Could growth mindset support students’ mental health, as well as their learning?

Close up of green shoot growing.

Student wellbeing is top of the list priority list for many teachers at the moment.

Issues, such as stress, anxiety, depression, fear of failure and perfectionism, are having a chilling effect on students of all ages. NHS data shows that there has been a 68% rise in hospital admissions for self-harm among girls under 17 in the last decade. Elsewhere, Childline reported that they are busier than ever with teenagers calling about their mental health.

Up to now, Dweck's theory of growth mindset has been extensively studied, but only in relation to students' educational outcomes. More recent research, however, has uncovered some interesting findings about the link between students' mindsets and their mental wellbeing.

Clinical psychology researchers Jessica Schleider, from Harvard University, Madelaine Abel, from Wellesley College and John Weisz, also from Harvard, reviewed 17 studies involving over 6,500 students. They found that a fixed mindset was associated with more mental health problems in teenagers. In fact, young people with a fixed mindset were 58% more likely to show more severe symptoms of anxiety, depression or aggression compared with their growth mindset peers. 

Growth mindset and its effect on anxiety and depression

Jessica Schleider and John Weisz also tested whether a growth mindset intervention could improve the ability to cope with stress and reduce anxiety and depression in adolescents who had intense symptoms. The findings again suggested that young people who developed a growth mindset fared considerably better than those who did not. In the short-term, having a growth mindset boosted physiological recovery following a socially stressful task. Nine months later, youths who received the mindset intervention also showed significantly better improvements for depression, as well as encouraging results for anxiety.

The link between mindset and anxiety isn't just happening among school students, either. In a study on university students, researchers found that the more fixed a person's view of their personality, the greater the symptoms of mental health problems they showed. They also found that students with a growth mindset were less likely to experience anxiety, depression and perfectionism. 

Growth mindset and its effect on self-esteem

 Another study looked at the relationship between mindset, academic performance and self-esteem among students across a number of age ranges. They found that those with a fixed mindset did not believe that they had the ability to improve academically. As a result, they experienced more negative emotions which decreased their self-esteem.

Growth mindset and aggression

Researchers from Stanford University recently published a study that found helping students develop a growth mindset reduced the amount of aggressive incidents they were involved in and their number of school exclusions. They also found that students who believe people's personalities can change were more likely to suggest education as a solution to bullying, rather than responding aggressively.

So does a fixed mindset predict mental health problems and vice versa?

Different studies have supported both possibilities. One study, which followed 115 students, found that those who thought of emotions as fixed at the start of 7th grade predicted higher depressive symptoms by the end of 8th grade.

Another study of 59 students, however, suggests that mental health affects your mindset. Its findings showed that students with significantly worse mental health had larger increases in fixed mindsets across a school year when compared with students with fewer mental health problems. Together, these studies suggest that the mindset-mental-health link could be a two-way street, with fixed mindsets and mental health issues affecting each other over time. 

Is the link between mental health and mindset the same for girls and boys?

Although girls consistently get higher grades than boys, they report lower expectations for personal success, show less resilience and feel more personal responsibility for failure than boys. This may be due to the type of praise they receive from their parents, with research suggesting that one-to-three-year-old boys are far more likely to be praised for their processes than girls are.

This is significant because this type of praise was found to predict their mindset later in childhood. Indeed early research by Carol Dweck found that girls are more likely than boys to view criticism as a sign of low ability, which leads to more helpless responses to setbacks. If the research above holds, this could potentially predict girls would have more mental health problems.

However, we know of only one study that has directly tested gender differences in the mindset-mental health link. In this study, Jessica Schleider and John Weisz found that:

  • Girls hold stronger fixed mindsets of emotions, thoughts and behaviors than boys
  • Girls' fixed mindsets grew stronger across the school year, but boys' did not
  • Fixed mindsets were more closely tied to mental health symptoms in girls than in boys. 

Final thought...

Having a fixed mindset may leave young people more vulnerable to developing mental health problems.

If fixed mindsets increase risk for mental health problems, can teaching growth mindsets improve resilience and mental health? Interventions to teach a growth mindset have improved academic performance, increased social behavior, and helped students manage anxiety, depressive symptoms and their self-esteem. Developing a growth mindset towards your academic ability and personality is obviously not the only way to help improve student mental health, but evidence suggests it can certainly play a role.

This blog was co-written by InnerDrive and Jessica Schleider. Jessica is a Psychology Fellow from Yale and a Psychology Doctoral Candidate at Harvard. We would like to thank Jessica for her time and assistance in summarising her research and helping point us in the direction of some of the other studies cited in this blog. Thanks Jessica – we think you are awesome. 

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