08/22/2011 05:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Most Important Item on Your Kids' Back-to-School List

It's that time of year again. Teachers are updating lesson plans; parents are getting the car pool warmed up. So when you start your own back-to-school shopping this month -- for your kids or for yourself -- don't forget the most important item on that list: the right mentality.

Whether you're a parent, teacher, or student, the way you think about intelligence matters. When you go through life thinking of intellect as fluid, as a muscle that gets stronger each time you use it, you set the stage for an upward academic trajectory. But when you view intelligence as a fixed entity, as a trait with set level, all you do is you set yourself up for frustration and disillusionment.

Consider, for example, a recent conversation I had with a first-grader while chaperoning a field trip for my daughter's class. The idea behind the outing seemed sound in theory: bring the kids downtown to visit the sites depicted in a book they'd been reading.

In practice, however, the chaperones' charge as was far more daunting: ride on a noisy school bus for an hour, then try to coax first-graders into sitting in a busy park to read a storybook. Right, because that's what kids who have been cooped up on a bus want to do at the park, sit quietly in a circle to look at a book they've already read. Not to mention that all this was supposed to go down with a playground and wading pool in plain view in front of us. What, was this some sort of sadistic teacher payback for a sub-par holiday gift or something?

As I watched my assigned group of 7-year-olds pour off the bus and break into an impromptu reenactment of Lord of the Flies, I decided the circumstances called for an audible. As enthusiastically as I could, I explained to my daughter and her friends the rules of the "very exciting game" we were going to play:

  • Step 1: Each child takes a turn reading a sentence from the book.
  • Step 2: Everyone runs down the slope to the fence 30 yards away, then runs back up the hill to the bench I'm sitting on.
  • Step 3: Repeat Steps 1 and 2 until the field trip is over. Or until collapse.

I must say, it worked pretty well; we got through the whole book and the kids burned off energy. The only snag in the plan (aside from the quizzical looks from the teachers), was that one of the boys informed me that he didn't want to take a turn reading -- he just wanted to run. When I asked why, he explained, "I'm not good at reading."

This is the fixed view of intelligence.

We harbor these types of thoughts from time to time, whether related to academic performance, general intellect, or other forms of competence. My daughter's classmate didn't look sad or embarrassed when he told me he wasn't good at reading -- he just stated it matter-of-factly. In his mind, reading wasn't his cup of tea and there just wasn't anything he could do about it.

But that's where he was wrong. Sure, as long as he continued to believe that he "just isn't good at it," he wasn't going to get any better. Change the way he thinks about the task, however, and his skills would be more likely to develop accordingly. This we learn from the research of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck.

Like in one study of college freshmen in Hong Kong, in which Dweck and colleagues presented students with a series of statements regarding the stability of intelligence, including "you have a certain amount of intelligence and you really can't do much to change it." Based on students' agreement with ideas like this one, the researchers assembled two groups: those who saw their intelligence as a predetermined, stable entity and those who thought of it in more malleable terms.

The freshmen were then asked whether they planned to enroll in a remedial English course. Not surprisingly, those who had aced a high school English exam were less likely to plan on such a course than students who had scored in the C-range or worse. But even among low-performing students, those who viewed intelligence as etched-in-stone saw no need for remedial work. They were already as good as they were going to get at English, they figured. So why bother? Only the low-performers with a less fixed view of intellect were willing to sign up for the additional English work they needed.

In other words, viewing the self as a static entity puts us on the defensive. When we think of a characteristic like intelligence in terms of fixed capacity, then the poor exam grade (or sub-par performance review at work) becomes intolerably threatening. Instead, you benefit when you train yourself to view intellect-and any other aspect of your personal skill set-as a muscle that grows with effort and atrophies with neglect. Even if this isn't how you usually see things, it's not too late to start now.

Because in a follow-up study, the same researchers gave a new group of students one of two different, ostensibly scientific articles-articles that either depicted intelligence in static or fluid terms. Those led to think about intelligence as a fixed quantity took the easy way out: they didn't persist on tasks in the wake of poor performance and they avoided taking on new challenges later. Only students told that intelligence was malleable showed the stick-to-it-iveness necessary for self-improvement.

I decided to share the muscle analogy with this first-grader, the recalcitrant reader. I explained that just as you have to struggle with weights to make, say, your biceps bigger, the same goes for exercising the mind. Now, I'm not going to claim that this brief conversation led to a life-altering epiphany, but he did give up on the idea of skipping his turn and he tried his best to read with us for the remainder of the book.

So at the dawn of a new school year, keep the following lessons in mind:

  • When you think "I'm just not good at X" enough times, eventually you guarantee the accuracy of the assessment.
  • Instead, remember that setback and struggle are parts of broadening your intellectual horizons; trial-and-error and effort are essential ingredients of what we think of as "intelligence."
  • And never, ever forget that when filling out a chaperone volunteer form, any field trip description involving the phrases "bus trip" and "walking tour" is to be avoided at all costs.

Like this post? Then check out Sam's forthcoming book, "Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World" (available now for pre-order). You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here. Book trailer video below: