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Helping shape your children's mindsets

Parenting insights from Jeff & Joy K.

How did you first encounter the Mindset book?

Joy & Jeff: “We learned of it in 2013. The principal of our children’s elementary school shared that he read Mindset over the summer and that it ‘blew his mind,’ which always signals to us ‘read this book now' - and so we did. It blew our minds too, in that everything we thought we knew about effort, potential and learning…was apparently outdated and wrong. The neuroscience of the brain that is the foundation of Carol Dweck’s work was mostly unknown at the time. We felt a sense of urgency about getting the word out, helping people – especially educators and parents – understand that their beliefs and practices in the classroom and home impacted their children’s sense of well-being and learning potential. For ourselves and our parenting, we set out to learn more in order to make changes.”

What have you done with Mindset since then?

Joy: “Learning about Dweck’s research, I set about trying to find ways to easily translate the understanding from her work into summaries and practices. That led to the creation of parent workshops for my kids’ schools, as well as presentations in my higher education environments, where I saw the negative results of a lifetime of being told that 'effortless genius' was the thing to strive for as a learner – as well as an indicator of ‘good enough to be here’ smarts.

“I set about studying the way that Dweck taught growth mindsets in her studies so that I could find the right techniques and language. I came to understand quickly that you can’t just tell someone, ‘You should have a growth mindset,’ because people would say, ‘I do have a growth mindset’ – but in practice, they were very fixed. A perfect common example is a math teacher who has posters on the wall about growth mindsets, but still is praising, encouraging and validating fast answers. I also sought to understand and translate the Dweck commentary and warnings about ‘False Growth Mindsets.’

“Teaching growth mindsets to any age learner starts with helping them understand the neuroscience of the brain in a way that is simple and easily applicable. You don’t need to be a neuroscientist in order to do this! This entails helping a learner understand that the brain is like a muscle that changes and grows with effort and experience, just like your arm muscle. In this way, one can help a learner reformulate their beliefs about effort, shifting from the belief that effort means one has no talent or ability (or ‘I’m just not good at this’) – to instead understanding the difference between 'beginner’s mind' and mastery.

“Our son, Sam, began to exhibit this ‘I’m just not good at math’ fixed mindset belief as early as third grade, when scoring high on timed math tests was pushed and valued by his teacher. Prior to learning about mindset research, we gave a lot of ‘comfort praise’ when our children struggled. This kind of praise is necessary for a sense of belonging and unconditional love, but it is not particularly helpful when you are trying to get faster at timed math tests!

“After learning about the mindset research, we focused more on process and strategy praise. Words like, ‘Wow, you are putting forth a lot of hard work to learn the effective strategies your teacher suggested.’ One day, when Sam came to the kitchen table lamenting that he would never be as good at math as the ‘smart kids,’ (i.e. the kids in the ‘Gifted and Talented’ program), I told Sam that what we know about the brain now is that there is no such thing as 'effortless smarts.' I had been reading in an educational resource about the ways that mindsets were taught to children, and I improvised right there in my kitchen. I went to the cupboard and got out a box of spaghetti. I took out the strands of spaghetti and showed Sam that when a person is just learning a new skill, like advanced math, there are these things in the brain called neurons. We each made a wide-open hand, which I connected with a single strand of spaghetti. I told Sam that when you first learn something, the connection is thin like the spaghetti and that the firing between the neurons is slow. I said this is what effort looks like in the brain – what we would call ‘beginner’s mind’ and what we experience as that feeling of ‘this is hard.’ I told Sam that over time, with the right kind of practice and good coaching from the teacher, the neural connection would get thicker. I demonstrated this by grabbing more spaghetti and making a thick bundle. I explained that when the connection is this thick, the firing between the neurons is faster, and this is what it feels like when effort becomes less intense and easier. I also explained that if Sam gave up and stopped working on the skill, then the connection would just disappear. I demonstrated this by dropping the spaghetti on the floor – much to the pleasure of our dogs! This visual demonstration of what was happening in the brain when a person learns a new skill was transformational for our son.

"I could see the waves of relief wash over his face as he realized his learning was in his control, instead of some luck-of-the-draw ‘smarts’ that you either had or didn’t."

“Learning and practicing the ideas of Dweck’s research has changed the nature of praise in my parenting and teaching. Now, I notice and savor with my children and student advisees the gains and growth that are the focus of my praise. Praising the right kind of effort, not just more effort. Effort that is in partnership with a good teacher, mentor, or domain expert - and that entails feedback that helps the effort actually lead to improvement. The ‘We are not afraid to do hard things’ motto in everything I do. Effort doesn’t mean we aren’t good enough; it just means we haven’t mastered the skills – yet. As Dweck states in many of her talks, there is great power in the word ‘yet.’ I am always asking during struggles at school, ‘Who can we ask for help?’ Then praising the courage it takes to ask for help and to not give up – and also praising growth and gains over time.”

Jeff: “Mindset helped rehabilitate some of my own confidence around struggle and growth. As a struggling elementary student myself, particularly in algebra, I was labeled with the fixed mindset: ‘bad at math.’ Knowing no better, I accepted the label. It would not occur to me until some 30 years later (through reading this book) that maybe I wasn’t stupid, bad at math, or ‘just an artistic type.’ That maybe I could learn math with different strategies and effort. It also changed how I saw struggle in other areas of my life. This notion that we are genetically or otherwise somehow assigned the skills that make us ‘an artistic type’ or ‘good at math’ was obliterated by Mindset – and the data from the research was convincing. Simply shifting the paradigm changed my language around work and growth, but the book also gave very concrete dialogue examples to demonstrate how the language could change to support someone who is struggling while stuck in a fixed mindset. Seeing the impact of my own fixed mindset label might have been enough to help me no longer imprint this paradigm on my children when they were experiencing difficulty in classes – but having the dialogue examples in the book made it even easier to better choose my words.”

What has been the impact of Mindset?

Joy: “Helping students bounce back from setbacks and hard first outcomes. Our children value struggle as a necessary stage in learning to do anything well. Our language has changed. I don’t say how smart people are or praise seemingly effortless genius.

“Understanding that ‘smarts’ is a multifactorial event that has many influencing factors instead of some fixed thing that you are just born with or not. In my management and leadership arenas, I am incentivizing learning, growth, and gains over time. I don’t think of people as fixed entities, either. People can change with different input, good coaching/mentoring, and effort over time.”

Jeff: “Beyond the improvements to my parenting, the book set me on a path of finding ways to make habits out of a growth mindset so that it would be more automatic. With that, I now apply it in ways to remain positive by keeping focused on what’s possible and what assets I possess to move toward my professional and creative goals.”

Anything else you'd like to share?

(1) An educational resource by Mary Kay Rici that was instrumental Joy's adaptation of growth mindset into the classroom and advising context: ​"Mindsets in the Classroom: Building a culture of Success and Student Achievement in Schools"

(2) Three resources that are a combination of learning about growth mindset and deliberate practice:

(3) The Mindset Works website: https://www.mindsetworks.com

  • Lots of free resources on this website. Curricula for teaching growth mindsets in many learning environments.
  • I (Joy) have combined a mindset-management strategy called Asset-Based Thinking (ABT) with teaching growth mindset research in my teaching and academic advising, as well as in a few talks to business professionals.  This article on the Mindsetworks blog by the founder of Asset-Based Thinking, Dr. Kathryn D. Cramer, is a good intro: http://blog.mindsetworks.com/entry/asset-based-thinking-kathy-s-message
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