Five Steps to Developing a Healthier Mindset in Our Teens—and Ourselves

Amy Harriton, Associate Head of School
Growth Mindset. Fixed Mindset. Those terms have been thrown around quite a bit in the last five to six years. What exactly are we to do as parents, educators, and mentors to instill that growth mindset in our middle and high school teens?
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Dedication: Much thanks to the October 25 middle school and high school parents’ book club meeting for serving as the inspiration for today’s blog. You all are a fantastic group to converse with and it is a joy for Landmark Christian School to partner with such parents who are invested in seeing their children labor not after the things of this world but after Christ.  

Growth Mindset. Fixed Mindset. Those terms have been thrown around quite a bit in the last five to six years. Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success opens with a definition of what it means to have a fixed mindset (i.e., a person who gives up—or breaks down—easily if he or she cannot attain perfection) and a growth mindset (i.e., a person who has learned to embrace challenges, setbacks, and even failures as opportunities). Dweck then proceeds to provide anecdote after anecdote of leaders, inventors, athletes, students, teachers who exhibit a growth mindset; her stories reveal that, like an iceberg, the visible success belied the hard work and hours of diligence that achievements cost.
 
Those stories are inspiring, but when parents and educators read the book, it does leave us wanting more tangible practices—what exactly are we to do as parents, educators, and mentors to instill that growth mindset in our middle and high school teens? Here are some tips, gathered from Dweck and others.

1. Recognize the triggers.

One of Dweck’s pieces of advice regarding changing one’s mindset is to find our “fixed-mindset triggers.” As parents or teachers, if we see a student responding with anger, tears, general anxiety towards an upcoming test—we can identify that tests are a trigger. The approaching possibility of not attaining a certain grade is affecting the person—which is the reflection of a fixed mindset. The first time this happens, we probably won’t be able to unwind the behavior. But when we identify the trigger, the next time we begin to recognize a student demonstrating the pattern of (as an example) test anxiety, we can look to redirect his or her mind, the pattern of thinking.

When the downward spiraling begins, for example, we can interrupt: “That test sounds hard. All you can expect is that you try your best. What are your studying strategies?” 

Our brains want to travel familiar circuits; as they start to wind down unhealthy paths, we have to disrupt the thinking to create new thought patterns.

Finding our “fixed-mindset triggers” is akin to Charlotte Mason’s parenting advice in The Formation of Character. She tells a story of a little boy whose parents are trying to end his temper tantrums. Through the story, she uses one parent to advise that they look for the beginning signs of discontent and anger, such as the pout, the brow furrow; the parent says, “if you notice any or all of these signs, the boy is on the verge of an outbreak. Do not stop to ask questions, or soothe him, or make peace, or threaten. Change his thoughts. That is the one hope.” When we see others (or ourselves) encountering a fixed-mindset trigger, our hope is to change our pattern of thinking. 

The discouragement of the height of the mountain to climb must be exchanged for the delight in the journey up the mountaintop.

2. Look for opportunities for skinned knees. 

When looking to develop a growth mindset in our students and children, we look for opportunities for them to fail safely. I stood chatting recently with my friend at the neighborhood playground while we watched her toddler navigate the sand with unsteady steps. Eventually, the little girl fell with her arms braced forward, her hands covered in sand. Unsure how she should react, she looked up to her mom to see her mom’s reaction and take her cue. My initial reaction was to compassionately call out, “Are you OK?,” but her mom kept talking and I didn’t have space in the moment to interject. As she continued chatting, her daughter stood back up, wobbling, and toddled back the other direction, continuing to explore. What could have been a meltdown and an instilled fear was instead an everyday experience: you fall; you get back up again.

It’s a helpful physical image to remind us of the importance of experiencing small falls so that our confidence can survive picking ourselves back up again. Public speaking where we are out of our comfort zone slightly, a physical activity that is just out of reach for us to complete perfectly, a math problem that is just outside of our capability to solve it entirely—what are the opportunities we have to provide our middle school and high school teens to develop emotional resilience so that when they fall from a much greater height, they have already practiced picking themselves up again? 

It is through those attempts and the strengthening of our resolve that we build the strength to persevere, a necessary skill for embracing a challenge. 

3. Book 10,000 hours.

Dweck quotes Malcolm Gladwell’s work in The New Yorker where he critiques our talent-obsessed culture: “when people live in an environment that esteems them for their innate talent, they have grave difficulty when their image is threatened” (Dweck 109). Countering the view of successful people as those endowed with natural talent, we must work to instill in our middle and high school teenagers that the true talent is executing the discipline it takes to practice—and to practice well. 

Gladwell is known for touting 10,000 hours as the estimated time to become an expert. We would do well to remind our students, “what does it take to be an expert at this? 10,000 hours of hard work.” Perhaps we should direct our teens with this follow up: “If it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something, what do you want to give an hour to today?” While the 10,000 hours theory is held in debate, it helpfully exhibits the principle that success is rooted in faithfulness and diligence. 

4. Value the good life. 

While not directly a part of Dweck’s writing, after reading story after story of apathy, hopelessness, and emotional paralysis that came from those living with a fixed mindset, it became evident that when we fall into a fixed mindset, we are losing our telos, our reason for being. So, another way to combat the fixed mindset is to redirect our attention to what we are to live for—for grades or for worship by way of studying the creation of God? for degrees or for contribution to greater society by way of a vocation that allows us to impact the world for Christ? for money or for provision for our community and for generosity towards others? Notice that none of those statements diminish the outcome but do challenge the value placement. One way to check the values we are perpetuating is to review our conversations: what are our words advertising is our goal, our reason for being? Are we more filled with wonder when we discuss the net worth of a CFO or when we recount the outreach of the CFO’s philanthropic organization? What grabs our wonder is one way that we impart what is valuable to our students, our children, and our community. 

Sarah Blakely, Spanx CEO, has delivered interviews where she recalls what was valued in the conversation around her parents’ dinner table: they asked her what she tried that day that she failed at. In the conversation, they esteemed risk and trial and error. This communicated that the fall was praiseworthy because of the imagination and courage it represented. What are we training our teens to value by way of our dinner table topics?

5. Rest in Christ.  

If we can speak over our teens that their identity is found in Christ, not in external accomplishments or goods, we are equipping them with a growth mindset that outlasts trendy educational and psychological terms. Forever a counter-cultural message, we as faculty at Landmark Christian School pray over elementary, middle, and high school students and engage them in the classroom with the foundational messages from Scripture that structure a reality that expects imperfection, rallies around honesty and shortcomings and finds peace and sanctification by way of the Savior rather than the self.

Simple truths to pray over our middle school and high school teens to shape their worldview:

Creation is evidence of the glory of a God far greater than ourselves.
Romans 1:20a For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. 
 
Humanity is enslaved by worldly and selfish patterns, whether willfully sinful or weak and disabling. 
Galatians 4:1-3 I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way, we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 
 
This glory-filled God cares for each one of us. 
Zephaniah 3:17 The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.

Our salvation in Christ redefines us as living for God’s glory and not for our own accomplishments.
2 Timothy 1:9 Who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.

Christ is our role model for how we should live. 
John 13:15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.
Our thoughts are no longer trapped by worldly patterns but instead, are rerouted by our understanding of our value in Christ. 
Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. 

Our response to salvation is not only to love Him but also to share the love with our community—which requires taking our eyes off ourselves. 
John 13:34-35 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this, all people will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”

And we no longer value temporary gratifications but the Spirit turns our hearts towards the immaterial good.
Romans 5:3-5 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 
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