How to grow a five-year-old


There is so much interesting information around at the moment about our brain’s ability to change at all ages of life. As a mother of a five year old I’m trying to get my head around how best support my daughter to grow into a confident learner. I’ve just been listening to a podcast from Radio New Zealand National’s Nine to Noon programme with parenting commentator Nathan Mikaere-Wallis about what 3-7 year olds need to learn. Fascinating stuff.

Research shows that a child’s belief in their ability to learn is the best predictor of success later in life.

How much they know and if the details are correct is not really important at this age. Cognitive learning, which is a more adult style of learning focusing on content and detail, happens from age 7. So at five, helping my daughter know she is capable of learning something new and encouraging her thinking process, not outcome, is most beneficial.

This lines up with Dr Carol Dweck’s research on mindset. People with a fixed mindset see themselves as having a fixed level of intelligence and focus on protecting their status. This mindset creates learners who avoid challenge for fear of failure. The alternative is having a growth mindset, where someone understands they are able to improve their level of intelligence through effort. Learners with this mindset look for challenge in order to learn more. Mikaere-Wallis suggests that the critical window for developing this mindset is between 3 and 7.

The kicker for parents and teachers is that these mindsets are influenced by how we praise.

So how can we use this knowledge to give our kids the best chance of success? Help our 3-7 year olds see themselves as good learners. Focus on praise for a successful thinking process, not a right or wrong outcome. Encourage imaginative, open-ended play and don’t worry if they haven’t got their facts straight or colour inside the lines. That stuff will come along later.

This is a challenge for me. I know I am, at heart, a fixed mindset learner (although I am now working hard to shift to a growth mindset). For me this means that my model of how to deal with learning and knowledge is firmly based in being correct. Information is right or wrong. All of my scientific training has reinforced this belief. I have in the past looked outside myself for someone else to validate my intelligence by giving me a grade or a ‘well done’ pat on the head. This mindset got me a long way in the knowledge-based world of scientific research, but its not so useful in helping me to think outside the square and be creative as a coach and business owner.

As a mother it is a definite liability. What I’m learning as a mum is that my intuition can be relied upon. That no one else has the answers for how to best support and grow my own child. Experiential learning is necessary. I need to be with my child and learn her rhythms. I need to help her understand how to maximise her strengths and accept and work with her weaknesses.

So my daily challenge is to listen to what I say to Cassidy and learn how to say things that help her recognise her own power to choose to be great in the world. To practice opening my own mind to possibility so I can demonstrate to her that limits only exist inside our own heads. And most of all to help her enjoy being a kid and not to take on the pressure of the structured, performance-driven school system too soon.


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