Nurturing and Cultivating a Growth Mindset in Early Learners … (Part 1 of 2)

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Nurturing and Cultivating a Growth Mindset in Early Learners Across the Developmental Continuum Leads to School Readiness
By Dr. Kendra Coates

(First published for Mindset Works, 2013 at www.mindsetworks.com)

In the following article I present four child development and early learning milestones across the developmental continuum that provide authentic opportunities to nurture and cultivate a growth mindset in early learners. In this first issue I will discuss the first two examples: learning to walk and a child’s expression of independence (self-efficacy and agency). In the next issue I will elaborate on the third and fourth examples: inquiry (a child’s questions and wonders) and school readiness.

Thanks to advances in social psychology, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience we have an abundance of scientifically based research on learning and the brain. One of the areas of research with significant implications for teaching and learning is neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain is malleable and thus changes from learning is central to Carol Dweck’s research and work on student achievement and success. She is responsible for developing the terms: growth mindset and fixed mindset (Dweck 2006).

In simple terms, a growth mindset is the belief that intelligence, ability, and talent can be developed and “grown” while a fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence, ability, and talent are fixed and cannot be changed. People holding a growth mindset embrace challenges, learn from their mistakes, and view effort and hard work as the pathway to success while those holding a fixed mindset tend to avoid challenges, give up easily, see effort as a sign of weakness, and fear failure and making mistakes (Dweck 2006).
How we translate growth mindset research and theory into practice within early learning is the focus of this article. Specifically, how do we nurture and cultivate a growth mindset in early learners across the developmental continuum? I believe we can nurture and cultivate a growth mindset from the earliest of stages by recognizing growth mindset child development and early learning opportunities and engaging in growth mindset practices.

From the time we are born there is significant evidence to suggest we are born with a GM (growth mindset) and it isn’t until someone or something in our environment sends the message otherwise (a fixed mindset message) that we begin to change and/or alter our mindset (belief) and thus behavior. Across the developmental continuum, evidence of a GM can be observed in various developmental and early learning milestones and can be described using language consistent with a growth mindset: challenge, struggle, mistakes, trial and error, problem solving, resiliency, determination, effort, hard work, and practice. Within this two-part article, I present four child development and early learning milestones (there are many more) as natural opportunities to nurture and cultivate a growth mindset in early learners: (a) learning to walk, (b) a child’s sense of independence, self-efficacy and agency, (c) a child’s inquiry (wonders and questions), and (d) school readiness.

I. Learning to Walk
Observing a child learning to crawl, sit, stand, and walk is observing the growth mindset in action — fall down, get back up, try again, fall down, get back up, try again, and so on. The process of learning how to walk is a GM oriented behavior and when observed in action can be described using GM language: challenge, effort, hard work, practice, trial and error, struggle, and determination. Within this GM opportunity we can nurture a child’s GM by (a) providing GM feedback and encouragement (effort-based and process-oriented) and (b) allowing them to develop their new skill(s) with appropriate scaffolding. In other words, allow them the opportunity to problem solve; to explore their environment for “supports” and to access them. However, be mindful of the fact that you are responsible for providing the safe and supportive environment for which they will find and access these “supports”. By allowing children to explore and access “supports” in their environment we are providing them the opportunity to develop their GM, (a) embrace a challenge, (b) learn from their mistakes, (c) try different strategies, (d) problem solve, and (e) build their self-efficacy (the belief in their own abilities and capabilities) and agency (the knowledge that they are in control of their actions) (Carter, 2010).

II. Expression of Independence, Self-Efficacy, and Agency
A child’s strong sense of independence, self-efficacy, and agency (indicators of a GM) can be heard in common toddler statements like: “I can do it”; “I want to do it myself”; “Let me do it”. In this child development opportunity, a GM can be observed when a toddler expresses the desire to want to do a given task and/or activity independently (e.g. eat with a spoon/fork, brush their teeth, put on their socks and shoes, climb the stairs, wash their hands, use a pencil/crayon, put together a puzzle, get dressed, “help” around the house). Within this GM opportunity we can nurture a child’s GM by (a) providing them GM feedback and encouragement, (b) emphasizing how effort and practice lead to learning something new, (c) allowing them to engage in independent tasks and activities without unnecessary interference, (d) encouraging them to try different strategies and problem solve, and (e) embrace challenge, struggle, and mistakes as part of the learning process.

Learning to walk and a child’s expression of independence are just two child development and early learning milestones which present an opportunity to nurture and cultivate a growth mindset in early learners. In the next issue I will present two more: inquiry (child questions and wonders) and school readiness.