AP tests, SATs, ACTs, GPA, extracurricular activities, awards, leadership—it’s enough to make your head spin—and likely to raise your level of anxiety just thinking about it all. Students these days have a lot to keep track of and many directions to focus their attention. Not only that, in terms of college admissions, each of these areas needs to be a priority, all while going through this thing called adolescence that is rife with social challenges, emotional changes, and identity development. If coping strategies are insufficient, stress can actually be counterproductive to academic success. Therefore, to adequately deal with the stressors that come with adolescent life, teens must develop coping strategies at a young age.
Laying the underlying framework for effective stress-coping strategies is one of the earliest skills that we can give children. One way to do this is to promote a growth mindset in children. While not a new theory, Carol Dweck’s Growth Mindset theory has really gained footing in the education system. Unlike the traditional Western perception that views intelligence as fixed, the Growth Mindset theory promotes the notion that intelligence is not set, but is malleable and changeable.
The idea that an individual can grow his or her intelligence through effort actually can be a stress-reducer for students. The theory is that when students experience a challenge or a failure, they are more likely to see the setback as temporary when they possess a growth mindset. As a result, stress levels return to normal quickly and are less likely to have negative impacts on mood, relationships, and academic performance. When students with growth mindsets feel stressed, their coping strategies kick in, and they are likely to seek help and find solutions to their problems.
There are many ways to encourage this belief system, and the sooner we start, the better. Much of it comes down to the daily interactions we have with children. We, as mentors for the young people in our lives, must adopt the growth mentality and use it in our own communication. For example, compliment effort, not just success. Focus on curiosity and the process of learning, not the results of learning. Recognize the power of practice. Disassociate mistakes and failure from negativity. Bring awareness to the connection between actions and outcomes. The goal is to focus on the process not on the outcome. In this way, the concept of growth mindset allows students to explore and develop their interests rather than focus solely on performance.
It is no surprise that anxiety and stress levels among teens are on the rise. As expectations go up, so does anxiety. As parents, as educators, as college counselors, and as mentors, we have the power to make profound impacts not only on the expectations that we hold for the adolescents in our lives, but also on the way they perceive these expectations and understand their ability to rise to these expectations. We have an important role in finding the right balance between challenging our children while keeping expectations at a reasonable level. Once we reframe our expectations, students’ abilities to cope with the stressors in their lives will increase, leading to lower rates of anxiety and increased performance in all areas of their lives.
Dr. Jeff Haig, Dr. Brian Haig, and Maya Kelley, MS