Great Effort!

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My Thanh Mac explains ‘fixed versus growth mindsets,’ and advises how you can put growth mindset language into practice.

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Take two groups of 10-11 year olds and give them the same task. Upon completion of the first task, one group of children are praised about their intelligence, while the other groups’ praise focuses on their effort and determination. When given a much harder puzzle, which group of children will prove to be more successful?

The outcome? Not only was the latter group of participants more successful, they persevered with the challenging task for longer.

This was the premise of research carried out by Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University. It was from the results of this study (Mueller & Dweck, 1998), and further subsequent studies, that the concept of fixed and growth mindset was born, with Dweck going on to write a book on the subject, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Many of us grew up with fixed mindsets toward particular subjects –

“I’m just no good at math,”


“I have no athletic genes in my body!”

Rather than believing in continual effort and the age-old phrase of try, try, try again, we let our ‘fixed mindsets’ get the better of us. If these habits are repeated often enough, the result can be an individual that balks at the sign of a challenge.

Meanwhile, some of us may have been fortunate enough to have teachers that used the language of a growth mindset before the phrase was even coined. These teachers encouraged us to persevere after a heartbreaking loss or setback, or celebrated our mistakes as a way of showing how we were learning. If we strip away the education jargon of fixed vs. growth mindsets, we need only ask ourselves: do we want our children to approach each new challenge with the belief that it is already predetermined how they will fare, or do we want them to believe that a big part of the answer lies in how hard they are willing to work?

Putting Growth Mindsets to Work

Parents often voice concern of over-praising their child. After all, why should a child receive praise for something he or she should have done? In a place like Hong Kong, where Eastern and Western ideas are constantly blended together, how do we uphold the Western value of praise, without sacrificing a more Eastern approach of “tough love” and humility?

It is a misconception that in the work of positive psychology and growth mindsets, children need to be verbally rewarded at every twist and turn. The answer lies not with how often we praise, but the way in which we frame our praise. Some people may recognise this as the term, ‘process praise’.

Process praise

Process praise, as opposed to person praise, is a way of noticing the process in which a child completes a task, irrespective of the outcome. Take, for example, a boy named Bobby who plays for a touch rugby team. If Bobby’s team has lost a game, the conversation should focus on what he learnt from the loss, rather than just the loss itself. However, if Bobby’s team wins, many parents will stop at,

“Good job! You did it!”

Under a growth mindsets framework, parents may want to add what they’ve noticed about the process:

“I think the hours of practice and learning to work together really paid off.”

The more specific, the better:

“I was really impressed when you were frustrated at not getting to the boy that scored, but then you turned that into motivation to get on the offense straight away.”

This is just one example. If homework time is a struggle in your home, try acknowledging your child’s effort. If Lily finds math problems difficult, the attention given to one completed question shows her that you’re noticing her effort, and that this effort is going to help her improve her math skills. The focus of homework completion need not be compromised, but it may not be the only focus that matters.

Our language

The words we use – and the words we intentionally don’t use – is a powerful tool that is always at work, shaping how our children see their world. And in a world where setbacks are inevitable (despite our best efforts!) children can learn to appreciate critique and view improvement as an ultimate goal.

This will start with the cultivating of your own growth mindsets, and your willingness to model to your children what it looks like to struggle; to not succeed the first time or even the tenth time. You may find that your default praise of

“Good job”


“This is great!”

will still come back from time to time – and that’s okay. With your own growth mindset at work, you will try, try, and try again.

This article appeared in Playtimes May Issue 2017

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