When I speak with the high school teachers I coach about helping students embrace the idea of social-emotional growth, I often get a response like this:
“Isn’t it too late for my students to acquire a growth mindset? They seem so set in their ways. If they were still in elementary school, this would be so much easier. “
Growth Mindset: a belief that your abilities are not fixed and can be developed through dedication and hard work. With a growth mindset, students learn that “being smart” is not a static thing but a process of growing and learning. Learn more about a growth mindset here.
The first thing I do when I hear this is acknowledge that they are 90% right—it will be harder and require a different approach to help their high schoolers believe that growth is possible and valued in their class. I do, however, tell them that it is possible.
With a simple 5-step process, teachers can help high schoolers shift their mindset and see their class as a space where mistakes are real learning opportunities and where their voices truly matter.
1. Model a growth mindset with your actions, not just your words
By high school, students are way beyond believing just your words. They want to see tangible proof of who you are as a teacher and as a person, so the systems you create for them and with them must reflect the idea of making mistakes, learning, and improving.
If you share an important value with them at the beginning of the year like “This classroom will be a space where mistakes are learning opportunities,” they will quickly notice if your actions do not match your words.
There are two key actions that you can take to help build trust with your high schoolers:
Emphasize that mistakes are learning opportunities
Tell your students that:
- Formative assessment scores will not be counted toward grades.
- Formative assessments will be followed by small group support and personalized learning goals.
Listen to understand, not to respond
Practice active listening skills like:
- Making eye contact
- Leaning in
- Using simple prompts like “I’m listening” to make space for students to speak
2. Ask for your students’ input
When students see their teacher seeking their feedback and being open to making changes, they feel heard and I get to model the growth mindset I’m trying to teach them.
Dr. Christopher Emdin, asks for his students’ input in small regenerative circles. Four students meet with him every week to eat, make suggestions, and give some feedback on how he has implemented the previous suggestions. Members of the circle elect a new member to take their place on a regular basis. You can read more about Dr. Christopher Emdin’s strategies in his fantastic book For White Folks Teaching in The Hood and The Rest of Y’all Too.
3. Listen to what students suggest and make changes
As students, we have all experienced the disappointment of being asked for input and then left to wonder for the rest of the year what had happened to all of our great ideas.
If you ask for high schoolers' input, you'd better listen and show them that you are willing to try to make some of the changes they are suggesting.
They will understand that you can’t do it all, but they will expect that you make a genuine effort to improve. This will be a key moment in their shift toward a growth mindset.
4. Create safe “failure spaces” they can use to grow
Your students need to see that your classroom systems reflect the core idea of a growth mindset. At the center of this idea is creating safe cycles for students to fail, gather feedback, analyze their mistakes, and learn from them. Unless they are able to do this in your class on a regular basis, the pressure of a GPA-centric system will stop students from believing that mistakes are truly learning opportunities. For example, if you give them a formative assessment intended to help you (and them) identify areas of growth but you count the grade toward their GPA, how were the mistakes they made safe learning opportunities?
Here are a few simple but powerful ideas:
- Use non-graded formative assessments regularly and give students access to the data so that they can analyze it and make an action plan for growth before the summative assessment.
- Create regular workspaces where students have a chance to tap into multiple resources to grow and reach competency in skills they have not mastered yet. Strategies like Fill in the Gaps and W.I.N. time are perfectly suited for high schoolers.
- Encourage and teach how to seek and receive peer feedback.
5. Recognize and celebrate growth
The main reason why high schoolers have a harder time developing a growth mindset is that the system they work in every day values achievement over growth. Think about it—from the quest toward a perfect GPA to tryouts for sports to SAT to college applications, it is a high-stress world where all that seems to matter is making the cut. So, in your classroom, the space closest to your locus of control, I cannot encourage you enough to recognize and celebrate growth in your students as much or more than achievement. From celebrating students making the most growth on a board to writing private notes recognizing progress to simply noticing and acknowledging effort when you see it, always keep in mind that your words matter much more to teenagers than they are willing to let you see. Be patient, be consistent with these five key ideas, and you will see growth in them, but just as importantly, growth in yourself, too.