How to help kids develop a growth mindset

Musician John Legend was four years old when he first sat down at a piano.  Today he’s an EGOT (winner of all four major awards in the entertainment industry: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony). Yes, he is incredibly talented, but as he says, achieving success takes persistence and tenacity. “When I was younger, I didn’t really know that you can get better at things. I think we’re so used to the idea that you’re talented at something and it’s sort of fixed. . . This idea that things are just fixed is proven not to be the case. You can get better at things. You can grow and even people that are innately talented still need to go beyond that basic talent that they have and cultivate it.”

John’s describing growth mindset, a theory developed by psychologist Carol Dweck, a pioneer in the study of human motivation. Growth mindset is one of the 16 habits of success that a kid can develop, practice, and improve through hard work, good strategies, and input from others.

Are we there yet?

Having a growth mindset means believing abilities and knowledge grow and evolve with effort and support over time. It’s knowing that when you can’t do something, you just can’t do it yet.

Prepared UNBOXED Guest Master Teacher, Aidan O’Dowd-Ryan designed the curriculum for the UNBOXED digital learning kit, The Science of Bread to focus on growth mindset.  The academic enrichment project is bread-making and while kids learn that biology, chemistry, and physics are all embedded in baking, Aidan explains what the big takeaway is: “The more you practice, the better you get. In baking if you don’t get the results you want right away, it’s not because you’re not a good baker; it’s because you haven’t learned how to bake these things yet. What I want students to take away from pretty much everything is: if you keep practicing, you’ll be better in a year than you are today.”

Prepared UNBOXED digital learning kits for kids in grade 4 – 9 have been developed using the best of learning science to combine academic enrichment with social-emotional skill development.


It’s all in our head

We’re capable of growth mindset because of brain plasticity. That doesn’t mean we stretch our gray matter like Silly Putty. Dweck believes our thoughts and actions can improve our brain’s functioning. Trying harder and employing different strategies strengthens it. And it doesn’t stop as we age. Neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is plastic at every stage of life. There is never a day when our neural structures are totally fixed. We can always learn ways to improve our abilities. That’s especially significant for the kid who thinks they’ll never be good at a subject like math because they actually do have the capability to get better. It requires a shift from a fixed mindset which assumes that character, intelligence, and ability can never change in a meaningful way.

Forty percent of all students in the U.S. have a fixed mindset. Another 40% of students have a growth mindset and 20% have a combination of the two. Wondering about your kid’s mindset? Use this mindset assessment survey to find out which they have.

One kid, two mindsets, three steps

It’s possible for a kid to have a fixed mindset in one situation and a growth mindset in another. The kid who’s a sports phenom and spends hours dunking a basketball, may give up and not even try to write the assigned report on the War of 1812. This chart is a helpful tool to give a glimpse into which mindset your kid has in place in a variety of circumstances.

Prepared Parents Founder and Executive Director, Mira Browne talks about how we model mindset for our kids in this video.  

Now that you’re aware of their mindset, take three steps towards supporting your kid to grow in more areas.

1 – Offer Encouragement

  • Remember The Little Engine That Could? He pulled that train over the mountain because he believed he could do it. Let your kid know you believe they can, too.
  • Acknowledge that the work they’re doing is hard, but you’re sure they can persevere and get it done.
  • Suggest they break the bigger tasks into smaller ones. That feeling of making progress will keep them motivated because it’s personally rewarding and they like doing it.
  • Guide them into the Zone, their sweet spot of learning where the struggle is real, but productive.

2 – Provide critical feedback

  • Helpful feedback should inspire and challenge. If your kid is struggling a shift of strategy may be called for.
  • It’s okay for them to ask for help as long as they don’t expect you to step in and do the work for them. Support them by guiding them to more resources.
  • Prompt reflection. It’s foundational to learning. Suggest they look back at their work and progress and evaluate the process they used. What worked well? What will they use again to continue to move ahead?

3- Praise wisely

Don’t praise the product; praise the process. It’s the effort, strategies, focus, and perseverance that should be applauded. This is what they’ll reflect on the next time they face a challenge.

Adopting a growth mindset isn’t going to happen overnight. It will develop over time. But with each new challenge, remind your kid, “You did it before; you can do it again.”