Every month we publish two articles on “Shady Oak Best Practices,” our favorite approaches to education and why they work. If friends ask why you send your kids to Shady Oak instead of a “regular” school, refer them to this series—and the science backing us up—for starters.

What children (and adults) think of themselves plays a major role in what they accomplish. If they consider themselves “slow,” they will learn with difficulty and produce mediocre work. If they believe in their own potential, they will always be reaching new horizons.

Believing in oneself means having a “growth mindset,” the confidence that everyone can always keep learning and improving. Too many people get trapped in “fixed mindsets” that rarely bother trying to master new things because they don’t expect to learn much more than what comes easily. Either they settle for living at the mediocre level, or they start off strong only to give up when inborn talent doesn’t automatically provide them with a quick rise to the top.


By contrast, people with growth mindsets are eager to experiment and always ready to “try, try again.” If you want to encourage a growth mindset in your kids:

Watch How You Phrase Compliments

Telling a child he is “a born genius” or “natural athlete” is counterproductive; what he really hears is either “You’ll always come in first without trying” or “You’d better not hurt your reputation by failing at anything.” If you want kids to keep developing their potential, focus on individual accomplishments (“I really like the way you used colors in this painting”), effort (“You sure put a lot of work into this”), and enjoyment (“I’m pleased to see you enjoy learning”).

Keep Everyone Looking Forward

Even under a percentage grading system, you can encourage kids to see less-than-stellar results not as predictors of destiny, but as minor setbacks. Don’t say, “I don’t see why you can’t do better,” and don’t praise even a 100 percent score as if the number were all that mattered. Keep emphasizing “what we’ll learn next.” Ask students to contribute their own ideas to lesson plans. Straight-A students and strugglers alike grow best when encouraged to build on successes and learn from failures.

Don’t Let Kids Label Themselves

If you hear anyone call herself “stupid” or “hopeless at math,” encourage her gently. Arguing (“You just need to try harder”) only convinces kids that no one understands. Instead, ask an open-ended question:

  • “What parts do you think you did well on?”
  • “What did you learn from how this turned out?”
  • “How else might you approach this problem?”

If she answers with a repeated assertion of being hopeless, continue to encourage gently but persistently until you get an answer you can build on. Show her you believe not only in her ability to improve, but in her ability to figure solutions out herself.

At Shady Oak, we emphasize growth mindset because it teaches students to believe in themselves and to work for ongoing progress.

Science Backs Us Up! Further Resources on the Topic