Not Yet

Professor Carol Dweck is a researcher at Stanford University.  She studies the growth mindset, or how the way we think about things influences our behaviour and our beliefs about ourselves.  In a TED talk on the topic, she opened with a story of a school whose report cards were different from any other she had seen in a very important way.  Traditionally, when a student isn’t meeting expectations, we see either the dreaded F, or if you’re in a school district that uses euphemisms instead, it’s “not meeting expectations” or some variant thereof.  The wording differs, but the message is the same: You can’t do this.

What was different at this one school was that instead of F’s or “not meeting expectations”, the category was “Not Yet”.  Not yet.  Not that you can’t do this.  Not that you won’t ever be able to do this.  Simply put, you’re just not there yet, but you will be.  This latter part is critical to our children’s growth mindset.  If we want our children to believe they can do anything they put their minds to (at least to some degree), we have to speak to them using a language that makes that clear.

In school, children who don’t do well in an area often lose interest in it altogether because they’ve internalized the messages we send them which don’t often include the future belief in them.  They think it’s lights out, game’s over, and there’s no going back, so why bother to put in the effort?  If the teacher thinks you can’t do it, if your parents think you can’t, and if all the messages are telling you that you simply won’t reach those “expectations”, then why would you try?

Importantly, “not yet” has implications for parents and teachers as well.  For too long in the educational system, children who aren’t meeting expectations at the end of one year are simply left to flounder at the start of the next where it is assumed all children are at a certain stage.  If teachers start to think of a child’s capacity in terms of “not yet”, we can hopefully see teaching that accepts the individual level of each child instead of viewing children as a whole group in terms of where they happen to be on the “expectations” scale.  Imagine a child entering grade two who hasn’t yet met expectations in math having a teacher take the time to go back and review, even one-on-one, earlier concepts that aren’t quite solidified until the child reaches that yet-point and can join the rest of the class.  This is particularly crucial in the early, elementary years where rates of learning actually are quite variable and our standards somewhat arbitrary.

For parents, it can be a life-saver in terms of our own sanity.  Too often parents worry about where their children are on a myriad of societally-made scales, starting when their infants are babies and not sleeping through the night.  They start to fear that if their children haven’t met a given milestone by a specific date, the rest of the child’s life is in danger of being horrible or obsolete.  The problem is that, barring a consistent pattern of missing many different milestones which may be indicative of a developmental delay and should be looked at, many of the milestones we have set up for parents to follow are rather arbitrary.  Or rather, the times given are averages that are surrounded by very large ranges of ages.  If parents can learn to accept that their individual child isn’t there yet (and by extension, their child will get there in his/her own time), then the process of parenting becomes immensely more enjoyable with much less stress (it’s never completely stress-free no matter how many “yet”s you use).

I challenge you as parents and teachers to start including “yet” when talking to children after a failure, whether it be tying a shoe, getting dressed, or writing a history test.  The power it exerts over all of our mindsets is something that we could all use a bit more of.

By Tracy Cassels

April 27, 2015