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Using a “Growth Mindset” to Help Youth Succeed

Failing and underresourced schools, neighborhoods beset by street violence, lack of job opportunity, families split apart by addiction—many low-income young people of color face such well-chronicled barriers. Less visible and understood is the persistence and resilience that some of them demonstrate as they struggle in their teens and twenties to transcend those circumstances.

Eight such young leaders shared their stories with leaders of community-based collective impact efforts from 21 cities, towns, and reservations. These initiatives are committed to improving education and workforce outcomes for local 16- to 25-year-olds who are currently unattached or only weakly attached to education and/or the labor market.

The stories each of these young people told contain many of the elements one might expect—community-based programs offering a second chance, teachers or other adults who became mentors, family members whose unflagging tough love helped illuminate a path forward, etc. But what really stood out was the hunger that each of these young people described to continue to grow and develop. 

Somehow each of these young leaders had come to believe in themselves as “works in progress.”  They had no doubt that their most basic abilities could be developed through dedication and hard work.  When presented with an obstacle, they saw it as a chance to improve themselves. Every professional adult they met became a potential mentor whom they could observe and learn from.

In short, these young people provided perfect examples of what is called a “growth mindset,” the new name for a simple idea that believing in effort (as opposed to “native intelligence”), and acting on that belief, is a critical factor in whether people succeed or not. Based on several decades of research on achievement and success, Carol Dweck of Stanford University, wrote Mindset, a book that details how a “growth mindset” contributes to success in such disparate arenas as education, sports, and business.

Most promising is that Dweck and her colleagues offer evidence that a “growth mindset” is teachable—a finding that is compatible with recent research by Christina Hinton and others highlighting the plasticity of the brain. They also provide concrete examples of how parents, teachers, coaches, supervisors, etc. can actually help to shape a “growth mindset” by being mindful of how they talk to, encourage, and praise young people. In short, such interactions should reinforce the efficacy of effort and the excitement of working hard on a challenging problem or project, rather than labeling someone as “smart” or rewarding quick results.

Perhaps if the adults in young people’s lives could learn to do this, we could have many more young people like the ones I was fortunate enough to meet and learn from.