Recently Education Week Research Center published a National Study of K-12 teachers examining teachers’ perspectives on Growth Mindset.  One in five teachers strongly agreed they are “good at fostering a growth mindset.” Conversely, only 5% of those educators surveyed strongly agreed that they have “adequate solutions and strategies to use when students do not have this approach.”

I see this over and over again in classrooms. We as teachers embrace the concept of Growth Mindset; how can we not? It just makes so much sense: the belief that intelligence can be developed through effort, strategies, and practice. Quotes go on the walls, lessons are taught, and students are soon able to recognize the difference between a growth and a fixed mindset.  Excitement builds at the prospect of building this into the culture of the classroom. But as time goes on, this knowledge often remains at this basic level, and teachers struggle to EMBED these concepts into instructional practice as the school year moves along and new initiatives are introduced. Curriculum needs to be revised and instructed, and time to “get it all in” challenges us. In short the life of a classroom teacher continues to move along.  

So how do we create a growth mindset culture once these preliminary lessons are taught?  How can teachers easily embed adequate solutions and strategies throughout the year, with fidelity, without missing a beat on all of the other things that we are responsible for?

What practices can we embed into the culture of our classrooms that will encourage and engender a Growth Mindset throughout the year?  

We as teachers have so much on our plates.. We need PRACTICAL, ATTAINABLE and SIMPLE…  

Growth Mindset is the belief that you have the ability to grow and change...that intelligence and ability can be developed through effort.  We all know this… and once we teach it to students they will know it too. But how do we make this TANGIBLE? Well, if we can PROVE it to them (there is no better proof than scientific fact), then we can always use this proof to fall back on when we are supporting and engendering Growth Mindset as part of our classroom culture.


Below are some tangibles and take-aways to use right away to build the Growth Mindset classroom culture. Please feel free to use these ideas and make them your own. The only thing I ask you to do is share your new ideas below so that we can all continue to grow and learn as a community!

1. Provide the background: Lessons

In our classroom, we begin our year with several mini-lessons about neuroplasticity and the science of the malleability of the brain.

Our first lesson of the year is the MISTAKES LESSON. At the beginning of the lesson, we have students write on post it’s how they feel when they make a mistake.  Most responses are negative: embarrassed, stupid, etc. We then give them an envelope containing a personalized letter and a simple pink eraser.  The message in this letter is that we are expecting students to make mistakes, because that is the only way to learn, BECAUSE SCIENTISTS SAY SO. Once students read the letter, we have a brief discussion focusing on the fact that scientists have proven that the only way to learn is to grow neurons or strengthen our neural networks, and the only way to do this is to recognize challenge and work through it. This will, of course, involve making mistakes.

Students then write on another colored post it about how they think they will feel this year (or want to feel) now that they have read the letter and they have a different understanding of failure. It is amazing to see the shift in belief in that short lesson already. The combination of the students hearing from us that we WANT them to make mistakes and the short lesson on the science behind making mistakes begins to shift them toward understanding the science behind Growth Mindset.  

But we know if we stop there, then this lesson is just a stand alone lesson, and the message will eventually fade as the year moves on. We have piqued their interest, now is the time to help them understand what this truly means.

Throughout the first month of school, we do a series of short mini-lessons focusing on the science of the brain, specifically neuron growth and neuroplasticity. The internet is full of videos and articles about this topic for audiences of all ages. 

No matter what subject you teach, a group reading of the article “You can Grow Your Intelligence” helps give the students concrete, easily understood examples of the science behind strengthening our brains.  We learn about neuroplasticity through videos such as this one, we read about the rat study, and we even read about the brains of London cab drivers.  We watch THIS VIDEO over and over, which is actual footage of neurons connecting.

2. Putting new knowledge into action:  Activities

In addition, we prove it using two specific class activities as metaphors for growing neural pathways. Students of all ages can participate in these activities and they all love it… plus it proves that learning takes practice, strategies, and repetition.

 Activity 1: “Neurons Connecting”

  • This is a fun kinesthetic activity that will help students understand not only the “connections” that neurons make (by students having their hand squeezed, then transferring it to the next person), but the process that is necessary to learn (repetition, deliberate practice, selecting and implementing strategies, setting goals, motivation).
  • As you watch the video, notice not only the activity but the feedback the students are receiving from the teachers (see specifically 2:22 - 5:25). As students are practicing, teachers are eliciting the “why and the “how” of improving.  
    • “Why did we get better?” (we practiced)
    • “One way for our neurons to connect is to practice!”
    • “Let’s try (add) another strategy.  Does anyone have any advice?”
      • When a student suggested “squeeze faster”, the teacher responded “That is the same thing as saying ‘work harder’.”  Does that give us a plan?
    • And then: “What could we have done if this strategy did not work for us?”

How we encourage and respond to students is essential to engendering growth mindset.  Our feedback needs to be intentional. Focusing on the end result gives students no recipe for the process.  Focusing on the process and providing feedback along the way allows the student to recognize that learning takes effort, and results are a product of that effort.  

Activity 2:  Numbers Race

  • This activity also communicates and demonstrates the necessity of practice, using strategies, and repetition when learning something new.  This activity can also be found in the Brainology Program, one of many comprehensive growth mindset programs offered by Mindset Works.

The beauty of these activities is that they can be used again and again throughout the year to remind students or to further ingrain that repetition, strategies, and practice are required for growth.

3. Beyond the lessons and activities: Making it stick

“Congratulations, you just got smarter!”

These stand alone lessons are essential for creating the background for building the culture as well as helping to establish the fact that the only way neurons grow and neural pathways connect is through effort, deliberate practice, using strategies, and learning from feedback. It is a SCIENTIFIC FACT that intelligence is established in these neural connections, and once this is established, our responses to situations that arise can all lead back to this fact.  If you choose to work hard, if you face a challenge and overcome it, if make a mistake and learn from it… you will grow neurons and you will create new neural pathways and you will get smarter… SCIENTISTS SAY SO!

So when a student uses a strategy, makes a mistake and learns from it, or succeeds because of deliberate practice and effort, make it your mantra to respond “CONGRATULATIONS, YOU JUST GOT SMARTER!!!” (Watch this clip to see it in action)


Jennifer Maichin is a growth mindset champion and a pioneer in using "...yet!" in instructional practice. She has been a classroom teacher for over 20 years and is the Growth Mindset Coach for Mineola School District in Long Island, NY. Follow her on twitter @jennmaich and instagram at Jennmaich_mindset_works.