An eight-year-old student picks up a tennis racket in physical education class. He throws up a ball and makes solid contact, hitting the ball over the net with relative ease. A classmate named Roberto watches in awe as he perceives him to be a young Pete Sampras. “Why is it so easy for him?” he thinks to himself as he swings and misses the ball several times.

A fifth grader quickly breezes through a ten question worksheet on adding fractions without needing help from the teacher. Next to her, Caleb becomes frustrated as he struggles to make sense of the math. “My brain doesn’t work like hers” he thinks to himself as he puts down his pencil in despair.

A high school junior, presenting at a school assembly, mesmerizes the audience as she moves confidently across the stage, passionately conveying her message. In the audience Makena wonders, “how is she able to do that? We’re in the same speech class.” She continues to watch intently, convincing herself that public speaking just comes easy to some people. She believes her struggles to deliver speeches in class without saying “um” after every sentence is further evidence that she isn’t a “gifted” speaker.

Educators across the country have been working hard to share research with students about how their brains can grow as a result of effective effort, taking on challenging tasks, and identifying and learning from their mistakes. We explain to students it takes time and deliberate practice to get really good at something. Yet, when students watch one of their peers try something for the first time with relative success, they begin to question that entire premise. Students lack an explanation, so they default to thoughts that help comfort them. This experience triggers the student into a fixed mindset and reinforces the belief that some people are born with abilities in certain areas and others are not.

What are students missing?

Students often don’t understand transfer of learning. They don’t know what past experiences other students have had that help them pick up new skills quickly. They may not be aware of what background knowledge other students are connecting to the new situation. For example, what if the 8 year old Roberto knew that his physical education classmate had been playing baseball for 4 years, and routinely engages in other hand-eye coordination activities such as ping pong and basketball at home? What if Caleb would have known that the girl sitting next to him in math class, has been using fractions to make recipes at home with her 2 older siblings. What if Makena would have known that her dynamic speaking classmate had been doing readings at her church since she was 6 years old?

When students see their peers try something for the first time and have relative success, we as educators may need to encourage them to ask themselves some questions:

  • “What experiences might this person have that I haven’t had yet?”
  • “What skills have they developed in other areas that may be helping them in this situation?”

Furthermore, for students who are learning something new, educators can encourage them to reflect on their own past experiences.

  • “What skills do I currently have that might help me learn this new skill?”
  • “How does this connect with what I already know?”
  • “How might this new skill help me learn things in the future?”

If we truly want to help students develop a growth mindset, we need to dispel the myth that people are born with great talent or that true geniuses don’t have to work hard. In order to effectively coach students, educators need a deep understanding that learning is a transferable skill. We can all benefit from reflecting on how we have improved our abilities in the past and transfer those same principles to other areas. Students need to learn strategies to process through the events that are happening around them. When they witness easy success, educators can help students hear their fixed mindset thoughts and give them the tools to respond with a growth mindset voice. This will help them stay focused on their learning process instead of being distracted by what others are doing, and ultimately grow as learners.

Use the table below to help students re-frame how they are responding to both easy success and to normal failures that come with learning anything new.

What do you do to help young learners persevere when they are not good at something right away? Comment in the space below!

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