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?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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 🙂

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 – !

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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.

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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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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
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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