Tips for Helping Kids Adopt a Growth Mindset

Parents and educators can teach kids to change their fixed mindsets and see more potential in themselves and other people.

BY AMY L. EVA, The Greater Good Science Center

Read more articles like this on Greater Good.

Some people are just jerks, and not much can be done to change them.

Do you agree with this statement? If your answer is yes, here’s something you might consider: Research suggests that believing in the human capacity to change is linked to less depression, better health, and greater achievement

This is the “growth mindset,” an idea pioneered by Stanford researcher Carol Dweck. It’s the opposite of a “fixed mindset,” the idea that people are born either smart or not, kind or not, strong or not—and people just don’t change all that much.

According to this research, when we practice a growth mindset, the obstacles we’re facing seem more surmountable. It’s crucial for us to realize that we are not helpless; we can grow and adapt. Just as important as seeing ourselves as capable of growth, however, is the belief that someone who is challenging us can change, too. This perspective releases some of the pressure we might feel, and helps us to think more in terms of challenges than threats.

We shouldn’t only believe in the ability of other people to change for their benefit, however. We are the ones who stand the most to gain when we see possibilities in others. For example, one recent study found that teens who learned about the growth mindset in relation to bullying—hearing that bullies could change, and no one was stuck as an aggressor or victim—were more resilient to social stress. Even when they got ignored or felt shy, for example, they didn’t become overwhelmed or physically stressed out. Seven months later, they were even getting better grades.

That’s a fairly easy idea to suggest, and perhaps you already believe in it. But if you’re a parent or educator, the challenge lies in helping kids to see the advantages and the ways that it can be applied to their lives and relationships. Here are some tips for helping kids turn a fixed mindset into a growth one.

How to explain the social benefits

Although there is some controversy over the misapplication of mindset research in schools, a growing number of studies suggest that fostering a growth mindset (also known as an “incremental theory of personality”) helps students to better navigate social challenges.

  • Improved peer relationships: A simple belief in the possibility of change may have a powerful effect on our thinking—potentially freeing us to actually see our way through anxiety and a sense of failure in the midst of peer conflict and peer exclusion. Research also indicates that believing personalities can change can lower aggression and retaliatory behavior.
  • Empathy: A growth mindset can prompt us to put in the effort to empathizemore—particularly when it’s challenging. If we are struggling to understand that so-called “jerk” in our lives, we might be able to say to ourselves, “This person may be having a rough time right now, but she may change her behavior over time.”
  • Cooperation: Finally, if we believe that personalities are malleable and situations can change, we can also apply this thinking to groups. Israeli and Palestinian teens who were taught the simple idea that groups of people can also change demonstrated increased cooperation in a joint tower-building task. They showed more positive emotions and built a much higher tower than the control group participants in the study.

“Believing in the human capacity to change is linked to less depression, better health, and greater achievement.”

―Amy L. Eva

Although the basic message above seems to yield numerous social benefits, researchers caution us not to default to oversimplified “people-can-change” platitudes as we share information about the growth mindset. It’s not okay to put all the burden on someone who is being bullied or otherwise facing unfair circumstances. When we address bullying and victimization, both bullies and bystanders must be part of the conversation—and the solution.

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