If you’ve opened any education journal, read an online article, joined a PLC or participated in professional development in the last few years you’ve no doubt heard “growth mindset” discussed and debated.

What is it? How can you teach it? Why do we need it? Can we test for it? Are you doing it?

Carol Dweck offers, “In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”  (Dweck, 2015)

Many teachers we’ve worked with have an understanding, generally, of the concept as outlined by Dweck, but aren’t yet sure how to effectively help their students to achieve it. In our work we found a practical definition of a “growth mindset” is having the skills that allow you to think flexibly and fluidly. This is the “it” that we want students to achieve. To be able to push past adversity knowing that “push” or effort will likely yield results.

The ability to use or apply a growth mindset is just as important but frequently less discussed. Our students need to have the ability to apply those skills in everyday life, particularly during times of stress or demanding situations. Therefore, the most important process for a teacher to think about is how they can teach these foundational skills to their students and empower them to use these skills effectively.

As educators we need to support our students’ ability to think flexibly and fluidly. This comes from learning the skills to manage one's own emotions during times of high demand or stress. This management forms the ability to be in control of one’s own thoughts and behaviors. “I can do it” stems from an understanding of “what is preventing me from thinking I can do it right now?” and then being able to push past those obstacles.

Just as you’ve heard a lot about growth mindset in recent years, you’re likely also hearing about social and emotional learning (SEL). The link between SEL and growth mindset couldn’t be more important. In fact, we think talking about growth mindset outside of the SEL space is confusing. You can’t have one without the other. Without explicitly teaching the critical skills that build emotional regulation -- the key foundation of SEL -- you won’t be teaching a growth mindset.


Let’s connect this a little further

Have you ever let your emotions get the best of you? Think of a time that you had a strong emotional reaction to an event yet lacked the skills to manage that strong emotion. Many would say you didn’t show a growth mindset at that time because you shut down in the face of adversity. Further, you didn’t use the skills to persevere. Now, imagine if you had been taught explicitly to identify the connection between events and your emotions and you knew what to do to manage your emotions in difficult situations. You’d be able to use these skills, developing and practicing them over time, to actually build your resilience and belief in yourself.

It’s critical to teach students to believe in their own skills and themselves. However, it is even more critical to teach them what to do when they need to use those skills in times of stress. That means teaching them the skills to identify, understand and manage their emotions so that they can, in turn, drive their own growth mindset when they need it.

One of the most challenging aspects of any new concept or idea in education is how educators can turn that into practical actions in their classrooms. Our message to educators is very simple. Teach the foundational SEL skills that help build a growth mindset. We need to explicitly, and consistently, teach kids the skills to manage their own emotions, so they can manage their behavior and be ready to learn.  This is particularly important to develop in the elementary classroom.


Step 1 - Identify emotions

Don’t make the common assumption that your students know their emotions: teach them. Students in kindergarten and first grade can learn emotions like overwhelmed and frustrated. Teach them, define them, and then model them by choosing books, games and even charades to show what emotions look like. Most importantly, teach kids to connect their emotions to events and to be able to identify what is driving them. We suggest teachers ask themselves, “Are students frustrated by math? Confused by writing? Scared by a thunderstorm?”


Step 2 - Connect emotions to behaviors

One of the most important connections when developing a growth mindset is to help students see how their emotions drive their behaviors. If feeling frustrated leads to shutting down during math, then it’s important to understand that connection.

Support students to make this connection by modeling it in the classroom. For example: “There was traffic on the way home, which made me really frustrated. I was late to pick up my son. When he got in the car, I snapped at him to hurry up, even though he hadn’t done anything.”


Step 3 - Teach strategies to manage emotions

Students need to learn strategies to manage their emotions so that behavior can remain consistent and positive. The ability to employ strategies is critical to student success and ultimately the development of a growth mindset.

Imagine the situation above, when a student is frustrated during math. Without strategies that student is likely to shut down and stop working.

When we teach students how to use strategies, we can help them to learn the skills to push past their emotions. To do this we need to help them identify events that drive emotions ahead of time and practice using a strategy to cope with these emotions. This helps strategies become automatic, and this will keep students moving forward even when faced with a challenging event.

Here’s a useful classroom idea: Help students identify their emotions by stopping for a minute or two during a math activity. Ask them to check in on their emotions, ask them to identify what they feel, and see if they need to use a strategy to manage it. Have a ready list of strategies available to them. Getting a quick drink, taking a quick walk, asking a clarifying question, or even just taking a few mindful deep breaths can help to manage an emotion and keep kids on track.


Step 4 - Teach, practice, rinse, repeat.

Have realistic expectations for yourself and your students. Developing these skills takes time and so does the development of a growth mindset. Be patient.

A growth mindset comes from knowing you have the skills to manage how you feel so you can drive what you do. Educators can arm students with the skills they need to drive their own learning by supporting their social and emotional skills. Directly teaching students to identify, understand and manage their own emotions can be a game changer for kids and lead to a lifetime of growth and learning -- a true growth mindset.


About the authors

Educational psychologist Lori Jackson and special educator Steve Peck each have more than 15 years of experience working with students and their families in diverse school settings. Together, they are co-founders of The Connections Model, a social-emotional learning and education technology company whose KidConnect app and curriculum help students develop emotional regulation, the necessary foundation for all learning. Follow them on Twitter @TheConnectModel