I often begin my year teaching second grade by reading students the book The Little Engine that Could. Many current and former second graders remember me telling them to be “the little engine that could” or whispering the chant, “I think I can, I think I can.” As a parent, I frequently told my children, “positive attitude, positive experience.” Whether the child was tackling a challenging math concept or practicing a new ballet combination, I found encouragement and praise throughout the process often led to the breakthrough. A belief in themselves, fueled by effort and encouragement, resulted in growth.

lizPsychologist Carol Dweck is considered a guru in the concept of growth mindset, a belief that intelligence and ability improve through hard work and challenges. She explains, “in a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” Dweck further argues that “students who embrace growth mindsets—the belief that they can learn more or become smarter if they work hard and persevere—may learn more, learn it more quickly, and view challenges and failures as opportunities to improve their learning and skills.” As educators and parents, adults must teach children how to navigate through challenges and find success within their failures.

Throughout their elementary years, both in and out of school, students will be faced with challenges. As teachers, we must allow children to maneuver through these challenges, learn to problem-solve, and even encounter failure. Learning must take place in a warm and nurturing environment; when students feel they are a part of a supportive community, they feel comfortable and confident to take risks. Rather than a mere acquisition of facts, elementary teachers provide students opportunities to learn by doing and to become problem-solvers. Teachers help give students the ability to make sense of a problem and then work through solving the problem. As a result, when students encounter challenges, they embrace these and become excited. Rather than shy away from an issue, they think about the strategies they can implement and then tackle the problem. Students articulate their thinking, share strategies, and often exceed our expectations.

Parents can support a growth mindset at home, too. Rather than asking, “what grade did you get on your test?”, instead ask questions like, “what mistake did you make that taught you something?” or “what strategy are you going to try next?” Be more specific in your questions than, “how was your day?” Expect more specific answers than, “good,” or “bad.” Ask your child what they did today that challenged him or made her think hard. Help your children change their dialogue and thinking by modeling phrases such as, “this is tough now, but try again.” When they say, “it’s too hard, I don’t get it,” remind your children that at one time simple things, such as recognizing letters, used to be tough but are now automatic. Here is a link for two posters by Sarah Gardner for parents to help cultivate a growth mindset in your home.

By fostering a growth mindset both in school and at home, soon “I can’t” will no longer be in students’ vocabulary – rather they will become the Little Engines that Could.


By Liz Raser

Mrs. Raser teaches second grade and is our Assistant Lower School Principal and the Curriculum Leader for the Elementary Team.