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Growth Mindset: Getting Kids to do Hard Work

Kids need Growth Mindset, because kids need to do rigorous work. They’re scared of it, and they might not understand its value, but they do need it so they can grow and “become smarter” — which they sometimes don’t realize can do. All kids, no matter what level they are, need hard (meaning difficult as relevant to their individual ability and background) work in order to grow.

Why Teach Growth Mindset

If you teach kids with a growth mindset, you don’t ever write a kid off as doomed to fail (you don’t even “write them off” as guaranteed to succeed), because you believe natural talent and ability is just a starting point — it takes hard work for kids to acheive their potential. So hard work becomes a valuable point system with which a kid can level up — so it’s pretty important.

Growth Mindset

You don’t grow muscle by lifting air, and you don’t get smarter by reading the alphabet over and over. As lifting weights makes your muscles quantifiably more powerful, pushing kids to do more work can have measurable outcomes.


When I give them a lot of work, they whine and grumble when I give them something “hard” (but Ms. Chhaaaa-braaaaaa! We had to write an essay last month!) so there can be a temptation to “lighten the load” or whatever, when in fact, I need to do just the opposite — give them more so they can work harder, and think deeper, and get used to doing more… especially if they want to get smarter.

In fact, Psychology professor Carol S. Dweck of Stanford wrote an article that suggests doing exactly this. In her article Even Geniuses Work Hard she posits that students fear doing too much work, but classrooms in which meaningful work (work that focuses on the full process of learning rather than an end-goal or outcome) has long term positive effects on students overall acheivement. This shouldn’t be a surprise, but implementing it isn’t as straightforward as I imagined it would be since it involves striking a magical, perfect balance between rigor and support.

How can I challenge students to work harder without going overboard?

Striking that perfect balance between challenging and managable (especially for hard-work-fearing students, aka everyone) is like walking on a tightrope.

Let’s say I want them to write more papers independently — but I know they need to pre-write. So do I give them a pre-writing organizer or walk them through an independent pre-write? Do I teach them how to pre-write and provide minimal support while they do it on their own? And where does Vygotsky fit into all this?

My solution isn’t perfect, but I find myself leaning toward having students create their own pre-writes and capture sheets (so — building the habit of setting up a pre-writing format on their own) but walking them through it as needed.  So there’s minimal scaffolding, and the promotion of hard work as an accessible thing.

Vary your Resources

Aside from giving a reasonable amount of support, I feel like my kids are more apt to do “hard” work if I mix up the format a bit.

At the end of our Principles of Geography unit, the kids were a bit winded from a quiz and from county tests — so even though I had some rigorous readings for them to study, I didn’t want them to have to write a paper. The task was ultimately to analyze primary and secondary source documents — so instead of a packet, I set it up like a gallery walk — they still explored rich, difficult texts, but they were able to get support from their peers.

And while all these strategies are great, there’s still a problem. The obstacle I still find myself running into is the mindset that so many students heartbreakingly have — that for some reason they just can’t do hard work. Of any kind. Even if it’s challenging in a way that’s appropriate to their individual abilities — it’s usually accompanied by “I’m not smart enough” or some other variation of can’t. All versions of that attitude reflect the deeper problem of having a fixed mindset.

Fortunately, fixed mindsets can be changed into growth mindsets.

Fixed Mindset versus Growth Mindset


I was lucky in that I grew up hearing “being smart only gets you so far” and having my Mom reference people who “aren’t that smart, but work hard” as kinds of role models.

But most students (most people!) have not had that idea pressed on them, ever – so we have to, as teachers, promote this thought process in our kids, and ultimately, we have to

Re-train students to believe in the power of hard work.

This may be through subtle cues that every teacher learned in teacher school  (you really studied hard for that test vs. you so smaaaaart), or it might involve taking down the fourth wall and explicitly instructing them on the importance of effort. They can develop a growth mindset, but they just might need support.

I recently redecorated my classroom with a series of posters with motivating quotes that focus on the importance of effort (as opposed to the importance of “natural” intelligence or talent) including such gems as: “Nothing will work unless you do” (Maya Angelou) and “It’s hard to beat a person that never gives up” (Babe Ruth). For those interested, I also have a post with 40 inspiring quotes to encourage and inspire students to put in effort.

I can’t quantifiably measure if the presence of these posters is having the desired effect without extraneous factors getting in the way, but I’d like to think that everything supporting the value of effort and hard work helps. Even using the sparkly effort-praising stuff from teacher school.

If positive feedback for hard work teaches kids to fear it just a little less, or to appreciate it’s value even a bit, I’m down.

About the author: Punita Chhabra

Punita Chhabra is a middle school teacher with a Masters in Secondary Education. She is also a writer and a fan of uncomfortably spicy Thai food. She founded Teacher Zen out of the need for a platform to write about her quest for balance and success as in education. She likes all kinds of music, a good sci-fi book, and shoes. Read more about her here.


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