Growth Mindset and Motivation

When you think about ADHD symptoms, things like distractibility, impulsivity, or hyperactivity usually come to mind. But along with these “typical” symptoms comes another challenge: low motivation. Kids with ADHD often struggle to muster up the motivation they need in order to be successful, particularly when it comes to schoolwork. Perhaps not surprisingly, research has shown that factors like motivation, the desire to improve, and persistence all greatly impact academic performance.

But when you have a child with ADHD, what can you as a parent do that will really make an impact on their motivation for schoolwork? There are several behavior management strategies that help to improve motivation on a moment to moment basis. I’ve talked about some of them here in this blog – including setting up routines, using rewards to motivate kids to try new behaviors, and strategies for helping your child engage with reading. These strategies are essential components of effective ADHD treatment plans, and can go a long way in helping to set your child up for success.

However, these behavior plans do little to address underlying motivational challenges. To truly address motivation and particularly motivation as it relates to academics and school, you need to also consider your child’s mindset – or the way that they think about their abilities and their potential to improve.  I’m a big fan of Carol Dweck’s seminal work, The Growth Mindset and how it helps all kids – including kids with ADHD – rethink success and failure and how they think about their own learning and intelligence.

Individuals with a Growth Mindset believe that the have the ability to improve their intelligence and abilities through hard work and the use of good learning strategies. This belief is backed by decades of science showing that we do in fact have the ability to “grow our brain” and improve our intelligence. When a child is armed with this knowledge, they are motivated to work hard and tackle challenges because they believe that they can improve and overcome obstacles with effort. In contrast, individuals with a Fixed Mindset believe that their intelligence and abilities cannot be changed. When faced with a difficult task in a subject that they are “not good” at, they will shy away from the challenge and instead put their efforts into hiding their weaknesses and avoiding the task at all cost. Sound familiar?

Kids with ADHD may be more likely to get stuck in a Fixed Mindset than kids without ADHD. After all, they’ve had years of experience with their ADHD symptoms getting in the way and preventing typical learning strategies from working for them. So, they’ve inadvertently collected a great deal evidence supporting the notion that nothing they do will help them improve in the areas that are hard for them. In addition, neuroimaging studies have shown that the part of the brain that controls ADHD symptoms (the prefrontal cortex), is also responsible for motivation and mindset. In other words, they may be biologically predisposed to fall into a Fixed Mindset more quickly.

The good news is that mindsets can be changed! Many research studies have shown that even a brief Growth Mindset intervention can have a significant impact on motivation and academic performance. When students believe that they can become smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger and that they can in fact improve their achievement.

As parents, there is a great deal that you can do to foster a Growth Mindset in your child. In my next two posts I’ll be discussing practical things you can do with your child to teach them about the Growth Mindset. The first step is noting how you yourself think and communicate about intelligence and abilities.  How often do you think of yourself and others in your life as being “bad at” something or “not very smart.” Or even think about the opposite, categorizing people as being “smart” or “talented” or, worse set, “naturally gifted” or having “God-given talent? These thoughts and statements imply that a person is innately strong or weak at a skill or ability. Also, notice how often your child makes these statements about themselves and others. The first step in changing a Fixed Mindset is noticing the times when it’s present in the first place!  The next step is teaching your child that they do in fact have the power to “grow their brain” and improve their intelligence and abilities. I’ll be talking about how to teach this to your child in my next post. In the meantime, start paying attention the Fixed or Growth Mindset comments that you and your child already make so you’ll know what’s working and what you’ll want to change.

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