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Student Potential

How to Support Learning, Especially in the Face of Challenge

October 23, 2023Back to Learning Centre
Shelbie Sutherland, PhD, MA, MASc
Shelbie Sutherland, PhD, MA, MASc

Senior Strategist & Practice Manager

Everyone has a choice when they face a challenge—give up or persist—whether it be in school, work, physical activity, or creative endeavours. The decision is based on many factors, but one key factor that has surfaced from decades of research is the extent to which people view abilities as changeable.1 This perception has cascading effects on learning engagement and long-term achievements. The different perceptions are discussed as either a growth mindset or a fixed mindset.

A growth mindset is the perspective that people can develop their abilities.1 The alternative perspective, a fixed mindset, instead considers abilities and intelligence as fixed traits. When someone has a fixed mindset, they see success as the result of a person’s inherent constitution and poor performance as due to their inherent limits. A fixed mindset is based on incorrect beliefs and encourages people to avoid challenges. A growth mindset, on the other hand, motivates people to take on challenges which in turn promotes achievement.

Parents, teachers, mentors, and even peers can contribute to an environment that cultivates a growth mindset in children to create a self-reinforcing cycle of taking on more challenging learning experiences and persisting through difficulties. Below is a breakdown of ways to start cultivating a growth mindset.

Helping children understand the process of learning

  1. Discuss how our brains change as we gain new experiences, and the control we have over growing connections in our brains.

Researchers found children who were taught the basis of a growth mindset were significantly more likely to have higher motivation and grades compared to children taught related material and skills without a connection to brain malleability.1,2

Talk about the brain as a collection of cells called neurons that connect in different ways. Discuss learning and practice as ways to strengthen these connections, explaining that when connections strengthen, it is easier for the brain to make those connections again in the future. And remember, you can definitely use more or less detail, depending on the age of the child.

Helping children approach challenges

  1. Frame tasks as a way to learn and improve, not to demonstrate abilities

If the goal of a task is to learn and improve, we are more likely to be motivated and view any outcome as a steppingstone towards growth and success. If the goal of a task is instead to demonstrate abilities and seek approval, we are more likely to avoid challenges and view the outcome as a reflection of our natural limits.

Therefore, if a child performs very well at a task, you might want to react by saying, “It looks like that was too easy for you. Let’s find you something challenging so you can continue learning.” Along the same line of reasoning, avoid reacting with, “You are so smart,” or “You’re a natural.”

  1. Talk about hard-work and finding new strategies, not talent, as key drivers of success.

Praise and encourage learning behaviours such as putting forth effort and trying different strategies. Highlight when you and others are enacting such learning behaviours as well, so the child starts to notice them in their environment. At the same time, avoid attributing other people’s success to natural talent (e.g., being “a math person,” “genius,” or “brilliant”).

Beware. Some have taken this point from researchers and focused solely on praising children’s effort even when the child isn’t progressing in their learning goals.3 This can be discouraging overtime and lead children to develop a fixed mindset when they see their efforts as fruitless. Remember that learning requires more than effort—it often requires trying new strategies and seeking help.

Helping children understand challenging experiences

  1. Describe challenges as a part of the learning process.

Help children understand that if we never face challenges, we won’t learn; challenges are part of the learning process. Encourage them to add the word “yet” as they describe their challenge (e.g., “you don’t know how, yet”). Frame the experience of a challenge as an indication that their brain is working on strengthening connections—challenges are like a workout for the brain. And when you see a child put forth a lot of effort and see evidence of learning, acknowledge the challenge they faced and the preparation they have made for the next time they face a similar task. Once the task becomes easy, encourage them to find new challenges to further their learning.

  1. Demonstrate ways to find new strategies and ask for help.

As mentioned above, this is a key component to supporting learning. If a child is using a misleading strategy, they will not see the fruits of their effort and will likely become discouraged. Helping children take a step back from a challenge and try different approaches is a widely applicable way to support their learning when they get stuck. And when appropriate, encourage them to ask for help from others to find new strategies.

  1. Acknowledge the emotions that come along with challenges and support working through those emotions.

Difficult challenges can come with emotions such as anger and feeling threatened. You can help children manage these emotions by acknowledging them and their normalcy (not shaming them), teaching strategies to recognize them in the moment (e.g., feeling tense), and encouraging reflection on why and when they seem to arise.

Everyone will experience moments when a fixed mindset dominates our perspective, no matter how hard we try. When we worked hard towards a goal and still find ourselves far from where we hoped, or when we get defensive in the face of criticism, we might lose focus on the incremental nature of learning. Yet, we can return to the goal of learning and development for ourselves and our children to continue the journey of growth.



  1. Yeager, D. S., et al. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573, 364-369.
  2. Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78, 246-263.
  3. Dweck, C. S. (2015). Growth mindset, revisited. Education Week, 35(5), 20-24.


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Shelbie Sutherland, PhD, MA, MASc
Written by Shelbie Sutherland, PhD, MA, MASc

Senior Strategist & Practice Manager

Shelbie is a Senior Strategist at BEworks. She works closely with clients to identify psychological barriers that prevent people from acting in their best interest and to design solutions that support people’s decision-making and overall well-being. Shelbie holds a PhD in Development Psychology from the University of Illinois and loves thinking about creating contexts for children to harness their energy and curiosity in ways that support their well-being and development.