I’ve had the chance over the last two weeks to watch my eight year old daughter FINALLY find something that she LOVES to do: American Ninja Warrior classes at a local gym.
It’s been a joy for me to watch because nothing else that we’ve introduced her to — baseball, gymnastics, dance, sewing classes — has really resonated.
Now, whether she’s swinging from a set of rings into a sixteen foot cargo net that she has to climb, shimmying across a ten foot rope, or trying to get to the top of a twelve foot warped wall, she’s smiling — even if she falls a handful of times before making it on to the next obstacle.
All of this has caught me by surprise because my kid has never been persistent at learning new skills both in and beyond school.
Instead, whether she’s learning her multiplication tables, learning to cross-stitch or learning to take a corner kick, she makes a quick decision about whether or not she’s going to “be any good” at the task — and if the answer is no, she gives up because giving up is easier to her than feeling like a failure.
She’s also constantly watching the performances of the people around her — trying to determine where she stands in comparison to her peers. If she sees that she’s “one of the worst” at whatever task she’s trying to tackle, she goes into what I like to call “full on stall and avoidance mode”. I remember watching her intentionally let kid after kid cut her in the batting lineup during baseball practice one day — and then celebrating like she’d won the freaking lottery when practice ended before it was ever her turn to bat.
Long story short: My kid almost always has a fixed mindset.
But there’s nothing fixed about her mindset at Ninja Fit classes. Instead, she takes a “not yet” approach to every new obstacle, convinced that she has what it takes to move forward even if she’s struggling in the moment.
(1). Her coach has designed obstacles that are challenging enough to interest Reece, but are not SO challenging that they feel impossible to her.
Reece and I tend to run early wherever we go. The result is that we always arrive at Ninja Fit class as her coach is setting up the obstacle course for the day. As I watch him, I see a master teacher in action because he is constantly adjusting the obstacles that he wants his kids to tackle.
His goal is to design tasks that aren’t ridiculously easy, but also aren’t impossible for kids to complete — and that makes all the difference for my kid.
Because the tasks aren’t ridiculously easy, Reece isn’t ever bored during class. She WANTS to get through an obstacle because she understands that getting through an obstacle is a real accomplishment. But because each task is carefully designed in advance to take the current strengths and weaknesses of the students in the class into account, Reece IS getting through obstacles with regularity. Seeing real progress leaves her convinced that the work she’s being asked to do is really doable for her, too.
Can you see the lessons for classroom teachers here?
If we are going to encourage a growth mindset in our students — particularly in the hearts and minds of the kids who struggle the most in our classrooms — we have to be JUST as deliberate in our task design. Kids won’t even begin trying if the work we are asking them to do is boring — and worse yet, they will quit believing in themselves if they are never successful.
(2). Her coach is giving her very specific suggestions about how to improve.
I think what I love the most about Reece’s Ninja Fit coach is that he gives her incredibly targeted feedback whenever she is stuck on an obstacle. Here’s an example: At open rig time last weekend, she was determined to get up the warped wall. She tried and failed at least ten straight times before turning to her coach and saying, “Do you have any suggestions to help me get up the wall?”
His response: “Try smaller steps as you hit the wall, then lean forward and reach with two hands. The wide steps you are taking are throwing you off balance low on the wall and if you start reaching with two hands instead of one, you will send all of your body’s momentum in the direction that you want it to go.”
That level of specificity blew me away.
Because Reece is eight, I expected him to say something general like, “You are doing great! Try a little harder and you’ll get there” simply because that kind of generic encouragement is the norm rather than the exception to the rule when adults are giving feedback to kids. Heck, her baseball coach would say, “Good cut kid!” every time she was up at bat even though she never even came CLOSE to hitting the ball.
What blew Reece away is that she made it to the top of the warped wall a few attempts later because she’d listened to and applied her coach’s feedback.
Think about how powerful that moment was for her: Not only did she get the exact advice that she needed to accomplish a challenging task, she learned that she could trust her coach to give her the advice that she needs to move forward. As a result, she’s more than ready to ask for advice — and to then apply that advice — when she’s stuck on a new obstacle.
What’s the lesson for classroom teachers? Building a growth mindset in struggling students depends on something more than encouragement. It depends on giving students tangible strategies for improving their performance.
Do we regularly provide that kind of targeted feedback to the kids in our classrooms when they are struggling with a task? More importantly, have we left the kids in our classrooms convinced that we have the expertise to help them to move forward?
(3). Her coach told her that he believes in her.
At the end of Reece’s first Ninja Fit class, her coach looked right at Reece and told her that he thinks she’s a natural. “You could be really good at this if you work at it, Reece,” he said.
That was the ONLY thing she remembered from her first class. “Dad, can you BELIEVE it?” she said a thousand times in the car on the way home. “Coach thinks I can be really good at this. That’s AWESOME!”
And it WAS awesome.
My kid — who struggles with her confidence because she’s not a pro at most anything in or beyond school — heard a guy that she looked up to say that she could be GOOD at something. That simple act sparked a whole new level of confidence and commitment in Reece — to the point where she’s trying things I don’t think she would have ever been willing to try a few months ago.
The truth is that EVERY kid deserves to have adults who believe in them.
So here’s a potentially uncomfortable question for you: When was the last time that you told a struggling student that you can see their potential? If the answer is, “I can’t remember,” then you also shouldn’t be surprised when those same students seem to have given up in your classrooms.
Long story short: Developing a growth mindset in struggling students isn’t an impossible task.
Instead, it depends on our ability to carefully design lessons with the appropriate level of challenge, our willingness to give specific feedback instead of general encouragement, and our commitment to letting kids know that we believe in them.
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