More Than Just Praise: Practical Tools for Growth Mindset

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"My daughter is working hard and I am proud of her perseverance, but at the end of the day her performance isn't necessarily improving. Do I just keep praising her? This doesn't seem to be working."

These are the words of a parent who attended a talk last week where we talked about nurturing a Growth Mindset in kids. We've written a lot about the power of praise and the importance of recognizing effort over natural talent. But what happens when all that hard work doesn't seem to be paying off?

This is a good reminder that growth mindset is about more than just effort. Children need a variety of tools and strategies to succeed, and we need more than praise in our toolkit.

  1. Teach your children about their brains. Don't keep the latest science a secret - remind them that their brains can grow.
  2. Growth mindset isn't just about working hard; it’s about thinking hard too. This means reflecting on which learning strategies work and which ones don't - and being willing to switch strategies and try new things to improve performance. Try asking, "What else can you try?" instead of simply praising hard work that doesn't seem to be paying off. Check out this feedback tool from Mindset Works.
  3. Critical feedback isn't off limits. Growth mindset doesn't mean that you only offer positive praise, but be careful how you deliver tough feedback. Criticizing your child's character reinforces a fixed mindset (and undermines your connection). Offering feedback about the process reinforces the idea that a different set of choices could lead to a different outcome.
  4. Plan your response to, "I can't do this!" Children say this for all kinds of reasons. This resource from Edutopia has some great ideas for how to respond.
  5. Normalize mistakes and struggle, especially those that result from pushing themselves to try challenging things.
  6. But differentiate between stretch mistakes and sloppy mistakes. Celebrating mistakes that result from being too tired, too distracted, or doing too much can backfire. Instead, encourage your child to glean lessons from sloppy mistakes. For example you might suggest that it is time to get more sleep or reduce multitasking during homework.
  7. Look in the mirror. Carol Dweck herself reminds us that we are all a mix of both growth and fixed mindsets, so pay attention to your own fixed mindset impulses. Perhaps the most influential way to teach growth mindset is to model it and to acknowledge when we get "stuck" in fixed mindset thinking ourselves.
  8. Don't forget about the system. Your children’s minds are also shaped by the people and institutions around them so check to be sure that your child's school supports a growth mindset for all students. Keep in mind that it isn't appropriate to rely on a child's mindset alone to "overcome" persistent institutional barriers that get in the way of their success, or worse yet, blame a child's mindset for institutional failure. Growth mindset is no substitute for tackling issues like racial equity, gender stereotyping, and special education reform in our schools.