Lilla Dale McManis, M. Ed, PhD
The pandemic has disrupted the most fundamental areas of life. For families with children, the impact on schooling is especially distressing. Research shows a drop in learning as teachers struggle to monitor students’ actual understanding while kids are completing fewer assignments.
The result? Parents are being asked to take up the slack and that is a big ask. Getting our kids to stay interested and focused has never been more challenging. But in truth, it goes beyond this. We need to explore the underlying drivers.
Growth Mindset and Motivation
Have you noticed some kids throw themselves into activities and feel they can learn, improve, and overcome-even when something is hard or intimidating; while others seem to shut down or avoid, blame others for their failures, or say the task at hand is dumb, boring, and so on? These differences highlight whether they have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset, or somewhere in between.
This phenomenon arises from the established work of Carol Dweck-Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. She and her colleagues have shown a child’s mindset has measurable impacts on learning, motivation, resilience, and performance.
A growth mindset is where one believes abilities and traits are able to be changed through effort and learning from mistakes. On the flip side, a fixed mindset is where one believes their abilities and traits are not able to change. In other words, “You are what you are and you will always be that way.”
This ties directly into motivation. If a child believes they can learn a new math equation or write a better book report, they’ll be much more motivated to do so. After all, if you felt like you simply did not have the ability to do something, why would you want to do it? A further nuance is that kids with a growth mindset aren’t all that concerned about being seen as a failure because to them failing is just a way to figure out how to get better. However, for a child with a fixed mindset, failure means being exposed and possibly ridiculed.
To complicate matters, the pandemic has served up another layer to contend with for fostering a growth mindset and motivation. Kids may internalize the feeling of individuals’ lives being out of their control to mean they themselves could not possibly be competent enough to control their own path and outcomes. We can see now just how much children rely on the comfort of school routines, relationships with teachers and peers, and the support of their parents.
How do you know your child’s mindset when it comes to academics? One of the best ways is to listen to how they respond to challenges. Dweck found kids with fixed mindsets after failing a test said they would likely cheat or focus on kids who did even worse to feel better. Kids with a growth mindset said they would study harder by finding out where they did poorly so they could focus on learning in order to improve.
This example is the key to listening and taking what our kids say seriously. What does your child say before or after experiencing a legitimately challenging situation? They may not always be thoughtful, articulate, or calm but that does not mean the feelings aren’t real. In fact, they are likely more genuine than when everything is going well. When our children say things like, “I’m stupid!”, our first response is usually to exclaim, “Don’t say that!” Yet shutting them down won’t make the feelings go away, and if buried, guiding your child toward a growth mindset and increased motivation will not have the needed ground for your lessons to take root.
The good news is children and teens trust their parents. When kids get scared, and a pandemic is certainly scary, our kids will look to us for comfort and for coping strategies.
Fostering Growth Mindset and Motivation
Here are few ways you can foster your child’s mindset and motivation for school during the pandemic. The added benefit is these will serve them well throughout all the inevitable challenges of life. As you think about these, do keep in mind a child with a fixed mindset will feel vulnerable about putting themselves out there, so patience and understanding are essential.
The Brain is a Muscle
Intervention research shows the best place to begin is teaching kids the brain is like a muscle-the more it’s used, the stronger it becomes. Explain that during learning exercises, this is practice for their brain. The brain gets a chance to make new, stronger connections. That means next time, the work will be easier.
One concrete way to bring this home is revisiting your child’s accomplishments. Illustrate they didn’t just one day find they could magically do something by bringing out the progression through saved artwork, writing, and photos. Explain this same process will work for academic success in the present.
Effort Over Performance
Try focusing more on the effort. However, this is not about saying, “Just try harder”. Talk with your child about how they are going about learning and completing assignments. Help them articulate their game plan. If they seem to be missing steps, like writing the final essay without a draft, you can know this before they turn in a poorly executed assignment.
To build the habit, get a chalkboard/whiteboard your child can decorate. Make it a habit to really check what they are writing for plans and have a meaningful conversation. For instance, “I see you’re going to read 10 pages each day. What did you like the most about what you read today?” Remember to be prepared for “Nothing!” and press forward.
Kids often learn best when it doesn’t seem like learning. Keep tabs on topics, not just the assignments and come up with interesting activities that support learning in this area. For instance, if your child is learning about the ocean, visit an aquarium or find a webcam. If fractions are on the docket, get into the kitchen and make a recipe of your child’s choosing. When your teen is taking psychology, go to a public place and people watch.
They key to this is you are invested and showing that academic topics arise from, and have a purpose in, the real world. Then, slowly turn the reins over. Ask your child, “What are we going to do this weekend to have fun while learning about ….?” They may just surprise you, and in a good way!
Dweck, C. S., & Yeager, D. S. (2019). Mindsets: A view from two eras. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(3), 481-496
Engzell, P., Frey, A., & Verhagen, M. D. (2021). Learning loss due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(17).
Rhew, E., Piro, J. S., Goolkasian, P., & Cosentino, P. (2018). The effects of a growth mindset on self-efficacy and motivation. Cogent Education, 5(1), 1492337.