Many teachers are embracing growth mindset and in so doing have shifted the way they teach and invite students to learn. Educators, who have adopted a growth mindset approach, explicitly teach their students that intelligence grows by exerting effort, that this growth occurs most when facing challenges, and that likely – in fact, undoubtedly – students will make mistakes as they learn. So when students make mistakes while facing a learning challenge, the teacher guides them to use their effort and fix their mistakes.

If you are taking this growth mindset approach to teaching, you may find – as teachers did at East Palo Alto Charter Schools (EPACS) – that you may need to shift gears in your approach to classroom management. At EPACS, some teachers experienced a sort of grinding of gears when they invited students to fix, embrace, and learn well from mistakes in learning, but were still using a schoolwide color system in which students moved their clip up and down according to their behavior. By day’s end, some students referred to themselves as a color; and by week’s end, students who had remained on green all week were allowed a “free dress” and everyone could visually see who had behaved throughout the week and who had not. This felt unsettling to Jennifer Saul (EPACS Dean of Students) so she invited a core team of teachers (Kindergarten, 2nd, 3rd, and 6th grade*) to explore a growth mindset approach to behavior management. Their goal was to investigate what conditions would motivate students to take charge of their own behavior to be productive citizens at school and in their community.

Identifying the Differences

Teachers investigated their discomfort and identified differences between their current color system and a growth mindset approach to classroom management. 

  • Who’s in control? In the color system the teachercontrols the environment, often using extrinsic systems such as rewards and punishments to get students to behave. In contrast, a growth mindset approach shifts gears to give students more ownership and responsibility often using intrinsic concepts such as control, competence, curiosity, challenge, and community to encourage positive behavior. “There’s a difference between controlling behavior and fostering a change in behavior” Saul explained, “We can do much better in helping students reflect, set goals, and intentionally practice how to behave.”
  • What’s the message? The color system conveys the message --We don’t trust you, so we’re going to control you. A growth mindset approach, however, conveys a very different message--We trust you that you are capable of solving the problem and behaving in a way that helps you and others.
  • Can mistakes be fixed? When students misbehave in the color system, teachers ask students to move their clip down. Any mistake, no matter the severity, is cause for moving the clip down. “It felt set in stone” explained a teacher, “Students weren’t very reflective.” In the new growth mindset approach, when students make mistakes, this teacher calmly says, “You made a mistake, it can be fixed, and you can return to work.” As the year progressed this teacher, to the cheers of her students, took down the color behavior chart.
  • How do students feel? Students often feel bad and somewhat helpless when asked to move their clip down, and the results of their misbehavior are on public display which causes embarrassment. With a growth mindset approach, students feel empowered as the teacher trusts them to solve their own problems. “If a student keeps misbehaving” one teacher explained, “I talk with them privately. They feel heard. I guide them to figure out choices that can help them learn better.” Though it takes longer and is messier, in the end students are more responsive and positive to this new approach.
  • When do students behave? Teachers admitted that the color system can be quite effective; however, they noticed that when students found themselves with a different teacher (substitute, specialist, or after school care), the students often behaved poorly. This suggested student compliance, rather than an authentic behavior change. With a growth mindset approach, students found themselves better equipped to self-manage their behavior in a wider variety of contexts. “It’s still an area for growth” confessed Saul “but it’s a worthy goal.”

Core Elements of a Growth Mindset Approach to Classroom Management

If you want to shift gears towards a growth mindset approach to classroom management, you will want to communicate your core messages in words and actions.

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Communicate Core Messages:

  • We are productive citizens. Begin by identifying that you desire to help students learn how to behave so they can be productive citizens in class and in the community. Consider emphasizing that your classroom is a community that helps one another such as, “Together, as a class, we can help one another learn.” Develop classroom community that helps students feel like integral members of the community.
  • We know the impact of our behavior. At the beginning, you may need to spend more time on the why and the purpose of behavior as this helps students to understand the impact of behavior on learning. One teacher calls this, “Narrating with a purpose.” Reminding students of the purpose of behavior builds a bridge so that students develop the mindset of “I want to do this. It’s important, and I know why.”
  • We can fix mistakes. Central to a growth mindset approach is identifying that mistakes are normal, and that with effort we can learn from our mistakes and improve. A growth mindset educator might say, “We will make mistakes in our behavior, but we can reflect, learn, and fix our mistakes.” In particular challenging situations, you might clarify, “We are facing a challenge right now, so it is a chance to grow.”
  • The teacher trusts us. With words and actions show that you trust students to make choices that will help them (and their classmates) learn. Whenever possible shift to give more ownership and responsibility to the students. If students encounter difficulty generating their own solutions, offer choices and then tell students that you believe they can make a good choice.
  • We reflect to improve. Essential to improvement is providing time for students as individuals and as a class to reflect upon their behavior. When students engage in problematic behavior, ask them (individually or as a class) to reflect on what happened, what they can do to solve the problem, what choices they have, and what support is needed to help fix or repair the problem. If needed, offer a tip that might help. One teacher conducts a daily “Glows and Grows” discussion in her Closing Circle, and guides students to identify their strengths and areas needing growth related to behavior. If you use a class scout who looks for good behavior, press them to identify why that behavior helps students learn.
  • We celebrate growth. Just as you celebrate improvement in learning, take time to celebrate when students learn from and fix mistakes in behavior. Doing so helps students see that they are becoming competent in managing their behavior. “I try to stop and celebrate both when students are doing the right thing, and when they have made a change in their behavior for the right reason,” explains one teacher.

Shifting Gears

If you, like the teachers at EPACS, realize that you need to change gears to a more growth-mindset orientation of classroom management, we welcome your insights. “This year we took baby steps in developing a new system,” explained Saul, “but we are researching and growing.” You may find it daunting at first to move away from crutches of prizes and punishments, so be patient with yourself as you shift gears.

Jane Taylor Wilson, PhD, Associate Professor of Education, Westmont College
Maricela Montoy-Wilson, America Achieves Fellow, Educator--East Palo Alto Charter School

*Thanks to Jennifer Saul, Nikki Hill, Jamie Pekras-Braun, and Lily Diamond for offering insights into managing with a growth mindset.