Why some kids try harder and some kids give up

My 18-month-old struggled to buckle the straps on her high chair. “Almost,” she muttered as she tried again and again. “Almost,” I agreed, trying not to hover. When she got it, I exclaimed, “You did it! It was hard, but you kept trying, and you did it. I’m so proud of you.”

Snapped the buckleThe way I praised her took a little effort on my part. If I hadn’t known better, I might have just said, “Clever girl!” (Or even “Here, let me help you with that.”) What’s so bad about that? Read on.

Stanford researcher Carol Dweck has been studying motivation and perseverance since the 1960s. And she found that children fall into one of two categories:

  • Those with a fixed mindset, who believe their successes are a result of their innate talent or smarts
  • Those with a growth mindset, who believe their successes are a result of their hard work

Fixed mindset: ‘If you have to work hard, you don’t have ability’

Kids with a fixed mindset believe that you are stuck with however much intelligence you’re born with. They would agree with this statement: “If you have to work hard, you don’t have ability. If you have ability, things come naturally to you.” When they fail, these kids feel trapped. They start thinking they must not be as talented or smart as everyone’s been telling them. They avoid challenges, fearful that they won’t look smart.

Growth mindset: ‘The more you challenge yourself, the smarter you become’

Kids with a growth mindset believe that intelligence can be cultivated: the more learning you do, the smarter you become. These kids understand that even geniuses must work hard. When they suffer a setback, they believe they can improve by putting in more time and effort. They value learning over looking smart. They persevere through difficult tasks.

What creates these beliefs in our kids? The type of praise we give them–even starting at age 1.

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Resilience and its importance in learning by Andy Falconer

Resilience is defined as an ability to recover from, or adjust easily to, misfortune or change.

I think that helping our young people to develop resilience is a fundamental part of education, particularly in an age where change is the norm. However, this can only be done when parents and educators are working in partnership. Every one of us will have to face change and disappointment, many times over in our lives. Victor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who survived two and a half years in Nazi concentration camps, made this case in his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning‘ and said, “we can’t always choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we respond.”

In 1896, Francis Galton published “Heredity Genius” his landmark investigation into the factors underlying achievement. He found that success wasn’t simply a matter of intelligence or talent. Instead, Galton concluded that eminent achievement was only possible when “ability was combined with zeal and the capacity for hard labour.” Lewis-Terman, the inventor of the Stanford-Binet IQ test came to the same conclusion. Whilst the most accomplished people did have slightly higher scores, he found that other traits such as ‘perseverance’ were much more pertinent.

How we help our children approach misfortune or change will have a significant say in the people they will eventually become. A resilient child is able to adapt when faced with adversity and feels competent when solving new problems. They view obstacles as challenges to rise to, instead of stressors to avoid.

How can we as parents help? Well, we need to model resilient behaviours and help promote resilience through words, actions and the environment in which our children are being raised. Praise our children for having a go, for their effort & resourcefulness, as Carol Dweck has talked about in her research.

So what are the keys to resilience, whether as a child or an adult? From the reading I have done, I would say:

  1. A sense of optimism – the ability to believe things will work out, in spite of evidence to the contrary. This doesn’t mean burying our head in the sand but does mean being a glass half full not half empty person, and taking responsibility for choosing how to act and feel.
  2. Physical exercise – a commitment to physical health & activity, no matter what. There is so much research to show that physical exercise and mental health go hand in hand.
  3. Problem solving capability – the creative capacity to work through a challenge in various ways. Having a growth mindset and believing our contribution can make a difference to an outcome. Remembering the importance of praising the effort not the achievement, the journey not the destination.
  4. Social connection – having a network of resources & support via friends, family and other relationships. It’s not healthy to have just one or two best friends but to have a wide circle of friends. We need people to talk to and confide in when something worries us.
  5. Flexibility – the ability to adapt to unexpected scenarios. Helping children to understand that things don’t always go as planned. Being flexible and able to change is an important characteristic of resilience. When a child is going through a life transition or big change, this can be a great learning opportunity to show how change can be dealt with and perceived in a positive way.
  6. Being able to express emotions – the honest identification & communication of emotions without habitual negativity. It’s OK to say we’re nervous, or frightened, or disappointed, or proud, or sad.

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