Understanding why some children dig in and work hard when faced with something new and challenging to learn, while others get anxious or give up, has been a focus of research in psychology for decades. Most people assume it has a lot to do with intelligence, but that's surprisingly wrong. No matter how high your I.Q. is, it says nothing about how you will deal with difficulty when it happens. It says nothing about whether you will be persistent and determined, or feel overwhelmed and helpless.
The goals our kids pursue in the classroom (or on the playing field, or anywhere else, for that matter), actually tell us a lot about how they will cope with difficulty. The biggest differences arise between kids whose goals are about being good versus getting better. Where being good is about proving how smart you already are, getting better is about developing skills and abilities -- about getting even smarter.
Studies show that kids who see their goals in terms of getting better -- who see a less-than-perfect grade on a math quiz as a signal to try harder, rather than as evidence of "not being good at math" -- benefit from this outlook in many ways. They find classroom material more fun and interesting, and process it more deeply. They are less prone to anxiety and depression than their be good peers. They are more motivated, persist longer when the going gets tough, and are much more likely to improve over time.
But as parents and teachers, how can we try to encourage our kids to see challenges in the classroom as opportunities to get better, rather than be good? Most children resist being told outright what their goals should be. Tell a student that she should focus more on learning than proving that she is smart (something I have actually tried as a college professor, by the way) and she will rightly point out that she is being graded for her work, so she has to care about how well she performs.
So it's often much more effective to take a less direct approach. Using these three proven methods, you can provide the subtle signals and cues that encourage your kids to, often unconsciously, hone in on the right motivation.
How to Talk About a Challenge Beforehand
You can shift your child's focus to getting better by talking about whatever they'll be working on as "an opportunity to learn a new skill" (feel free to throw in adjectives like "fun," "cool" or "useful") and saying that it's something you are sure they'll "improve on over time." Most of us are quick to snap into be good goals whenever we feel we are being judged or compared to others, so be aware that well-meaning encouragements like "I'm sure you'll be the best in your class" can send the wrong message.
How to Give Feedback About It Afterward
As much as you can, avoid comparing your child's performance to other children (which creates be good goals), and instead evaluate him relative to the task requirements (e.g. how many of the test questions he answered correctly) or to his own progress (e.g., how well he did compared to his last test). Knowing that you are being evaluated in a certain way provides a sense of what the task is "about" -- either competing with others, or making progress.
Feedback should always emphasize actions that your child has the power to change. Talk about the aspects of her performance that are under her control, like the time and effort she put into practicing, or the study method she used. Help her identify what needs improvement, and what she can do to improve. This will also help her to stay positive and confident, even when she's struggling to get the hang of it.
Focusing on her actions, rather than her ability, is just as important when it comes to praise. Tell her you admire her creative approach, her thoughtful planning, her persistence and effort, her positive attitude. When we praise our kids for being "smart" or "talented," without also praising the hard work that allows talent to shine, we are sending the message that it's all about being good, and that when you are good, success comes easily.
How to Talk About Role Models (And That Includes You)
Like the common cold, goals are remarkably contagious. The sight of someone pursuing a particular goal can actually trigger the same goal (unconsciously) in a child, so long as he sees both the role model and his goal in a positive light. When you tell your child inspirational stories of how other people reached their goals, be sure to emphasize the crucial role that hard work, persistence, and thirst for knowledge or skill played in bringing about that person's success. For example, Michael Jordon is a good role model -- not because he was born with incredible talent, but because he was a notoriously hard-working player.
Even more important than how you talk about others is how you talk about yourself. Time and again I've heard parents say things like, "I don't know where she gets it from -- I was never good in math," or, "I'm not really a science person." When they were children themselves, these parents were unfortunately taught that mastering math and science was a matter of innate ability -- as if people are just born capable of long division. It's easy to inadvertently pass along the same mistaken beliefs to your children when you talk about yourself this way.
So when you tell your own story, be sure to share with your children both the happy times when hard work and persistence paid off, and the sadder times when you feel you gave up on yourself too soon. They'll definitely get the message.
For more on this, see my previous post, "The Trouble With Bright Girls."