Bring Out Their Best
Growth Mindset Alternatives to Behavioural Consequences
By Melissa Strader and Kathryn Tonges
Neuroscientists are discovering that there is far more plasticity in the brain than was originally thought. Of course, there is a unique genetic imprint with which each person begins life and which may lead to a predisposition for a particular intellect, temperament or talent. It is now believed however, that the capacity to alter these is also far greater than was originally thought.
Yet it is mindset, how individuals perceive this natural capacity and their ability to change it, which effects how they lead their life, how they approach learning and its inherent challenges and ultimately how successful they become. That is why early childhood teachers have a unique opportunity to influence a child’s mindset towards one of growth at a crucial time of their life.
Dr. Carol Dweck (2016), the clinical psychologist who first researched the impact of mindsets, found that how people explained their own intelligence has a significant influence on their motivation, effort and approach to challenges.
A growth mindset is the belief that our basic attributes can be cultivated through effort, application and experience. A belief that one’s potential is unknowable and changeable.
It has been shown in numerous studies that a growth mindset leads to increased effort, more perseverance, superior learning strategies and in turn greater long-term success. Children who have a growth mindset, approach challenges with the view that, ‘If it seems hard then there must be another way. I just need to put in more effort to figure it out’.
A fixed mindset on the other hand is the belief that a person’s IQ, personality and aptitudes are fixed. It is a belief that these are capped at a particular point and therefore only allow a certain potential to be reached and no more. Students who believe that their intelligence is a fixed trait will often give up when they face a challenge in learning because they figure, ‘If I can’t do it I must not be smart enough. There is something lacking in me so I will never be able to do it’.
Dr. Carol Dweck (2016) found in studies of students’ ability levels that the mindset of teachers also impacts student success. A teacher with a growth mindset who believes in student improvement will see all students doing well, whereas a teacher who believes that children’s abilities and intellect are fixed will see confirmation of this with very little improvement in student results and rankings throughout the year. These improvements (or lack of them) are not just teacher perception. It is evidenced in actual student results.
In the same way that mindset can be applied to academic learning, it can be applied to how behaviour is learned and taught. Teachers with a growth mindset view children’s behavior as a skill deficit rather than a flaw in character and are therefore more likely to recognize and appreciate that a child is always behaving to get a need met rather than judgmentally viewing behaviour as misbehaviour. The child’s unacceptable behaviour is the child’s best attempt at that moment to communicate an unmet need. The teacher can then provide interventions that help the child develop more constructive ways of expressing his or her needs and lead to communication that is more socially acceptable.
Fixed mindset teachers tend to view children’s behaviour judgmentally and typically respond to unacceptable behavior using consequences that include punitive measures such as loss of privileges, exclusion, yelling and threatening; withdrawal of attention such as ignoring and time-out; and positive reinforcement such as praise, rewards, stickers and prizes.
When praise or rewards are used with the intent of modifying behavior or increasing the chance of the positive behavior being repeated in the future, the process is referred to as positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is widely accepted as an effective tool for behavior management in early childhood settings. However, similarly to more punitive measures such as ignoring and time outs, positive reinforcement takes the onus of responsibility for the behavior from the child and places it with the adult imposing the consequences.
This is not to say that we should not praise our students at all - of course we want to recognize and celebrate children’s progress and improvement. Nor should we forgo setting appropriate limits or maintaining high expectations for behaviour and learning. However, the way influential adults talk to a child becomes that child’s inner voice (Markham 2012). So when we speak gently and encouragingly to children, they internalize this voice, helping them to generate self worth and confidence. Equally, if we talk harshly to children, this is how they will speak to themselves. Therefore, the way teachers give feedback to children is crucial.
A growth mindset teacher is solution focused rather than judgmental, views behavior as a learning process and positively encourages the things that the child accomplishes through practice, persistence and the use of effective strategies e.g. ‘I see the effort you are making to share with your friends.’ Or ‘By turning the puzzle pieces I notice that you are trying to work out a different way for them to fit’. Rather than, ‘Good girl for sharing.’ Whilst being praised for being ‘well behaved’ may make children feel good in the short term, the deeper lesson children learn is that people are either well behaved or not, and when behaving appropriately or self-control becomes hard for them, they feel incapable.
When children have upsets and teachers take the time to Active Listen (Gordon 2000) by naming the child’s feelings, children feel heard, relieved of flooding emotions and develop confidence in their capacity to think and solve problems. Validated by neuroscience, Dr. Daniel Siegel calls this process Name It to Tame It (Siegel 2011). Consequently, children learn empathy and how their brain works.
Unfortunately, when children’s emotions overwhelm them, they are often unwittingly denied the opportunity to express these feelings by being sent to time-out or when the situation is turned into an opportunity to moralise. Renowned educator, Haim Ginott (1972, p13), expresses this best: When someone is drowning, it’s not the time to teach them to swim.
Role modelling effective confrontation when the teacher has a problem with the child’s behavior helps children realise that they can learn and grow from their mistakes. Teachers who use punitive consequences such as loss of privileges, threats and time-out leave the child in the role of a culprit rather than a helper, leading to a potential belief, ‘I can’t do anything right’.
Thomas Gordon (2000) identifies a three-part message to effectively confront unacceptable behavior, produce helpful change and help the child grow: 1. a nonjudgmental description of the child’s behavior; 2. Concrete, tangible effect of the behavior on the teacher or class; 3. the teacher’s primary, congruent feeling. Children can then think of a solution to help the other person and to believe, ‘there is always another way’.
With young children, when their need is acknowledged first and warm connection is established they are more likely to help and listen e.g. ‘Looks like you’re enjoying a new place to draw’. Once children have the chance to respond, the teacher can then confront: ‘When you draw on this wall I’m worried that it will be difficult to clean off’.
Although young children may need help with problem solving socially acceptable solutions they can still be encouraged: ‘Come on we’ll find a cloth to clean it off, then we’ll look for something different that you might draw on. I’m sure you will think of some new ideas’.
Conflict is inevitable in a classroom. Yet often children who are still learning social skills and have not yet learnt effective strategies to resolve differences are alienated, and punished. Effective conflict resolution enables children to focus on the process that leads to learning and acceptable behavior, to explore new strategies and seek input from others. Why Children Fight: Lessons in Moral Development (Tonges 2014) provides step-by-step examples. Teachers have a powerful opportunity to support children moving from ‘might is right’ to higher levels of moral reasoning and inevitably a growth mindset.
The richness of the environment that children are in, both at home and at school, and the way that children are nurtured in these environments, has a significant impact on how they learn and behave. This is not new to early childhood teachers, however, the concept that how people perceive their capacity to alter what nature gave them, is.
If we seek to develop in children a sound moral compass, increased self-discipline, intrinsic motivation, greater perseverance, empathy and emotional self-regulation, we are far more likely to do so using a growth mindset approach.
Possessing a growth mindset helps children believe in their capacity for improvement and mastery. As well as fostering it in the children we teach, adopting a growth mindset ourselves, empowers us and children for life.
Dweck, C 2016, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Ballantine Books, New York. www.mindsetworks.com/science/
Ginott, H 1972, Teacher and Child, Colliers Books Macmilllan Publishing Company, New York.
Gordon, T 2000, Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Programme for Raising Responsible Children, Three Rivers Press, New York. www.gordontraining.com
Markham, L 2012, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting, Penguin, New York. www.ahaparenting.com
Siegel, D & Payne Bryson, T 2011, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Delacorte Press, NewYork. www.drdansiegel.com
Tonges, K 2014, Why Children Fight: Lessons in Moral Development, Retrieved from: www.theparentwithin.com
This article was originally published in Educating Young Children: Journal of Early Childhood Teachers' Association (2017)