What Happens When Things Get Difficult?

Holy Cross students describe phrases they use when things get a little, well, challenging.

Developing a growth mindset can make all the difference in whether a child embraces challenge or shuts down in the face of adversity.

We sat down with Marisa Veiga, 4th grade teacher at Holy Cross to ask her about the work she’s been doing around growth mindset with her class. Find out:

  • which phrases might be doing more harm than good,
  • why trying harder might not be enough, and
  • the unintended effects of our word choices as parents.

What Is a Growth Mindset?

Growth mindset is basically the belief that with effort and persistence, you can grow your intelligence and other basic capabilities. The opposite of this is a fixed mindset, where you believe that you can maybe learn new things but not necessarily become more intelligent. If you want to learn more, Carol Dweck’s work would be the place to start as she is the researcher who has really brought this idea to the forefront. 

How Does Having a Growth Mindset Help a Child Learn?

It really helps kids to be more resilient and willing to tackle challenges because they see them as something that can help them get smarter, rather than evidence that they are not smart enough.

Kids who have the opposite (a fixed mindset) shut down when they experience something challenging, especially if they typically have not encountered much difficulty in learning new things. 

How does it change the way our brain learns?

When students feel anxious, upset, unsafe, etc. it raises their “affective filter.” When the filter is high, it affects their ability to learn and retain new things.

Developing a growth mindset can help students lower their affective filter, making it easier to learn. 

Do parents do more harm than good if they only praise the outcome of an event or experience?

Ideally we want to praise the effort, strategies, persistence, use of resources, etc. that went into the outcome.

Rather than saying something like, “You’re so smart” or “You are so good at math,” it might be better to say, “I see how much effort you put into that” or “I like how you kept at it even though it wasn’t easy” or “Great job noticing that you needed some more help with this.”

How can you turn around a fixed mindset or negative pattern of belief that’s been established for a while?

I think combined efforts on the parts of teachers and parents in the long-term will help. It’s important to model a growth mindset yourself, not just for school but in things like sports or playing an instrument!

Think about the unintended effects of your word choices. When your child hears you say something like, “I’m not a math person,” it plants the idea that maybe he or she isn’t a “math person” either. It’s also really important to let your child be the person doing the work, making the plan, etc.

If you jump in and take over, they will come to view themselves as needing you to do that. I remember distinctly in fourth grade making a project about Native American tribes that had lived in our area. My partner and I were creating a spearhead out of clay, and it was misshapen, but we worked hard on it and were proud of it! When she brought it to school the next day, her dad had redone the spearhead. I felt the message very clearly: yours wasn’t good enough.

Resist the urge to do the work for your child.

Of course you can do it better – you are an adult. Help your child learn that they can be competent and independent by helping them without taking over. 

What’s the number one thing parents can say or do to help their child when they don’t achieve their goals?

I don’t feel very qualified to answer this as I’m not a parent, but I think that one thing that could be helpful is to really try to stop and consider how your child may be feeling.

Sometimes with growth mindset people interpret it as just needing to try harder, but students can try plenty hard and still fail. What they may need instead are some supports, resources, or simply more time before reaching their goal.

I think before jumping in to help a child figure out how they can go about meeting their goal next time, maybe just taking a moment to say, “I know you really wanted to be able to do this. It must be frustrating to have worked really hard but not quite met your goal. I’m proud of you for how hard you worked anyway.” Then you can work together to make a plan, but I think sometimes children just need some acknowledgement first that they gave it their best effort and may be feeling frustrated or upset. 

What are some ways that Holy Cross as a school encourages growth mindset?

We work hard as a community to really embrace challenging things and to persist. One of our SLEs is “As a Lifelong Learner, I will challenge myself to do my best.” Many teachers explicitly teach about growth mindset, including language for students to use with themselves. For example, instead of saying, “This is too hard,” we encourage students to say, “This challenge will be good for my brain.”

About Mrs. Veiga

My name is Marisa Veiga and I love teaching fourth grade! I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and graduated from the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, with a degree in psychology. After college, I joined the PACE program through the University of Portland, so I got to spend two years teaching fourth grade in Honolulu while returning to Portland in the summers for graduate courses. I graduated with my Master of Arts in Teaching in early August 2017, and started teaching at Holy Cross after that. In my free time, I love reading, baking, and swimming. I love being apart of the Holy Cross community, and I look forward to a year full of learning, laughter, and kindness!

Contact Mrs. Veiga


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