Why 6 little words can help your kids


Image courtesy of ROY MATTAPPALLIL

Who said this?

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot. And missed.

Would you want him on your team, or as your coach? Think about that while you read…

6 words

Last time we talked about Carol Dweck and 6 little words that can make a massive difference to our kids. Just those 6 little words generated a 30% increase in test scores, while 6 different words ended with a 20% drop in scores. We saw how she was suggesting alternate attributions for kids (I’m really smart vs I tried really hard) and the difference it made. That was remarkable. (By the way, so was the feedback. Thanks!)

But the hidden story, what’s behind that 30%, is even more remarkable. WHY?


Why would words like these be so effective? And what does that have to do with a guy who can’t make 9,000 shots anyway?

If you read a little more about Dweck’s work, you’ll know that it didn’t need to be exactly six, and it wasn’t crucial that it was these words particularly. All she was doing was giving the kids a message about why they had scored what they did on the first round of tests – what we’d call an attribution.

But by setting a context for each kid (the attribution of smart, or that of effort) she set in motion a crucible of experimentation that, in a few minutes with these kids, demonstrated how excellence is made.

What Dweck helped demonstrate are some fundamental brain-based principles that seem to have bypassed most schools entirely. No doubt there are some teachers and maybe even some schools that have it. Sadly, there are plenty that haven’t, even though Dweck’s little world-changing experiment is now more than 10 years old.

On that day in New York, inside the heads of those children, extraordinary things were happening.

They were magnifying excellence

What happened? Once she established an attribution, that same attribution prompted some kids to protect their position of smartness, and some kids to ignore that and try harder. Remember on Dweck’s second test, kids could try questions that were easier or tougher than the first? The effort kids tried the hard problems. Ask yourself then…

Were they more likely to experience failure? Yes. Oh yes.

Was she worried about their self-esteem? No.

Which kids were more worried about how they felt and were perceived? The other group. The smart group.

All they were doing is practicing, right? But, and here’s the pivotal piece, they were practicing with motivation, knowing that they were, with effort, going to get it right and succeed.

This is when the brain roars into gear.

This is when excellence is made. Dweck got to watch it happen.

Building brains

As we try a new thing, a routine, a skill, a problem, we’re asking the brain to construct a new set of mental connections. We’re asking brain cells to grow in new ways, forge connections that didn’t exist, build pathways that weren’t there before. Literal, physical, visible pathways.

As we practice this skill, like the effort kids were for Dweck, we’re constantly reinforcing these brain connections, strengthening some, weakening others, honing, refining, pruning, sharpening our skill as we go. We get smoother and more fluid. We can execute a sports technique more easily. We can solve another one of these problems more quickly. We can perform a work task more expertly.

The mental activity inside the heads of the effort kids was far greater than that inside the heads of the smart kids. They were growing new brain cell connections. They were, literally, building new brain tissue. Although tiny in scope, these effort kids had physically, measurably different brains from when they went in.

Hebb would have loved it

By repeatedly using the same brain circuits, we become better at something. Those brain cells that get used to acting in concert with each other develop robust connections. Colloquially, we call it practice making perfect.

Donald Hebb, who published the idea in 1949, had slightly more academic language for it. Today, the thumbnail summary of Hebb’s law, or Hebbian learning, goes like this:

Neurons that fire together, wire together

The crucial bit here is the word together. By repeated activation of brain circuits (practice) they become more strongly connected with each other and more efficient and effective at what they do. We get better, faster, stronger.

This is the biological evidence for why it’s far, far, far better to rote learn times tables than by using any other way. Same with spelling words. And skills. And music. And sports…

Failure is helpful

Try. Fail. Examine. Refine.

Try. Fail. Examine. Refine.

Fire the neural pathways over and over again. Make mistakes. Figure out what was wrong. Correct and make adjustments. Fire the pathways again.

Incremental improvements come from repeated practice and repeated failure with adjustments, allowing the brain to wire the path to achievement. Provide a context of endeavor, reinforce effort, give feedback, make adjustments.

Ever noticed how this is how children learn to roll over, sit up, crawl, walk, run, climb, jump, eat, hold a pencil, learn the complexities of language?

Ever wondered how it is that we all manage to do this by ourselves with just a little bit of guidance from parents and yet, the minute we get to school, we think these techniques are useless and must be replaced by praise for my inherent ability and smartness?

So here’s the take home bit

The brain learns through repeated effort and failure. Failure is not something to protect our kids from because, without it, they won’t get anywhere. The brain uses failure to build pathways that lead to achievement, be it small or great.

But there are conditions, especially as kids get older. (I’ll show you the flip side of this next time.) The attributions around success and failure are, as we’ve seen, important.

Keep the attributions unstable – based on things that we can change. Like effort.

So who said this…

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Michael Jordan. Not a bad basketballer.

He and Dweck would have plenty to talk about.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Attributions, Motivation, Fixed mindset, Growth mindset

Tell me what you’ve seen?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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