Is your child stressed about starting school? Do you have a child who’s entering a new school, and is overwhelmed at the idea of a different environment and tougher classes? Fortunately, parents can help their children manage the stress of the new year and ease the transition by giving them tools to change their mindset.
New research is revealing that students’ mindsets—how they perceive their academic abilities—can determine who is overwhelmed by the transition. And it shows us that we can reduce stress and improve students’ academic performance if we can change those mindsets.
In a new study published in the journal Child Development, we followed 499 9th graders in Texas through the first three months of public high school. We tracked their grades and identified students’ stress levels by looking at the hormone cortisol—sometimes called the “toxic stress” hormone—in saliva samples that students gave every day for a week or more.
We also measured whether students had what Carol Dweck of Stanford University has called a fixed mindset—the belief that intelligence is a trait that you either have or don’t have and that it can’t be increased. Students with a fixed mindset have been known to feel more helpless when they struggle, because failure seems to mean that they’ll never be smart enough to succeed.
Our study of 9th graders showed that rapidly declining grades were met with much higher levels of cortisol in daily saliva samples when students had a fixed mindset. But declining grades weren’t tied to stress if students had a growth mindset—the belief that intelligence can be developed. That is, a growth mindset was associated with resilience among students’ whose grades were dropping.
So, how can parents and families encourage a growth mindset? Here are 5 tips, from Oxford Learning:
1. Pay attention and verbally praise kids for skills that don’t sound predetermined: hard work, persistence, rising to a challenge, learning from a mistake, etc., rather than being “smart”, “brilliant” or “gifted”. Recently my girls brought me a song they had recorded together, and said they had to do it 10 times to get it right. I made sure to tell them I was just as proud of their persistence as I would have been if the song had been perfect the first time.
2. Be a growth mindset role model. Be honest: how often do you say “I can’t (cook/sing/balance my bank account)” or “I’m terrible at (sports/spelling/public speaking)” as if there’s no hope for you? Make sure you’re sending the right message – maybe even take on something new! (Relax, it doesn’t have to be cooking. Sorry, just thinking out loud.) My students and daughters all know that I expect them to finish any sentence about something they are currently unable to do with the word “yet”!
3. Encourage your child to forget taking the easy route (where little learning is done) and instead embrace challenges. A sheet full of questions he already knows the answers to won’t “grow the brain” like one deeper problem to solve (even if he doesn’t get the correct answer).
4. Remember growth mindset isn’t just academic; it applies to many areas of life (athletic, musical, social). Having trouble getting the basketball into the net? Keep making mistakes on a guitar chord? Tried to initiate play with someone but it didn’t go well? Discuss the next step for improvement.
5. Discourage envy of peers, and talk to your child about what he or she can learn from others who appear more successful. While skills may come more easily to some, most often there’s a (possibly unseen) element of practice, persistence, and hard work which leads to achievement.
MindsetKit, a program of Stanford University, also has a 10-lesson online workshop on growth mindset, what it is, and how to instill it in your children.