Each year in our opening convocation, we talk about how fortunate we are in schools to be given the gift of an auspicious beginning. We all talk about clean slates and fresh starts and new friends and teachers. We talk about becoming better students, developing the requisite habits of mind. We also remind our students to put the word “yet” at the end of any sentence which begins with “I am not very good at x, y, or z.” Additionally, we tell the girls that they are not supposed to have everything figured out at this point in their lives or at any point in their lives for that matter. We encourage them to know that mistakes are not only inevitable, they are necessary in developing resilience, which is such an important and necessary life skill. The only guarantee in life is the existence of hurdles to overcome. Resilience will be the trait that can carry them through life’s hurdles.
These messages are important and true, but at the same time, those of us who are parents, mentors, and teachers in these young women’s lives sense how difficult it is for most girls to believe in themselves. We talk a great deal about maintaining a “growth mindset” at Harpeth Hall, meaning we realize how important it is to tie a strong work ethic to directed feedback. We need to praise students for their study and work habits more than their final outcomes. Studies have shown that girls, more often than boys, tend to think their abilities and talents are innate. They believe they are born with it or they aren’t, therefore possessing a fixed mindset. They are good at art/biology/Latin/volleyball or they aren’t. The lucky ones are the lucky ones and always will be. Our students sometimes think the only hope for anyone is discovering a talent they didn’t know they had.
In the early years of school, girls tend to be praised for being smart or clever more often than boys. This can create fertile ground for developing this fixed mindset about their academic, athletic, artistic or social ability. If these aspects of our daughters and students are already fixed, then what exactly is so auspicious about this beginning? Why is it any more promising than last year or the year before when we barely made it out of chemistry?
All of us can work together to change prevailing mindsets in our households and in our classrooms and offices. We need to empower these girls with a belief in their ability to work hard and to get through the rough spots. When they burst through the door, with “Mom/Dad, I made an A on my lab report!” We need to celebrate and encourage them with the following types of responses: “You must have worked really hard on that one!” “Congratulations on figuring out what was required and really honing your skills in that area!” “What exactly did you do differently this time?” “Bravo for sticking with it for so long, your focus paid off!” Then, maybe they will grow to believe in their own competency and the power of their abilities much more than if we are always telling them how smart they are after every success. By adjusting our thinking and feedback in this one area, we open the door to the possibility of an auspicious beginning every time they try something new for the rest of their lives.