked to anonymously disclose the number of mistakes they made. When children believe that intelligence is fixed they will identify themselves as ‘smart’ or ‘not smart’. Rather than seeing mistakes as a sign that they may need to work a little harder, they will see mistakes as evidence of a lack of inherent capability and will work harder to stop the world from seeing them as ‘stupid’ or incapable.

    On the other hand, children with a growth mindset will be more likely to seek help when something gets in their way, believing the capability is in them, but they just need a hand to find it.

Nurturing a Growth Mindset.

A growth mindset will supercharge their capacity to learn and grow. We know that for certain. Parents, teachers and any important adult in the life of a child or adolescent has enormous power to steer them towards the happy headspace of a growth mindset. Here’s how.

  1. Tell them, over and over and over that ‘Brains can get stronger.’

    As if being a brain wasn’t impressive enough, they’ve proven to be all the more remarkable by showing how much they can change. ‘Brains can get stronger.’ Say this over and over to the kids in your life until they’re reciting you or telling you to stop – and then keep going. The more they can believe this, the more empowered they’ll be to keep doing what they need to do to strengthen that powerhouse in their heads. Here is one way to explain it to them.

    ‘Imagine that in your brain are billions of tiny lightbulbs. There is a lightbulb for everything you could ever do. There’s a dancing lightbulb, a maths lightbulb, a soccer lightbulb, an imagination lightbulb, a science lightbulb, a cooking lightbulb, a flying a plane lightbulb …. You get the idea. The thing is, they only turn on when you do what they are there for, so not all of your light bulbs will glow all the time. Some of them will never glow at all. That’s exactly as it should be. Nobody is great at absolutely everything!


    The really cool thing about these lightbulbs is that the more you turn them on (by practicing whatever it is they’re there for), the brighter they glow, and the brighter they glow, the stronger your brain. The first time you try something, its lightbulb will only glow a little bit but the more you practice and learn that thing, the brighter that lightbulb will glow. Remember, not all of these lightbulbs are glowing all the time – only the ones that have been turned on.

    If you never ride a bike, for example, the riding-a-bike lightbulb won’t glow at all. The first time you ride a bike, that lightbulb will glow just a little bit. The more you ride your bike, the brighter the riding-a-bike lightbulb will glow. It might take a lot of practice before your riding-a-bike lightbulb is as bright as your teeth-brushing lightbulb but when it is as bright, you’ll be just as good at riding a bike as you are at brushing your teeth.

    Of course, your teeth-brushing lightbulb is very bright because you brush your teeth every morning and every night! When it comes to riding bikes though, you might fall off a few times but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be great at riding bikes. It just means that you’re not good at riding them yet. You’re still charging up that lightbulb. 

    Every time you learn something or practice something, you’re turning on a lightbulb and strengthening your brain. In the same way exercise makes your body strong by strengthening your muscles, learning and practicing makes your brain strong. You’re very capable of learning things and strengthening your brain, but no brain is going to build itself. All brains can all be strong, smart and capable of amazing things, but they need you to work and make the lightbulbs glow … and you can do that brilliantly.

  2. Pay attention to effort over results.

    A grade that has been earned with hard work, whatever that grade is, should always be rewarded before something that was achieved without effort.

    ‘You studied hard for that exam and your marks show that. That’s great!’

    ‘It was a hard assignment but you didn’t give up. You kept going and working hard and you did it!’ ‘I loved the way you kept trying different things until you found something that worked.’

  3. Catch them being persistent.

    Any time you see them putting in effort, working hard towards a goal or being persistent, acknowledge it. It doesn’t mean you have to gush with praise every time they apply themselveg, but it will mean a lot to them that you notice. ‘You’re working hard at that aren’t you.’

  4. Be specific with praise.

    Attach your praise to something specific. Rather than ‘You’re really smart,’ try ‘It was really clever the way you experimented with a few different ways to solve that problem. Nice work!’

  5. Encourage a healthy attitude to failure and challenge.

    Speak of failure and challenge in terms of them being an opportunity to learn and grow.

  6. Use the word ‘yet’, and use it often.

    When they say ‘I don’t know how to do it’, encourage them to replace this with, ‘I don’t know how to do it yet.’ Keep doing this and soon they will learn to do this for themselves. Self-talk is a powerful thing.

  7. Show them that they don’t always have to be successful to be okay.

    Kids don’t learn what they’re told, they learn what they see. Let them see when you hit a snag (when it’s appropriate of course) and let them see you being okay with that. Talk about the things you learn when something doesn’t quite go as planned. If you take a wrong turn, for example, point out the interesting things you notice now that you’re on a different road. Failure is part of learning and has absolutely nothing at all to do with how clever or capable they are. It’s an opportunity to learn, in disguise.

  8. Encourage them to keep the big picture in mind.

    It’s where they end up that matters. The stumbles on the way are just part of the learning and the way there. Learning takes time and the path won’t be straight – it will be crooked and interesting and full of great opportunities, exactly as it was meant to be.

  9. When they do well without effort …

    For a student who does really well without putting in any effort, it’s still important to hold back from making it all about how clever or capable they are. Instead, Dweck suggests trying, ‘Ok. That was too easy for you. Let’s see if there’s something more challenging that you can learn from.’

  10. And when they put in the effort but don’t do so well …

    If they’ve worked hard but haven’t achieved what they wanted, notice the effort. This will nurture their confidence, resilience and motivation to keep learning and working hard. ‘I loved seeing the effort you put into that assignment. Let’s see what you can learn from for next time.’

  11. Permission to fail.

    Take the anxiety out of learning and put back the love. Giving kids permission to get it wrong sometimes will broaden their willingness to take risks and experiment with better ways of doing things. This will expand their creativity, problem solving and readiness to embrace challenge.

And finally…

Intelligence is not fixed and can be flourished with time and effort. Nurturing this belief in children is one of the greatest things we, as the adults in their lives, can do to help lift them so they can reach their full potential. The effort will come from them, but it’s important that we do what we can to have them believe that the effort will be worth it.

 

31 Comments

Louise

Hi there, sorry I am commenting so late but I was really interested in this. Every year I teach a couple of preschool children who say “I can’t do it” when faced with a structured task esp starting to write a letter, like the first letter in their name. They get lots of prewriting activities that are fun eg play dough and tweezers but faced with a task like this they can’t do it ie they don’t try. Is this too young an age group or too specialised a task to apply mindset theory to?

Reply
Karen Young

It’s never too late to start nurturing a growth mindset in children. A big part is building their self-talk and their expectations of what they are capable of, so that embracing challenge and not giving up becomes an automatic response. Young minds are hungry and ready to hear the important lessons they have to learn, even if they don’t learn them straight away.

Reply
Nestor

So incredibly worded! Every single point of your vision for empowering our children is precise. Your detailed information exceeds the norm of our society. The depth of it all is extremely positive and uplifting. Thank you for anothe amazing article. I will be studying this information and much more to pass along to my children.

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Pippa

I LOVE the lightbulb analogy. This article is so in keeping with what I try to convey to the children I work with – can’t wait to use some of these ideas! thank you

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Alison

Thank you SO much for this article. My son thinks he’ll never be “smart” (ie, never be good at maths etc.) so I’ll definitely be reading this to him tomorrow and making sure I implement all the suggestions to make him believe in himself.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Alison. Keep giving him the message that ‘smart’ is already in him, and that it will just take his time and effort to uncover it, as it does in all of us. it sounds like he is in wonderful hands.

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Shellie

Thanks for a great synopsis of mindset research, grounded in the real world for us mere mortals! It helps me to realise why I have such a fear of failure (after being told I succeeded because I was a “bright” kid at school). Hopefully I can instill a growth mindset in my kids and little by little begin to change my own. 🙂

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Hey Sigmund

The mindset research is pretty amazing isn’t it. Your own experience at school makes a lot of sense. And yes – you can definitely turn it around!

Reply
Laura

Hi there,
I wanted to ask if I can print these articles? I prefer to read on paper?
Is this possible?

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Yes Laura absolutely. There is a green button at the bottom of the share options. This is what you need to generate and print a printer-friendly version of the article. On a laptop, it is on the left hand side of the article. In a tablet or a phone it is at the bottom behind the ‘Share this’ button.

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Jessica Hannah

Thankyou so much for this, I have one little boy who is much less confident than the other and worry terribly about getting things wrong or not being able to do things as well as others so he settles for second best or doesn’t join in at all. I have been worried and sad about this and not known what to do or how to help, all I know is I recognise his behaviour from how I used to feel as a child and sometimes still do now. It’s been making me sad, this article has given me hope and clarity!! Thankyou 🙂

Reply
Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome. It sounds as though you have a sensitive, thoughtful little man there. The world needs more like him. He has it in him to believe in himself, and his mindset is key. When this starts to shift, he will surprise himself with what he can do.

Reply
Jess Hannah

I read your light bulb explanation to him this morning at breakfast, I could see him processing and understanding with total clarity. He is a lovely sensitive little boy and I really feel this growth mindset is going to open up his growing mind to such possibilities, thanks again ♥

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Hey Sigmund

That’s wonderful! I’m so pleased he was open to the information. It will be lovely to watch what him open up to what he is capable of. Thank you so much for taking the time to let me know.

Reply
Di

Thank you for yet another fantastic article. I would have approached some things differently when raising my children if “Hey Sigmund” articles had been available then. However, I consider it a blessing that I receive your articles now and can use the knowledge I gain from them to help my grandchildren and other children who cross my path.

Reply
Maryanne Bass

A thousand thanks for confirming what lots of grandparents “know” at a gut level, but don’t know how to reinforce the effort as well as the outcome.

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Judy

Wow this explains a lot for me. I’ve often wondered why some,people believe that they can’t grow and change no matter what their age. I definitely have a growth mindset – !

Reply
Di

I also now understand the difference I often feel with others because I want to know more and improve things continually and they are happy to go along from day to day without changing anything. I often thought perhaps I was a bit “different/weird” that I cannot stop trying to grow and love learning new things all the time.

Reply
Eliko

Thank you for ANOTHER amazingly well broken down and explained article that is both applicable and helpful to share with families (I am a classroom teacher).

Reply

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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