Spreading Grit

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shutterstock_352900961 VECTOR: Growth mindset VS Fixed mindset

Jen Willis

Jen Willis writes for Teacher Toolkit from a primary perspective. She is currently an assistant head in a primary school in Bolton, Lancashire. She has taught all three key stages in primary with a particular love of year six. She leads EYFS / KS1 and...
Read more about Jen Willis

Is it possible to grow a resilient mindset in our students before doubt sets in?

I like data.

There, I’ve said it …

… but not necessarily the percentages, charts and graphs that are picked apart and twisted during ‘accountability’ conversations, but the information that can reveal what most needs addressing.

Missing Something?

I like the analysis that can inform, specific next steps and impact on quality of teaching and learning. Over the course of data analysis, a familiar group of ‘fragile learners’ continues to emerge: characteristically non-risk taking, rule-following children that seek to get whatever it is they are doing perfectly right. Or a small group, that often sit at the top of the middle attainers, who never quite push through to a ‘greater depth.’

Tracking back through provision maps and intervention records, it was clear that it wasn’t through lack of additional support or gap plugging. These students we identified can rattle-off their favourite children’s classics, identify split digraphs at a thousand paces and subitise until the cows come home! But still, they were missing something.

We were missing something.

Of course – the answer was obvious and was plain to see, even before learning behaviours were monitored or the pupils were interviewed.  These were classic examples of what is now labelled, ‘a fixed mindset.’


Our ideas to support children are well-researched and creative, yet with older children, the trickier it became. We also know there is a bigger picture to address and for cohorts of the future, we want to minimise this issue before it evolves into becoming overwhelming barrier.

It was about this time the ‘Characteristics of Effective Learning’ became more of a focus in EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage).

Underpinning these characteristics is the understanding that during their earliest years, children form attitudes about learning that will last a lifetime and with the correct support, teaching and environment, children will grow to have initiative and be resilient learners for the rest of their lives.

That may be what is needed further up into key-stage 2?  But, how can we harness these characteristics for all our students?

And so the beginnings of a project was born in our Foundation Stage.

shutterstock_148719101 Pretty mixed race girl and Caucasian boy pretending to be superhero

Image: Shutterstock

How can we ensure students are developed and nurtured to be resilient beyond EYFS?

Fragile Learners:

Is prevention better than cure?

We decided to attempt to identify those future fragile learners and provide a series of structured (but age appropriate) interventions developing key characteristics such as:

  • ‘having a go’
  • ‘taking a risk’
  • perseverance and resilience.

We tracked students using Leuven’s scale of active engagement and worked with parents, inviting them to workshops where we taught the children to leave the safety of the colouring-in table and ride (and fall off!) two-wheel bikes.  We planned different activities to give this group of children the opportunity and confidence to be the leader, the coach, the teacher, and backed all of this up through our classroom ethos.

Sheer Joy!

Our favourite books soon became ‘The Dot’ and ‘The Most Magnificent Thing’ and our class song ‘You can do it’ soon became our mantra.

And it worked!

Our focus group made better than expected progress, impacting on both well-being and engagement. The focus even had a slight impact on good level of development and now, ‘the most magnificent thing’ is watching our year one graduates coaching our reception children, giving encouragement and specific feedback in the spirit of Austin’s Butterfly.

Believe me, there is no better way of spending a dark afternoon in November, than witnessing the sheer joy of 4-year olds championing their fears and declaring,

“I knew I could do it. I tried and I tried and I fell off.

… And then I peddled faster and now I can do it!”

But, we are not there yet. Far from it!

Accepting Mistakes:

Yes, we’re much happier that the children entering key stage 1 have enough grit to stay outside the winter. We are growing in confidence that our whole school focus on specific feedback, accepting mistakes and embracing challenge is providing a solid foundation upon which we can spread the grit.

What we now need to do, is have a continued focus on potential fragile learners throughout key stage 2 so if and when their doubts grow, self-esteem wavers or their comfort zones grow, we again can help them sprinkle some salt and try to ensure they don’t fall over.

We’re not there yet, but we are spreading the grit.

I’d love to hear what you do …


Jenni Willis writes for Teacher Toolkit

  • Writer: Jenni Willis writes for Teacher Toolkit from a primary perspective.
  • She is currently an assistant head in a primary school in Bolton, Lancashire.  She has taught all three key stages in primary with a particular love of year six.  
  • She currently leads EYFS / KS1 and has responsibility for whole school assessment.   Previously, she coordinated Literacy for 14 years and was a Key Stage Two writing moderator for the LA.  She is currently part of the team responsible for planning and delivering the NQT extended programme for Salford diocese. 
  • In 2014/15, Jenni led an EYFS research hub on developing school readiness through a focus on the characteristics of effective learning, contributing into a national project accredited by National College.  
  • She is a firm believer that the keys to successful learning lie in curiosity, taking risks, determination and resilience – characteristics needed by both the children of today and their teachers.  
  • Read more about Jenni and follow her at @JenWillis1 
  • Contact her here.
Jen Willis Writer Primary Assistant Headteacher
Jen Willis


8 thoughts on “Spreading Grit

  1. I think you make some really good points here! I completely agree that it is very important to address issues of children’s mindsets early on before their self-doubt and fixedness in ideas about their own intelligence take root and become obstacles. I especially liked the point you made at the end where you mention that the school should focus on “specific feedback, accepting mistakes, and embracing challenge.” Conclusions such as these along with your team’s other efforts were in line with Carol Dweck’s ideas of the potential consequences of the two different types of mindsets. It is important to give feedback and praise that is effort-focused, instead of about students’ intelligence or qualities. I also really like the phrase “spreading the grit” because I think it accurately describes this purpose – helping to toughen students in order to accept failure and learning from these mistakes instead of taking it as a blow to their self-worth. This idea is also supported by research done by Andrei Cimpian et al. in which they found that students’ responses to feedback regarding mistakes depended on how their mindsets had been primed previously – whether with generic (fixed mindset) or nongeneric (growth mindset) praise. Those who had received the generic praise beforehand had adopted more of a fixed mindset and felt upset upon receiving criticism, causing them to avoid those activities. This research was done with preschoolers (4 year olds), which supports your idea that it is vital to encourage students to have a growth mindset when they are very young in order to prevent the development of a fixed way of thinking.

  2. Thanks for such lovely feedback. We continue to work hard on process praise, hoping to involve parents even more now and helping them to see what a difference their words and examples can have. Our workshop next term will also share the Austin’s butterfly clip with them ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hqh1MRWZjms) , thinking about how we encourage our pupils to be an excellent critical friend when peer assessing. I’ll look up that research you’ve mentioned! Thanks Kristen.

  3. I always think a problem is their mindset before they enter a classroom. If a child constantly gets negative feedback or poor results in a subject, they’re going to have an “I can’t do this, I’m no good at it” attitude before they even enter the door. It’s like learning to ride a bike, you have to think about how to do it the first few times and then eventually you just remember it because your subconscious locks it away – next time you see a bike, your subconscious sends the message and you can ride it. Now imagine if a child keeps saying “i’m rubbish at maths” then eventually their subconscious locks that away and that message is relayed at the start of every maths lesson – so turning that attitude around is also a challenge but would create a resilience

  4. I wholeheartedly agree. When interviewing the children, it wasn’t surprising to discover that many of them who thought that maths was ‘hard’ also had parents who had told them, ‘maths is hard.’ Similar difficulties can manifest themselves in children who are continually told that they are ‘so clever’ – they therefore don’t need to try, or think that they can only accomplish things in the areas in which they are ‘clever’. It makes me sad when children begin reception class already frightened of making mistakes. Challenge is SO important in early years!

    1. What makes a good learner? Apart from the obvious stuff like enthusiasm, interest, etc – fostered and reinforced by good teaching – the main influence (referred to in previous comments) is attitudes. Call it mind set if you wish but it’s the children’s attitudes that count. What influences attitudes? Beliefs. Ergo, if I believe I am poor at something, I am. Why? Because a belef is so strong it overrules any other evidence to the contrary – including positive messages from teachers and TA’s! Remember Rosenthal? If we show students we believe in them and foster ACCURATE self awareness then their beliefs can change. This will result in a more positive mental attitude which in turn will affect their learning behaviours. So challenge their beliefs, prove them to be flawed and their outlook will change.

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