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Growth mindset and the power of “yet”

What is growth mindset? How can you shift your thinking from “I can’t do it” to “I can’t do it yet?” And why is mindset so important for kids who learn and think differently?

This episode explains key concepts through the life experiences of Savannah Treviño-Casias, a young adult who was diagnosed with dyscalculia in sixth grade. Find out how she went from believing she could never do math to powering her way through a college statistics course so she could become a psychologist. 

Learn about the intersection of growth mindset, learning disabilities, and kids of color. And get tips to help struggling students:

  • Understand the power of yet

  • Set specific goals that they want to reach

  • Visualize their mindsets by drawing and naming them

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Episode transcript

Julian: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "The Opportunity Gap." Kids of color who have ADHD and other common learning differences often face a double stigma. But there's a lot the families can do to address the opportunity gap in our communities. This podcast explains key issues and offers tips to help you advocate for your child. My name is Julian Saavedra. I'm a father of two and an assistant principal in Philadelphia, where I've spent nearly 20 years working in public schools. I'll be your host. Today's episode is about growth mindset, and I'm kicking us off with some inspirational quotes from none other than Michael Jordan. The first reader is my 8-year-old son, and the second reader is my 8-year-old daughter.

Julian's son: It's not about the shoes. It's about knowing where you are going. Not forgetting where you started. It's about having the courage to fail, not breaking when you're broken.

Julian's daughter: It's about work before glory and what's inside of you. It's doing what they say you can't. It's not about the shoes. It's about what you do in them.

Julian: I love this quote, because it's true for everyone. Whether you're the greatest basketball player of all time or you're a struggling student trying to power your way through a single math problem. Mindset is so important, and that's why we're devoting this entire episode to helping kids develop what's called a growth mindset. We're going to explain what that term means, how this kind of mindset can help all kids, and why growth mindset may be especially helpful for kids of color who learn and think differently.

I'm so, so, so, so excited to introduce today's guest. At the tender age of 26 years old, Savannah Treviño-Casias has a lot of experience when it comes to developing a growth mindset. Savannah grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, where she was diagnosed with a math learning disability in sixth grade. Savannah recently finished grad school where she studied psychology, and she is now a licensed associate therapist who works with a lot of kids who are struggling in school. Welcome to the show, Savannah.

Savannah: Thanks for having me. I'm happy to be here.

Julian: So, before we dive in, I need to ask a quick question, you know, just to break the ice. What is giving you life right now?

Savannah: I would say my, all my pets. So, I have a pretty big family of different animals. So, dogs, cats, tortoises. I just love spending time with them.

Julian: Wow. I need to have you come over to Philadelphia where I live. My children have convinced me to have a farm at the home. So, we also have two dogs. We have a pond with goldfish and frogs. We have four bunnies. We have two beautiful little ducks. We have a bearded dragon and we have a gecko.

Savannah: Wow.

Julian: I know. As I'm saying it out loud, I'm like, "Wow, that really is true." But yes, we have that. So, I think between our two households we could have a whole farm. So, I wanted to start off with a couple of quick definitions, Savannah, for folks who have never heard about these terms. How would you define growth mindset and fixed mindset?

Savannah: So, with growth mindset, I would define it as the belief that your intelligence and your skills can be improved and developed with hard work, effort, perseverance, and then kind of on the flip side of that, a fixed mindset is the belief that you are pretty much born with a certain set of skills, a certain amount of intelligence, and that can't really change. So, no matter what you do, no matter the amount of time or effort you put into it, things just can't improve or change for you.

Julian: I've heard a lot of that with my students in regards to algebra. Many of my students will look at algebra and say, "I am not good at math. I can't do this." And it sounds like that's a fixed mindset, whereas somebody who has a growth mindset might say, I'm not really so good at algebra now, but I'm going to keep practicing. And with time and effort I might get better and I will get better.

Savannah: Exactly. That's like spot on, and I love that example.

Julian: So, thinking about this growth mindset versus fixed mindset, now, you've experienced this personally at multiple times of your life. Hopefully you can take us back to sixth grade. Math must have been pretty tough for you, especially being diagnosed with a math learning disability. Can you tell us about what life was like back then?

Savannah: Sixth grade was really a big turning point for me and the fact that up until then I had really struggled with math, basic math, pretty much since kindergarten. You know, I went to every tutoring company in Phoenix. I was trying to get help for my teachers. I even had private tutors and nothing was really even really helping or I just wasn't getting it. And in sixth grade, my mom had me tested for special education and that's when I was diagnosed with learning disability.

And at that time, I was very much against, you know, being special education. I didn't want to be different. And I really thought no matter what, even if I was getting extra help or accommodations, nothing would change that. I just couldn't learn math.

Julian: So, then you fast forward to the sophomore year of high school. What was it about 10th grade that helped you change the way you thought about yourself and in particular about your math abilities?

Savannah: 10th grade was such a big turning point for me and my experience. When I entered high school, I just knew I was like, I wanted things to be different. I wanted to try to do better in school. I wanted to be a bit more outgoing, and I wanted to view myself in more of a positive light. And for me, that was changing my mindset about math. And I had a really amazing math teacher who worked with me one on one before school, after school, and she told me something that has always stuck with me. And it was that I have a brain for math. That really helped me think and see myself differently and see that I did have potential and that I could learn math. It might take me twice as long, I might have to go to extra tutoring sessions, work really hard with my special education teacher, but I could learn it. And that was OK. It was just really coming to that realization and understanding how I learned.

At that point, I understood that for me, I would have to constantly relearn basic math skills over and over again, sometimes even every year that would go by, and just being OK with that and just knowing like, "Hey, that's, it's OK to be that way." Just as long as I put in the work and the effort and the time, then I could actually do grade-level math. And I was. And for me, it was just so amazing. And I think I had gotten like a B in my math class, and that was the first time that had ever happened that I had gotten that high of a grade. I was like, "Wow, I can actually do this."

Julian: Do you remember the teacher's name?

Savannah: Yeah, her name is Miss Roberson.

Julian: Miss Roberson, shout out to Miss Roberson, wherever you are...

Savannah: Yeah, shout out.

Julian: ...if you're hearing this. It's just so amazing, right? That this one teacher can have such an impact on somebody's life. And, you know, we say it all the time that teachers really are the drivers of so many different things. And sometimes they don't even realize the impact they can have on somebody. But Miss Roberson, all she had to do is tell you you have a brain for it.

And look, here we are years later, still talking about it. That's amazing. So, what else happened with this momentum being built, right? You get this feeling that you can do the math, you get a B, you're getting tutoring, you understand that now the work is actually impacting your ability to do it and this fixed mindset starts going away. If there's something that happened at the school level that might have pushed you along even further?

Savannah: Yeah, I had a really supportive school. I went to a really small, all-girls public charter school.

Julian: OK.

Savannah: And so, it's like a really strong community. And also speaking of 10th grade, my mom passed away and so my whole school community really helped me. And as difficult as it was to even just think about focusing on school again, it became a driving force for me to continue forward and to graduate high school and then to go on to college.

Julian: Did she always have this dream of you to go on to college?

Savannah: That was something that I always grew up knowing, and she always instilled in me was that she wanted me to go to college and she wanted me to do well. Pretty life-changing, I would say.

Julian: Here we are, gone through all these different life changes. Obviously, the tragedy of losing your mother, but also having this motivating factor of really pushing you forward. You have a teacher that's in your corner and supporting you and this is your background, right? So, let's talk for a minute about why growth mindset might be especially helpful for kids with things like dyscalculia and dyslexia.

Savannah: I think it's especially important for students with dyscalculia, dyslexia, other learning and attention issues. Just because there's a belief that they can't succeed, there's just this underlying belief that, "Oh, they're different" or "They can't learn like other students." I think it's just sometimes it's about defeating feeling and experience — and I know at least it was for me.

And I feel like with the growth mindset, it can really help students with dyslexia and dyscalculia have that belief and that understanding like, they can do it, right? They can learn. They can understand different material and learn and grow. And it just might take some extra time or some extra accommodations or effort.

Julian: Can you explain for our readers and listeners what dyscalculia is, just like in your own words?

Savannah: So, dyscalculia is a math-based learning disability. So, what that means is students having difficulties with kind of foundational math oftentimes that's percentages, fractions, and it can look a little different for everyone. So, I know for myself, I often struggle with percentages or even counting back, right? From 10 to 1 or counting forward. So, I tend to count on my fingers and it's been my go-to to help myself in different instances like that.

Julian: Thank you for clarifying. And listeners, you may hear some folks describe dyscalculia as math dyslexia or dyslexia for numbers. But dyslexia and dyscalculia are totally different. Dyscalculia is about trouble with math and numbers. Dyslexia is about trouble with reading and spelling. All right.

So, Savannah, you powered all the way through high school. 10th grade was challenging, but also a year of profound growth. You made your way to Arizona State University, and you majored in psychology. This involves taking a bunch of math classes, including statistics. Tell us about your experience with college math class.

Savannah: I was placed in an intro math course that I took at the beginning of college, and I did all right, passed it. But when I had to take college algebra, which was a prerequisite — so a class that I had to take in order to get into statistics — I couldn't pass it at Arizona State University, at ASU, and I ended up getting off track for my psychology major. And that was, that was stressful. That was scary.

Julian: Yeah, I'm sure.

Savannah: Thankfully I had an advisor tell me, "Hey, you can actually take college algebra and trigonometry at a community college,” and that would equate to the required math class that I would need to get into statistics the fall the next year. You know me, I was still a little... math was not my favorite thing. It's not like I wanted to spend my whole summer doing math, but I thought, I'll sign up for these summer math courses. I'll just knock them out so I could get back on track, so I could graduate on time. I'll just give it a try.

And so, I signed up for college algebra and trigonometry at a local community college and college algebra went all right. It went well — I got my accommodations were all set. And the problem, though, was my trigonometry class, because my trig professor was not wanting to give me my accommodations. So, he refused to give me my double time on exams or to test in a different room. And then he even made certain comments to me in front of the class, such as, you know, "You just have to try harder" or "You just have to work harder. You don't need your accommodations."

Julian: In front of everybody?

Savannah: In front of everybody. It felt humiliating. I had done so much work to build up my confidence in myself and in my abilities. But when comments like that were said, it just took me back to those difficult years of having a low self-esteem, and my fixed mindset, little beliefs or statements kept coming back to me.

Julian: That is completely unprofessional and completely unnecessary. And if I were that person's administrator, we would be having a long conversation about fixing the way that we deal with our students. But just putting it out there that this is not something that happens in isolation, it feels like it happens more often than not. So, thank you for kind of just sharing.

Savannah: Yeah, it was tough. It really was. Yeah, I would try to do all the work and then I would, my tutors/mentors lived an hour away and I would take public transportation all the way to their house after, you know, after those classes. And then I would work on math homework until, sometimes until like 10 p.m. I would work hard.

And like I said, also having to re-learn that math again, right? The basic fundamentals of math and then on top of having to learn what was I was supposed to be learning in a class. And so, at the end of the summer, I made it through my math classes. I was keeping documentation and a timeline of different comments and different things.

Julian: Oh, I'm glad you said that.

Savannah: Yeah, that my trig professor, yes, emails, written timelines. I wanted to make sure that nothing like that would happen with that professor again for any other students with disabilities. So, we made an official complaint and the professor ended up having to take a disability 101 course.

Julian: Wow. See? So, using your resources really seems to have made a change not only for yourself but for people coming up behind you. Based on your experience of, especially with the professor and community college and then ASU experiences, what did you learn about the connection between having a growth mindset and self-advocacy?

Savannah: Yes, I learned that a big part of having a growth mindset is being able to be an advocate for yourself in the fact that with a growth mindset, it's not that you believe that you can just do it right off the bat, right? It's not, "Oh, I can do anything and everything. I have the potential and I can try these things. I can put in the effort.

But a big part of that also means reaching out for help when you need to and knowing when you need help and not being afraid of that, trying not to feel ashamed of that." Because for so long I know I felt ashamed to ask for help or to receive accommodations or even ask questions in class. So, not just knowing like, "Hey, when you're struggling, it's OK to reach out, it's OK to ask for help."

Julian: And you definitely, not only conquered the challenge of your trigonometry professor, but you got him to go to school.

Savannah: Exactly.

Julian: So, there's some learning that happened there, which clearly it helped those coming back behind you. Now while you were in college, I see that you did some research on growth mindset. Tell us about what you found.

Savannah: Yeah, I started thinking about and planning for my honors thesis when I was like, "Oh, I could write my paper and my thesis about this specifically."

Julian: Hold on, let's pause for a second. Did you just sneak the word honors in? Did I hear that?

Savannah: Oh, yes. I went to the ASU Barrett Honors College, specifically.

Julian: Look at that, did everybody hear that? So, here we are going on hour-long rides and tutoring and all that. But not only did she do that, but she went to an honors college and did an honors thesis. Continue.

Savannah: Thank you. Yeah. So, part of the ASU Barrett experience was that you have to do an honor thesis in order to graduate. I wanted to do something that was meaningful to me, and so, that's when I was like, "Oh, why don't I just do research with growth mindset and learning disabilities?" And then part of my honors thesis was that I wanted to create a workbook specifically for students with disabilities and to help them foster and create and or find a growth mindset.

Julian: Talk about full circle. Imagine if sixth grade Savanah had this workbook created by a college Savannah who had experienced all that just...

Savannah: Yeah.

Julian: ...That's amazing that you had the foresight to think about doing something that directly impacts people that experience the same thing you did. That's really cool. Noticed that you also did some research on Carol Dweck. Can you tell us about what you learned from her research and who she is?

Savannah: Yeah. So, Carol Dweck is a psychologist, and she wrote a book called "Mindset" — I highly recommend it. And that's where I really was able to deeply understand or really brought in my understanding of growth and fixed mindsets and all the different ways that they can, you know, be within our lives. School, education, jobs, everything. She really laid it out in a way that was very easy to understand. So, I highly recommend that.

Julian: "Mindset" by Carol Dweck. She's one of the leading voices on fixed versus growth mindset. And for decades, many schools and districts have been utilizing that research to address some of the ideas and mindset within school system.

But I'm interested, within the body of your research, have you come across anything related to growth mindset and kids of color? And I ask because this is "The Opportunity Gap" and we focus on the intersectionality of race and special education. Just wondering, is there any research out there around growth mindset in kids of color? Or have you found anything yet?

Savannah: Yeah. So, in my research, I have found really insightful information specifically about working with students of color and growth mindset. And big takeaway that I had was that it was important to validate and understand that students of color, you know, they're often dealing with all these other concerns, systematic racism, and oppression. And so, never losing sight of those things and never pushing those things aside or thinking that they don't matter, right? So, always having those on the forefront, but at the same time knowing that you can also foster, you know, the desire for growth, for effort, for hard work, but while also being mindful of all these other aspects that are causing all these other concerns.

Julian: Yeah, I mean, I know in general the idea of growth mindset is, it's becoming more popular in recent years and there's a large body of research around implementing it. But I do think there's a need for more research to be done specifically with students of color.

Savannah: Definitely, yeah. There's still so much more research that needs to happen on that topic.

Julian: So, before we go, I'm hoping that you can share some very specific actionable tips to help all of our listeners out there, help their own children or any children develop a growth mindset. So, Savannah, what can parents do to help kids, especially our kids of color, who learn and think differently, shift their mindset from "I can't do X, Y, and Z" to "I can't do X, Y, and Z yet."

Savannah: I love it. Exactly. And I'll start with that, is one of the tips that came to my mind. First and foremost was Carol Dweck's idea of the power of "yet," right? Of believing and helping your child understand that if they're going through a struggle or a challenge saying "It's OK. You don't know that quite yet. It's OK. You can get there. We can work on this. We can figure out what resources we might need to help with, so you don't know this yet." So, the power of "yet" is a big one.

And then also helping your child set goals, something that they're really interested in and that they want to work towards and to work on. So, helping them have specific goals and then a fun one is that, giving your fixed mindset a persona. So, what I mean by that is kind of making it, whether it be like a little drawing or a little cartoon, something that they can visually see their fixed mindset as. So, I think mine was like a creeping cloud. So, he was a little angry cloud and he had all these kind of fixed mindset words that often come to my mind sometimes: stupid or worthless or incapable. Different things like that. You're like, "Oh, my fixed mindset is being this way," right? Or "My little creeping cloud. Oh, it's just coming up from time to time, but just trying to work through it," right? "We'll push it to the side or push him away." Something like that, right? Making it a bit more tangible and easier to understand.

Julian: Yeah. I mean, I was going to say, I think for younger children especially, that makes it very clear. And when we make things concrete for our children, then it really helps solidify their thinking. The flip side to that is also doing the same for the growth mindset.

My son is in third grade and their teacher had them create a magical yet where they read a book about the magical yet and then they took time to use clay to create their magical yet and the yet is supposed to help them remind themselves that they might not understand things now, at least not yet, but they're going to get it. So, any time they have a difficult problem or a difficult set of math problems or a difficult set of challenges — because third grade it’s one of those really intensive transitional years —they take out their magical yet and put it on their desk and it's a reminder they have to keep going. So, the tip of naming and giving a personality to a fixed mindset, but also naming and giving something tangible to the growth mindset, can really make things concrete for our children.

Listeners, if you want to hear more from this amazing young woman, you can go to Understood.org and read all the columns she wrote for the website back when she was a college student. I also want listeners to know that our show notes include links to three resources about growth mindset, an Understood article called What is Growth Mindset?, a set of principle worksheets called Growth Mindset Activities for Kids, and a nine-minute video on YouTube called Developing a Growth Mindset with Carol Dweck. So, be sure to check these out and keep asking questions to help your child thrive.

Savannah, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to join us. This has been a very interesting and informative conversation and I hope our listeners realize that anybody can develop a growth mindset. It's a game changer with how we approach challenges in our lives. And I think Savannah is a testament to the power of having a growth mindset. So, thank you so much.

You've been listening to "The Opportunity Gap" from the Understood Podcast Network. This show is for you. So, we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Is there a topic you'd like us to cover? We want to hear from you. Email us at OpportunityGap@understood.org.

If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode. Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.

"The Opportunity Gap" is produced by Julie Rawe and edited by Cin Pim. Briana Berry is our production director. Our theme music was written by Justin D. Wright, who also mixes the show. For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next time.

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    is an assistant principal in a public school in Philadelphia.

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