Research Stories

Growth Mindset and Children’s Health

Not just for school — a positive mindset has potential to boost physical well-being, too

Leah Shafer, Bari Walsh
March 15, 2017
Growth Mindset and Children’s Health

For at least the last decade, educators have understood the powerful connection between mindset and achievement — that when students believe they can learn a given subject, even a hard one, they stick with it longer, and do better, than if they believe they can’t learn or are “just bad at it.”

But the role of mindset could be just as important in children’s overall health and development, according to a new commentary in the journal JAMA Pediatrics by pediatricians Claudia Mueller and Barry Zuckerman and educational psychologist Meredith Rowe.

Medicine already recognizes the persuasive power of beliefs, as the authors point out; mindsets are at the root of placebo responses, they say, and “may offer an explanation for the positive effects and physiological changes that are associated with inert pills or sham procedures.” For clinicians and researchers in pediatric medicine, mindset is an underexplored (and promising) ingredient in approaches to care and wellness.

Positive mindsets can be taught and reinforced, as researchers in other disciplines have found. In one study the commentary cites, parents who consistently praised their toddlers for effort, rather than for talent or innate traits, were found to have children with positive mindsets five years later. These children, at ages 7 and 8, were more likely to believe that their abilities could change and grow with hard work. This aligns with a large body of education research showing that a “growth mindset” — a set of beliefs that help learners connect success with hard work and perseverance — contributes to improved student outcomes.

Pediatric health researchers and clinicians could tap this same potential by developing ways to help “healthy adolescents or those with chronic disease develop a growth mindset about health, to improve and motivate adherence to medication or diet or exercise,” says Zuckerman. And in a pediatric health setting, where connections between health and children's overall growth are explicit, clinicians could raise parents' awareness about the impact of their own mindsets, adds Rowe. Pediatricians are in a unique position to help parents understand how significant a role they can play in their young children's development, she says.

Research in the area already has some promising pathways. Mueller has found that children with Type I diabetes and a fixed mindset about their health — a belief that their health can’t or won’t change — have higher glucose levels than children with a growth mindset. And usually healthy kids who develop a short-term disease are less vulnerable to it years later if they have a growth mindset than if they have a fixed one.

The reason, Mueller suspects, has to do with adherence to medical advice. “If you think your health is fixed — you can’t do much to change it, you associate it with something purely genetic — you’re maybe not as motivated to follow doctor’s orders, compared to somebody who sees health as something that can be improved through behavior,” she says.

Mindset interventions in pediatric health could initially be inexpensive and potentially simple. Instead of greeting patients with “You’re looking healthy today!” physicians could praise patients’ effort at maintaining their current healthcare plan, says Mueller.

Other interventions might include digital tools for parents and patients that promote growth mindsets to improve health, the authors say. If successful, these interventions could be targeted to specific disorders or patient groups, and researchers could explore how they could link across schools and other institutions in families’ lives, and in particular how they could offer support to vulnerable populations.

Additional Resources

  • Mindset pioneer Carol Dweck’s influential study, finding that simply describing to seventh graders the brain’s power to learn had the effect of changing students’ approach to their work and improving math outcomes
  • More on growth mindset

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.