How We Can Help Young Students Grow Their Mindset

By Tammy Smitherman
Isabella High School
First Grade Teacher

“This is too hard.” “I can’t do this.” How many of us hear these words over and over in the classroom? This school year my first grade classroom was a cacophony of these types of statements – so much so that I felt like I spent more time cheerleading than teaching.

I became consumed with how to fix these “I can’t do it” attitudes. As it always seems to happen, the perfect book fell right into my lap via the Elementary Powerful Conversations Network’s first meeting of the year!

This year’s choice for in-depth book study was All Learning is Social and Emotional, by Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Dominique Smith. I dove in and it was like honey to my soul!

The Five Categories of SEL (click)

Identity and Agency

The authors organized the “big ideas” of Social Emotional Learning into five categories. Identity and Agency is the first “big idea” covered in the book. Identity and Agency includes the concepts of self-confidence, self-efficacy, growth mindset, perseverance and grit, and resiliency.

Growth mindset assumes that intelligence and other qualities, abilities, and talents can be further developed with effort, learning and dedication. It was the “big idea” for which I had been searching. This was exactly what I needed to do: change the fixed mindset so prevalent in my classroom to growth mindsets.

I launched a search for suitable books featuring the ideas of growth mindset, grit, and determination. One by one, I began reading these books to my first-grade class. After each reading we had reaction discussions within small groups, and then individual journal writing. I supplied prompts that were related to the books and encouraged the children to write about one thing or way in which they could change their thinking.

At the Elementary PCN learning fair, Tammy showed how she acted on what she learned.

The first book I chose to read was Esther Pia Cordova’s I Can’t Do That, YET, in which Enna, who is frustrated because she cannot read, falls asleep and has a dream of all the possibilities of her future self, discovering that with time, knowledge and dedication she CAN be any of those versions.

My students were captivated by Enna’s story. Their responses were overwhelming! Actual quotes from their journal writing included a wide range of ambitions: “I can’t play professional football yet, but I can work hard and one day be able to play with the Falcons.” “I can’t read yet. I can work hard and read my favorite books.” “I can’t be an illustrator and a othr (author) yet, but I can work hard and one day be able to.” And there were many more like these!

We continued on with Ezra Jack Keats’ Whistle for Willie and Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle by Chris Raschlea, and more from the list below.

Using Our New SEL Skills

Who knew when we started working on our SEL skills that our school time together would end so abruptly and challenge the learning process for teachers and students alike?

According to Frey, Fisher, and Smith, an underlying principle of social and emotional skill development is developing the identity and agency of students in ways that open them up to learning.

My hope is that the growth mindsets we cultivated and developed as a result of these wonderful books and our rich discussions in first grade will carry over to their work at home with their parents and beyond the current crisis to all of their future learning endeavors.

Books that feature ideas of growth mindset,
grit, and perseverance:

I Can’t Do That, YET by Esther Pia Cordova

Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats

What Do You Do With a Chance? by Kobi Yamada

Brave Irene by William Steig

Everyone Can Learn to Ride a Bicycle by Chris Raschlea

How to Catch a Star by Oliver Jeffers

The Book of Mistakes by Corinna Luyken

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beaty

When Sophie Thinks She Can’t… by Molly Bang

After the Fall by Dan Santat

Flight School by Lita Judge

Tammy Smitherman teaches first grade at Isabella High School in Chilton County. She holds both a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Early Childhood Education from Auburn University at Montgomery. Tammy is currently in her 27th year of teaching and has taught Kindergarten, 1st and 5th grade and served as Literacy Coach. She has two adult sons and four grandchildren. She and her husband reside in the Isabella community.

Read another story about Isabella:
How One School Made Student-Led Conferences a Real Picnic