Administration & Leadership

A Schoolwide Approach to Fostering a Growth Mindset

An elementary school principal shares how she guides her staff to foster a growth mindset in students across every grade.

August 7, 2023
Courtesy of Jennifer Nix
René Harris, principal of Beech Hill Elementary School in South Carolina

Carol Dweck’s conception of fixed and growth mindsets has become a staple in education. A fixed mindset leads a learner to believe that intelligence is an inborn trait: They’re either good or bad at math, for example, and that’s just the way it is. A growth mindset, in contrast, involves viewing learning as an ever-evolving process and competency as a continuum along which expertise is made possible through practice.

Dweck‘s research has shown that growth mindset can translate into measurable improvements in achievement, and that it can be cultivated through word choices, assignment frames, and teacher-modeled thought patterns.

But as with many ideas in education, Dweck’s findings sometimes end up tacked on in occasional classroom activities instead of being integrated throughout daily work. To avoid that pitfall, René Harris, principal of Beech Hill Elementary School in South Carolina, guides her staff to center growth mindset in all elements of school culture—from assemblies to direct instruction to professional learning across grade levels.

I spoke with Harris, named a National Distinguished Principal in 2022 by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, to gain deeper insight into how she guides this work at Beech Hill, a public elementary school serving just over 1,000 students. 

BRITTANY COLLINS: How would you describe the culture of your school?

RENE HARRIS: We say to students, “This is your place, this is your home, you own it—good, bad, or ugly—and it’s all about making it better. You’re in the driver’s seat.” They truly embrace that.

Students schedule appointments to see me during their lunch hour or their recess time. I feel like, if a topic is important enough for them to sacrifice some of their time, then it's important for me to make sure they’re heard. They'll have an idea they want to pitch. Sometimes it’s not going to work—like Jell-O in the pool when we don’t even have a pool. But my goal is always to see how we can work toward the heart of the idea so they know their ideas can come to fruition.

The culture is, “It’s really cool to be here.” That message makes it important that we have everyone’s voice and perspective in the house. Students want the school to do well. They think it’s really cool to study, to do your best. I attribute that to the growth mindset.

COLLINS: I know that growth mindset is important to you and your staff. How did that start?

HARRIS: A school counselor was getting calls from parents who knew their children had great potential academically, but seemed unmotivated to really push themselves.

The counselor started doing research and came upon Carol Dweck’s work, and she said this was something we needed to explore. It snowballed—and is now the way we do business: For every event that we have, the last thing on the checklist is, “Let’s reflect: How could it be better? What will we do next time?” And that is because when growth mindset is ingrained in your culture and school, it's not about “Let's have growth mindset time,” it's just naturally there. It‘s organic and a part of the way we do business every day.

Teachers have those same conversations. That reflection really helped our kids see that it’s OK to fail. A lot of kindergartners and first graders will say, “I can’t read,” and then they’ll say, “yet!” Sometimes they get excited and say, “I really messed this up. I can’t wait. I know I’m going to grow.” They view challenges in a more positive light.

COLLINS: Are there other activities you use to encourage students’ growth?

HARRIS: A group of teacher leaders visited a middle school academy. I said, “I’m not asking you to replicate that school. That school is that school. I want you to look at the possibility of what happens when you go there, when you expand your thoughts. And when you come back, we’ll debrief—you’ll tell me what you saw, tell me what you think.” 

One teacher came back and was quiet during the debriefing. He was the last to share, and he said, “I had lunch with a group of students.” I’m thinking, “I sent you there. It’s an arm and a leg to go. People are talking about curriculum, they’re talking about instruction, and you’re going to tell me about lunch?”

Then he said, “I spoke to a child named Susie, and our conversation was so rich. I want our children to be able to converse with that level of substance and the confidence that they can do anything.” I said, “OK, what’s that going to look like?”

Now, four years later, we have something called “Shake and Shine.” From the beginning of fifth grade, students learn about what a handshake looks like, how to greet someone, how to engage in conversations beyond, “How’s the weather?” Administrators have working lunches with every fifth grader. It’s so powerful to sit with 10 at a time every Friday and spend quality time. Not talking about grades, just having real conversations, with no devices. We also bring in the community. We have people from the news, civic areas, service organizations, high school students. They all converge here. We find that kids have a level of confidence that is unusual going into middle school as a result.

COLLINS: I appreciate how intentional you are about relationship-building and tying that into your growth mindset work as well. How else do you and your staff guide students to forge strong connections in and beyond the classroom?

HARRIS:  We noticed we had a lot of kids in clubs, but it was the same kids in chorus, photography, and so on. We wanted to do something about that. So we have in-school clubs twice a month on release days, Wednesdays, in our district—we have an early release day on Wednesdays. The kids get excited about it, not because they’re going home early, but because that’s the day we have clubs.  Kindergarten moves within their little group, and anyone past second grade can go to any grade-level club.

I encourage teachers to find something they’re passionate about: yoga, step, design, “Who Done It?” club. Kids get to select their top four choices, and we find that nobody misbehaves because everybody wants to go to their club.

Students may be traveling to another grade level, so they’re making a connection with a teacher they haven’t had yet, or they had two years before. And they’re finding a group of kids in a very large village. They have an affinity. They make connections. It’s an hour out of instructional time, and we thought it would make a negative difference in achievement, but we have not missed a beat.

COLLINS: Is there a teacher or school leader who inspired your journey?

HARRIS: In seventh grade, the law in our state required integration. The caveat was “with deliberate speed,” and in some areas, like where I'm from—Mobile, Alabama—that deliberate speed took on its own timetable. By the time it came into action, we were required midyear to move schools.

So in seventh grade, I went, in January, to a brand-new school. I got sent to the office for disciplinary infractions every single day for the first week I was at that school. I was miserable. I felt misunderstood. It was probably one of the lowest points in my school experience. The next year, my parents decided that was not the best environment for me and that I would go to school with my aunt, a biology teacher at one of the middle schools that had a great reputation.

But there was one thing they had failed to mention about the school: There were 812 kids at the school, and of the 812 kids, six of them were Black. Sixth grade had four African-American students, none in seventh grade, and two in eighth grade, one boy and one girl—and that girl was me.

The English language arts teacher was doing Huck Finn, and everybody had to have a part. Some of the boys were snickering and saying, “You’re gonna have to be Jim.” They thought that was very funny and thought it was OK to make these assumptions and connections, and I was embarrassed. I was hurt. But I didn’t let on. 

My teacher must have picked up on the vibe of the room, and she meticulously—when we talk about instruction and how powerful lessons can be, this is an example—spent the next weeks painting a picture of Jim that made him the hero in so many ways: insightful, intelligent, intuitive. Jim became the most lauded and sought-after character, and I always think about my teacher’s opportunity to really see each kid in the moment. She didn’t call anybody out. Now that I’m an adult, I realize that so much of what children bring to the classroom is not always about them, or about some hidden agenda—it’s about whatever has happened before they get to us.

But to this day, I’ve never lost sight of how powerful that was, and I’m so grateful. I’m trying to make that same impact possible for kids.

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