Simple Strategies for Developing a Growth Mindset in Your Students

Brain Based Strategy

One of my favorite trainings to deliver to all schools, but especially schools that are dealing with high-poverty students, is my Growth Mindset workshop.  Dr. Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, says that a growth mindset is the foundation of wanting challenge, persevering through the challenge, and desiring long-term growth and success.  A mindset is a paradigm, belief system, attitude, and/or set of biases about how intelligence and learning affect a person.  Dr. Dweck summarized the differences between a fixed mindset and the growth mindset and how they affect actions:

  • “In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb.”
  • “In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.” (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck, 2007)

These two mindsets lead to different action among the beholders.  For example, a student with a fixed mindset, might want to only try “safe” word problems since the fear of mistakes or looking “not smart” would be on his/her mind.  A student with a fixed mindset might also say things like, “I just don’t have the math gene and never will.  That is just how I was born.”  The growth mindset student most likely will want to try new word problem and new strategies since he/she knows that growth and new opportunities would arise.  This student might believe that math is difficult, but knows that if enough time, effort and assistance from a teacher are present, he/she can do well in that class and understand math.  Growth mindset students take more risks and tend to have more positive outlooks on learning, life and mistakes.

If teachers want to encourage this latter mindset in their classrooms, they will need to model it and use these powerful 15 strategies in this article.  You’ve heard the saying:  “Actions speak louder than words.”  You can talk all you want, but you must walk the walk and model a growth mindset.  What does a growth mindset look like in teachers?

  • They are willing to try skills that they failed with at first. They see failure and setbacks as an indication that they should continue to develop those skills.  They attend professional development opportunities, read books, research, and ask questions about the areas that they want to improve upon in their daily teaching practices.
  • They want to learn more through feedback from others. Rather than get upset about classroom walk-throughs and evaluations, they welcome these opportunities so they can improve their instruction.  The value feedback.
  • They give feedback to students on a regular basis about their attitudes, strategies, and efforts put forth in the classroom.
  • They love data to help them respond better and smarter to student growth. They want their students to be challenged and reach their goals, so they share the data with the students and help create goals to achieve the high standards.
  • They find inspiration in the success of others rather than feel threatened. They encourage and praise fellow colleagues to accomplish their goals.
  • They focus on improvement instead of worrying about their intelligence or how they are perceived by others. They set goals and assess how they did with those goals on a regular basis.
  • They believe they can get better with effort and believe their students can accomplish great things with time, effort and the right strategies.

When teachers model a growth mindset in their classroom, the environment and culture will show it.  Students will start to adopt it as well, which is the ultimate goal.  Below are 15 top tools that teachers can use to help teach students adopt the growth mindset.

1) Constructive criticism shows that you believe the students can do more – to put forth more effort. Feedback should move the student forward toward excellence with the criteria for the assignment/learning targets.  Show students the criteria for success for each assignment and give them feedback on where they are with each criterion (or have them self-evaluate, peer evaluate).  There is a fine balance of praise and yet “the next step” to make the work better.  Give them the time to respond to the corrective feedback too so they can show the evidence of their learning.  One research study found that students (grades 5-9) who had teachers that delivered constructive criticism (not mean or destructive), their work was higher quality and they felt more competent and confident in math than the students where criticism was withheld. (Ryan, 1995).

2) Share your struggles. Students and teachers should share the concepts or processes that made them put forth more effort, that were confusing, or that caused angst.  What concepts were challenging to understand?  What steps in the process caused concern?  How did they respond to the confusions?  What made them persevere?  Model the strategies that help you through struggles, and support your students when they struggle with questions, tools of self-evaluation, more examples, modeling, and other great teaching tools to show support.

3) Praise their efforts, strategies that they used, and their positive, “I Can” attitudes. Tell students ahead of time:  “This is going to be exceptionally difficult and will take time and effort, but you have the tools to be successful.”  Don’t ever praise their ability or any personal attributes because Carol Dweck’s research says that it can harm motivation and performance in the long-term.  Other areas in life to praise/give feedback toward that are growth mindset enhancing:  students’ practice, research, persistence, evaluations, making improvements, accomplishment of goals, etc.

4) Question the path taken or the effort they put forth. Was that the best strategy to use?  How could you do this assignment or test better next time?  What study strategies should you have used?  Which ones worked?  Didn’t work?  What parts can you redo and what will you do differently?  Encourage students to study exemplars and self-evaluate where their work is with this criteria.

5) Grade in a way that gives them hope and an opportunity to retry. A team of neuroscientists measured the electrical activity in students’ brains following mistakes they made on a computer test.  Fixed mindset students showed very little mental activity after their mistake.  In other words, they weren’t taking the time or effort to think how they can correct, improve or fix that mistake.  The growth mindset students’ brains lit up with activity as they thought about why the mistake was made, understand the mistake and how to correct this mistake.  They had some hope of figuring out this mistake and learn from it. (Moser et al, 2011).  Do you have a “Retake or Redo” policy in place in your school? (Great article:  Do you take the time to reteach concepts that students do not master?  Do you have the words “Not Yet” posted on the walls of your classroom?

6) Model strong work ethic. Do you give back graded papers or feedback when you say you will (in a timely fashion)?  Are you fully prepared for your school day when they walk in the classroom?  Are you greeting them at the door?  Do they see you setting goals and working toward reaching them?

7) Positive Affirmations Everywhere! Make sure your classroom visually displays hope, effort, hard work, and high standards.  Do you have examples of exemplar work on the walls of your classroom?  Do you have positive quotes of hope around your room?  Do you play inspirational music in your classroom?  Are you the CIO (Chief Inspirational Officer) of your classroom?

8) No more ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts). Dr. Daniel Amen explains this term in more depth in his book, Good Brain, Great Brain. Don’t allow negative words or phrases in the classroom.  You could even put an anchor chart up that shows the top ANT statements and ways to change them to make them a growth mindset statement.  For example:

“I’m not good at this.”  CHANGED TO  “What do I need to improve this?”

“It’s good enough.” CHANGED TO  “Is this my best work?”

“I just made a big mistake.” CHANGED TO  “Mistakes help me to learn.”

“My friend is much better at this than I am.”  CHANGED TO  “I can learn from my friend how to get better at this.”

Dr. Daniel Amen recommends that whenever ANTs infest the brain and make you feel upset, mad, stressed, or depressed, then one should write out those feelings.  He said, “The act of writing down the ANTs takes away their power by turning off their emotional food supply and eventually choking the life out of them, allowing you to replace them with more helpful thoughts.  Kill the ANTs, change your brain.”  Every time you have a thought, neurotransmitters are released in to the brain (chemicals).  When you have positive, happy, hopeful, grateful thoughts, your brain releases chemicals that make you feel better (endorphins, serotonin, dopamine are just a few).  Whenever you think negatively, chemicals and/or hormones are released to most likely put you into an emotional slump.

9) High expectations for all students but differentiated strategies to get them there. Remember because our brains are different, we will help students to our high standards in different ways on different days.  Pygmalion Effect (Rosenthal and Jacobsen, 1968) – the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they performed. Our expectations of students affect how they will work in our classrooms.  High expectations mean that you know they can do it – they infer that as well.

10) Provide opportunities of choice based on their interests and learning preferences. Autonomy and choice are big motivators says Daniel Pink, motivational expert and author of Drive.  When students have choices based on what they prefer, you should see natural intrinsic motivation and perseverance excel.

11) Teach Them: When the learning gets difficult, do the following…  Ideas for dealing with challenge:

  • Tell yourself that with time, effort, feedback and help, you can get this!
  • Don’t worry – schedule time to dive deeply into it. Create a plan to tackle it piece by piece.
  • Reread the learning target and success criteria to ensure you know what it really means. Look at the provided exemplar or ask to see one.
  • Ask questions to fellow peers or teacher.
  • Use resources to help you understand the challenge better (anchor charts, word walls, technology, websites, books, other students, etc.).

12) Provide opportunities for students to try new strategies
, resources, games, skills, books, etc. Perfectionists or fixed mindset folks are often “risk evaders” since in the event they find they are not effortlessly good at it, they might avoid trying the new tasks.  Remind students that it takes time and effort to get good at new tasks.

13) Celebrate mistakes! Yahoo – I goofed.  Remind them that through errors, we learn, improve and grow.  Embrace your own mistakes in front of the students!

14) Teach them about their brains! Explain brain plasticity to them so they realize that what they do can improve or harm their brain.  Different environments, how much we enrich our learning experiences, and even the food that we eat can enhance or damage the brain.  Great books:  It’s All In Your Head (Grades 6-12) and Simon Seymour’s Brain book.  Website:  Neuroscience for Kids:  Carol Dweck and her colleagues created a curriculum to help you teach growth mindsets:  www.brainology

15) Help students understand that “change” is just part of life. It’s normal and makes us stronger.  Teach this at every golden opportunity.  If you want to learn more and change your whole school’s  mindset, then I recommend the book:  Mindsets in the Classroom (Mary Cay Ricci, 2013).


Blackwell, L., Trzesniewski, K., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246–263.

Dweck, Carol. S. (September 2010).  Giving Students Meaningful Work. Educational Leadership, Volume 68, Number 1, 16-20.

Moser et al,. (2011). “Mind Your Errors: Evidence for a Neural Mechanism Linking Growth Mind-Set to Adaptive Posterror Adjustments” Psychological Science

Rosenthal, R, and L. Jacobsen. Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968

Ryan, Richard (April 14, 1995).  Interview with this author by:  Deborah Stipek and Kathy Seal (Motivated Minds:  Raising Children to Love Learning.  NY, NY:  Henry Holt and Company.

Carol S. Dweck is the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House, 2006)

Author: LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed. is the author of 11 books focused on teaching strategies: Deeper Learning (2008) and Bringing the Common Core to Life (2014) are the more recent books. LeAnn specializes in cognitive science in education by using the best tools to reach every student. LeAnn is passionate about schools becoming more empathy-centered. You can contact her: or visit her website:


  1. Lee Ann:
    I have seen you several times at different Eric Jensen workshops and this article on Dr. Carol Dweck’s work on Mindsets is something every bilingual school in my city is working on. The elementary director of our school attended last year’s meeting the Character Counts seminar and received training on growth mindsets; she gave us a workshop on what she learned and everybody was interested in the topic because ir provides new understandings on how to improve the “I CAN” model. All the strategies that you talk about in this article are very helpful.
    I would love to translate this article to spanish and publish it in our school’s magazine, named ROCHESTEM, because it will be ground breaking for the teacher’s community and to our parents at school. If you give the permission to do that, it will be published at the end of may, next semester.
    Thanks a lot!
    Iliana Aljure

  2. What a powerful presentation and content! Thank you! I too present on mindsets and have a specific approach that I like to share with teachers who work in the area of literacy. I have continued this topic with an article found at

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