By Wanda Whitehead
Growth Versus Fixed Mindset: How to Help Children Become Strong, Resilient Thinkers
In Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, author Ellen Galinsky, identifies the ability to take on challenges as one of the seven essential life skills children need for success. In discussing this particular skill, she refers to Carol Dweck’s work at Stanford University on how children cope with challenges and setbacks, resilience, and success. It is there that she has researched and formulated the theory of mindset:
“Carol Dweck of Stanford University has found that children who avoid challenges have a fixed mindset, meaning that they see their intelligence as a fixed trait and, therefore, are reluctant to undertake challenges that ‘stretch’ them. Children who are willing to take on challenges have a growth mindset, seeing their abilities as something they can develop. She has shown that children with a growth mindset do better in school.”
And not just better in school. The world is full of daily life challenges, intellectual, physical, and emotional. People with a growth mindset do better in life! They are more willing to try the next new thing that might look more difficult than what they have been successful doing in the past. They explore different strategies and are certain they can become more capable through hard work. They are willing to see their experiences as opportunities to grow.
Fixed vs. Growth Mindset Research
Dweck did many studies to explore further how mindset affected outcomes. In one study, she created a questionnaire to assess children’s theories about their own intelligence:
“We asked them questions like this: Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t really change—agree or disagree?
“We call that a fixed view of intelligence. Another question (that) measures the growth mindset is: No matter who you are, you can always become a great deal smarter—agree or disagree?”
Then to test whether the children’s mindset or view of their capacities affected their response to setbacks, Dweck and her colleagues gave them increasingly difficult problems to solve, such as puzzles from a nonverbal IQ test.
We give them a few trials where they do pretty well; then we give them more difficult problems. We see what happens to their strategies, what happens to their enjoyment of the task, what happens to their persistence.
We found that (when) the students who endorsed the fixed view of their intelligence hit difficulty, (they) started blaming their ability for failure; they started not liking the task anymore, and their performance plummeted. The students who thought their intelligence was something they could increase or develop saw the challenge as exciting. They thought, “I just (need) more effort or different strategies”; they maintained their enjoyment; they maintained their performance.” 
Finding such clear results, “Dweck turned her attention to the question: How do children develop a fixed versus growth mindset, and can their mindsets be changed? Dweck turned to the way people talked with children.”
Celebrate Effort Not Intellect
Basically, the result of her studies in this area is that when we praise or label a child as highly intelligent or smart, we set them up for a fixed mindset and the likelihood that they will wilt in the face of challenge. When we acknowledge effort, support strategizing, and demonstrate that mistakes are opportunities to learn, students will take away a growth mindset.
The findings don’t apply just to academics, but to every aspect of life including those in the social/emotional domains. Children with a growth mindset, see themselves as individuals who can grow and change. This practice is at the heart of Montessori education. Knowing that the child is always in the process of becoming the adult he/she can be is a reflection of a growth mindset. We adults need to bring this perspective to the child when working out challenges in both academic and social areas.
When faced with learning challenges, we don’t label a child, but identify needs so that we can design strategies with the child so they can overcome their challenges and experience the success.
When faced with a social challenge, we don’t label the child, but we identify the needs and strengths so that strategies can be designed to overcome the challenges and experience the successes.
Labeling a child whether with “gifted”, “learning disabled”, “annoying”, “bully” or “victim” we place a fixed mindset on the child and diminish their ability to develop that essential skill named, “Taking on Challenges.” This is especially true for children who may have their own unique challenges in academic or social learning. No matter how frustrating the challenge is or how slow growth happens, “we can and will grow”, needs to be the mantra. A fixed mindset is a disservice to our children. A growth mindset empowers our children to overcome obstacles and become who they want to be.
What can we do as parents to nurture growth mindset?
- Adults can model growth mindset to our children in just the way we handle our own challenges.
- Sharing with your child your inner joy of hard work and the exhilarating feeling of taking on a challenge is powerful.
- Approaching mistakes from the perspective of opportunity rather than failure is essential to this communication of mindset. Let your child hear your own thinking process.
- Recognizing when a child takes on a “challenge” as defined by their own sense and acknowledging the effort is also helpful. Resilience is born in the experience of success just beyond the comfortable.
- We can empathize with our children, and at the same time let them know that we know they can handle the feelings they are having.
- We can encourage them in problem solving, again conveying that we know they have what they need to come up with several solutions or actions they can take.
- We can avoid labeling or putting people “in a box,” especially the child’s peers. Continually reflecting the potential for growth and change is key, even if it happens in baby steps.
- Focus on the areas where growth is clearly taking place, usually in the areas of strength and support perseverance, effort, and patience in the areas where growth is tougher.
As educators and as parents, understanding and acknowledging the importance of growth mindset will offer our children the freedom and encouragement to boldly deal with the challenges that they will inevitably face.
About the author: Wanda Whitehead is Casa di Mir Montessori School founder and Director of Education, and former head of school (1989-2018).
 Galinsky, Ellen. Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs. Harper Studio, NY, 2010.