George Lucas Educational Foundation
Growth Mindset

Helping Struggling Students Build a Growth Mindset

Veteran researchers present five strategies—like maintaining success files and allowing choice—to help struggling students develop a positive attitude needed for success.
A stylized illustration showing students’ minds as they talk to each other
A stylized illustration showing students’ minds as they talk to each other
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As researchers and teacher educators, we have found that a gift many effective educators give struggling students is a practical and optimistic mindset coupled with strategies that help them learn successfully. Over the last two decades, we have supported teachers in teaching students about their brilliant brains and in showing students strategies to support positive outlooks about their learning capabilities.

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Our research aligns well with Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, or acting on the belief that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. In a previous post, we discussed the importance of growth mindset for teachers.

Now we turn to the benefits of helping students who find school difficult maintain a positive mindset as they persist in the sometimes hard work required for learning. When failures mount, it’s easy to give up. A positive mindset focuses on the gains that are possible when students persevere through learning challenges. Here are five strategies to help struggling students develop a growth mindset.

Encouraging Optimism About Learning

This outlook helps struggling students become more motivated, alert, and ready to learn, so that neurotransmitters that enable learning can be released. Many students who have learning challenges become pessimistic about school and lose hope that they can make academic progress. These teaching strategies help reinforce how useful it can be to develop a state of practical optimism:

  • Model practical optimism and point out examples of this approach in action; for example, say, “We knew this would be a tough project, but we stuck with it and worked hard. Just look at what we’ve accomplished!”
  • Share examples of how you have overcome learning obstacles. It’s helpful for struggling students to realize that everyone occasionally faces learning challenges.
  • Share stories that illustrate the benefits of practical optimism.
  • Maintain a positive learning atmosphere by posing questions such as “What was the best thing that happened today?” 

In previous posts, we’ve discussed cultivating practical optimism in the classroom and in schools generally.

Teaching Students to Learn More Effectively

When struggling students learn how to “drive their brains” through the use of cognitive strategies, they’re more likely to be able to learn and think at higher levels. Teachers often tell us they need strategies for helping students learn how to increase their attention. Our post “Strategies for Getting and Keeping the Brain’s Attention” offers tried-and-true strategies to support teachers with this common classroom issue. And Edutopia’s “Resources on Learning and the Brain” features other easy-to-use strategies for assisting students to learn more effectively.

Maintaining Success Files

A success file is a continually updated collection that provides ready evidence to help students internalize and remember their learning successes. Here is one way to use this strategy:

  1. Give every student a folder to use as a success file.
  2. Ask students to write the word success on their file and/or draw a picture that represents success for them.
  3. Every day, when possible, ask students to add to their folders examples of successful learning, such as tasks completed, examples of learning gains, and assignments that support their personal definitions of success.
  4. At the start of each school day or class, remind students to look through their success file. The more students can reconnect to their previous achievements, the more positive their mindsets can become and the more successful they’ll be in the long run.

Using Growth Assessments

Growth assessments is the term we use for formative assessments that help guide student learning and monitor progress. Students with learning challenges benefit when teachers check in often and provide additional instruction and feedback when necessary. Growth assessments help students identify their strengths and areas of weakness that need further practice and reinforcement, and may include class discussions, interviews with individual students, consultations on drafts of work, and observations of how students are applying what they’ve learned. Students may use self-assessments such as journal entries and personal checklists so they can be prompted to monitor their progress. Keeping track of their growth, including learning challenges they have overcome, helps to foster a growth mindset.

Letting Students Choose

When students can choose topics of personal interest to study or make the subject of a learning project, they are more likely to maintain interest and motivation. Giving students choices also underscores that they are in charge of their learning.

One of the greatest thrills for teachers is to see the light bulb switch on for struggling students as they learn something new and internalize the belief that through effort and the use of sound strategies they can keep growing their skills and knowledge.

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About the Author
  • Dr. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers Authors of Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains, Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Professional Developers, & Co-Developers of Graduate Programs Applying Mind, Brain, and Education Science @BrainSMARTU
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Devon Becker's picture

Donna,

I would be interested to know how you would adapt the idea of success files to younger students, such as kindergarteners, who would struggle describing their own successes in word form independently. How would you adapt these growth mindset ideas to meet the skill base of kindergarten students?

Thanks,

Devon

Lori Anderson's picture

Donna,
As I reflect on growth mindsets, I would like to hear your thoughts on how one could incorporate this as a professional development class for classroom teachers. My school is having a flipped in-service day and this would be a great way to inspire them, especially in the winter months prior to state assessments. Educators need to feel successful and appreciated. If they could create their own success files, they may see the benefits and be better prepared to continuously utilize it in their classrooms.
Thank you,
Lori

Vincent Achy's picture

For success ,Attitude is as important as Ability and Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.
Students should come to class prepared and be ready to have a Fun. Teacher also, must motived them first to learn to read
then to read to learn. I think here is a key of a real success.

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Devon,

Here is one of our articles that specifically targets younger children. In the piece we don't talk about growth minder, but rather support teachers to get right into helping students learn to drive their brains, or in other words, learn how to learn ever more independently.

https://www.edutopia.org/article/simple-ways-to-help-young-kids-develop-...

In another article [https://www.edutopia.org/blog/parental-support-for-smarter-thinking-donn..., we offer suggestions for teachers who want to help parents to grow their young children's learning and thinking.

I hope you find these pieces helpful in terms of your question. If you want a book, you will find our book, Flourishing in the First Five Years, for sale both new and used online.

Sincerely, Donna

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Dear Lori,

I think that you have a good idea and am glad you plan to reference our work in your professional development!!! We have worked with over 160,000 teachers in live workshops and have found that our strategies are often used each day in classrooms of effective teachers. If you have not already checked out the following resource, you might want to check out others of our blogs here [or by searching the Edutopia site for both Donna Wilson PhD and Dr. Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers ...

https://www.edutopia.org/article/brain-based-learning-resources

In this learning resources paper you'll find other resources from us and others. Most all of our work here and elsewhere includes strategies that are research-based and practical for teachers who want to teach growth mindsets, or as we say 'positive mindsets' for learning.. If you'd like to see a book along the same lines, you might enjoy our most recently published book, Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains: Metacognitive Strategies, Activities, and Lesson Ideas [ASCD, 2016].

Sincerely, Donna

PS on my blog there are other articles of ours as well as those we've published here at Edutopia. You can find it at Donna Wilson Ph.D. Blogspot.

Christina Price's picture

I think everyone should work on having a Growth Mindset. I agree that encouraging optimism about learning will help students become more motivated to learn. Sharing personal examples of overcoming obstacles is helpful, as well as, sharing examples of famous successful people who struggled at first. Students may be surprised to find out that people like Walt Disney, J.K. Rowling, Steven Spielberg, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, and Dr. Seuss struggled at first.
I love your idea of "Success Files" for students to reflect on their own successes. I think it'd be a fun idea to end the week by having everyone share their favorite success with the class on Friday afternoons. Thank you for this inspiring post.

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Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Christina,

I like your idea for sharing some inspiring biographical information about people students will know or can learn more about who struggled with learning! And, your tweak to the 'Success Files' strategy is a nice one. That would end the week on a high note!

All the best!

Sincerely,

Donna

Lori L.'s picture

Success Files can create a positive mindset for all students! Involving all students in the process of reflecting on their best learning moments in the classroom can provide a sense of purpose and pride that can reinforce the actual learning. I'm starting these immediately!

Donna Wilson, Ph.D.'s picture
Donna Wilson, Ph.D.
Author of Positively Smarter, Smarter Teacher Leadership, Developer of Graduate Programs in Brain-Based Teaching, and Professional Developer

Hi Lori,

Great! Please share your implementation stories with us when you implement.

All the best!

Sincerely, Donna

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