Last Updated on October 3, 2023 by Sarah McCubbin
Here are my best practical tips on teaching growth mindset for kids and teens. Most parents want to help their kids avoid any kind of failures that will hurt them physically, emotionally, socially or spiritually. We all know firsthand how our own mistakes have affected our lives and we want something different for our kids. But when mistakes happen, we can choose to learn from them.
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I didn’t have a clear framework for how I would parent when I became a mom. I read some parenting books and many of them seemed to offer conflicting advice. Taking care of a baby turned out to be much less challenging than actually teaching my growing child. After all, no matter how I would try, it didn’t seem like they would “listen” to “everything” I was trying to teach them.
And when they would make mistakes or deliberately obey, it often felt very personal. I found myself getting angry when they embarrassed me or when they didn’t listen in public. As it turns out, I didn’t have a well-formed idea of learning from mistakes. Over many years though I would learn to have a growth mindset and began to pass that on to my kids.
Table of Contents
What is a growth mindset theory?
A growth mindset is simply a way of viewing challenges that you face in your life. A growth mindset views challenges as opportunities to learn. The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset. When we have a fixed mindset, we view failure as permanent and mistakes as crisis. Choosing to navigate difficult situations with an attitude of growth allows you to always win…to always learn and to always be forward thinking…even when you lose in the moment. Helping our kids and teens have a growth mindset can be one of the best things we can do to help launch them as adults.
Different Types of Mindsets
Growth Mindset -A growth mindset is a concept developed by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, which refers to the belief that one’s abilities and intelligence can be developed and improved over time through dedication, effort, and learning.
Fixed Mindset – A fixed mindset is where individuals believe their abilities and intelligence are static and cannot be changed, people with a growth mindset embrace challenges, persevere through obstacles, and see failures as opportunities for learning and growth.
Key characteristics of a growth mindset include:
- Embracing challenges: People with a growth mindset see challenges as opportunities to learn and improve, rather than as threats to their self-worth or abilities.
- Persistence and grit: They are more likely to try again in the face of setbacks and failures because they understand that setbacks are a natural part of the learning process.
- Effort is necessary: Individuals with a growth mindset believe that effort is a necessary part of achieving success, and they are willing to put in the work to achieve their goals and greater happiness.
- Learning from mistakes: Instead of avoiding mistakes, those with a growth mindset see them as valuable feedback that can help them improve and grow.
- Seeking opportunities for growth: They actively look for opportunities for learning and development, whether it’s through seeking feedback, trying new approaches, or seeking challenges that push them beyond their current capabilities.
- Embracing feedback: Constructive feedback is seen as a way to improve, not as a criticism of their abilities.
Characteristics of a fixed mindset include:
- Avoidance of challenges: Individuals with a fixed mindset often avoid challenges and difficult tasks because they fear failure, which they perceive as a reflection of their natural abilities.
- Fear of failure: Failure is seen as a negative judgment of their inherent capabilities, so those with a fixed mindset tend to avoid situations or new skills where they might fail, even if it means missing out on valuable learning opportunities.
- Belief in innate talent: Fixed mindset individuals often believe that success is primarily determined by natural talent or abilities, rather than effort or learning. They may view people who excel as simply “gifted” and not consider the effort and practice that may have led to their success.
- Lack of persistence: When faced with obstacles or setbacks, individuals with a fixed mindset are more likely to give up easily, as they believe that their abilities are fixed and cannot be improved through effort.
- Defensive in the face of criticism: Constructive feedback can be perceived as a personal attack by those with a fixed mindset, as they may interpret it as evidence of their limitations rather than an opportunity for improvement.
- Comparison with others: Fixed mindset individuals often compare themselves to others to gauge their own worth or abilities. They may feel threatened by the success of others and may be envious or resentful.
- Limited self-belief: A fixed mindset can lead to low self-esteem and self-doubt because individuals tie their self-worth to their perceived innate abilities. They may not take on new challenges because they don’t believe they have what it takes to succeed.
- Resistance to change: Fixed mindset individuals may resist change because it challenges their established beliefs about their capabilities and the world. They prefer to stay within their comfort zones.
- Performance-oriented: They are often focused on looking smart or talented rather than on the process of learning. This can lead to a fear of taking risks or making mistakes.
- Limited long-term growth: Ultimately, a fixed mindset can limit personal and professional growth, as individuals are less likely to invest the effort required for self-improvement and may miss out on opportunities for learning and development.
A Growth Mindset for Kids Can Be Learned
Whether one is born with a growth mindset or a fixed mindset, the good news is that we have a fantastic elastic brain that can move out of our comfort zone and learn a different way of thinking. If someone has a fixed mindset and they want to change, the best way to do so is with small baby steps. If the fear of failure is huge, then the first time you try something new, let it me a small thing with limited risk. Your growth mindset will improved gradually over time as you push past obstacles one at a time and try a different approach to opportunities.
The same is true for our kids. If your child struggles with perfectionism or a lack of persistence, lower the bar. The fear of failure is paralyzing. Give them something to do that is small but new. Then raise the bar. When they come up against something that feels too hard, incentivize them to push past it. On a case by case basis, I have rewarded my kids for not quitting, for trying new things, for showing up when they didn’t want to and more.
Growth Mindset Activities and Conversations
Helping children develop a positive mindset toward challenging tasks is something every parent and adult wants. I didn’t have those mindsets as a young child or a teen. Instead, new challenges were something made me feel overwhelmed. So I avoided trying fun activities because the stress of failure was a real problem.
Children that struggle with perfectionism often hold themselves to an unrealistically high standard. One of the BEST things we can do is destigmatize failure and reframe it as a learning opportunity for problem solving.
1. Your Brain Can Grow, Change and Get Stronger
One of the key elements of a fixed mindset is the belief that the way things are now is the way they will always be. But we can teach our kids that our brain works in a way that it is literally designed to be constantly growing and improving and making new connections.
We can teach them that the way we learn things is to repeat the activity or information over and over to make those connections in our brain stronger. It’s like lifting weights with our brain and when we do, it gets stronger and able to handle more!
2. Teach Kids What a Growth and Fixed Mindset Are?
I was in my late thirties before I remember hearing the terms growth mindset and fixed mindset. I had been a parent for more than 10 years when I learned about the neuroplasticity and the brain’s ability to chance. I think it would have helped me as a child to know that my quirks were things that I could change. I could learn new ways of doing things…and new ways of connecting with people and that the process was the goal…not some standard of perfection.
3. Tell Kids that All Mistakes Are Learning Experiences
A growth mindset teaches us that all mistakes are learning experiences. We don’t want anyone to actively go out and make mistakes, but when they happen, it is helpful to realize that we can CHOOSE to learn from the mistakes.
Kids who learn from mistakes have adults around them to help them process valuable lessons.
Ask: “What did you learn?” “What will you do differently next time?” “How did it feel when ____________happened?” “How do you think the other person felt?”
When we do this, it reprograms our brain to look at mistakes as learning experiences instead of shameful condemning memories.
I did not always have this understanding. I grew up in a Christian home, but it wasn’t until I was an adult and really developed a relationship with Jesus apart from religion that I came to understand and love this verse: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Romans 8:1.
This verse changed how I viewed myself and how I viewed my kids. God is not condemning me for my mistakes. That is WHY He sent Jesus. Our life joined with his means God doesn’t look at our mistakes…only who we are in Jesus. That also means I don’t need to constantly remind my kids of their mistakes. I can help them learn from them and then move past them.
4. Help Kids Learn From Mistakes
Kids who learn from mistakes do not happen by accident. After all, mistakes can be somewhat frustrating to pin down. Without some direct input and instruction, it can be hard to know where the mistake began. Mistakes can be doing wrong things…but they can also be misreading a situation or misunderstanding instructions or intentions. However they happen though, here are ways we can teach our kids to learn from mistakes:
- Ask good questions to process: “What happened?” “What did you learn” “What would you do differently in the future?”
- Paint a picture of how this problem will help them in the future. Help them see how identifying this mistake now will help prevent future problems.
- Make it safe for them to admit mistakes. When kids know it is ok to admit mistakes, it doesn’t feel threatening and like it is something they must hide.
- Talk about your own mistakes.
5. Share Your Mistakes With Kids
I believe that one great way of teaching is sharing our own failures and mistakes.
I have found that my own mistakes are some of my best teaching tools with my kids. When I let go of my pride and tell them some of the things I have done recently and in the past, it opens the door to learning conversations. Instead of mistakes or failures being a badge of shame, they are simply building blocks that propel us forward.
As a parent, a gentle way to talk about mistakes is to say, “Hey I want to talk to you about _______________. I made many mistakes in this area when I was younger and I want to help you avoid those problems. One time….(fill in the blank with a story). ” And then bring that story full circle to talk about the current situation.
6. Talk About Other People’s Failure’s & Mistakes
Sometimes we avoid talking about other people’s mistakes because we don’t want to gossip. But our kids are paying attention and they NOTICE when people fail. If we want kids who learn from mistakes, we need to grab every opportunity that comes along to help them view failure as a learning opportunity.
What if we could use those things that happened…or that people are talking about possibly happening to help our kids have a better understanding of mistakes. After all…our kids are interested and want to process…why not use it for good?
In our family, if one of our kids starts talking about someone else and a big mistake they made (or that someone said they made), here are the talking points we use:
- “Do you know for sure that this person did this? Ok..we may not have all the facts, but let’s talk about this anyway.”
- Why do you think someone might do this?
- What could someone have been thinking that made this a good idea in their head?
- When should they have stopped and analyzed their thoughts?
- Why is the problem being handled the way it is?
- What do you think the other person was thinking/feeling?
- What are situations you are in sometimes where you could possibly made this mistake…even accidentally?
These are just example questions. We admit we don’t have all the facts but we allow conversation to flow around the topic so that kids can process it from many angles. Encourage them to see the problem from many perspectives. It helps them learn without actually making the mistake themselves.
7. Create Situations Where Students Will “Fail”
For people with a lot of natural talent or perfectionist tendencies, failure can be a foreign concept. They may avoid hard things or only accept challenges head-on when they know they can succeed. Create different situations where your children or students earn points or money for trying again when they fail…not for actually achieving the goal.
A few weeks ago, I was at a cross country meet. Most runners are thin and fast. But there was one young man who was heavy and very slow. The race started and all the runners ran past him, and then lapped him and the race ended..but he hadn’t finished. Then the next race started. It was the girls race this time. And as those girls were crossing the finish line, I saw him slowly jogging toward the finish line. It took him twice as long to complete the race but he did it. On the score board, he came in last. But in life, that kind of persistence is rare and he definitely won that day in my eyes.
8. Reverse Engineer Situations Where They Could Experience Failure in the Future
If there are mistakes or failures you want your kids to avoid, then reverse engineering can be a helpful technique. That is…work backwards from the mistake and talk about the steps that lead a person to make it.
Here is a possible example of Reverse Engineering Failing a Test
End result: Failed Test
Decisions that led up to it:
- Not studying the night before – 5th decision
- Not being organized with notes – 4th decision
- Not taking good notes in class – 3rd decision
- Not listening in class -2nd decision
- Playing on phone in class -Trigger Decision
We can see that the trigger “Playing on phone in class” was a seemingly insignificant decision led to increasingly significant decisions. Sometimes helping our kids see the initial trigger decisions they are making can prevent them from the cascade of events that leads to the big mistakes later.
9. Practice Responses to Failure
One of the hardest things we all face when we fail or make a mistake is owning up to our part in the problem. Whether kids make a mistake that is intentional and rebellious or completely by accident, it is important to talk about what they did and why they did it.
The get to choose their response to making a mistake. Whether that mistake leads to something constructive largely depends on how they handle the problem.
Kids who learn from mistakes KNOW they have a choice in what comes next.
They can choose:
- To guilt and shame themselves
- To blame other people
- To learn from their mistakes
- To make excuses for their mistake
- or to be honest and discuss feelings about what they did
10. Teach Kids to Be Honest About Making Mistakes
I grew up in a family with a lot of lawyers. Dinner conversation was regularly about the legal problems people were facing because of their mistakes. In all of that, this is what I learned….Making ANOTHER mistake will not make the first one better.
Lying to cover up a mistake doesn’t make it better. Lying does not make you trustworthy or make people want to help you.
On the other hand, when we are honest about our mistakes, people are more likely to extend grace and give second chances. Whether that is a mistake made in a family, in school or in the legal system, owning mistakes is a wise choice. Everyone makes mistakes and when we admit ours, people are far more likely to extend mercy and help if that is needed.
11. Talk About Missed Opportunity
Many of us are SO AFRAID of making mistakes or failing that we purposely only do things we know we will succeed at. I lived most of my life this way. I was the “A” student in school who did great on tests. The thing was though, I was not great at many many other things…but no one knew that because I only tried things where I would be successful.
Sadly, being afraid of making mistakes or failing prevents many of us from experiencing unique opportunities. When we look at mistakes and failure as opportunities to grow, then we are less afraid to try things.
Failing and mistakes give us permission to try new things.
They give us permission to explore interests, have conversations and take classes.
When kids want to try something new, it is helpful to have the conversation about failure before they begin. “If you aren’t very good at this, what do you think you will learn?” “How do the best participants prepare?” “What is different about them than others?”
If I could go back to my younger self…this is the #1 thing I encourage myself to do. Go try things…even if you fail.
12. Practice Failing Together
If you have a child that is terrified of failure or making mistakes, find a fun way to “fail” together. Not an artist? Sign up to take a drawing or painting class with your child.
When you do the activity together, point out where the drawing isn’t “perfect” but more importantly, talk about what you are enjoying or learning. You are spending time together. You are trying something new. You are learning from an expert. You are laughing a lot. You will appreciate other art more in the future because you realize how hard it is!
Not athletic, try bowling with out the bumpers. It is surprisingly hard to keep that ball in the lane if you are not doing it regularly!
Repeat this type of activity together in the future…new things that you will do imperfectly so that they can discover the value in learning.
13. Praise their Effort Not the Results
The boy I mentioned earlier who took twice as long as everyone else to finish the race…he was a winner. He DID NOT QUIT. That’s quite a thing when there are tons of spectators who see just how slow you are.
When our young learners aren’t the best at something, we can praise them for the character quality we see in them and for the effort they put forth. None of us are great at everything…but we can use every opportunity in a meaningful way to teach our kids something and to encourage qualities we want to see more of!
Reframing Failure and Mistakes as Learning Is a Life Skill for Success
As we prepare our kids to navigate life, teaching them that it is ok to make mistakes and fail prepares them to work on other areas of life that may not feel comfortable at first. A growth mindset for kids and teens prepares them to do things that feel a little bit risky. Whether your student is part of early childhood education or one of many middle school students or college students, putting failure in a positive light is a great place to start having a positive impact on their growth mindset.
The right type of mindset can be the difference between a person who keeps trying different strategies and one who easily quits. It can be the difference between having a great school year and better grade and another year of struggle. As parents and adults, we have to be the ones to model overcoming hard things in our daily lives.
We have all heard stories of teens afraid to get their drivers license or afraid to get a job. There other adults who are afraid of commitment or trap by fear in other areas…simply because they don’t know how to take the first step and try something.