9 Using Language to Promote a Growth Mindset


There are many ways to shift to this perspective and work toward using language which promotes a growth mindset. A great way to introduce the concept of a growth mindset to students is through metaphor. Research on metaphors has shown them to be very impactful in general, but especially in helping students understand the growth mindset of intelligence (Thibodeau, Hendricks, & Boroditsky, 2017). Since the purpose of language is to communicate with others, it makes sense to assume language should be clear and precise for the best benefits. Indeed, not only does  metaphoric language facilitate communication, it also shapes thinking (Thibodeau, Hendricks, & Boroditsky, 2017).

Following this research, the workbook intervention for students will teach them about a growth mindset through metaphorical language. The metaphor will guide students to think of intelligence like a plant—it grows, but it needs input and care, like water and sunlight, in order to do so. It will also teach them that every plant is different, so some will require more care than others, and this is the same for people. It will emphasize that this doesn’t make one plant better or worse than another—it just means that what it takes to make it thrive looks different than the plant potted next to it.


Reflective Writing Exercises

After reading the metaphors, students will be instructed and guided through a series of reflection activities. Though language is typically used to communicate through others, it can also be used to help us communicate to ourselves, via reflection. Pennebaker & Graybeal (2001) found that reflective writing about a personal experience and their emotions about it affected the way they thought about the event, their emotions, and themselves. It led them to realizations about themselves, and helped them understand their feelings and struggles. People who participated in Pennebaker & Graybeal’s short reflective writing activities also had real-life, observable effects as well: they made fewer visits to the doctor, and they showed an increased use of positive emotion words in conversations with others (Pennebaker & Graybeal, 2001). Those two findings seem to suggest that something about the writing experience improved both mental and physical health.

Pennebaker & Graybeal (2001) found that writers who used “cognitive” words that reflected causation, such as ‘because,’ ‘reason,’ ‘realize,’ ‘know,’ ‘understand,’ showed a significant positive effect on health after the writing activity. Comparatively, simple positive or negative word usage had a low effect. This shows how important it is to “connect the dots” and reflect more deeply in writing. Because of this, the reflection activities in the workbook are curated to allow deep connections to occur, which should lead to a shift in perspective and understanding.

These writing reflections do not have to be long for them to work—in fact, 15 minutes a day for 3 to 4 consecutive days did the trick in these studies (Pennebaker, 2018). Following this, as well as the previously covered function of goal setting in the remembering-imagining system (RIS), the writing activities in the workbook are typically capped at around only a few sentences. Activities which are too long or too distantly future-oriented could have an amotivational effect on students, as the task at hand could become too overwhelming (Conway & Loveday, 2014). Keeping them short and to the point will make them easier for students to accomplish, which will also keep them away from the amotivational space we don’t want to put them in.

Through the reflective writing activities, students will be guided by the structure and format already set up for them on the pages. They are set up in a very intentional way, so as to aid the student in drawing their own connections and coming to their own conclusions. One reason for this is that it is very important for students to make their own new meanings and make connections on their own, rather than simply telling them what to think. Not only would that not help them adopt a new mindset, but it also runs the risk of students feeling like they are being talked down to. Yeager et al. (2018) write that when trying to influence adolescents through interventions, it is important to honor their desire for respect. They suggest that giving adolescents this sense of independence and respect will allow them to display greater self-regulation, think more about their future, and show greater capacity for change than previously imagined (Yeager, Dahl, & Dweck, 2018). Of course, the effects of the workbook ideally lead to enhancement of those things, rather than the reverse. In order to achieve this, the workbook is structured in a way which aims to balance being informative and encouraging, while also allowing students to make connections on their own and feel a sense of competence while filling it out.


Mindfulness and Self-Talk

The power of written language has been considered heavily in the workbook activities, but the importance of mental self-talk is explored as well. Students are guided to explore their mental self-talk through the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness training has been shown to be an efficacious therapeutic tool for both clinical and nonclinical health problems, and it has been shown to boost a sense of well-being (Jankowski & Holas, 2014). The workbook teaches students how to do some mindfulness exercises, so that they become familiar with the mental self-talk they are engaging in. Then, through a series of steps involving thought-labeling and curious questioning, students learn to use mindfulness in a positive way that addresses the negative self-narrative.

The final step in the workbook’s mindfulness training is introducing positive self-talk into the practice. The goal is that by training the brain to react to negative thoughts by using positive counter-statements, it creates a new neural network which directs the thoughts toward a more positive pathway. As the positive self-talk is practiced over time, this new network becomes strengthened and more accessible. Essentially, this creates a new, built-in coping mechanism for addressing the self-defeating cycle of negative self-talk. So, through learning new language to talk to the self with, students can shift and redirect the initial negative thinking pattern toward a new one which bolsters self-efficacy.