The sound of ripping construction paper cut through dinner prep like a knife. “I can’t do anything right!”
Minutes prior I had left my five-year-old at the kitchen table to work on her printing. Earlier that day, her kindergarten teacher said she needed to work on her pencil grip and letter formation. So I dusted off Pinterest and searched for ideas.
After I had written out letters using a sharpie, I handed my girl some tempera paint and a Q-tip to trace over the alphabet. She seemed thrilled. That is… until her hand waffled ever so slightly.
She shredded all her work into construction paper confetti. No amount of reason from me could break through her clenched face and crossed arms.
She had made a mistake and was done.
The unfortunate fact is my daughter came by this all-or-nothing approach naturally.
Admittedly, I was a child who strove for perfection and agonized over my shortcomings. My earliest memory of hiding my failures was in fourth grade. My teacher was incredible and would have certainly understood my mistakes. Nevertheless, I remember shoving a duo-tang into the depths of the cloakroom and saying I had lost my work. I didn’t want to tell the teacher I loved so much I didn’t understand.
Despite the propensity to hide when I didn’t understand, I was naturally a good student. I made the honour roll in every term and got into university with ease.
Because of this, it wasn’t until my early 20s that I really had to face my fixed mindset.
In my first year of university, I chose a degree in French – a subject I had little passion for because it was safe and I knew I would appear competent (I had gone through French Immersion from grades k through 12). I only asked questions when I felt I had a strong handle on the material being covered. Otherwise, I did my best to camouflage into the back of the class. Or, honestly there were times I skipped class altogether. My grades suffered and any future involving a French was in jeopardy.
The consequences of my fixed mindset had begun to catch up to me.
It turns out this emphasis on perfect performance wasn’t confined to me or my daughter but is something teachers at all levels of schooling see often.
What the research says about perfectionism and fixed mindsets.
Because both my daughter and I tended to adopt performance goals. This meant we had implicit beliefs that our performance either showed that we were good or bad, smart or not-so-smart, accomplished or inept. Due to the fact that we saw failure as indicative of our character, we were more inclined to take on tasks we knew we would be good at and avoided challenging ones for fear of embarrassment.
Research shows that implicit mindsets, like the belief that intelligence is fixed, shape the way we view and interact with the world (1).
For instance, Blackwell, Trzesniewski and Dweck found that students’ mindsets act like “mental baggage in academic” contexts (2). Specifically, junior high students who believed intelligence could be developed (an incremental or growth mindset) saw a significant increase in their math grades over two years. In contrast, students with a fixed mindset (also known as entity mindset) stayed stable or dipped slightly.
This begs the question why?
Research on growth mindsets and education shows that students varying achievement has to do with them having different goals (3). Namely, students with a growth mindset seek out challenges essentially to build up their academic muscles. Their goals aren’t to appear competent but to master the material. In comparison, students with a fixed mindset tended to set performance goals to demonstrate their competence.
It made sense.
This is why I gravitated towards a degree in French and why I avoided showing my face in classes I wasn’t doing well in.
Attitudes towards kids’ failure was a strong predictor of success.
It turns out that how I handled my failures was consistent with what others with fixed mindsets did; they avoided failures and did not take remedial action to learn from their mistakes (4). After receiving negative feedback about academic performance, students with fixed mindsets were more likely to make generalized attributions about their mistakes. For example, they might say, “I am just not good at science.” Or, “I’m not smart when it comes to this stuff.” However, students with growth mindsets were more likely to take the negative feedback and learn from it. They saw their feedback as a sign they should have studied more, they hadn’t mastered the content yet, and that it was a sign they needed more help (3). Additionally, they saw these setbacks as opportunities for growth.
Based on these findings, what’s a parent to do?
Fortunately, there are plenty of very simple, highly effective strategies that parents and caregivers can implement.
If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. That way, their children don’t have to be slaves of praise. They will have a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.– Dr. Carol Dweck
Parents start by setting the tone.
When a child fails a test, stumbles through a speech for school or doesn’t get picked for the play, there are opportunities to teach resilience. In order to do this, it is important to approach setbacks in a matter-of-fact way. For example, “Oh, you failed your multiplication test. This is a great reminder for us to study more.” Anger, shame, and chastisement have no place here. Instead, parents can use this chance to see potential and room for growth.
In fact, failures can be a change to challenge how both parents and their children view and take on a given task. In the case of my daughter’s printing practice using the Q-tip, we took turns working on her letters so the task didn’t seem as overwhelming. When tutoring students, I have tried tackling problems in different ways to improve understanding. This can be using manipulatives to teach math or writing about Minecraft to work on spelling.
No matter what setbacks are challenges to work harder.
How parents praise their children impacts how children approach failure.
The standard assumption is that all praise is good.
And though there may be some merit to that notion, all praise isn’t created equally. Specifically, research conducted by Mueller and Dweck (5) found that how parents praised their children directly predicted children’s propensity to problem-solve. Many parents believe that it is important to tell their children how capable they are. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, research shows that children who receive praise for their traits are more likely to adopt performance goals, meaning successful performance becomes their primary objective. Yet, children who are praised for their efforts are more likely to problem-solve and adopt mastery goals – meaning they seek out challenges and strive to learn more. This means children benefit more from praise such as, “Wow! you worked so hard on this” as opposed to “You’re so good at writing.”
Additionally, this body of research found that specific praise about effort predicted a growth mindset in students. So instead of saying something like, “Great job!” parents can say, “You are so focused on getting this done That’s awesome!”
Finally, parents can help children by urging them to try a different approach or think of the next step. This is far more beneficial than simply saying try harder.
No matter the students age, there is hope.
It has been almost four years since my daughter ripped up that piece of red construction paper. Similar to my early university experiences, it was awake up call to teach all of my children that effort matters more than performance. Since that day, I have seen my children’s work ethic get better and better. As it just so happens, I am back in university conquering the demons of my former fixed minset. This last semester, I took an intermediate course in data science – something I never would have taken years ago. Though it was the hardest class I have ever taken, I showed up to each class, participated to the best of my ability and completed the course. My grades are better than ever and so is my understanding.
It just goes to show that parents and children only need to make simple adjustments to how they tackle academic tasks. These little changes to our mindset pay dividends.