In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children's Beliefs about Intelligence

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • How Children Conceptualize Intelligence and Ability
  • Beliefs about Intelligence and Motivation
  • Critiques
  • Children’s Assessments of Intelligence
  • Influences on Children’s Perceptions of Intelligence
  • Adolescence and Beyond

Education Children's Beliefs about Intelligence
Linda Bonne
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 June 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0094


How children from around five to thirteen years old conceptualize and think about intelligence—or being smart or clever—and how these ideas might be associated with children’s outcomes, such as achievement, is the focus of this literature review. Children’s conceptualizations of intelligence are thought to be influenced by various factors, including cognitive development and the messages they receive from family members, teachers, and peers. In an education context, both children’s definitions of intelligence and their beliefs about it are thought to be important for the ways in which they can affect children’s learning. At school and beyond, the ways in which children conceptualize intelligence are associated with their attributions for success and failure and their motivation. Children’s beliefs about the malleability of intelligence have also been the subject of considerable research, and trends in these beliefs have been identified related to age, gender, and ethnicity. Factors that have been shown to influence children’s beliefs about whether or not they can increase their intelligence include the feedback children receive from parents and teachers, and how different cultures value ability and effort. In the literature presented here, the terms “ability” and “intelligence” are often used synonymously by authors, and both are included. The focus is on the perspectives of children, who might also think of ability and intelligence as overlapping or even the same thing, rather than on describing how intelligence might be defined from a psychological perspective. Citations have been chosen to include seminal works and to represent the development over time of related knowledge. Although children and adolescents up to around thirteen years old are the target group, much of the empirical work included has employed cross-sectional studies that also included older participants. Research with older participants is also included where it illustrates a salient point.

General Overviews

General texts and reviews of research relating to children’s beliefs about intelligence are included in this section, with reviews relating to more specific aspects of children’s ideas presented later. Much of the literature reports studies that have identified differences in beliefs about intelligence according to children’s ages (see also Age). What has not been unequivocally identified is whether there are causal links between children’s ideas about intelligence and their cognitive development or the accumulated effect of schooling, and such relationships are difficult to (ethically) isolate. Rosenholtz and Simpson 1984 uses an extensive review of research to expand ability-formation theory to include the role that schools play in shaping children’s perceptions of ability, because the authors were not satisfied that the changes in children’s ideas about intelligence as they grew older were due entirely to cognitive development. A more recent review of research into children’s definitions of intelligence, Kinlaw and Kurtz-Costes 2003, outlines how children’s ideas about intelligence become both more precise and more complex as they grow older. The theorizing in Cain and Dweck 1989 helps to explain an association between children’s ideas about the controllability of intelligence and their achievement, and was influential in subsequent research and theory. There are a number of educational psychology books that present good overviews of relevant knowledge and connect it to motivation and achievement; these include Aronson 2002 and Alderman 2008. Several book chapters also draw on considerable research to inform different perspectives on children’s thinking about intelligence: Stipek 1998 contextualizes children’s thinking about intelligence in relation to other self-theories, Nicholls 1990 describes how intelligence and ability differ and highlights some related issues for researchers, and Dweck 2002 focuses more on children’s beliefs about the malleability of intelligence.

  • Alderman, M. Kay. 2008. Motivation for achievement: Possibilities for teaching and learning. 3d ed. New York: Routledge.

    Chapter 3, “Concepts of Ability and Motivation,” is of particular interest, with links drawn between how a person thinks about their own intelligence (their beliefs about their present ability) and their self-efficacy beliefs (their expectations for future success). A good overview of the topic, and beyond, for undergraduates and graduates.

  • Aronson, Joshua, ed. 2002. Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education. New York: Academic Press.

    A chapter by Carol Dweck gives a summary of how teachers can influence students’ theory of intelligence for more positive student outcomes. Robert J. Sternberg also contributed a chapter related to intelligence more broadly, with attribution research and self-theories examined elsewhere in this volume.

  • Cain, Kathleen M., and Carol S. Dweck. 1989. The development of children’s conceptions of intelligence: A theoretical framework. In Advances in the psychology of human intelligence. Edited by Robert J. Sternberg, 47–82. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    Theoretical paper that presents a framework linking the development of children’s conceptions of intelligence; their motivation, especially when they encounter setbacks in learning; and academic outcomes.

  • Dweck, Carol S. 2002. The development of ability conceptions. In The development of achievement motivation: A volume in the educational psychology series. Edited by Allan Wigfield and Jacquelynne S. Eccles, 57–88. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

    This book chapter draws on empirical studies to present an outline of how children’s ideas about intelligence change from kindergarten to the age of twelve, with an emphasis on how children think about the malleability of intelligence and the likely consequences of entity and incremental belief patterns.

  • Kinlaw, C. Ryan, and Beth Kurtz-Costes. 2003. The development of children’s beliefs about intelligence. Developmental Review 23:125–161.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0273-2297(03)00010-8

    This review of research summarizes existing theoretical frameworks, developed to explain how children’s beliefs about intelligence change as they grow older, before proposing a new framework. The authors highlight issues relating to research methods and the difficulties associated with isolating cognitive, environmental, and genetic influences on children’s ideas about intelligence.

  • Nicholls, John G. 1990. What is ability and why are we mindful of it? In Competence considered. Edited by Robert J. Sternberg and John Kolligian Jr., 11–40. New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press.

    Introductory chapter that outlines key areas in the literature around intelligence and critiques some key research in the field.

  • Rosenholtz, Susan J., and Carl Simpson. 1984. The formation of ability conceptions: Developmental trend or social construction? Review of Educational Research 54:31–63.

    DOI: 10.3102/00346543054001031

    Review of research into what the authors refer to as “ability formation” that includes an analysis of how various classroom structures can emphasize ability by supporting social comparison. Both using ability-based groups and giving all children similar work were identified as encouraging children to compare performances in terms of ability.

  • Stipek, Deborah. 1998. Motivation to learn: From theory to practice. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

    Discussion of self-perceptions of ability in relation to self-worth and self-efficacy is included in chapter 6, “Perceptions of Ability.” Stipek highlights the different learning behaviors that can result when low self-efficacy is coupled with a student’s beliefs about the malleability of his or her intelligence.

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