The world has often looked upon people perceived as “different” with suspicion. It has grown accustomed to putting them in boxes, assigning them labels and stereotyping them. Kids, too, are often “put in boxes” and treated according to how they are perceived: poor in math, too unfocused, too unruly, too calm, too touchy, too talkative, not talkative enough, and so on. But here’s the thing: stereotypes can have a terrible impact on your child’s behavior and self-confidence. Research says that stereotypes put invisible pressure on children and adults alike, pushing them to conform to the labels that are used to describe them. In scientific terms, this is referred to as the stereotype threat.
The term stereotype threat was first used by Aronson and Steele to explain how sensitivity to certain stereotypes lead to poor performance. The researchers found that even when people who did not believe in the stereotypes held about them, simply being aware that others held those stereotypes affected their behavior, their self-esteem and their performance.
Criticism has been levelled against stereotype threat findings for reasons such as publication bias and the presence of methodological flaws in these studies. Some critics argue that eliminating stereotype threat cannot completely eliminate differences in test performance, or that other issues explaining achievement disparities may exist. That said, a huge amount of evidence suggests that stereotype threat not only exists but also impacts behavior and self-confidence levels, and therefore reducing it can have a positive impact on behavior and performance.
In one study, researchers found that equally qualified female university students had poorer results on a math test when they were told that the test would produce gender differences. In other words, they had poorer results when, before the test, they were told that males performed better than females at math. Differences in performance were eliminated when the test was described as not producing gender differences.
In another study, athletes were asked to participate in a sports test that measured “natural athletic ability”. The researchers found that the participants who believed that the test would confirm the negative stereotypes held about their race’s athletic ability practiced less before the test. Another study found that black athletes performed worse when a sports test was framed as testing “sports intelligence”, and white athletes performed worse when they were told the test was about “natural athletic ability”. Other studies have come to the same conclusion: If an individual believes that a task measures his abilities, he is more likely to show a higher degree of stereotype threat.
Stereotype threat also affects kids, and we now know that it can lead to poorer performance, inappropriate behavior, low confidence, and disinterest. This makes perfect sense: a child who believe he is “poor in math” can begin to believe that this is a fundamental part of his nature and put in little effort because of his belief that “effort won’t change much”. A child who is always described as messy, or aggressive, or slow will continue to act so, because the more he is described with these labels, the more he learns to believe that those labels represent who he really is.
We now know that the more an individual identifies with the stereotyped groups, the higher the chances of stereotype threat. Some researchers suggest that this may be explained by anxiety-related behavior which ultimately impacts their working memory and executive functions.
Stereotype threat can have long-term consequences on your child’s behavior. The available research suggests that it can lead to low performance, make her engage in self-handicapping behavior, or even cause her to disengage from the situations she judges as threatening.
Five things you can start doing today to raise your child’s confidence levels
- Give your child a “stereotype boost”
The stereotype boost theory suggests that exposing individuals to positive stereotypes can raise their self confidence and help boost performance.
In one study, women and men were reminded of the mathematics stereotype threat (men are better than women at math). The women were then divided into two groups – before taking a difficult math test, one group read biographies of successful women, the other did not. The study found that the women who had read brief biographies of up to four successful women before taking the test scored as well as men, and those who had not read any biographies scored worse than men.
While there is no guarantee that a stereotype boost can increase performance or change behavior, several studies have shown that familiarizing kids with “people like them” who have succeeded in defying stereotypes helps improve their image of themselves and can motivate them to pursue activities or career paths they would have avoided before.
2) Strengthening your child’s emotion regulation skills can help develop his confidence
Teaching your child to identify and deal with difficult emotions such as anxiety and frustration is important to reduce performance anxiety. Making it a habit to talk about his emotions and your own and giving him the tools to deal with difficult emotions, is the most effective way to strengthen his emotion regulation skills. Remember that age-appropriate resources can give you the tools you need to communicate with your child about emotions.
3) Help your child adopt a growth mindset
The growth mindset theory was developed by Carole Dweck who found that kids with a fixed perception of things (for example those who believe that intelligence is innate) have poorer results than those who believe that performance is linked to effort. They also tended to put in less effort because of their belief that they were “naturally less intelligent”.
What Dweck found was that the perception of the concept of “hard” affected performance and ability. Kids who have a growth mindset believe that they have the power to change things. They are confident in their abilities. They believe that through effort or the adoption of specific strategies, they can improve their performance.
Stereotype threat studies have also found that persuading individuals that intelligence is malleable and can therefore be improved helps increase performance.
How to help your child adopt a growth mindset
- Help him identify the areas in which he has a fixed mindset. It is impossible to work toward the development of a growth mindset if he does not know what he needs to work on.
- Help him think of failure and mistakes as problems to be solved. An easy way to achieve this is by asking him questions that help him reflect on his behavior: How will you achieve this? What do you think? What do you think we can change? What would you change ?
- Teaching your child to focus on the future – what will I do next time – rather than on the past can help boost his confidence.
4) Strengthen your child’s working memory and executive function skills
I mentioned earlier that stereotypes can have an impact on your child’s working memory and executive function skills. Strengthening these skills can therefore give him greater confidence in his abilities and minimize the stereotype threat.
Executive functioning refers to a set of interrelated cognitive processes that affect your child’s emotional, physical and psychological well-being. It is responsible for your child’s ability to “function” appropriately and has an impact on her behavior and her ability to effectively carry out a task or to complete a given project.
One easy way to reinforce your child’s executive functioning skills is to propose games and activities that require her to listen to instructions and follow those instructions. Simple games such as Simon Says, Musical chairs and Red light Green light are great examples to help work on these skills.
Matching and sorting games that require your child to match or sort different objects also help exercise her executive functions. The “Nurturing Constructive Boredom: Over 101 fun activities to boost your child’s concentration and autonomy” is specially designed to help your child practice specific tasks to develop her focus and concentration, fine motor skills and independent thought.
Board games that help work on your kid’s concentration and require her to think, remember, and strategize are also great for developing his executive functions. Puzzles, mazes, and card games are great depending on your child’s age. Good examples of board games that help develop your child’s executive functions are: Labyrinth, Looney Labs Aquarius, and Chicken Cha Cha Cha.
Other games that can help include Crazy Eights, Qwirkle and ThinkFun S’Match. Imitation games, construction toys, imaginary play and role-playing games may also help foster your child’s executive function skills.
5) Using positive affirmations the right way can boost your child’s confidence
Medical students were asked to think about a positive value or attribute a positive value to themselves before doing a task. The researchers found that allowing students to reflect on their values had a calming effect, helped reduce text anxiety, and made them less susceptible to stereotype threat.
That said, using positive affirmations with kids can be a tricky affair. A child who feels unworthy will not find his worth by repeating “I am worthy, I am worthy, I am worthy”, over and over again, and that makes perfect sense. If your child does not believe in the declared affirmations, those affirmations will fail.
Here are three easy tips to help you use positive affirmations with kids:
1) Make your child see himself as a successful person
Success begets success. If your child consistently meets with failure, he will begin to believe that he is incapable of success. To increase his self-confidence, he needs to meet with success. Concretely, this means setting reasonable expectations that enable him to succeed, then raising those expectations when he repeatedly succeeds. But this is not a question of academic tasks alone; it can also refer to the expectations you have at home, such as the household chores you expect your kid to do alone and succeed in.
Make your child feel good about himself. Banish negative labels and use words that increase his sense of self-worth. Here is a free download of words every kid needs to hear.
Do not overestimate your child’s capacities. Several studies have shown that the more difficult the task, the higher the risk of stereotype threat. This means that to reduce this threat, it is important to set appropriate expectations in line with what your child is actually capable of achieving, and gradually increasing those expectations as he gets better. Your child needs to encounter success to feel good about himself and his abilities, but that success must be genuine.
2) Helping your child banish negative self-talk can boost confidence
Children are very good at negative self-talk: I’ll never make it, it won’t change anything, I never win, I’ll never win…
Adopting family gratitude routines is a great and easy way to show them that they have many things to be grateful for. Helping your child adopt the growth mindset we spoke about earlier can also help banish negative self-talk. By teaching her to focus on the future (what will I do next time), you increase her tendency to focus on solutions.
3) Teach your child to adopt an attitude in line with the behavior you want
What does being “brave” or confident” mean to you? How do you explain it to your child? Many concepts we are familiar with are not so easy to understand when you are a child. Instead of expecting your child to be “brave”, teach him what “being brave” looks like and focus on the actions that lead to that behavior.