Skip Navigation
We use cookies to offer you a better browsing experience, provide ads, analyze site traffic, and personalize content. If you continue to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies.
NEA News

Impact of Poverty on Students: All in Their Minds?

Fostering a "growth mindset" in students can be rewarding, but it could just be another way to blame them for problems that are institutionalized.
Published: 09/29/2016

Students from low-income families who believe that they can develop skills and do better in school if they work hard and practice—a “growth mindset,” in other words—may be buffered from the effects of poverty on student achievement, a Stanford University study has found.

But students who live in poverty are less likely to have growth mindsets. Instead, they have what researchers call a “fixed mindset,” or the idea that intelligence and skills are more like foot size or eye color: an unchangeable trait.

The topic of growth vs fixed mindsets, and their effects on student achievement, has been a popular—and controversial—one since Stanford’s Carol Dweck published her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success in 2006. But the recent Stanford study, which involved 168,000 10th-grade students across all of Chile, is the most expansive, and goes the furthest to explore how family income interacts with mindset.

Typically, students from low-income families score worse on standardized tests than their wealthier peers. But the researchers found that poor students with growth mindsets performed just as well as wealthy students with fixed mindsets.

"Strikingly, students from low-income families (the lowest 10 percent) who had a growth mindset showed comparable test scores with fixed mindset students whose families earned 13 times more (80th percentile)," said the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and co-authored by Dweck, Susana Claro, and David Paunesko, all of Stanford.

The problem is students from low-income families are much less likely to have growth mindsets. "At the extremes, students from the lowest-income families were twice as likely to endorse a fixed mindset as students from the top-income families and schools," according to the study.

Growth Mindset in Students - Deficit Ideology?

But is a focus on “growth mindset” just another way of blaming individual students for problems that are institutionalized and overwhelming? Is it another way of saying, hey, if you can’t succeed, then there must be something wrong with you?

The problem, some advocates say, is not that the more than half of all American children who live in poverty have the wrong mindset. The problem is that more than half of all American children live in poverty"

In his blog the becoming radical, Furman University education professor P.L. Thomas, a former South Carolina high school English teacher, points to the dangers of “deficit ideology,” or the belief that unsuccessful people lack something within themselves to be successful—like grit, or positivity. This kind of thinking discounts the effects of external forces, say racism or poverty, while also overlooking the benefits of wealth and privilege.

“Consequently, we routinely demand of children in the worst situations of life—through no fault of their own—that they somehow magically set aside those lives when they walk into school,” Thomas points out. This may be an appealing idea, but it’s something that most adults can’t do, he adds.

The problem, some advocates say, is not that the more than half of all American children who live in poverty have the wrong mindset. The problem is that more than half of all American children live in poverty.

The researchers do address these concerns: “To be clear, we are not suggesting that structural factors, like income inequality or disparities in school quality, are less important than psychological factors. Nor are we saying that teaching students a growth mindset is a substitute for systemic efforts to alleviate poverty and economic inequality. Such claims would stand at odds with decades of research and our own data.”

Rather, they say, their work reveals the way structural inequalities can lead to psychological inequalities, and hopefully suggest ways that educators can more effectively support these students.

How It Works in the Classroom

Almost every teacher—98 percent—surveyed recently by the Education Week Research Center agreed that using growth mindset in the classroom can improve learning. And, importantly, nearly as many also say it will will improve instruction.

The catch is that only about 20 percent strongly believe that they’re good at fostering growth mindset in students, and they have even less confidence in their colleagues and administrators. Eighty-five percent said they would like to get professional development in this area.

Since publishing her book, Dweck has identified a few ways that teachers are more likely to find success with using a growth mindset in their classes. For one thing, “a growth mindset isn’t just about effort,” she told Education Week. “Students need to try new strategies and seek input from others when they’re stuck. They need this repertoire of approaches—not just sheer effort—to learn and improve.”

She also suggests that educators remember that effort is a means to an end, which is more learning. Effort is not the end goal itself. “Too often nowadays, praise is given to students who are putting forth effort, but not learning, in order to make them feel good in the moment: ‘Great effort! You tried your best!’” she writes. A better approach, she suggests: “When [students] are stuck, teachers can appreciate their work so far, but add: ‘Let’s talk about what you’ve tried, and what you can try next.’”

Dweck also suggests that it’s equally important to consider whether teachers themselves have a fixed, or growth, mindset, and to help them adopt a deeper, true growth mindset that will show up in their classroom practices. The key to this, she says, is acknowledging that we all are a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets, and we should watch carefully for our fixed-mindset triggers.

National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.