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Imparting limiting beliefs onto children.

Guest blog by Karen Lander, The Top Cat Tutor.


Children’s attitudes to learning are shaped from birth by the people around them. There is an adage in teaching that when you meet a child’s parents, the child makes sense. You “get” why they are like they are.

So, when I meet the parent of the child who struggles with maths - surprise surprise - the parent tells me they struggled with maths at school too!


When I meet the parent of a child who is scared to make mistakes, you can tell that the parent is a perfectionist.


When I meet the parent of the child who is willing to try things and learn from their mistakes, and as a result is doing really well in school, their parent has the mindset of “as long as they’re happy and doing their best. I know they’re not perfect. We all make mistakes.”


Everyone has beliefs about school and learning because everyone went to school. However, those beliefs were formed in a different time, under a different education system, at a different school, in a different class with different teachers to your child.

Your experience of school and learning is not your child’s experience of school and learning. It’s important to remember that.

It’s impossible to be on top of everything we say or do that transmits a limiting belief to children but becoming aware of the beliefs we hold around school and learning and being mindful of how we communicate these is important in helping our children achieve to the best of their ability.


In this blog, I’ll look at a couple of limiting beliefs that are commonly passed onto children. Parents are doing this perfectly innocently and are usually unaware they are doing so, so there is no judgement here. I just hope to raise awareness that limiting beliefs, and how we communicate them, holds children back and look at how we can become more attuned so we can develop a positive mindset for our children which will enable them to thrive in their learning.


Maths:

It is almost a badge of honour in this country to say you are bad at maths. We almost brag about how awful we are at it. Imagine saying “I’m hopeless at reading” in the same way. It doesn’t happen.


This limiting belief about our ability to do maths goes back to the way maths has traditionally been taught. For as long as we’ve had compulsory education (about 150 years) maths has been about memorising number facts and calculation methods, often required to be recalled at speed, with little understanding of why we are doing what we’re doing. This isn’t actually what maths is. Maths is reasoning and problem solving about patterns in the world around us using logic.


Because we weren’t actually taught “proper” maths we never learnt what a fascinating and creative subject it is. We just remember the stress of not remembering things, not understanding why we were doing something and being made to feel stupid because of it, and not seeing how any of it is useful in life.


Therefore, we make light of not being good at maths to protect ourselves from feeling silly like we were made to feel at school. Children overhear adults putting their maths skills down, or are told these things directly:

“Go and ask your dad to help you, I’m rubbish at maths! [smiles and rolls eyes]”. (I’m not even going to get into the damaging gender stereotypes around maths here, but this one, very common sentence is in itself a can of worms!)

Normalising that it’s OK to find maths hard is not OK.

It sends the message that we are either good at something or we aren’t, and that can’t be changed. This is not true. We know that intellect is not innate or fixed and people can learn to a high level their whole life.


People who believe they can’t do something because it is difficult and they might make a mistake have what is known as a “fixed mindset”, and this mindset hinders our learning big time!


People who believe they can do something if they have a go, learn from mistakes and persevere find the learning process much more enjoyable and achieve to higher levels as a result. These people have a “growth mindset”.


Parents who communicate limiting beliefs around maths have a fixed mindset towards the subject and are therefore imparting a fixed mindset in their child. But, fixed mindsets don’t have to be fixed – you can develop a growth mindset instead and foster a growth mindset for your child, and as a result, help to break the cycle of maths fear we have in this country.


It’s important to note that the way maths is taught in most primary schools now is vastly different to 10 or 20 years ago, with a big emphasis on “real maths” through reasoning and problem solving using a growth mindset approach. Just because your experience of maths at school was a negative one, it doesn’t mean your child’s experience will be too.


Concentration:

All my tuition is done online, originally out of necessity and now out of choice.

During the lockdown of 2020 and again since the covid restrictions have been lifted, I’ve noticed a common limiting belief from parents about learning online. It goes something like this:


Parent: Hi. I’m interested in tuition for my child. Can you help?

Me: Yes. (Blah blah blah about how I can help.) All tuition is online via Zoom.

Parent: Oh, no, they won’t concentrate online.


The speed with which some parents disregard expert, high-quality learning support for their child because they assume they won’t concentrate when working online is alarming, and I’m a bit baffled as to where this limiting belief about their child’s ability to concentrate when using a computer comes from. I think it stems from bad experiences of online schooling, which was nothing like one to one tuition, for the reasons I explain in my blog here. Parents with this limiting belief seem to think that children can only concentrate if someone is physically in the room with them, making sure they are concentrating (and therefore assuming a child’s default is not-concentrating). This mindset has very low expectations of what children are capable of and is setting them up to fail.


Think about it like this:

Does that child play games on a computer or console?

I expect the answer is yes. Then they are concentrating on that and therefore can concentrate when using a computer.


Does that child watch TV, or videos online?

I expect the answer is yes. Then they are concentrating on that (in a passive way – there is no interactivity) and can therefore concentrate when communicating with someone via a computer screen (in an active way – there is lots of interactivity).


Can that child concentrate on an activity (any activity!) by themselves?

If yes, then they can concentrate during online learning. If not, then there is an issue around concentration or attention span that needs looking into, and help provided to make concentration easier for them.


Research clearly shows that telling or showing children (through our behaviours) they are only capable of certain things and withholding the opportunity for them to be challenged further, to try different things and to work in different ways, limits their self-belief and therefore their learning. It put barriers in their way and holds children back.


To dismiss a child’s ability to do something – to not even give them the chance to try - is sending the message that they are not capable of things. The more often they see or hear this message, the more they will believe it and the more their own self-limiting behaviours show up, and the more they will struggle with learning and ultimately, life.


It might seem like you are making your child’s life easier by rejecting something you think they will find hard, but you are actually making their life much harder as a result. You are giving them a fixed mindset of what they are capable of, and showing them you have low expectations of what they can achieve. Low expectations leads to a downward cycle of low achievement.


If we never let children struggle or learn to cope with new things, they are not going to develop a growth mindset and are going to find life as they grow older increasingly difficult. We know that the brain develops and learns through the process of struggle and mistake making. It is this that exercises our brains and makes them stronger. It is this that creates neural pathways that aid our understanding.

Struggle and mistake making increases learning.

Keeping things easy and not trying for fear of failure prevents learning. If we always give children the easy option and send the message they are not capable, we are literally stifling their intellectual growth. The brain is not being exercised. It doesn’t get stronger. Neural pathways are not created. We find learning ever more difficult.


We need to give children opportunities. We need to show them that it’s good to try new things – even if they are strange or difficult at first. We need to show them that just because one experience didn’t go well, it doesn’t mean a similar experience will be the same - we can learn from the challenges life throws at us.


You never know - they might surprise you and concentrate just fine (which, for the parents who are open minded and do give online tuition a go, always find that this is what happens!)


I invite you to consider, with no judgement, what limiting beliefs you might be holding regarding school and learning, and how they might be getting passed on to your child. Do you joke about being rubbish at maths? Do you say “I can’t draw”? Do you make assumptions about what your child might be able to achieve and therefore, innocently and unintentionally, put barriers in their path?

How can you reframe them in a more positive way? Here’s some suggestions:


“I’m no good at maths” could become:

“I wish I went to school now. The way you learn maths (or whatever) looks really fun and interesting.”


“Ooh, what are you doing there? I didn’t learn how to do it like that at school. Can you explain it to me?” (getting children to explain something deepens their understanding even more.)


“They won’t be able to do that” could become:


“Let’s try this and see how you get on.”


“Have a go and do your best.”


“Mistakes are great. It means you are learning.”


“It’s OK if something is difficult, it means you are exercising your brain.”


The children I work with find learning difficult for various reasons. Sometimes it is due to limiting beliefs that are holding them back in their learning. Integral to my work is helping these children move from a fixed to a growth mindset to overcome these beliefs about their abilities so they can begin to thrive in their learning; and helping parents understand how to foster a positive learning mindset.



If you would like to find out more about me and how I can help your child’s learning please visit www.topcattutor.co.uk. You are also very welcome to join my free Facebook group where I share tips, hints and advice to help parents of primary aged children support their child’s learning.

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