4 Growth Mindset Struggles (and How to Fix Them)


Determined to coach your students into a growth mindset? Want them to value learning, and not just grades, absorbing your feedback and persevering to the finish line?

Well, as with most educational theories, fellow ELA teacher Mrs. Spangler in the Middle and I have found that there are some hurdles to getting middle school (and even high school) students into a growth mindset that actually sticks (and doesn't just sound good).

Why Growth Mindset Matters
Sara: Middle schoolers are still deciding who they are and still figuring out how to “do school”, so teaching them how to problem solve, calmly get through obstacles, and not give up on themselves is a critical foundation to build now, not later.

Lisa:  Middle School students need help to get a sense of the “big picture” to understand that what they do now affects their future (both immediate and long term).  Students need to see their learning as relevant to their college and career goals.

Struggle #1: Students who don’t want to work
Sara: Sometimes there's an underlying issue, but some students are still maturing and don't want to do “work” that isn't “fun”... so just telling them to persevere isn't going to suffice. I truly don't know a way around this other than a one-on-one conversation, because every student is SO different here. For example, I've known boys who were this way because they were already working a job and wanted school to be their fun place, and others who didn't want to work because they hadn't found their strengths/passions yet and weren't motivated to do much of anything. Those two scenarios had to be handled very differently.

Lisa: For me, these are the students that bank on social promotion and therefore don’t see the value in trying.  This is when I have to make trying valuable with my classroom reward system.  I tried this idea out this past year for a marking period to see what would happen by giving reward points (not tied to grades in any way)  to students for answering class questions or turning in work on time.  Even though this is an external form of value, it does get the ball rolling and will hopefully feel good enough to translate into internal motivation.  I found that my students were more invested in what was happening in class when reward points were used.

Struggle #2: Students who are ALREADY trying their best
Lisa:  For students that are already trying their best, growth mindset is a lot of baloney because they don’t see the effort paying off.  In this situation, I have made sure that the work that I ask these particular students to do is something they can actually complete successfully.  Once they start to experience to see good grades, their attitudes pick up and then they are willing to try things that are a bit more challenging.

Sara: This issue depends on the student. If it's a high achiever who is already working hard, then she might not like being told that she has to keep going or work even harder; she wants a reward. At that point, I either need to do a better job of recognizing what they ARE doing right, OR I need to chat with them individually about goal-setting, such as improving a weakness or growing a strength.

If it's a student who is still struggling despite a lot of effort, then it's time to ask questions about what they're doing. In many cases, they are working harder instead of smarter, like using a study method that isn't a good idea (and then feeling dejected when the test score isn't good). Help lower achievers learn grit by changing their process.

Struggle #3: Students who police their peers from trying too hard
Sara: In my school, the term “try-hard” was a derogatory name thrown at high achievers. Fortunately, there were a few ways around this. One was to make the reward good enough that the students wouldn't care if they were called a name. Another is to directly address it with the victims or the entire class. My dad always says, “When you're in front, people will shoot arrows at you.” Talk about this concept, and help students understand that “haters” are just jealous.

Lisa:  I went through this a bit this past school year.  I honestly asked the students “Why wouldn’t you try your best?” and turned it into a discussion and lesson on integrity.  We talked about what we “stand for” and then put these words on our own paper mirrors that I displayed in the room as a constant reminder of what we want others to see when they look at us.  

Struggle #4: Students who claim they’re trying (but it sure doesn’t look that way)
Sara: In this case, sometimes the students either don’t know what grit TRULY looks like (and thus don’t know that their version of “working hard” isn’t true grit), OR they are putting in the time and energy into something they need more training on. For example, a student who is terrible at grammar may have actually tried to proofread his paper, but the bad grade on his essay doesn’t seem that way.

When the latter happens, my job is to get to the root of the problem and try to coax them out of their rut, whatever it is. If I know that my student doesn’t have all the skills he needs to proofread, then it’s time to find out if it’s a widespread issue throughout the class, worth fixing in small-group differentiation or a large-group lesson.

If the student is having a skills issue (and not a content or learning issue), then it might be time to address their weakness in a non-threatening way. I have humorous student “diseases” posters that help us talk about “Procrastinitis”, upset binders, silence infections, and other student problems.

Lisa: I typically find students who get a poor grade on their test insist vehemently that they studied.  When I ask the students what exactly they did to study, more often than not I find that they simply looked at their notes.  That’s when there’s a discussion of “How to Study”.  I even made a video about it to help drive the concept home. Once the student realizes that studying takes time, I’ll usually hear “I don’t have time for all that!”   Then, I try to counter this by relating it to a lack of practice in sports.  I’ll ask the students if the top football player (or any famous player at the moment) just sat on his couch and ate chips all day, would he still be the best?  The answer is always an emphatic  “No!”  So then I’ll say “How can you be the best if you don’t make time to practice by completing your work or to put in the work of studying?”  Boom!

Do you have more ideas? Tell us in the comments!

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