6 ways to teach growth mindset from day one of school

Imagine if your new class this fall was full of students who would:

  • Be willing to try new things
  • Stick with hard tasks and not give up
  • Push themselves to do their best work, not just what’s “good enough”
  • Believe in themselves and their own ability to learn

Here’s the great news–these are traits that we can help develop in our students by teaching them about how their brains work.

Many students enter our classrooms believing they’re either smart or not smart, good at reading or math, or not good in those areas. This belief that our basic qualities like intelligence and talents can’t be changed is called a fixed mindset. Often our students figure: Why bother trying at something that’s hard for me? I’m not naturally good at it, and I can’t really do anything about that. 

Our students may not realize that their brains have the ability to change and grow through their experiences (neuroplasticity). Students need us to teach them that the human brain is like a muscle that can be trained through repetition and practice. When students realize this, they develop a growth mindset: the belief that abilities can be developed through commitment and hard work.

And once they have a growth mindset, they can learn anything.

Because a growth mindset is a critical element of success in school, I recommend teaching about it from the very first day. Here are 6 ways to do that:

Back to school tips for teaching growth mindset

1. As you teach classroom routines, explain how they are designed to benefit kids’ brains.

For example, when you teach students how to do collaborative learning activities, tell them that talking about what they’ve learned helps them own and process the information better, and grows more dendrites. When you teach water fountain procedures, let kids know that their brains need hydration in order to function well, and remind students of the benefits of drinking water.

2. When kids don’t follow the procedures you’ve taught, respond in casual ways that help them rebound.

When we overreact to mistakes or get frustrated with students’ inability to internalize classroom routines right away, we undermine our message that learning is a process and failure is a natural part of that process. Make it your goal to respond to students’ mistakes with patience and nonchalance. Remind students: Each time you practice this routine, your brain is getting stronger, and it will be easier for you to do it the next time. When kids forget what to do, let your tone and facial expression communicate: Mistakes don’t upset me. We can fix this, and fixing it together will make us both smarter.

3. Get student input on creating helpful classroom displays that reinforce learning.

You don’t have to start the school year with a perfectly decorated classroom–leave space for students to create and suggest displays! During the first few weeks of school, find out what students would like to have as a reference in the classroom to help them maintain a growth mindset and take ownership of their learning. Would students like to make an anchor chart with strategies they can use when they get stuck? Do they want to display growth mindset vocabulary words and definitions so they can try to use them in their conversations? Or maybe they’d like to display some of their reflections about or strategies for learning to help other kids in the class?

4.  Use specific feedback and helpful vocabulary that guides students to identify how they achieved success.

We give tons of positive feedback and praise as students first start learning the expectations for the new grade level, but we don’t always point out the character traits students demonstrated in order to experience that success. Integrate growth mindset vocabulary into your daily routines, and continually point out when students demonstrate those qualities. You might say, “This was hard for you, but you persevered, and now you’ve almost got it!” or “You had a setback when your strategy didn’t work, but you found resources to help you. You showed a lot of resilience, and it paid off!” You may even want to end the school day on a daily basis by having students turn and share ways they have shown grit that day (or struggled to show grit, and brainstorm strategies for doing better tomorrow.)

5. Model growth mindset so kids can see it in action.

Show students how to respond constructively to setbacks and failures. Let kids see how you brainstorm solutions and different strategies to try when a piece of technology doesn’t work, you can’t find something you need, or a surprise fire drill prevents kids from finishing a task. Allow students see that you are willing to learn and try new things, even when they are hard for you, and be honest when you try things in the classroom that are out of your comfort zone. Let students see that learning new things, taking on challenges, and rebounding after making mistakes are all a natural part of life and help train your brain to grow stronger over time.

6. Start formally teaching kids about growth mindset / neuroplasticity through books, apps, and other resources.

Two of the best children’s books on growth mindset are Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by Dr. JoAnn Deak and Making a Splash: A Growth Mindset Children’s Book by Carol E. Reiley. There is a $4.99 app for “Your Fantastic Elastic Brain” which includes an eBook version of the book along with interactive features. Or, you might want to try the $2.99 Brain Jump app for iPad and iPhone. I also like the free online brain songs provided by the University of Washington.

Growth Mindset Unit: 10 complete lessons, interactive journal for students, growth mindset bulletin board, and printable posters.

Want more structured support? I’ve created a complete 10 lesson unit with teacher’s guide, bulletin board set, printable posters, and a 20 page interactive student journal to provide everything you need for teaching your students about growth mindset. Designed for grades 3-5, this unit is highly flexible, and can be taught in any timeframe you’d like (I recommend one lesson per week during the first month of school, with the remaining six lessons spread out through fall and winter.)

Once you print the materials, your prep work is done and the teacher’s guide walks you step-by-step through each activity. However, the tasks are open-ended and adaptable so you can be responsive to your students’ needs and adjust things easily as you go.

How are you teaching students to have a growth mindset?

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Cathy July 26, 2015 at 5:16 pm

Thank you for this post. I plan to start teaching growth mindset the first week of school and this post is full of great resources.

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2 Angela Watson July 27, 2015 at 12:09 pm

Awesome! I’m so glad it was helpful. I know you’re going to see some great results with your students–kids love to learn about how their brain works, and it’s so empowering for them to learn that they can train their brains.

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3 Bianca July 27, 2015 at 9:18 pm

I put the wrong name on my Pinterest account for your giveaway, it’s biancadi . I was already following your TPT, but was somehow unaware of your Pinterest. Thank you for sharing, and your constant reminders to be positive. I have your first book and loved it.

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4 Angela Watson July 27, 2015 at 10:59 pm

Thanks for following up, Bianca, and for entering! I’m so glad you enjoyed The Cornerstone. :)

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5 Fleur July 28, 2015 at 12:19 am

Thank you for posting this! I just read about Whole Brain Teaching, and this is just what I need to help students learn about their brain! :)

And I know your post is early for you, but here in Phoenix, we start school on August 2. So for me, this came at the perfect time.

Have a great rest of your summer!

Fleur

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6 Angela Watson July 28, 2015 at 8:28 am

Hi, FLuer! Glad this post was timely for you. August 2nd–boy, thats an early start! I used to teach in Florida and we started the second week of August. I thought that was early!

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7 Terri July 29, 2015 at 10:10 am

I teach 2nd grade but entered anyway! I’m always looking for new ways to reach my kiddos!

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8 Angela Watson July 29, 2015 at 10:25 am

Hi, Terri! Most of the tips span lots of grade levels–it’s definitely worth your time to check out the other blogs (and enter the giveaways there!)

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9 Candace Alstad Davies July 29, 2015 at 10:42 am

Excellent post with lots of valuable information. Having a positive mindset is so critical to having a great experience. Thanks for sharing!

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10 Cassie S July 29, 2015 at 11:55 am

Loving this resource! I’ve been following your podcasts as I had a really rough year last year and your talks really helped me get into a better mindset. Can’t wait to try this with my new group in my new school! Thanks for being a great inspiration!

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11 Emma July 29, 2015 at 10:04 pm

Great idea for a post! I’ve heard so much about the importance of a growth mindset. It’s nice to see some practical ways to teach it. Thanks!

My Bright Blue House

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12 Kathy July 31, 2015 at 7:54 am

Loved your post regarding mindset.

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13 Winston Sieck July 31, 2015 at 5:02 pm

This is great stuff, Angela. I saw a presentation at the latest American Ed Research Assoc Conference that compared a whole bunch of ways to motivate students. Teaching a growth mindset was one of the top methods. And teachers really make a difference in how students think about intelligence. The study I blogged about found that students actually gravitated more towards a fixed view as they progressed through school. Teaching a growth mindset works to change their views – and improve motivation and persistence.

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14 Debbie August 1, 2015 at 9:39 pm

I just returned from an amazing experience at the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy. One of the highlights was meeting and listening to Cathy Seeley who had a lot of great things to say about teaching math to children. She was very passionate about growth mindset and I realized that there’s a huge opportunity to teach my kids about growth mindset. So many students come in telling me they’re not good at math, not smart, and seem to have given up already, and it’s only 5th grade! I can’t wait to try your Growth Mindset unit! Thanks for the post!

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15 Cindy August 4, 2015 at 11:37 am

Am very interested and have reviewed the preview, but since the the lessons and activities are designed for students in grades 2-5, would they work with 6th graders in a middle school setting?
Thank you.

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16 RandomStudent August 6, 2015 at 12:45 am

I am just a bored student looking around for tips for highschool, and somehow i run into this website , im planning to be a teacher some day and this is really good tips… Your good.

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17 RandomStudent August 6, 2015 at 12:46 am

I am just a bored student looking around for tips for high school , and somehow i run into this website , i’m planning to be a teacher some day and this is really good tips… Your good. Seriously though.

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18 Tim Vanda August 10, 2015 at 11:19 am

Simple concept with real results – train the brain

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19 Cecilia August 25, 2015 at 3:35 am

Thank you so much for the material on growth mindset! I work in Sweden and I´m going to start working with the material together with my teenage students with autism spectrum disorders. Is ok if I translate muck of the content to swedish?

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20 Belinda Buhrig August 25, 2015 at 12:38 pm

Learning is a life long experience!!! A growth mindset aides in learning.

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21 Trisha Huffhines September 13, 2015 at 1:13 am

This blog will be helpful for me as a grandmother suddenly raising her 8 y/o granddaughter. My husband & I have found ourselves practically starting over with a young child in our household, and I want to be able to encourage my granddaughter to embrace learning and knowledge and to not fear challenges. I wish I had seen this when my kids were young.

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22 Angela Watson September 13, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Bless you as you start this new journey! So glad the post was helpful.

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23 Sandy Lorance September 17, 2015 at 6:03 pm

I appreciate the whole concept of teaching the students why they are learning and the connection to their brain. My students find so much more value in what they are learning as they begin to understand the why and how of it. Thank you, very interesting article.

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24 TupperwareMomma August 1, 2016 at 10:39 pm

I just purchased the pre prepped pack and used the code and it did not give me 28% off as stated :(

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25 Angela Watson August 2, 2016 at 8:24 am

No problem–just open a support ticket with TeachersPayTeachers and ask them to credit your account. :)

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26 gretta williams August 2, 2016 at 11:55 am

Thank you for this practical and valuable resource. It is so affirming to see how the teacher practices you are prescribing fit so easily in my middle school or elementary instrumental music classroom….actually, in any well-managed classroom. I am grateful for this.

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27 Erin m August 4, 2016 at 2:14 pm

Any ideas of how to use this insightful strategy effectively in middle school? Do not want to ” baby” 7th graders, but I feel we all would benefit from being taught that way.

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28 Karen Smith August 10, 2016 at 3:51 am

Hi. Love this and would like to build it at school but I’m in UK year1. Any tips for introducing growth mindset to very young children? I have previously used books like my beautiful oops.
Thank you!

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