A talk given at the Annual General Meeting for the Learning Disabilities Association of Peel Region, by Dr. Adrienne Eastwood, Psychologist

Good evening everyone, thank you for this opportunity to speak about a topic that I am quite passionate about – the potential for success that lies in each and every student.

As a psychologist, my job involves assessing children, diagnosing learning disabilities, and helping parents to understand what it all means for their child.  Understandably, parents of a child newly diagnosed with a learning disability are often worried and concerned – will my child succeed at school? Go on to post-secondary education? Be successful in life?

It is true that students with a learning disability often have a tough time in school, particularly when teaching approaches and evaluation methods are not adapted in order to meet their needs.  However, parents are often quite surprised when I explain to them that the ultimate barrier to their child’s academic success may not even be their child’s particular learning difficulties.  I let them know that students with all sorts of disabilities are successful when they get the right supports, when they have the motivation to learn, and the persistence to achieve goals that matter to them.  And sometimes, they succeed despite getting less than ideal supports and accommodations.

In my years of practice, I have been impressed by the success achieved by people who some thought did not have the potential to graduate from High School, let alone go on to postsecondary education (which they did!).  Likewise, I have seen how self-defeating attitudes and negative self-perceptions have prevented the most intellectually capable people, without any kind of learning disability at all, from graduating from high school.   Even though research studies confirm that learning disabilities do increase a person’s risk for academic failure, it’s really important to know that it is not the only predictor of important outcomes.

So what is important for parents to know about how to help children succeed?  Tonight I want to share some research results with you that I hope will inspire you to continue your efforts to support the people you know with learning disabilities.   You already know that appropriate accommodations and learning disability-friendly teaching strategies make a big difference in helping children with learning disabilities to achieve academic success.  What I would like to share with you tonight are some research results that are not specific to learning disabilities, but that are relevant for all students.

The research that I am going to tell you about has to do with what people believe about how intelligence works, and how these beliefs impact how they deal with difficult tasks.

Research over the last decade has shown us that a person’s beliefs about how intelligence works actually affect their academic success.  Carol Dweck, a psychology researcher at Stanford University, has published numerous groundbreaking papers about the impact of people’s theories, or beliefs, about intelligence.   She has found that some people believe that intelligence can’t change no matter what – you are just born smart or not-so-smart.  Carol Dweck calls this a fixed mindset.  Other people think that intelligence actually can change, and for the better – she calls this a growth mindset.

People with a fixed mindset behave quite differently than people with a growth mindset.  When someone with a fixed mindset faces a difficult task that they expect they will fail, they are likely to give up.  And when they do fail at tasks, they tend to assume that they were not smart enough to have been successful.  People with fixed mindsets tend to believe that looking smart is more important than how much you learn.

It’s a different story for people with a growth mindset. When someone with a growth mindset is given a task that is too tricky for them, they will increase their effort to conquer the challenge, and they will be pleased when they increase their ability and skills, even if they are still not earning the best marks. When they fail at a task, someone with a growth mindset will assume that the reason is because they did not work hard enough.

These differences in beliefs and behaviour actually translate into different outcomes in academic achievement.  Studies that have followed students over multiple years of schooling have found that when students have a growth mindset, their grades improve over time, while students with a fixed mindset show no improvements in grades.  These patterns hold true whether students are earning high or low marks to begin with.

Now this is a key point… it doesn’t matter whether students were high achieving or low achieving to begin with…. The ones who believe that intelligence can improve tend to perform better over time.

So, why do a person’s beliefs about intelligence impact their achievement? Carol Dweck found out that students who have a growth mindset also hold goals for themselves related to improving their learning, and they are more likely to believe that working hard is both necessary and effective in order to achieve.  With this set of helpful beliefs, students then face setbacks with resilience – they don’t blame their failures on a lack of ability, instead they make plans to invest more time into their work.

Okay, so what the researchers did next was really interesting.  They took a group of kids entering Grade 7, and followed them throughout the year, looking at their beliefs about intelligence, their math marks, and what teachers were saying about them.  This particular group of students was not performing very well; they were overall earning C grades in Math.  What’s more, their grades were dropping as the year progressed.

Then, in the spring term, the researchers had the students participate in an 8-week workshop about the brain and study skills.  Half the students learned that different parts of the brain are responsible for different tasks, and they were taught memory strategies to help them remember new information.

The other half of the students were taught a special growth mindset curriculum, where they also learned about the brain, but instead of learning specific memory strategies, they were taught that their learning can improve through practice.  This was considered the “experimental condition” – the one that the researchers predicted might lead to important outcomes.

I’ll tell you a little more about the growth-mindset curriculum.  The students read and discussed an article called “You Can Grow Your Brain.”  The article teaches them about neurons – those are the cells in the brain that communicate with each other using electrical and chemical signals whenever we think, talk, move or learn.  Students were also taught that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger with use, and that learning prompts neurons in the brain to grow new connections.  Activities and discussions helped the students to see that they could help their own brains to develop stronger connections, by practicing new skills to mastery.

And what happened to these two groups of students?  Students who received the growth-mindset intervention improved their marks, while students in the control condition continued to have their marks slide.  Kids also began to behave differently after they participated in the growth mindset intervention. Teachers, who had been completely unaware that there were even two different groups, were asked to notice, which students were changing for the better (or worse) with respect to motivation or performance?  When teachers identified a student who had improved, that student was much more likely to have been in a growth mindset workshop than in the control group.

So, what about kids with learning disabilities specifically?  Does this research really apply to them?  Is it really true to say that they can improve their intelligence?  Won’t all this research make kids with learning disabilities feel as though it is their fault they are not getting good marks by trying harder?   Certainly, one can see the possibility for harm when it comes to applying the idea of the growth mindset to students with learning disabilities.  We all know individuals with learning disabilities who try so hard, and yet, still struggle to learn.

In thinking about the answer to these questions, it’s important to consider what a growth mindset is not:

Having a growth mindset is not about becoming skilled at a task simply by believing that one is capable, or believing that one can make a disability go away by just trying harder.  It doesn’t mean that a struggling student will suddenly earn As simply because they understand that the brain can grow new connections.  Having a growth mindset is also not about believing that everyone has the exact same potential.  The truth is that we don’t all have the same potential to learn, and we don’t all improve our skills at the same rate.  But, it is true that anyone can improve skills with practice.  And it is true that all skills must be practiced in order to achieve competence.  Even child prodigies like Mozart, reportedly born with innate talent, spent their whole lives practicing and perfecting their skills.

When it’s used in a helpful way, a growth mindset means telling the truth about a student’s current achievement and then, together, doing something about it, helping them to learn to do something that previously they did not know how to do.  Using a growth mindset also means helping the student to identify what is the next skill they need to learn, in order to achieve their goals.  And when students find themselves stuck on a task, using a growth mindset means encouraging them to sort out what else they can do to find a solution.

So, people with learning disabilities don’t need to hear that they should try harder.  The majority of them are already working so much harder than students without learning disabilities.  What they need to hear is that progress is possible, and that their efforts can pay off.  Students with learning disabilities need to be validated for the progress that they do make as a result of their efforts.  They need to know that you care more about their progress than their grades.

We also need to teach students with learning disabilities that their brains are learning machines, and that they are in charge of those machines.  They need to hear that their brains are constantly developing and improving whenever they practice a skill.

When students with learning disabilities encounter failure, as we all do, we can help them to see it as an opportunity for learning and growth.  When we make mistakes ourselves, we can show our kids that we are interested in figuring out how to do things differently next time.  We can show them that we don’t feel anxious, upset or angry when failures occur – either about our own mistakes, or theirs.

When we give students positive feedback, we need to do so deliberately and specifically.  We can praise them for their persistence or strategies, rather than making general praise statements like “you’re so smart”.  Even when kids are smart, telling them that they are smart may suggest a fixed mindset instead of a growth mindset – that you care more about how smart they are than how much progress they make in their learning.   Kids, and many adults, assume that if they are smart, then things should be easy.  So when things do not come easily, they may feel as though they are not smart.  You can’t go wrong when you let kids know how proud you are of their efforts, their perseverance, and their progress relative to where they were before.  When students learn to care more about their progress than their performance, then they will achieve so much more.

Thank you for your attention, and for all that you do to support students with learning disabilities.

References:

Putting a Canadian Face on Learning Disabilities Study (PACFOLD) http://pacfold.ca/download/WhatIs/en/executiveSummary.pdf

Lisa S. Blackwell Kali H. Trzesniewski and Carol Dweck (2007) Child Development, Volume 78, Number 1, Pages 246 – 263.  Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention. https://psychology.stanford.edu/sites/all/files/Implicit%20Theories%20of%20Intelligence%20Predict%20Achievement%20Across%20an%20Adolescent%20Transition_0.pdf

The Secret to Raising Smart Kids by Carol Dweck, January 1, 2015, Scientific American https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-secret-to-raising-smart-kids1/

Online growth mindset training based on Carol Dweck’s research: www.mindsetworks.com

Article similar to the one used in Carol Dweck’s 2007 study: https://www.mindsetworks.com/websitemedia/youcangrowyourintelligence.pdf

September 22, 2015.  Commentary in Education Week by Carol Dweck http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2015/09/23/carol-dweck-revisits-the-growth-mindset.html

Kyla Haimovitz and Carol S. Dweck (2016) Psychological Science, Vol. 27(6) pages 859–869.   What Predicts Children’s Fixed and Growth Intelligence Mind-Sets? Not Their Parents’ Views of Intelligence but Their Parents’ Views of Failure.