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Cultivating a Growth Mindset in Students and Myself

Social and emotional learning is a significant focus in contemporary education, and one crucial dimension of this is cultivating a growth mindset. The concept comes from Dr. Carol Dweck, who compares growth mindsets to fixed mindsets. When a person has a growth mindset, they believe they can develop strengths with time, effort, strategies, and assistance from others. When a person has a fixed mindset, they believe that talents are innate and cannot be changed. A fixed mindset tends to see people as either “smart” or “dumb,” “good at” or “bad at.” A fixed mindset leads people to give up easily when they don’t know how to do something. It is very easy for children and teens with learning differences to get stuck in a fixed mindset as they are struggling with skills that are not as difficult for many of their peers. In truth, all of us have both growth and fixed mindsets and can move between the two several times a day.

Cultivating a growth mindset is best reviewed multiple times over many years, and there are appropriate materials for every age. For the younger kids, you can read such classic books as The Little Engine that Could. Dolly Parton has a philanthropy called Dolly’s Imagination Library, which is somewhat like the Masonic philanthropy Raising a Reader. She provides thousands of free books to young children and makes videos of herself reading them. There is a video of her reading The Little Engine that Could, and she wrote a song based on the book called I Believe in You. There are some fun Sesame Street videos containing growth mindset songs with pop stars( Don’t Give Up with Bruno Mars and The Power of Yet with Janelle Monae). The film Zootopia has the famous growth mindset song, Try Everything, sung by Shakira.

The following is a poem by a fifth-grade student with dyslexia, based on our study of what growth mindset means.

Growth Mindset

By Roberto

A growth mindset is the mindset of a learner

Who never gives up even when things are hard

When someone has a growth mindset

And doesn’t know how to do something

They tell themselves they don’t know how to YET

They know that they learn from making mistakes

And that the brain is like a muscle

That grows when we make mistakes

The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset

People with fixed mindsets think they already know everything

Or that they are stupid and won’t get better

So don’t care

Everyone has both growth and fixed mindsets

Sometimes Roberto has a fixed mindset about dyslexia

Sometimes Jim has a fixed mindset about math

Roberto has a growth mindset about both math and sports

Roberto has both growth and fixed mindsets about video games

If we find ourselves in a fixed mindset

We may have to take and break and rest

Before we can get into a growth mindset again

Michael Jordan had a growth mindset about basketball

He didn’t make his high school team, missed 900 shots, and lost 300 games

But he went on to become one of the best basketball players in the world

He never gave up!

It is sometimes easier for me to coach others around having a growth mindset than it is to have one myself. Once material is in our automatic memories, it seems easy to us. Most of what I teach to kids and teens is something I already know. But, when I work on things that are challenging for me( working on constructing a website, writing a book proposal for a book I’ve written and seek to publish, etc.), I observe myself becoming quickly frustrated and wanting to give up. I remind myself that the brain builds new neuronal connections by making mistakes and then figuring out how to correct those mistakes. I use these personal experiences as a way to cultivate empathy for the young people I serve.

I believe that cultivating a growth mindset is best done in conjunction with other learning and coaching methods. Sometimes people take it to the extreme and think that you can do anything you want if you just try hard enough. This can be misleading because we all have natural strengths and weaknesses. Many learning differences, including dyslexia, ADHD, and autism, don’t go away no matter how much intervention people receive. Reading will always be challenging for some people, and for them it may be most efficient to learn new material through audiobooks or other modalities.

Growth mindset work is best seen as a way of understanding that you can get better at anything if you put time and effort into it. It’s best balanced with taking brain breaks, cultivating emotional and somatic awareness so students know when they need to exercise or rest before they can get into a learning readiness state. I am sometimes guilty myself of working too hard when I need rest, and our culture encourages this. This is particularly difficult for kids with learning differences because of all the extra effort and energy they have to put into learning. We don’t want to use a growth mindset as an excuse to overwork young people. If we use the simile of the brain being like a muscle, our muscles know when it is time to stop lifting heavy weights because they simply can’t do it, but this is not as obvious to our brains.

It’s also essential to work with people to help people discover their natural strengths and how they can be useful in choosing a career. The growth mindset model is best used in conjunction with Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence model, which acknowledges that humans have many different forms of intelligence. Whereas school usually emphasizes being “word smart” and “math smart,” there are many other intelligences, including “self smart,” “people smart,” visual intelligence, and musical intelligence. We all have unique gifts and the capacity to develop a growth mindset regarding skills that are challenging for us. It is my hope that by combining the two, all of the children we serve will find their niche in the world.


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