Fearless Parenting

Growing in Character: It is not a Fixed Trait
Ms. Tammy Fisher

"Understanding exactly why a child misbehaves or struggles to learn is a complex question with many variables...As educators, parents and professionals, our perceptions can cause us to look at the same child and reach different conclusions depending on the mindset we are operating from. Mindset research aims to help people shift their perceptions about the causes of success or failure." – Dustin Bindreff, Academic coach

Understanding a Growth Mindset

There is a significant growing body of research around the power of our mindset (growth or fixed) to influence how we perceive our own abilities and talents - as well as the abilities of others. Under the perspective of a growth mindset, we recognize that personality can change, intelligence can change, and abilities can change: with hard work and effortCarol Dweck's work around this adapted concept of self-efficacyhas garnished attention by psychologists, educators, parents, and business leaders. Much of the focus of my dissertation explores the critical power of a significant adult's mindset to influence a child's self-concept and character-based choices. Carol Dweck, in tandem with Dr. Angela Duckworth's aligned work around grit, emphasizes the need for significant adults to choose carefully the language they use with children. Rather than praise a project or outcome with comments and energy toward traits like "smart" or "talented", these researchers suggest we focus on the process it takes to complete a hard task: perseverance, effort, focus, intention, using strategies or setting goals. Similar to the language of the Nurtured Heart Approach©, our energetic relationship should be focused on good choices, effort, and what it takes to accomplish a task - over an outcome or fixed ability. The research is fascinating, actually. Dozens of studies continue to demonstratethat students who are told that they are smart prior to an academic challenge, tend to not push through greater challenge in future tasks. Alternatively, students who have been recognized for their hard work and effort in the completion of a task will persist longer and select tasks above a set level. Additionally, these students tend to lean toward more challenging options in their future choices, too. Their ability is not perceived as fixed and unchangeable – but rather one that can grow with effort and perseverance. Certainly, this is what we believe here at St. Thomas School – and why we work to honor effort, push for persistence, and encourage grit.

Mindset and Character

So what does this have to do with character? I would say much. Dweck, in her blog on Leadership: Mistakes, Mindset and Character writes, "In a fixed mindset, character is about being omniscient and infallible. In a growth mindset, though, character is about owning up to your mistakes, shortcomings, and ignorance – and doing something about it."

Washington State's Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and Second Step®'s Committee for Children (STS's character education curriculum taught in grades pre-K to 6th) also see this deep connection between student mindset and character development. Both of these agencies are driving forces in our state (the latter, internationally), with the inclusion of the concept of growth mindset, and self and social efficacy (the ability to see oneself as successful in a future endeavor or relationship). These constructs are now a part of the WA State Social, Emotional Learning (SEL) Benchmarks – and the interactive lessons of the new Second Step© Middle School curriculum.

In addition to coaching our children with the efficacy of a growth mindset and the power of grit, this perspective is pinnacle for the adults influencing in our student's lives. Teachers and parents who bring a growth mindset to the interpretation of a child's behavior provide an instructional framework to the broken rule or unskilled character moment. These adults recognize that the problem behavior is one of a skill deficit rather than a person deficit, and thus are better able to use this as a teachable opportunity. Behavior is communication; often these behaviors can communicate that a child is "not ready": to work yet, unable to focus, can't access his/her tools to calm down, unable to work in partnership, or capable in the moment to accept redirection. This growth mindset allows for a relationship that then builds more relationship. It provides a teaching moment for both adult and child. Armed with a growth mindset, we separate behaviors from a child – and recognize that the child is communicating in an unskilled way, rather than it being a fixed trait of their personality. Through this mindset, core character qualities such personal responsibility, self-control, respect, integrity, perspective taking, teamwork, and social-awareness can be developed and strengthened.

This is what we want for our children – and for those with whom we work. As James Noddingham's analogy of the Learning Pit*** demonstrates: we actually learn best when we struggle...struggle to understand, struggle to see another perspective, struggle to get to the other side of a difficult moment. Social, emotional learning also requires this persistence, resilience, and coaching. As with our academic learning challenges, character is built in a supported community committed to its development - and leaning in with a proactive growth minds. In every setting at St Thomas: recess, lunchroom, classroom, hallway, Chapel – exceptional character is built and honed here.

*** Take the time to watch this delightfully, illustrative video which highlights the benefits of challenge. The staff – and all our middle schoolers have seen this – and we push our students to accept the struggle as a necessary part of growth.

Work in Progress

After 33 years as an educator, here is what I know to be true: People are complicated. And mindset matters. My experienced mindset has chosen for years to see everyone as well intentioned – and some just needing a bit more practice on our skills. As significant adults in the lives of developing ethical, character-driven youth, we must all choose to see our children, students, the adults that support them, AND ourselves as capable of growth. When we consider the words we use and the actions we choose in coaching our children toward strong character choices: Be intentional. Name what we want more of – provide opportunity for the next moment of success, a focus on character skill building, a chance to restore relationships, and a recognition that we are all a wonderful work in progress. We are growing. We just may not be there. Yet.

The above hyperlinks for consolidated access (videos, articles, blogs, research):

  1. Power of our mindset to impact achievement and goal setting
  2. Carol Dweck's work grit
  3. Albert Bandura's theory and support of self-efficacy
  4. Explanation of Dr. Angela Duckworth's work
  5. YouTube description of Dweck's research: studies continue to demonstrate
  6. Dweck's blog on Leadership: Mistakes, Mindset and Character
  7. Second Step®'s Committee for Children
  8. WA State Social, Emotional Learning (SEL) Benchmarks
  9. James Noddingham's the Learning Pit