Fixed vs. Growth Mindset: Which does your teen have?

In my conversations with parents of teens, I’ve noticed that their concerns often fall into one of two categories.

Some parents express frustration that their teen is not putting in more effort at school.

“My son is really smart, and he could be doing so well if he would just put in some effort.  He does well on tests, but he hardly studies at all and sometimes doesn’t bother to turn in assignments.  If he would just try harder, he could be getting straight A’s.  But he acts like he doesn’t really care.”

Another group of parents expresses concern about their teen’s level of anxiety about school.

“My daughter understands the material before the test, but then she gets so nervous that she can’t answer the questions. She isn’t confident in her abilities and tends to give up or put things off when they get difficult. She’s also sensitive about getting feedback from her teachers — she gets upset whenever she is criticized, or earns a bad grade.”

These parents’ concerns seem like polar opposites, right? One student cares too little, and another one cares too much.

But what if there were actually ONE factor that could explain both of these students’ behavior?  A single characteristic that influenced teens’ motivation, resilience, openness to new experiences, attitude about mistakes, and love of learning?

There IS such a factor, and it’s called mindset.

Dr. Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford, found that students tend to have one of two mindsets: Growth or Fixed.  And the differences between the two have profound implications for their future.

What mindset does YOUR teen have?

Which of the following sounds more like your teen?

Fixed mindset students…

  • Believe that intelligence is an inherent quality (you either have it or you don’t)
  • Want to prove how smart they are
  • Often avoid effort (“If you have to try hard, you must not be that smart”)
  • Are primarily focused on achievements (e.g. “I want to get an A on the test”)
  • Feel smart when they learn something immediately
  • Dislike making mistakes
  • Avoid subjects that are difficult for them (“I’m not good at math”)

Growth mindset students…

  • Believe that intelligence is something that develops over time, as a result of practice & hard work
  • Want to learn and grow
  • Typically enjoy putting in effort (“trying hard is what makes you smarter”)
  • Are primarily focused on learning & mastery (e.g. “I want to understand the material”)
  • Feel smart when they learn something challenging
  • See mistakes as learning opportunities
  • Actively pursue difficult subjects (“I’d rather take the AP class; the teacher is harder, so I’ll learn more from her.”)
Adopting a growth mindset has profound benefits.
Students with the growth mindset are more curious and less fearful.  Because they are focused on learning and improving rather than being right, they do not suffer from as much anxiety.  They are more resilient and bounce back more easily from setbacks, because they see “mistakes” as opportunities for growth and improvement, rather than judgments on their worth as a person.  Because they are more focused on improving themselves, rather than proving their worth, they are more open to feedback and constructive criticism. And by constantly stimulating their brains with new and difficult challenges, they are further improving their ability to learn and grow over time.
How mindsets develop
What we’ve learned from studies of the growth mindset is that, when students are praised for their results, they tend to develop a fixed mindset.  Students praised for effort, on the other hand, adopt more of a growth mindset.

In one study by Carol Dweck, students who were praised for their intelligence (“ you did well; you must be very smart!”) as opposed to their effort (“ you did very well; you must’ve worked very hard on those problems!”)  were less willing to try challenging problems, less persistent when faced with difficult problems, and more likely to lie about their results.

What’s wrong about telling students that they are smart?  Isn’t that a good thing?

Great Job Super Student Praise Phrases Back to School DoodlesThe problem with praising students’ intelligence is that they start to view their results as a product of their inherent level of intelligence rather than a product of hard work and effort.

Moreover, once they have that label of the “smart kid,” they are afraid to lose it.  The worst possible failure for a student with a fixed mindset would be to try really hard and then fail to achieve their goal.  This would be devastating because it would suggest to them  that they’re not so smart after all.  (If success means they are “smart,” then failure must mean they’re “stupid.”)

To avoid this possibility, students with a fixed mindset will sometimes try to protect themselves from the possibility of failure by not putting forth effort in the first place.  That way, even if they do not do well, they can preserve their sense of intelligence by blaming the failure on their lack of effort, rather than their lack of ability.

To students with a growth mindset, on the other hand, this approach is unthinkable.  To them, intelligence is not an inherent quality but is, instead, something developed through effort.  In their mind, choosing not to try would be the “stupid” choice.

The GOOD news…

The good news is that mindsets can be taught, and — just like the rest of our brains — the growth and fixed mindset can be shifted over time. In fact, teaching students about the growth mindset is essential to changing their performance in school.

Carol Dweck’s studies have shown that, when students learn the growth mindset in combination with study skills, they show significantly more improvement in their grades than students who learn study skills alone.This is why I make such a point of teaching my coaching students about how their brains can grow over time, how mistakes lead to learning, and how tackling more challenging material helps their brains grow stronger.

For instance, if a student is “bad” at staying organized, that doesn’t mean he will always be bad at it. The more he practices organization, the better he will get at it. That’s just the way the brain works. Everything can be improved through effort and deliberate practice.

What you can do:
If you suspect that your teen has a fixed mindset, what can you do about it?
  1. Praise them for their effort, not their results.  Focus less on grades and more on the effort they put in to get them.  For instance, if they come home with an A, emphasize “Wow, that’s great! Your studying really must have paid off!”
  2. Avoid praising results that required little or no effort. For example, if you know they got an A without studying, don’t make a big deal about the A.  Instead, try asking about what they learned from the class, or what they thought was most interesting about this lesson.
  3. If they put in effort and did NOT do well, empathize with their feelings & reflect back what you are hearing them say…for example: “it sounds like you’re pretty frustrated with your grade on this test.”  Once they feel heard & understood, then you can ask them some questions like “what do you think you could learn from this?” and “how could you do things differently next time?”
  4. Be a growth mindset role model.  Embrace challenges you encounter, and treat mistakes as opportunities for learning and growth.  If you make a mistake, consider sharing it with your teen and discuss the valuable lessons you learned from the experience.  When they make mistakes, reframe their “failure” as a positive opportunity for learning  and growth.

Growth mindset coaching

Giving your kids ‘growth mindset’ messages at home can go a long way towards helping them develop a more positive and resilient attitude about school, learning and failure.

For teens, it can also be helpful to hear these messages from an independent, outside person in addition to a parent.

In my work as an academic life coach, I can help students identify the type of mindset they’re adopting at school and explore how shifting to a more growth-oriented mindset would impact their attitude, motivation, stress and performance.  We can also uncover other factors – beliefs, perspectives, assumptions, etc. – underlying their lack of motivation and work on adopting a more positive, self-directed, goal-oriented approach to school.

If you’d like to talk with me about your teen’s situation and how academic coaching could help, click below to schedule complimentary 30-minute phone call with me.
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Is coaching a good fit for your teen?

If you'd like to discuss how academic coaching can help your teen improve his or her organization, time management skills, focus, motivation, and/or study skills, click here to schedule a complimentary consultation with me.
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By |April 4th, 2014|Categories: Mindset, Motivation|0 Comments

About the Author:

Dr. Maggie Wray is an Atlanta-based academic coach who helps high school & college students achieve their academic potential by improving their organization, time management, study skills, and mindset about school. To set up a time to speak with Maggie about how to help YOUR teen develop the skills he or she needs to thrive academically, visit or email

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