Learning Disabilities and ADHD Articles

Being Strength-Minded: An Introduction to Growth Mindset

Written by:
Alana Yee, B.Sc., Master’s Intern, 2018
Nov. 7, 2018

What is a growth mindset?

We each have beliefs about our own abilities and potential. These beliefs build our mindset, which can steer our behaviour and predict our success. Stanford University researcher, Dr. Carol Dweck, pioneered the term “growth mindset” which refers to believing our abilities can be improved upon with effort and the right strategies. A willingness to confront challenges, a passion for learning, and viewing failure as a launch pad for growth are all characteristics of a growth mindset. This type of mindset has been strongly linked to greater achievement and happiness in life.

In contrast to a “growth mindset”, a “fixed mindset” is when we believe our abilities cannot be altered in a meaningful way. As a result of this, mistakes are often seen as failures rather than opportunities to grow and learn. When stuck in a fixed mindset, we may fear new experiences, avoid risks, and feel the need to repeatedly prove ourselves over and over. Consider this for children and teens facing additional challenges, such as Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Learning Disabilities/Disorders (LDs), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and other behavioural disorders. These types of diagnoses often predispose a child to rigid and fixed thinking patterns, on top of the repetitively reinforced negative messages he/she may have received over the years, implicitly or explicitly. Kids with learning and attention issues can feel judged and criticized. They know they’re not doing as well as their peers, and they may feel “stupid.” That can make them insecure or defensive, which can get in the way of growth.

While growth mindset has been heavily researched and associated with positive outcomes, it should be noted that there has also been research which implies that growth mindset interventions may not be as effective as some suggest. This is largely due to the idea that growth mindset, as a theoretical movement, may be improperly implemented and lead to the development of a “false” growth mindset, thereby derailing the validity of the research. With a growth mindset, individuals believe they can develop their own abilities through hard work, strategies, and lots of help and mentoring from others. However, a growth mindset isn’t just about effort; it’s about strategy and understanding that nobody has a growth mindset in everything all the time. A growth mindset should encourage “process praise” which is praising the way your child approached the challenge. These important concepts are sometimes overlooked by growth mindset facilitators which may lead to a “false” growth mindset.

How can a growth mindset help my child?

  • It can empower them to understand that they have a measure of control over their thinking patterns. This is crucial in helping them become more positive and flexible thinkers. By building new connections in the brain, a child is better able to cope and interact in the world. It may be more difficult and take more time, but it works.
  • It provides concrete, specific examples to help them understand the power of their mind.
  • It can decrease explosive behaviours. Children with ADHD, LDs, or ASD often feel stuck in their own bodies and minds. Often this is communicated by destructive behaviours, big emotions, and even aggression. When children discover how to best communicate their needs, these behaviours may decrease.
  • It is not limited to academics; it can be applied to anything your child is passionate about. This can involve strengthening their friendships, improving their relationships, being seen as an important member of a team, speaking out about something they believe in, or overcoming a fear.

How do I teach my child to have a growth mindset?

Teaching a growth mindset to children is not an easy task, but it could become one of the greatest contributions towards their success.

  • Start slow and stay steady. Take a slow, methodical, and steady approach to teaching and integrating these abilities. Take as much time as your child needs. For example, use daily “growth mindset conversation starters” such as…
    1. What did you do today that made you think hard?
    2. What challenge or problem have you worked on today?
    3. What is something new you tried today?
    4. Was there anything that made you feel stuck today? …Great! What other ways could there be to solve this?
    5. Can you think of a mistake you made today? …Great! How can you use this mistake to do better next time?
    6. Can you think of anything today that was easy for you? …How can you make this more challenging?
    7. What is something you would like to become better at? Who can you ask to help you with this?
  • Share facts about the brain. Encourage them to learn about the parts of the brain, how feelings are expressed, and new information is processed. Reinforce that their brain has the ability to learn new skills – and improve old ones – throughout their entire lifespan.
  • Reinforce modelled behaviour with overt language. Explicitly describe why your child reacted to a situation the way he/she did, including detailed feelings in this language. Encouraging your child to adopt a flexible growth mindset might require you to work on your own mindset, too. For example, “I was so nervous when I was asked to speak at the meeting last week. I was worried, as I had never done it before. But then I thought to myself, ‘There are so many things I couldn’t do in the past and now I can! This is the same.’ It made me feel much more confident and willing to say yes.”
  • Goals are good, but pressure isn’t. Focus on the process of goal-setting rather than the goals themselves. Use creative options such as bucket lists or vision boards.
  • Make space for failure. Rather than trying to make the path smooth for your child, focus on your role as a support. Address the set-back and their lacking skills head-on and talk to your child about the next steps for learning. Problem solve options with your child and see what they’re comfortable with rather than dictating their next move.
    For example, if your child received an assignment back with a grade lower than he/she expected, look over the assignment with your child and determine where he/she struggled most. “It looks like you know how to solve the math problems but you had some trouble keeping your numbers lined up when there are lots of place values. How do you think we can help you keep your numbers more organized?”
  • Anticipate explosive behaviour and use it to their advantage. Learning about a growth mindset helps a child in the moment, in the midst of explosive behaviour, and helps to decrease it in the long run. For example, when you notice your child starting to escalate, remind him/her in a calm and reassuring voice of what he/she has been learning about growth mindset. Say “I can see that you’re starting to feel [overwhelmed, frustrated, angry, etc.], but remember the last time this happened. Taking deep breaths and thinking about your [pet, favourite activity, etc.] helped. Let’s try it again.” Once your child has calmed down completely, review what worked and talk about how to implement this type of thinking again in the future.
  • Share stories of other people’s success. Sharing real-life examples of people who have been able to overcome negative mindsets and find success through growth are not only encouraging but illustrative to a child struggling to understand how to adjust negative thinking patterns. For example, J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, was rejected multiple times before someone decided to publish her book. She didn’t give up because she was confident in the story she had written. Even though she sometimes felt confused and discouraged, she pushed forward until she reached her goal. Now she’s one of the most famous authors across the globe.

Key Takeaways:

  • Kids with a growth mindset believe their abilities can improve over time.
  • Growth mindset is not just about praising effort, it is about praising the way the child approached the challenge. This is called “process praise”.
  • Make space for failure. Talk with your child about what he/she learned from experiences. Ask questions like, “How would you study differently next time?”
  • Incorporate growth mindset into your own life and reinforce the idea with modelled behaviour.
  • Review and practice a growth mindset as often as you can.