Leveraging Advances in Neuroscience to Help Our Kids

Updated: May 2, 2019

Neuroplasticity, the concept that brains can change, represents the most important advance in brain research over the past two decades. Carol Dweck’s research at Stanford on growth mindset is well worth a read. According to Dweck, students with a fixed mindset believe intelligence is a fixed trait, while in a growth mindset, students recognize that intelligence and skills can be improved through hard work.


The concept of neuroplasticity, as Dweck points out in her TED talk, is a hugely powerful tool to empower kids when they face educational challenges and mental health issues. Instilling an attitude that things can improve is key, and now we have hard science to back up our therapeutic efforts.


By recognizing that the brain can change, we transcend old mindsets that impede constructive mental growth. We all have both fixed and growth mindsets depending on which domains in our daily lives we choose to examine. The secret sauce for resilience: making mistakes and learning from them is not a failure, but a pathway to learning. Indeed, if you are not making errors, you won’t learn to grow.


Our praise should be directed at kids taking on new, challenging material so they can grow their understanding. This simple yet pivotal shift in attitude toward learning can supercharge motivation, which in turn can optimize perseverance, or what educators now call grit.


So how can we put this into action with our kids?


1. Praise the process of hard work and challenging oneself. See mistakes as helpful tools to learn where we need to improve.


2. Try not to praise intelligence per se. Rather, reinforce growing one’s knowledge base and understanding of concepts. Teach kids that you do not put on a pair of skis and come down the steepest black diamond out of the gate. Learning is a work in progress, and there are bound to be a lot of falls on the road to mastery.


3. The best way to improve self-esteem is through success in learning, without necessarily using grades as the only measuring stick. Telling kids “how smart they are” can reduce a student’s ability to persist when dealing with challenging new material. “A for effort” may sound mundane but it is at the heart of academic success as your child progresses up the educational ladder.


4. Make certain our kids know that their brains can change and encourage a growth mindset at every opportunity. Remind them— it’s not “I don’t know,” it’s “I don’t know yet.”


Jim Varga, M.D., F.A.A.P., is a board-certified physician specializing in developmental pediatrics and the evaluation and treatment of children and teens with learning differences.

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