A+ Advice for Parents

How to Encourage a Student to Work Harder

Q: Recently you mentioned research showing that intelligence isn't fixed -- that students' attitudes can improve their aptitudes. My 12-year-old son's mantra is "I can't do that." Jake thinks he's dumb, so he doesn't try hard. Where can I learn more?

A: I've referenced the work of Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck, whose studies have shown the importance of helping children foster a "growth mindset" -- a belief that their abilities can be developed through dedicated effort and hard work.

Her research has established a connection between students' motivation to learn a new skill and how they think about intelligence. Do they think their intelligence is "fixed"? Or do they think they can learn anything they set their minds to?

She discovered that those who think that their intelligence or skill level can be improved by effort and experimentation seek more challenge, learn from mistakes and don't give up in the face of failure.

Students who believe they're born with a specific intelligence have what Dweck calls a "fixed mindset" and are often discouraged by failure and reluctant to challenge themselves.

Using neuroscience research that demonstrates how a learner's brain can change and improve, Dweck and colleagues created "Brainology," an online program to foster "growth mindsets." It's used at home and in more than 600 middle and high schools. (Learn more at mindsetworks.com.)

What can you do to boost Jake's "growth mindset"?

-- Get him thinking about his brain. Research how the brain functions. Learn about neuroplasticity (or, how the brain changes and improves with use). He'll see that contrary to what many believe, we're not stuck at one level of intelligence. The brain is a muscle. The more we exercise it, the stronger it becomes.

-- Shift his thinking toward success. Use the power of "yet," says Dweck. If Jake maintains he isn't good in math, tell him he isn't good yet. Emphasize that, with effort, he will become proficient. (See Dweck's related videos on YouTube.)

-- Change the way you praise. Parents often use general praise ("You're smart! You can do it!") to provide encouragement. Dweck says it's more effective to praise specific efforts that lead to improvement, such as focus, persistence and work habits. ("Jake, you're doing a great job planning your research paper to avoid last-minute worries.") Dweck says this takes the spotlight off fixed ability and puts it on the process of learning.

-- Make it OK to fail. Taking risks and learning from failure lead to invention and creativity. Says Dweck: "Struggle should be rewarded -- the fastest answer isn't always the best."

Struggle boosts resilience, an essential trait for success.

One could say that inventor Thomas Edison summed up the essence of a "growth mindset" when he proclaimed: "None of my inventions came by accident. I see a worthwhile need to be met and I make trial after trial until it comes. What it boils down to is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration."

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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