Differences in mindsets, persistence, and the ability to cope: Effects on child outcomes

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When I was growing up, it was very rare for a school grade to be ‘good enough’ for my parents. I still laughingly reminisce about how when I would come home with a 98%, my dad would ask, “What happened to the remaining 2%?” Of course this anecdote might be a bit extreme, and to be honest my dad used to have a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he said this. But less-than-excellent grades in any subject would land me and my siblings in serious trouble, and we would have to work even harder to raise our grades for the next semester. I think many other South Asians can relate to this expectation – as can many from other cultural backgrounds as well. (This stereotype about Asian parents was one of many that was poked fun at in the old British TV comedy, Goodness Gracious Me.)

But the deeper point is that my parents always believed I could do even better than I was already doing; they believed that I could do better, if I put in more effort. Ultimately, I think, that mindset got ingrained in me. I see it in myself even today.

Recently, Paul Tough, author and journalist with the New York Times, spoke at the University of Toronto about his new book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character“. Among other things, he spoke about Carol Dweck‘s research on how ‘mindsets’ – perceptions about the malleability of intelligence – affect persistence and success. Basically, it seems that a ‘fixed’ mindset – the belief that intelligence is fairly stable – is more accurate in terms of the current research in psychology, but results in lower levels of effort and persistence, and thus worse outcomes. On the other hand, a ‘growth’ mindset – the belief that intelligence is malleable and can be improved through effort – while inaccurate psychologically speaking, results in greater levels of effort and persistence, and thus, better outcomes. (See excerpts from Dweck’s book in this pdf.)

So perhaps, my parents held a ‘growth’ mindset, and ingrained that mindset in me and my siblings from the earliest years of life. I remember doing hours of extra mathematics exercises, often one or two grade levels ahead, during the summer times. We made weekly trips to the library, attended extra classes during the summer, participated in public speaking competitions, and so on. Our lives were not as intense as the lives of Amy Chua (aka “Tiger Mom”)‘s children, but I definitely see similarities in terms of expectations.

A recent NPR podcast interviewed James Stigler – whose research has examined key cultural differences in mindsets and in persistence. Here’s an excerpt from the interview transcript:

“We did a study many years ago with first-grade students,” he tells me. “We decided to go out and give the students an impossible math problem to work on, and then we would measure how long they worked on it before they gave up.”

The American students “worked on it less than 30 seconds on average and then they basically looked at us and said, ‘We haven’t had this,’ ” he says.

But the Japanese students worked for the entire hour on the impossible problem. “And finally we had to stop the session because the hour was up. And then we had to debrief them and say, ‘Oh, that was not a possible problem; that was an impossible problem!’ and they looked at us like, ‘What kind of animals are we?’ ” Stigler recalls.

“Think about that [kind of behavior] spread over a lifetime,” he says. “That’s a big difference.”

Similarly, Paul Tough argues that character, persistence, creativity, and the ability to deal with failure, are keys to success. In fact, a recent research study found that adversity may foster resilience, resulting in advantages for mental health and well-being. Of course, there is plenty of research that shows that children who face greater hardships are not necessarily more likely to succeed in society. Studies in neuroscience show that toxic or chronic stress in the earliest years of life can adversely impact brain development, including capacities for self-regulation and cognitive functions. So it seems the key may be learning to deal effectively with manageable levels of stress and hardship, rather than a simple correlation between number of hardships and successful outcomes.

Given that there are clear cultural and environmental effects on mindsets, persistence, and resilience, it is likely that at least some aspects are learned or result from interactions with the environment (although some may be due to innate differences in personality and temperament).

What are the implications of all of this for research, practice, and policy? Do we, and how do we, try to foster in children characteristics such as persistence, adaptability, and resilience?

Several researchers have suggested that self-regulation or self-control skills may be an effective place to start:

Following a cohort of 1,000 children from birth to the age of 32 y, we show that childhood self-control predicts physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending outcomes, following a gradient of self-control. Effects of children’s self-control could be disentangled from their intelligence and social class as well as from mistakes they made as adolescents. In another cohort of 500 sibling-pairs, the sibling with lower self-control had poorer outcomes, despite shared family background. Interventions addressing self-control might reduce a panoply of societal costs, save taxpayers money, and promote prosperity. [Moffitt et al. (2010). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. PNAS, 109(7), 2693-2698.]

A number of interventions have been developed over the years to improve children’s self-regulation or self-control skills, such as Tools of the Mind and Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies. Initial research (Tools & PATHs) indicates these programmes may be effective in the short-term in improving children’s capacities to regulate their thoughts, behaviours, and emotions. It will be interesting to see in the years ahead if long-term effects can be demonstrated on broader outcomes such as persistence, adaptability, and resilience – which are both harder to measure and harder to affect.

What are your thoughts? Are differences in mindsets, persistence, and the ability to cope important to examine? Are they important to address? How might we address them?

Sadaf Shallwani

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