Category — Carol Dweck
The kids are back at school now and some of you ultra-organised ones may have turned your minds to Christmas already. Don’t worry if you haven’t –there will be more on that in our next newsletter. Others may be focused on your child just having started a new school or a new year with a new teacher and will be wondering how to support your child to do the best they can do.
In a recent article in the Telegraph (7th August 2012) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9458290/Teaching-toddlers-to-pay-attention-is-the-key-to-academic-success.html# reference was made to recent research by child development experts which concludes that it is not tutoring in academic subjects that will help your child to succeed but supporting them to pay attention and to perservere. This particular research by Dr Megan McClelland from Oregon State University, published in the online journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly, reflects what the Gottman Institute had noticed as part of their research on developing emotional intelligence. Drs John and Julie Gottman found that children whose parents are emotion coaches for them, that is they recognise, respect and respond to their child’s emotions:
- Are better able to manage their feelings
- Have better academic achievements
- They are able to sustain attention for longer and
- Able to shift attention from one subject to another more easily
- They get along with their peers better
Author (and champion table tennis player) Matthew Syed, in his best-selling book Bounce, explores the idea that innate talent (whether in academic, musical, business or sporting fields) is a myth and that all the best performers in their various areas of endeavour have got to the top of their fields by a combination of opportunity, application and focus. (He does concede that it helps to be a tall if you’re a basketballer).
Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University’s research into mindsets is particularly interesting for parents. She developed the thesis that people can have different attitudes to learning which either promote or inhibit their development. With a fixed mindset one believes that one has a fixed amount of innate intelligence and that if you can’t do something it means that you have exhausted your store of intelligence. A person who has this attitude will not want to challenge the status associated with his cleverness and will not take risks that will show him to be less intelligent. Her research showed that children would not tackle harder tasks when in this fixed mindset. By contrast people with a growth mindset believe that they can with effort get better at anything and therefore are willing to try new and harder things.
A child’s mindset is affected by how adults talk to them. When we praise a child for cleverness or talent and when we focus on their results we promote a fixed mindset. However when adults praise kids for the effort they make, the attitudes they show, the strategies they employ; when we focus more on the process than the outcome we encourage in them a growth mindset. So don’t praise your child for being clever and don’t let your first question after a football game be did you win?
Parents often ask us, in classes or consultations, how to help children to focus more. Here is what we say:
- Don’t pay too much attention when your child’s attention wanders and particularly don’t criticise it. Instead notice when they bring their attention back to the task in hand and mention that. You’re looking at your page. You brought your focus back to your work without me saying anything to you.
- Praise in a descriptive way whenever you see signs of persistence. Wow, you really stuck with trying to learn to balance on your bike. You didn’t give up until you mastered the wobbles! One mum told us how she’d been praising her daughter for persevering with tying her shoe laces, thinking it was big word to be using for a little girl. Then when she’d just finished manoeuvring her big car into a tight parking space a little voice from the back seat piped up with “Gee mum, you really persevere.”
- Our children need to think of themselves as people who can pay attention and persist if they are to do well in life so we need to notice and point out to them whenever there is behaviour which shows up these qualities. Children are natural learners; just look at a toddler learning to walk. They don’t give up despite numerous set backs. We can train ourselves to notice their efforts and point them out to the child. Some families put the words on their fridge so that they remember to notice them. Others use a jar in which they collect tokens for examples of focus.
- Give lots of descriptive praise, not just for paying attention and persistence but more generally. A child who feels generally capable will be better able to handle set backs and try again.
- Be an emotion coach for your child. Help them understand their emotions by talking about them so that they can manage them and move on to the next task. This is surprisingly one of the most helpful things we can do in encouraging focus.
- Some families have found that it helps to use an idea from Neuro Linguistic Programming to help children focus. It might work to use an ‘anchor’ or a talisman which is an object imbued with certain qualities, in this case focus, which the child can look at or hold (or listen to). Choose your object and invest it with its magical properties by recalling a time with your child where they were very focused (something about which they were very enthusiastic). Relive that moment by focusing on all the details of the event; what could you see and hear, what could you feel? While bringing that moment to life have your child hold or look at his object and describe what was happening to him –“you were really concentrating hard, you were so focused.” Then when focus is needed pull out the magic focus object. Refer to it as the focus object.
- Enthuse about the tasks they are doing. If your child is learning to read try to read with them at a time when you’re not exhausted so that you can be interested. Get into the story they are reading. If decoding the words becomes too consuming that the story gets lost share the reading with them. Look at the pictures and guess what is going to happen next. Talk about how the characters feel.
- When children are motivated and interested it’s easier to focus but there are many things they need to do where they may not be so interested or motivated. Parents can do a lot to build motivation, mainly through descriptive praise. But even if children remain unmotivated about the intrinsic nature of the task we can motivate through praise for doing what they have to do even when they’re not interested! I know that brushing your teeth isn’t interesting and it gets to be a bit of a drag day in, day out. I know you’d rather just skip it and get on with your game so I really admire you for doing it anyway because you know that’s the only way to have healthy teeth and gums. Not only are you doing it but you’re doing it thoroughly so you now have a really sparkly smile and beautiful fresh breath!
- Of course it helps if we can provide our children with an environment where it is easy for them to focus so when they’re doing homework or tackling some other kind of task try to eliminate noise and visual clutter.
- Limit the amount of fast moving TV and computer and other electronic activities your children do where they are not required to focus for more than a few seconds. Instead encourage activities which involve their own creativity and sustained thought to work out a problem or develop a story line, such as fantasy play, building a den or board or card games.
So be focused on developing good habits of focus and perseverance in your child to help them do well in life.
17/09/2012 No Comments
What kind of so-called parenting experts say don’t call your child clever? Since the sixties haven’t we been exhorted to extol the virtues of our children ad nauseam in the hope of building self esteem and encouraging desirable behaviours? When we want them to feel good about themselves we say well done darling, good girl. And if we think they’re not buying it or we really want to big them up we say ‘fantastic, marvellous, brilliant –you are so clever.’ What’s wrong with that?
Well, usually we say to parents that if they want their kids to have good self esteem and all the positive outcomes that go with that then we need to focus on what children do right more often than what they get wrong. Every parent knows this even though we sometimes have difficulty doing it –like when you’re trying to get them all out of the house and one is on a ‘go slow’ and the other two are complaining that they have to breathe the same air and you can’t find your car keys and NOBODY has got their shoes on!
But even when things are a little calmer we still feel an overwhelming urge to point out what’s wrong with what they’re doing. We’re not bad people but we’ve had decades of conditioning so forgive us if we mistakenly believe we need to highlight what they’ve done wrong in order to help them learn. In fact when we do that the children are apt to tune us out and lose their natural motivation to improve and to learn. So yes we do need to focus on the positives and praise our children. In fact the ratio of positive to ‘improving’ should be about 9:1. John Gottman is a researcher who did a lot of work in the area of couples’ relationships. He found that there are a number of criticisms compared to praises beyond which a marriage crumbles, and that number is one (1) criticism to five (5) praises. That’s right. The minimum to keep a marriage off the rocks is 1 bad:5 good. While you’re trying to remember when you last said something positive to your partner I would add that in the case of children parents should be praising even more frequently because we are actively trying to shape our children’s behaviour and form their characters. I would assert therefore that we parents should give 9 praises for every criticism/improving comment/correction / just pointing out what could be done differently.
So I’m clearly in favour of praise. But why can’t I tell my child he’s clever? Because he is you know –or at least I want him to do well. How can it hurt? In the past I would have said that any praise was better than none. But even then I would have admitted that there’s a good chance your child is not going to believe you when you say he’s clever so your words lose impact. We have always advocated using praise which is specific and descriptive to make it more credible and give the child enough information to allow them to repeat the positive behaviour on which you’re focusing. We would have said ‘clever girl’ isn’t a very effective form of praise but not actually harmful. And then I discovered some research by a psychologist in the US, Carol Dweck, that has made me even more careful about my choice of words when acknowledging children. Her research has shown that evaluative praise of this kind can actually be detrimental.
Professor Dweck’s findings show that the way adults praise children can determine whether they develop what she calls a ‘growth mindset’ or a ‘fixed mindset’. Her research was looking at motivation and perseverance in the face of set backs. Why do some people give up in the face of failure and others try again –it has to do, not surprisingly, with their beliefs about why they had failed. If you believe you failed because of lack of ability you are more inclined to give up than if you think the failure was down to lack of effort. Surely that’s an argument for telling kids they are able in order to motivate them?
Over the years Dweck developed a theory that learners could be classified as helpless vs mastery oriented. The former believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. “I call this a ‘fixed mind-set’. Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so….The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else.… Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort.”
So how does praise affect this belief system? Contrary to adults’ good intentions when they praise, telling someone they are smart or clever actually contributes to the ‘fixed mindset’ whereas praising a child for trying hard or persevering focuses on the effort they’re making and allows them to develop a ‘growth mindset’. Dweck’s work with children in schools showed that confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material. The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little real regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.
So how do we encourage a ‘growth mindset’ in our children? Show them examples of effort producing good results in your own modelling, in stories about other people but above all in their own endeavours. Praise them for not giving up, for trying a different strategy in the face of defeat, for working hard and practising, for improving and don’t focus so much on the outcome or achievement. If they do well in a test say “You must be really pleased -that’s a reflection of all the hard work you put in”. Above all never ever praise your child for being clever.
23/11/2010 No Comments