When the school year winds down, many parents ask themselves what they can do to help their children’s school achievement. Most typically their thoughts will run to math drills or reading practice, but they should be considering something even more fundamental: their children’s beliefs.

Research now shows that students’ beliefs about their intelligence play an important role in their school achievement, and that parents can influence the development of these beliefs. Students who believe their intelligence is simply a fixed trait fare more poorly, especially as school becomes more challenging, than students who believe their intellectual abilities can grow. When students are taught the growth-oriented view—whether they are inner city middle school students or students at an elite university—they show a rapid increase in their enjoyment of learning and in their grades.

In one of our studies in the New York City schools, seventh graders were taught that every time they learn something new their brain forms new connections and that over time their intellectual abilities can be developed. Whereas a matched control group continued to show the poor motivation and decline in grades so commonly seen in adolescents, the group that learned the growth-oriented view of intelligence showed a significant upsurge in their motivation to learn and in their grades. Upon seeing these results, we created the  Brainology® online program to make the workshop available to students everywhere.

As is often the case, one adolescent stands out in our minds. He was the most turned-off and disruptive student in the class, but as we began to deliver the growth-oriented message, he looked up with tears in his eyes and said “You mean I don’t have to be dumb?” For the rest of the term, he recruited his teachers to help him learn, and began for the first time to do all his homework and study for tests. As a result, his grades went from C’s and D’s to B+’s.

Wait a minute, you may be thinking, haven’t we been down this road with the self-esteem movement? The self-esteem movement encouraged parents and teachers to tell children how smart they are. This, they believed, would give children confidence in their abilities, and thus the desire to learn and the hardiness to withstand difficulty. Research shows that this is wrong. Praising children’s intelligence may boost their confidence for a brief moment, but by fostering the fixed view of intelligence, it makes them afraid of challenges, it makes them lose confidence when tasks become hard, and it leads to plummeting performance in the face of difficulty. In some studies, praising intelligence led to lower performance on an IQ test.

What should parents do? Research shows that praising the process –children’s effort or strategies—creates eagerness for challenges, persistence in the face of difficulty, and enhanced performance. Next time you are tempted to tell your child that he or she is the next Einstein or future Picasso, stop yourself. Instead, take the time to appreciate what they put into their work, not what the work means about their innate brains or talent. Ask them how they went about it and show them how you appreciate their choices, their thinking process, or their persistence. Ask them about strategies that didn’t work and what they learned from them. When they make mistakes, use these as occasions for teaching them to come up with new strategies. When they do something quickly, easily, and perfectly, do not tell them how great they are. Tell them, “I’m sorry I wasted your time on something too easy for you. Let’s do something you can learn from.” Look for ways to convey your valuing of effort, perseverance, and learning—rather than some empty display of ability. Instead of false confidence in fixed ability, these methods will foster an appreciation for the true ingredients of achievement.

It is now abundantly clear from research that brains and talent alone don’t bring success. The work of Benjamin Bloom and of Anders Ericsson shows clearly that people of outstanding accomplishment—be it in science, the arts, or athletics--are typically no more talented than many of their peers. In fact, their peers who seemed most brilliant at the start often turned out to achieve very little. This is most likely because, believing too much in the power of their brains and talent, they did not put in the effort that all great accomplishment requires.

In short, believing in brains or talent as something fixed and all-powerful works against long-term success in school, careers, and life in general. It’s the wrong mindset. If you teach your children one thing this summer, it should be how to grow their intelligence. You can do that through the  Brainology® program and by praising their process.