Rachel Robb Avery, Phd's Logo

Rachel Robb Avery, Phd

Falmouth Children's Play Therapy, Psychological assessments and Family Therapy

(207) 775-2131
Rachel Robb Avery, Phd's Logo

Rachel Robb Avery, Phd

Falmouth Children's Play Therapy, Psychological assessments and Family Therapy

(207) 775-2131


Motivation In The Arena Of Children's Learning -

Carol Dweck, psychology professor at Stanford University studies motivation in the arena of children's learning. She suggests that parenting mindset toward learning has a clear impact on both children's experience of learning and their success. Mindset is a term used to describe the beliefs one has about their own or their children's most basic qualities: intelligence, personality, talents. This article will focus on defining mindset options for parents and will advocate for one particular Parenting Mindset recognized as helpful in supporting children to become successful lifelong learners.

Dr. Dweck proposes two overarching mindsets: a Growth Mindset and a Fixed Mindset.

A Growth Mindset is one in which the person being addressed or evaluated is seen as a developing person: one whose intelligence, abilities and qualities can continuously develop. When a child is viewed through this parenting lens, the message being sent is: I am interested in your development and together we can focus on supporting your growth. A Fixed Mindset is one in which the child being addressed or evaluated is seen as having permanent levels of intelligence, abilities and qualities: these levels are fixed. When a child is viewed through this type of parenting lens, the message being sent is "I judge you by the level of intelligence, ability and qualities you possess. That is, you are either smart or dumb, talented or not, athletic, musical, artistic etc. or not and that's that."

When a parent utilizes a Growth Mindset he or she is sending multiple messages to the child about their intelligence, talents and abilities. When using the Growth Mindset, parents send the message to their children that they can influence who they are with regard to indices of intelligence, talents, and abilities and how they achieve.

Motivation research has established that when children feel that they have some control in the ability to succeed, they are more likely to put in the effort needed to succeed. This research dovetails nicely with the Mindset research that has found that children who believe that through their own deliberate effort they can improve their abilities actually do improve their performance on tests of academic skills.

Self-Esteem research finds that children who are praised for effort, persistence and mastery have higher levels of self esteem than those who are simply praised for being smart, talented etc. In addition, children who are praised for practice, persistence and effort are more likely than children who are praised for being smart/talented to chose to challenge themselves by taking risks or seeking opportunities to learn as yet developed skills.

From an education perspective, making mistakes is an essential part of the learning process. How a child copes with mistake making impacts their learning success. If a child sees making mistakes as something that reflects badly on their intelligence (i.e. only dumb kids get bad grades on tests), their talent (i.e. only untalented musicians make mistakes when they perform), their ability (i.e. only non-athletic kids make mistakes on the field), then risk taking in the service of expanded growth and development will be limited. If on the other hand a child has learned that making mistakes is how everyone learns (Everyone makes mistakes sometimes, I'll try to learn from this mistake and not make it again) then they will be much more likely to pursue challenge as an opportunity for growth. A Growth Mindset is associated with the idea that a challenge represents an opportunity to learn rather than simply a threat of failure. In one research study, one group of children were praised for a high score with the comment, You must have done well because you are so smart. A second group of children were praised for a high score with the comment, You must have done well because you really worked hard. This study found that the children who had been praised for their smartness (Fixed mindset) chose an easy over hard subsequest study task, did less well on a retake of the original test task and were 3 times as likely to lie about their results when asked to self report their success on the final test. The researchers suggested several conclusions from their study 1) that students who are praised for being smart, when challenged or meet obstacles in performance they lose interest in the work and/or become unmotivated to continue, 2) students who think they do well because they are a winner, when they don't do well, think they're a loser. Not wanting to think of themselves as a loser they lie to cover up their unacceptable performance, 3) when students are praised for doing well because of hard work they internalize the ideas that learning takes effort, that mistakes are a part of learning and that and studying/effort impacts success . When a child believes that they have the ability to positively effect their outcome by putting in effort, research finds, that students are more likely to put in the effort necessary for success. Parents who are interested in raising children who are successful in the highly competitive world in which we live, focus their instruction on skills associated with developing an open mindset toward the experience of learning. Parental praise for qualities such as perseverance, curiosity, cognitive flexibility, and realistic goal setting are recognized along with an acceptance of and tolerance for making mistakes as integral to the learning process. Dr Dweck's research has found that children who have been encouraged to develop and praised for behaviors associated with perseverance and the appreciation that making mistakes is a valuable part of the learning process are children who enjoy both stable self worth and academic and life success. Examples of the specific parenting messages are:

  1. With practice you can always improve a skill
  2. Mistakes are opportunities for learning
  3. Challenge provides opportunity for the development of such personal qualities as perseverance, frustration tolerance and pride in work well-done.

These are the same parenting messages positive psychology has found associated with children who are emotionally resilient and equipped to deal with the predictable ups and downs of everyday life as well as unexpected life challenges. This perspective runs counter to the strong message in our society that the way to boost children's self esteem is to protect them from competition and failure. Research has found that while such a protective parenting approach may provide a short-term buffer to feelings of disappointment that in the long run it deprives children of the opportunity to discover that when they fail, they can recover and to recover they need to believe that recovery is possible and to put in the effort to make positive change happen. At a time when both academic and professional competition is creating a generation of children who are fraught with performance anxiety, Growth-mindset parenting provides a strategy that parents can employ to nurture hopefulness and and feelings of origin in their children as well as to cultivate self-acceptance and self-compassion when confronted with inevitable challenges.

Mindful parenting

Mindful parenting: practicing the skill of self-reflection within the context of being in the present moment, without judgment. Parenting involves a complex set of behaviors that is informed by intellectual knowing and felt experience. Mindful parenting is the practice of being aware in the present moment of both past experience and future expectations as they impact in-the-now parenting behavior choices. It is also about being able to choose your parenting response versus reacting to that same behavior. Responding and Reacting involve two very different types of information processing: one deliberate and thoughtful, one visceral and automatic.Dr Jill Taylor, a neuroanatomist, defines responsibility (response-ability) as the ability to choose how we respond to stimulation coming in through our sensory systems at any moment in time. Although there are certain limbic system (emotional) programs that can be triggered automatically, it takes less than 90 seconds for one of these programs to be triggered, surge through our body and then be completely flushed out of our blood stream. My anger response, for example, is a programmed response that can be set off automatically. Once triggered, the chemical released by my brain surges through my body and I have a physiological experience. Within 90 seconds from the initial trigger, the chemical component of my anger has completely dissipated from my blood and my automatic response is over. If, however, I remain angry after those 90 seconds have passed, then it is because I have chosen to let that circuit continue to run. Moment by moment, I make the choice to either hook into my neurocircuitry or move back into the present moment, allowing that reaction to melt away as fleeting physiology. It is so easy to get caught up in the wiring of our pre-programmed reactivity (limbic system) that we live our lives cruising along on automatic pilot. I have learned that the more attention my higher cortical cells pay to what's going on inside my limbic system (translate: the more mindful I am of myself in the present moment), the more say I have about what I am thinking and feeling. By paying attention to the choices my automatic circuitry is making, I own my power and make more choices consciously.

My Stroke of Insight, Pages146-147.

Healthy parenting involves both responsive and reactive behaviors. The key is accessing intellectual and emotional knowing to determine which type of processing is most appropriate in any given parenting situation.

For example, a parent walks into the kitchen and sees her young child fiddling with the nobs on the stove. Immediately your own anxiety takes off, energizing you to move quickly to protect your child from potential harm. That quick response is fueled by a visceral assessment of an unsafe situation. Moving quickly and definitively to remove your child from danger is an adaptive reaction. However, what you say to your child after you have removed her from danger or as you are removing her from danger can be either a mindful response or a reactive response. A mindful response might involve 1) a reflective awareness you want your child to learn that touching a stove is unsafe for them 2) a memory of being criticized and punished for impulsive curiosity as a child and 3) feelings of guilt that you are to blame for your child's almost injury. Processed together these experiences might lead the parent to say to their child: Real Stoves are not safe for young children to touch. Let's get some pots and pans and pretend to cook together on the floor. Or "Hot stoves are not for touching. Let's find something else that's fun to touch and explore". A parent reaction might involve defining the child's behavior as bad and insisting on punishment. An example with an older child might be: A parent discovers that their child has taken money from their wallet.

A Mindful parenting response might involve 1) a visceral feeling of anger and betrayal and guilt, 2) a reflection that making mistakes is an important part of how children learn and 3) knowledge that many children experiment with stealing as part of normal development and that such experimenting provides a good opportunity for moral teaching. The Mindful parenting response might go something like:

  • It is not ok with me that you take things from my purse without asking me first. If you have already spent the money you took, we can talk about how you can earn the money to pay me back. I am curious to know why you chose to steal the money from my purse. I wonder if there was another way you might have solved that problem?
  • An unmindful parenting reaction might involve criticism, judgment or name-calling (How could you be so selfish; You are bad; What a stupid thing to do. and then punishment for the stealing behavior.
  • Retrospective analysis of a difficult parenting moment is always easier than an in-the-moment parenting response. However, the good news about parenting and parent-child interaction is that re-processing a parent-child exchange is almost always an option.
  • Everyone, yes, everyone makes mindless, reactive parenting choices sometimes. We are all human and subject to human vulnerabilities of fatigue, stress, panic etc. However, when this happens if we are able through self-reflection to identify our behavior as reactive, we can then take responsibility for our reactive choice, apologize if warranted and continue the discussion with our child utilizing a more mindful approach. Sound easy? Not always so. Why, because effective self-reflection depends on a practice of self-compassion.

Self-Compassion is defined as the ability to experience oneself, in the moment, without judgment and with honesty, empathy and acceptance.

Self-compassion is developed and nurtured within the context of a significant and loving attachment relationship. Some people are lucky enough to learn this skill through the repetitive interactions they enjoy within an early caretaking/parenting relationship. In such a relationship, the child experiences their emotional needs as felt, understood and consistently met. Moments of discomfort, confusion, melt-down are met with a parent who helps the child to contain any feelings of coming unglued such that the child repetitively experiences resolution or containment to states of emotional upset. Self-Compassion emerges from the experience of being seen, held and known consistently, effectively, and repeatedly with compassion by a caretaking person.

Unfortunately, not everyone is lucky enough to have such an experience of being emotional held, repeatedly, with compassion. And as such some of us must learn this skill, practicing and nurturing our ability to accept our limitations and mistakes , our feelings of injury or unkind impulses as part of our fundamental and accepted humanness.

Suggested Reading:

Siegel, Daniel J M.D. and Hartzell, Mary MeD. (2004)Parenting from the Inside Out. How a Deeper Self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. Penguin Group: New York.

Siegel, Daniel J M.D. and Bryson, Tina Payne Ph.D. (2011) The Whole-Brain Child. 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind. Bantam Books: New York.

Taylor, Jill Bolte Ph.D. (2006) My Stroke of Insight. A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey. Viking: New York.

Well-child Emotional Check up

Parenting is a full-time job and everyone knows it comes without a manual. For this reason it can be helpful to provide you and your child with the opportunity for a well-child emotional check up. A well-child emotional check up is a systematic assessment of the qualities of thinking , feeling, and behaviors that make up your child's personality. It is also a snapshot of your child's current level of emotional health and psychological functioning that can have direct implication's for specific parenting strategies most likely to be helpful for your child.

The well-child check up consists of three phases:

  • Phase 1: Following a call requesting a well-child checkup, an appointment will be set up for the parent(s) of the referred child. The purpose of that appointment will be to collect information of the Child's current behavior and their developmental history. Identifiying particular questions about your child is encouraged at this point as those questions can then become part of the psychological inquiry that is involved in the well-child check up. We will also talk about introducing the idea of the well-child check up to the child. Sample scripts for parents to use are provided during this interview. For example: You saw Dr ( ) for your physical (body) check up. Now we are going to see Dr. Rachel who is a feelings Dr to learn more about how things are going for you with your feelings
  • Phase 2: Three individual 1-hour appointments will be set up for your child with me. During those three sessions I will use talk, play and some psychological tests to assess a broad spectrum of factors that contribute to what can be summarized as a child's personality. Practically I use these strategies to answer questions like, what makes your child feel good and how often is he or she able to create that feeling deliberately by the choices he/she makes in his/her daily life? What aspects of daily living, school, home are difficult for your child? What factors make them difficult? What aspects of life are easier for your child? How is this possible for him or her? What are your child's personality strengths, areas of mastery and vulnerabilities or areas of developmental deficit? How does your child cope with experiences of adversity/frustration and what level of stress does he or she experience in his or her daily life? Is your child aware of the stress he or she feels and if aware, what are his/her coping strategies and how successful are they? How does your child feel in his/her relationships, with parents, peers, teachers and others? Safe? Confused? Accepted? Competent? Or Mistrustful and worried; Overwhelmed and Inadequate? What is your child's relationship with him or herself. Neuroscientific research has confirmed that there is a positive correlation between self compassion and felt compassion toward others. Self-compassion is also positively correlated with feelings of self-worth, self-acceptance and the perspective that mistakes are a natural part of the learning process. In the child's third and last interview, I will share with him/her what I have learned about them and ask for their input as to the accuracy of my findings (from their perspective).
  • Phase 3: I will see parents for a final 1 hour session in which I will share my findings about their child and respond to any questions parents might have either about the assessment process I used, the results of my assessment or any recommendation for further actions I might have suggested. A written report can be requested for an additional cost.