Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others continue to strive and learn?  Some would say that this is due to resilience, motivation or supports. More recently, another term has been introduced to explain this, ‘A Growth Mindset’, which relates to one’s beliefs about why they failed. 

As humans we generally tend towards one of two types of mindsets – a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. A fixed mindset is the belief that we cannot change in any meaningful way. That we are born with certain character traits, amounts of intelligence and creativity, and that nothing we can do will change that.  

In contrast, a growth mindset is the belief that intelligence can grow and be strengthened with effort. Children with a growth mindset believe that they are capable of achieving what they want if they put in the time and effort to get there and therefore focus more on the process, rather than the outcome.  

To highlight this, let us consider ‘Alex’, a brilliant student who breezed through primary school and year 7 and 8. During this, Alex completed his assignments easily and routinely earned As. Alex puzzled over why some of his classmates struggled, and his parents told him that he had a special gift. In Year 9, the demands of school increased and Alex seemed to suddenly lose interest. He refused to do homework or study for tests and his grades plummeted. Parents and teachers tried to boost Alex’s confidence and reminded him that he was very smart. But their attempts failed, with Alex stating that school was both boring and pointless. It could be seen that from an early age, Alex held the belief that no-effort academic achievement defined his as being smart and that intelligence is innate, which made striving to learn seem less important than looking smart (a fixed mindset). This belief also resulted in Alex viewing challenges, mistakes and the need to exert effort as a threat to his ego, rather than an opportunity to improve. And it caused him to lose confidence and motivation when the work was no longer easy for him.  

On the other hand, research has shown that those who have a growth mindset are more likely to apply themselves to challenges and achieve positive outcomes. A growth mindset fosters motivation, resilience and persistence. A fixed mindset kills it. 

Giving Up (Fixed) v. Persistence (Growth) 

  • Children who believe that intelligence lies with the genetically blessed are quicker to give up, believing that if they can’t do something, it’s because they aren’t smart enough, creative enough, good enough, whatever enough.   
  • Children who have a growth mindset on the other hand, are more likely to keep working hard towards a goal, believing that all that stands between them and success is the right amount of effort.  

Lack of Confidence (Fixed) v. Confidence (Growth) 

  • Children with a fixed mindset are more likely to interpret difficulty as confirmation that they don’t have what it takes. If success means they are clever (‘You did it! You’re so clever!’), then a lack of success means they aren’t. In this way failure is seen as a personal deficiency and once children believe this, their lack of confidence spills into other tasks, eventually wearing down their motivation and their love of learning. Whereas those with a growth mindset maintain the confidence that they can do things and to keep trying.  

Avoid Challenge (Fixed) v. Embrace Challenge (Growth) 

  • When given the choice between a challenging task or an easy task, children with a fixed mindset will be more likely to choose the easy task. If children believe their intelligence is fixed and impossible to change, it is understandable that they will choose easy tasks to prove themselves and therefore miss out on opportunities for learning.  
  • Children with a growth mindset will embrace challenge, seeing it as an opportunity to learn and grow.  

Hiding the Struggle (Fixed) v. Seeking Help (Growth). 

  • Children who believe their performance will be attributed to intelligence, or to something about themselves that can’t be changed, will be more likely to hide their struggles and lie about their mistakes. When children believe that intelligence is fixed, they will identify themselves as ‘smart’ or ‘not smart’. Rather than seeing mistakes as a sign that they may need to work a little harder, they will see mistakes as evidence of a lack of inherent capability and will work harder to stop the world from seeing them as ‘stupid’ or incapable. 
  • On the other hand, children with a growth mindset will be more likely to seek help when something gets in their way, believing the capability is in them, but they just need a hand to find it. 

Nurturing a Growth Mindset: Parents, teachers and any important adult in the life of a child or adolescent have the power to help foster a growth mindset. Here’s how: 

1. Tell them, over and over and over that ‘Brains can get stronger.’ We all need to know that our brains can grow stronger with time and effort. It sounds simple, but the effects of believing this are profound. Some of us are taught this and others think that they are the way they are and that nothing will change that. Repeat ‘Brains get stronger’ over and over to the kids in your life until they’re reciting you or telling you to stop – and then keep going. The more they can believe this, the more likely they are to try new things.  

Let young people know that the first time they try something, it’ll be hard, but the more they practice and learn that thing, the easier it gets. Like riding a bike, the first time you ride a bike, it might be hard and you might fall off a few times but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be great at riding bikes. It just means that you’re not good at riding them yet and need more practice. Subsequently, by learning and practising new things we are strengthening our brains. Just like exercise makes our bodies stronger, learning makes our brains stronger. The book ‘You Can Grow Your Brain’ highlights this.  

2. Share stories of hard work and how these lead to achievements. For instance, talking about mathematical geniuses who were more or less born that way puts students in a fixed mind-set, but descriptions of Walt Disney who was initially rejected for not being creative enough and thus worked harder, engenders a growth mind-set. 

3. Pay attention to effort over results and catch them being persistent. A grade that has been earned with hard work, whatever that grade is, should always be rewarded before something that was achieved without effort. Similarly, any time you see them putting in effort, working hard towards a goal or being persistent, acknowledge it.  

This can be reflected in the ‘Application Section’ of MRC students school reports, as well as Application to Study Awards.  

If a student does well without effort, it’s still important to hold back from making it all about how clever or capable they are and instead saying something like ‘Ok. That was too easy for you. Let’s see if there’s something more challenging that you can learn from.’ 

  1. Praise: There is no doubt that encouragement and praise are vital for children and adolescents. But not all praise is good praise. As highlighted, praise that focuses on intelligence (‘You’re so clever!’) will ultimately undermine achievement and performance, as it promotes a fixed mindset. Whereas praise that focuses on effort and is specific (‘You studied really hard for your social studies test. You read the material over several times, outlined it and tested yourself on it. It really worked’) encourages a growth mindset.  
  2. Encourage a healthy attitude to failure and challenge. Give permission to make mistakes and speak of failure and challenge in terms of them being an opportunity to learn and grow. Research shows that students who react defensively to mistakes and make comments such as “I never did have a good memory,” see declines in their problem-solving skills. Whereas those who focused on fixing errors and honing their skills, with comments such as: “I should slow down and try to figure this out” outperformed others. Giving kids permission to get it wrong sometimes will broaden their willingness to take risks and experiment with better ways of doing things, as well as expand their creativity, problem solving and readiness to embrace challenge. 

Engage in conversations about daily mistakes and what you learnt from them, as well as modelling and showing times when you were not successful but were ok. For example, if you take a wrong turn, point out the interesting things you notice now that you’re on a different road. 

3. Use the word ‘yet’ and use it often. When they say ‘I don’t know how to do it’, encourage them to replace this with, ‘I don’t know how to do it yet.’ Keep doing this and soon they will learn to do this for themselves. Self-talk is a powerful thing. 

4. Encourage them to keep the big picture in mind. It’s where they end up that matters. The stumbles on the way are just part of the learning and the way there. Learning takes time and the path will not be straight – it will be crooked and interesting and full of great opportunities, exactly as it was meant to be. 

Nicole Young  

College Psychologist