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Helping students build confidence and a growth mindset

How to help students develop a growth mindset, build confidence, and engage in productive struggle to help maximize achievement and make gains in math

6 min read


Helping students build confidence and a growth mindset

Christina Wieszt

Albert Einstein wasn’t able to speak until he was almost four years old and his teachers said he would “never amount to much.” Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper job for “lacking imagination.” Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.

These are just three anecdotes I share with my students at the beginning of the school year to teach them that failing is just the first attempt in learning. Examples such as these also provide a good segue into introducing the growth mindset, a concept that I focus heavily on, especially with my fifth grade advanced math students. 

With a growth mindset, students have been shown to perform better in areas of math and literacy, recognize the importance of effort in academic success, seek out challenging academic tasks, and value critical feedback. These are all things I aspire for my students and that are pivotal for students to maximize their achievement. 

There are various ways I help students develop the growth mindset, build confidence and engage in productive struggle to help maximize achievement and make gains in math.

Set Goals

At the beginning of the school year I have all of my students set a math-related goal. I don’t provide any criteria or parameters regarding the goal they choose. I then talk to them about the growth mindset and discuss making SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely) goals. Students then revamp their goal accordingly and use it as something to strive for and work toward throughout the year. 

Every student is also given a positive or motivational quote and is asked to discuss what that quote means to them. Examples include, “You must expect great things of yourself before you do them” and “Action is the foundational key to all success.” This exercise further reinforces the growth mindset and how it equates to setting – and achieving – greater goals. 

Increase Rigor

I like having my students really stretch what I teach them in class and apply what they learned using real-world situations. For example, after a recent lesson about volume, I asked them to sketch their dream home as part of an enrichment activity. However, their homes had to have specific dimensions, incorporate a certain number of rooms, and follow various requirements, such as one room had to be twice as wide as another. This made them problem-solve and challenged them to fit all the pieces of the house together in a cohesive way. 

With the accelerated pace of advanced math, it is also important to be intentional about the rigor of student work. I’ve found it beneficial to work backwards from the assessment and to avoid “busy work.” For example, I might assign just a few practice problems that are similar to the ones on which they will be assessed, rather than assign 10 questions that aren’t as challenging or complex. I also make sure these are problems that would help me determine whether a student has fully grasped that standard or not.

I additionally like to incorporate a lot of hands-on work as well as activities that engage students in productive struggle, which I refer to as #thestruggleisreal since my students love hashtags. While not math-specific, the Paper Challenge is a good example of this. Students are given one piece of paper and have to make it look like an image I show them by cutting and folding the paper in various ways, which can be very tricky. After often failing on the first attempt to replicate the paper, I talk to them about productive struggle and how it develops grit and creative problem solving. I then give them a hint and a second piece of paper and ask them to try again. They then typically work through the assignment successfully. 

Track Progress

Having students track their progress – and see visual representations of their progress – is a huge motivator for them. I help facilitate this for them through the use of classroom charts and personal calendars.

For example, each time a student completes and passes a lesson in the i-Ready program, they are able to shade a box in an individual tracking form based on the score they received – yellow for 70 to 79, green for 80 to 89, and blue for 90 to 100. All of the students’ forms are displayed in the classroom so that everyone can see the progress everyone else is making. This motivates and encourages students to complete more lessons and to receive a 90 or above so they can have the most blue boxes possible.

Students also log the number of minutes they spend in the program, as well as the domains and lessons they are working on, in a calendar and turn these in every Friday. If students are right at the minimum number of minutes or conversely far exceeding the number of minutes encouraged, I will often write parents a quick note to give them an update on their child’s progress as having a strong home-school connection is so important. 

These collective strategies have proven to be extremely beneficial for my students. One example that stands out is with one of my students who ended up really blowing me away. She was very quiet at the beginning of the year and, based on her diagnostic, wasn’t quite at the level of her other classmates. I was prepared to spend more time supporting her. However, instilling the growth mindset, reinforcing the idea of effort vs. intelligence, and providing her with enriching lessons and activities really helped her blossom and take ownership of her learning. She ended up going above and beyond with her online lessons, being an active participant in class, and frequently using the growth mindset language in her own classroom conversations. 

Students like this reinforce the power of the growth mindset and the confidence it can bring. It also reinforces the importance of challenging students – while still making learning fun for them – so that they will continually grow and excel.  

Christina Wieszt teaches Grade 5 Advanced Math, Grades 3-5 Math enrichment, and Grades 3-5 English Language Arts enrichment, and Grades K-2 Primary Education Thinking Skills at Toms River Regional Schools in Toms River, New Jersey.  


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