Growth Mindset for the Elementary Child

As a homeschool parent and part-time technology teacher, I am firmly entrenched in the world of educational pedagogy. Recently, the topic of grit education has been at the forefront of many education discussions.

I am a strong proponent of a growth mindset, and think that it can be a life-changer with regard to attitude and one’s belief in the ability to learn. However, we need to be sure we are using it appropriately for our audience. Often, I have seen it applied solely to school work, whereas I think this is a lifestyle mantra. Elementary-aged kids need to see it in action.

Yes, we can apply it to plowing through school work (and I do a little of that at home), but rather, I want my kids to be encouraged to continue with their dreams and keep working through a problem, knowing that failure may be inevitable, but there might be a resolution out there too. Just because you aren’t good at – math, reading, river dancing – doesn’t mean it will always be that way. I don’t want them to give up on their dreams because it gets too hard. You can get better, but you have to believe that you can.

I’ve talked about it before, but we are a growth mindset family and I try to incorporate the vernacular during the classes that I teach. I only have students for a week or two at a time – not quite long enough to establish a growth mindset classroom – but long enough for students to know that making mistakes can help us learn. When we discover a mistake, we stop and reflect on why it went wrong and how we can change the product. (Sometimes we know the answer…and sometimes we don’t).  I’ve found the following ideas to be helpful when applying the concepts of helping elementary students to begin to develop a growth mindset.

Talk (briefly) about how the brain works
This can be anything from a formal presentation, complete with video examples or just an in-class demonstration and discussion. Use play dough to represent the two parts of their brains and make a new connection, or try magnets as a way to show how once you get it – the connection occurs.  I rarely do that in my camps because my time is limited. Rather, I favor incorporating the language of a “growth mindset” into my teaching. When I see my kids getting frustrated, we identify the feeling and reassure them that it’s normal – that’s just our brains growing and making new connections. It’s supposed to be hard! And, if it’s not, then you need a challenge!

However, my oldest son (the skeptic in our family) was moved by this handout and keeps one by his work space. Whenever we get down on ourselves or get too frustrated, we remind one another about the different types of mindsets. Is this a fixed way of looking at the problem? or is there another way? Parents – expect to say this often with kids. They forget. They get overwhelmed. They need reminders. Over and over and over again.

Our oldest son does not always find written math to be enjoyable. He would rather be building and figuring it out in his head. A few days ago, he said that math didn’t come as easily to him as it does to others, so he’s not good at it. My husband and I reminded him that those people who seem to be good at math are truly interested in it and practice it more often. We then asked him how much attention he gives to math (outside of written work) and he sheepishly acknowledged where his problem might be. The next day, he said he was ready to tackle a little more math each day.

Praise the specific effort
I didn’t learn this in Nurture Shock or Mindset. Instead, I learned it during my Montessori training as this is the language of a Montessori classroom. I still let slip the occasional, “good job,” but I try to find something specific to mention. For art work, it might be, “oh, I like how you used the color yellow.” Or, “Tell me about it” – to hear about the process of how it was created. I might ask, “are you happy with your work or would you like to practice one more time?” “I like how you wrote down information from the problem to help you solve the math problem,” or “I like how you kept trying even though you were frustrated.”

Forgive and learn and try again
Although I have been “living a growth mindset” for a couple of years now, I am far from a master. My Montessori training has helped, but I still make a lot of mistakes. We teachers (and parents) miss cues, have bad days and just plain interpret things incorrectly. In short, we are human. We can learn from our mistakes and it’s important for us to show our kids that we aren’t perfect. We all need reminders and it’s important to remember that life and learning is a process, not an end product.

Help them to realize its importance
I am a huge fan of Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, which talks about how autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the most important motivators for human beings. Although the last one may not readily apply to young children, I do think it’s important that they take responsibility for some of their own learning. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work if our only answer to why someone has to learn something is because “that’s just what it means to be a kid.” Help them to make the connection. Maybe your child wants to be a pilot and so they need to conquer their fear of math. Maybe they want to be a marine biologist, so help them to understand that they need a college degree and will need this “tough” math to get there. (Can you tell that math is a hot button issue for us?) This doesn’t work for all kids, nor for those younger than eight or so, but it can be a powerful tool.

Live the mindset yourself
In your words and in your actions, show your students or your children that you want to have a growth mindset for life. That doesn’t mean tackling everything with gusto, but it does mean accepting that some things might take longer. You can still accomplish that goal, but it might take you longer than the person down the street. That’s okay. Talk about it. Express your frustrations and then outline how you are going to keep going. Help your children to see that the person who is “good at history” might like it better and so they pay more attention to it. It’s not that they are smarter – it’s that they think about it more often, therefore strengthening the connections in their brains.

If you have a chance, please go out and read Dweck’s book or at least some of the research on growth mindset. It’s one of my all time favorite topics.