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Reducing Aggression by Teaching Teens that People Can Change

 

 

 

Looking for practical applications for this research, I asked Dr Yeager about how parents and teachers could use this knowledge about ‘malleable’ and ‘fixed’ beliefs when communicating with children.

Here are three key ideas:

Praise the Effort & Actions, not the Person:  By praising your child’s actions - “you practised that so many times, well done” - instead of labelling them “clever” or “strong” for example, your child learns that effort can lead to success, and that he or she can change and evolve.  Frequently labelling children can contribute to them having a ‘fixed’ view of people and themselves.  A simple explanation of this process is provided in our article How You Praise Your Toddler has a Lasting Impact. In another example, Dr Gail Heyman at the University of California showed that children assume that a person who is labelled a ‘carrot eater’ has always liked carrots and will always like carrots but do not make the same assumption about someone who is described as ‘liking carrots.’  

Talk about the Potential for Change: Dr Yeager emphasises that even though it’s worthwhile teaching children that people can change, “it's important to not sugar coat the potential for personal change.  It's hard.  Sometimes it takes a while.  And sometimes it never happens.”  In interventions by Dr Yeager and colleagues in high schools, they don't say that it's easy to change or that people will change – instead the message is that there's the constant potential for change.  

Read about the Brain’s Plasticity: There are many interesting books available about the brain’s capacity for change; one of the most well-known is The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge.  A basic understanding of the brain’s plasticity can help parents and teachers talk to children about what really causes behaviour: the thoughts and feelings that live in the brain.  Dr Yeager explains: “We know from neuroscience and behavioural science that thoughts, feelings, and even the wiring of the brain are malleable throughout life - sometimes capable of even dramatic changes.  People can change because they get into new contexts - like a college or a new job - that leads them to think and behave differently, so they form new habits.  Or they get into relationships that lead them to change.  Sometimes people have a brief moment of insight - an ‘aha’ moment that makes them see the world in a different light.  Over time, this new perspective can turn into habits that get reinforced.  We find that it's helpful to talk about all of these possibilities with teens.”

The data from Dr Yeager’s research suggests that knowing about the possibility of change - especially at times when a teenager’s social world seems so fixed, like in the first few years of high school – “can relieve a great deal of stress and remove some of the desire to take violent revenge when things go wrong.”

Other interesting data is also emerging about the connection between a ‘fixed’ view and a higher chance of depression in children. In 2010 Dr Karen Rudolph from the University of Illinios showed a connection between the ‘fixed’ view and a higher likelihood of a victimised primary-aged child developing depressive symptoms. And in yet to be published research by Dr Yeager and colleagues it was shown that by teaching a ‘malleable’ view to Year 10 students who had been bullied, depressive symptoms could be reduced.

Bottom line, think about raising your children to believe in the constant possibility for humans to change – a hopeful and wonderful message in itself.

* Names of other authors and researchers with Dr Yeager in this study: Adriana Miu (Emory University), Joseph Powers (Stanford University) and Dr Carol Dweck (Lewis & Virginia Eaton Professor, Department of Psychology, Stanford University)
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