After 29 years in education, one thing remains the same: Every time I walk the halls during class in any school, I encounter what I call “the hallway kid.” This kid always manages to get out of class; whether he’s running an errand, going to the office, or heading to the restroom, this student finds a way to roam the halls.
Stereotypes aside, good teachers do not fall prey to student labels. Long before Carol Dweck’s work defined the benefit of nurturing a growth mindset, good teachers remained committed to finding ways to squeeze every ounce of potential out of the most resistant student, especially the one who bought into a self-defeating label. Dweck’s work compares the effects of how a fixed mindset, or the belief that skills, talents, and intellect are unchangeable, to that of a growth mindset—the belief that skills, talents and intellect can be developed through hard work and persistence.
The power of words
What Dweck’s work has brought to the education profession is a strategy to boost a child’s potential based on the power of language. No single word is more critical to this strategy than the simple word “yet.” When I visit classrooms, it is common to hear teachers talk about what students should not say. The most common outlawed phrase is “I can’t.”
Add that one simple word, and this statement of defeat quickly becomes a statement of hope: “I can’t do this yet.” The word “yet” gives a failing grade hope. A student earning a 45 percent on a test after previously earning a 30 percent will be encouraged by a teacher who praises the efforts leading to the progress made and realize that a passing grade is within reach.
A growth mindset approach connects student growth directly to student actions. In one classroom, I heard a teacher help a student arrive at this connection through questions. She asked, “What did you do to get this higher grade?” The student answered that he had studied. The teacher then asked, “How did you keep yourself from quitting when it got hard?” The student replied that he would’ve felt bad if he gave up. This may not sound monumental in fighting the achievement gap, but this child just demonstrated self-awareness and a life lesson that transcends academic work.
We educators have been telling our students historic stories about those who embraced the ideals of a growth mindset before it had a name. Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Mohammad Ali, and Michael Jordan are quoted famously about the power of making and learning from mistakes. Let’s put our kids in the driver’s seat of their potential and give them the gift of teaching them the language of growth.
Here are five tips for nurturing a growth mindset:
1. Change your student’s mindset by controlling their language. Start by outlawing the phrase “I can’t” in your classroom. Model positive behavior for your students; your example will set the tone.
2. Use every experience as an opportunity to teach your students how they have the power to affect change in their lives. Even a negative experience is an opportunity to take control. Help students to see what they did that contributed to the situation: Did you give your best effort?
3. Capitalize on the moment to change attitudes and behaviors. When frustration sets in, intervene. Help your student to switch gears: teach them to do something proactive to change their attitude. That might be reaching out to others for help, or simply taking a short break to lower the stress level.
4. Praise the courage it takes your student to work hard and try new things when something isn’t working to produce a successful result.
5. Most importantly, show your students that they never have to accept the way things are. There is always something they can do to try to improve a situation. Teach your students that they have the tools to improve their lives.
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