A few years ago a kindergarten teacher enlisted me to help her integrate a growth mindset focus in her classroom. Macy taught at a magnet school with an honors class of children who began reading when they were 3 or 4. Many of her students had one challenge in common. They were children of doctors and university professors and attorneys. And they all had a keen feeling of failure at the first sign of a mistake.
If you know anything about the growth mindset, you know that mistakes are encouraged and considered essential for learning. Many believe that the concept of a growth mindset—growing your brain through challenges, mistakes, and determination—is appropriate only for older children. Macy’s experience proves that wrong.
Thank goodness, too, because beginning as early as possible with a concept as essential as the growth mindset is critical! Why? Because the primary grades lay the foundation for everything that comes later, and at that age, children are their most open to new ways of seeing themselves.
But how can primary teachers best teach a growth mindset? Research and observation points to two critical shifts:
1) changing the language of teacher feedback and,
2) establishing a culture where mistakes are accepted as opportunities for learning.
Teacher Feedback Language. While I was teaching at a local community college at night, I spent my days teaching 4 year olds at a Montessori school. At the time, I was trying to decide what age I wanted to teach – 18 year olds or elementary age children. (I learned that there is really not much of a difference.)
The biggest takeaway from that experience was that I should be as specific as possible with my feedback. I should never settle for a “good job” or “I like that.” Being intentionally specific about feedback is essential for student learning, as it makes the learning about them—not about what you think about them.
For example, instead of “Good job on your coloring”, you could say, “The orange in that picture really makes it stand out.” Many teachers—me included—might say “I like your introduction paragraph”, instead of putting the emphasis back on the student with “your first paragraph has a strong voice! You should be proud. You’ve learned from all the editing you’ve done.”
Over time it will become second nature. Soon your students will be repeating your feedback to others. If you want a little help, you can get a handy poster that shares substitute teacher phrases as a guide.
Culture of Mistakes. Mistakes are part of learning and the sooner we understand the deep truth in that for ourselves as teachers, the better we’ll be for our students. Teaching our students that mistakes and failures help us learn is fundamental. For example, when they’re writing letters, if they don’t form an “a” correctly the first time, we give them feedback correcting the mistake. Or if they’re adding two numbers and get an incorrect answer, we can give them strategies to help them get it correct the next time.
The more they fail or make mistakes, the more resilient they become. Life hands us many chances to fail and fall. Being gentle with our students during the learning process is essential.
As students get older, we have a tendency to grade much of student work that is practice and not mastery. I’ve discovered that grading practice work is grading the learning process. Doing that shuts down our learners and undermines a growth mindset. Grading too often destroys the culture of mistakes.
So to summarize: 1) give feedback, not criticism, 2) use growth mindset language, and 3) don’t grade practice work. And you must be consistent. And persistent. That is the deep truth: your persistence in teaching the growth mindset creates their persistence for learning via the growth mindset.
For all those primary teachers out there laying the foundation for all the other grades, thank you. We are deeply grateful for your patience, perseverance, and creativity. You’re the future of a growth mindset culture!