Adolescence and childhood can be fraught with social adversity. Relationships are tested, sometimes lost and then there is the challenge of making new ones.
Being seen in a positive light socially often trumps other challenges as the most critical to master.
Some call on aggression or exclusion as a way of firming up their social status. Some become a target of it.
For some, the pain of this can be relentless and can have consequences that spill over into adulthood. Others navigate through the challenge with less scarring, even developing qualities of strength and resilience that serve them well during later years.
What makes the difference?
A recent study lead by David Yeager, an expert in the field of mindset, has shed light on the issue and, more importantly, found a simple and effective way to protect young people from the harm that can descend from social difficulties.
A growing body of research is consistently demonstrating that what we believe about the potential for people to change, or not, has important consequences for behavior, feelings, thoughts, motivation and resilience.
For example, those who believe that intelligence is not fixed but can be improved, perform better academically. Similarly shy people who believe that their shyness can be managed perform better socially than those who believe that their shyness is fixed and out of their control.
First, The Evidence …
Study 1 – What They Did
Researchers recruited 158 year 9 high school students to participate in the study.
At the start of the school year, students were measured on the degree to which they believed people could change. They were asked to rate, on a 6 point scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 6 (strongly agree), the extent to which they agreed with the following statements:
- ‘Bullies and victims are types of people who really can’t be changed’;
- ‘There are two kinds of people: Bullies and their victims’;
- ‘You can’t change people who are jerks in schools,’; and
- ‘Some people are just jerks, and not much can be done to change them’.
They were also measured for general psychological stress, physical health, academic achievement and how good or bad they felt about themselves in response to an online game that had the potential to elicit feelings of social exclusion. (Extreme care was taken to ensure any feelings of exclusion that arose because of the study were ultimately neutralised.)
What They Found
Results clearly showed that adolescents who believed that personalities (theirs and others) were fixed and could not be changed reported higher stress, poorer physical health, lower grades and were more likely to react to adverse social situations with negative self feelings and self blame (‘I’m just not likeable’).
On the other hand, adolescents who believed more strongly that people could change were better positioned to cope with social adversity. They reported less stress and anxiety, better feelings about themselves in response to social exclusion, and better physical health.
Can those who believe that people can’t change, change their mindset?
Study 2 – What They Did
Yeager and colleagues performed a second study in a similar school.
Measures of negative reactions to social exclusion (stress, anxiety, negative feelings about self), global psychological stress and physical health were taken at the start of the school year.
Researchers told students about something called the ‘Growth Mindset’ that they were hoping to teach to next year’s students. Students were told they could help by understanding some of the science behind the growth mindset and then writing a note that could be used to teach next year’s students how the growth mindset might help them.
Students were then given information explaining how the brain changes and learns.
One of this was mentioned again and at the end of the school year, students were followed up.
What They Found
Students who had received the information about people’s capacity to change showed a better response to immediate social difficulties, better physical health and reduced stress, eight months on.
Social and academic processes are related and affect each other during challenging periods. Students who are at-risk academically tend to show a steep decline in performance during socially difficult periods.
In the months following the intervention, those who received the intervention slowed the decline and maintained their grades over the year.
The intervention showed lasting effects, even without further mention or reinforcement or after students first received the information.
Now For The How …
Protecting Against Harm from Social Adversity – How to Develop A ‘Growth Mindset’
The following process was developed by David Yeager to teach children about mindset. The steps as detailed below have been successfully used in various studies by Yeager and colleagues and the same principles can be used in conversations at home or school.
Any conversation that will expose children to the idea that people can change will make a difference. Talk about it and keep talking about it.
Explain that, ‘people have the potential to change and that:
- if you are excluded or victimized, it is not due to a fixed, personal deficiency on your part, and
- people who exclude or victimise you are not fixed, bad people but instead have complicated motivations that are subject to change.’
Explain the science underlying the ‘Growth Mindset’, specifically that people’s behaviours are controlled by ‘thoughts and feelings in their brains’ and that these pathways can be changed. The following is an excerpt used by David Yeager and colleagues in their various studies:
‘People’s personalities live in their brains, and the brain can be changed. I first read the research of Dr. Daniel Lawrence from Stanford University. I learned that people don’t do things because of some label that people use to describe them. They do things because of the thoughts and feelings that they have—thoughts and feelings that live in the brain, and that can be changed. When you have a thought or a feeling, the pathways of neurons in your brain send signals to other parts of your brain that lead you to do a behavior. By changing these pathways, you can actually change and improve how you behave after challenges and setbacks. Everyone’s brain is a “work in progress!’
Explain that there are plenty of real life studies done by scientists that have shown this works.
Students in the Yeager studies were then asked to read three pieces from previous students in which they discussed a time they felt excluded and how during that time they remembered that people can change – both themselves and the people hurting them.
In your conversation about mindset, share the times you’ve had to deal with people being mean. Talk about realising that the way others treated you was more likely to be a reflection of what they were going through themselves, or the sad way they feel about themselves. Explain that people do things because of their own thoughts and feelings, not because of something in them that makes them good or bad. The important part is that thoughts and feelings change all the time, so someone who is mean now, won’t necessarily always be that way.
Ask your child what they would tell other children, 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 even short contact with a novel message can result in long-term changes in important behaviours.
What Do We Take Away?
The findings of Yeager and colleagues and indeed the work of many in this growing area, testify to the power of a growth mindset to lower stress, improve health and academic performance, and facilitate a more positive self-image. More importantly, the research has shown that children and adolescents are capable of learning this mindset.
The framework through which adolescents understand adversity, themselves and others can protect them during challenging periods or undermine them. Those effects can be long-lasting, carrying over into into adulthood.
Researcher David Yeager explains, ‘When they (adolescents) believe that people have the potential for change—both they themselves and the people who treat them badly—then victimization seems less like a diagnosis of their future, and more like something that will pass. Hence, it becomes less stressful and less threatening.’
These findings add to a growing body of important research demonstrating that people can change.
The belief that people can change is valuable armour against people who, in the struggle for social standing, lack the capacity to act with intelligence, grace and humanity. The idea that ‘it’s not you, it’s them – but they won’t always be like that, and you won’t always feel like this,’ will foster within our children a healthy mindset that will strengthen and protect them well into adulthood.