Barriers to a growth mindset

Written by: Ross McWilliam | Published:
Image: iStock

Over the last few months, Ross McWilliam has been looking at adopting growth mindset approaches, particularly for key stage 2 pupils. In this final article in the series, he considers some of the barriers to this way of teaching

For the final article in this four-part series, I would like to focus on the consideration that must be given to those pupils who may have difficulty initially accessing growth mindset strategies and those who might need more support as they encounter barriers to learning.

One possible solution is to build a confident mindset from which a growth mindset can be grown. The solutions I propose will focus on strategies for pupils, teachers and parents.

The pupils

Having delivered mindset training for a few years now, I have seen and recorded fabulous progress in many schools. Yet amid this progress, there will always be pockets of conscious and subconscious resistance.

This could include a pupil’s self-perception: i.e. I am no good at maths, I am not as quick to answer as the others, I need to practise this over and over again before I get it.

This resistance could also be manifested subconsciously, such as with “learned helplessness”, where over time pupils have developed negative or fixed mindset traits. Pupils may also show signs of “attribution theory” – i.e. that it was out of their control – or may have poor role models resulting in lower or no aspiration.

To counteract these inherent negative behaviours and limiting beliefs, a pre-growth mindset approach may be necessary to build up their belief that they can achieve success and instil in them that this learning journey may take time – i.e. talking about “success not yet” as discussed in previous articles in this series.

From the pupil’s perspective, the acquisition of a confident mindset is paramount to being able to access a growth mindset. The ability to believe in themselves, to demonstrate a resilience, to keep going, to value their own opinions but counterbalance these against others, to be able to put their hands up to answer or even ask a question, are all crucial facets of the confident mindset.

Having seen first-hand this lack of self-belief and worth in some pupils, I devised an acronym that identified five aspects to achieving a confident mindset: CUPPA stands for Challenge, Uniqueness, Positivity, Perception, Action. All of the concepts and practical strategies below can be found in the CUPPA series (see further information).


This incorporates a belief and practice to see learning as a challenge. Rather than talk about a problem or issue, talk about a challenge as this can be interpreted subconsciously as something that is possible to overcome (rather than talking about a problem or issue which may be seen as a more permanent subconscious barrier).

In fact, some pupils who have developed a fabulous confident mindset can be a little disappointed when the challenge is too easy. This is where the key component of resilience is introduced via role models and real scenarios in the classroom.

Classic traditional role models may be Norm Larson and the invention of WD40, Edison and the lightbulb, Richard Branson and his various business ventures/failures, JK Rowling and her book rejections. There are many more contemporary role models too. For a range of examples, see my You Tube channel (see further information).


This is how we see and value ourselves. One of the first things to do is make the focus on achievements and qualities rather than appearance. Appearance is important (i.e. to be well dressed and well groomed), but in my opinion it should never outweigh personal qualities and achievements, as these are difficult to lose once achieved and will last a lifetime.

A good starting place is completing a “wall” – this is simply a poster or picture of a wall, showing the individual building bricks. Each brick can be filled in with a quality or trait that the pupil has developed or demonstrated. A good tip for the pupils when filling out their walls is to get them to ask a friend or teacher to complete some of the spaces in their wall, as this acts as confirmation – this process can be a very powerful tool in developing belief and momentum.


A key quality of developing a confident mindset is to be able to see the positives in each situation. This links into resilience, as an initial negative situation may ultimately yield positive outcomes. Asking pupils to find role models who encountered negativity and turned it into a positive is a great starting exercise. Real-life examples might include Alvin Law, Dick and Rick Hoyt, Mia Hamm (again, see my YouTube channel).

I talk about the Chimp Paradox, which was introduced by Dr Steve Peters. He explains how we all have a chimp and it is always looking for the negative in everything and it is at its strongest at night when we are sleeping in bed.

To counteract this I ask pupils to complete a simple Today Result and Tomorrow Promise. This involves the child writing down in a diary the good things that happened that day (i.e. the teacher praised me, I completed my homework, I helped my parents) and one promise that they are going to do tomorrow (i.e. help my parents around the house, support pupils in my class, ask questions when I am unsure).


This is perhaps the key area of the confident mindset. How we interpret our world and the actions of others can contribute to either a strong or weak mindset. Three people can see the same incident but each could have different interpretations.

Just being aware of this phenomenon may be the trigger to start developing a more realistic perception. This awareness may be the start of “smarter confidence”, where the pupil recognises the impact they can have on others, along with recognising the needs of others.


For a confident mindset to be achieved there must be an element of action (i.e. implementation ideas, thoughts and feelings). However, often when pupils demonstrate action by putting a hand up, making a presentation, leading a group, they may well receive negative feedback at some point. This is where FAIL is important. It stands for First Attempt In Learning.

For teachers

The classroom environment must contribute to the growth mindset. By this I mean that feedback, either verbal or non-verbal, must be fair, consistent and accurate.

For example, if the teacher puts up with or ignores negative “sniping” by fellow pupils in response to an action or words of another pupil, then this is tantamount to condoning this negative behaviour.

Within the classroom setting, teachers need to plan out and deliver the necessary steps to developing growth mindset. If this process happens too quickly, disengagement or ineffective learning may be the outcomes and barriers will be formed.

One method of classroom delivery to start growth mindset is outlined by Brock and Hundley in The Growth Mindset Coach (2016):

  • Preflection.
  • How we learn.
  • Mistakes of self and others.
  • Video examples.
  • Comic strip demonstrations.
  • T Charts.
  • Think, pair, share about how a challenge was solved.

Essentially, there needs to be a pre learning/knowing period about where pupils are in their understanding of their potential, linking this to the five growth mindset concepts of effort, resilience, guidance, feedback and challenge (see previous articles in this series).

Then there is a focus about how learning occurs, followed by a highlighting of how mistakes and errors may well be necessary for progress. Pupils can then take this information and create cartoon strips and T charts. Finally, knowledge of how breakthroughs were made can be shared in the classroom.

Equally, it may be that you break-down personal barriers and negative perceptions of self by introducing the concept of Be The Best Version Of Me – each child must not compare themselves with others, but try to be better today than they were yesterday, and be better tomorrow than they are today.

One barrier to gaining the growth mindset is lack of feedback. To eliminate this, measures and scaling need to be made before, during and after set periods of time. This could be test measures such as the Brock and Hundley list of statements below (odd numbers are fixed mindset, even numbers are growth mindset):

  1. There are just some things that I will never be good at.
  2. When I make a mistake, I try to learn more.
  3. When others do better than me I feel threatened.
  4. I enjoy getting out of my comfort zone.
  5. When I show others I am smart or talented, I feel successful.
  6. I feel inspired by the success of others.
  7. I feel good when I can do something others cannot.
  8. It is possible to chance how intelligent you are.
  9. You should not have to try to be smart – you are just smart or not.
  10. I enjoy taking on a new challenge or task with which I am unfamiliar.

For parents

Effective parental support is where the triangle of success between pupils and teachers is formed. I have heard many parents/carers say that they are doing all they can to help. Yet I often find out that this just comprises of “being positive”, with no tangible support that makes the pupil accountable.

To counteract this barrier to effective support, Jackie Beere (2016) put a useful set of questions together that parents can use to support and encourage their children when discussing their learning. These include:

  1. What did you learn today that surprised you?
  2. Did you make any good mistakes today?
  3. How did you learn from them?
  4. What did you do today that made your brain grow?
  5. How did you help someone else stretch their brain power?

Beyond these questions, parents should work with teachers to create a set of meta-cognition grids to evaluate effort, resilience and thinking strategies. Examples of such grids can be found in the CUPPA book series. 

  • Ross McWilliam is a speaker and author. Some ideas in this article have been taken from his new book The Amazing Journey Of CUPPA – His Quest to Find the Five Secrets of the Confident Mindset. It features several role models for talent and intelligence with video links. Visit or email

Growth mindset

This is the final part of this four-part series. To read parts one, two and three, published in September and November 2016 and January 2017, go to

Further reading/viewing

  • Ross McWilliam’s YouTube channel:
  • Grow Your Mindset Change Your Life, Jackie Beere, Crown House Publishing 2016.
  • The Growth Mindset Coach, Brock & Hundley, Ulysses Press 2016.
  • The Amazing Journey of CUPPA: Ross McWilliam, RMW Associates, 2017.
  • For further information and practical strategies, try PERTS – the Project for Education Research That Scales – free mindset kits (Professor Carol Dweck):

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