Helping Children Thrive When Faced With Setbacks: Lessons From Carol Dweck

This blog is the second in a series to share the research of child development researchers and neuroscientists who have genuinely inspired me in my 11-year journey to create “Mind in the Making”. Their work is truly “research to live by.”

I am sharing the story of Carol Dweck of Stanford University because her studies provide important insights into unlocking the secrets of the children who don’t wilt in the face of setbacks. Like many researchers, she can trace her passion for her work to a childhood experience — in this case a fear of losing her seat in the front of her grade school class. As she tells it:

If I had to trace this back, I’d trace it back to my sixth-grade class. Our teacher, Mrs. Wilson, seated us around the room in IQ order. She thought that your IQ score summarized you — not just your intelligence, but your character as well. She would not let a lower-IQ student carry a note to the principal, erase the blackboard, or carry the flag in the assembly.I was so aware of how I had loved to learn before, but in that class, it was “look smart at all costs.” I was fascinated with people who could take on something difficult, roll with the punches, get up again, start again. I was fascinated by resilience, so I just wanted to figure it out.

Dweck carried the question “of how children cope with challenges and setbacks” into graduate school, where she had another formative experience:

In my very first study, I gave kids impossible problems to solve. Some were thrilled by it. They said things like “I love a challenge” or “I was hoping this would be informative.” I looked at them and thought: “Where are they from?” I have dedicated my career to unlocking their secrets — and maybe bottling them — so that all children could feel this way about learning.

To unlock their secrets, Dweck did another study where she gave fifth-grade children tasks (like those found on intelligence tests) that became increasingly difficult. When children began to stumble and make mistakes, she asked them to share their thinking processes aloud:

We found that children who were vulnerable and upset thought that that difficulty meant that they weren’t smart or they weren’t good at the task, whereas students motivated by the setback thought, “Well, that just means I need to try harder or try a different strategy.”

This was a seminal moment that ultimately led to Carol Dweck’s theory of mindset. She found that these two groups had fundamentally different beliefs about their capabilities. The children who “wilted” in the face of stress or a challenge saw their abilities — their intelligence — as an unchangeable trait, whereas the students who continued to pursue the challenge saw their abilities as something that they could develop.

To test the hypothesis that different mindsets predicted how children cope with setbacks or challenges, Dweck created a questionnaire to assess children’s theories about their intelligence:

We asked them questions like this: “Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t really change — agree or disagree.” We call that a fixed view of intelligence. Another question [that] measures the growth mindset is: “No matter who you are, you can always become a great deal smarter.”

To test whether the children’s mindset or view of their capacities affected their response to setbacks, Dweck and her colleagues gave children increasingly difficult problems to solve. She says:

We give them a few trials where they do pretty well; then we give them more difficult problems. We see what happens to their strategies, what happens to their enjoyment of the task, what happens to their persistence.We found that [when] the students who endorsed the fixed view of their intelligence hit difficulty, [they] started blaming their ability for failure, and their performance plummeted. The students who thought their intelligence was something they could increase or develop saw the challenge as exciting. They thought, “I just [need] more effort or different strategies”; they maintained their enjoyment [and] their performance.

Dweck and her colleagues wondered about the implications of their findings for everyday life. For example, would children with a growth mindset do better in school? To test this idea, they followed children through their transition to seventh grade — often a tough period in children’s lives:

We measured the students’ theories [of intelligence] at the beginning of seventh grade and followed them over two years. Even though the two groups [children with a fixed mindset and children with a growth mindset] entered seventh grade with identical math achievement, they showed diverging grades over the next two years.

The children with a growth mindset had better grades in math! The question then arises: how do children develop a fixed versus a growth mindset, and can their mindsets be changed? For clues, Dweck turned to the way people talked with children:

This was in the late nineties — it was the height of the self-esteem movement. The self-esteem gurus were telling parents [and] teachers, “You must praise your child at every opportunity. Tell them how talented and brilliant they are. This is going to give them confidence and motivation.”

We took a poll of parents: 85 percent agreed, “You must praise your child’s ability to give them confidence and motivation.” We wondered whether praising children’s intelligence would put them in a fixed mindset — make them fragile rather than hardy.

The great thing about research is that you can take these questions and put them to the test. We gave [fifth graders] problems from a nonverbal IQ test. After they finished ten problems and did pretty well, we gave them one of three forms of praise. A third of the children were told, “Wow, that’s a really good score. You really must be smart at this” — intelligence praise. A third of them got effort praise: “Wow, that’s a really good score; you must have worked really hard.” We had a third group where they were just told, “Wow, that was a really good score.” [It was] like “Good job.”

Then the children were given a choice of the kind of problems they would like to work on next — easy problems where they would look smart or challenging problems where they might make mistake, but would learn. Dweck says:

We found that the students praised for intelligence mainly wanted the task that would make them look smart. They did not want to risk their “gifted” label. Whereas the students praised for effort overwhelmingly wanted the hard task they could learn from.

These are important findings because they reveal that although mindsets emerge early, they’re not set in stone (much like our capacities). Children respond to the situations they’re in. If they’re praised for their effort and for the strategies they’re using, they’re more likely to want to learn and to try harder. If they’re praised for their intelligence, they’re more likely to pull back.

The lesson for me is this — every day is a new day in being a parent. We can help our children learn not to wilt when there are setbacks!

This story is taken from “Mind in the Making”


Photo/image by: Tamal Das / Flickr