March 3, 2022

How To Support A Growth Mindset In Physical Education

Hey everyone! Before we dive in here, I wanted to share something with you:

As you're about to find out, this blog post is pretty extensive. I originally put this content together for a workshop that I am offering. That being said, I've decided to share it all here with you so that you can access all of the information and ideas that I've packed within it.

If you find value in this post, I would like to ask a favour: please consider donating to my friend Mac's GoFundMe.

As you're about to learn, Mac played a pivotal role in helping me make growth mindset thinking a core part of my teaching. He was a mentor and a friend, and I miss him.

When Mac passed away, a memorial fund in his name was set up at Western Carolina University. The fund was created to help future PE professionals attend their state conference. That being said, the fund needs to hit its funding goal ($25,000) in order to become sustainable and start helping students.

As of right now, the fund has raised about $13,000. To help Mac's fund reach its goal, the great Artie Kamiya set up the GoFundMe page that I've linked to to make it easier for people to donate. Personally, I will be donating all of the proceeds from the New Yeti Poster to the GoFundMe and have committed to matching those funds up to USD$500.

Any amount helps and please only consider donating if you are in a position to do so. I really appreciate your support! Let's get into the post!

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I recently had the opportunity to be interview by my friend and #pechat co-host - Elyse Loughlin - for our latest #PEChat Radio Hour discussion. In the interview, Elyse and I unpacked a lot of the ideas that I present in this post. Take a listen to the episode by using the player below or subscribe to the show in your favourite podcast app!

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It's no secret that I'm a big believer in the role that visuals can play in creating a positive learning environment for students.

That's why I've spent countless hours over the years designing posters and printables that were created to help inspire and support my students learning.

Of these visuals, the Yeti poster is probably my favourite one.

I got the idea for the Yeti poster after a conversation with my mentor and friend: the late, great Larry "Mac" McDonald. The conversation took place on a porch in Asheville, North Carolina. Mac and I had just met, but we were quickly bonding over our love for physical education and - even more importantly - teaching kids.

I can't remember what led the conversation to going the way that it went, but it was during that talk that Mac taught me what the most important word in the English language is:


It's easy look at small, simple words and underestimate their value. "Yet" may only have three letters that make it up, but it has the power to drastically change the way a person perceives themselves.

"I can't do this… yet!"

"I don't know that… yet!"

"I don't understand this… yet!"

"Yet" is a reminder that progress is always a possibility. Our skills, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours… these things can change and improve over time.

I took this idea of the power of "Yet" and ran with it. I started encouraging my students to view themselves as "Yetis" and to never give up just because something is hard at first.

"Yet" became the driving force that helped make the development of a growth mindset a focal point in my teaching. Since that first conversation with Mac, my understanding of the role of mindsets in learning has evolved (dare I say I've embraced the Yeti lifestyle myself).

Knowing how powerful a growth mindset can be, I thought it would be worthwhile to share some thoughts on a) what it is, b) the factors that influence its development, and c) the interventions that can help foster one.

Let's dive in!

Growth vs Fixed Mindsets

One of the best ways to make sense of growth mindsets is to compare them to their opposite: fixed mindsets.

At the simplest level, a growth mindset is the belief that one's ability can change and improve over time. On the other hand, a fixed mindset is the belief that our abilities are static and unchanging.

These two types of mindsets are associated with their own meaning systems. A meaning system is what pushes students to focus on specific goals and ways of attributing success. Meaning systems can affect us at different levels, including the types of goals that we focus on, how we perceive effort, and how we respond to poor performances.

For example, a person with a fixed mindset may choose to focus on performance goals. In other words, this means that they determine their level of ability based on the results of their efforts. For example, grades would be interpreted quite literally: getting 75% means that I'm a 75% kind of student.

On the other hand, a person with a growth mindset would focus on learning goals that recognize progress and highlight where there is still room to grow. A 75% to a student focused on learning goals means that they're making progress in their learning even though there is still room to improve (25%).

Mindsets also affect the way that we perceive effort. Fixed mindsets tend to be associated with negative effort beliefs: if something requires you to put in a lot of effort, then that probably means that you're not good at that thing. A growth mindset supports positive effort beliefs: if something challenges you, it becomes an opportunity to showcase your skill, learn, and - ultimately - grow from the experience.

An example I like to use when explaining positive effort beliefs comes from the world of Greek mythology:

In the early days of legendary Greece, there weren't a lot of monsters. This is because Zeus cast most of them down into the Underworld when he defeated the Titans. That said, there are mosters that appear throughout Greek mythology, but their purpose - really - was only to provide heroes with an opportunity to find glory. That's why heroes like Hercules didn't shy away from the monsters he encountered, because overcoming monsters is what a hero does.

The last way in which meaning systems affect us is in the way we respond to poor performances. More specifically, it has to do with what we attribute poor performances to.

A person with a fixed mindset will make helpless attributions, meaning that they associate poor performances with beliefs such as "not being good enough" or being "useless".

On the other hand, a person with a growth mindset will make resilient attributions. What that means is that, when something is hard… it's because it's hard! It doesn't mean that you're no good, it just means that what you're trying to do is tough and you may need to rethink your strategy in terms of how you approach it.

Understanding the behaviours that mindsets bring to light can help us make sense of what is going on with our students at an internal level. As you can see, supporting growth mindsets is work worth doing as the meaning system that comes from those beliefs can help students thrive despite the challenges that they encounter.

So how can we - as educators - help our students develop a growth mindset? What efforts does the evidence suggest will have the greatest impact towards this goal?

That's what we will explore in the rest of this blog post by focusing on two key areas: environment and effective interventions.

Learning Environments That Support A Growth Mindset

When it comes to developing a growth mindset, context matters. The environment in which our students learn can have a huge impact on the mindsets that they adopt and develop.

There are three key factors that we need to think about when trying to intentionally design an environment that can support a growth mindset: the physical environment, peer attitudes and behaviours, and the teacher's beliefs.

The Physical Environment

One of the simplest ways to help create an atmosphere that supports the development of a growth mindset is to see how you can make changes to your classroom's physical environment.

Obviously, small physical changes to your classroom's space can play a role here. Visuals and posters that promote strategies and messages can serve as reminders of the importance of a growth mindset.

These resources can be downloaded together as part of the Growth Mindset Resource Bundle!
The Yeti Poster

I've already mentioned where this poster originated from, so let me instead focus on how it lives in my lessons.

Being a Yeti is a commitment that we make to ourselves to accept the fact that some things are hard, that the struggle we experience when tackling difficult tasks is only temporary, and that there is always a way to overcome a challenge. In other words, being a Yeti is a commitment to the meaning system that defines a growth mindset.

Learning is meant to be challenging and growth can be uncomfortable. That being said, physical education can be especially intimidating since so much of the learning that occurs during our lessons is happening in public for everyone to see. I honestly believe that the public nature of learning in PE is part of what makes it so hard for some students to put themselves out there, take risks, and embrace the fact that failure is a part of learning.

Although I introduce the Yeti poster to my students at the start of the school year, we refer back to it frequently as the year goes on. When I know that I will be introducing something particularly challenging to my students, I make sure to prepare them for the struggles they may encounter by holding a class discussion on how a Yeti would approach difficult tasks. I also do this on the fly when I feel that the energy of the class is off, despite the challenge being within their reach (based on my professional experience).

The Fail Then Sail Poster

A key understanding that I want my students to develop is that failure is not the opposite of learning. Success and failure are two sides of the learning coin. Nelson Mandela famously said "I never lose. I either win or learn." That is the kind of spirit that I want to help instill in my students and it aligns perfectly to resilient attributions that I mentioned earlier.

The "Fail Then Sail" poster reminds students that FAIL is just an acronym for "First Attempt In Learning". Those first attempts in learning may be a little uncomfortable, but they ultimately help us SAIL or experience a "Successful Attempt In Learning".

In other words, failing does not make a person a failure. It's just part of the uncomfortable ride that is personal development. So let's embrace those fails, adopt positive effort beliefs, and keep sailing.

The Habits Of Successful Learners Mural

To make resilient attributions (which are part of the growth mindset meaning system), we not only have to accept the fact that some tasks are simply hard by nature, but also that encountering such tasks means that we get to go back to the drawing board to come up with new strategies.

Based on our own personal experiences, we each have our own set of habits or strategies that we adopt to overcome challenging situations. Sometimes when we find ourselves really struggling with a task, that struggle could be caused by the fact that - even though we've tried different things - we keep approaching the task from the same or similar angles.

One of the ways that I like to help expose my students to other possible strategies that they can add to their resilience toolbelt is through our Habits of Successful Learners Mural, an idea I originally got from the one and only Terri Drain.

The idea is simple: talk to your students about the strategies that they use to overcome challenges in their learning, take notes on what they share, and then create a mural that displays all of their answers on the wall of your gym.

Having the mural on display like this makes it incredibly easy to highlight and review different strategies that students can try when they are having a hard time trying to learn something new. Again, the goal here is to help them recognize that it is normal for hard things to be hard and that there are always different routes that you can explore when trying to overcome challenges.

Peer Attitudes And Behaviours

Growth mindset interventions seem to have the greatest effect in environments in which peers actively engage in challenge-seeking behaviour. Knowing this, how can we encourage our students to seek out challenges which - in turn - will encourage their classmates to do the same?

In my teaching, I did my best to encourage this kind of behaviour in a few different ways.

Reframing Challenge

First of all, I helped my students reframe mistakes, challenges, and failures by teaching them about the performance zones.

These resources can now be downloaded as part of the Growth Mindset Resource Bundle!

I had orgininally created the Performance Zones poster for my Jump Rope Deli unit. The poster was based on the work performance psychologist Dr. Margaret Osborne, who views optimal performance as the intersection between three main components:

  • Competence: “e.g. adequate skill level, practice, mastery”;
  • Physical Well-Being: “e.g. adequate nutrition, sleep, fitness”; and
  • Psychological Well-Being: “ e.g. positive and realistic self-statements and realistic self-appraisal of performance quality”

To support students' psychological well-being when it comes to performance, Dr. Osborne suggests that teachers share the following key understandings:

  1. Optimal/peak performances are not perfect. Mistakes happen. It’s just that the number of mistakes is small and great performers are able to recover from them quickly (oftentimes without anyone having noticed the mistake in the first place!) Mistakes happening in a performance do not necessarily mean that the performance was a failure.
  2. Poor performances provide performers with important information that can help them learn and improve before the performer’s next performance.
  3. Feeling anxious before, during, or after a performance is a natural response from our nervous system that is just trying to prime us to be able to face challenging situations.
  4. Anxiety can actually help boost performance!

By frontloading our students with information on what being challenged can feel like and how to navigate those emotions, I provided my students with tools that would help them develop their resilience in the face of adversity. The idea is that creating an environment in which students see their peers taking on challenges and remaining resilient, students give themselves permission to do the same.

Highlighting Students Using Strategies

Whenever I would introduce a new skill or tactic that I knew would be challenging for most of my students, I would also spend some time prior to the start of our learning activities discussing some of the Habits of Successful Learners that could help students stay strong when the learning got tough.

Throughout the lesson, I would do my best to remain keep an eye on the overall emotional levels in class and highlight how certain students were actively applying strategies of resilience in their learning.

Another great tool for helping students navigate their emotions successfully is the Mood Meter Process Poster, which is part of the RULER social and emotional learning tools that I brought to my teaching.

Seeing a classmate using the poster to label and regulate their emotions serves as a reminder to others that it is OK to struggle in your learning and that the emotions that come from those struggles can be regulated or used as fuel as you work towards your goals.

Baking classroom discussion time throughout your lessons to allow students to talk about how they are feeling and what they are doing to overcome challenges and obtsacles is another way to bring peers' experiences and attitudes to light for others. I've refer to this as a "reverse highlight reel": instead of focusing on sharing just the outcome of their learning, I want my students to talk about the process - including the stuggles - they went through to ultimately reach their goals.

Again, all of these efforts help students see the whole iceberg when it comes to their classmates' success and not just the tip of it. The awareness of how others are implementing a growth mindset in their learning can help students develop a similar mindset of their own.

Reward Systems

Finally, I have two reward systems that I use in my teaching to celebrate growth mindset thinking being applied in my students' learning: the Yeti Pins and my Adventure Badges.

The Yeti Pins

When I first created the Yeti Poster for my gym, my school went out and created a set of Yeti Pins for me. I used these pins to highlight amazing examples of students being Yetis in our lessons together and distributed them extremely sparingly throughout my time at the school (I handed out less than 10 pins in the seven years I was there).

The Yeti Pins were coveted by my students and those who earned one wore them as a badge of honour. The idea of one being handed out was always floating in the background of every lesson (since I awarded them pretty randomly), which helped promote Yeti attitudes and behaviours in class.

The Adventure Badges

The other reward system I created are my Adventure Badges. When I redesigned the badges, I wanted to be able to use them to reward positive academic behaviours in class. This included behaviours related to personal and social responsibility, social and emotional learning, and the habits of successful learners.

Amongst the badges are a few that relate directly to growth mindsets. If you'd like to learn more, check out my blog post on the Adventure Badges here.

All of these efforts were designed to highlight peers' attitudes and behaviours so that they may serve as inspiration for others. I could talk about growth mindsets until my face turns blue, but nothing will inspire my students more than seeing their peers walk the walk and achieve their own version of success.

Teacher Beliefs

Another factor that has a positive effect on the impact of growth mindset interventions is the teacher's attitudes and beliefs.

When a teacher promotes risk-taking, embracing failure, and learning from mistakes, they provide students with the space they need to be willing to adopt such behaviours.

I'm a big believer in the saying "actions express priorities". If we're going to tell our students that we want to support them as they learn how to adopt and develop a growth mindset, then our actions as teachers need to communicate that developing such mindsets is truly a priority.

Lesson Structure

One of the ways to achieve this as an educator is to pay close attention to the way that you are structuring your lessons.

For example, knowing that students will need time to implement some of the growth mindset strategies I've already mentioned in this post and that implementing such strategies can uncomfortable, are you providing your students with the time that they need to truly grapple with their learning?

If the pace of your lessons is too fast or the content is too dense, your students might feel like they are getting pushed along in their learning. This may result in them thinking "if I couldn't get or master this in time, then it could be because I'm not good enough to learn this."

By slowing things down, focusing on fewer (but richer) learning targets, and providing students with the time they need to grapple with their learning and overcome any hurdles they may encounter, your lesson design itself is communicating the belief that you want to support your students adoption of a growth mindset.

Formative Assessment

Whereas summative assessment is the form of assessment that looks back and the totality of learning that occurred and provides a final evaluation, formative assessment happens throughout the learning process. Its purpose is to provide information to both the teacher and students on a) where the student is at in their learning journey, and b) what next steps can help them move closer towards their goal.

When we actively bake multiple forms of formative assessment into our lessons, we continuously remind students that learning is a journey and we highlight the progress that they are making along that journey.

In other words, formative assessment helps students see how effort is allowing them to grow their capacity over time and encourages them to remain focused on the process and not just the outcome of their learning.

The way that you structure formative assessment in your teaching can impact your students' ability to visualize the learning journey and track their progress.

For example, setting clear learning targets is a powerful, effective pedagogcial practice. However, just setting the target without providing any context in regard to the journey that can lead up to reaching that target (and where to go once you have done so) can cause a binary belief situation:

  • I hit the target, or I didn't.
  • I'm able to do this, or I'm not.

This is why I love breaking learning down into Learning Roadmaps: the student-friendly, qualitative rubrics that I share with my students.

This example of a Learning Roadmap is from my Striking & Fielding Teacher Pack.

Learning Roadmaps help students visualize what the learning journey can look like. By breaking down larger learning goals into smaller targets that are within every student's reach ("Not Yet!", "Getting There!", "Got It!", "Wow!"), the rubrics encourage students to reflect on their progress as opposed to focusing solely on whether or not they hit their final targets.

Although showcasing your Learning Roadmaps in every lesson is a powerful practice in itself, there are two other tools that I like to use to really help students reflect on their progress: my Learning Level Tags and the Plickers Assessment Magnets that I made for my teaching.

Magnets provide students with a quick and easy way to physically mark where they believe they are at in their learning progress. With the Learning Roadmap on display on my whiteboard, students are invited throughout the lesson to read the roadmap levels (i.e. "Not Yet", "Getting There", "Got It", "Wow"), take their magnet, and then place it under the level where they believe they are at the moment.

This form of self-reflection is so quick and powerful that I encourage students to move their magnet whenever they feel that they've made progress in their learning. Sometimes, they move it to a whole other level. Other times, they just slide it over a little within the same level. Either way, physically moving a magnetic marker to showcase the progress you are making is an awesome way to celebrate your learning and remember that you have the power to help yourself grow.

Class Discussions

Finally, taking time out of your lesson to have a conversation with your students about how their are applying a growth mindset in their learning is another way of saying "this matters."

Many teachers hesitate when it comes to taking time away from physical activity to help bring important learning to their students' attention through discussion. Personally, I've always believed that we need to keep our eyes on the long-term goals of our programs (e.g. "helping kids get the most out of life") rather than on short-term gains (e.g. "I got kids sweaty today").

Classroom discussion can help make implicit learning goals - such as developing a growth mindset or building up our resilience to adversity - explicit to students. These types of conversations can help students create links, learn together, and see how they can transfer what they have learned in PE to other situations in their lives.

These three key factors - the physical environment, peer attitudes and behaviours, and the teacher's beliefs - help create a learning environment in whcih growth mindsets can thrive. Together, they form an IV drip that can continue to nourish students throughout the year as they continue to develop the belief that they can indeed grow their abilities through effort and perseverance.

But what about situations in which an IV drip may be too slow? What about those classes or students who need a quick shot to jumpstart their growth mindset development?

This is where an effective, evidence-based intervention can be useful. The good news is that it doesn't need to be complicated nor does it need to be time-intensive.

Let's take a look at what an effective growth mindset intervention can look like:

Growth Mindset Interventions That Work

In their paper that explored growth mindset controversies, authors David Yeager and Carol Dweck highlighted the content and structure of effective growth mindset interventions.

Based on what they shared, here is how you can create a growth mindset intervention for your students:

Step One: Provide a student-friendly definition of what a growth mindset is.

The first step is simple: raise your students' awareness of a growth mindset by sharing a definition of what is.

The key here is to keep things simple and use language that your students can understand. For example, you could define a growth mindset as "believing that you are able to learn and improve, even when what you are learning is tough."

Step Two: Share a memorable neuroplasticity metaphor.

Your second goal is to help students recognize and remember that the brain can change and grow as we learn.

This video by Khan Academy is perfect for this step:


Step Three: Share concrete actions & student stories

This step is really important as Yeager and Dweck mention that just defining what a growth mindset it and providing a couple illustrations would never be enough to help students adopt such a mindset. In order to help students start taking action towards developing this belief that they can grow their minds, we need to provide them with concrete actions that they can take.

This is where the Habits of Successful Learners Mural once again becomes such a powerful tool in your growth mindset arsenal. Although the download itself provides several examples of concrete actions students can take when experiencing challenge in their learning (actions that I pulled from conversations with my students), I would encourage you to have the same conversation with your students that I had with mine prior to putting the mural up:

Invite your students to share stories of times where they struggled and how those struggles helped them grow their abilities. Take notes on what they share and add their strategies to the Habits of Successful Learners Mural that you display in your gym (in the download, I provided you with some blank mural discs that you can edit with your students answers).

Step Four: Student goal essays

The purpose of this step is to help students visualize themselves implementing a growth mindset towards a future goal of their choosing.

Visualization is a powerful practice in psychology. It helps individuals frontload their thinking with "if this, then that" action plans, helping transform road blocks into mere speed bumps.

To help you out with this step, I created both a printable version and a Google Classroom-friendly version of this Growth Mindset Goal Planner reflection sheet:

These resources can now be downloaded as part of the Growth Mindset Resource Bundle!

Step Five: The "Saying-Is-Believing" exercise

Finally, to help students build their identity as a person who adopts and promotes growth mindset thinking, invite your students to engage in a "saying-is-believing" exercise.

To do this, have your students write a letter to a future student at their school who is struggling with a fixed mindset.

In their letter, have students define what a growth mindset is in their own words. Invite them to share a metaphor that represents neuroplasticity as well as a story of a time in which they were able to grow their own abilities through growth mindset thinking. Have them list a few concrete actions that they like to take when they find themselves struggling in their learning. Finally, have them share some words of encouragement for those struggling students so that they can feel like a growth mindset mentor.

This kind of exercise takes advantage of cognitive dissonance, which is the discomfort we feel as we try to hold two conflicting beliefs in our mind. For students who currently hold fixed mindset beliefs, the process of breaking down and advocating growth mindset thinking can create an internal conflict. As students experience that conflict, given all of the work they have done to explain the importance of a growth mindset, they will be in a better position to change their beliefs in order reduce the internal conflict that they are experiencing.

Again, I've put together both a printable version and a Google Classroom-friendly version of this Growth Mindset "Saying Is Believing" letter:

These resources can now be downloaded as part of the Growth Mindset Resource Bundle!

To help you bring many of these resources to your teaching (plus a Growth Mindset Learning Roadmap), I've created a Growth Mindset Resource Bundle. You can learn more about the bundle by hitting the button below!

View The Growth Mindset Resource Bundle


There's one final growth mindset piece that I want to share with you: when it comes to interventions, expect your results to vary.

In their paper exploring growth mindset controversies, Yeager and Dweck explain that students who are already at risk of poor academic outcomes (i.e. kids who are already facing challenges and setbacks) are more likely to be meaningfully affected by growth mindset interventions.

In other words, students who are already thriving might not benefit as much from an intervention meant to help them adopt a growth mindset. Despite this, I have a hard time believing that creating an environment that supports growth mindset thinking and teaching our students about growth mindset strategies isn't work worth pursuing.

As educators, we need to ask ourselves how our teaching will continue to impact the lives of our students long after they have graduated from our schools.

Life is full of adversity. To be able to move through life in ways that are happy and healthy, we need to be able to recognize when we are struggling with adversity, be mindful of our mindset, and quickly take actions that will help us overcome the challenges we face.

Understanding the factors that affect mindset, being able to recognize mindset-driven behaviours, and adding multiple tools to our teaching tool belt can help teachers help their students thrive.

I hope that this post has provided you with some of the foundational pieces and practices that empower you to make growth mindset a meaningful part of your teaching.

If you found value in this post, please consider donating to my friend Mac's GoFundMe. The money raised there will be donated to Mac's memorial fund at Western Carolina University, which was created to help future PE professionals attend their state conference.

If you enjoyed this blog post, feel free to share it with a colleague! You can also subscribe to my newsletter to make sure that you don’t miss out on any future posts that I share.

Thanks so much for reading and happy teaching!

Joey Feith
Joey Feith is a physical education teacher based out of Nova Scotia and the founder of ThePhysicalEducator.com.
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