Mindsets and learning from failure

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Failure is often something that’s frowned upon. But the truth is we all fail at some things some times. It’s often the best way to learn. It’s important to teach children not to fear failing. Fear of failure can be crippling, and lead to avoiding challenging tasks and taking away our motivation and our desire to achieve. You can support your child by teaching them about the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset, and helping them deal with setbacks.

Growth vs. fixed mindset

When talking about failure with your child, it’s helpful to talk about the two kinds of mindsets that people can have - a growth mindset or a fixed mindset.

What's a growth mindset?

This is where a person’s self-esteem is centred on the belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. In this mindset, it is believed that success comes from about 35% ability, and 65% effort.

A growth mindset is about learning how to fail well, and knowing that learning from failure is what leads to eventual success. This can be summed up in the sentence “I can’t do that… YET.”

Signs that your child has a growth mindset:

  • they’re keen to learn from people around them

  • they understand that getting what they want, or learning new skills, requires putting in effort

  • they’re aware of their weaknesses, but they are focused on improving them

  • they welcome challenges and are open to new things.

What's a fixed mindset?

A fixed mindset is when people believe that traits such as ability or talent are fixed, set at birth and not able to be changed. They let failure or success define who they are. It could be said that they believe that success comes from about 65% ability, and only about 35% effort.

Signs that your child has a fixed mindset:

  • they avoid challenges when they think they might stuff up

  • they don’t deal well with setbacks

  • they try to hide their mistakes

  • they are very negative about themselves, often saying things like “I can’t do it”.

How can you help your child adopt a growth mindset?

Showing your child how to learn through failure basically means helping them to adopt a growth mindset. In order to help them do that, you should praise their effort, and not just the achievement.

Top tips for supporting a growth mindset in your child:

  • Talk about the difference between a fixed and growth mindset. Explain what they are and the importance of understanding that failing is an essential part of learning.

  • Talk about the brain. Explain that our brains are something that can be changed. The more we practice and work at a skill or ability, the stronger the connections in our brain associated with that skill become. Over time, it becomes easier and more natural for our brain to do these skills - like using a muscle. Great athletes weren’t just born being able to perform the way they do, it took hours and hours of practice and effort.

  • Praise effort. Also praise struggle and persistence. Congratulate them on choosing difficult tasks; mention that you are impressed and proud when they put time into learning. Compliment improvement.

  • Encourage them to practice skills. Give them support to continue working at new skills and praise them for embracing new ones.

  • Celebrate successes. Particularly little successes, which are often forgotten - like solving a difficult problem, or the act of trying to do something.

  • As with all things, having a growth mindset is something we should endeavour to practice ourselves. Your child will understand how to learn from failure by watching your attitudes and behaviours.