Mount Tamalpais School

Social Identity & Growth Mindset

There are few books that I reference as often as Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Her thesis regarding the importance of praising effort rather than intelligence or “natural ability” has thoroughly permeated teaching and coaching. I try to practice the growth mindset in my parenting as well. Whether admiring a piece of preschool art or talking about a soccer game, I am mindful to compliment color choice and that awesome spin move rather than deem the painting “great” or the game “a success.” And in those moments when I do slip up and let out a “wow, you are so smart,” or “you are such a great athlete!” I imagine Dweck shaking her head and looking at me disapprovingly.

Interestingly, though, there are some exceptions to the Mindset praise rules. Research at Stanford’s Bing Nursery School suggests that praise, appropriately applied, can foster a positive identity. If children are praised for being “a helper” rather than praising the helpful efforts, they develop this positive identity and are more likely to help in the future. In academic speak, “the present results show that young children are sensitive to subtle linguistic cues that signal that prosocial behavior will allow them to claim a positive identity.” This research suggests that while “you are a smart person” is damaging to long-term motivation, “you are a good person” promotes positive behavior.

Over the past week I have been enjoying reading our students writing. From the earliest Halloween stories of kindergarteners, to favorite lines from third graders, to richly descriptive stories in fifth grade, all of our students are producing phenomenal written products.

While my praise to students has been growth-mindset grounded – “your story is so engaging” rather than “you are such a good writer” – I believe the high quality of writing is in part related to the positive identity development referenced in the Bing research.

Before our youngest students can all write sentences, they are developing identities as writers. Teacher mini-lessons at the start of class often begin, “Okay writers, today we are going to…” Those lessons as well as the charts on the walls in each humanities classroom talk about the tools that writers use. Throughout the lower school years students develop an identity as a writer. And, just like the identity of “a helper,” this deeper personal connection to being a writer inspires greater confidence and in turn greater learning.

While our students learn reading, writing, math, and so much more at MTS, they are – even more importantly – developing their identity.

Through the words we choose, we can help students develop both a strong, pro-social identity and a growth mindset. This combination – I am a good person, and I know that effort unlocks potential – will provide our students the best mindset for a successful life long after they graduate from our school.

Finally, if you find yourself slipping into fixed mindset praise – you are so smart! – don’t beat yourself up too much. How we speak is something that we can change through effort. We just need to embody the growth mindset ourselves. And did I mention that you are such a good helper?

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