Parents may notice that the phrases “I can’t” and “It’s too hard” become more frequent in their preschool- or pre-K-aged child’s vocabulary. And if left unchecked, that sentiment may continue throughout their entire life — when things get difficult, there’s just nothing that can be done about it.
Fostering a growth mindset in your children (and yourself!) early on can be the difference between raising a tenacious, can-do child and one that struggles to push through when things get hard. This article explains what a growth mindset is and how you can create one in your children.
What Is a Growth Mindset?
The term “growth mindset” may be hard to understand at first glance. What does the phrase actually mean?
Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford University came up with the phrase to describe the mindset that we can always improve or do better if we take the time to learn from our mistakes and persevere through hardships.
The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset. Someone with a fixed mindset believes that certain qualities — physical, mental, emotional — can’t be changed or altered. They are what they are.
Keep in mind that what may start as, “I don’t want to do this anymore,” can transform into, “I will never be able to do this,” with enough time. Not wanting to do something is understandable. Your child believing they can’t do something is the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.
Here are some examples of what each of those mindsets might look like in children.
- A child who is learning sight words keeps getting “an” and “and” confused. After several pounds of rounds of being corrected, they respond with, “I’m going to learn this!”
- A child who is learning to ride a bike keeps falling down. Afterward, they say, “I’ll learn it soon. I just need more time.”
- A child is perpetually frustrated with tying their shoes. But after they put on their shoes, they say each time, “One day that won’t make me mad.”
- A child learning how to count to 10 keeps forgetting 7. After several rounds of being corrected, they respond with, “I’m never going to remember.”
- I child trying to jump and make a basket is having no success. After a while, they stop altogether and say, “I just can’t do it.”
Remember this viral video from several years ago?
This is a great example of a child with a fixed mindset being encouraged by those around him to adopt a growth mindset. You even hear him say, “I can’t do it!” but his instructor reminds him that he can if he keeps trying and uses the knowledge he already has to succeed.
For everyone in that class, they learned the valuable lesson that persevering and learning from mistakes can lead to incredibly rewarding results.
Fear & Fixed Mindsets
One of the most telling things on whether your child has a fixed mindset or not is the way they view failure. Dweck’s research shows that children with fixed mindsets are “less likely to challenge themselves and are more helpless in the face of mistakes.” They also are afraid that their failures will reveal that they are unchangeably dumb or incapable.
On the flip side, children with a growth mindset are more likely to bounce back from failures than their peers who have fixed mindsets.
The biggest differentiator in why some children are fearful of failure and others aren’t is because those with a growth mindset see learning and experiencing new things like a muscle lifting weights: the more you train, the bigger and stronger it gets.
Developing a Growth Mindset in Preschoolers
If creating a growth mindset in children is important, how does it happen? Take a look at a few ways you can help instill a growth mindset in your children.
- Embrace “yet.” It’s the single best strategy you can use when walking your child through a difficult task. Whatever it is they can’t do or be, always remind them that very few things are permanent. With enough practice, they can always make progress toward a goal.
- Never make perfection or ranking the goal. Remember that growth is unending — there’s always more to be learned! Being the best at something or knowing the most about a topic is never the goal. Gradual, persistent improvement is what to strive for.
- Normalize struggle. Struggle isn’t rare, so make sure your kid knows it! Just because something is hard doesn’t mean they are doing anything wrong.
- Use words that trigger a growth mindset. The words you choose as a parent shape how your child reacts to difficult situations. Try and remember these things when you’re walking your child through hardships.
- Praise their effort.
- Tell them that accepting failure is an acceptable choice.
- Express the amount of work they put in.
- Remind them that their brain is growing.
- Praise the process.
- Avoid words that enforce a fixed mindset. On the flip side, avoid doing these things and inadvertently promoting a fixed mindset in your kids.
- Praising outcomes.
- Criticizing failures.
- Telling kids the answers.
- Labeling or judging their work.
- Telling them they “tried their best.”
- Praising the person.
Books, Movies & TV That Can Help
Especially for a preschooler, it can be hard to understand what a person with a growth mindset acts like. Having lots of examples in their life is important, and they don’t all have to be real people! Characters in books, movies, and television shows who live out a growth mindset can make a huge difference in how your child views the world.
Here are some books, movies, and television shows to check out if you want to show your child what a growth mindset looks like.
Books for Parents
Books for Kids
- Finding Nemo
- Meet the Robinsons
Sesame Street Clips
Remember That Effort Isn’t Everything
Adopting a growth mindset can keep kids from giving up too fast or believing they are irreversibly bad at something. However, as a parent, keep a few things in mind as you talk with your kids.
- Kids need to know that you can work hard and still fail. You can accidentally send the message, “If you haven’t done as well, it’s because you haven’t worked as hard,” says J. Luke Wood, a professor of education at San Diego State University. Make sure they know they can’t just “hustle” themselves out of difficulty. Accepting failure is an important part of a growth mindset.
- Some kids (especially those in minority communities) have to fight against the assumption that they are somehow inferior. For example, Black students in the U.S. struggle against the false stigma of being academically inferior. “You can validate the effort that they put in, their perseverance,” says Wood, “but you also have to give them that life-giving message” that they are capable. Keep that in mind when working with any child who may feel marginalized, including kids with disabilities, English-language learners, or those from minority communities.
- Some kids have the resources available to them that make success more accessible. A child who has to overcome food insecurity, poverty, or instability at home has less energy to focus on doing well in math. Their energy is being drained just trying to survive. Know that their “not yet” statement may take much longer — and be much more draining on them — then it is for other students who don’t have to overcome those big problems.
Kids need to know we believe in them and that we don’t expect them to excel at everything the first time they try it. They also need to know that persevering through hardships and learning skills gradually is an incredibly rewarding experience. Let’s continue to praise the process, lean into learning from mistakes, and celebrate with our kids when they get better.