Or, Where’s Your Head At?

You may have heard about how important it is to have a Growth Mindset for personal development and, ultimately, happiness. Now, if you’re anything like me, when I hear buzzwords and phrases, I tend to get cynical and grumpy automatically. I don’t know why. I just do*. However, if you do, or even if you haven’t heard that phrase before, think of it like this… it’s believing that you learn talent over time rather than thinking it’s something you’re born with or without. That’s it in a nutshell, anyway.

*I think it’s because you usually hear the phrase before the definition, which seems very esoteric and exclusive.

Having this thought process is important to learning, crucial even. Hence why in schools, it’s been discussed in meetings and promoted on inset days up and down the country. I won’t go into much detail, but the idea comes from psychologist Dr Carol Dweck, who wrote a popular book on the subject (Mindset 2006). Thinking in this way doesn’t mean that success is inevitable… not every child will be able to nail nuclear fusion. However, it is a positive step in the right direction.

That said, children with a growth mindset do better than those with a fixed mindset. They are also more likely to recover from failures too. Still confused? How often have we heard someone say, “I can’t do it”? The way to fix that statement is by putting ‘yet’ at the end. It’s not about saying something is too hard; it’s about acknowledging it’s hard but saying you will give it a go anyway.

The adults in school and at home have to think this way too. We pick up traits from the people who bring us up. Studies have shown parents with a Fixed Mindset have a limiting effect on their child’s reading. “Even after controlling for the child’s previous abilities and the parents’ socioeconomic status” (Andersen and Neilsen, 2016).

So, that’s the background bit. Now for the point of this article… It would be very easy to list a few books which encourage children to think with a growth mindset.

What I think would be different is giving some examples of Growth Mindset behaviours that characters in books exhibit. Thus, you will see that this thought process isn’t just featured in specific books on a list but can be found in more texts than you may have realised. This way, you will be able to recognise the behaviours that we need to be encouraging while generating natural book talk with pupils.

Two behaviours we should be looking for are embracing challenges and persisting in the face of setbacks. These two are closely linked, so I’ve included them together. You can take your pick of books that feature characters that show this. If they don’t, they tend to by the end of the story. They have grown as a person, and their lives have become richer. The first book I thought of was Stuck by Oliver Jeffers, one of my favourite picture books that tells the story of a boy who will stop at nothing to get his kite unstuck from a tree. With every disappointment comes a lightbulb moment and an optimism that persists. It makes me wonder what else Floyd approaches in this way.

KS1 Picturebook Biographies are perfect for discussing the qualities of a Growth Mindset

Remember, though, success isn’t guaranteed. And it’s one of the reasons why A Boy and a Bear in a Boat became one of my all-time most enjoyable reads. The Boy is a contrast to the Bear (as they’re both referred to), who insists they will arrive at their destination soon. He’s the captain, after all! Challenge after challenge doesn’t stop him, and I don’t believe anything will. Dave Shelton wrote him as a true force for good albeit flawed… but aren’t we all. And even though I think this book is quite existential, there’s something so uplifting about the story that puts you at ease with the challenges you might face in the future.

Another behaviour that those with a Growth Mindset will have is to see effort as a path to mastery. This might be more difficult in fiction as most characters, when learning a skill, get frustrated and will contemplate giving up before a situation forces them to reconsider. Fine. But we want our young people to have this mindset from the get-go or as close to it as possible. I think this is where biographies come into their own. Inspirational and sometimes tragic stories of how people became successful or changed the world. The Little People, Big Dreams series of picture books does this exceptionally well. But I also want to mention biographies of sportsmen and women for older readers.

Not everyone will be able to become the next Serena Williams, but books such as The Extraordinary Life Of… series show just how much effort people put in to master their disciplines. The Ultimate Football Heroes books show the same behaviour. Growing up, footballers like Brazilian Marta struggled to find acceptance as a female playing football but honed her skills until she was better than any of her peers. These are more suited to older juniors, but the similar series Football Superstars is more suited for younger readers. Once you’ve mastered the skills, the story doesn’t end there. You’ve got to keep on top of your game to be able to win trophies, so the hard work is far from over. Just ask decorated footballer Kylian Mbappe. I liked the section which teaches you how to do a ‘step-over’. Children will love to master this skill.

KS2 Biographies promote resilience, perseverance, taking risks, learning from mistakes

Biographies also show children how to find inspiration in the success of others, another behaviour of a growth mindset. But the last behaviour I want to mention is learning from criticism. Possibly one of the hardest to accept. In my experience, it’s more about the delivery of the criticism. ‘Feedback’ is the friendlier management term. I used to have a manager that would say it was the “breakfast of champions” I’m sure you could guess what my reaction was. However, it is true. Life Skills by Kelly Swift is a nonfiction book that will help children learn to problem solve, make mistakes, communicate, listen, understand feelings, cope with stressful situations, and oodles more. It deserves more word space, but nevertheless, it’s one that should be in all schools.

Behaviours of characters in children’s literature can be varied, but you will find the same ones coming up time and time again. Although it’s not enough to expect children to simply learn these by themselves or pick up on the sometimes subtle lessons books try to tell us. The companionship of reading and discussion plays a key role. Changing how we think isn’t easy. Those who have done any Cognitive Behavioural Therapy will know that practising the skills and challenging thought patterns regularly is an ongoing process/struggle. There is no magic wand. But some books, a good chat, and positive role models make a pretty good potion.

Growth Mindset books

On the bestbooksforschools.com website, you will find plenty of books that can prompt discussion about the qualities that lead to a growth mindset. Our easy-purchase pack is a curated collection of books covering different qualities. But you can also choose individual books from the full collection