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Mindset tips for parents of under 5's

Below is some advice created by the Centre on how to build a growth mindset in young children under 5. Most of the tips will apply to older children too. You can find out more about mindset here where you will find the research underpinning these tips

1. Focus on the struggle

When a child is learning something new, and getting annoyed and frustrated, the temptation is to ease the mood and take away the thing that is causing so much distress, or to complete the task for the child.  This is not a good idea, unless the activity is beyond their developmental stage. A better option is to focus on the struggle and why it's important.  For example, if your child is irritated during the learning process you can help her to persevere by normalising the  struggle.  Using words along the lines of' That's it. Struggle, struggle, struggle.  Your learning how to do it'  will help her to keep going.

Other phrases such as 'I know it's frustrating, but this is what helps you to learn how to do it'  or 'Keep going, you can do it', or ‘Let’s try it again’  are also helpful. These types of phrases show that you are acknowledging the child’s frustration, but also normalising the struggle.  They also send a message that you value the struggle and perseverance in learning. Learning can be a frustrating business, taking away the opportunity for them to struggle is the same as taking away their opportunity to learn. Think of how you can encourage your child to enjoy the challenge and struggle.

2. Children are not born knowing how to do things

Like eating with a fork and knife, assembling a toy or building a tower with bricks, children have to learn to do these things, small steps at a time.  Remember, if they don't master things instantly it doesn't mean that they will never learn these things.  Expecting too much of them e.g expecting that they are very smart, self - controlled or quiet for example, can undermine their willingness to learn and behave.  This is because they may not be able succeed on these difficult tasks if they are not yet developmentally ready. 

Parents often give their children toys which are developmentally too advanced for them and then expect them to solve them.  Take stacking rings for example, an 8 month old would probably push them around, chew them and generally explored. Then they will learn to take the rings off, after some instruction from parents and caregivers, and some experimentation on his own.  Then he will put the rings back on, but not in order.  The next phase of learning will be to put the rings back on in the correct order.  Expecting him to do this too soon is unrealistic.

Learning takes time.  Expecting too much from babies and children takes away the opportunity to learn, and they miss out on the key steps in the learning process. This may lead to them feeling demoralised when they can’t complete the difficult tasks. If your child has a strong foundation, later learning will be easier for them.

3. Feedback

It is unbelievably easy to praise your child and tell them they are smart.  This is our culture, everyone does it, and people often think that they are bad parents if they don't tell their child that they are intelligent after doing something well.  You will find, even after reading this, how hard it is to break this habit, especially because of peer pressure. But please persevere as you will be giving your child an invaluable gift for life by not praising them in this way, and instead praising for them for the specific actions they do.   
Praising a child for fixed traits like intelligence or kindness, or praising them generally gives the child no useful tools to get better at what they were doing.  Not only does it give them no useful information for learning but it undermines their motivation and love of learning.  The reason it undermines learning is because you are acknowledging something fixed in them; something they can’t change.  You are also sending them the message that this is what you value: natural talent or kindness rather than hardwork, effort or perseverance. 

Avoid phrases like  'wow you are so clever' or 'that was smart'  or ‘that was very kind’  try to be specific and avoid using fixed traits like smart, clever, brainy, kind and so on. Focus on concrete examples of things children do, things that they can learn from, aspects that they can change and things that you want to see more of e.g. effort and hardwork.  For example, if they spend a long time trying to achieve a goal, like screwing a lid on a bottle or building a tower.  Afterwards, praise them for the hard work and concentration by saying phrases like  ‘well done, you spent ages trying to get that lid on and finally the hard work paid off  - why don’t you try it again” .  Your child may not succeed every time but when he does get it right every time, try to  encourage him to attempt harder challenges by saying something like’ that’s not challenging enough for you, shall we try a harder one?’.  It’s easy to keep doing the things you know how to, but it is much more rewarding to try a challenge.

4. Don't micro manage 

Next time you are in the park, or a place with children and their parents, notice how much interrupting parents do. It's very easy to give your child feedback on every positive thing they do and to interrupt their play to give them praise. If a child is engrossed in play - leave them to it.  You will  probably find the urge to jump in, but please do not interfere, in if other parents are doing it, as it will break their concentration and could undermine valuable learning.  Giving feedback on everything a child does is unnecessary and may lead to a diminished motivation. Think about it, if you were engrossed in something would you want someone else giving you feedback on everything you did? This also may encourage children to only do things which require feedback.  This means they learn to become reliant on extrinsic feedback rather than their inner resources and internal motivation. 

5. Instructional play

Set aside a time during the day to do some instructional play with your child. Remember, children aren't born knowing how to do things and it doesn't magically appear.  This is a time where you get a developmentally appropriate toy (or household object/activity) and show your child how to do it. This can start very basically, like building a tower with bricks, or putting pans inside each other.  Doing this, will teach your child about basic concepts and so build their confidence in the mastery of their environment. It is also a time for you and your child to bond. This is also a perfect opportunity to apply constructive feedback. Make sure that there is also a period for your child to explore things on his own.  By showing babies and toddlers how to do things you are also helping them to be more creative in their own play and to be confident as they know how to do things in their environment.

6. Bad behaviour doesn't last - don’t label

I have found that the minute you label challenging behaviour with the likes of: naughty, bad, a nightmare, fussy eater, hyperactive and so on, then you are setting yourself up for long term problems.  All children test boundaries, it is part of the learning process.  Seeing this a temporary is an essential aspect of parenting.

All children will at times display behaviour that fits into one of these categories by doing things like not eating enough or by trying things that look interesting, but are dangerous.  How you construe these events is crucial. If you see your child as not wanting to eat as them being a 'fussy eater' then this may well set up fussy eating behaviour.  If you see your child as naughty because they did something like tugging on a light, then you are labelling this as something bad about your child that they intentionally tried to do.  If, however, you see these types of events as occuring because the child has not yet learned about the dangerous things to be avoided, or the categories of things in their world, then you are allowing your child room for change.  

If you see this challenging behaviour as a stage and part of the learning process, then you will be more understanding of the unwanted behaviour and over time it will pass.  Remember, some days babies and young folk are more irritated or less hungry, say, than other days. It is a very new world for them and the are learning. 

Labeling children can result in long term problems.  Think about this the next time your child displays challenging behaviour.  Remember, children want to meet your expectations, and if you expect the worse then this just might be what you get.

7. Say NO 

Another aspect of our culture is that people think it is wrong to say NO to children.  How are children going to learn if they don’t know the boundaries and limits? Saying NO is an important part of the learning process.  

However, there are a few cautionary notes about using no.  Try not to hang on to mistakes young ones make or to chastise them for the thing you didn’t want them to do.   Deal with the mistake and move on.  Try to emphasise the learning from the situation and then distract them with something else.  Things like the naughty step are likely to label the child as bad or naughty and so they aren’t helpful for changing behaviour. It is much better to engage your child with something interesting so that they don’t have time for trouble

Copyright: Centre for Confidence and Well-being 


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