Mindset Matters: Growth Mindset for the Elementary Schooler


Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset is a very hot topic in the education world right now. What began as a pedagogical, research-based concept coined by Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, has now trickled down even into kindergarten classrooms. A basic explanation for a not-so-basic concept is the fact that
people can improve their achievement, motivation, and even their intellect by adopting a growth mindset and strategies that correspond to such a mindset.

Growth vs. Fixed

Teaching young learners about growth mindset involves countering thought processes that they may have already begun to acquire. Students in elementary school have likely already begun to find their strengths and weaknesses. We all have certain talents, but elementary schoolers can adopt a growth mindset by refusing to limit themselves based on areas of weakness. Teaching growth mindset to younger learners can be as simple as swapping out our language and praise in the classroom.

Stressing only natural-born talents can be detrimental to adopting a growth mindset. While some of us are born with natural gifts, such as artistic, athletic, or musical strengths, the flipside to stressing the importance of natural gifts is the fact that children will believe that, if they are not born with these abilities, they cannot acquire them. Additionally, this fixed mindset does not encourage learners to accept challenges. Instead of attempting something outside of their comfort zone, children with a fixed mindset may rest on their laurels—believing that, unless it is one of their innate gifts, they will never be good at it.

Instead, stress the importance of acquiring new skills. Yes, natural abilities are wonderful in that they are innately effortless. However, do not forget to encourage children to practice skills, activities, or hobbies outside of their natural realm of abilities. Growth mindset involves a belief system that ability is limitless, so long as the strategies are there. Again, this is about embracing challenges with the realization that, while we may not be the best at a new skill right away, we can take charge of the challenge by practice, learning, and growing.

Emphasizing success while downplaying failure ignores the essential process for improvement. Children with a fixed mindset consider failure to be inevitable if the task involves something that they deem that they are simply “not good at.” This discourages any amount of effort or motivation because they truly believe that “once a multiplication failure, always a multiplication failure.” In this sense, people with a fixed mindset internalize failure. They believe that they are not good at something, therefore they will never be good at it, so what is the point of putting forth excessive effort? In a sense, a fixed mindset creates its own roadblocks.

Help children to look closely at and analyze possible reasons for moments of difficulty or perceived failure. Don’t shy away from discussing why your child struggled with something. Instead, have open and honest conversations about how they could use different strategies the next time. Growth mindset revolves around the idea that intellect and ability are fluid—and that we can control our success rates by practicing and strategizing.

A child with a fixed mindset will often strive for perfection. What’s the problem with that? Well, for one, perfection is a relative term. There is no way to measure “perfection.” It also discourages or discredits hard work unless the child received 100% on an assignment. In a child’s fixed mindset, it is either 100% or nothing.

While a fixed mindset ignores the concept of improvement and growth, the alternative praises evidence of improvement. Yes, you may have gotten a C on your math test; however, that score is leaps and bounds above the D you got 3 weeks ago. When having children examine and analyze their own growth, they begin to find trends in their learning process. These trends help them to identify which strategies are most beneficial to them as learners. So yes, the C grade may not be as exciting as the A+, but the steady improvement tells us a lot about how a child has acquired new learning strategies.

From a Teacher to a Teacher: Kindness in the Classroom

Dear fellow educator,

I think it goes without saying that these are crucial times for our young people, not only with regard to education, but also in forming the next generation’s principles. All politics aside, our students are coming of age in a time where kindness, empathy, and integrity have been shoved aside in favor of judgment, rivalry, and naiveté. As we move into a new school year, fervent introspection has me focusing on one question: how can we craft and nurture ‘goodness’ in our schools?  

Perhaps one of the biggest perceived roadblocks in our quest to add kindness to the curricula is the fact that we are here to educate, not parent our students. No matter what age, our students come to us with a belief system and moral gauge that far exceeds our reaches. With so many uncontrollable variables at play in our classrooms, how could we possibly begin to stomp out hate that may have been engrained in a child since day one? Is it even acceptable, as mere educators, for us to take on that role or responsibility? These perplexing questions may forever go unanswered.

Instead of looking at changing the child’s cognizance, I’ll begin to nurture kindness by looking at my personal practices in the classroom—let’s consider it a ripple effect of sorts.   

  • Use seating charts to recognize the “lonely students.” This is a concept used by a veteran teacher from Texas throughout her entire career. On Fridays I’ll ask students to write down the names of two people that they would like to sit with next week. I will make clear that these requests are not guaranteed to be granted.  Students will occasionally get their wishes. However, the key here is that I am not concerned with the seating chart in the least—who sits beside whom is of no concern to me. I am looking instead for the names that are not written down—which child is never sought out as a seating partner? Are these missing names indicative of a bullying problem? Do I recognize signs of grief or depression in any of the students that are not requested as seating partners? By analyzing the seating requests, I am better able to reach out to the children that may feel lonely or withdrawn and potentially change the course of their unhappiness.
  • Praise acts of kindness just as much, if not more, than test scores, grades, or GPAs. Academia is designed to breed competition through class rankings, SAT scores, honor roll lists, etc. Several schools in Montgomery County celebrate their seniors’ achievements by posting each student’s college admittance for the coming year in the local newspaper—a great opportunity for young scholars to shine. However, with such recognition comes an inevitable ranking or hierarchy among graduates. Seeing my name and future university in print, followed by so-and-so attending Harvard, would undoubtedly sour my sense of accomplishment. Yes—that’s the real world—someone is always going to be smarter, more successful, better… Consider this: Focusing on achievements in kindness would not take away from anyone’s academic achievements. This praise and acknowledgment would simply be an additional measure of character—one that is just as important (and sometimes as lucrative) as academic success. If a student is struggling academically, try showing appreciation for that student’s kindness. Highlight students that have shown acts of kindness to others—use this as an opportunity to place value on the concept of being a good person.
  • Model empathy at any opportunity. Seeing as I teach middle school, empathy is something that many of my students are still grasping. During the adolescent years, the brain is primed to self-serve. This sometimes creates an inability to see things from another’s perspective. It’s not that they don’t want to—it’s that the adolescent brain is still maturing. Demonstrate how empathy works by expressing your own instances of relating on an emotional level. Try starting the conversation with, “You know that we all make mistakes…” or, “I’m upset that you’re getting down on yourself for one low grade…” or, “I see that you’ve really tried to improve and I admire your effort.”

 

Pre-Back to School Advice: For Elementary Schoolers

The jittery, somewhat anxious feeling that accompanies the start of a new school year is known to all. Even on the educator’s end, we are brought right back to the nerves and excitement of our childhood school days when that first day rolls around. To be truthful, the back-to-school dreams start happening for me weeks prior to the first day. For elementary schoolers, the start of a new school year can bring stress in addition to the excitement. Parents can put a few practices into place towards the end of the summer to allay the nerves and ensure a smooth start.

  • During the final two weeks of summer, parents should begin to set up a more consistent sleep schedule for their elementary schoolers. This schedule should fall closely in line with the school year sleep and wake time. Some families may wait to readjust the sleep schedule until the week before; however, that may not be enough time for children to fully adapt to the new sleep/wake time.
  • Begin to embed small chunks of downtime for literacy in the evening hours. This should be used to read or write—focus on any topic that interests your child, so long as the content is grade-level appropriate and accessible. Consider starting with 20-minute intervals each afternoon, then build in more time from there. The intent is to acclimate children to the idea of downtime so that they are prepared for the structure of nightly homework and/or weekly reading assignments. Help encourage this practice by doing your own silent reading or journaling while your child is reading. Limit your use of technology or screen time to promote good study habits.
  • Since most schools are handling lunch funds through online accounts, it doesn’t hurt to plan to put a little money in your child’s cafeteria account as a backup plan, even if your child is a preferred packer. We all know that the mornings can be hectic—kids oversleep, someone is sick, lunches get left in the car/bus/refrigerator—you get the picture. A little back-up lunch money can ease the stress of forgetting to pack lunch for both you and your child. Visit your school’s website to find more information for loading and account or prepaying for the beginning of the school year.
  • Get a head start on pencil pouch essentials so that your child is guaranteed to go into their new elementary classroom feeling prepared and stress-free. Depending on your child’s personality, it could be a full day before a young student builds up the courage to raise his hand to ask for a pencil. Having those items at hand and organized alleviates any worry when it comes to classroom materials. Besides the typical pencils, erasers and highlighters, consider other daily conveniences like travel-sized tissue pouches, miniature hand sanitizer, chapstick, and a sticky note with important information on it, like your child’s bus number and any important contact numbers.
  • If your child wears glasses, be sure to provide a sturdy case, but one that can also small enough for your child to carry. Be sure to seek an eye appointment if you notice any squinting, straining, or sitting noticeably close to screens or reading material. **After the first week of school or so, you may want to contact your child’s teacher to ensure that your son or daughter is wearing his or her glasses during class.

Back To School Tips

Without fail, the summer always seems to end the same way—abruptly. While families have been soaking up the sun with days filled with themed camps, pool time, beach vacations and fireflies, classrooms have been prepped for a new surge of activity. For most of us, the backpacks are buried in the closet and homework has long been forgotten. However, all of that is about to change. Signs that school is just around the corner are everywhere—the stores are stocked with school clothes, while ads are displaying the hottest new school supplies. One thing is for sure, it’s time to get in gear for the school year ahead.

  • Set a schedule. Start a school schedule at least a week prior to school. Include bedtime, morning wake-up and routine, and lunch preparation.
  • Gauge feelings. Talk to your children about their feelings and concerns.  Ask questions that prompt conversation and help them feel in control. What subjects interest them most? What friends are they excited to see? What new challenges await them?
  • Aim high. Talk to your children about the expectations for the different parts of their day. Consider creating a visual “to do” list that includes a morning routine, homework, and other responsibilities. Encourage students to check off listed items prior to leisure or screen time.
  • Drive by. Drive or walk by the school, take a tour of the classrooms, visit the website, and visualize the school day from start to finish. What will the bus ride be like? What will lunchtime entail? Where are the gym, art room, music room and restrooms?
  • Phone a friend. Reconnect with friends from last year. Schedule a play date or meet for ice cream. If your child is shy or new to the school, this is a great way to have a friend waiting on the first day of school.
  • Give control. Students often have mixed feelings about going back to school. Shop for supplies early and allow them to make selections. This decreases their anxiety, limits pressure on you, and avoids the last-minute crowds.
  • Strike a pose. Take your child shopping at his or her favorite store to pick out new school clothes. Your child’s style may not be your style, but here’s a chance to encourage positive self-image and expression.
  • Ease into it. Don’t suddenly stop summer fun, but slowly infuse learning opportunities. Take a trip to a museum, paint pottery, or visit the library.
  • Be available. As your child eases into a new school routine, regularly make time to listen to your child’s first impressions, new discoveries and fresh challenges. Be proactive in helping your child adjust and advance, and you will stay informed as new challenges arise.
  • Be an advocate. Before school starts, schedule a meeting with the school nurse, teacher, or guidance counselor to discuss significant changes, learning concerns, or summer progress. Remember to initiate a follow-up chat once school gets underway to ensure any issues were addressed.

Encouraging Student Effort in the Home Stretch

May is the time of the school year when many students and teachers begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel, making it a difficult month to focus and persevere. Even as the adult in the classroom, I notice the excitability in the air when the school year has begun to wind down to mere weeks. The difficulty then becomes maintaining the attention of children and teens when, truth be told, they are likely daydreaming about their soon-to-be-realized freedom. Below are tips for holding students’ interest at the end of the school yearand quelling the impatience that comes with it.

  • Fake it until you make it in order to sustain engagement. Yes, this is the opposite of what the body and mind is telling us. Towards the end of the year, students are not the only ones dreaming of long summer days and sleeping in. As the adults in the room, it is our responsibility to set the tone of the classroom, even when all attention is elsewhere. Students, no matter the age group, feed off of the energy that you bring into your lessons. When we lack motivation or energy, students undoubtedly pick up on that lethargy. When this happens, all bets are off for maintaining a focused and engaged classroom. So, even when you are fried—which you certainly will be—remember the mantra above: fake enthusiasm and let the energetic tone be contagious. 
  • Talk to your classes about the importance of follow-through and self-sufficiency. Remind students of all of the hard work that they have done over the course of the school year. Stress the importance of finishing strong and working diligently through the last assignment of the year. Now is not the time to let distractions interfere with the momentum that has been built since day one in the fall. Instead, encourage students to finish the last leg of the race that is the school year as if each assignment decides their final grade. 
  • Keep creative with lessons and assignments. Obvious? Yes, but necessary nonetheless. Try not to let the allure of summer sunshine blind you—plan engaging lessons that allow students to explore, create, or choose from different options in terms of assignments. Avoid the go-to “busy work” plan that leaves students will dull or redundant worksheets. 
  • Think outside of the classroom. When possible, plan activities or lessons that could take place outside. Keep the activities structured and organized, as to maintain control of the learning. Rotation stations allow for collaboration while ensuring that groups are small and productive at the same time. Feel free to have small blocks for silent reading outside. This practice helps students to see reading as a leisure activity, as opposed to simply a completion box to check. 
  • Consider holding catch-up or work periods to ensure that students are thoroughly completing assignments even as they weeks are winding down. Provide students with additional copies of tasks that they may have misplaced, make-up work from absences, reassessments, etc. For students that are all caught up, have options for them to partake in.

How to Perform a Close Reading: Elementary School

For the most part, elementary-age students are just grasping the concepts involved with reading comprehension. At this point, they have somewhat mastered fluency, decoding, and context clues. As we progress from reading comprehension and understanding texts to dissecting and analyzing its content (i.e. close reading), we somewhat alter the strategies to teach students how to examine the finite details. This practice in critical thinking and analysis does not evolve innately—it must be trained.

With our younger, elementary-age readers, we want to be very careful about how we approach the subject of close reading. The goal should be that we cultivate a love of reading in our novice readers—not stifle the interest with rote exercises. In order to accomplish this while still scratching the surface of building close reading skills, educators and parents can implement different strategies to subtly introduce the concept.

  • Use one of your child’s favorite picture books to begin the practice of close reading. Cover the text with post-it notes. Then, using just the pictures, ask your child to describe what is happening in the story from page to page. This is a subtle way to prompt a young reader to look at the context clues in the illustrations. Be ready with questions to take the discussion further, such as, “What makes you think that the animals are enjoying the tea party?” Or, “Where do you think this part takes place based on the background?” These questions motivate readers to look closely at the details and draw interpretations and inferences—the same practices involved in close reading written text.
  • Familiarize your child with unknown words by helping him search for definitions. When reading any text, even a children’s story, there are bound to be some words that your child is less familiar with. Practice recognizing when this happens by asking your child if he or she knows what a certain word means. If she doesn’t, use a dictionary or web search to define the word together. This practice allows kids to not only recognize when they are unfamiliar with a word, but encourages them to seek clarification—a skill required for close reading.
  • Introduce the concept of questioning the author’s creative choices by discussing the title of a new book. Again, the subtly of this practice is a great pre-reading strategy that helps children make predictions. Ask why the author may have chosen this specific title? Are there any other ways titles that might fit the story? Ask your child to make inferences about what might happen in the story based on the title—be sure to ask her why she thinks that.
  • Encourage your child to ask questions while reading. These questions are likely the beginning of the close reading process. Explain that sometimes questions may be left unanswered based on the story. Discuss how these unanswered questions allow readers to use their imaginations and draw their own conclusions.

How to Broaden the Social Circle: Elementary

One major aspect of schooling that helps to promote a child’s development is the socialization that school provides. In no other realm would children have hours of interaction with diverse groups of peers and adults on a daily basis. Learning alongside peers also benefits the development of children’s social skills—not only do children learn appropriate interactions at school, but they also learn other vital skills such as compromise, collaboration, perspective-taking, empathy, etc. So, recognizing that social skills are critical to education, how can we encourage building and maintaining strong social circles at the elementary level?

Encourage participation in various peer groups. Provide your child with the opportunity to mingle with different groups of peers for various activities. Explain to your child that it is okay, even helpful, to have different peer groups or friend circles. The idea of “the more, the merrier” certainly applies here. Being friends with others does nothing to take away from primary friendships. Ensure that your child knows that it is okay to have school friends, soccer friends, family friends, neighborhood friends, and more.

Branch out when signing up or joining new extracurricular activities. Encouraging your child to try new things will not only broaden their horizons, rather it can also broaden their friendships. Try a new art class, children’s cooking class, swim club, or summer camp. These opportunities allow your child to interact with and get to know new peers—peers he or she may not get to meet otherwise.

Discuss what friendship means. The more your child understands about being a good friend, the easier he or she will be able to meet new peers and maintain strong friendships. Ask him what he likes in a “good friend.” Explain how he can take these positive traits and apply them to himself to ensure that he is treating his peers the way that he would like to be treated. Talk about the importance of honesty and support—a good friend is someone who keeps his word and helps his friends when they need a hand.

Help to open your child’s eyes to see potential friends. A good way to help build children’s peer groups is to help them see their peers as potential or possible friends in the making. Have conversations like, “What do you and Kate have in common?” “Do you ever sit together in the cafeteria, or play together at recess?” If your child expresses interest, try to foster a friendship by arranging a playdate. Talk with other parents about opportunities to get kids together in small groups. Offer to take a group to a museum, movie, or sporting event.

Avoid putting too much emphasis on the term “best friend.” Often times, children can become caught up in the terminology. It may be because of a competitive desire to be “the best friend,” but either way, a friend is a friend. Remind your child that, just like she has other friends, her own friends have other friend groups as well. This does not mean that she should feel threatened or left out.

International Ask a Question Day: An Educator’s Observation

March 14th marks the somewhat underrated “holiday” devoted to asking questions. Suitably falling on Albert Einstein’s birthday, International Ask a Question Day is meant to encourage the practice of seeking knowledge. In the world of education, questions are paramount in the learning process. In my own experience—and I think most teachers would agree—our job in the classroom involves asking, answering, and clarifying questions.

True story: Purely out of my own curiosity, I decided to tally the number of questions I was asked during a random school day. Any question counted—from, “Can I go to the water fountain?” to, “Should I underline the title of an article?” By the final period of the day, I knew I had a significant number of hash marks, but the exact amount of questions that had been asked far exceeded what I had anticipated. The number of questions was somewhere in the 300’s—and it was an early-dismissal day.

The point of this anecdote is to express the extent to which questions drive our work in the classroom. Students expect to get answers. Many may quantify those answers as learning. However, the real learning occurs when questions are formulated. To drum up a question, a student must first separate what he knows from what he does not know. This practice of sifting through knowledge and categorizing skills by competency takes a great deal of reflection. The saying “You don’t know what you don’t know” is thought to ring true for many students, yet in my observations, students are somewhat experts at recognizing what they do not know.

So, how can we use this almost innate penchant for curiosity and inquiry to best benefit our students?

Encourage your quiet students to “speak up” by allowing multiple ways of asking questions in class. This could mean keeping a question box or post-it notes available for students to jot down questions that they may be too shy to ask. You could also take a similar digital approach using Padlet or Google Classroom. Students are able to post questions to an online forum or webpage; they can also respond to others’ posts as well.

When reviewing for an assessment, have students create practice questions that they would anticipate seeing on the test. Have students submit or swap questions so that students can practice answering each other’s questions. If questions are well-written and relevant, use some student-derived questions on the actual assessment. This is also a way for teachers to gauge the students’ preparation for an upcoming assessment.

Play the well-known party game “just questions” in which students are only able to communicate using interrogative statements. This improv theater exercise encourages students to practice consciously phrasing and rephrasing questions. Students must think on their toes and apply knowledge of appropriate word choice and sentence structures in order to continue the conversation.

Provide students with broad or general questions like, “What is the setting of the story?” Then have students kick that question up a notch by adding another component or more complex level of inquiry. For instance, they might change the original question about setting to, “How does the setting affect the conflict that the character faces?” This practice allows students to add a layer of deeper analysis to a general question. Furthermore, this activity allows for plenty of differentiation depending on student ability.

How-To Stay in the Know: News for Elementary-Age Groups

For elementary students, the topic of news or current events may likely be met with confused faces or outright groans of boredom. I can certainly remember my eyes glazing over when Nightly News occupied the television in my house growing up. And today’s elementary schoolers are no different—they may not be 100 percent enthralled with current events. However, today’s technology means that current events are not only readily available, they are also available to all levels of readers and viewers. For the elementary age group, news events and stories shared with children must be age and reader-appropriate. Below are important pointers and suggestions for staying up on current events with elementary students.

Be sure to preview all news stories, articles, and broadcasts before having students participate. Thankfully, today’s technology and vast number of children’s programs ensure that current events and news articles can be easily assessed for age-appropriate content. Several educational news outlets do this work for us by categorizing material by age group and Lexile range. While it is important that students understand what they are reading, it is equally, if not more important, to be sure that the material is suitable for children. Many issues or headlines are not only disturbing or violent, but confusing as well. Discovery Channel, Channel One, Scholastic, Time Magazine, and CNN all provide student-friendly episodes, articles, and other resources so that current events are academically accessible and appropriate for elementary schoolers.

Keep the news relevant but light. Of course, we want students to be aware of some of the important events happening around them. But, at the same time, we must be sure not to expose them to anything that is too jarring or upsetting. News stories for elementary-age groups should involve topics to which students can relate. Make sure that the information they are getting connects to something in their own lives. This is a great way for students to begin to connect to the outside world, as well as recognize their place in it.

Encourage questions. Questions to ask include: What is the purpose of relaying this particular story, i.e., who will benefit from knowing or learning about this? Who might this news story be targeting? Is there a recognizable tone in the story or clip? How does this story or event affect the people around me? How do I benefit from knowing about this story or current event? Again, these questions prompt students to consider what they have just learned.

Know the difference between credibility and unreliability. Again, this is a new concept for elementary schoolers. When it comes to news stories, news media is so prevalent these days that accurate stories can easily be spun or altered and quickly posted to a pseudo-reliable news source. Fact-checking is something that elementary school students can begin to do in order to double check a source that may seem unreliable. Today’s school libraries and media centers have wonderful resources that help with providing credible sources. Whether primary or secondary sources, schools purchase multiple paid forums, anthologies, and online databases for students to conduct research or investigate specific topics.