To Grow or Not to Grow? A Question of Mindsets.

 In Mindquest News

When I tell people that I teach math, I often get immediate reactions such as “Wow, I could never do that!” or “I am HORRIBLE at math!” I am always surprised by people’s black and white stance on the subject I teach, and although these comments typically come from adults, I regularly see the same type of inflexible thinking from the children I work with. Often times, students and clients come to me with rigid ideas about their interests and abilities, especially regarding their academic subjects.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard children say, “Math is my worst subject!” or “I am just not good at that.” Whether encountered in the classroom or in a counselling session, these seemingly innocent preconceived notions often signal a mindset that can be extremely detrimental to a child’s growth and overall success as a lifelong learner. Moments of failure, frustration, and perseverance are an integral part of growing up, and children with fixed beliefs about their abilities are often paralyzed with fear and insecurity when the time comes to take risks. In order to help children approach learning from a different perspective and overcome their fear of perceived “failure”, I systematically work with them to undo this type of thinking and retrain their brains to understand that we are capable of much more than we could ever imagine.

Several years ago I read the bestselling book,  Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Stanford Psychologist Carol Dweck who researches “Growth Mindset”— the idea that we can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and to solve problems. In her book, Dweck describes the power that our mindset has on our ability to succeed, and reading it provided clear language to describe what I had been working so hard to cultivate in the children I work with: a growth mindset.


What is a growth mindset?

According to Dweck, individuals with a growth mindset “believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” In contrast, she describes that people with a fixed mindset “believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them.” The following table illustrates the difference in thinking between a fixed and growth mindset.

Fixed Mindset Growth Mindset
Believe intelligence and talent are fixed Believe intelligence and talent can be developed
View making mistakes as a lack of intelligence View making mistakes as normal and a chance to learn
Focus on proving intelligence and looking smart Focus on improvement
Avoid challenging tasks for fear of failure Embrace challenging tasks as a chance to learn
Value making the next “A” Value working hard and making progress
Feel threatened by the success of others Feel inspired by the success of others

It is important to understand that people often fall somewhere along the mindset continuum, instead of having a purely fixed or growth mindset. In addition, it is also common to have more of a fixed mindset in certain areas, for example math, and more of a growth mindset in other areas, such as sports. shutterstock_331214630

How can I help my child develop a growth mindset?

There are several steps you can take to help your child develop a growth mindset. Small shifts in the way you interact with your child can have a large impact on the messages you send to them about what you value, which directly impacts what they believe they should value.

  • Develop your own growth mindset

The best way to help your child adopt a growth mindset is to work on developing one within yourself. Start by testing your mindset using the mindset questionnaire provided by Mindset Online. In addition, learn more about the value of a growth mindset by completing the 30 minute Growth Mindset Course for Parents created by PERTS, an applied research center at Stanford University dedicated to improving student motivation and achievement.

  • Model a growth mindset

As you develop your own growth mindset, openly model your shift in thinking for your children. Share when you are facing a challenge and discuss the benefits and growth that come from persevering. One of the most important components of modeling your growth mindset is to openly embrace mistakes. Don’t hide the mistakes you make, but instead, openly discuss the value that comes from learning from them.

  • Be deliberate with your language and praise

When praising your child, ensure that you praise effort or determination, instead of intelligence or how quickly a task was accomplished. In addition, when discussing a challenge your child is facing, replace questions such as “What is hard?” or “What can you not do?” with “What are your sticking points?” or “What are you working to develop?”

  • Help your child understand neuroplasticity

Neuroplasticity, or the idea that the brain is malleable and new pathways are created and strengthened as we change our thoughts and behavior, allows our intelligence to increase as we apply persistent effort to a given task. By training ourselves to think and act differently, such as when we change our mindset or persevere when we are challenged, we are actually restructuring the makeup of our brains. For an easy to understand video about neuroplasticity, check out the Sentis Brain Animation Series. Through educating our children about the way our brains work and grow, we empower them to make lasting positive change within their lives.

 Carol Dweck

“Parents think they can hand children permanent confidence—like a gift—by praising their brains and talent. It doesn’t work, and in fact has the opposite effect. It makes children doubt themselves as soon as anything is hard or anything goes wrong. If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”

 -Carol Dweck

Like this article? Check out the Group Workshop,  Talking Back to the Head Hassler, running again Spring 2016.


The power of believing that you can improve. TED Talk by Carol Dweck. Carol Dweck researches “growth mindset” — the idea that we can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and to solve problems. In this talk, she describes two ways to think about a problem that’s slightly too hard for you to solve. Are you not smart enough to solve it … or have you just not solved it yet? A great introduction to this influential field.


jennifer-johnson-mindquestAbout the Author: Educator and Counselling Intern, Jennifer Johnson utilises a variety of evidence-based techniques including Positive Psychology, Social Thinking, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness to empower children to tap into their inner strengths, develop a solid foundation of self-esteem, and discover their true potential. Her focus is on empowering youth to examine how they see the world, and how the world sees them to unlock their innate potential. Jennifer is a Maths Teacher at one of the leading International Schools in Hong Kong and has taught for 6 years in both Hong Kong and Austin, Texas.

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