neurons developing in the brain
Growth mindset results in strengthening neurons in the brain.

Carol Dweck’s research on “growth mindset” supported my work with adults and children struggling with speech and language challenges. Early in my career working with elementary, middle and high school students, the biggest challenge was getting students to produce. No grades were given, the work being done was in the most difficult areas and many had developed negative attitudes about what they could learn. One student said, “I don’t talk because I’m just quiet and come from a quiet family.” I recently met up with him and now he can’t stop talking. Another student said,” I just don’t get it. I can’t understand how to do this!” (talking about how to use strategies to help with word finding and comprehension problems.) Recently, he said, “Now, I know what to do. I hear you in my head telling me to look for the I can use strategy.” He is doing his high school work on his own. None of these changes happened overnight. The work was repetitive, frequent and required many small achievable steps. What helped those kids to hang in there? Developing a growth mindset. Those students learned that working on challenging tasks,  “growth mindset”  made their brains grow stronger.

As a student, imagine your embarrassment and shame when you realize that the same work everyone else is completing, you are struggling to finish. This does not happen just once, but frequently at all stages of their academic career. Because of the frequency of these experiences, many students develop negative attitudes toward school, an unwillingness to take academic risks, and poor self-esteem. In addition, different developmental stages can exacerbate these feelings. For example, it is especially difficult for middle schoolers struggling with communication problems, who desperately want to fit in with peers to receive support. They do not want to be different. However, receiving the right support at that time means not developing bad habits that will impact their learning for a lifetime.

In speech-language therapy sessions, clients are asked to work on painful areas of weakness. Many recognize they have a problem, but as children do, many blame themselves. It has been surprising to me to see children as young as 3 avoiding areas of language weakness with interesting strategies. One little guy had these amazing poses and phrases he used that made people think he understood when he did. Overtime, he learned that sometimes his words “flew out the window.” He knew what he wanted to say, but couldn’t find the word. (We call that a word finding problem.) With remediation and strategies, he learned to deal with his challenges.

Having private speech and language sessions offers adults and children the opportunity to talk honestly about their struggles. It is only in the privacy of that room that many allow themselves to show their true feelings of frustration and anger. Not understanding what people are saying, worrying if you will produce a certain sound, or fearing no one will understand your message, is painful. Most of us never think about any of this, we just do it. Ignoring even mild speech and language problems can cause adults and children to suffer from anxiety, depression, and self-esteem problems. To address these feelings, clients must acknowledge their struggles, learn to evaluate their needs accurately, use strategies, self advocate, and accept their differences.

Changing  speech and language problems is hard work. Clients must be motivated to tackle difficult tasks and practice regularly.  We have ways to make the tasks easier, but instruction in “growth mindset,” helps clients understand that by working on their weaknesses and reflecting on their struggles they are changing and strengthening their brain.  This knowledge has been a game changer.


With elementary students I use a series of videos based on the growth mindset that I love called the ClassDojo. They never fail to help children understand this important concept. The fact that the setting in the video in a classroom doesn’t matter because the same information can easily be applied to home situations. One viewing however is usually not enough. Clients usually need to see all the videos often followed by a discussion. The Mysterious World of Neurons is one of my favorites.

Published by Kai Long

Kai currently lives in MA and is interested in collaborating with others to develop a deeper understanding of our speech and language needs.