What One Simple Belief Can Make Teens Successful?

I remember hearing about a program in which teens were simply told the scientific fact that they can increase their intelligence.  They actually did better on a test the very next day!  I recently went off in search of more about that and found an exciting, simple, validated way for poor mothers and others to make their teenagers successful in school and beyond.  Sounds too good to be true, I know, so read on.

The Belief

Many people believe that intelligence of each person is set and does not change.  They think:  You are born a certain way — some people get more intelligence than others and everyone simply has to accept it and do the best one can with the “brains” that they got.

Other people believe that intelligence can grow through learning.  It turns out that adopting this belief changes all sorts of attitudes AND behaviors and produces very positive results in teenagers.  Those positive results start immediately and they continue years later.

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 How Does it Work?

It turns out that when teens think intelligence is set and cannot change, they:

  • Focus on just performing at “their level” on required tasks like tests and other school work that is required.
  • Avoid potential failure by avoiding challenges and learning opportunities.
  • Tend to take setbacks or criticism badly, disengaging from school or the effort
  • Often engage in self-defeating behaviors like not studying or not turning in work or skipping class so that they have other excuses for what they expect will be performance that is not as good as others’

Whereas, when teens believe that intelligence can be changed by their own actions, they:

  • boy surf jumpsmlThrow themselves into learning and engage actively in school and other efforts
  • Set more goals
  • Get better grades
  • Don’t feel bad about grades or results that are not terrific.  They see those as sources of information about how to do better in the future.
  • Don’t engage in those self-defeating behaviors described above

Study Results

There is a lot of research behind this and the findings are very encouraging.  For example:

One study found that just by determining which of the two beliefs about intelligence each student held, you could predict how well they did in math in the following two years.

Another study focused on teens who were doing worse and worse at math*.  The researchers actively taught one half of the students about the brain and the fact that you can increase your intelligence by using your brain to learn new things:  This group’s grades and overall behaviors stopped falling and went up.  The other half of the students got some other positive attention, but not the information about the ability to grow one’s intelligence:  This group’s performance continued to decline.   And the difference in results continued two years later.

But it is important to note that it is not just grades that changed.  The grades changed because the motivation and behaviors of these teens changed.  The teachers of the children did not know which students were getting which training so that their observations and behavior would not be skewed.  Here is an example of a teacher comment about one of the students in the first group:

‘‘L., who never puts in any extra effort and doesn’t turn in homework on time, actually stayed up late working for hours to finish an assignment early so I could review it and give him a chance to revise it. He earned a B1 on the assignment (he had been getting C’s and lower).’’**

A third study ***found that the positive impacts are particularly strong if the teen doesn’t just believe that intelligence can grow,but specifically  that that applies to their own intelligence.  To ensure this, the researcher notes that it may be necessary to help some teens try small challenges and gain confidence by seeing the results themselves.

Too Valuable to Not Share

It is clear that sharing this very simple fact — that learning changes the brain by forming new connections, and that each person is in charge of this process — can change the lives of those who hear it. And teens, faced with complex new demands and challenges need to hear and believe this.  The new attitudes can make a huge difference in their lives.

And this bit of wisdom is ideal for low-income mothers.  It does not take a lot of time and it creates many broad benefits.

Let’s share this with low-income mothers, teachers, and especially, every teen we know.

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Note:

* and ** “Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention”.  Lisa S. Blackwell, Columbia University,.  Kali H. Trzesniewski and Carol Sorich Dweck, Stanford University.  Math was chosen as the class to use in the study since it is usually challenging for teens.

***My Intelligence May Be More Malleable than Yours:  The Implicit Theories Self-Form Is a Better Predictor of Achievement and Motivation.  Krista De Castella, The Australian National University and Stanford University. Don Byrne, The Australian National University


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