Last weekend your middle school daughter spent all of her free time studying for a major math exam. Preparing for this exam was a family affair as you and your husband both helped her study. The weekend's study sessions engulfed your home; flash cards, scrap paper, pencils, and prior tests are still strewn around your kitchen serving as a testament to the effort she put into her studies. She was convinced she would ace the exam.
The results? She earned a C-.
How will your daughter react?
A: "I'm an idiot! I studied my hardest and I still can't succeed in this math class. Math is too hard and I'm just not smart enough. Despite my best efforts, I'm a failure and my teacher probably thinks I'm stupid."
B: "Yeah, I'm disappointed but this temporary setback doesn't mean that I don't understand math. I'm going to talk with my teacher tomorrow and ask him if I can review my test so I know what I did wrong and then I will do better in the future."
Scenario A demonstrates the fixed mind set. This child believes that her intelligence is a fixed trait which was ultimately threatened by receiving negative feedback regarding her mathematical abilities. She will most likely give up and stop putting forth the effort she needs in order to be successful because she views studying as a waste of time.
Scenario B demonstrates the growth mind set. This child believes that she is in control of her intelligence. Although she may not be happy with the outcome of her most recent test, she understands that she can improve her mathematical abilities if she takes the appropriate course of action. With applied effort and persistence, this student knows that she can do better in the future and her persistence will most likely lead to future academic success.
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck believes that the way we approach our goals ultimately affects our achievement. Dweck conceptualized two distinct ways for approaching tasks suggesting that individuals with the fixed mind set believe that their abilities are crystallized and that they continually evaluate their skills to prove their abilities. Alternatively, individuals with a growth mind set believe they are in control of their abilities, which are cultivated through experience and applied effort (Dweck, 2006).
Jason Plaks and Kristin Stecher (2007) demonstrated that students who viewed their intelligence as malleable put forth more effort during periods of static performance when compared to students who perceived intelligence as a fixed trait. In essence, students of the growth mind set recognized that they were not making satisfactory progress and kicked their performance into overdrive resulting in academic success.
Thomas Edison once stated, "Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up." Perhaps those who kept going were the ones with the growth mind set.
The Bottom Line: Helping adolescents change the way they think about themselves and their abilities cannot only help them recover from temporary setbacks, but can also give them the power to tap into their potential which creates healthier and happier children.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books.
Dweck, C. (2010). Mindset. Retrieved from http://mindsetonline.com/index.html
Plaks, J., & Stecher, K. (2007). Unexpected improvement, decline, and stasis: A prediction confidence perspective on achievement success and failure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(4), 667-684.