How to Foster Growth Mindset in Trauma-Informed Classrooms

By Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW

How to Foster Growth Mindset in Trauma-Informed ClassroomsI can clearly recall being in elementary school and having intense jealousy over my art teacher’s scissor skills. Project after project, I would marvel at how she wielded the pair of large “teacher-sized” shears and watch as she bent and rolled the paper in her hands, the sound of slicing paper giving way to perfection. One day I decided to comment on her gift, asking her where she got such a talent.

She stopped, looked at me, and very directly told me, “Thank you. But I was not always good at it. Lots of cutting helped me become a good cutter. You just have to keep doing it.” I remember sighing to myself at that reply, because it just seemed so hard. But in that moment, I believed her. I knew that if I kept doing the hard work of cutting, one day I would be a good cutter too.

And in that moment, young, pig-tailed Amanda succeeded at letting go of a “fixed mindset” (the belief that this is an ability I either have or I don’t) and opened up to a “growth mindset” (the belief that this is an ability I can develop). What I had not considered before that day was that I was not in fact bad at cutting, rather that my hand had lots of exercise ahead.

Why Does This Matter?
Growth mindset underlies so much of what we do with kids when we raise them and when we educate them. As adults, we must understand and consider adopting this perspective so that our students can do the same. What we say to them about how they see possibility shapes them in crucial ways.

The idea that things can be different from how they are right now is difficult for kids to grasp. The ability to imagine overcoming a challenge or an obstacle is something that requires supportive instruction, particularly when the challenge or obstacle is difficult.

How Trauma Plays a Part
When children have experienced trauma, breaking out of a fixed mindset can be even more daunting. Because of actual changes to the brain that occur when a young person experiences trauma, a built-in fight, flight, or freeze response can be more easily triggered. Usually this occurs without personal insight into why, yet the student perceives danger and reacts accordingly, even when there is no real threat.

Additionally, if students have experienced some type of abuse or neglect, they may think that many things are beyond their control even if they try, persevere, and work hard. Sadly, this can lead to an internalization of inherent unworthiness or a belief that failure is inevitable. While writing this, I wondered about my earlier example involving the mental leap my art teacher helped me take. If I were a student who suffered from trauma, would I have believed my teacher when she said you just have to keep doing it? Would I even have asked about it? Utilizing growth mindset in trauma-sensitive classrooms can shape students’ thinking in powerful ways.

Tips for Trauma-Sensitive Classrooms
Teachers can and should help foster growth mindset wherever possible. Here are simple trauma-sensitive suggestions for incorporating this in a way that weaves the concept, language, and lens into your teaching.

  1. Name it right away. In your first interactions with your students, it will benefit your teaching to talk about fixed vs. growth mindset. Explain the concept and elucidate what you say about it with genuine enthusiasm for this way of thinking. Teach students they are the “boss of their own brains,” and they get to decide how they’ll think about themselves. Get excited about it!
  2. Use digital tools. We live in a digital time, and by embracing technology we are likely to find success with students. One fun way to do this is by showing them video clips that explain the concept of growth mindset in a kid-friendly way or show examples of people overcoming obstacles by being persistent. You can go to YouTube and search for “growth mindset” or terms such as “persistence” or “grit.” Be sure you preview the videos before you show them. And remember, many students (including students with trauma) struggle with attention, so keep clips under five minutes—and fun! You can find lots of different options for all different age levels, and I encourage you to explore for what suits you best. This video explaining growth mindset is appropriate for elementary students and very valuable. (You could also consider making your own videos with your class to act out examples and really reinforce the concepts.)
  3. Share your own stories. Storytelling is a wonderfully effective tool for learning at all ages. I still remember the wisdom shared from a variety of educators in my life, often told through entertaining, personal stories. They stuck with me because they were real and genuinely delivered. Students often see adults (especially teachers) as omnipotent and perfect. When we share stories of difficulties that we have overcome, we allow students to see similar possibilities in their own lives.
  4. Use relevant examples. Tell students relevant stories of notable people in history whose success was not immediate. I remember a former coach telling us about Michael Jordan getting cut from his team. I couldn’t believe it. And I recall the shock of learning that Dr. Seuss’s first book was rejected by 27 different publishers. Talent and ability can be developed. Perseverance is key to growth mindset.
  5. The power of yet. Share with students examples like Michael Jordan and Dr. Seuss, people who succeeded only after failing. Find stories that will resonate with them. Then ask the question: What if these people said, “I am not good at that” and quit? Show students the power of “I am not good at that yet,” and help them find the link between believing that and eventually succeeding, which is simply trying. Emphasize that the act of trying is the exercise that gets the brain primed for success. Honor the reality that attempts may not yield immediate results, and show students how the trying part is what matters now. Praise this effort whenever possible and make a big deal of the small shifts of progress that are demonstrated.

Learning to Believe
I encourage us all to consider someone in our lives who helped us take a mental leap from fixed to growth mindset. Chances are there have been several people along the way for you. Growth mindset may seem like a simple concept—and one that doesn’t require breaking it down in such specific ways—but I assure you, it truly does. Whenever you can relate growth mindset to students’ individual lives, you increase the odds that you will impact them for the better.

Kids truly want to believe that they can develop and grow. It is our job to provide the supportive instruction around how to actually do this. Helpful thinking habits are essential, so let’s busy ourselves with teaching them!

Amanda SymmesAmanda C. Symmes, LICSW, is a social worker currently serving as a school adjustment counselor in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She adores her work with children and is continually amazed by the talented and caring staff she is surrounded by each day. Aside from her work family, Amanda lives with her supportive husband and three kids (ages 16, 13, and 6) and enjoys spending time with them taking in all the beauty and joy in the world. She enjoys writing, knitting, laughing, walking, and using mindfulness. Connect with Amanda on Twitter @LicswAmanda and on her blog

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3 Responses to How to Foster Growth Mindset in Trauma-Informed Classrooms

  1. sashabro89 says:

    Thank for this piece, gave me good ideas for working with older students who have “given up” on school.

  2. Kristin Grenier says:

    Love it Amanda! Pertains to so many students at school!

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