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Growth Mindset and Mindfulness at a Distance

by Juliana Urtubey, supported by co-teacher Jessica Penrod


growth mindset, ADD, ADHD, autism, resource classroom, inclusion, social and emotional learning, wellness

We are a Title I school and have a wonderfully diverse population. Eighty-five percent of our students are Latinx, coming from all over Central and South America and the Caribbean (mostly Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Cuba, and Colombia). We also have students who are Filipino and Vietnamese. Many are emerging bilinguals, and it’s vital that we embrace their linguistic and ethnic identities. Our school community is family and neighborhood centered. Most of our students live in the community and can walk to school. The families in our school are supportive and are friends with each other.

A few years ago, my co-teacher and I decided to rethink our resource classroom so that we could better support our students’ academic and social-emotional needs. My co-teacher teaches the kindergartners through second graders, and I teach the third through fifth graders. Co-teaching has allowed us to better cover IEP meeting responsibilities and to provide one-on-one behavioral and emotional support, while also tending to both the primary and intermediate resource learning groups. We also have worked together to create an approach to growth mindset and mindfulness that supports our students’ social and emotional growth and well-being. We’ve found this approach invaluable for supporting our students during the move to distance learning.

Growth mindset is the belief that intelligence can be developed. A fixed mindset, on the other hand, is the belief that abilities don’t change. We adopted a growth mindset model because of its transformative power on students with thinking and learning differences. It gives everyone a fair chance to highlight their strengths and to focus on areas that need improvement without judgment or pressure. When students feel that it’s safe to take risks and make mistakes, tremendous learning occurs. Additionally, students need to have metacognitive structures in place so they can learn from their mistakes. Students who hold a growth mindset feel smart when they invest effort and engage with challenging problems, and they’re more likely to be resilient and ask for support when they face a challenge. The growth mindset model combines brain science with mindfulness to empower all learners to understand their strengths and build from their understanding that everyone is a learner.

It’s key that the growth mindset model be incorporated holistically into all parts of the school day. For it to take hold in the classroom, it should be the lens through which all learning takes place. A central part of the framework is understanding that growth mindset is an attitude and a practice you have about yourself. An important aspect is the power of “yet.” For example, “I may not be able to multiply fluently yet. I’m working on repeated addition. And soon, I know I’ll be able to multiply with a deep understanding.”

Growth mindset is also about students being accountable to themselves by learning to recognize and take care of their own holistic needs. A big part of this is learning to take care of social-emotional and behavioral needs. Understanding that all behavior communicates a need, and relying on the principles of growth mindset, in our classroom we encourage our students to take the lead in their own social-emotional growth. This means that we consistently provide tools, strategies, and practice for students to learn about and identify emotions, assess how particular emotions make their bodies feel/respond, learn to implement calming strategies to allow their brain to come up with solutions, and practice enacting those solutions with the help of an adult or peer if necessary.

Growth Mindset and Mindfulness at a Distance

Learning goals

  • I can name and identify my emotions.

  • I can brainstorm strategies to calm my brain and body.

  • I can talk about my emotions and feelings.

Transition to distance learning


Face to Face

Typically, we teach growth mindset and the associated brain science at the beginning of the year. We do this so that growth mindset is part of our  norms, expectations, and routines.

  • Teach the parts of the brain important for learning: amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex.

  • Work with students to practice naming and identifying these locations in the brain.

  • Facilitate think-alouds about how the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex are interrelated and codependent.

  • Use the metaphor of “flipping the lid” to demonstrate the power of managing our emotions and reactions.

  • Model growth mindset behaviors and language throughout all lessons and interactions.

  • Redirect students when they use fixed mindset thinking. Remind students that all fixed mindset thinking is temporary and just a few quick steps away from a growth mindset. Praise students based on actions and processes rather than results.

  • Set up an area of your room where students can go to manage their behaviors and emotions. Set up systems to allow students to ask for help in this area or to self-soothe with soft pillows, glitter bottles, stress balls, or yoga cards.

At a Distance

Since we don’t have our classroom posters and growth mindset area from our physical classroom, we are now more explicitly teaching growth mindset. Each day, we reserve 20 minutes to review, practice, and discuss different growth mindset and mindfulness practices:

Warm up: Breathing exercises

  • Square, triangle, and circle

  • Buzzing bee (see resources below)

Listen to song (“My Favorite Things”)

  • Display lyrics, highlight chorus: “When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad.”

Pose question and facilitate an open framed discussion

  • What strategy do you think the song is trying to teach you? How do you think it will help?

Reteach: Roles of amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex in learning

  • The amygdala is the “scaredy cat” that sounds the alarm to the brain to react; we can train our amygdalas to respond accordingly.

  • The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that helps us plan solutions.

  • The hippocampus stores our memories and strategies.

Tips: How to generalize calming strategies

  • Review breathing strategies.

  • Practice naming emotions.

  • Share brainstorming solutions for problems we face and big emotions we feel.


Face to Face

  • Brain poster (you can make your own or use the one included in your purchase of the MindUP Curriculum)

  • Calming corner (rug or mat, pillows, emotions poster, glitter bottles, yoga pose cards, and other calming tools)

At a Distance

  • Song lyrics

  • Images of breathing exercises (see below)

  • Individual journals


Face to Face

  • Teach various breathing techniques, as different students will prefer different techniques.

  • Remember that the calming corner is never used as a punishment. Ideally, students will recognize when they need a break to calm down and go on their own. You can also suggest they go to try out a calming strategy.

  • Set up a way for students to nonverbally communicate to you if they need help identifying their emotions, selecting calming strategies, or brainstorming a solution.

  • When students say or do something that demonstrates a fixed mindset, like “I can’t do this” or “this is too hard,” or when students “flip their lid,” redirect them using growth mindset language. For example, “I see that you’re feeling frustrated because the work may be challenging. Remember that while you are not able to do this yet, with some help and a growth mindset, you will be able to do it.” Then help the student take one step toward solving the problem. It can be asking for help, asking for the directions again, taking a deep breath, etc.

At a Distance

(From Coping Skills for Kids)

(From Your Therapy)

(Strategy for students with ADHD and autism)

What worked well

The children loved singing! I thought maybe the older students would feel shy or reluctant to sing along, but they loved it. Keeping it simple helped students keep the strategies “in their pockets” while they’re at home. Encouraging students to talk to each other builds independence. Students are able to help each other process. I really enjoyed how the students supported each other.

I was surprised by

I was surprised by how my students generalized the growth mindset and mindfulness frameworks into our distance learning. Many students are already—without my help—using their strategies at home. One student is showing her cousins who live with her the calming yoga poses and stretches that help her. I was surprised by how my student with ADHD was able to attend the class without any need for redirection or breaks. In fact, she led the breathing exercises the following day. She felt empowered by her ability to help her peers feel ready to regulate their emotions and bodies. One of my students with autism was able to accurately capture how naming his favorite things helped him feel grounded. He generalized the vocabulary so well when he shared that “remembering my favorite things reminds me that I can be grounded and keep my amygdala and prefrontal cortex in check!”

Next time I’ll try

I’ll explicitly talk about how growth mindset and mindfulness can help children think in terms of collective solidarity during the COVID-19 crisis. Growth mindset supports students in being mindful of how they’re feeling—and also how others may be feeling. This is critical in building global responsibility. I want to build a bridge for this by discussing small ways we can all lend a hand during this crisis.

My big picture takeaways

Students shouldn’t be afraid of their emotions or frustrations. When someone feels a “big emotion,” that’s an opportunity to learn a calming strategy that can replace anxious thoughts and feelings. The more calm our students feel, the more learning and creativity they can express. I’ve also learned that for the deepest understanding, it’s absolutely critical for students to work toward doing this independently. A growth mindset is itself something to which the power of “yet” applies: “I’m not ready to use a particular strategy without any help yet, but I’m getting there.”

If you’re considering setting up a growth mindset classroom once we return to our face-to-face classes, you’re in for a treat. One of the best things I’ve learned through this framework is that you get to be a learner right along with your students. You don’t have to be a pro at mindfulness or a brain scientist. Take cues from your students’ interests and allow yourself to be humble. It’s powerful when educators help normalize the “big emotions” students feel by sharing their own experience with those “big emotions.”

Right now is a great time to set up these practices through virtual and/or asynchronous learning platforms. I’ve found that using these strategies is a great way to support students and their families during these uncertain times. Remember to start small and embrace the power of “yet”!


About the Author

L. Juliana Urtubey holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in bilingual general and special elementary education and is a National Board Certified Teacher (ECYA/Exceptional Needs Specialist, 2018). Currently, she teaches resource at Crestwood Elementary in downtown Las Vegas, where she is warmly known as Ms. Earth due to her work in beautifying the school with gardens and murals. She leads the development of the outdoor garden classroom, runs a weekly garden club, and leverages the garden as a welcoming space for families. Juliana is a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards teacher fellow, a Teach Plus fellow, a member of the Nevada Department of Education Superintendent’s Teacher Advisory Committee, and a professional learning facilitator with the Nevada National Board Professional Learning Institute. She is a 2018 Rogers Foundation Heart of Education winner, a recipient of the 2019 CPLC Esperanza Latina Teaching Award, and a recipient of the HEAN Teacher of the Year (NV).

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