A growth mindset becomes especially effective when combined with a positive attitude toward stress (Yeager et al., 2022). The claim is based on six different studies involving a total of 4,000 students. In each study, half of the students received training in a growth mindset and stress management, and I will soon return to the details. The other students received completely different training and served as a control group.
Growth mindset and stress management
In the first study, 2,717 students aged 13-18 from 35 different schools in the USA participated. After the training, all students were asked to imagine that they were going to present difficult course material from a challenging course in a short time in front of their peers. At the same time, they answered questions about how they felt and what they were thinking. Those who had learned about a growth mindset and that stress can have a positive effect handled this challenge better. In the second study, researchers tested the effects of the two mindsets in a real stressful situation.
One to three days after receiving the training, 755 students took a challenging quiz, and the time they spent was measured. Those who had learned about the two mindsets experienced this situation as significantly less stressful than those who had received different training. In the third and fourth studies, students were subjected to a social stress test. One by one, they were asked to talk about their positive and negative qualities in front of people who did not provide feedback or responses but were tasked with emitting negative body signals such as sighing and frowning.
Effect on stressful situations
They were then asked to solve a difficult math problem as quickly as possible in front of the same people, who now pointed out errors. Heart rate and blood pressure were measured along the way. Students who had received training on mindsets had a calmer heart rate and less blood pressure increase than the control group.
The importance of positive thinking
Training in stress management not only had an effect on perceived stress but also on biological parameters that we cannot consciously control. The fifth study examined whether the training could have a more long-term protective effect by measuring both hormonal and physiological parameters. Here, 118 teenagers from low-income families living in a challenging neighborhood participated.
First, everyone was interviewed to determine their mindset from the start. Then, half of the students were trained in stress-reducing mindsets, while the rest received different training. After fourteen days, students began answering tests that measured self-perceived stress twice daily for ten days. On these days, they also provided three saliva samples so that researchers could measure their cortisol levels. The results suggest that the course on stress-reducing mindsets counteracted perceived stress and cortisol levels in the blood.
In the following months, this school was closed due to the pandemic. When researchers looked at the students’ results at the end of the school year, those who had learned about the mindsets performed better academically. The effect was particularly evident in mathematics and science, where 63% passed the exam compared to 47% in the control group. The sixth and final study was conducted on some of the students from study 2 during the U.S. lockdown in the spring of 2020, when students had to study from home.
Challenges for vulnerable groups
The results showed that students who were initially nervous and tense benefited from the mindsets. Advice on a growth mindset and stress management Start with yourself. Have you categorized students into different skill levels? Do such thoughts affect your expectations for your students? Remember that a growth mindset is not an innate trait like being open or flexible. Developing mindsets is a continuous process, and it is entirely natural to have a growth mindset in some situations but not in others.
We can also have different degrees of a growth mindset. It is important that students are not criticized for having a fixed mindset but are encouraged to develop a growth mindset. Students from low socioeconomic status homes have the most to gain from developing a growth mindset. Therefore, it is important to be extra attentive to the attitudes toward learning and development of such students.
It is not automatic that you help others develop a growth mindset by praising effort. You should praise effort that leads to progress, not just any effort. Explain that the brain is a living organ made up of cells. These cells work better with training, just like muscles get stronger and lungs improve their ability to absorb oxygen when we need strength and conditioning. Therefore, we can learn new things throughout our lives, but the potential is especially great when we are children and teenagers.
Tips for stress management for children:
- Explain that all learning is useful, even if we do not immediately have a use for what we learn, such as analyzing poems or solving algebra.
- We train the brain anyway, and our way of thinking can be useful in other contexts. Use the word “yet” when something is difficult: Instead of saying “I can’t …,” say “I can’t … yet.”
- It is important to correct mistakes and misunderstandings, but look at the mistakes together and talk about them, preferably together.
- Tell the children that nerves and stress can help them perform better if they think positively about stress. The brain can gain extra power from stress, including because it gets better blood flow.
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