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A Joyful Start

You’re filling backpacks with fresh notebooks and sharpened pencils, scheduling haircuts and making sure the kids still fit into their school clothes. You may feel prepared for the upcoming school year. But does your attitude need a tune-up?

With so much to do before school starts, joy may understandably not be at the top of your priority list. But a joyful approach to the new school year sets a tone that makes your children feel happy and supported which, in turn, helps them become more responsive and ready to learn when they enter the classroom. Three simple steps will help you convey this positive attitude.

Praise effort: “You are so smart!” It’s a natural way of affirming our children’s success, right? Wrong! Research shows the implications of repeating that message are negative and far reaching. In her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck refers to it as a matter of mindset.

Students with fixed mindsets, Dweck explains, believe their basic abilities, intelligence and talents are fixed traits, and they only have a certain amount. They want to look smart all the time and never dumb.

“In a growth mindset,” Dweck writes, “students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

Similarly, College of Charleston professor Gabrielle Principe writes on her blog that telling children they are smart may interfere with their ability to learn, and the repeated reassurances do not give children confidence or increase their self-esteem.

According to her blog, “The Developmental Psychologists’ Back to School Shopping List,” repeated praise for being intelligent sends the message that intelligence is an innate and fixed trait. “This leads children to discount the importance of effort,” Principe writes. “In contrast to children who are praised for being smart, children who are encouraged for their effort come to believe that intelligence is not an innate and fixed trait, feeling that their success is in their control.”

Dr. Joyce Burick Swarzman, headmaster at Corbett Preparatory School of IDS, says it is never too early to praise effort and hard work to keep kids motivated in challenging situations. The most successful students, she says, ask for help, persist and cope in the face of adversity, and believe that their skills and abilities can grow because of these efforts.

Choose positive phrasing: The right words turn “can’t” and “won’t” and “don’t” into “can” and “will” and “do,” revealing opportunities instead of roadblocks. Using positive phrasing elicits positive emotions which “improves thinking, problem solving, health, learning, energy, creativity, friendships and even test taking,” concluded Sonya Lyubomirsky, Laura King and Ed Diener after reviewing over 300 studies on happiness and success.

Swarzman believes the way in which we communicate with a child directly affects the emotional context in which he or she will learn. By stating directly and clearly and what is expected, you set a positive tone and an inherent belief in your child. Use words that clearly state desired behavior or action as opposed to what you don’t want. Rather than telling kids “don’t forget,” for example, choose “please remember.” Instead of “Don’t run,” say “walk”. Replace “You can’t have this” with “You can have this or that.” Positive phrasing also encourages a positive community spirit, so instead of “Stop talking” you can join in with, “Let’s be quiet.”

And make sure your body language reflects your upbeat instructions. Positive communication, Swarzman says, is reflected when body language, facial expression and tone of voice and are aligned to send the same message to your child.

Practice gratitude: As Thornton Wilder said: “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

One of the greatest gifts you can give yourselves and your children is the practice of gratitude. In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor says research shows that writing down three things you are grateful for each day will significantly improve your optimistic view and boost success.

Why not share this practice with your child every day? Optimism promotes happiness and joy, and happy children are more open and responsive to learn. Even young children know and understand the gift of being thankful and will have gratitude for you for that cherished time together.

Dr. Jennifer Morrow Clark is the Director of Admissions at Corbett Preparatory School of IDS. Founded in 1968, Corbett Preparatory School of IDS is a fully accredited, nonsectarian private school located in Tampa’s Carrollwood neighborhood. The school serves 535+ students from PreK3 -8th grade and offers the International Baccalaureate program of study. Teachers are endorsed in gifted education through the University of South Florida.

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