The 8-year-old already describes himself as a “math guy.” Though he loves to read, and he writes some very thoughtful things on school papers, he claims that he is “not good” at writing and that it is much too difficult and laborious (my word, not his.)
There is nothing wrong with having a preference. And there is everything right with pursuing what interests you. Clearly we love math in our house. But at 8 years old, I do not want my son to pigeon-hole himself. Or worse, to believe that if he struggles with something it means he doesn’t really have the capacity for it. How do I counteract this? The education world is abuzz with all sorts of words that plug into this issue: grit, differentiation, growth mindset, etc. Today I’m going to pick Growth Mindset.
The concept of growth mindset is most popularly described by Carol Dweck. It’s opposite is “fixed mindset.” The difference is that if you have a fixed mindset, you believe that you are either good at something or you are not. And if you are not, no amount of trying will change that. If you have a growth mindset, you understand that your brain is flexible and that you CAN learn given the right conditions. You can do very well in school with either mindset, but when you bump up against a wall (as we all eventually do) a fixed mindset will prevent you from seeing that the wall can be walked around, or dismantled, or might even disintegrate given enough time. There are many articles out there about Growth Mindset. Here’s one.
Isn’t it interesting that we don’t apply a fixed mindset to our initial growth as humans? No one assumes that if you weren’t walking by the time you were 1 year old, you will never ever walk or that you just weren’t made for walking, much less running. We understand that we are each developing at different rates. We know that in their own time, the baby will crawl, the toddler will walk, and the child will run. But when it comes to school subjects, we jump right into assuming that if we don’t understand it right away, we just aren’t good at reading or writing or math or whatever else it is.
What a bummer.
What can you do to help your own child?
First, check yourself. Do YOU speak as if you have a fixed or a growth mindset? Avoid saying things like, “I’ve never been good at (fill in whatever you think you’ve never been good at)” within earshot of your child. Do you ACT as if you have a fixed or a growth mindset? Celebrate your own failures in front of your children as the growth opportunities they are. (Seriously, it feels GREAT to turn your own mistakes into teachable moments for your kids…then you can pretend you did it on purpose just for their sake!)
Second, use growth mindset vocabulary and conversation to counteract your kid’s fixed mindset. When he says, “Mom, I’m not good at writing,” you can say, “You silly boy whom I love so very much! Writing is really about thinking, and you are practicing and improving your thinking skills every day. Writing is also a mechanical process (fine motor skills) and you are practicing and improving those skills every day, too. I know it’s frustrating to watch others write faster than you do, but every day you practice, you train yourself to get better. Every time you try something that is challenging for you, your brain gets a little bit stronger, your mind gets a little bit more flexible.” (I use this with their eating habits, too. “It’s okay that you don’t like broccoli now. You have to grow your broccoli loving taste buds. Keep practicing.” I’m hopeful this will work.) With older children, don’t ask them what grade they got on their most recent assignment or test, ask instead what they did well and what they need to do differently next time. Ask them what they understood and what they need to understand better. When you hear them say, “I stink at math,” respond with, “You struggled with this material today. You will find a way to understand it better tomorrow.”
When you praise your child for what they do well, praise their process. Rather than saying,”You are SO good at math,” note aloud the positive progress and process that you observe, like “Wow! Do you remember when I had to help you count your Pirate-opoly money? Now you can do it yourself! ,” or “You’ve come up with so many different ways to explore with this mirror!” or “Your persistence with trying to find a way to make this coloring project work really paid off!” (Yes, this paragraph was just a ruse to get you to read some of my other posts.)
Third, read some books. I’m a big fan of letting a children’s book do the work. Here are several that I’ve read to my kids that have underlying themes of persistence and growth. Google “growth mindset children’s books”, and you will find many more.
Finally, talk to your kid’s teacher. Ask the teacher what they observe in class. Is your child persistent, or is he easily dissuaded? Is your child fearful of making mistakes, or is she able to learn from them? What vocabulary and language is the teacher using to reinforce growth mindset? At the very least, find out how your child displays different mindsets in classroom situations, and find out how conversant the teacher is in growth vs. fixed mindset.
Encouraging growth mindset is something that will not only help your child navigate specific challenges at school, but it will also help them survive and thrive in the world throughout their lives. And it will help you, too.
(Mathematically…more than any other subject, math suffers from the assumption that some people are good at it, and some are not, and that is just the way it is. This misperception stems from the traditional method of teaching math in a very linear step-by-step way. Some of us flourished with that approach, and some of us did not. If you had a fixed mindset – or worse, if your teacher had a fixed mindset – and you didn’t flourish, then you were not good at math AND you were not going to be good at math. But that traditional linear approach is just ONE aspect of math. Math is also non-linear. It is creative. It is visual. It is physical. It is colorful. It is musical. What if you had been exposed to these other interesting ways of approaching math? What if someone had said “let’s explore this idea differently.” What if someone had mentioned that the trappings of Algebra (variables, formulas, etc.) are very abstract and our brains develop their ability to deal with the abstract at different rates (much like kids learn to walk at different ages)? What if you had approached math (or whatever subject was most challenging for you) with the belief that given time, practice, and support, you would understand it, maybe even love it?)