Building resilience through a growth mindset

growth mindset

Activity focused problem-solving group and individual tasks.

Problem-solving and individual tasks have an important part to play in enabling us to build a growth mindset in children. We unpick what it is, and finally, we have a handy translation table to help adapt dialogue with children.

What is really meant by a fixed or growth mindset?

Put simply, those with fixed mindsets see themselves as already able (or not) to do something. They assume that they cannot change their ability or intelligence; it is something we are born with. They frequently give up when a task gets too challenging. Alternatively, those with a growth mindset see new learning as an exciting challenge and failure as an opportunity for growth. Carol Dweck found that the latter group have a passion for learning rather than a hunger for approval that can be seen with a fixed mindset.

We want children to become confident and resilient learners – frequently heard terms in educational settings. But what does this really mean? How do we ensure we are encouraging them to genuinely embrace mistakes as part of the learning process, to truly relish challenges?

How it might look in practical terms if we’re getting it right

Imagine a noisy environment, children are animated, talking, excited, even cross. A setting where tasks are open-ended, where loose parts are readily available, the door is open with children moving freely. Moving equipment between areas is welcomed: It’s probably messy!

To some, it looks chaotic. “How can these children be learning?” “It’s so noisy!” “They should be sitting still, focussing on their work.”

To develop a growth mindset in the children we work with it is essential that they have opportunities to explore, challenge one another and fail. Yes, fail! I have frequently worked with children who have been so successful, they become scared of failure, consequently scared to face difficult challenges.

Activities which offer an element of challenge, and failures as opportunities, are:

  • Inquiry-based learning, where children can ask, investigate, create…
  • Open-ended problem-solving, eg. Nrich maths – jumping frogs can be brought to life by using children as frogs to move about.
  • Pose questions for them, ask “how many ways can you find to…build, arrange, sort etc.”
  • Challenges to building using spaghetti or newspaper – making bridges are fun.
  • Dyson challenge cards are great independent activities.

Additionally, we can create the supporting learning ethos through effort mountains, the pit, the power of yet[1].

Furthermore, we find teachers as mentors, facilitators, even invisible, dispelling the need to please/approve[2]. The structure is in place, but with a flexible approach whereby teachers and practitioners follow the lead of the children; wherever their curiosity may take them.

By following children’s own lines of enquiry, we find they will approach far more challenging tasks than if we as the adult were to set them.

 “Yesss, finally I got it. I love that feeling when you have been working on a piece and you think you’ll never get it and then you do”
(A ten-year-old student who decided he wanted to learn Bohemian Rhapsody on the piano, which far exceeds his perceived ‘level’.)

Ability groups – capping expectation

A big impact is when the perception of the adults changes. Ability labels can be detrimental in so many ways and serve to fulfil a fixed mindset. For the ‘higher’ ability learning is capped – an expectation they can already succeed with little effort. They perceive themselves as successful and failure is simply not acceptable.

Take this example. A 6-year-old boy who had been in the ‘top group’ since Reception. He did some incorrect spellings in a test and was subsequently ridiculed by his peers. “But you’re supposed to be in the Red group,” they said. He was devasted. He had let himself and his teacher down. This 6-year-old is now 11 and still sees himself as ‘rubbish’ at spellings.

Furthermore, this top group have nowhere to go. Why work hard? We are already top of our game!

For those in the ‘lower’ group, the label is more damaging. Research shows how this determines the sense of self and remains fixed.[3]

80% of children who are placed in ability grouping at the age of 5 will stay in the grouping throughout their schooling. – Jo Boaler.[4]

The Importance of Adult Language?

Adult questioning is important and Kitcamp is a perfect vehicle.

“You’ve tried moving the panels this way and it isn’t working. What haven’t you tried yet?  We aren’t quite there yet…” This phrasing supports Dweck’s reflections on the power of ‘not yet’[5]

The following list illustrates some of the ways in which we can change our habitual phrasing.

Instead of…
Why not say…
You’re so talented (capping learning). You have worked really hard to do/develop/see…
You’re always forgetting… (labelling and self-fulfilling). When you have lots to remember it is easy to forget some things, let’s try… (offer age-related strategies).
Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. We all have different experiences and can always learn new things/get better at the things we have less experience of.
Some people are no good at maths (it is set in stone – nothing can be done!) When it’s more difficult there is more opportunity to grow your brain muscles.
Great work. All your practice has paid off.
Shall we try something easier? Let’s break it down into smaller parts.
You’re right, this isn’t really your strength. You might not be good at it yet, but you will get better if you try.


Marva Collins[6] talks passionately about the process of discovering something new. Imagine the child creating a new roleplay space – the discovery of a new arrangement; the satisfaction of creating the build that initially felt difficult; the ‘failures’ leading to new challenges and successes.

In his book, You are Awesome[7], Matthew Syed depicts how this looks in a child’s mind; p.61 if you’re short on time!

When first presented with the Kitcamp panels, children overcome the initial challenge as they solve how to connect panels. If the interlocking ‘teeth’ don’t fit, the panel has to be flipped, not rotated. At this point, it is incredibly important that the adult recognises the importance of holding back. Furthermore, we witness the immense satisfaction of achievement. This can only be gained by spending time problem-solving and overcoming challenges; producing genuine “aha!” moments. It can’t be beaten!

1. Adult language blog, Kitcamp insights.
2. Invisible Teacher blog, Kitcamp insights.
6. Quoted by Carol Dweck, Mindset, p.195.
7. You are Awesome, Matthew Syed, 2018.


About the Author:

Emma Lambert has over 20 years experience in education with a passion for early years and engaging learning through play. She is also trained as a Challenge Partner and spent seven years as a Primary Deputy Head.

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