We all have beliefs about our abilities and talents. These beliefs form our mindset — and they impact everything from relationships to academic success. Developing the right kind of mindset means the difference between hiding from life’s challenges and handling them with confidence.
Studies show the mindset associated with a full, happy life is called a growth mindset. Psychologist and researcher Carol Dweck created this term after decades of studying children who faced obstacles with curiosity and excitement rather than fear or avoidance.
But what exactly does growth mindset mean and how can we help children understand it? Read on to learn a simple way to explain this critical concept, as well as four key elements of growth mindset to instill in your child and family.
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Fixed Versus Growth Mindset Meaning
Dweck discovered two ways of viewing traits we are born with, like intelligence and personality. One is they are fixed, unable to be changed or developed over time. Known as a fixed mindset, this way of thinking is associated with fear of failure and avoiding challenges.
Alternatively, a growth mindset means qualities like intelligence and talents are only a starting point. Seeing the brain as a muscle that gets stronger with practice, those with a growth mindset persist despite obstacles. They welcome feedback as a vehicle for self-growth.
Defining a Growth Mindset For Children
Recently, my six-year-old daughter discovered something amazing. “I learned to ride my scooter by falling off over and over!” she proudly exclaimed. I knew she had begun to grasp the meaning of a growth mindset.
When explaining growth mindset to children, it’s helpful to start with the basics. Note that all of us have beliefs about our skills or intelligence. Everyone our children know — friends, teachers, and families — has a mindset. Believing we can learn and grow better from hard work and struggles is a special kind of mindset: a growth mindset.
You might say, “A growth mindset means believing in the power of yourself and your brain. Like a plant or any living thing that grows, our brains are capable of changing and adapting to new information. Our brains get stronger when they do difficult things and even when they make mistakes. This is why trying something new or challenging can actually make us more intelligent.”
4 Hallmarks of a Growth Mindset
1. Effort and perseverance are key
Early in her career, Dweck intentionally gave her students a problem that was slightly too difficult for them. Some reacted with enthusiasm (“I love a challenge!”) and set to work, while others quickly gave up.
The excited students — those embodying a growth mindset — recognized the challenge as an opportunity to learn and get better. They believed effort and persistence would eventually lead to solving the problem.
”In this mindset, the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development. This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.” -Carol Dweck, Mindset
So how do we cultivate perseverance? Start by considering the way you praise. Praising children for their effort and hard work, known as process praise, inspires perseverance.
Process praise sounds like:
- “I’m impressed by how many strategies you tried until you got it!”
- “I can see how much you practiced and look how you improved!”
- “What a great improvement from yesterday."
- Growth mindset means believing everyone can learn and develop and also focusing on the effort and hard work involved.
2. Mistakes and failure are part of learning
A fixed mindset is often at the root of a child’s fear of failure. Believing they are born with a certain amount of ability or intelligence makes any mistake feel risky. Each challenge presents a potential threat to “looking smart.”
Conversely, children with a growth mindset tend to love learning and all that comes with it. Rather than avoiding mistakes and errors, they view them as a crucial part of the learning process. A growth mindset means seeing mistakes as evidence of a developing brain.
“Think about your biggest mistakes….They probably taught you more courage, strength, and wisdom than any success could have.” -Rachel Simmons, Resilience Expert
Some simple ways to promote acceptance of mistakes include:
- Boast about your own mistakes and what you learned
- Introduce “Failure Fridays” (a day of the week when you read about a famous person who failed)
- Give your child a high-five each time a mistake is made or say, “Mistakes mean you are trying!”
- Discuss the acronym for FAIL (First Attempt In Learning)
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3. The power of YET
There is a reason this 3-letter word is considered magic. Adding it to any phrase creates a monumental shift in perception: “I can’t do this...YET.”
No other word captures the meaning of growth mindset quite like it. Dweck notes “YET” can “give children greater confidence, give them a path into the future that creates greater persistence.”
Encourage your child to add “YET” to the end of any statement about learning. Watch how their feelings shift and potential grows with the addition of this powerful word.
I can’t write a paragraph
I can’t write a paragraph YET
I don’t know how to ride a bike
I don’t know how to ride a bike YET
I can’t get anyone to play with me
I can’t get anyone to play with me YET
Other ideas for harnessing the power of YET:
- Make a “YET” bulletin board or designate a wall at home for all the things you cannot do...yet!
- Model it for your child: “I don’t know the answer yet, but I will find out for you!”
YET recognizes good things are coming, it’s just a matter of time and effort.
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Resilience, or the ability to bounce back, cannot exist without obstacles. We all face trauma, challenges, and stressors from which we can grow.
Not surprisingly, studies show growth mindset promotes resiliency. When children believe their intellectual and social abilities can be developed, they perform better academically and experience less stress. They stand tall in the face of challenges.
Like my daughter hopping back up each time she falls from the scooter, children can practice building this critical skill.
Consider the following tips for cultivating resilience at home:
- Encourage independent problem-solving
- Discuss the Circle of Control (“In any situation, there are things I can control and things I cannot. I can choose to focus on what I can control.”)
- Practice mindfulness
- Watch movies and read books that model persevering through difficult experiences
Cultivating the right kind of mindset can make the difference between a successful life and one limited by fear of failure. A growth mindset means acceptance (and even celebration of) struggles, with an emphasis on the effort and hard work that lead to success. Children with growth mindsets believe they can learn anything and use the power of YET.
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