Last month, we gave you an insight into the work and research of Carol Dweck and her ‘growth and fixed mindsets’ and how they influence some outcomes that children can achieve. But what do the theories mean in practice and how can you promote a growth mindset in the children in your setting? In this article, we look at some practical strategies.
Firstly, we have to make the distinction between 3 sets of people whose mindset may influence that of children. These could be:
- Parents and/or carers
Research shows that changing the mindset of teachers/practitioners can improve outcomes in students over time1 and Dweck is involved in ongoing research aimed at changing a whole community’s mindset which has reported initial successes2. More research is needed on the impact of parental mindset and it is difficult for early years settings to have a major influence over this. Finally, we have the mindset of the children themselves. However, as early years practitioners, we can take the information available about training practitioners and start there.
Train your staff in the theories and practices
The first step is to make your staff aware of the issues involved so that they can understand what you are trying to achieve and why. They will need to understand (and accept) the idea that:
- There is a difference between a fixed and a growth mindset and these have an impact on children’s motivation, engagement and outcomes
- What they say and do as practitioners makes a difference
- They can change what they do to improve their own outcomes, and that of the children they look after
- All children can make progress
You may face resistance from some staff, but that will only highlight fixed mindsets within the staff that need to change. Examples of this might be a staff member who feels they are “too old to learn new ways” or one who is adamant that “child A behaves a certain way because that is who they are and they’ll never change”. Remember that change may require some patience, commitment and understanding to succeed, and “it might just be something we haven’t done, YET!”
Challenge fixed ways of thinking and speaking
Assuming you have all your staff and practitioners on board, and you have given them some training, what do you want to change?
Firstly, you might want to implement a policy of praising effort instead of achievement/natural ability. There are lots of ways to change the way we speak to imply that things can be achieved with effort and patience, rather than having to rely on a talent or an innate ability. A search on the internet for “Growth mindset - say this not that” will return some examples of posters, phrases and examples of how you can change your language to change what the child understands. Here are some common examples.
Some children may not even be able to put ideas into words yet so it may be a matter of showing rather than saying at first. A simple “come on, let’s try that again” or “that didn’t work so let’s try this instead” as you retry the task, will emphasise the process of trying. That’s not to say that the outcome is not important – it is. After all, the goal is learning and improving. It’s just putting the emphasis on trying again, practicing and finding a way through.
Once an outcome is achieved (e.g. building a tower), saying things like “I knew that you would do it if you kept trying”, is better than “you’re good at building”. This is because it implies the outcome was achieved through perseverance rather than any innate ability – and that means all children can make progress.
Secondly, you can use the word ‘yet’ to imply that if children find things difficult at first, then it’s only a matter of time before they master them. For example, “you can’t do this yet” or “you’re trying hard at this, and you’re going to master this soon” again implies they will get it in time.
Be positive about mistakes
Finally, if children struggle with things or make mistakes, make sure your staff break them down into more manageable chunks and emphasise that big things can be done using a step-by-step approach – a 1% improvement each day will yield big results in the future. Manage children’s anxiety if they get anxious by taking a moment to pause, breathe and remind them that they are still on the way to achieving their goal. Talk positively about mistakes and what is learned from them, and remember there is always something more to learn or improve. Saying “you worked hard to achieve that, looks like you’re ready for another challenge” will instil the idea that there is more to learn whilst praising what has already been achieved.
Practice and reflect
All staff will need to practice using these strategies if they don’t come naturally at first – and that’s OK too, as it’s all part of the learning process. After all, learning does not stop after childhood, so remind your staff to develop their own growth mindset if they come across obstacles. A growth mindset is not about getting it right all the time, it’s more about finding solutions to problems if they occur. Encourage regular reflection on what is going well and think about ways to improve, or different things to try; and praise your staff for their own efforts too.
There are lots of books, ideas and training courses on this subject and it’s not easy to impart a whole course on growth mindset in two articles, but we have hopefully opened your mind a little to the possibilities, and set you off on the first step of the ladder.
- Fiske study - https://www.mindsetworks.com/Science/Case-Studies
- 2016 research https://doi.org/10.1073/PNAS.1608207113