7 Surefire Ways to Make Your Kid a Better Student

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A few questions for you:

  • When your child makes a mistake, does she take it hard?
  • Do you get the feeling your kid isn’t applying himself at school?
  • Does your child shy away from learning new things?
  • Has your kid ever gotten a low grade on a test or a report card and tried to hide it from you?
  • Have you heard your child talk down to herself, saying things like “I’m not good at that” or “I’ll never learn this” or “I’m not smart”?
7 Surefire Ways to Make Your Kid a Better Student
Photo by Hometown Beauty

If you answered yes to any of these questions, your child may have a fixed mindset.

Children with a fixed mindset believe that you are as smart as you’ll ever be. You can’t change how smart you are, no matter how hard you try.

On the other hand, children with a growth mindset believe that if you work hard, you can become smarter. These kids thrive on challenge. Fixed-mindset kids see failure as evidence of not being smart, but growth-mindset kids see failure as an opportunity for growing. In fact, they don’t even see it as failure. They see it as LEARNING.

So What?

More than 20 years of research shows that the key to success in school and life is having a growth mindset. Basically, if you believe that trying hard will make you smarter, it will.

However, if your child doesn’t seem to enjoy the learning process, or can’t stand making mistakes, or lies to cover up failure – they may be struggling with a fixed mindset. And it’s stressing out your kid!

But it’s not just a mental problem. Kids with a fixed mindset tend to do WORSE in school.

The good news: You can help your child change their mindset.

7 Ways Your Child Can Become a Better, Happier Student

The easiest thing you can start doing RIGHT NOW is to stop saying “you’re so smart” and say this magic phrase instead:

“You worked really hard!”

That change has to happen first, and here’s why.


But you may find that you need a few more tools in your mindset-changing grab bag. So here are 7 more tips for helping your child become a better student.

No, scratch that. These tips will renew your child’s love of learning. He will be happier and more successful, and he will feel better about himself.


Keep in mind that every tip won’t work for every kid, so read through them all and see which ones ring true to you. Try one or two and see how they go.

Then come back here and let me know how it goes!

1. Question Everything

If you start to feel like a broken record saying “you must have worked really hard” all the time, try this trick: Ask questions about your child’s process.

For example, let’s say your little one shows you a picture he drew. You could ask:

  • What gave you the idea to color the tree purple?
  • How did you stay inside the lines?
  • Or when you have no idea what the hell you’re looking at: Can you tell me about everything in the picture?

Then just sit back and listen.

2. Pretend You’re a Court Reporter

The court reporter doesn’t pass judgement. They just watch and listen, then record facts that can be seen or heard.

With your court reporter hat on, you might say things like:

  • You looked really focused on that math worksheet, like you were concentrating. It seemed like that helped you finish it faster.
  • That picture has a lot of different colors.
  • During the game, you kept your eyes on your teammates. It looked like your team was working together today.

Watch for effort, strategies, focus, and improvement.

3. Look in the Mirror

7 Surefire Ways to Make Your Kid a Better Student
Photo by Roco Julie

If you find yourself struggling to let go of the “you’re smart” type of comments, sit down with a pen and paper and try to sort out why. You might write:

  • I want to build up my kid’s self-esteem.
  • I want her to know I believe in her.
  • It makes me proud to have a smart child. If I’m honest with myself, it’s almost like I’m complimenting myself for doing a good job at parenting.

Then write down other ways you can achieve the same outcome. For example:

  • Praising my kid’s effort or strategies will have a bigger impact on his self-esteem.
  • She will know I believe in her if I’m cheering her along as she works hard, instead of just showing up at the end with empty praise.
  • If I switch to praising effort, one day I’ll be rewarded with a perfect SAT score and an Ivy League acceptance letter that I can brag about.

4. Raise a Muscle-Builder

In one study, kids improved their math test scores by learning one basic concept: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a workout makes you smarter. And the way you give your brain a workout is by doing something hard.

Teach this concept to your kid. Get obnoxious about reinforcing it:

  • At bedtime, ask your child what gave her brain a workout today.
  • Have your kid draw a picture of the brain working like a muscle, to cement the idea in his head.
  • On the drive to school in the morning, say “Let’s give our brains a workout” and then throw out word problems or riddles, or play the alphabet game backwards.

Or if you’re like us and you can barely get your kids’ dinner ready and get them into bed before you pass out every night, you can pay $79 and have your kids go through this online program that will teach them this “brain is muscle” idea.

5. Celebrate Failures

A lot of parents give children stickers or a hearty “good job” when the child accomplishes a goal.

Turn that on its head and celebrating the mistakes along the way that will make meeting that goal a possibility:

“Students turn to cheating because they haven’t developed a strategy for handling failure. The problem is compounded when a parent ignores a child’s failures and insists he’ll do better next time. Michigan scholar Jennifer Crocker studies this exact scenario and explains that the child may come to believe failure is something so terrible, the family can’t acknowledge its existence. A child deprived of the opportunity to discuss mistakes can’t learn from them.”

7 Surefire Ways to Make Your Kid a Better Student
Photo by Nick Lee

At the dinner table, go around the table and ask everyone to share a mistake from their day and what they learned from it.

If your kid is learning to tie her shoes and getting frustrated, walk up to her and say “I can see you’re trying hard. Your brain must be getting a good workout! Let’s go grab an ice cream to celebrate all that hard work.”

Bonus: You’ll totally make her day!

6. Change Your Kid’s Brain Chemistry

How? Don’t reward every accomplishment:

“…persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’s also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain. Dr. Robert Cloninger at Washington University in St. Louis located the circuit in a part of the brain called the orbital and medial prefrontal cortex. It monitors the reward center of the brain, and like a switch, it intervenes when there’s a lack of immediate reward. When it switches on, it’s telling the rest of the brain, ‘Don’t stop trying. There’s dopa [the brain’s chemical reward for success] on the horizon.’ While putting people through MRI scans, Cloninger could see this switch lighting up regularly in some. In others, barely at all.”

Uh…in English?

“Cloninger has trained rats and mice in mazes to have persistence by carefully not rewarding them when they get to the finish. ‘The key is intermittent reinforcement,’ says Cloninger. The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. ‘A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.’

I’d thought ‘praise junkie’ was just an expression—but suddenly, it seemed as if I could be setting up my son’s brain for an actual chemical need for constant reward.”

The moral: Be inconsistent and random with your rewards. “Inconsistent and random” is pretty much my parenting motto, so I think I’ve got this one in the bag.

7. Preempt the Report Card

Grades are tricky. They’re obviously important for achieving success in our society, but what’s more important is learning.

“Too many students are hung up on grades and on proving their worth through grades…Problems arise when students come to care so much about their performance that they sacrifice important learning opportunities and limit their intellectual growth.

Problems also arise when students equate their grades with their intelligence or their worth. This can be very damaging, for when they hit difficulty, they may quickly feel inadequate, become discouraged and lose their ability or their desire to perform well in that area.”

7 Surefire Ways to Make Your Kid a Better Student
Photo by John Morgan

The day that report cards come home, don’t rush to open your child’s. Instead, give your kid a sheet of paper listing all her school subjects. For each one, ask her to give herself a grade based on how much she learned. You could use a scale of 1-3 or come up with your own grading system, like:

  • A = My brain hurts I learned so much!
  • B = I learned some, but I probably could have learned more
  • C = That class made me sleepy

Then for each non-A she gives herself, ask what she could have done to learn more. And listen.

Want More?

I could go on and on with the mindset hacks I found in my research, but I’ll stop there for now and maybe do another post on this topic one day. Be sure to check out Here’s the Secret Phrase to Turn Your Kid Into an Amazing Student for more information on fixed versus growth mindset.

And for more tips on teaching your kids important stuff, follow my Pinterest board Teach.


Your Turn

Does your kid struggle with a fixed mindset? What about you? Leave a comment to share!