Growth mindset is a popular topic in the world of education (and perhaps even culture at large), so before your eyes roll back into your head due to anticipated boredom, take a breath. There are certainly far more expansive and important works out there on this topic, so you and I will keep this brief and touch on the basics. 

In this particular theory formulated by Carol Dweck there are two types of mindsets – growth and fixed. This theory highlights how changing our thought patterns can change the outcomes in our lives. Easy, right? 

Not necessarily. Many people wrestle with their conscious thoughts – not to mention the innumerable unconscious thoughts that are running the circus behind the scenes. Dweck’s research finds that people who believe they have no power to change their character, intelligence, and talents have a fixed mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that success is the ultimate affirmation and failure is a sign of inherent flaws with their abilities. 

Conversely, Dweck’s research finds that people who believe that failure is a way of learning (as opposed to a line in the sand between worthiness and unworthiness as a human) have a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset allow room for error that does not affect their visions of their own self-worth. People with a fixed mindset feel any error (no matter how slight) is an indication of their character. Does this sound familiar to anyone? 

Essentially, fixed mindset values outcome and growth mindset values effort. This might sound bizarre and unfamiliar to you. That’s okay. We are all learning here and you don’t know what you don’t know until you know it. Dweck found that people who value and encourage effort over outcome fare better at achieving their goals in the long run. Why? Well, for starters, when you aren’t continually worried that trying (and failing) will make you seem like a failure who is unworthy of their title, position, relationships, and so on, you tend to be more focused on the task at hand. When you aren’t afraid of failure you are relaxed enough to succeed. When you have the courage to try and fail, you are a very brave person indeed. 

Secondly, when you don’t see failure as an “end all be all” event, you are more likely to pick yourself up and try again. When you aren’t defined by failure you continue on until you reach your intended goals no matter how many times you have fallen short of the goal before that. 

Do you see the theme? When you don’t quit you eventually succeed? The huge victory of growth mindset is that a love of learning is fostered instead of a fear of failure. When you see failure as a learning tool you will achieve great things. 

Schools often showcase inspirational signs that read “F.A.I.L. – First Attempt In Learning.” That’s the idea. Failure is not a conviction or condemnation; it is a learning opportunity. As teachers, we try to set your children up for success and then allow them the freedom to fail. Why? Because failure is a great teacher. Why? Because failing repeatedly in a safe environment reminds you that failure does not have the final say over how worthy you are. Why? Because failure is an inevitable part of trying. The more you fail at something the better you are becoming at it. 

So what can you do about this as a caregiver? You want to encourage, not praise, the people in your lives. Remember, encouragement is specific, effort based, and withholds value words (such as good, great, and statements about whether or not you like what someone did). Praise is general, value based, and outcome focused. When you praise children, they become dependent on the opinions of others instead of focused on their own ideas. They struggle to complete tasks for enjoyment or self-satisfaction; they are driven by the recognition of others.

If you or your child struggle with a fixed mindset, you’re not alone! We can help because we’ve been there too! Book a one-on-one coaching session with us at Compassionate Childcare today!

One challenge to this as caregivers is ridding ourselves of the phrase “Good job.” The phrase is unhelpful to learners. What is good about it? Tell me specifically. Better yet, do not say the word “good” at all. Merely tell me what you noticed about my efforts. Did you notice I worked for a long time while staying focused? Did you notice that I used only cool colors? Did you notice I built my tower up to my shoulders this time and last time I could only balance it up to my knees? Did you notice that this time, instead of hitting my friend Mandi, I kept my hands to myself and used my words? Did you notice that instead of eating three ice cream sandwiches and feeling sick I only had one? (Just kidding about that last one – three ice cream sandwiches is the perfect amount of ice cream sandwiches.) Encouragement sounds difficult to do, but is actually very easy. The hardest part is breaking yourself of habitually, automatically saying, “Good job!” 

When you are trying to shift to encouragement, your go-to move will be saying exactly what you see – “Wow, Silas, I noticed that you cleared your plate and cup from the table when we were cleaning up dinner. I remember when you didn’t think you were strong enough to do that.” Or “Gosh! Greta, I see you cleaned up all the blocks by yourself! Wow. With the blocks put away we have space to sit for circle time.” Or “Did you notice, Anosh, that you carried your book bag all the way from school? It takes a lot of strength and patience to do that.” 

Eventually children will learn to take encouragement as praise, although sometimes you have to help them break the habit. In this phase you will hear a lot of “But do you like it?” My best advice to you is to ask the child the same question back. (This tactic also works well when people ask you uncomfortable questions like “Why aren’t you married? Why don’t you have kids? Why can’t you find a job?” Simply reply, “You know, I don’t know. Why do you think I am single/childless/unemployable?” 

Tell a child who won’t stop asking if you like his or her work the following: “Do you like it? It is most important that the artist/worker/sculptor/writer/etc likes what has been made – that is what makes something likable.” Then the child will probably say something such as “Yes, I like it,” to which you can respond, “Then we know it is likable.” Focusing on the child’s efforts imply value to the child. Adults who want to encourage children may use phrases like “Wow. Marianne, I see you used a lot of red.” Children respond most often by saying “Thank you!” This may look like a cute misunderstanding by the child, but the child has it right. What a compliment for someone to take the time to notice you and your work. What a compliment to be seen and acknowledged for your efforts. What a compliment to have those thoughts expressed to you. Being seen is far better than receiving a generic “Good job!” 

These are obviously challenging undertakings – to shift from a fixed to a growth mindset – but we can encourage growth mindset in ourselves and the children in our care by focusing on our efforts and not on our outcomes. This can be extraordinarily challenging, so we want to close this post with these eloquent words of encouragement: Good job… at… being willing to try this… and… not giving up… when it is hard to remember… I can tell you are really working hard at it.