Telling children that if they ‘put their minds to it they can do anything’ can actually lead to POORER results, study finds

  • Researchers from the University of Edinburgh studied schools in Scotland
  • One used superheroes to motivate children to try harder and be resilient
  • A child said she enjoyed doings maths because of the superheroes
  • But a scientist warned catchphrases and mascots ‘paper over serious problems’

Telling children they can do anything if they put their minds to it may be untrue and actually make their grades worse, scientists say.

Artificially boosting pupils’ self-belief might do more harm than good by ‘papering over’ serious problems in schools.

A study of primary schools in Scotland found those that tried to motivate children to try harder in subjects they struggled with were not improving their exam results.

Instead, grades were found to be falling across the country and experts warned catchphrases and platitudes weren’t helping.

Children who struggle in certain subjects may not benefit from being told that they can master it if they just put in the effort, a study of Scottish schools suggested (stock image)

‘What we see is grades going down across the whole country, so saying, “I love maths because of a cartoon superhero” is kind of papering over pretty big troubles in education,’ Dr Timothy Bates, the leader of the study, told The Times.

The psychology expert, from the University of Edinburgh, referenced a quote from a young child who said she felt better about a subject because of mascots.

A girl at Lasswade Primary School in Midlothian said: ‘I love maths now because the superheroes help me,’ after teachers there introduced ‘Tough Tina’ and ‘Mike the Mistake Maker’ to try and encourage children.

Dr Bates’s study said that in fact pupils are likely to have subjects they are naturally worse at and telling them they can do it if they try may not be ideal.

Although a positive attitude is important, overdoing it might ignore the science behind people being naturally gifted in different areas.

The researchers called telling children they could use effort to overcome their nature a ‘growth mindset’.

‘A growth mindset attitude suggests you can reprogramme your brain,’ Dr Bates said.

‘Our study tested whether invoking a growth mindset would improve grades, and we found that it didn’t.

‘In the one study where we did find a significant change it was in the wrong direction, with the kids who were taught a growth mindset getting worse grades.’

In their study the Edinburgh researchers found that grades were actually falling across Scotland.

There was a two per cent drop in the number of children achieving high pass rates and notably worse performances in maths and English.

The research was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. 


Giving children rewards for going to school warps their idea of how good their attendance is and makes them more likely to play truant, a study suggested last year.

Researchers at Harvard University studied 15,000 schools in California which ran ‘attendance awards’ schemes to see how they affected the children.

They found that rewarding children for going to all their lessons gave them the impression that their own attendance was exceptionally good.

This could, on one hand, make them feel like they were different to normal – being rewarded suggested they had done something exceptional – and may have motivated them to skip a few days in order to conform.

Or children may have been over-confident that their attendance was so good they could get away with playing truant occasionally.      

‘A school leaders survey shows that awards for attendance are common, and that the organisational leaders who offer these awards are unaware of their potential demotivating impact,’ researchers led by Dr Carly D Robinson wrote in their paper. 

‘When people feel that they have exceeded the expectations for a socially desirable behaviour, they may subsequently become less likely to perform the socially desirable behaviour.

‘Thus, the award may have resulted in recipients feeling allowed to miss a future day of school.’ 

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