On Positive Reinforcement and Growth Mindset

I feel very passionately about this topic. If you would, please read.

Now you might be thinking… didn’t you just write about the idea that not everyone should get a trophy? Why yes I did. And by that, I meant we shouldn’t reward complacency and people who just show up, (or don’t for that matter). We should see failure as an opportunity for learning and growth, and approach it as such.

But this concept is a little different.

What I’m talking about here is not just about feeling good. It’s more about showing support and developing individuals with positive reinforcement. I’m talking to you, teachers, leaders, coaches, and mentors. I’m talking to myself as well. It’s a practiced skill to be quite honest. And there is plenty of evidence to support the idea that positive feedback leads to positive change faster than pointing out all the negatives, or worse, belittling someone to get your point across.

But here’s a key piece: I am not saying there isn’t a place for constructive feedback. There absolutely is. But it should help develop a growth mindset. It should also come with a “try again”, and “you got this” mentality, and importantly, “I believe in you”! You’re just not there yet.

Praise for effort, not grades or goals scored. Science says gains will be made faster. Please watch this 5-minute video on praise for intelligence vs effort: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWv1VdDeoRY

Not only should we give positive feedback, but it should be tailored to the individual. Pay attention. Identify individuals’ unique strengths (we ALL have them). Make someone feel: I SEE you! Slow down, and tune in. It’s so worth it!

For a little context: I grew up as an athlete, and am now a nurse, a leader, a teacher, and a newly minted and totally novice assistant coach. I’m a mom with athletic kids. I always heard: Nurses eat their young (been there, done that, no thanks!). I’ve watched my kids and their experiences. I’ve seen coaches berate and belittle kids and tell 10-year-old children that a game loss was one person’s fault (my kid received that feedback) and that her mistakes would result in karma. Yuck! Soul-crushing, tear-provoking incidents! Conversely, I have had some incredible mentors and role models in my life, as have my children. I am happy to report that those great humans far outnumber the bad apples.

Here are a couple examples:

As a nurse, I’ve made mistakes. Thankfully, none where a patient or colleague got hurt, but there was potential. Sadly, it happens. After one scary incident with a potentially violent patient, I had a boss who pulled me aside, discussed my role in the incident, and where I could have done better. I should have called in support, but I didn’t. Did she belittle me? Nope. Write me up? Nope. She talked to me, calmly and with reassurance. She knew intuitively that I beat myself up plenty, thank you very much, and that I’d never make the same mistake again. She treated me like a respected colleague, and an adult for that matter. In turn, I worked harder, did better, and respected her immensely for it. I still hold her in the highest esteem.

My oldest daughter started out in her favorite sport at age 11 (late starter). Some kids were hard on her, and some people indicated that’s too late to start. But she had a coach that believed in her. Cheered her on. Told her he believed in her! She’s found her passion, and is on her way to a lifetime of enjoying the sport. I will always be grateful to him. I could go on with the examples for days, but I’ll spare you.

Importantly: (Parents listen up!!!) You must also role model this behavior towards yourself. Never, ever say “I suck” or “I’m fat” or “I’ll never be able to ____” in front of your kids. Never. Do not make similar comments of others. 100%, I promise you, your kids will repeat the negative self-talk and talking down to others. You think it’s funny? I assure you it is not. All you fans of sarcasm (yep, me too) we can debate this topic if you like, but in my book, negative self-talk is never productive, and can also have lasting harmful effects on our children. Am I perfect at this? Nope. Working on it! Just remember to say “not yet“.

Moral of the story? People will rise to the occasion. Believe in them? They will act accordingly. Cut them down? It won’t go so well. Ok maybe for a brief moment they’ll seem like they’re working harder. Maybe they’ll submit their work on time, or run a little faster. But is fear-driven behavior a good thing? I can guarantee you it’s not. And you know the worst part? When they become the boss or the coach, they’ll treat others the same. Your actions can have a massive ripple effect.

As often as I can, I like to share the research I’m familiar with.

Brain Games- Jason silva “The Power of Positivity.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kO1kgl0p-Hw

Carol Dweck, research on the Growth Mindset, and the Power of Yet. She has many YouTube videos, so hard to pick just one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_X0mgOOSpLU

Ps. Look at the picture of the kid in the featured image of the blog. See his joy and excitement for football and probably life? Parents, teachers, mentors: Lets work to keep it that way.


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