Growth mindset is a topic and area of research that has exploded in the education world in recent years. While this topic is usually discussed in the context of supporting students to develop their abilities, it is equally important for those of us who work with students to continuously develop in our capacity to support our students—to have a growth mindset for ourselves in working with our students.
For a quick refresher, a growth mindset is the awareness that change and growth are possible in any arena in which one puts forth the right effort—that we are not limited by our current capabilities. From this understanding, mistakes and feedback are not only unavoidable, but essential for learning. Growth mindset is contrasted with a “fixed” mindset, in which one conceives of one’s abilities, intelligence, etc. as fairly unchangeable qualities (Dweck, 2006).
Understanding that abilities (especially intelligence) are not static is incredibly important in working with those who have not experienced much success and reward with learning, and therefore have lower self-efficacy and motivation. Some of these students are our students with disabilities. A significantly smaller number of students with learning disabilities and other disabilities receive a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with non-disabled peers (https://disabilitycompendium.org/), and a large reason for this is a fixed mindset, both on the part of the students and on the part of those who work with them throughout their years of education.
Supporting students with disabilities begins with adjusting our paradigm about student growth and development, and it also involves improving our own mindsets about our own abilities. Dr. Carol Dweck, the Stanford University psychologist behind the growth mindset movement, walks the talk of her research findings herself, making sure to challenge herself and learn new things regularly. She taught herself to speak Italian and play the piano later in life—two pursuits that many of us would assume to be basically impossible (or at least far too challenging to consider). I bring Dweck’s example to mind often when I find myself struggling with fixed mindset thoughts like, “I’m just not a tech person.” No, I’m just not as experienced and haven’t spent as much time working at learning technology as some people. I can learn. I can grow in my capacity to understand things and relate to people. I can learn to do things differently and better. We all can.
Some faculty and staff have expressed to me their fear of getting things “wrong” with our students with accessibility needs. We are all figuring out how to do things better and more equitably for students, and mistakes are unavoidable. We learn more from mistakes than we do from getting things right on the first go. And students are understanding when we make a mistake, apologize, and correct ourselves. The intent to learn and to understand, as well as the expression of that intention to the student, is most important.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY, US: Random House.
Institute on Disability. (2019). 2018 Report on People with Disabilities in America. Durham, NH, US: University of New Hampshire.