I hear it in my classroom year after year:

“I give up.”

“I don’t get it.”

“I’m never going to learn this!”

“I’m so stupid.”

Teachers (and parents) are happy to jump in and tell the child “You can do it!” “You can figure it out!” “You are smart!”

But how do we teach children to internalize a belief in their own capabilities? How do we teach them to use positive self-talk and to exhibit a can-do attitude? Put otherwise: How do we teach growth mindset to children?

Step One: Teach them about how the brain works.

For this, we turned to Israel Liberzon, who is a Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of Michigan. He visited our class on Monday, January 8, dressed in a smart button-down shirt, and armed with an oversized plastic rat and a model of the human brain. He showed the students what parts of the brain are responsible for particular functions, such as emotional regulation and visual memory. Professor Liberzon then explained how neural pathways are formed through repeated activities, and he showed a video that described the physical process through which this happens. The students (and teachers) were enraptured. They came up with a long list of questions about how thoughts are formed, how memory works, and more.

Step Two: Help them work through some growth mindset activities.

Students need explicit modeling and instruction on how to develop a growth mindset. For our students, we worked through different phrases and perspectives and classified each as reflecting either a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset.” A fixed mindset is the belief that traits are, well, fixed — that people can’t really change. A fixed mindset is the voice that tells you not to try something risky or new because you won’t be able to do it. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that people are capable of training their brains. Growth mindset is showcased when people learn from their mistakes, try risky new things even if they might fail, and believe that the brain is capable of growth and change. Most people operate from a combination of both mindsets.

In our class, we started by listening to a podcast featuring Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford professor famous for her mindset work. They students then worked through some statements to discuss assess whether they exhibited a fixed mindset or a growth mindset.

The Final Step: Give it time, practice, and context.

Some students need empirical data confirming that they are capable of learning. If your child needs evidence that they can learn, take notes. Let them know that on January 20, they said, “I’ll never get fractions!” and on February 13 they worked through a whole activity adding and multiplying fractions.

In the third and fourth grade classroom at HDS, there is an entire wall dedicated to cute quotes and cliches such as:

Students use the wall ALL THE TIME. They are constantly making connections between their experiences and these quotes. When a student uses negative self-talk in our classroom, there is often a student who offers a relevant quote from our wall, encouraging words, and help in working through the challenging situation.

I often tell students how much I love mistakes because the learning mistakes can induce is often learning of the very strongest kind — the sort that takes hold firmly.

Why does it matter?

In education, where the process is more important than the product, and how you learn is as (or more) important than what you learn, growth mindset is an especially important capacity to foster. Sometimes, whether intentionally or not, we send our children the message that the outcome is what’s really important. Parents (understandably) praise children when they earn good grades and might be critical when children receive negative feedback on a project. This can cause children to feel judged (even if that’s not what’s intended), and in this way we might inadvertently encourage children to believe that they are only as good as their grades.

We should all keep in mind that we are models for our children We can strive to be intentional and careful not only in thinking about their learning, their success, and their failures, but in thinking about how we deal with our own.