Elizabeth Mee Morrissey is a mother of three young children and has been a primary school teacher since 2000. She earned a B.Sc. in Elementary Education from Boston University. Elizabeth explains how helping children to cultivate a mindset that supports positive emotions and points of view is one of the most worthwhile parenting practices we can undertake.
Ding, ding, ding! The bell goes to herald the start of September, and just like that, ‘Back to School’ season has arrived.
Children are often delighted by their shiny new books, schoolbags and lunchboxes. With great excitement, they say goodbye to old, worn out and broken colours, as they greet a bright, new collection of crayons, markers and pencils. Uniforms are clean and tidy, at least for a moment, and fancy new shoes are modelled with pride. We as parents diligently ensure that they have all the tools they will need, and they walk through the school gates ready to resume their academic adventures.
However, the most valuable tool available to us, as we take on challenges and open new chapters in our lives is, unfortunately, one that is frequently overlooked. Mindset is the collection of beliefs and assumptions that govern what we think about ourselves and how we make sense of our life experiences. Mindset determines how we feel, and we all want our children to feel happy, successful and confident in school. Therefore, helping kids to cultivate a mindset that supports positive emotions and points of view is one of the most worthwhile parenting practices we can undertake.
Psychologist Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., who first coined the term ‘mindset’, identified two distinct frames of mind throughout her decades of research. According to her theory, we all have either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset believe that people are born with and defined by certain traits. They may have particular talents, such as music, sport or art, and a specific amount of intelligence. The person with a fixed mindset believes that these fundamental traits can’t really be changed.
In contrast, people who approach life with a growth mindset believe that we can develop and improve our abilities through effort and dedication. Even the person who is not born with a musical talent can work hard to learn how to play an instrument, and even a person who finds schoolwork difficult can study hard and pass a test. Those who have a growth mindset tend to be more resilient than those with a fixed mindset because they believe in their ability to overcome setbacks. Dr. Dweck’s research proved that they try harder and persist with tasks longer than their fixed mindset peers.
Mindset is crucial because it dictates how we feel and determines our level of motivation. The fixed mindset makes us feel badly. It tells us that no matter what we do or how hard we try, the outcome will always be the same. It demands an unrealistic level of perfection because when we make a mistake, we perceive ourselves as failures. As a result, we become less and less motivated to try over time. The less we try, the worse our results become, and before we know it, we can be stuck in a real downward spiral.
It is devastating for a parent to hear a child coming home singing the fixed mindset blues. It goes something like this: “I’m no good at maths.” “My handwriting is awful.” “I stink at spelling.” “No one wants to play with me.”
Even children who are academically high achievers can harbour negativity caused by a fixed mindset. For example, a student who believes, “I’m the smartest in the class” can be bewildered and distressed if someday another child scores higher on a test than he does. Likewise, the child who thinks, “I’m very artistically talented” could be very troubled if she didn’t win a colouring competition. We see this frequently in sport, too, when the “most athletic child” finds it almost impossible to accept defeat in a schoolyard match.
Fortunately, mindset is just a habit, and like all habits, it can be changed with persistent attention and determination. Traditionally, the start of autumn marked a time to begin turning inward, to reap the harvest, to evaluate the past and plant the seeds of the future. As the new school year begins, we as parents have the opportunity to identify how our child’s mindset is supporting positive emotions, self-esteem and motivation and also pinpoint the areas that might need a little bit of attention.
We can empower our children to succeed, excel and achieve their personal best by nurturing a growth mindset every day, and I’ve got four tips that may help us start shifting any habitual, rigid thought patterns to a greater awareness of growth potential.
1) Turn person praise into process praise: We love to congratulate and reward our kids for the things they do well, and we can offer praise and encouragement that reflects growth consciousness by emphasising what they have done rather than attributing their achievements to fixed personality traits. This kind of praise can provide a lot of useful feedback for your child. For example, rather than telling children how clever or talented they are, we can try talking about their effort, diligence and dedication. For example:
“I love the way you kept on practicing until you learned to play that song.” “You must have worked really hard on that essay.” “I like the way you tried different strategies until you were finally able to solve that problem/build that model/write that poem.” “All of your studying and concentration has paid off, and your spelling has really improved.”
2) Storytelling and using role models: We’ve all heard the story about how Thomas Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts to invent the light bulb before he finally realised his dream, but perhaps our children haven’t heard it yet. Examples of people who kept failing, kept trying and ultimately became wildly successful litter the pages of our history books. Henry Ford filed for bankruptcy twice before the Ford Motor Company made automotive history. Sports legend Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team yet led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships. People who believe in themselves, follow their dreams and understand that failure is learning are role models for all of us. However, famous people aren’t the only ones who can be described as successful. Look up your family tree, and look around your circle of friends and your community. You will likely find many examples of growth mindset in action in those who have overcome illness or disability, become successful entrepreneurs, contributed to community initiatives or made a difference in the world through their selfless charity work.
3) Learn lessons from nature: Being out in nature and interacting with it is possibly the healthiest, most life-affirming thing we can do. Kids instinctively love to be outdoors, and nature also serves as a wise guide to our own unfolding. Over and over again, nature teaches us about the process of growth and transformation. Seeds grow into trees, flowers and vegetables. Caterpillars miraculously become butterflies. Tadpoles don’t tell themselves, “But I’ve always lived under water!” They grow their legs and crawl up onto dry land as wholly new creatures. The dragonfly leaves its life as a pond-dwelling nymph behind and learns to fly after its metamorphosis. Nothing in nature is static or fixed, and neither are we. By learning about nature, children can appreciate that we need not limit ourselves by labelling ourselves as one thing or another. Nature also raises our awareness of our interconnectedness with all life on Earth. When we are outdoors, we realise that each of us is an integral, irreplaceable part of something greater.
4) Journaling: Keeping a journal is a powerful practice that can help children to cultivate the unconditional self-love and acceptance that is the real key to achieving anything they desire in life. Recording all of the people, places and things for which we are grateful fosters a mental state that is receptive and prepared to accept more of the goodness and blessings in life. Journaling is a way of getting to know ourselves and honouring our own uniqueness. Even children who are too young to write can draw pictures and scribbles that are meaningful to them. The process of writing and drawing promotes a calm, meditative state, which is associated with an enhanced learning ability, increased attention span and stress reduction.
Could a mindset upgrade help your child to enjoy school more than ever before? Let’s get inspired and set our intention to have the best.year.ever!