Why Some Children Struggle with the Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck’s work on mindsets was introduced to me when my first son was about 18 months old and I have been passionate about it ever since because it really resonated with me. Growing up, I was labelled a “smart kid” and yet I never felt smart. Most of the time, I felt the fraud because being smart meant everything was supposed to be easy and it wasn’t. And if I was so smart, then why did I still have to work so hard? It was so disempowering that I wanted to make sure my children would never go through that. I figured that once they knew about the importance of effort and that everyone needed it, they would be alright.

Growth Mindset = good!
Fixed Mindset = bad!

It should have been as easy as that, but it wasn’t, and I was confounded by it.

Students benefit from learning that intelligence is not fixed

There is no doubt in my mind that children benefit from learning about mindsets. Even if there was any doubt, the research to supports it:

The new research involves larger, more rigorous field trials that provide some of the first evidence that the social psychology strategy can be effective when implemented in schools on a wide scale. Even a one-time, 30-minute online intervention can spur academic gains for many students, particularly those with poor grades.

So why doesn’t it work for my child?

According to Stanford behavioral scientist David Paunesku:

“academic mindset interventions are not magic bullets.” There may be many reasons why half of the low-performing kids who received the growth-mindset lesson still failed to earn satisfactory grades. Some may not have found the online presentation persuasive enough, he said, if they grew up repeatedly hearing “fixed”-mindset attitudes – such as, “some people are just bad at math” – from parents and peers. And even if students adopt a more adaptive mindset, other obstacles may still loom: A child might have trouble focusing in class because he’s hungry or anxious about being bullied, or he may not get enough support from his parents with homework.

What about precocious children? Why do they fight the idea of a growth mindset? It finally occurred to me. Precocious children are often exposed to praise for being smart from a very early age. Even they aren’t praised for being smart, they will have observed that they know things their peers do not, or that they are able to grasp certain concepts more quickly than their peers. This supports the idea that they are smarter than other children and it makes them feel special. When we introduce the idea of the growth mindset, it may be perceived that we are trying to take away what’s special about them. And that’s why the message about the importance of effort and growth mindsets can sometimes have trouble getting through.

So how do you get the message across without making your child feel like his intelligence is under attack? Perhaps just having that awareness will help us adjust our approach. Instead of forcing some unpalatable truth down their throats which they’ll only throw back up again, we need to thread a little more gently.

No wonder my son refuses to listen… I’ve been about as subtle as an elephant charging through the forest. There has been nothing gentle about my approach – I’ve been clubbing him over the head with it. I think it’s time to adopt Mary Poppins’ approach – “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

Mindsets Info Graphic
Image Source: Nigel Holmes


Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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