In 1975, psychologist Carol Dweck and her team conducted an experiment with a group of low-performing elementary school aged math students. The students were given a very difficult math assignment. These students had a poor self-concept about their ability to succeed in math and a history of bad grades. The students were given a very difficult math assignment and divided into two groups. When they did poorly, the children in Group One were told that they could do better with more effort, that they had the ability to improve their skills, and were given lessons in persistence and problem solving. Group Two was not given this feedback or training. Despite both groups starting out as equally poor performers, the children in Group One actually improved their math abilities over time, while the children in Group Two continued to fall apart on the assignments and did not progress. What made the difference?
Note that the children in Group One were not given remedial math instruction. The lessons they received had nothing to do with the content material at all! What they were given was a set of more valuable skills that could be applied to any challenges in life: the ability to develop a growth mindset.
Think about your own beliefs: Do you feel that ability is inborn or developed? Are some people simply born good athletes, good students, good speakers or are athleticism, study skills, and speaking ability something that can be learned, developed, and improved over time? Are there “born winners” and “born losers” or can you be a self-made man? Popular media loves stories of prodigies and natural superstars, but scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find that behind many stunning achievements are years of quiet commitment and hours of practice.
People who have a fixed mindset believe “you’ve either got it or you don’t” — you’re good at something or you’re not, and there’s no changing it. People with a growth mindset feel that talents can be cultivated, that natural abilities can be grown or improved with time and hard work. Now… which mindset sounds better to you?
The dangers of a fixed mindset are many. People with fixed mindsets tend to stagnate at their present levels. They believe that they have little power to improve their performance, so they just stay where they are. This is difficult for low performers, but it is detrimental to high performers as well. If everyone has told you how great and talented you are, that becomes your fixed image of yourself. When you confront challenges, as we all inevitably do, you have a harder time dealing with struggle and disappointment, and you are less likely to admit that you need help. People with a fixed mindset are less open to constructive criticism, and, as a result, they miss out on many opportunities to improve their skills.
How does this relate to hearing loss? We know that our children who are deaf or hard of hearing have to learn how to listen. Early identification and amplification make this learning curve much less steep, but there still is some therapy involved at any age. If we can help our children develop a growth mindset, we make the therapy process smoother for everyone and give them a skill that will last well beyond graduation from therapy. Parents and professionals need a growth mindset, too!
What does this look like for CHILDREN?
A growth mindset helps us avoid what I like to call “Golden Baby Syndrome.” If everyone is constantly telling you that you are a “CI star” or have “perfect speech” (newsflash, no one has perfect speech – not even typically-hearing adults articulate correctly 100% of the time), then you (and your adult fan club) become blind to your errors. You lose the ability to self-monitor and self-correct because, after all, you’ve already been told that you’re perfect. I see many adults who, after a lifetime of being told how “perfect” they are, come up short when they realize that others don’t understand them as well as they thought, or that their writing skills aren’t as flawless as they were told. Being imperfect is human. Giving children kind but realistic feedback is honest and essential for growth.
We can help children with hearing loss develop a growth mindset by reminding them of challenges they’ve overcome in the past… and how they overcame them.
For example: One day I was working with a very high-performing little girl with bilateral CIs. She was weeks away from graduating from therapy, excelling in a mainstream preschool, and scoring above-average on standardized assessments, but we had reached a word in therapy — and today I can’t even remember what that word was — that was really tying her up. Try as she might, this little girl just couldn’t wrap her head around that word. She kept trying and trying and her frustration was increasing until I stopped her and said, “Celia, can you say, “Mommy”?” She looked at me like I was crazy. How insulting — I am a brilliant three-year-old. Of course I can say, “Mommy”! She said the word, of course, and then I turned to her mom. “Remember, Mommy, when Celia was little and you’d come to my room and we’d all sit on the floor and play with baby toys and Celia would put them all in her mouth? Do you remember how she could say “baba” and “mama” but she didn’t know any words yet?” Mom and I reminisced for a while about Celia’s baby days, and then I turned to Celia, “Did you know that back then, you couldn’t even say “Mommy”? You tried and you tried, and each day you got closer and closer: mmmm, ma, mama… Mommy! It was hard for you then but it’s easy for you now because you worked hard. I bet you could do that again with this word.”
What does this look like for PARENTS?
Parents need to know that everyone can grow their AV skills. While some parents might come to the table ready to sing, read, and chat, almost like they were born to have a deaf child, others might feel that they are just “not good at talking.” Well I have worked with lots of parents all around the world and nobody is a hopeless case. For parents who may be stuck in that kind of fixed mindset, I think it’s important to use the IVCS strategy: Identify what they are already doing to help their child, Validate their actions, Capitalize on what is already happening, and Shape that into an AV technique. The kind of praise we give is important, too. Instead of telling a parent, “Good job!” we need to focus on their efforts (“I saw you catch yourself when you were about to repeat without giving him some wait time”) and point out their successes (“I heard her pronounce /t/ correctly so many times today because of the practice you did at home”). Success is tied to effort, not luck, and all parents can be successful.
What does this look like for PROFESSIONALS?
If we are fixed in the mindset of “expert” or “savior,” then not only are we not really helping families, but we’re actually making ourselves less knowledgeable by failing to be lifelong learners. If I think I know everything there is to know, then I’m not helping the families or myself. A growth mindset professional continually seeks out ways to enhance her knowledge and skills.
Professionals can show a growth mindset in practice by owning our mistakes, being honest about them, and improving. We are human and families need to see that. If I make a “wrong turn” in therapy or need to reevaluate an activity or decision, I want families to know that. I want to be honest with them because I know then that they will be honest with me. If I’m vulnerable enough to grow, they can be, too.