Dr. Kristin Schaefer-Schiumo| Manhasset NY

Why Do My Children Need A Growth Mindset?

As a psychologist and professor, I am so fortunate to share my days working with clients and helping to shape the growth and development of future clinical mental health counselors and school counselors. In so many ways, clients and students alike are faced with the challenges that come from allowing our mistakes to define us, rather than redefining our mistakes. The reality is, like it or not, we all seem to learn more from our struggles and mistakes than from our effortless successes. So why is it so hard to redefine mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning?
As many of you who read my Blog already know, I tend to tie in the neuropsychological to most of my discussions. So, not surprisingly, this is no different! In prehistoric times, we were neurologically wired to be on alert for danger, because making a mistake potentially meant being eaten by a wild animal. Now, in modern society, most of us are not confronted with the possibility of being someone else's lunch, yet we continue to react to minor mistakes with the same heightened, charged stress response. Think about this for just a moment....what makes people commit to an Iron Man (or Woman) competition? They train tirelessly to improve their time and stamina while swimming, running and riding. Why not just get in the car...or the boat....and easily and far more quickly cruise into your destination? Because, the experience of challenging ourselves and overcoming obstacles actually makes us a different person. We develop stamina and grit through pushing and stretching ourselves and, at times, through stumbling, falling, getting up and moving forward. If the choice was to jump into that car, or boat, those learning experiences never would have happened.
Now, think about this growth mindset, this ability or willingness to learn and grow from mistakes in light of our current very perfectionistic society. In fact, children in our culture often are penalized for making academic or social mistakes, and are rewarded for playing it safe. We are, in reality, rewarding children who do not challenge themselves. At the same time, society is demanding more and more innovation from its workforce; people are being asked to think creatively, to work outside the box, and to take chances without festering on mistakes Taken together, it becomes clear that we are NOT preparing our children for the world they hope to thrive in as adults.
What we are doing, I think accidentally, is raising fixed mindset children. Because these children fear mistakes, they often try to hide them or to blame others for them. These children (and adults) are more concerned with how others perceive them or judge them than with improving themselves. On the other hand, growth mindset individuals are open to taking on new strategies, meeting challenges and trying new approaches until they achieve the desired outcome. Relatedly, people who use a growth mindset are willing to make mistakes, take responsibility for them, and learn from them.
As we wind down the summer and prepare for back to school, I'd like to share a few activities to help you shift children's view of mistakes, especially since many have had many years of experiences reinforcing a fixed mindset.

  • 1. "Instant" Successes
  • Take some time to have a discussion with your children about people they admire, perhaps an athlete, a singer, or an author. Be sure these figures have been committed to success over time, have experienced rejection or made mistakes, and have moved forward nonetheless. Be sure to highlight the set backs they experienced before "making it". For example, previous discussions with children have taught me that Iggy Azalea dropped out of high school and was a janitor before becoming the singer/rapper megastar she is today. Likewise, J. K. Rowling received countless nos before getting her yes from Scholastic, launching the phenomenon now known as Harry Potter!

  • 2. Keep That Kindergarten Enthusiasm!
  • Can you vaguely recall the joy of learning, a time when everything was new and exciting? Do you recall your kindergartener watching in amazement as caterpillars transformed to crystalist and then butterflies? Ah the magic! But oftentimes something changes along the way. You may see your children becoming disinterested, unmotivated, oppositional or inseparable from screens. What is possibly happening here is that children's brains are merely reacting to the stress of ongoing boredom. In fact, students in high school in the U.S.A. are more likely to drop out than at any other time in history. The reason given by over 80 percent of those students who do.....boredom, which they define as uninteresting material or material that has no relevance to their adult lives. This neural link to boredom proves very problematic at a time when educational funding is tied to test performance which requires the repetitive drilling of facts not immediately relevant to the lives of students. Students are expected to know details or facts and are rewarded for memorizing and for not making mistakes and taking risks.
    So what are parents to do? Make learning personally relevant for your children. It is very important to keep your children's brains out of the involuntary, inefficient state that develops with the ongoing stress of boredom. Keep them engaged and motivated to learn in school by connecting the material to their interests wherever possible. For example, you could look at family photos or objects around the home that may come from countries they are currently studying. Or, you might encourage them to read stories that infuse history (such as historical fiction), science or math. Such activities are like Velcro, giving your child something interesting to stick new information to! This will help their brains use neural circuits to engage in learning through positive connections; they now can connect a great book they read, or sights they saw on a local walk or hike, with some new material presented in school

  • 3. Questions, Questions, and More Questions!
  • To further fuel that fire for learning, ask your children a lot of questions that help them connect their personal interests and experiences to school topics. The discussions that come up as children respond to your questions will also serve to strengthen memory. If you are an engaged, attentive and positive listener, you will further your children's interest in a topic. To keep them motivated you need to communicate that you are listening and are truly interested in their thoughts and ideas.
    As you wind down the summer and prepare for back to school, make a family commitment to turn disinterest, amotivation or other kinds of negativity into motivation. By using the above ideas regularly you can protect your children from the current fact heavy curriculum, which allows little room for discovery and creativity. You'll actually be helping them develop the brain circuits critical to become lifelong learners who are able to take what they learn and transfer it to real world situations. They will learn not only specific facts for a specific test, but how to face the challenges and opportunities of the 21 st century.