Mindset in Action: Jennifer Maichin, from Mineola Middle School, NY, shares her experience, tips and classroom activities to introduce students to the growth mindset

I always wanted to teach. I dreamed of inspiring and empowering every student who entered my classroom. I imagined all students walking into school highly motivated and eager to learn.  Reality of course was different. Mindset not only helped me manage my class effectively, but also reminded me why I wanted to become a teacher in the first place. 

For the past 16 years, I have had the privilege of spending my school days teaching 11 through 14 year olds with learning challenges. These students are interesting and unique and, yes, they are challenging to teach. People sometimes ask me: “How do you do it? Do you feel successful? Do you feel like you actually get through to them? What motivates them?  What is the best way to engage them and get them to want to learn? Why bother? They don't listen anyway...”

How, then, do I get through to them?

Many years ago, a student named Chris walked into my classroom. A few weeks prior to the start of the school year, when I received  my resource room class list, I was warned that he was going to be an incredible handful and that I was in for "a long year". Chris, I was told, was disorganized, unmotivated and unwilling to learn. He was also severely dyslexic, which compounded the problem. Oh, and you also have Danny in your class, I was told. His impulsivity and poor anger control can set him off at any time. Watch out for David, he has all the potential in the world but is just lazy. And Rachel would rather talk all day than do work. And Tom, poor thing, was born addicted and has an incredibly difficult home situation. Hmmm... After getting to know these kids for a few weeks, I realized that yes, they each did possess many of the qualities that preceded them.  They knew it, too.

"This is just who I am", they believed.  "I am who I am, it is what it is".

I used all of the approaches I knew to motivate and help them. I listened to them and acknowledged their struggles.  Sometimes I would sympathize and reduce some of the academic rigor. I set up positive reinforcement plans. I differentiated my lessons to suit their learning styles. I used technology, and I got parents involved. Admittedly, I would even tell them at times that they had to "get it together" or else they would fail.  

Yes, they responded, but something else was happening. I began to realize that these strategies yielded only temporary results.  Yes, they responded to the lesson or the reinforcement, and they learned the objective of the lesson. They were proud of their accomplishment. But as soon as they were confronted with a new challenge or obstacle, they would revert back to "I can't," "I don’t know how," "this is just who I am." The cycle would continue. Ugh. Now I was frustrated. Temporary, extrinsic motivation was not enough. They weren’t internalizing it. What would happen to them when they had to motivate themselves?

Here was My Challenge:  How was I going to get these kids to believe that they didn't have to just accept the cards they were dealt, to have confidence that they could overcome their obstacles? How could I help them to look forward to new challenges, to see that making mistakes was a valuable part of the learning process? How could I help them to find their own Northern Star instead of being the guide for them?

I made it my mission to get these kids to understand themselves as learners instead of being the one to tell them. I needed a metaphor.  I taught them that learning was similar to putting your hand on a hot stove.  When someone puts their hand on it, the nerve cells transmit messages to the part of the brain that feels pain and then makes them immediately release their hand from the source of the pain. Sometimes, with some people, the pathway hits a roadblock and the message doesn't get to the brain as quickly as it should. I took a pen and drew a roadblock on their arm.  I asked:

Hmm, if the message got blocked here, how might it reach the place in the brain that it needed to get to?  

"it could jump over it"
"it could crawl under it"
"it could find a different path to take"

Would the message get there as quickly as the message travelling through the path with no roadblock?


Why not?

"because it would have to figure out how to get around the roadblock and that takes more time.”

What happens after it figured out a way to get around?

"the message would reach the place it would need to get to."

Would it be worth it?



For years, I taught kids HOW to learn and how to overcome their personal obstacles.  It worked: I saw results in the way the kids approached learning, and more importantly, in how they viewed themselves as learners.

One day, I was searching through an online bookstore for new titles.  One particular title caught my eye.  "Mindset: the New Psychology of Success" by Dr. Carol Dweck.  I read the summary.  I couldn't believe it:  There are others who believe what I believe!  There is research out there that proves it! Dr. Dweck's book solidified what I believed and gave me a language to use with my students.  We now could put a name to it.  Growth Mindset.  Simply put: Effort is worthwhile.  Seek challenges.  Overcome obstacles.  Value mistakes and learn from them. You have a choice. The choice is yours.

We learned the first important steps to embracing the growth mindset: alt

  • altFirst, learn the basics. I taught the kids about Growth vs. Fixed Mindsets and gave them examples. I wrote growth mindset statements (in green), i.e. “I believe you can change your intelligence, or “I like working hard to learn something new”, and fixed mindset statements (in blue), i.e. “I would rather do something easy and not make mistakes than work hard to learn something new”, or “You cannot change how smart you are”, on laminated index cards.  I had each student separate the cards into “Me” and “Not Me” categories. I then had them count up all of the blue and the green in the “me” category.  We discussed together why they chose these comments for themselves. This led to incredible dialogue.  The kids began to look at themselves through a different lens, and they began to analyze themselves as learners.
  • Next, learn to tell the difference between growth mindset statements and fixed mindset statements. I told them what the colors meant.  How many green cards do you have in your “Me” column?  How many blue? I created a presentation that taught them the two mindsets (see below). They immediately recognized the difference and connected their own statements as either growth or fixed mindset.
  • Lastly, learn to recognize the two mindsets within yourself. We wrote down experiences from our own lives where we may have chosen either a growth or a fixed mindset. We began to share, through blogging and class discussions, the different ways we used our new knowledge.  We took these situations and talked about what the results may have been with someone of the opposite mindset. When a particularly difficult issue arose, we would create a "fish bowl" in which two students sat in the center of the group, the first posing the problem the second giving advice on how to approach it with a growth mindset.

Mindset Statements written by Jennifer's studentsThe language of growth mindset became part of the culture of the classroom. We stuck up the index cards all over the room, and constantly referred to them and reorganized them based on the challenges that were being posed for each lesson (or project, task, etc). “That was soooo fixed mindset!” The kids started recognizing it within their own comments. “How can you change that around to respond with a growth mindset?” I would ask. They referred to the walls.  Eventually they stopped referring to the walls.

They internalized it. They owned it.  We did it.

After immersing myself and my class in Dr. Dweck’s research, we later found the Brainology program, created in her lab to teach students a growth mindset. The students quickly became "friends" with Chris and Dahlia, and were immediately able to attach their new knowledge of how their brains work to their application of the growth mindset. The Brainology program gave us the concrete images and knowledge they needed to solidify their new understanding of themselves as learners.

Through this process, the students began to understand that success was their choice.  Failure was their choice. You can choose to learn from your mistakes, or you can choose to give up.  You can choose to find a way around that roadblock, or you can choose to let it hold you back.

Chris, Danny, Rachel, David, Tom... Like all of us, they will be running into roadblocks along their life path. They will encounter challenges, and they will make mistakes. But something has changed. They cannot pretend to be the same people they were when they walked into my room in September.  When confronted with an obstacle, they now know they have a choice to proceed with either a growth or a fixed mindset. When they need guidance, they can now look up to their very own Northern Star.

Something within me changed that year as well. I myself internalized the growth mindset. This didn’t only benefit my students, but it changed my life as well.  I, too, know that it is my choice to embrace challenges. It is my choice to admit my mistakes and learn from them.  It is my choice to find a way to overcome obstacles.

So, when people ask:
“How do you stay motivated to teach these challenging and unique students day after day? Do you feel successful?”

Just a few weeks ago, as I was packing my classroom up for the summer, Chris, who is now finishing his junior year in high school, came to visit.  “You know all of those things you taught us when I was in your class in seventh grade?”

Yes, Chris, of course I do.

“I can’t believe I am saying this, but I use them now more than ever.  It is helping me get through high school.  That stuff really works!”

Thanks, Chris, I’m glad your Northern Star continues to shine.

If you have questions for me, or any comments, or would like to share your own ideas/metaphors/techniques for shifting mindsets, please start a discussion below!