A+ Advice for Parents

Q: Our daughter's teacher uses "growth mindset theory" and encourages kids to "grow their brains." She praises effort more than grades and says that failure can be good. This is so weird for third grade! Is there anything to it?

A: Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck pioneered "growth mindset" research. It draws on neuroscience showing that a learner's brain can improve with dedicated effort.

"A growth mindset is the understanding that personal qualities and abilities can change. It leads people to take on challenges, persevere in the face of setbacks, and become more effective learners," writes Eduardo Briceno, co-founder with Dweck of education program Mindset Works.

Dweck's research shows that how a student thinks about herself as a learner has a significant impact on learning; there's a strong connection between students' motivation to learn a new skill and how they think about their intelligence.

Kids who think their intelligence is "fixed" -- that they are stuck at a certain level of smarts -- tend to do less well than those who think that they can do anything they set their minds to. Equally powerful is this finding: Students who think that their intelligence or skill level can be improved by effort and experimentation seek more challenges, learn from mistakes and don't give up in the face of failure.

Dweck delivers a message young learners need to hear. It's why many teachers embrace it and encourage kids to realize that the more they exercise their brains, the stronger they become.

Dweck's findings on the role of praise are especially helpful. She wants teachers and parents to change the way they praise. Rather than use general praise ("You can do it because you're smart!"), she says it's more effective to praise specific efforts that lead to improvements such as focus, persistence and work habits ("You're doing a good job organizing your science fair experiment. It will give you plenty of time to practice presenting."). This takes the spotlight off fixed ability and puts it on the process of learning.

People new to growth mindset "sometimes conclude that we should simply praise children for working hard," writes Briceno, "but this is a nascent level of understanding."

He continues: "Students often haven't learned that working hard involves thinking hard, which involves reflecting on and changing our strategies so we become more and more effective learners over time, and we need to guide them to come to understand this."

A student who is trying very hard but isn't making progress should be coached to try different approaches; this is where the praise is most effective.

The growth mindset framework is a useful tool to get kids thinking about how to grow their capacity to learn and shift their thinking about success and failure.

For example, Dweck encourages parents to use the power of "yet." If Jayden is having trouble with fractions, explain that she isn't good yet. Emphasize that with effort, she will master them.

When it comes to failure, Dweck says to make sure kids know it's OK to fail. Taking risks and learning from failure lead to invention and creativity.

To learn more, check out Brainology, a program that helps teachers and parents foster growth mindsets at mindsetworks.com.

(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.)

More like A+ Advice for Parents