Celebrating Progress, Grit and Fresh Starts
It’s also a time for setting goals for the coming year. For people with learning differences, forward momentum can feel particularly evasive. They tend to find progress toward goals to be more of a “one step forward, two steps back” experience.
In this article, we’ll explore the nature of progress for neurodivergent students, how growth mindset theory can help, and concrete strategies for using that mindset as a tool for better goal setting.
Progress Is Not a Straight Line
When assessing their progress, and creating goals for the coming year, people who are wired differently need to steer clear of perfectionistic thinking, or the notion that improvement must be immediate in order to exist. If you know someone who is neurodivergent, as I am, they may at times experience progress as imperceptible growth, happening beneath the surface of understanding. They may encounter satisfying breakthroughs, followed by humdrum plateaus, followed by what appear to be disappointing setbacks. These frustrating roller coasters – fits and starts – can erode their confidence. The path may not make sense, given the sweat equity.
The journey of tackling a high school, college, or career challenge may ultimately prove to be as valuable as arriving at the destination. In setting goals for the new year, people with learning differences such as ADHD and autism benefit from giving themselves credit for the process of forward movement, not just achievement. Sustaining efforts outside their comfort zones can embolden neurodivergent individuals to stay the course and practice positive habits that eventually develop into routines.
Growth Mindset Theory
Dr. Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory highlights the importance of facing setbacks with persistence. Unlike a fixed mindset, which interprets struggles as indicators of inherent limitations, a growth mindset views them as opportunities to develop strengths. This perspective fosters stamina and empowers students with the confidence that improvement and progress are always within reach.
Embracing a growth mindset unleashes cognitive potential. A January 2023 Neuroscience article cites a Southwest University study that correlates growth mindset with greater gray matter in the part of the brain responsible for decision making and goal setting. Research at the Gene-Brain-Behavior (GBB) Project supports the notion that individuals who have a growth mindset develop critical reasoning skills that make them resilient and adaptable thinkers.
Growth Mindset and Neurodivergence
Neurodivergent individuals, whether in middle school, high school, college or beyond, can adopt a growth mindset to increase their traction with academic, professional and personal goals. However, encouraging students with learning differences via blanket positive encouragement that lacks relevant details can be baffling to them, or even backfire.
In the June 2023 Washington Post article “The growth mind-set: Why friends, family and work make a difference,” author Tara Parker-Pope describes the value of bringing attention to a person’s specific strengths and areas of growth, rather than simply praising them for doing “a good job.” The idea is that vague, but positive statements from mentors and peers can actually contribute to an individual’s anxiety because they don’t have a clear sense of which actions the praise is connected to, whereas targeted and accurate feedback helps them conceptualize what they are doing well, and focus on areas where they can still improve.
People with learning differences may benefit during goal setting by noting whether they struggle with metacognition and the ability to see how they navigate through environments, responsibilities, and achievements. Feedback from mentors can help them take a detailed and precise account of how past decisions played out, highlight specific areas of growth, realistically assess their strengths and blind spots, and plan what to work on accordingly. From there, supportive routines can be introduced and practiced.
Growth Mindset and Developing Sustainable Habits and Routines
While detailed feedback and support can empower neurodivergent individuals to set appropriate goals, and routines can keep them on track, cultivating patience and gentleness with themselves and the fruits of their efforts can help them stay in the game and bolster lagging confidence.
To be sustainable, growth is best framed as a gradual progression, not a one-off event. Rather than allowing setbacks to weigh us down, we can view them as opportunities for improvement. People who are wired differently can acknowledge previously challenging goals and the hurdles they have overcome, then take stock of growth edges, unrealized potential, and support structures they can implement to ease the process.
Achievement of long-term goals will play out differently than that of short-term objectives. Rushing to the end point of complex, incremental pursuits may be counterproductive. Multifaceted endeavors, targets and aspirations require longer time frames.
How Neurodivergent People Can Use a Growth Mindset for More Effective Goal Setting
Aim for gradual progress. Learners sometimes feel pressured to absorb new information at astronomical speed and achieve instant results. However, lasting progress can take time. It is okay to go at our own pace and trust the process. Unmet goals are not unachievable; they just have not yet been met. People with learning differences can leave room in their worldview for those aims to manifest on their own time, supported by steady effort. Desired outcomes inevitably take longer than expected to achieve.
Validate efforts, not just results. Consistency and tenacity are vital to success. Repeatedly stretching outside one’s comfort zone ultimately leads to major growth. Expectations associated with high school, college, and professional milestones can emphasize external achievement, downplaying internal and subjective gains, which are often at least as significant. It is easy to focus only on results without appreciating the learning process. Yet we benefit from identifying new skills acquired along the way, regardless of their size.
Cultivate grit. Learners can make friends with resilience by incorporating positive forward movement into their daily routines. Growth is a process, so it is necessary to be prepared to work toward goals gradually over time, even before progress becomes apparent. Challenges and obstacles do not need to deter students from tackling new tasks with courage. If they don't meet their goals today, they can take a break from the frustration and try again tomorrow. Pacing matters. People can develop new stamina by making a habit of revisiting difficult projects with greater equanimity. If routines include getting back on the proverbial horse after a setback, progress toward goals becomes a natural phenomenon.
Get effective supports in place to maintain momentum.
Solo Support: Discovery is a beautiful thing, and our life paths are nothing short of adventure. Struggling learners can visualize achieving their goals. They can commit to making significant growth toward them, and imagine taking the steps that will get them there. To concretize progress, they can then gamify positive actions and reinforce effective habits to ingrain them into routines.
Community Support: If neurodivergent individuals are not making the traction they want, they may be missing key resources and self-management tools. Skillful mentorship can expose learners to fresh perspectives and untried solutions. No one succeeds entirely alone. Asking for help and assembling a team can provide encouragement and inspiration. It is crucial to be conscientious about the environment we inhabit and the influences we absorb, as the people we interact with inform our inner dialog. If interactions are energizing and help us move forward toward goals, we are in the right company.
Observe and celebrate progress. Celebrating achievement activates the brain’s reward system by releasing oxytocin and dopamine. This can generate a feedback loop that reinforces motivation. It also reduces stress, accelerating learning and increasing memory, focus and attention. No accomplishment is too small or negligible. Learners can develop greater courage and a stronger sense of achievement by recognizing the little wins and appreciating how far they have come.
Coaches and educators can support students in adopting a growth mindset to advance their academic, professional, and personal success. If neurodivergence has hindered your student’s progress and satisfaction, they can adopt these strategies and see their objectives take root and flourish.
Is your student looking to set sustainable goals and maximize their academic confidence? Schedule a complimentary information session.
As an executive function coach and academic tutor, I specialize in helping individuals with learning differences exceed their goals for academics, organization, college transition, and career exploration.