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Growth Mindset for Early Learners

Nurturing a growth mindset in young children is important to developing smart, persistent, and successful learners.

Growth Mindset for Early Learners

Growth Mindset for Kids

I think I can. I think I can.” The Little Engine That Could has always been a popular teaching tool for young children. Why? It’s an important lesson that helps demonstrate determination and growth in a way children can understand. 

At the center of this lesson is a mindset. A mindset is a set of attitudes or beliefs about yourself, affecting your thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Mindsets can be positive or negative—“I think I can” versus “I don’t think I can.” While mindsets are a concept that even adults actively work on, these beliefs start developing as a child.

Young children are naturally curious. Most of our youth is focused on learning, often done through trial and error. Do you have children who easily give up when they’re unable to complete a task successfully? Alternatively, do you have children who enjoy a challenge and try until they’re successful? While the former mindset needs nurturing, the latter is a perfect example of a growth mindset in children.

In this article, we’ll discuss a growth mindset—what it is, why it’s important, and how to instill it in young children.

woman helps young child with coloring


What is a growth mindset for children?

For children, a growth mindset is a belief and understanding that their intelligence, talents, and abilities can be developed and improved. In the novel, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, psychologist Carol Dweck coined the term “growth mindset” and described it as a mindset where “people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point.”

Brains and talent aren’t the end-all, be-all of success; however, neither is a growth mindset. A common misconception about the growth mindset is that it only praises and rewards effort. Continuous effort without results is less than ideal, as commonly demonstrated in the classroom. Not only do you want your children to try, but you also want them to be successful. Regardless, a growth mindset is a stepping stone to success.

Following the publishing of her book, Carol Dweck collaborated with her colleagues to study the effects of a growth mindset on an organization. While the members of the Fortune 1000 companies are significantly older than your children, the findings were significant and can apply to any age.

Supervisors in growth-mindset companies expressed significantly more positive views about their employees than supervisors in fixed-mindset companies, rating them as more innovative, collaborative, and committed to learning and growing. In contrast, employees at fixed-mindset organizations described their companies as having a handful of “star” workers that were highly valued. Additionally, these employees worried about failing, so they pursued fewer innovative projects. The idea of failure (and how one reacts to it) is at the core of what differentiates a growth mindset from a fixed mindset.

A fixed mindset is believing and understanding that your abilities and talents are fixed and can’t be changed. With a fixed mindset, one might think: “That’s just who I am—I can’t change it. Either I’m good at it or I’m not. If I don’t try, then I won’t fail.

Failure is looked at as the end of the line for someone with a fixed mindset. Young children might grow frustrated, have a tantrum, and stop trying when met with something they think they cannot do. However, failure can be seen as a new challenge and opportunity for young children with a growth mindset.

While the benefits of having a growth mindset may be obvious, another misconception is to think that a growth mindset is definite. There are areas in our lives where we immediately develop a fixed mindset for our talents or abilities. Can you draw? You might easily say no; however, if you applied a growth mindset to this skill, your answer will likely change.

Maintaining a growth mindset is a work in progress for adults but especially for children. While adults have had opportunities to learn resilience, your children are still developing mentally and emotionally. When young children are criticized or negatively compared to their friends and peers, it’s easy to become insecure and withdraw. 

As you help your children grow and develop into successful learners and eventually adults, you must equip them with the tools to enrich and nurture a growth mindset.

man and woman teach young girl how to ride bike


Why is a growth mindset important?

What you learn as a child shapes and molds how you think and behave as an adult. Early childhood education is our foundation to build all future lessons. Developing a growth mindset as a young child can prepare you for a lifetime of development, progress, failure, and success.

A growth mindset is important because it equips children with a series of skills they can work towards building. It can help them become more resilient. While some might view failure as negative, that’s not the case with a growth mindset. 

With a growth mindset, failure isn’t a sign to quit; it’s an opportunity to try again. It’s a stepping stone to success that allows you to analyze what went wrong and work towards fixing it. A growth mindset gives you the ability to bounce back. Instead of quitting, you can face your failure from a different perspective and persist as you continue to try again.

Throughout this process, a growth mindset also helps children become more adaptable. If a child is challenged, this mindset will guide them to ask themselves, “What can I do next?” This idea that they can work towards solving their problems makes challenges and failure less overwhelming.

Ultimately, this important thought process creates positive, curious children who develop into positive, curious adults who embrace challenges, learn from their mistakes, and look for opportunities to improve.

young boy building blocks in living room


How to develop a growth mindset

Growth doesn’t happen in one day; it’s something you continuously put effort towards and build upon. The same goes for developing a growth mindset. As an adult, you likely have days where you easily say, “I can’t do it.” Just because you said this doesn’t mean you don’t have a growth mindset. Even people with a strong growth mindset have moments where it shifts to fixed. The point is that a growth mindset is constantly developing, and you can start building this in your young children.

To develop a growth mindset in children, you’ll need to:

  • Introduce it
  • Identify it
  • Model it
  • Practice it

Introduce it

The first step to helping your children develop a growth mindset is introducing the idea. Even young children understand the concept of being unable to accomplish a task. They might need help with the alphabet, numbers, or shapes.

At this stage of the lesson, explain what growth is. Explain what a mindset is. Talk them through the difference between a growth and a fixed mindset and the likely outcomes. Create relatable examples that can help them apply them to their life.

Identify it

To continue developing a growth mindset in your children, identify it in their daily activities. Start by guiding them through a list of growth mindset statements for children. “I can do it. I want to learn. I can keep trying. When you hear a child say one of these phrases, identify it with positive reinforcement. 

Additionally, when incorporating media into your lessons, consider adding films where you can identify examples of a growth mindset for your children.

Model it

As an educator, you’re one of your children's most important role models. To help them develop a growth mindset, model it yourself. Show them or tell them about your struggles. Tell them about your process of trying, learning something new, and growing.

If you ask them to share their weekend adventures, offer up a “story” of your own that demonstrates a growth mindset. For example, say you like to exercise, and you’ve been trying to run three miles at once. Two weeks ago, you only managed two miles; however, you ran 2.5 miles last week. While you were shy of your goal, you didn’t see this as a reason to quit. You took it as an opportunity to keep going. For your young children, this can help them understand how trying will help them get better.

With this example, you can talk your children through your feelings and relate them to how they might feel when they’re challenged or struggling. There could be feelings of disappointment and sadness, but there’s also courage and positivity.

Practice it

Once your children learn about the growth mindset, practicing and reinforcing the idea is crucial. Create opportunities for productive struggle where children are given time to work through their problems independently. Praise success but don’t forget to praise effort. Take their challenges and mistakes and transform them into learning opportunities for success.

young girl seated at a small table, using scissors to cut a piece of paper in classroom


Growth mindset activities for children

A growth mindset isn’t a one-and-done deal. It requires developing and maintaining it, and it needs nurturing. There will be times when your children slip back into a fixed mindset, and that’s okay. When it happens, it’s essential to keep some tools on hand to guide them through it. Here are eight growth mindset activities for children in the classroom.

Negatives become positives

To help introduce a growth mindset to children, create an activity where they can focus on making negatives into positives. Explain that negative comments about oneself can limit and stop us from trying and getting better.

Create a list of negative or limiting statements that are common among young children. 

  • "I’m not smart enough."
  • "I don’t believe in myself."
  • "I’m not strong."
  • "I don’t have good ideas."

Walk your children through how these negative statements about themselves are untrue. Guide them into turning the negatives into positives. 

  • “I’m not smart enough” becomes “I am smart enough.”
  • “I don’t believe in myself” becomes “I do believe in myself.”
  • “I’m not strong” becomes “I am strong.”
  • “I don’t have good ideas” becomes “I do have good ideas.”

Famous failures

Your children might believe that successful people never fail. Demonstrating that some of the most famous people and figures had to deal with failure can help emphasize a growth mindset. Walt Disney was fired from one of his first animation jobs because they thought he lacked creativity. Steve Jobs was fired from Apple, the company he co-founded. When he returned to the company, not only would he come with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad, but he helped launch Pixar Animation Studios. 

Failure isn’t the end of the road. With this exercise, you can show that most of the time, failure is just a stepping stone to success.

“Challenge” interviews

Examples are a great way for children to learn. One activity you can plan for them is a “challenge” interview. Direct them to go home and interview an adult in their family. This simple interview consists of three questions.

  • What is something that was hard for you when you were a child?
  • How did you get better?
  • How did you feel after?

While using famous examples, as seen in the exercise above, is a great tool, “challenge” interviews with family members can make growth seem more real. For a child who can’t tie their shoes, learning that someone else struggled with the same thing makes the future success of learning to tie their shoes seem more possible.

“How can I do that” practice

Words hold power. Instead of letting your children make statements like, “I can’t do that,” practice directing them to ask, “How can I do that?

Using the previous example, a young child might say, “I can’t tie my shoes.” Instead, you’d direct them to ask themselves, “How can I learn to tie my shoes?” This exercise also allows them to be creative and think outside the box. They can ask an adult for help. They can practice on a doll. They can watch a video on tying shoes. There are many ways young children can learn skills, and you must strengthen this idea.

Accomplishment jar

One tool to implement in your classroom is an accomplishment jar. At the end of each day or week, make some one-on-one time with each child. For a minute or two, ask them to talk through an accomplishment they had. Try asking, “What’s one thing you accomplished?” and “How did it make you feel?” Write it down, congratulate them, and add it to a jar on display in the room.

At the end of the month, go over their accomplishments with them so they can revisit and celebrate their growth.

Failure action plan

No matter what age you are, failure can be hard. What do you do after? While some might prefer curling up in bed with a movie and some ice cream, children might express this feeling by getting upset and crying. There’s nothing wrong with expressing your feelings or regrouping. To maintain a growth mindset, an activity to work through with your children is building a failure action plan to move past these feelings. If you fail, that’s okay. What can we do to move forward?

Some questions you might ask to build a failure action plan include:

  • What happened?
  • What was the result?
  • What did you learn that might help you?
  • What are some new ideas you want to try?
  • What’s your new plan?

Imagine a young child working on building a one-column block tower that falls over once it gets too high. Using the failure action plan can help them work through successfully building it, even if it takes a few tries. This cycle of thinking can apply to any challenge.

“Overcoming challenges” movies

While educators and parents typically try to steer young children away from too much screen time, there’s no denying that movies can be a great way to keep children entertained and learning. Pick a movie where a character overcomes a challenge. In your lesson, guide your children into identifying the challenge and how the character overcame it. For children, sometimes it’s simple. Mirabel and Moana did it—so can I.

Some popular animated films that can help demonstrate a growth mindset for children are:

  • Brave
  • Encanto
  • Finding Dory
  • Finding Nemo
  • Kung Fu Panda
  • Moana
  • Trolls
  • Zootopia

“Yet” practice

There’s nothing wrong with not being able to do something; however, to strengthen a growth mindset, teach your children that this setback is only temporary. Just because they can’t do something now doesn’t mean they won’t be able to do it in the future. With the help of your children, create a list of statements of tasks they can’t do. Practice adding “yet” after them.

  • “I can’t count to ten” becomes “I can’t count to ten yet.”
  • “I can’t tie my shoes” becomes “I can’t tie my shoes yet.”
  • “I can’t spell my name” becomes “I can’t spell my name yet.”

Allowing your young children to practice using the word “yet” stresses the idea that they can grow.

Just keep swimming

Growth doesn’t happen in a straight line, and success rarely comes without failure. The most important thing is your mindset when you experience these challenges, and it begins developing as a young child. Nurturing a growth mindset helps children remain positive, embrace challenges, and learn from their mistakes. When a young child might feel like they can’t do something, a growth mindset like Dory’s will remind them to “just keep swimming.”

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