The concept of a growth mindset is well-known in education circles. Thanks to the work of Carol Dweck, a psychologist and an education professor at Stanford University, in the early 2000s, the concept has gained national attention. And yet, growth mindset is as relevant as ever to today’s classroom. In fact, more than 4,800 new growth mindset resources have been uploaded to the TpT site in 2019 so far. And just this year, a large nationwide study — the largest and most rigorous test to-date of whether mindset trainings can improve student performance — found that, on average, lower-achieving 9th graders who took an online growth mindset training earned significantly higher grades than those who did not.
But what exactly is a growth mindset? And how does it benefit students who are struggling in school? A growth mindset is the belief that intelligence can be developed. Those with a growth mindset believe that they can become smarter through hard work, the use of effective strategies, and help from others when needed. In contrast, those with a fixed mindset believe that they either are or are not innately smart — rather, that intelligence is a fixed trait that’s set in stone at their birth. As TpT Teacher-Author Brandy from The Counseling Teacher Brandy puts it: “Growth mindset is the belief that our abilities are always changing and that we are able to improve with hard work and practice. With this mindset, failures and mistakes become gifts that unlock life lessons, instead of an excuse to quit.”
Ultimately, students’ beliefs about their intelligence and how their brains work have important consequences for how they approach learning and how they respond to challenges. For struggling students, in particular, it can be hard to persevere when the process of learning is difficult and failures seem to mount. Often, they may become pessimistic and lose hope that they’ll ever make progress. Which is why struggling students can benefit greatly from schools that encourage growth mindsets and reinforce the idea that through effort and the use of sound strategies, they can keep growing their skills and knowledge. “It is so easy to give up, give in, and change your course that children today are not reaching their full potential,” says TpT Teacher-Author Diane from One Giggle at a Time. “Lessons that incorporate a growth mindset help children get used to the idea of persevering, sticking with something, and not giving up.”
To help guide school leaders in this area, TpT’s research and editorial team outlined five strategies that your subject area teachers can use to foster a growth mindset in struggling students. They include:
- Removing factors that may cause math anxiety.
- Reflecting on the process by which students overcome difficult reading lessons.
- Teaching students about the science of the brain.
- Discussing examples of historical figures or celebrities who failed, but found success afterward.
- Defining success in the arts in terms of practice and dedication, not talent.
Math is the subject of nightmares for many students, but the reason why might be attributed to a matter of mindset. Many students tend to approach the study of math with a fixed mindset, believing that they are either are or are not a “math person”. However, according to TpT Teacher-Author Stephanie from Math With Miss Yi, having a growth mindset helps students understand that learning math is a process. “I’ve seen that as students move to a new grade each year in math, their confidence may shift as the content becomes more difficult. In 6th grade, they may have understood and mastered a lesson right away. However, in 7th grade, they may need more at-bats with the content before fully mastering it,” she says. “When my students have a growth mindset, they understand that it’s okay that they don’t understand the content yet, but will with more practice.”
| Sample Strategy: Remove factors that may cause math anxiety.
Fear of failure sometimes prevents students from thinking outside the box or trying new ways of solving math problems. “It’s easy for students to get frustrated in math, especially if they struggled in the past,” says TpT Teacher-Author Kate from To the Square Inch. “Facilitating a growth mindset helps students overcome difficulties, see success in math, and work through their math anxiety.” One of the ways to alleviate math anxiety can be to take away the expectation that students will only be graded if they solve the problem. Instead, focus on the process — and their persistence — by giving them a grade for the effort they put into solving the problem.
TpT Teacher-Author Tip
“I work to celebrate growth in the classroom by highlighting students who have shown growth on their exit tickets or on their assessments. This is a great way to remind students that it’s okay if they don’t understand the content the first time we go over it — that the goal is that they are improving daily. Throughout the year, these are the moments I can point back to when they feel frustrated with content. ‘Remember in the beginning of the year when you were struggling with integer operations? Now you have mastered it! This will be the same. You got this!’”— Stephanie from Math With Miss Yi
English Language Arts
For students who are trying and failing to read fluently, it’s easy to lose the stamina and stick-to-it attitude that is characteristic of a growth mindset. This may be because they experience the hard part, but don’t see the growth part.
| Sample Strategy: Confer with students about their process after a reading lesson to help them develop grit.
After a lesson, invite students to reflect on what was difficult about the lesson or the content, and how they faced that difficulty. Reminding students that struggling is part of learning can help them tap into those reserves the next time they feel themselves losing stamina while reading. It can also help them see how they are progressing and growing, despite the challenges they’re facing. Questions like these help focus the discussion around the learning process:
- What was the most challenging part of that lesson?
- What did you do to face that challenge?
- How did you feel at first? How do you feel now?
- Did any previous challenges help you with this one?
- What can you take away from this challenge to help you next time?
Science & Engineering
Because the foundation of Carol Dweck’s research on growth mindset stems from neuroscience, science class can be the ideal pathway to introduce students to the science behind developing a growth mindset. According to TpT Teacher-Author Shira from Shira Teaching Resources, teaching struggling students the concept of neuroplasticity — that is, the ability of the brain to change continuously throughout an individual’s life — helps them overcome a can’t-do-it attitude. “One of the biggest challenges in teaching, especially in middle and upper grades, is the ‘I can’t’ attitude. Often, years of schooling teaches students that they cannot do something,” she says. “By teaching kids the concept of neuroplasticity, you start to eliminate the ‘I can’t’ attitude and open up each student’s world to amazing possibilities.” And it works: multiple studies with thousands of students across the country have found that students who are part of programs that teach about the science of the brain ultimately earn more course credits, get higher grades, and get higher standardized test scores.
| Sample Strategy: Encourage students to think like a scientist or engineer.
Some of history’s most successful scientists and engineers — like Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein — have stayed optimistic, open-minded, and dedicated to improvement, even in the face of failure. “Students who are successful with STEM are the ones that understand how to use their mistakes to improve,” says TpT Teacher-Author Carly from Carly And Adam. This is why she believes that it’s important for STEM educators to focus on the improve and alter phases of the scientific and engineering process. “Students need to know that they will not always get it right on their first try, and even if they are able to create a successful prototype there is always room for improvement.”
TpT Teacher-Author Tip
“Early in the year, I love taking the word ‘challenge’ and discussing that word with my class. Inevitably, someone says something along the lines of ‘something that’s hard.’ I try to shift away from this idea that a challenge is hard to the idea that challenge is an ‘opportunity,’ especially an opportunity to grow! I find it easy to work this into a STEM challenge. There’s no wrong way to go about the problem, students are probably going to face a setback here and there, and the process is so enjoyable that students often don’t worry too much about the ‘hard’ part of the challenge! A debrief after gives students evidence that they just completed an activity that reinforced a growth mindset.”— Lyle from Real Native Learning Resources
The study of history can provide a natural context for lessons on growth mindset. Often, social studies lessons center around individuals, groups, or nations overcoming challenges and being resilient in the face of struggle, which provides struggling students with real-life examples of what can be achieved in the face of adversity.
| Sample Strategies: Teach students about “famous failures.”
Students might be shocked to learn that Michael Jordan did not make it onto his high school baseball team or that Steve Jobs was once fired from Apple or that J. K. Rowling’s idea for the first book in the Harry Potter series was initially rejected by 12 book publishers. Stories like can teach students about mitigating mistakes, and overcoming adversity, all of which are key elements of a growth mindset. By celebrating the journeys and perseverance of famous failures, educators can emphasize that it’s the process, not the product, that counts.
For students of the arts, in particular, learning comes from dedicated practice, taking risks, making mistakes, and applying feedback — all of which are critical to developing a growth mindset. In fact, research done by University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth and author of Grit shows that sustained involvement in an extracurricular activity during high school is one of the most beneficial factors in students’ successful transition to various forms of higher education and work. This makes educators in the arts uniquely positioned to teach students about the concepts of grit and a growth mindset.
Sample Strategy: Define success in terms of practice and dedication, not talent.
For many students of the arts, practice is the key to sustained growth and development. Musicians and dancers with a growth mindset, for instance, believe that their skills are developed through devotion to routine training — whereas those with a fixed mindset believe those skills are due to innate talent. Educators should strive to create a supportive environment that emphasizes effort, practice, and determination over talent. For instance, every time a struggling student says “I can’t,” respond with the word “yet.” This implies that there is a path to understanding and growth, so long as they are willing to make the effort.
TpT Teacher-Author Tip
“I teach several mini-lessons on growth mindset at the beginning of class and I relate it to the work they will do in music. I teach them why practice is so important and why it takes a while to understand new concepts sometimes. They learn about how the first time we learn something is the hardest because the message has to jump from one neuron to another. I then relate this to why playing a song for the first time can be hard. We don’t have the connections in our brains for this song yet. This blending of science, growth mindset, and music helps my students to understand that all subjects are connected and encourages them to keep going even when tasks are challenging.”— Cristina from Nerdy Music Mama
Here are a few resources to help students foster a growth mindset:
- Growth Mindset Activities and Mindfulness Journal Bundle Grades 1-8
- Mistakes Are Part of Learning – Short Story – Classroom Mini Lesson
- Social Story Mistakes
- Growth Mindset Read Aloud STEM Activity Bundle
- Growth Mindset Bundle
Further Reading List
Want to dive deeper into this topic? Here’s a curated reading list of the sources that we cited and referred to while writing this piece.
- Abaziou, Solenne. (2018) “Encouraging Persistence in Math.” Edutopia.
- Bourque, Paula. (2017). “Building Stamina for Struggling Readers and Writers.” Educational Leadership (vol. 7, no. 5).
- Duckworth, Angela. (2016). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Dweck, Carol S. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Penguin Random House.
- Guido, Jennifer. (2016). “From Literature to Science: Should the Subject Affect How a Teacher Incorporates Growth Mindset?” Edutopia.
- Murphy, Shelley (2019). Fostering Mindfulness: Building Skills That Students Need to Manage Their Attention, Emotions, and Behavior in Classrooms and Beyond. Markham, ON: Pembroke Publishers Ltd.
- Parker, Clifton B. (2015). “Cultivating a Growth Mindset in Mathematics.” Stanford Graduate School of Education.
- Romero, Carissa. (2015). “What We Know About Growth Mindset from Scientific Research.” Mindset Scholars Network.
- Yeager, D.S., Hanselman, P., Walton, G.M., et al. (2019). A National Experiment Reveals Where A Growth Mindset Improves Achievement. Nature (573, 364–369).