Cognitive Interventions

Dr. Carol Dweck, working first at Columbia University and then at Stanford, has spent three decades studying the crucial question: How do people react to failure and stress? She has found that most people react to failures with one of two thought patterns. Some people are immobilized by failure, while others are energized by it. Some give up, while others try harder or find another way to succeed. I have seen these two patterns even in Kindergarten students. When students are asked to redo a written sentence, some students refuse angrily. Other students comply cheerfully. As students get older, some react to a difficult school assignment with frustration and self-doubt, while others ask for help or try harder. Some students react to social rejection or mistreatment with self-blame, while others move into more positive peer relationships and consciously filter others’ comments about them.

Dweck identified two overall styles of thinking or mindsets and named them the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. People who use the fixed mindset see themselves as a collection of traits. Fixed mindset thinkers conceptualize themselves as “good at” some things and “bad at” other things. They see themselves as unchangeable, and they understand their successes as a reflection of their positive traits or abilities. If they succeed academically or socially, they believe that their success is caused by their intelligence or aptitudes. (“I am good at math.” “I’m smart.” “I’m popular.”) When they experience failure, fixed mindset thinkers are likely to believe that  their failures are caused by their deficiencies. (”I’m not good at math.” “I don’t have a talent for music.” “I’m ugly.” “I’m unpopular.”) One of Dweck’s most striking findings is that people who interpret their successes as linked to their fixed positive traits are also likely to see their failures as a result of fixed negative traits. Fixed mindset thinkers, Dweck has learned,  thrive when they experience success. On the other hand, they tend to interpret failures and stress as indicating that they are “not good at” something, that they are not capable, or that they are not likeable or attractive. For this reason, she learned, fixed mindset thinkers become helpless and emotionally fragile when they experience negative events or failure.

People who use the growth mindset see themselves as having the potential for growth and change. They see their successes as the result of their actions and choices. (”I did well on the test because I paid attention in class and asked questions.” “I play guitar well because I practice every day.” “I have made friends by being kind to people and listening to them.”) Growth mindset thinkers also conceptualize their failures as the result of actions, choices, and situations. (”I got a low grade because I didn’t study.” “I haven’t made friends yet.” “People were mean to me.”) Growth mindset thinkers react to failure, frustration, or negative events by searching for other strategies or for support. They see themselves and their life situations as changeable. They see potential for change and growth. They are more likely to be resilient than fixed mindset thinkers.

How do we help young people become growth mindset thinkers? Dweck has three practical suggestions:

  1. First, we can focus our negative, or critical, feedback to students on their actions, their choices, and the strategies they used, rather than on their traits. (“You haven’t been handing in your homework, and I notice your grades are dropping.” “You called Takeisha names and she seems sad to me.” “You haven’t been practicing the guitar.” We can also ask students to reflect on their own strategies. (”Your grades in math are dropping. What do you think you could do to bring them up?” “You called Takeisha names. How do you think that affected her?” “What do you think you would need to do to improve your guitar playing?”)
  2. Second, we can focus frequent positive feedback to students on their actions, their choices, and the strategies they used rather than on their traits or abilities. (”You have been doing your homework every day and your grades have been going up.” “You invited Sameer to sit with you at lunch and I saw him smiling.” “You have been practicing guitar every day and your playing is getting more accurate.”) In contrast to fixed mindset positive feedback (”You’re smart.” “You’re kind.” “You’re good at science.” “You’re talented.”), this style of positive feedback helps students examine and learn from the strategies and actions that led them to success. Growth-focused positive feedback reduces the very real risk that feedback focusing on traits or talents will lead to narcissism rather than to hard work. For more about the link between our use of fixed mindset positive feedback and narcissism, see the work of  Baumeister and Twenge. We can also use growth mindset questions to help students to reflect on their own successes and strategies (”How have you brought your grades up?” “How do you think Sameer felt when you invited him to sit with you at lunch?” “Why is your guitar playing getting better? What have you done?”)

    Dweck told me when we talked about this issue that the way we give feedback is powerful because “what we praise shows young people what we value.”  That statement led me to realize that I do not value intelligence or any other fixed trait as much as I value hard work, persistent effort and considering others’ needs and feelings. I realized that I should work harder to praise the things I actually value. For more about the importance of effort and community support in achievement, and the relatively smaller contribution of talent to success, see Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers.

  3. Dweck’s third suggestion is that we help students see that people change and grow. Students benefit from learning that the brain can grow and develop in the same way that muscles grow when we exercise. Students benefit in situations of peer mistreatment when they know that people change, rather than thinking that some people are “bullies” and other people are “victims.” In one recent research study she conducted with her colleague David Yeager, students who felt that they had been mistreated by “a bully” indicated higher levels of trauma and more long-lasting harm than did those students who believed they had been mistreated by another student. This crucial finding parallels what young people in the Youth Voice Project told us: that they benefited when peers told them that the person who mistreated them was “acting immature.” When I discuss this statement with adolescents, they tell me that seeing someone who mistreats them as “immature” allows them not to blame themselves for the mean behavior. At the same time, these words allow teens to forgive the person who mistreated them and to see that person as capable of change.

I recommend that everyone working with young people in any way learn about Dweck’s crucial work, which is described in her books Self-Theories and Mindset.

For more information about what  adults and peers can do, see Youth Voice Project: Student Insights Into Bullying And Peer Harassment


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