Growth Mindset for Children with ADHD, Anxiety, Autism, and Other Challenges – Part 1

Growth Mindset for Children with ADHD, Anxiety, Autism, and Other Challenges – Part 1

Growth Mindset for Children with ADHD, Anxiety, Autism, and Other Challenges – Part 1

What’s your mindset?

Does your child struggle with feeling like he isn’t good at anything? Does she break down when faced with mistakes or frustration? Is it tough to help your child see their potential?

Many children have a negative mindset when it comes to their abilities, especially those with challenges such as ADHD, autism, and anxiety. They over-focus on their difficulties and failures, and don’t recognize the potential they have to overcome challenges and improve.

So what exactly is mindset? In general, mindset refers to the set of attitudes we have about things. It includes the the way we view our abilities. There are two basic types of mindset as described by Dr. Carol Dweck – fixed and growth. People with a fixed mindset believe that they are unable to change their abilities whether it is learning a new skill, sport, or way of doing something. People with a growth mindset on the other hand believe that they can learn new things and make changes with effort, persistence, and hard work.  

Children with a fixed mindset struggle with mistakes, risks, effort, courage, persistence, dedication, creativity, and success. Difficulties in any of these areas will cause problems with seeing the ability to change and grow. Engaging in guided practice with these skills can support change from a fixed mindset to one of growth. Each of the mindset areas can be worked on individually, and they all related back to each other.

Helping children adopt a more growth-oriented mindset can open up a whole new world of possibilities, and is an important part of the treatment process for children who struggle with developmental conditions such as autism or ADHD, as well as mental health diagnoses like anxiety or mood disorder.

Here are specific areas parents and therapists can work on, and strategies to improve each:

  • Mistakes are a part of everyday life. They happen so frequently that we don’t always even recognize when a mistake has occurred. We have learned to quickly self-correct and move on to what comes next. However, when you struggle with a fixed mindset mistakes can be a really big deal and can stop you in your tracks. Even the simplest of mistakes, such as spelling a word incorrectly, can cause a meltdown for some children. So how do we help our children learn to accept and even embrace mistakes as a path toward learning?
    • Model – Talk about and share your mistakes. Demonstrate how you handle a mistake (hopefully calmly!). When you make a mistake, purposefully point it out and use self-talk to model how you will work through it. For instance, you are getting the silverware out to set the table and you drop the spoons on the floor. You say, “Oops, I dropped the spoons. That was a mistake. It’s okay, I can just wash them off and they will be good as new!” Showing your child that small mistakes occur on a regular basis and you can handle them without becoming upset is a great first step in building that flexible mindset.
    • Ask for Help – When a mistake has occurred ask your child for help in solving the problem or fixing the mistake. This is a great way to show your child that it is okay to ask for help when mistakes happen. For instance, you are making a grocery list and you accidentally misspell the word ‘apple.’ You can ask your child for help with what to do. Give him a chance to come up with a solution. If he can’t think of anything, you can make a few suggestions (should I just leave it, or cross it out and rewrite it) and let him choose one. After you have ‘solved’ the problem, be sure to thank your child for helping you fix your mistake. Giving your child a chance to succeed in fixing mistakes that are not his own, allows him to practice without feeling like a failure.
    • Make Mistakes on Purpose – This is one of my favorites! I like to play the mistake game with my clients. I tell them we are going to play a game during our session to see who can make the most mistakes during that 30 minutes. Silly mistakes are encouraged, and having the freedom to make mistakes on purpose as part of the game can be very relieving to the child that does not like to make mistakes.
  • Risks involve taking chances that may involve danger. Some people enjoy taking risks, while others avoid them at all costs. Many of us would not consider answering a simple math problem in class too risky, but for some children it feels like the most dangerous thing they have ever done. The way we perceive a situation has a direct effect on how much risk we assign to it. People who struggle with a fixed mindset view much of the world as risky. Helping them to view risk (within reason) as an opportunity for learning is critical in promoting growth.
    • Demonstrate – Show your child examples of people taking healthy risks. Take a risk and model for your child how you are working through your fears. I am scared of heights, but I don’t want my child to stop being willing to take risks because she sees me holding back on everything that involves heights. Because of that I will take the risk of doing something involving heights on occasion. I will walk up to the railing on a balcony of a tall hotel building. I will risk falling off the balance beam at the park or climbing the ladder to put up the Christmas lights. By showing our children that we are willing to take some risks they can begin to understand that things can feel scary but turn out okay.
    • Start Small – Begin by taking small risks with your child. If your child is fearful of climbing the ladder to the top of the slide, but loves it when you put him on the slide so he can slide down, start by just climbing the first step of the ladder together or while supporting him. Next time try taking two steps until your child is ready to climb to the top on his own.  f your child doesn’t want to risk doing her math homework for fear of making a mistake, start by doing a problem together. You do the writing and have your child help you solve the problem. If this goes well you might try one more and then stop for the day. Each day you can try a few more and slowly turn the task over to your child. When we start small and have a guide to support us the risk doesn’t feel so big and scary.
    • Talk About It – Engage your child in conversation about times when you have had to take a risk. Tell them about the risk, how you felt, what you did to get through it, and how it turned out. Use simple, non-threatening examples to help your child see that risks are a part of our lives, but we can overcome them. It is also important to talk about the risks your child has taken. Point out times when your child has taken a risk and the positive results. For example, if your child decides to risk letting go of the first monkey bar to grab for the second, this is a great time to say, “I love how you reached for that second bar! I know it can be scary to let go, but you did it! You will be across the bars in no time.” Helping your child to see the positive outcome of taking a risk creates a feeling of success and willingness to take more risks. Even if your child reached for the second bar and fell, it is still a great time to point out the success of trying and you can then encourage her to keep trying. 
  • Effort is the work it takes to achieve a goal or accomplish a task. We have all experienced tasks that take little to no effort, and others that seem to take everything we’ve got. When you have a fixed mindset, putting in the effort it takes to make a change is very difficult. Accomplishing something new or making a change just seems too hard or too scary. This does not mean that people with a fixed mindset are lazy, typically it means there is a roadblock that needs to be removed before they are ready to make an effort.
    • Use some muscle – Start teaching effort by engaging in physical activity. Have your child help you with tasks that require physical effort such as lifting and carrying jugs of laundry detergent or a bin of Legos. Give your child the job of pushing the wheelbarrow full of sticks to the dumpster. Have him help you shovel the sidewalk or sweep the garage. All of these tasks require physical effort. After you’re done, spend a little time chatting about the effort that was involved. You can even compare the physical effort of the current job with another task that took some mental effort. This can assist your child in making the connection between physical and mental effort.
    • Do it together – When a task seems too big or overwhelming it can be really hard to put in the effort to even attempt it. If this is a problem for your child, start by doing tasks together or breaking them down into small parts. If you are working together with your child, give her a specific role and provide encouragement and praise as she works to accomplish the task. After you have completed the task talk to your child about the job being hard, but when you worked together you were able to get it done. Give examples of the work your child did and the effort it took. As your child begins to feel more confident in his abilities, give him bigger roles until he is ready to attempt tasks on his own. 

The fear of making a mistake can cause some kids to fail to even begin, while others get started but become paralyzed when a mistake occurs. When we are so concerned about making mistakes that we are unwilling to take a risk or put forth effort we become stuck or fixed in place. Guiding your child through a mistake, encouraging a risk, or demonstrating effort will go a long way toward forming a growth mindset.

Want to learn more about how you can help your child develop a growth mindset? Read part 2 and part 3 of the series here! 

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