It’s hard to imagine a world where complimenting children could be a bad thing. However, it turns out that accolades like “Wow, you’re really good at math!” or, “Nice job on that essay, you’re so smart!” might actually do more harm than good.

More specifically, comments that praise children’s innate abilities or talents while ignoring the hard work they put in to accomplish a particular goal can encourage children to have a “fixed mindset,” rather than a “growth mindset.”

According to research from Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck, people with a fixed mindset tend to think their skills or aptitude are traits they’re born with, while those with a growth mindset see the potential for their abilities to develop and flourish. Fixed mindsets contribute to the beliefs that some of us are “just not good at math” or “simply aren’t natural artists.” The theory is that by changing attitudes toward how we learn and master skills, both children and adults can go much further in reaching their full potential.

Camille Stone, the San Francisco Education Fund’s program director, led volunteers earlier this week in a training to help them recognize the signs of each mindset and figure out how to encourage a growth mindset – both in students and themselves. Here are some key takeaways:

  1. First, assess your own mindset.

Before you can nurture a growth mindset in a child, you have to evaluate your own. Think of a time when you came across a particular problem or challenge. Perhaps it was when you received negative feedback in math or English as child, or at your workplace as an adult. How did you handle it?

People who consider challenges opportunities to improve and expand are described as having a growth mindset, while those with fixed mindsets might tend to shy away from difficulty, take negative feedback personally and give up when they hit a roadblock.

“Someone with a fixed mindset thinks if they don’t accomplish something on the first or second try, they simply must not be good at it,” Camille said. “But that’s not necessarily true – research shows our brains are malleable, and we have such a capacity for learning.”

Camille also points out that people often fall on something of a mindset spectrum – you may believe, for example, that all children can learn to read and write well, while only people who are naturally gifted can master math or become an athlete.

It’s tough to encourage a student to work on his or her attitudes toward learning if your own attitude is fixed. Take this online growth mindset quiz to start learning about your own predisposition to growth and change.

  1. When complimenting children, applaud the process, not innate intelligence or talent.

Back to those pesky compliments. It’s practically an automatic reaction to praise children for being good at something when they get an answer right on an assignment or perform well at an event. While that kind of praise sounds good, it might not actually help them succeed the next time they tackle a similar or more challenging problem.

“When we tell children that they’re smart when they get something right, what are we implicitly telling them about what it means when they get something wrong?” Camille said. Just as children internalize positive messages about their natural intelligence and ability, they may also internalize the idea that they’re not smart when they don’t get the right answer.

Proponents of creating a growth mindset instead suggest commending students for their effort and encouraging them to repeat the strategies they used to get the right answer. This way, students start to recognize the tools they have to handle future challenges. Examples include telling a student who just mastered a math problem, “Look at the steps you took to solve that equation. Do you see how those steps helped you get the answer right?” or on a reading assignment, “Nice job sounding out the letters that make up that long word!”

Check out this feedback tool for specific suggestions for constructive feedback that might help develop a growth mindset.

  1. Encourage mistakes – of a particular kind.

To create a growth attitude toward learning, we need to let students know that it is OK to make mistakes. It’s through getting answers wrong that we often gain the best lessons. However, “not all mistakes have equal value,” Camille said.

The kinds of mistakes that can encourage a growth mindset are the ones we make when we take a risk or otherwise push our limits, whereas sloppy errors that are made as a result of rushing or not putting in our best effort are not so helpful. It might also not be the best idea to encourage mistake-making when the stakes are incredibly high – like when students are about to take the SAT or your boss asks you to make a presentation to a client.

Help students understand the difference so that they can best learn from constructive failures. Take a look at these tips for encouraging mistakes.

  1. Growth mindsets are not created overnight.

Reshaping our mindsets is a years-long undertaking, and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever truly have a “perfect” growth mindset. So be patient, both with yourself and the student you’re working with. Growth mindsets are all about process, after all. Embrace that process.


Check out additional resources for a deeper-dive into shaping growth mindsets:

Carol Dweck: What Having a Growth Mindset Actually Means

Growth Mindset Resources from Edutopia