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CalSTAT Technical Assistance and Training

IDEAS that Work!California Department of Education, Special Education Division’s special project, California Services for Technical Assistance and Training (CalSTAT) is funded through a contract with the Napa County Office of Education. CalSTAT is partially funded from federal funds, State Grants #H027A080116A. Additional federal funds are provided from a federal competitively awarded State Personnel Development Grant to California (#H323A070011) provided from the U.S. Department of Education Part D of the Individuals with Disabilities Education act (IDEA). Opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the U. S. Department of Education.

Growth Mindset

I have always been deeply moved by outstanding achievement . . . and saddened by wasted potential,” writes Carol Dweck.1 Dweck is a research psychologist at Stanford. An interest in achievement and human potential has guided much of her work, especially the question, “What makes a really capable child give up in the face of failure, where other children may be motivated by the failure?”2 Dweck’s efforts have led her to identify what she calls “growth mindset”: the understanding that talent, ability, and intelligence are not static conditions. They can be developed through hard work, good coaching, and effective and flexible strategies for solving problems. It turns out that people who apply this approach to their lives tend to achieve more than those who believe their talents, abilities, and intelligence are innate gifts—and fixed.

The Point

Growth mindset has its detractors. But even one of Dweck’s harshest critics writes, “I am sure that there is some relationship between effort and outcomes.”3  

That’s one of Dweck’s points. Nowhere does she say that effort and determination make anything possible. Common sense tells us that a 5´1˝ woman in her seventies will never play basketball competitively with the Warriors, no matter her practice patterns, her knowledge of the game, or her coach. There are always going to be limits. But nearly every one of us will improve at anything if we work at it, especially if we know how to go about it. Growth mindset provides that “how.” 

The Research

A common belief even just a decade ago was that our brains do not change much once we’re past childhood, except in terms of loss—from the normal declines of aging, for example, or from a brain injury. However, scientists have discovered that “intelligence is not fixed . . . nor planted firmly in our brains from birth. Rather, it’s forming and developing throughout our lives.”The brain is malleable, like plastic, which serves as the metaphor for the very term that names this capacity: neuroplasticity. 

The promise of neuroplasticity lies in the brain’s complicated—and resilient—set of neural connectors; these transmit electrical signals along their pathways. Every time we have a specific thought, register a feeling or emotion, or do something in response to a particular event, we strengthen that pathway. The more we think, feel, or do a certain thing, the stronger and more “set” the pathway becomes.  

Learning an unfamiliar task, thinking about something familiar in a new way, or responding with an uncharacteristic (for you) emotion to a perceived threat, for example, is often not easy because the neural road is new—your brain is forging a path. However, if you work to repeat the thought, action, or emotion often enough, it gradually becomes easier—and then second nature and habitual. At the same time, your old response or habit, since you’re using it less, becomes weaker.

According to MindsetWorks, the Web site of resources for people interested in applying growth mindset to school and everyday life, “The key to growing is practice.”5

The good news: We all have this ability to “rewire our brains.” We can learn to dance a tango or read Greek; to quit biting our fingernails or stop looking at a smartphone every two minutes. The first two are hard to do if you don’t know how. The second two are hard not to do if they are your habits. But neuroplasticity makes it possible, if not to master a behavior, certainly to improve on it. By practicing the desired activity often enough, accessing memory (reminding yourself why you want—or don’t want—to do the thing), and applying the strategies you’ve learned for meeting the challenge, you can intentionally learn new things or replace one habitual response with another.6   

But there’s more. Your actual intelligence can change. Scientists now understand that our brain is its own kind of muscle, and by challenging it and learning new things we make it stronger. And we actually become smarter.7   

The Classroom

Dweck’s findings carry with them echoes of the American philosopher and educator John Dewey, who believed that all learning begins with struggle. “Struggling to work through uncertainty and ambiguity to discover a solution was, for Dewey, essential to meaningful learning.”8 But how do you teach students the value of struggling and sticking with difficult tasks? 

Most infants seem to know instinctively the value of refusing to give up; they exert a tremendous amount of effort learning to walk, for example. Maybe it’s because they have a clear goal in mind; maybe because the people around them express delight at every incremental move they make in the right direction (and don’t expect them to walk the minute they’re born). And maybe there’s no absolute answer to the question of why it’s difficult for many students to embrace challenges or see difficult learning tasks through to completion, even when most of them were intrepid toddlers. Dweck’s research shows that students are more inclined to persist if you share with them information about how success in school does not start with IQ or talent; how everyone can improve ability and intelligence. Dweck writes, “When students learned through a structured program that they could ‘grow their brains’ and increase their intellectual abilities, they did better. . . . we found that having children focus on the process that leads to learning (like hard work or trying new strategies) could foster a growth mindset and its benefits.”9 In addition, “educational interventions and initiatives that target these psychological factors can transform students’ experience and achievement in school, improving core academic outcomes such as GPA and test scores months and even years later.”10

These structured programs for “growing brains” involve teaching explicit strategies for learning: how to stop to think, to put the goal in mind, to invoke and use memory, to map options or ideas to find order in them. Students also need to know what effort looks, feels, and sounds like in order to recognize mistakes and failures as positive guideposts for learning and improving; to value the challenges and complexity of the learning process; to appreciate patience; and to celebrate incremental progress. When coached and encouraged in these dispositions and behaviors, students’ attitude toward school improves along with their grades.11 One effective approach for tutoring students in these practices involves the way we talk to them as they struggle to learn.

The Struggle

It’s nearly impossible not to take delight in the achievement of children. Growth mindset cautions, however, that explicit messages about talent and intelligence can lead them to develop an “on” or “off” attitude toward their own potential—either you’re smart and talented or you’re not; you have it or you don’t—and unintentionally promote a fixed mindset. Dweck and colleagues recommend that teachers and parents praise children for effort and for staying on task, that they respond to students with words that celebrate hard work, tenacity, curiosity, process, and progress. For example, instead of telling students, “You’re so smart!” say instead . . .

You tried really hard on that.

Teachers who are applying these principles in their classrooms also often post the kinds of messages you see in the table below for their students to see and absorb.

Instead of thinking . . .

Try thinking . . . 

I can’t change my brain.

I can grow my brain.

I want to be the best.

I want to get better.

I do well because I am smart.

My hard work brings me success.

I ignore comments on my work.

I think carefully about comments on my work and use them to improve what I do next. 

I’m not good at this.

What am I missing?

I’m awesome at this.

I’m on the right track.

I give up.

I’ll try some of the other strategies I’ve learned.

This is too hard.

This may take some time and effort.

I can’t make this any better.

I can always improve; I’ll keep trying.

I made a mistake; this is just not what I’m good at.

Mistakes teach me how to improve.

I’ll never be as smart as she is.

I’m going to figure out what she does and try it.

It’s good enough.

Is this really my best work?

I didn’t get this right. I failed.

I didn’t get this right—yet. I’m learning by trying.

Not Just for Kids

Tamara Clay believes that children are influenced by what they see the adults around them doing—perhaps even more than by what these adults are saying. Clay is one of the Special Education Local Plan Area directors at the El Dorado County Office of Education where the topic of growth mindset has been featured in an Inspiration to Action Symposium, one of the organization’s professional development events. Clay is particularly interested in “how the idea of growth mindset flows through the whole system. If it’s just in the classroom,” she says, “it’s hypocrisy.” 

Others agree. Educational researchers Richard and Rebecca DuFour write about what happens when initiatives are viewed as “a task to complete rather than an ongoing process.” Short answer: they fail. The DuFours suggest that any change of philosophy or initiative—including growth mindset—needs to be “anchored within the culture of a school”12 if it is going to succeed in the classroom. In Clay’s words, it has to “flow through the whole system.” This challenges all educators—teachers and school administrators alike—to do the following: 

Become part of a professional learning team that values constructive reflection more than criticism.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can play a key role in supporting growth mindset, as it provides guidelines for creating environments that give students multiple ways to access information, practice skills, and show what they know. The UDL guideline of “increasing mastery-oriented feedback”14 in particular dovetails seamlessly with Dweck’s work.  

Implications for Students with Disabilities

Growth mindset strengthens the recent direction of special education “away from taking care of those with exceptionalities to now expecting those with exceptionalities to learn and make advancements in their lives and communities. The question is no longer ‘whether students can learn, but how much they can learn, and with what types of instruction and support.’”15  

Rachel Quenemoen, project director at the National Center and State Collaborative, wrote in her testimony to the U. S. Senate, “80 percent of students with disabilities, that is, 98 percent of all students, do not have cognitive disabilities . . . as their primary disability. My 31-year-old daughter does have mental retardation, and she is a curious, engaged, life-long learner, so I struggle to understand how educators could systematically make assumptions about her ability to learn. I struggle to understand how educators could make those assumptions about the ability of all students with other disabilities as well, those who may have learning disabilities, speech language disabilities, vision, hearing, or any disabilities that may affect HOW a student learns, but like my daughter, need not dramatically affect WHAT the student learns. We have research and practice-tested methods to teach all children well, but in some schools the collective will to do so has not yet been mustered.”16  

When embraced by all adults at a school, a growth mindset can help to create that collective will, which includes the expectations that everyone can learn and grow—and school is the place for this to happen. “Expectations change neurology,” says Sherria Hoskins, a Portsmouth University professor leading a study of growth mindset in England. “If you have low expectations of a child, their brain starts to function worse. . . . We’re not saying you can turn a child who is struggling at maths into a maths genius. The message is about getting better.” In this study, students are learning about Charles Darwin and his belief that “there was nothing special about my intellect.” Darwin claimed that it was his “ability to change and adapt” that was central to his success.17 Of course, teaching students about their ability to change and adapt does not mean lecturing first graders about neurology. But it does mean creating an environment for learning; it means giving students frequent, accurate, and consistent messages about what’s involved in the process of learning; and it means providing repeated opportunities for practice. In fact, the central importance of practice is the very reason therapy is provided to students with disabilities; it ensures the intensity and duration of practice that is needed to master a task—doing something over and over until you get it. For example, a good occupational therapist knows that there are twelve sequential steps in learning to stand up. When she supports a young child with a cerebral palsy that affects his legs, she creates an environment that allows the child to practice each one of those steps in sequence. The same principle follows in any kind of classroom for all children with every skill, cognitive as well as physical. Most students benefit from extra intensity and duration of practice, and skilled teachers create opportunities for planned, purposeful, sequential practice, which is (again) “the key to growing.” 

Going Forward

No one has an all-growth or all-fixed mindset; we’re all mixed in an infinite variety of ways. And certainly growth mindset is not a silver bullet to school success; learning is hard work and never takes a straight line of progress, even with the most adaptable and curious of minds. 

What is certain is that the experience of progress toward any goal can be a most delightful addiction, and one that contributes to a habit of tenacity. Success does breed itself. And the more we can know—and help students know—about how a fixed mindset can sabotage learning, and what the strategies are for solving problems, staying on task, and developing a flexible, curious, and expansive mind, the more we all learn. Modeling, teaching, and promoting a growth mindset at home and at school can give all students a clearer path to their own highest level of excellence.  


  1. Dweck, C. (2013). Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development. (p. ix). New York, NY: Psychology Press.
  2. Krakovsky, M. (2007). The Effort Effect. Stanford Alumni
  3.  “The Growth Mindset: Telling Penguins to Flap Harder?”
  4. Bernard, S. (2010). Neuroplasticity: Learning Physically Changes the Brain. Edutopia. 
  5. Brainology. (2016). You Can Grow Your Intelligence. Mindset Works. Center/52G3LTP08OVNI3G9NMI8.pdf
  6. Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Kempermann, G., Kuhn, H. G., Büchel, C., & May, A. (2006). Temporal and Spatial Dynamics of Brain Structure Changes During Extensive Learning. Journal of Neuroscience, 26(23): 6314–6317.
  7. Crabreee, S. (2012). REACH to Rewire Your Brain. Positive Psychology News. scott-crabtree/2012111824660
  8. Ermeling, B., Hiebert, J., & Gallimore, R. (2015). Beyond Growth Mindset: Creating Classroom Opportunities for Meaningful Struggle. Education Week Teacher.
  9. Dweck, C. (2015). Carol Dweck Revisits the Growth Mindset.  
  10. Dweck, C., Walton, G., & Cohen, G. (2014) Academic Tenacity: Mindsets and Skills That Promote Long-Term Learning.
  11. Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246–263.
  12. Dufour, R., & Dufour, R. (2009). Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work: New Insights for Improving Schools (What Principals Need to Know). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
  13. Hochheiser, D. (2014). Growth Mindset: A Driving Philosophy, Not Just a Tool. Edutopia
  14. National Center for Universal Design for Learning. UDL Guidelines—Version 2.0: Examples and Resources.
  15. Dowling, J., & McFarland, S.  (2010). Severe Disabilities. Education and Individuals with Severe Disabilities: Promising Practices, p. 2. International Encyclopedia of Rehabilitation.
  16. Quenemoen, R. (July 12, 2006). U. S. Senate Hearing on No Child Left Behind.
  17. Rustin, S. (2016). New test for “growth mindset”, the theory that anyone who tries can succeed. The Guardian.


California Services for Technical Assistance and Training (CalSTAT)
A Special Project of the Napa County Office of Education| 5789 State Farm Drive, Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Fax: 707-586-2735 |