GROWTH MINDSET A “D” on the math test was the last straw. Julie* came home crying, angry and refusing to do homework. Her mother was fed up too. She was tired of the nightly battles trying to get Julie to do her work, then practically doing it for her only to have Julie end up feeling incapable and frustrated. The lack of success and confidence in school was taking its toll elsewhere; Julie was not becoming involved in extracurricular activities or socializing much anymore, believing that it would all lead to failure. The whole family could feel the strain of these school issues. It was time to call Outreach.
Julie met with a counselor. She explained that ever since she got separated into the low math class in fourth grade, she felt dumb. Now in sixth grade, she continues to notice the ways her peers seem to be excelling, and she feels like she will never catch up or amount to anything. Julie admits that she will not try new things where she has the potential to fail because she does not want to look dumb in front of her peers. She did continue to play flute in the band and thinks this is the only thing she can do well. Her counselor asked if Julie was able to play the flute the first time she touched it. Julie laughed and said no. The counselor explained that math, reading and writing are skills just like playing the flute. No one can do it at first, but with practice they learn to. They talked about the fact that you are not born with a certain amount of intelligence, but that your brain actually grows the more that you practice and learn new things.
Julie began to recognize her “fixed mindset” way of thinking. She believed that if she struggled, it meant she was dumb. She avoided challenges, gave up easily, and tried to hide her mistakes in order to look smart. Julie’s parents unknowingly contributed to her fixed mindset. They would praise her by telling her she was smart, talented and beautiful. They made a big deal of her getting As or receiving awards at school. With the help of her counselor, Julie was finally able to tell her parents that those things made her feel pressure to perform and get the best grades. She felt her parents’ praise was fake and that she could never live up to that standard, so why try?
Her counselor worked with both Julie and her parents to adopt a “growth mindset” which embraces the belief that intelligence can be developed and a person’s potential is unknowable. Julie learned that when she struggles with a math problem or anything else hard and sticks with it, she is actually growing neural tissue and connections in her brain that will make her smarter. She began to see mistakes as an opportunity for growth. Julie replaced the fixed mindset thought of “I can’t,” with “I will learn this with time and practice.” The counselor coached Julie’s parents to encourage her efforts and progress rather than the end result. They adopted phrases such as “you really stuck with that problem” and whenever Julie complained about not knowing something, they would add the magic word- “yet.”
*Julie represents a typical Outreach client. Details do not correspond with any specific case in order to protect client anonymity.
Outreach Teen and Family Services is a nonprofit, confidential counseling service. We offer counseling and educational programs to youth and parents that are affordable, accessible and discreet; all within a welcoming, supportive environment.