Helping our Children Succeed

We got an email from our daughter’s second grade teacher today. The teacher shared some of our daughter’s strengths, explained her areas of challenge, noted the accommodations that are currently being provided per her 504 plan, and asked what ideas we had for helping her improve her focus. Although this interaction was positive, it sent my wife on a painful walk down memory lane. I wanted her to remember how far our daughter and her teachers have come in two short years. I wanted her to recognize what we should be thankful for. We’re thankful that we advocated for the provision of accommodations to reduce barriers to learning through the development of a 504 plan. We’re thankful that her teacher is following the plan and reached out for suggestions.

Instead, my wife took a little detour down memory lane recalling the nasty-grams we received on the regular from the Kindergarten teacher who documented all of our girl’s shortcomings ad nauseum. She recounted the ridiculous reasons our daughter had to sit in time out during recess, day after day. I watched as my wife mourned our daughter’s painful introduction to elementary school. Tears welled in her eyes as she recalled our 5 year old’s prayer, begging God to make her brain work like the other kids and how her whole body shook as she sobbed wishing she could be “normal” so her teacher would like her.

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But then something monumental happened. My wife turned to me and asked, “Do you know what our daughter has in common with Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Agatha Christie and Albert Einstein?”

Well… I wasn’t sure where she was going with this… I started listing what I knew about each of those famous people. Edison invented the light bulb and the motion picture camera. Walt Disney was a famous animator and acclaimed theme park designer. Agatha Christie was an award-winning, best selling author. Albert Einstein is regarded as one of the greatest scientific minds the world has ever known. “I give up,” I shrugged. “What in the world do Edison, Disney, Christie and Einstein have in common with our daughter?”

“All of them struggled in school,” she replied. Their parents all received alarming notes from their child’s teacher riddled with negativity and focused on deficits.

Thomas Edison struggled with math and didn’t learn to read until the age of 12. His teacher told him he wasn’t smart. Little did that teacher know Edison would become a famous inventor who would go on to hold over 2,000 patents worldwide.

Walt Disney (img credit: wikipedia.org)

Walt Disney was frequently reprimanded for his lack of concentration and his incessant doodling. She clearly didn’t know that Disney’s doodling would lead to a multi-billion dollar industry, 22 Academy awards, and 7 Emmy awards.

Agatha Christie had a specific learning disability called dysgraphia making it a struggle for her to construct even a single sentence without accommodations. Through dictation, Christie authored and sold over 4 billion copies of her work winning her the title of the world’s best selling author in the Guiness Book of World Records.

Albert Einstein did not speak until he was 3 years old and struggled throughout his life to memorize simple facts. The teacher who described Einstein as “mentally slow” must have been shocked when he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Each one of these famously successful people struggled significantly in school yet, they are all known for their accomplishments, not their challenges. What set these people apart? What will set our daughter apart? Mindset. Behind each of these famous success stories there was a young “failure” with a monumental growth mindset that encouraged them to persist through challenges and overcome adversity.

The Power of Mindset

During our daughter’s Kindergarten year we learned about the concept of mindset, specifically growth versus fixed mindsets. People who have a growth mindset understand that neural plasticity makes intelligence malleable. In contrast, many people operate with an antiquated fixed mindset believing their intelligence is governed by the genes they inherited. They are the folks that live by the motto, “You either have it or you don’t.” A fixed mindset encourages people to do more of what comes easily to them and avoid the types of challenging activities that result in failure, preserving their reputation as “smart” by never having to ask for help or be seen struggling. We learned that children frequently adopt the mindset of the adults around them.

A professor at Stanford, Carol Dweck, known for her work with mindset, conducted a study on praise. She wanted to see if the type of praise provided to children in a testing situation could induce a certain mindset that would affect their performance. The researchers learned that if they praised children by telling them, “You’re so smart,” the kids quit the test prematurely when they got to a section where they were unsure of the answers. However, when the researchers praised the other group of students for their use of strategies and persistence in trying to solve hard problems those kids worked harder and longer than the kids who were told they were smart. The group of children who were praised for their intelligence actually dropped on a subsequent IQ test by an average of 20%. Those praised for their effort raised their average score on the next IQ test by nearly 30%. Learn more about the study.

This astounding study demonstrates the importance of focusing on the types of behavior you want to see increase. Whatever we feed grows. If we want our children to adopt a growth mindset we need to praise their courage in the face of hardship, their sticktoitiveness in trying again after they’ve failed, and their use of innovative problem solving strategies to get a better outcome. On the other hand, if we want our children to resist putting forth too much effort we should continue to praise their intelligence, inducing a fixed mindset. When my wife learned of this research she had to make a conscious decision to forgive herself for the 5 years she spent telling our daughter how smart she was and instead embrace Maya Angelou’s words to live by, “When you know better, you do better.” So, in true growth mindset form, we started focusing on praising the types of behaviors that our daughter is responsible for.

These days when our daughter tells us she can’t do something we simply add the word yet. Rather than accepting it when she says, “I can’t ride a bike.” We correct her by saying, “You can’t ride a bike YET. But with more practice, if you stick with it, you’ll be riding your bike in no time, kiddo!” We remind our daughter that just like building muscles by lifting weights, burning new neural pathways takes time, repetition, and practice and sometimes it’s uncomfortable but it’s so worth the effort.

The same growth mindset that propelled Edison, Disney, Christie, Einstein and a whole slew of others to greatness, is the mindset that will encourage our daughter to push past initial failure to see endless possibilities. When our daughter experiences a set-back we should remind her of these words:

I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

-Thomas Edison

That’s the kind of growth mindset that’s necessary for an inventor to persist through so many unsuccessful trials, trying novel approaches until the break-through occurs. That’s the kind of growth mindset we want to build in our children.

Our words become our children’s inner monologue. Words impact mindset. Mindset impacts actions. Actions impact performance, which, in turn, impacts how we think and talk about ourselves. It’s cyclical. Using growth mindset inducing language with our children is critical for promoting the grit and tenacity necessary to help them persevere through struggles that are very real, yet likely just speed bumps on their infinite journey to success in which mindset in monumental.

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