When my oldest son was diagnosed with autism, one of the first things his occupational therapist said was, “His level of rigid thinking is severe. He does not have the ability to change his own perspective or see things from the perspectives of others. He will need a lot of social skills therapy and even then, we’ll see.”
“We’ll see?” I thought.
I knew he struggled with inflexible thinking.
I knew it was an area in need of development.
I knew it was not easy for him, any more than it was for the rest of us, to understand how to help him.
However, it seemed to me his therapist was limiting his potential. She seemed dubious he would ever really make progress in helping his brain be more global and flexible. She seemed to have already given up.
For many children with learning and behavioral differences, this type of “fixed mindset” is their baseline. Even within my own family, I have found this to be true.
Two years after my oldest was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, my youngest was diagnosed with ADHD and several mood disorders. The diagnoses were completely different; the concerns around rigid thinking were the same. Moreover, the idea there is only so much that can be done to help them was also pervasive. Although I have learned to politely, but strongly, disagree with the notion my children are not able to develop flexible, growth mindsets, I do understand where this concern originates. Below are 5 steps on how to teach a growth mindset to children with special needs.
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What a Child Experiences
Consider this – for children with ADHD, anxiety, learning differences, autism spectrum diagnoses, and other behavioral disorders, already innate negative thinking patterns have been reinforced by years and years of negative messages.
Well-meaning parents, teachers, and even other children have fortified negative thinking patterns far beyond what any child with neurotypical function would experience.
Add to this a diagnosis that already predisposes a child to rigid and fixed thinking patterns and what you get is a child suffering to make sense of his place in the world. This can lead to increased depression, internal and social conflict, and most often, explosive behavior.
How a Growth Mindset Can Help
Undoing these negative thinking patterns is necessary for all children, but it can be exceptionally difficult for a child with special needs. This is exactly why it is so important.
Teaching a growth mindset to children with special needs can
- empower them as they understand they have a measure of control over their thinking patterns. This is critical in helping them become more positive, flexible thinkers. Building new connections in the brain is exactly what our children need – it may be more difficult and take more time, but it works. As such, a special needs child is better able to cope and interact in the world.
- provide concrete, specific examples to help them understand the power of their mind.
- decrease explosive behavior. Children with special needs often feel stuck in their own bodies and minds. Communicating this often comes in the form of destructive behaviors, explosive emotions, and even aggression. This can be mitigated when our children discover how best to communicate their most basic, intrinsic needs.
How to Teach a Growth Mindset
There are several things to consider when teaching growth vs. fixed mindset to children with special needs.
1. Start Slow and Stay Steady
Our children need a slow, methodical, and steady approach to learning. Skills like resilience, self-belief, confidence, and positive thinking may not come naturally.
Additionally, these abilities may take more time than anticipated to comprehend and, ultimately, assimilate. It is preferable to take as much time as the child needs. Developing a growth mindset is not a race but rather a lifelong journey.
2. Reinforce Modeled Behavior
Some children are able to and respond well to, witnessing modeled behavior. For children with special needs, however, this can be very difficult. As such, it is necessary to reinforce modeled behavior with overt language.
Overt language requires a parent/teacher to describe why they reacted to a situation the way they did. It also includes detailing feelings in concrete language. For example:
“I was so nervous when I was asked to speak at the mom’s group 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.”
3. Anticipate Explosive Behavior
When a child is mid-meltdown, it feels like there is almost nothing that can be done to help. The truth is, learning about a growth mindset helps a child both in the midst of explosive behavior and, in the long run, helps to decrease it.
For example, when my son begins to escalate, he often loses the ability to think clearly. I have found it helpful to remind him, in a calm and reassuring voice, of what we have been learning about growth mindset. For example:
“You feel overwhelmed, but remember last time. Taking deep breaths and thinking about your pet lizard helped. Let’s try it.”
Once my child has calmed down completely, we review what worked and talk about how to implement this type of thinking again in the future.
The longer we discuss strategies for adjusting our mindsets, the less explosive behavior we see. These strategies become a kind-of toolbox for my son to use when he feels deregulated.
One of these strategies can be a simple breathing activity shown below.
4. Share Stories Of Other People’s Success
The best way to help a child understand and incorporate growth mindset strategies is to illustrate them through stories. Sharing real-life examples of people who have been able to overcome negative mindsets and find success through growth is not only encouraging, but illustrative to a child struggling to understand how to adjust negative thinking patterns.
The Big Life Journal includes stories throughout that do just this. My son is encouraged and responsive when he is able to see evidence of how much a growth mindset helps others and he is much more likely to try it for himself!
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5. Review Often
The best time to practice and establish a growth mindset is all the time. It is important to discuss and establish the benefits of a growth mindset when our children are calm and receptive.
For my son, this is usually when he is playing with his dog or jumping on the trampoline. I take these opportunities to remind him how well he did when he calmed down the night before and how he is building better, more positive connections in his brain every single time he does it.
The more our children practice and establish a growth mindset, the easier it will become over time. Once the brain begins to make these connections, the growth mindset naturally becomes more fluid and ultimately helpful in difficult situations.
Creating a lifestyle centered on implementing these practices helps children with special needs truly understand and ultimately develop positive responses.
Since they need overt and frequent opportunities to practice, incorporating it into a child’s everyday activities ensures he/she has ample opportunities to learn and grow.
Our children present us with frequent opportunities to help them practice and grow. For example, earlier this year, my son was nervous about attending a local art class for kids, knowing I would not be there with him. Even though he was worried, I am proud to say he did it anyway. After his first class, we celebrated together and I made sure to point out this was something he had not been able to do a year ago and now he could!
I am grateful that I did not listen to that first therapist and her low odds for my son’s success. Although it has taken more time and effort than it might have for a child without special needs, my son is developing a positive approach to dealing with his differences and with the world.
The confidence and resiliency I see in him go far beyond what anyone really thought possible in those first few months, post-diagnosis.
The truth is, for children with special needs, a growth mindset makes an even greater impact and creates even more opportunities for success.
Self-awareness, coping skills, and the ability to feel a sense of control over one’s own responses are gifts we all deserve, especially those of us with differences and special needs.
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About the Author
Shawna Wingert writes about motherhood, special needs and the beauty of everyday messes at DifferentbyDesignLearning.com. She is a special needs advocate, speaker, and writer and has participated in parenting discussions on Today.com, Simple Homeschool, Autism Speaks, The Mighty, For Every Mom, and The Huffington Post.
She is the author of three books, including Parenting Chaos: Practical Support and Encouragement for Parents of Explosive Children. Shawna lives in Southern California with her voice actor husband and two awesome sons.