“You are so smart,” could be the most damaging 4 words that we ever say to children.
That sentence may seem innocuous, even encouraging, but repeated use might actually reinforce attributes that we don’t find very appealing: laziness, risk-aversion, the inability to problem-solve.
Researchers like Carol Dweck (author of Mindset) are showing that statements like, “You are smart,” help to instill a “Fixed Mindset.” Children who are told this on a regular basis believe that they have an innate ability which produces their achievements – not hard work. They become reluctant to put themselves in situations where they might not appear to be smart. If they can’t do something well the first time, they refuse to do it again. Mistakes are disastrous, and the only thing learned from them is to stop trying.
As a teacher of gifted children, I have been a witness to the detrimental effects of a Fixed Mindset. Students who are a victim of this show a gradual decline in curiosity and enthusiasm through the years, and their parents and classroom teachers will talk to me about how these children seem to be determined to do the “absolute minimum” in required tasks. Since I first learned about the concept of mindsets, I have been making a concentrated effort in my classroom to change the language. Instead of, “You are so smart,” I will say, “You must have worked really hard to figure that out.” When students say, “This is really hard!” I say, “Good, that means you are being challenged, and that’s good for your brain.” I praise the students who I can tell are really persevering on a difficult task, rather than the ones who complete it in record time. (“Gosh, it looks like we need to find something a bit harder for you,” I might say to the latter students, or “How could you have made that more of a challenge for yourself?”) I emphasize that the minimum is not acceptable. A few weeks ago, several of my first graders, when asked to write down what they thought the “Rules” for GT were, put, “Go above and beyond,” which warmed my heart.
As parents and teachers we also need to model the Growth Mindset. We need children to see us taking risks, doing things that are outside our comfort zone. They need to witness us deal with mistakes and setbacks in a healthy way – as opportunities to learn. And they need to know about the hard work we put into achieving our goals. We need to stop saying things like, “Well, I’ve never been good in math,” or “Science was never my thing.” If they don’t see their role models taking risks, trying new things, working to get better – then why should they?
Another thing that we can do is to teach our children about Mindsets. This year, our director bought us a great book that I have been using with my 3rd grade students: Aim to Grow Your Brain by Joanne Billingsley. It has completely changed the conversations in our classroom, making the students aware of their own mindsets and remind each other to learn from mistakes and take on new challenges.
Here are some other great resources about Mindsets:
UPDATE: More Mindset Resources