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We have three kids starting school this week: a third grader, a first grader, and a wee little preschooler. In addition, I’m returning to education for the first time in eight years to teach 10-12 grade English. So naturally, when I came across an article entitled “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids” in my textbook, I paid attention. The article, originally published in Scientific America by Carol S. Dweck, shows some surprising findings based on 35 years of scientific investigation that have immediate implications for educators and parents.

Read the original article here, or if you are too busy with back-to-school busyness, consider these three summary ideas to apply to your own family.

1. Be cautious telling kids they are smart, talented or gifted. Researchers found that when students believe they have a fixed, unchanging amount of intelligence (either “I am very smart” or “I am not very smart”) they are less likely to work hard for success and more likely to be defeated by perceived failures or challenging obstacles. People used to believe innate ability plus confidence was the formula for successful students. However, researchers found that students who were told they were gifted from an early age had great difficulty when faced with a challenge. They were more likely to give up, not take risks, or become agitated by mistakes. When gifted is your identity, failure is devastating.

2. Praise your children and students for growth and improvement instead of fixed intelligence. Parents and teachers can praise persistence and use of personal strategies, which are life-long skills that will apply to more areas than just academics. Students who focus on improvement instead of high achievement are more likely to succeed and meet personal goals.

Spiritually, this applies as well. As we come to Christ, we seek to grow through the power of the Holy Spirit. But the growth is unique to the individual. We aren’t all going to reach the same level of holiness (if indeed holiness can even be expressed that way), but the same Spirit will work in each of us, transforming us into the image of Christ. If we compare ourselves to others, or to an impossibly high expectation, we will quickly become discouraged or fearful. But if we look back to one year ago, five years ago, and ten years ago and see how God has matured us, we are encouraged to keep striving.

3. Help students see failure as opportunity. According to Dweck, students who viewed mistakes as opportunities to learn, rather than blemishes against their identity as a smart kid, were able to persist in the face of challenges and find success when they had equal or less talent than other students. When students understand that intelligence is a muscle ready to grow when used, they can begin to exercise it freely. If they believe intelligence is like plot of cement and suspect they might not have much square footage, they will act out of fear and self-protection either to cover up or prove themselves.

As I consider how I teach my students this year, I want to celebrate improvement. I want to keep their first papers they write and pull them out at the end of the year to show them how they have grown. As I consider my own children, I want to applaud their efforts, especially when a subject is difficult for them. I want to help them think of strategies and teach them that their intelligence is unlimited; their brains are miraculous learning machines, ever hungry for more.

I want to prep them for success in their classrooms this year, but also for lifelong success.