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Case study: encouraging a growth mindset

This step gives some more information about how to praise children appropriately

Praise is short-lived but has far reaching consequences, creating a fixed mindset and the fear of failure. Failure should be seen as the chance to learn and improve especially in education.

When children struggle, they develop strategies for overcoming difficulties, but the children who are led to believe that intelligence is innate are more worried about keeping up appearances and how others perceive them. If they can succeed without effort, they will never develop ways to overcome obstacles. When these learners suddenly find something difficult, they don’t know how to cope and ultimately their confidence will plummet. They are not used to making an effort because things have come naturally to them so far.

Case study: Meet Noah

From when he was a toddler, his parents and family recognised, he was as bright as a button. It was the 1990s and any good parenting magazines spoke of the importance of developing a child’s self-esteem by praising them.

When Noah was 2 years old, he loved numbers and letters, he was fascinated with calculators, plastic numbers and letters, loved looking at books and became an early avid reader. He sailed through primary school, always being told how brilliant he was by his family and teachers.

Throughout school Noah was clearly not being challenged at the right level. It was easy and he could do the work with very little effort. This continued right up until he got into university, where it suddenly got tough because he was required to put in effort and hard work to get through his science degree. University was the first time he had started to struggle.

As a child Noah hadn’t developed any strategies to overcome difficulty, had no study skills. As a result, he came very close to failing his degree. This affected his confidence and he started to have doubts about his ability. When he finished university, he started to apply for jobs that didn’t require having a degree and in the end decided that he didn’t like science at all.

After excelling in languages at school he didn’t want to take up Spanish again. The excuse was he would be put into an intermediate group and he wanted to be in an elementary group, that way he would look good and be one of the better students in class. Noah was more worried about what people would think, than about what would be the best way to learn Spanish.

Noah’s fixed mindset always came into play. Having been praised so much has done him no favours. He’s now as an adult starting to come out of his comfort zone, grow his confidence and take on challenges, but it is clear he has underachieved because of his fear of failure.

As Dr Carol Dweck says in her book Mindsets:

“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 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.”

So 5 principles to remember:

  • Praise needs to be specific and sincere.
  • Praise the process not the child.
  • Value effort and learning as much as mastery.
  • Avoid labels and comparisons which undermine confidence.
  • Start with yourself, and model a growth mindset, children learn from imitation.

Over to you!

Read the New York Magazine article in the related links in Step 1.6 or investigate the theory of mindsets. Think of the story about Noah and reflect on your own childhood.

  • In what areas do you think you have a fixed or growth Mindset?
  • How can this influence the children in your care?
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English in Early Childhood: Context and Communication

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