Practice Makes Progress

Hedda SharapanI love when research surprises us by showing something different than what we assume. That’s what happened when I learned about Carol Dweck’s research on persistence (which just happens to be one of the important “soft” skills for success in school).

Dweck’s studies address those times when we’ve said to a child, “You’re so smart” or “You’re really good at that” or “That’s okay, no one’s good at everything,” thinking we’re helping children feel good about themselves. Her research with middle-school children shows us those messages are actually counter-productive.

Those comments lead children to believe that intelligence or ability is “fixed.” Those labels imply that either you’re smart or you’re not… either you’re good at something or not. When children with that “fixed” mind-set are faced with a challenge, they tend to avoid it or give up, thinking either “I don’t want to look bad, because then people will think I am not smart,” or “There’s no point in working at it. I must not be smart after all.”

But if children have been encouraged and recognized for their effort, like for how much they’ve practiced or worked at something, they are more likely to develop a “growth” mind-set. That means you could get better at something the more you work at it -- so it’s worth persisting. In Dweck’s research, she found that when children with a “growth” mind-set run into a difficult problem, they are more likely to work at it and, in fact, they say they enjoy the challenge, even if they can’t solve it.

Dweck’s research wouldn’t have been a surprise to Fred. Time and time again on the Neighborhood program, he encouraged his guests -- musicians, artists, scientists, and even plumbers -- to talk about the practice it took to get to their level, inspiring his young viewers to be persistent if they want to do something well. He even put that message into one of his Neighborhood songs, “You’ve Got to Do It.” Listen to the lyrics in the video and see how he encouraged children to keep on trying.

How can we apply Fred’s messages in his song to helping children develop persistence?

“You can make believe it happens…but the make-believe pretending just won’t do it for you.”

Young children don’t understand cause and effect . They have a hard time sorting out what’s real and what’s make-believe. They also see that adults and older children seem to be able to do things effortlessly, as if by magic. In his song, Mister Rogers reminds them that it takes “doing” to make something happen.

“You’ve got to do it.”

We help children develop a “growth” mind-set when we recognize their effort, rather than the final product. One way to encourage effort is to show interest in children’s “process” of doing things, rather than just the “product.” You might ask questions like, “How did you do that?” or “I noticed you spent a lot of time working on that block building,” or “How did you figure out how to make the tower so high?” Help them reflect on what they did, why they did it and what they used. We need to offer words beyond “Good job” or “Awesome.”

“If you want to ride a bicycle and ride it straight and tall…you have to fall (sometimes).”

Anyone who works at a job that involves problem-solving (and we all do!) will tell you that it actually helps when we make mistakes – because we learn what NOT to do the next time. Making mistakes is part of learning.

“It’s not easy to keep trying, but it’s one good way to grow.”

It’s natural to feel frustrated and discouraged when we’re working at learning something. But one way to help a child is to offer “scaffolding” – just enough of a boost (not too much, not too little) that helps a child get to a higher skill level. Scaffolding can come in the form of a hint or a question that helps a child figure out a possible solution, or it might involve breaking down a task into smaller steps. For example, you might ask, “I wonder what you could do at the bottom to make it stronger, so you can build it higher?” or “Why don’t you try turning the puzzle piece a different way?”

It always strikes me how simple Fred’s songs seem at first, but they’re deep and complex -- and full of important messages for professionals who work with young children.

P.S. If you’re going to the NAEYC Professional Development Institute, come join us Sunday morning for my workshop on “Helping teachers intentionally use video resources for STEM learning, using as examples Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood video field trips and factory tours.” I hope to see you at the conference.

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