Opportunity or Obstacle: Professor Dweck Examines Children’s Responses to Challenge
By Christina Davis, Teacher
Difficult situations have a tendency to bring out the best and the worst in people—offering an opportunity to rise to the challenge or succumb to the difficulties. Children are no different. Studies have long shown that older children (5th graders) have a tendency to exhibit one of two responses to a challenge. Some children display a mastery-oriented outlook. They maintain a positive attitude and tend to increase their problem-solving strategies. In other words, they rise to the challenge. Others display a helpless response, characterized by doubt in their own abilities and the belief that nothing they do will bring success. These are the ones that succumb.
Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, PhD, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology, specializes in examining these differences, and conducts some of her research at Bing. She spoke to Bing teachers about her work and how it relates to theirs on February 21 at winter quarter’s staff development day.
Dweck’s work bridges developmental, social, and personality psychology. She earned a doctorate in developmental and social psychology from Yale University and also served on the faculties of Harvard, the University of Illinois and Columbia. She joined the Stanford faculty in 2004, and this year published Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House).
In her talk at Bing, Dweck said that researchers believe that a child’s response to challenge arises from his or her beliefs about intelligence. Helpless children tend to view their intelligence as a fixed trait, while mastery-oriented children tend to view their intelligence as something they can cultivate. Helpless children believe that having ability means not having to try, while mastery-oriented children believe that if they try they can gain ability. Despite a similar level of ability, helpless children are often worse at solving problems.
In the past, researchers thought that preschool age children were immune to such helpless tendencies, said Dweck. The thinking was that young children lack an understanding of what it means to have ability, and as a result were blissfully ignorant of failure. Others saw the blind spot as an evolutionary adaptation allowing young children to learn some of the most difficult tasks in their lives (walking, talking, etc.) without being negatively affected by the challenge.
But Dweck’s research shows that helpless attitudes start early, and that they’re tied to expectations of being punished for not being a “good” child. As described in a 1985 paper (Hebert and Dweck), Dweck and her colleague measured young children’s helpless and mastery-oriented responses using goodness as the frame of reference. They asked the children to complete several puzzles. Some of the puzzles were intentionally too challenging, while others were achievable. After completing the task, they asked the children if they could finish all the puzzles if they had more time and which puzzle they would like to do again if given the opportunity. The helpless children indicated they could not do the hard puzzles and chose to do easier ones, while the mastery-oriented children indicated they could do the more challenging puzzles if they had more time and chose to work on harder ones. The researchers also asked the children how their parents would respond to what they had done. The helpless children were more likely to worry that they would receive criticism or even punishment from their parents. The mastery-oriented children suggested their parents would offer constructive criticism.
Dweck and her colleagues then explored how young children viewed themselves during these situations. Upon receiving negative feedback, two-thirds of the children displayed a mastery-oriented response, characterized by the thought that the setbacks were acceptable, but needed to be fixed. The other third displayed a helpless response, taking the feedback as a measure of self worth that indicated he or she was not a good child. This outlook also affected their ability to find a solution. When asked to finish a story that included a challenge, the mastery-oriented children found a constructive solution to end the story. The helpless children were not able to find a solution and left the story unresolved.
Now Dweck is trying to discover how children get these ideas. One possible factor is shyness. Doctoral student Allison Master is working with Dweck to examine the possible correlation between shyness and the helpless response. Discovering the source of children’s ideas could lead to ways to help them change their ideas.
Dweck is convinced that the mastery-oriented outlook is a more functional model for children. But the question remains, how can people working with young children help them develop this response? Possible interventions include teaching children to attribute results to effort, and teaching them to think of intelligence as something they can cultivate. Dweck has found that the most beneficial criticism focuses on effort or strategy—not on the child’s traits, such as intelligence. Praise of a child’s traits generalizes a specific instance to the whole child and later during times of failure lowers the child’s self-esteem.