When the going gets tough… (Teaching our Children Growth Mindset)


I’m just returning from a visit to High Tech High in San Diego California.  This school is recognized around the globe for its project-based learning.  It definitely is a school like none I’ve ever seen before, but what stood out for me wasn’t the projects, it was the students. When a student panel was being interviewed a grade three student was asked the question, “What do you wish all teachers knew?”  She responded without a thought: “I wish all teachers would go into their classrooms with a growth mindset. Focusing on what the students can do, instead of what they can’t.”  This simple statement was the defining difference between this school, and others I’ve been to. The students believed the CAN.  There were no bells, there were no teachers following up to get students in the classrooms, students simply were responsible for checking their watches and getting to class on time. When I asked a student about this he simply responded, “They treat us like adults, we need to act like them.”  There was no question these students saw themselves as capable and without limitations. Carol Dweck is one of my favorite authors on Growth Mindset. She says, “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 the 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.” This quote inspired me to think about ways we can encourage our children to be lifelong learners. Here are some very small changes we can make as parents to change the way our children see themselves.  

  1. Introduce Them to the Word Yetb-cj2pticaa9bv8

One of the most powerful words that you can introduce your children (and possibly yourself) to is the word yet. As a mom and a teacher I hear the words “I Can’t” often.  It deeply saddens me when I hear a young child saying things like “I can’t do math” or “I’m not good at reading.”  Their belief statements often run so deeply that it defines what they are or are not willing to try.  I have met children as early as five years old who already have a deeply imbedded belief in their abilities.  They believe that these skills are already formed and they either have them or they don’t.  As an educator I know this simply isn’t true. Intelligence isn’t fixed, it’s learned and developed. One word can help your children move from the “I can’t” to the “I can”.  When your child says “I Can’t”, respond with, “I can’t yet”. “ I can’t do Math… yet.” “I’m not good at basketball… yet.”  The more our children here this in their lives and in ours the more they begin to see learning as a journey that we are all on. Helping your children understand that we are constantly growing and learning is one of the best gifts you can give them.

  1. Let them Fail

images-2As a mom of three I know this will be my most challenging task.  I don’t like seeing my children fail. I want to protect them from the hurt of failure. However, I am learning that it’s in the failure that they learn.  If I keep saving them from their failings, I continue their reliance on me. They keep believing that they can’t do it on their own, and I reinforce this every time I do it for them.  Truthfully, if I look back on my own life the majority of my best lessons came from my mistakes and failures.  My parents believed in letting me fail (most of the time) and knew that great learning came from having to try again.  At High Tech High the students are constantly in a process of trial and error in their learning.  They fail, sometimes hundreds of times, before they succeed.  The learning is deeply meaningful and High Tech High is creating students with perseverance and grit.  When things get tough, they keep going. When they fail, they see it as an opportunity to try another way.  I want my children to persevere. In fact there are new studies that show that perseverance and grit are more indicative of future success than a child’s IQ. So when your child is struggling to figure out a problem instead of rescuing them, let them figure it out. When they forget their homework, don’t bring it to them. Our children need to learn that they can do it on their own, even when it’s hard. If they make mistakes, even suffer the consequence, they will be more motivated to learn from it.

  1. Change your Praise

images-5Most of us are suckers for a good compliment.  It’s nice to hear that we are doing something well.  When I learned that the compliments we give can sometimes do more harm than good I was shocked.  What could possibly be wrong with saying “Good Job”?  When we focus our praise with our children on the external outcome instead of the internal effort, they put their focus on that as being most important.  If we want our children to be focused on simply the outcome we can continue to focus our praises on those things.  However, if we want our children to be intrinsically motivated that is where we need to focus our praise. Replace “good job” with  “great effort”.  As parents we want to encourage our children towards self motivation: doing their best whether or not someone is there to see the outcome.  As we begin to praise their perseverance, grit and effort, they will begin to focus on those skills as being the most important.  

  1.  Teach Reflection  reflection

Reflection is one of the primary skills I want to teach my children.  When we encourage our children to look back on their learning, their days, their activities and to reflect on them, we teach them to think meaningfully about them.  Reflecting together as a family is a great alternative for “How was your day?” Instead, ask, “What would you change?”, “What was hard?”, or “What went well?” This provides a framework for the reflection, preventing those typical one-word responses that we often hear. Taking these moments to pause and think about ourselves and our days without judgment help us to stay present, and to see all things as opportunities to learn and grow.

  1. Set Goals

tumblr_m5jacyxidm1qgc5rxo1_500A number of people who had reached 100 years of age were interviewed and one of the commonalities amongst all of them was that they were dedicated to continuing their learning. They set goals and worked to accomplish them.  Setting goals as a family and as an individual is a great way of demonstrating the importance of lifelong learning. Be open about the goals you are setting for yourself.  Discuss with your children how they will know they have achieved their goal and help them set measurable steps along the way. Have them reflect along the way about how they are progressing.  Talk openly as a family about the goals you are working on and celebrate them when they have been accomplished.  When one goal is reached, work together to set another one.  

My goal for myself as a mother and a teacher is that I can begin to adopt many of these practices into my daily interactions with children. I am excited to see how these slight changes can impact the way children see themselves as learners and as individuals.  I’m not there…. yet, however I’m excited to begin on this journey towards growth.

Follow KristiCooper:

Director of Teaching and Learning

I am a learner, a teacher and a mom, and I love life's simple blessings. To me there is nothing better than seeing the world through the eyes of children. There is no question that my three beautiful children have been my best (and sometimes hardest) teachers. Although my favourite role is mom, it is followed very closely by my role as teacher. This year I will begin a new journey as the Director of Teaching and Learning at a local private school. I can't wait to take on this new opportunity. During my career I have been a district literacy team member, a literacy support teacher and have had more than a decade of classroom experience teaching grades K-6. I thrive on creating a learning environment where the students are encouraged and enriched. Where they are able to discover their strengths. I love inspiring children to change their perspectives of themselves as a learner. I am new to websites and blogging and am teaching myself how to build this site (so please be forgiving of any technical difficulties). In my spare time (which isn't much) I love to read, run, cook and explore new places!

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