How children achieve – and how we can help

I like a bit of research. In fact, having children wasn’t just amazing on all those other levels I’ve talked about so much, it also gave me a whole other subject to research the life out of. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no problem that cannot be solved by a handy book or a bit of time on Google. I don’t hold with all that ‘instinct’ stuff – mine must be missing. If it’s good enough for an expert and a million other people, it’s good enough for me. And in the course of this research (and thanks mostly to one of my friends, who told me about it a long time ago) I’ve stumbled across the most interesting research I’ve ever found about children and how they achieve.

It turns out that all the times I’ve been telling my daughter what a clever girl she is for reading, or grasping her numbers, or doing a handstand, and thinking I was developing her self esteem, it would have been better to use other phrasing. Because it’s not about how ‘clever’ they are, and by using that terminology we run the risk of making them think that ‘cleverness’ is something they have or don’t have, and they have no control over this having or not having. It’s not earned, or created, or developed. Therefore as children grow, they understand the concept of being good at something as something they just have. We’re all guilty of labelling – one’s the quiet one, or the well behaved one- or the clever one or the one who does well at school. By focusing on the end product of what a child is trying to do rather than the journey to achieving it, we are not teaching them that the harder they try, and the more times they practise something, the more likely they are to achieve it. So the phrasing it would be better to use is ‘you’ve worked so hard on that and look where you’ve got to’ or similar. 

This theory can be found in a lot of different places, but the most famous is from a psychology professor called Carol Dweck, who wrote a book (and many others) called ‘Mindset.’ It explores the idea explained above – that people succeed because of the effort they put in rather than merely being clever or talented to begin with. It is particularly interesting when it discusses girls – especially bright girls – and offers the idea that often very bright girls will often attribute failure in a task to a lack of ability – they just weren’t clever enough, or good enough at it – because a prevailing belief in society is that we are inherently or naturally good at things. Amongst a lot of studies, Dweck and others offered the idea that a better way to success is to accept that talent and intelligence are only part of the picture, and that it is your mindset and changing it from a fixed mindset to a learning mindset is what can make the difference. As a teacher, when I read that an awful lot of things fell into place for me; in particular, all those sixth form students who can struggle to make the transition from GCSE to sixth form, because they’ve never found things really hard before, and so have never had to overcome learning obstacles. 

Dweck does say that hard work and changing your mindset won’t necessarily make you better at something than someone else who has natural talent; but it will change yours – and your children’s – view of what is achievable. As a girl who gave up on maths when I was fifteen because I found it difficult, her theories ring very true for me. I’m not the most naturally intelligent person in the world – even a psychologist deemed me ‘a grafter’ when I was twelve, rather than someone of great intellectual ability. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve learned intelligence. (Through research mostly) I missed a first at university by a tiny percentage – not because I’m ‘clever’ but because I worked bloody hard. And if there was something I couldn’t do (except maths) I practised it until I could. And if there’s anything I’d like my children to inherit (although child 2 is an actual replica of me so far – all the good and ALL the bad) – it’s that. The confidence and strength to believe that you can overcome any obstacle and be exactly who you want to be. This theory may be something you’re thinking ‘er – yes- beyond obvious isn’t it?’ but to me it really wasn’t.

So for the last few days, I’ve been trying out this new way of thinking on my children, and realised, to my surprise but also joy, that they have already begun. When child 2 was struggling with her number reversals (‘2’ the right way round is a foreign concept to her) I said if she practised enough times she would be able to do it. ‘Like when….’ I said, and paused for a moment trying to think of an example- ‘when Noah couldn’t read Mummy,’ she filled in helpfully. (I do remember banging on about this in an effort to motivate her) ‘He couldn’t and then he did it over and over again until he could.’ I nodded but she was already off again: ‘and when I couldn’t do a cartwheel, you showed me how to do it and then I did it over and over again until I could.’ She then went back to writing the number 2 and I looked at her little face, full of concentration and contentment, and wanted to capture this moment for ever – her sweetness, her innocence, and her confidence. She’s already out in a world that I fear every day can damage her, but I hope I can help give her and her brother the tools to remain strong and determined and confident. And this summer is going to be all about the fun we had, the things we tried, and the challenges that we overcame. 

Happy holidays to all my lovely readers – I’m grateful to you all for your reading  and sharing. 

Follow me on Twitter – @randommusingsby. 

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