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The Little Engine That Could: Closing the Achievement Gap

How grit and growth mindset positively impact educational outcomes for students in poverty.
Mary Beier
Senior Honors Project

Submitted in partial fulfillment of the graduate requirements

Of the Westover Honors Program
Westover Honors Program
February, 2016

Dr. Brown
Dr. Watts
Dr. Kicklighter

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Research shows there is an evident negative difference between the achievement of
students who live under the poverty line and their more affluent peers in both standardized test
scores and higher education attainment. This is a problem that needs to be addressed in the
United States. This meta-analysis seeks to answer the following: can an intervention promoting
non-cognitive skills such as a growth mindset or grit positively impact outcomes for students
who live under the poverty line? Education is often considered a highway out of poverty;
however, the highway is useless if the students who live in poverty cannot successfully navigate
it. Interventions such as Title One and Head Start have attempted to minimize the income
achievement gap, yet it still persists. This meta-analysis suggests that creating a school culture
promoting grit and growth mindset in students, parents, and teachers may help improve the
educational outcomes for students of low socioeconomic status (low SES).
Poverty Defined
To understand this difference in achievement between students of high and low SES, it is
important to understand first what it means to live in poverty. According to the 2013 ETS
(Educational Testing Service) report on poverty and education, more than one in five children in
the United States live under the official poverty line (Coley & Baker, 2013). This is the second
highest rate of childhood poverty of all developed countries in the world. Therefore, childhood
poverty is clearly a prevalent problem in the United States. But what does it actually mean to live
in poverty? Over time, this has proven to be both a difficult and controversial question. In 1969,
the United States official poverty line was adopted as a standard measure based on income
thresholds of families of based on size. It has been updated annually based on inflation (Coley &

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Baker, 2013). This threshold is generally based on food costs to support a family of a given size.
For example, in 2013, the United States Census Bureau posted the poverty threshold as $23,000
for a family of four (Rearden, 2013). This means that the estimated food cost to support a family
of four for one year was $23,000 or more; families making below this income would be
considered below the poverty line. However, some do not believe this is a sufficient definition.
It is notable that the official poverty line measure does not factor other costs such as child
care, shelter, and clothes. Therefore, some believe the definition of poverty ought to be
broadened because it is difficult to define as simply the amount money needed to buy food to
survive when there are other factors to consider. A relative poverty line has been suggested as
an alternative. This can be calculated to account for these other variables, but would likely
increase the number of people considered to live in poverty (Iceland, 2013). This makes defining
poverty a controversial topic.
For the purpose of this thesis, I will use the term poverty to indicate the United States
official poverty line based on family size posted annually by the United States Census Bureau
because it is used to qualify students for services in schools including Title One and the National
School Lunch Program. However, it is also evident that more children are exposed to the risks of
relative poverty that may impede school performance. Therefore they should not be excluded
from the intervention which I propose.
Education is often considered a catalyst for social mobility because it can provide an
opportunity to obtain a college degree and subsequent access to generally higher paying jobs.
However, many children who live in poverty do not have full access to education due to
persistent risk factors including physical and emotional health, school readiness, and teacher

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attitudes. Risk factors in this case can be anything that impedes a childs school performance.
They create the cycle of poverty. If a child is unable to succeed in school and move on to higher
education, he or she is likely to end up with a similarly low-paying job as his or her parents and
remain exposed to the same risk factors as in his or her childhood (Engle & Black, 2008). This
seems to be due to the inequality of wages based on the highest level of education completion. In
many cases, individuals who complete higher levels of education tend to have access to higher
paying jobs because they have more qualifications and maybe experience through programs such
as college internships (Iceland, 2013). This is one reason why it is important to notice that
students from low SES households tend to be less successful in school than their peers because
this lack of success can affect their future financial situation and perpetuate the presence of
poverty in their lives.
The Income Achievement Gap Defined
This lower achievement of students who live in poverty is formally known as the income
achievement gap (Osborn, 2014; Reardon, 2013; Spitzer & Aronson, 2015). It is a gap that has
been evident for generations and represents the disparity between the achievement of students
who live in poverty and their more affluent peers. This is most evident through standardized test
performance (Osborn, 2014). The Center on Educational Policy (CEP) analyzed achievement on
state tests and found that students who live in low-SES households tend to score twenty-five
percentage points lower on state standardized tests than their peers. This means that they may be
answering a quarter of the questions incorrectly that their peers had correctly answered (Timar &
Maxwell-Jolly, 2012).

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Not only is there a difference in test scores of high and low-income students but also
between white and minority students. In the past thirty years, the National Assessment of
Educational Progress observed a gap in standardized test scores of forty-percent lower score for
low-income students compared with their peers. However, the minority achievement gap has
narrowed. In fact, all minority groups have made gains in standardized test scores since 2002, but
the gains for those in poverty has been significantly less as represented in Figure 1 (Reardon,
2013; Timar & Maxwell-Jolly, 2012). This could be attributed to the fact that racial inequality
over the past thirty years has decreased while economic inequality has increased due to
disparities in college completion and subsequent wage differences (Reardon, 2013). The decrease
in the black-white achievement gap supports the idea that the low-high income gap can also be
reduced in time. However, it has not reduced as effectively, so this suggests educators may
attempt new interventions to reduce the disparity in academic achievement for children who live
in poverty.

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Figure 1

(Rearden, 2013, p. 12)

Some researchers believe that the income achievement gap is a symptom of other
complications and is not the sole issue. These other difficulties include persistent risk factors
associated with poverty such as physical and emotional health, school readiness, and teacher
attitudes and biases. Suggestions have been made that schools must adapt to the needs of their
students (Corbett, Wilson, & Williams, 2002). This means attending to other difficulties in
students lives that could be contributing to limited success in school. The suggested intervention
of developing a school culture promoting the non-cognitive skills growth mindset and grit may
address students needs caused by persistent risk factors.

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Risk Factors Associated with Poverty
These various risk factors are more prevalent in the lives of children who live in poverty
than in the lives of their peers and can negatively impact school readiness and performance. One
of these is physical health and malnutrition. Students who live in poverty do not always have
access to adequate health care, resulting in issues including vision problems, anemia, and
asthma, all of which could otherwise be manageable and treatable (Carter, Welner, & LadsonBillings, 2013). Students may also lack proper nutrition due to food insecurity, not having
enough food to eat. Nutritious food helps children to grow and develop properly while also
providing the necessary energy to be attentive during the school day. They may become tired or
lethargic due to lack of energy. Issues such as these tend to act as barriers to the school
experience for students. This is why the National School Lunch Program began to provide free or
reduced-price lunches for students in need (Coley & Baker, 2013). The proposed intervention
cannot remedy the health risks associated with poverty, but it is meant to help students persevere
in spite of at least one of the hardships it causes.
Another risk factor that this intervention may help address is kindergarten readiness,
which is having some of the skills and knowledge necessary for success in school (Coley &
Baker, 2013; Engle & Black, 2008). Children who live in low-SES households tend to have less
developed language and other skills than their peers. Different studies have suggested varying
degrees of vocabulary deficits; one study suggests children who live in poverty are exposed to
only thirteen million words by the age of four whereas their peers are exposed to twenty-six
million words (Jensen, 2013). This implies that some children are exposed to only half of the
words that their peers are by the same age. A possible explanation for this could be the cyclical

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nature of poverty (Coley & Baker, 2013; Engle & Black, 2008; Jensen, 2013). If a child grows
up in poverty and does poorly in school, he or she becomes a parent who may not have the time
or ability to read to his or her children. However some parents may read to their children; every
child is different and has a different background of experience. This intervention may not
provide students with the language skills they need to be kindergarten ready; however, it could
provide other skills to help with readiness. Students may be taught to motivate themselves to
potentially be more ready to learn.
The third major risk factor is related to emotional health. Parents who live under the
poverty line tend to have higher occurrences of chronic stress, or distress (Engle & Black, 2008;
Jensen, 2013; Wadsworth et al., 2013). This distress can translate into stress for children and may
cause more frequent occurrences of childhood depression (Carter et al., 2013; Jensen, 2013).
Unfortunately stress and depression can manifest themselves in both cognitive and behavioral
problems which distract from learning (Goodwin & Miller, 2013). This is the primary risk factor
that this non-cognitive skill intervention could address. There are few interventions that address
the emotional health of students in poverty. Instead, they typically focus on school readiness.
Students who are more ready for school are not always more motivated. This intervention
might help motivate students to persevere in spite of the described risks they face. It is also
imperative, however, to note that there are distinct differences between students.
The final risk factor is caused by the erroneous assumption that income is always a
predictor of educational success. Poverty does not mean poor educational performance in all
cases. Spitzer and Aronson (2005) call this the stereotype threat. Their research demonstrates
that this type of teacher attitude impedes students performance. In addition to Spitzer and

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Aronson (2005), other researchers, including Osborn (2014) and Ricci (2013), believe that
educators create this fourth risk factor by equating poverty and performance. It is detrimental for
educators to automatically believe that students who come from low-SES backgrounds are less
successful. This attitude leads to deficit thinking about student abilities, and can cause educators
to lower expectations for children who live under the poverty line. Lower expectations can
translate into teaching less or not providing challenging work because teachers do not believe
their students are capable. If teachers understood non-cognitive skills such as grit and growth
mindset, they may be less prone to such stereotypes.
Non-Cognitive Skills Defined
Non-cognitive skills are defined as attributes, skills, and intrapersonal resources that are
different from content knowledge (Laursen, 2015). Growth mindset and grit fit this definition
because they can be inherent attributes or learned skills that can be used as an internal resource
to help improve motivation and willingness to take risks. They address self-concept, how one
believes he or she is distinct from others, and self-competence, to what degree one believes he or
she is able to do something, both of which are shown to have an effect on ones success and
willingness to take risks (Hochanadel & Finamore, 2015; Wang & Gordon, 1994). If one does
not have a positive self-concept, he or she is likely to avoid taking risks academically, which can
become learned helplessness. This is the idea that one learns to not tryto be helplesswhen
faced with adversity because the student does not believe in his or her ability. The opposite of
this is learned optimism, which could be developed by learning and using grit and growth
mindset. A student who demonstrates learned optimism tends to be more willing to take risks or
to try, in short, he or she may be more motivated.

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Individually, these skills are very different, but they may complement one another well in
that they both could improve student motivation, which could cause increased effort and
improved success academically. Growth mindset is the belief that intelligence can be changed
and improved with effort and perseverance. The opposite of growth mindset is fixed mindset,
which is the idea that intelligence cannot be changed or developed; one is simply born intelligent
or otherwise. Mindset is about efficacy, the beliefs and expectations individuals possess about
their ability in certain situations (Ricci, 2013). People oftentimes have varying mindsets; they
may have a growth mindset about some things but not others. For example, some people claim
that they cannot do math, they just were not born with the math gene but they believe they are
smart and capable of learning more in other subjects such as reading. This causes them to be
content with failure in math when it becomes difficult whereas they would take risks and try
more difficult books when reading. A fixed mindset does not seem to lead to motivation to
improve effort.
Vandewalle (2012), the Altshuler Distinguished Teaching Professor at Southern
Methodist University warns against fixed mindset by stating, When one holds a fixed mindset,
that initial information becomes an anchor that impedes the likelihood of engaging in
counterfactual thinking (Hochanadel & Finamore, 2015 p. 48). This means having a fixed
mindset does not encourage learning and trying new things; rather, it impedes such growth.
Consider the classic story The Little Engine that Could by Watty Piper. This story about a little
engine who thought he could, was able to be successful. This can-do attitude is the foundation
of a growth mindset. Researchers believe that growth mindset can help to develop grit (ElishPiper, 2014; Hochanadel & Finamore, 2015).

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Grit is a term coined by Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly (2007) to describe
a non-cognitive trait that is defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals
(Duckworth et al., 2007, p. 1087). They sought to determine what makes an individual successful
and found evidence to support their hypothesis that grit may be a predictor of success.
Intelligence is sometimes considered a predictor of success, but after analyzing studies of college
grade point averages, income, and job performance Duckworth et al. observed that IQ may only
account for one-third of the variance in some measures of success. One seminal study that
inspired their work, the Terman longitudinal study of mentally gifted children (1947), suggested
that although IQ is a factor of success, there was only a five point IQ difference between the least
accomplished and the most accomplished subjects whom he studied. After noting data such as
this, it became evident to Duckworth and her team that successful people tended to demonstrate
similar traits that characterize grit such as long-term stamina for long-term goals even in the
absence of positive reinforcement (Duckworth et al., 2007).
To identify these grit traits, Duckworth et al. (2007) developed a self-report questionnaire
known as the Grit Scale seen in Figure 2. This questionnaire serves to test the hypothesis that grit
is a better predictor of success than both talent and IQ. The goal is to determine the attitudes and
behaviors of high-achieving individuals. The questionnaire includes items to determine ones
ability to stick to a goal in spite of adversity for an extended period. As they finalized the scale,
the researchers found that more educated adults tended to report higher grit than their peers,
suggesting that grit is an indicator of success in school.

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Figure 2

(Duckworth et al., 2007 p. 1090)

To more simply describe grit, Gregory and Kaufeldt (2015), who are consultants who
specialize in brain compatible learning and the authors of The Motivated Brain, compare it to the
classic fable of the Tortoise and the Hare. In this story, the two animals engage in a race in which
the hare takes off and is much faster, choosing to take a break because the tortoise is so slow.
However, the tortoise continues on steadily, persevering until finally he wins the race. Gritty
individuals take a similar slow and steady approach to their goals. Having grit does not
necessarily mean possessing self-control but rather that one is committed to a goal and will work
to complete it in the face of adversity. Like growth mindset, grit may also help motivate students
because they could possibly learn to persevere to reach goals which may include success in
Intervention Model
How could these non-cognitive skills be implemented in an individual school? The first
step would be for school administrators to learn about these skills through scholarly research
such as that done by Duckworth and Dweck. They can read books including Riccis Mindsets in

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the Classroom in which the author describes ways to help students adopt a growth mindset as
well as ways school staff can maintain a growth mindset culture while sharing information with
parents (Ricci, 2013). From there, a whole-school starting point could be as simple as
implementing a new school motto promoting growth mindset and grit such as The Little Engine
That Could I think I can! but adding a phrase for grit such as I can reach my goals!
combined to say, I can reach my goals because I think I can! This may help set the framework
for the rest of the school to start thinking about goals and each students ability to reach it with a
positive attitude.
This could create a positive community surrounding students at all times with grit
characteristics and a growth mindset attitude. It would not only be a school reform but a shift to
improve the quality of education for students who live in poverty (Osborn, 2014).
The next step could then be to teach teachers about non-cognitive skills maybe through a
grit and growth mindset workshop before the beginning of the school year. This type of
intervention has not been widely used and does not yet have a standard curriculum to teach it, so
teachers could possibly be taught by the administrators until further research has been done and a
standard curriculum could be created. Topics that should be taught to teachers include the
definitions of grit and growth mindset as well as some evidence such as that in this paper to
demonstrate that these skills are positively associated with success. It may also be beneficial to
teach that current neuroscience does support growth mindset that the bran may in fact grow
stronger with practice and effort (Ricci, 2013). It is particularly important for teachers to accept
the intervention because research supports the mindset of teachers has been demonstrated to

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affect the learners mindsets, so it is important that students other role models share the same
positive mindset and champion gritty behavior (Ricci, 2013).
Secondly, teachers would learn how to encourage these skills daily in their classrooms.
Laursen (2015), an Associate Adjunct Professor at the University of Richmond who has forty
years of experience with high-risk families in education, believes that grit can be taught. This can
be done by establishing a vocabulary about character and then using it (Pappano, 2013). Then the
vocabulary could be implemented during classroom meetings where students can talk about
times they overcame an obstacle but persevered and how that was a good experience. Classes
could also talk about their goals, which the teacher could then encourage them daily to achieve
them maybe by checking their progress with an end of the day exit ticket with the students goal
at the top and a brief statement about what they did to achieve their goal that day. This type of
daily feedback is important to help students develop these skills (Jensen, 2013). Furthermore
having a weekly lesson or reminder about growth mindset could help students to change their
mindsets. They could be taught their brain is similar to a muscle in that it can get stronger with
practice. Also they could learn that they are not born with a given amount of intelligence, they
can improve their academic situation. This could also be done through an after-school program
geared towards students in families who live under the poverty line.
The next step would be to share the objective and strategies of the intervention with
parents and families. Teaching parents about the malleability of the brain can help them to learn
not to blame genes for the capabilities of their child (Ricci, 2013). This could be done through
parent newsletters explaining why the school motto is now, I can reach my goals because I
think I can! It could be beneficial to explain what non-cognitive skills are and how they could

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potentially improve their childs school performance. Then it would be necessary to explain ways
that parents can continue the intervention at home. For example, sharing times when they failed
or persevered could help students to understand that they can move past failures and stull be
successful at reaching their goals. The parents could also encourage their children to reach their
goals by having conversations about academic goals. Another strategy would be to have parent
classes similar to those used to educate teachers about the intervention during which time they
could ask questions and learn more about the intervention and how they can implement it.
Research suggests that, in general, classes for parents about interventions improve the
educational outcomes (Engle & Black, 2008).
Both teachers and parents should learn ways to support these non-cognitive skills in
children. They must both understand ways to provide feedback about hard work rather than
intelligence. Saying things like, Wow, youre smart! is not always the best praise for children
to hear because they may fear taking risks and stretching themselves so they can grow
academically, and may be more likely to give up when they start to not feel as smart (Gregory &
Kaufeldt, 2015). Children should instead be encouraged to work with intensity and stamina
(Duckworth et al., 2007).
Finally, the students could receive the benefits of the intervention from both their parents
and teachers. As described, they could be taught directly about these skills or talk about them in
class meetings. After-school programs could be available for them to learn more about growth
mindset and how the brain works or to learn goal-setting strategies such as setting a goal that
stretches your ability but is still attainable with effort. They could be motivated by their parents
and teachers and possibly during an after-school program to set and reach academic goals.

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Furthermore, books and technology could be made available to students to read more about
people or characters who demonstrate these characteristics including, The Little Engine that
Could by Watty Piper, Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco, Giraffes Cant Dance by Giles
Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees, and The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis
(Elish-Piper, 2014; Laursen, 2015; Ricci, 2013). There are also online programs that can be used
to teach students about the brain including Brainology accessible at; it is an interactive online program that teaches students about
how the brain grows (Laursen, 2015). Access to this intervention could possibly motivate
students to improve their academic outcomes.
Benefits of Promoting Non-Cognitive Skills
Motivation is only one way that this intervention may help address the income
achievement gap in other ways. This new paradigm or model would empower children in low
SES households. Educational agencies including the Educational Testing Service (ETS) have
suggested adopting effective school practices such as reducing class sizes or lengthening the
school day to improve the ability of students to access education (Coley & Baker, 2013).
However, these have been implemented and yet there the gap remains a persistent issue seen in
test scores and higher education achievement. Pappano (2013), an education journalist, states in
The Harvard Education Letter reducing the income achievement gap should be about removing
barriers to success; non-cognitive skills could do this by providing students, teachers, and parents
the tools to improve educational outcomes in spite of the risks described above.
Utilizing a psychological intervention such as this to reduce the income achievement gap
may be more effective than an expensive policy-changing approach. First it may be more

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effective because it could be more responsive to the social and psychological needs of students
caused by the risks factors mentioned (Spitzer & Aronson, 2015; Timar & Maxwell-Jolly, 2012).
Second, the transactional cost is lower. The main costs would be professional development of
school faculty and staff as well as educating parents about non-cognitive skills. This would take
both time and resources but would not change the essential make-up of curriculum or the
traditional school day. It would just be a change in attitude rather than policy (Reardon, 2013;
Timar & Maxwell-Jolly, 2012). Furthermore, some individuals already demonstrate these skills,
so not everyone will need to adopt a new attitude.
Many students, parents, and teachers are already gritty and have growth mindsets.
However, if school systems could teach more people to utilize these skills, there would likely be
greater levels of success for children who live in poverty. Ricci (2013) performed a study in
which she interviewed children, starting in third grade, to evaluate their growth mindset. She
found one hundred percent of the kindergarten students interviewed possessed a growth mindset.
They believed they could become more intelligent over time. However, by third grade, forty-two
percent of students showed a fixed mindset and did not think they could improve their academic
performance (Ricci, 2013). It is unknown where the fixed mindset comes from or why students
start adopting it. This study supports the idea that a growth mindset is natural in children, and
that educators could work to perpetuate it as students get older.
In some cases these attitudes already exist, but in other cases they must be taught. Some
evidence supports that gritty characteristics could possibly be taught, in the Association for
Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) publication, Educational Leadership,
Goodwin and Miller (2013) describe a study called the Perry Experiment observing students

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involved in a two-year early childhood intervention called HighScope meant to improve
educational outcomes at an individual school in Michigan. These students experienced the
fadeout effect. This means that were very successful until the program ended, and then they
became less successful. However, in the next year, they bounced back and began to improve their
achievement because they learned to self-regulate in the early childhood program. Selfregulation is a characteristic of grit; this study suggests one instance where such characteristics
were taught and did have a positive effect of performance. Other research suggests similar
positive relationships between these skills and success.
Evidence of the Non-Cognitive Skills and Success Association
It has been observed that grit can be a better indicator of school success than SES, IQ,
and talent (Elish-Piper, 2014; Gregory & Kaufeldt, 2015). Duckworth et al. (2007) suggest that
in general, gritty people are more successful than their peers. This is seen in a correlation
between higher education attainment and grit characteristics. Those who scored higher on the
Grit Scale tended to have achieved higher education than those whose scores were lower.
Furthermore, In the Duckworth et al. study in 2007 at West Point Academy, they again observed
that grit was the best predictor of dropout because those who dropped out had few characteristics
in common except that they tended to have lower scores on the Grit Scale. Also, in their study of
the National Spelling Bee, the researchers found that those who were more successful studied
longer and harder than their competitors; in short, they were grittier (Duckworth, Kim, &
Tsukayama, 2013). More gritty individuals tend to be more willing to work harder and longer
and do more preparation to ensure success and achievement of their goals. This is slightly
different from effort and work ethic in general because it is sustained and includes perseverance

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toward long-term goals whereas work-ethic does not necessarily extend over long periods;
however grit may lead to improved effort.
Duckworth et al. (2007) observed that achievement may be a combination of talent and
effort, so, if effort is just as important as talent, it may be possible to improve success rates for
students simply by teaching them to work harder. This could be done through intentional
instruction on how to use non-cognitive skills. Urban teachers from two similarly-sized city
school districts (one in the Midwest, the other on the East Coast) were interviewed about their
general assumptions about low SES students. Most agreed with the statement, All children can
learn and succeed (Corbett et al., 2002 p. 19). Interestingly, teachers put different qualifiers on
this including parent support and effort, teacher support and effort, and student effort. Some
teachers believe that children can learn and succeed if the student puts forth the effort. Others
stated children can learn and succeed with effort on the teachers part, while still others said that
parental support is necessary for learning and success. The researchers observed that all three of
these were valid qualifiers in different cases (Corbett et al., 2002). This suggests that it may be
important to involve the adults in students lives to help effectively motivate students and
improve their effort.
Motivation, then, is a key asset to achievement as it influences effort. Motivation is
defined very similarly to grit by Gregory and Kaufeldt (2015) as a process of generating
actions, sustaining them, and regulating the activity (p. 9). Like grit, the definition of motivation
includes sustaining actions, which may be an important asset to educational success as
elementary through high school generally lasts about 12 years. These authors suggest motivation
is impeded by things such as apathy, fixed mindset, and poverty. Poverty is mentioned because it

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impedes motivation through the previously described risk factors (Gregory and Kaufeldt 2015).
Promoting grit and growth mindset could directly address these barriers to motivation. Teaching
students to be passionate and to persevere in effort to reach their goals is the opposite of apathy
and could possibly help motivate students to care about their learning. Again, growth mindset is
the opposite of a fixed mindset, the second barrier to motivation, so students who understand that
their potential is not finite but can grow could help improve motivation. The emotional risk
factor and teachers attitudes may also positively and directly be affected by these non-cognitive
skills because they help to encourage and motivate students to learn.
Not only does evidence support the idea that these skills could potentially help improve
motivation and subsequently effort, there is also physiological evidence to support growth
mindset (Ricci, 2013). Current neuroscience suggests that the brain can develop with stimuli;
connections in the brain become stronger with practice and effort. This is called neuroplasticity.
One common example of this is after a stroke, the brain of the patient is able to re-learn how to
function through practice and effort. The patients mind is not fixed in its damaged state but can
learn again. A study conducted by the University of Michigan, partnered with the University of
Bern (Palmer, 2011) suggests that a subject would be able to improve his or her IQ score with
practice. In this study, participants completed a computerized memory game in which they
attempted to recall visual patterns and letters of the alphabet. The researchers observed as
participants had more practice, their scores on the IQ-style tests improved (Ricci, 2013). This
again implies that the brain is a muscle that may get stronger through effort.
Another study supports the relationship between growth mindset and success in an
educational setting. In 2007, Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck studied low-achieving seventh

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grade students to gather information about growth mindset. Half of the students were exposed to
an intervention that taught about growth mindset and how the brain is malleable while the other
half spoke about memory and other academic issues. Blackwell et al.s results supported the
theory that students intelligence is related to their achievement. Those who learned about growth
mindset were more successful than the others. They demonstrated fewer negative reactions to
social adversity, reported lower overall stress, and improved academic achievement in the next
year (Spitzer & Aronson, 2015). Again, the issue of overall stress faced by children in lowincome households could be addressed by an intervention directly teaching about growth
Growth mindset can also relate to current research suggesting a relationship between
student perceptions about themselves and achievement, which again addresses the stress riskfactor. Having positive self-worth and self-competence (ones belief about his or her adequacy or
ability) could improve student outcomes including standardized test scores and general
classroom achievement (Gregory & Kaufeldt, 2015; Teel & DeBruin-Parecki, 2001; Wang &
Gordon, 1994). Self-worth and self-competence may be impeded by a fixed mindset. This is a
representation of Banduras (1986, 19977) self-efficacy theory which states people tend to
attempt things only if they feel competent (Gregory & Kaufeldt, 2015). If a student does not
believe he or she can accomplish something due to a negative self-concept as well as a fixed
mindset, he or she is not likely to put forth effort. A student with a growth mindset would be
more likely to persevere and be gritty because he or she believes it is possible to improve at any
given task. In turn, this would help improve students self-worth because they could feel valuable

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and subsequently that their academic achievement is valuable and worth investing time and
Having an improved self-worth supports the ability of a growth mindset to potentially
help to reduce anxiety (Spitzer & Aronson, 2015). This relates to pressure and performance.
According to the Yerkes-Dodson (2007) Law of Arousal, students react to a given task based on
the perceived difficulty of the task. This is depicted in Figure 3. The appropriate amount of
pressure caused by perceived difficulty must be felt by an individual to attempt a task. If a
student does not feel capable of accomplishing a given task, the perceived difficulty will seem
great, causing the pressure to be too high, so the student may not attempt the task (Gregory &
Kaufeldt, 2015). If one believes the brain to be malleable, then he or she will likely view failure
as less final and devastating, reducing the perceived difficulty and pressure of a task, compared
to when one believes his or her situation is hopeless and unchangeable. Therefore, a student with
a growth mindset may be willing to take more risks in the classroom by trying new things
because he or she is less likely to fear failure.
Figure 3

(Gregory & Kaufeldt, 2015 p. 11)

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This variety of research has helped to support the hypothesis that these non-cognitive
skills could help improve the educational outcomes for low income students. Grit has been
observed to be a valid indicator of school success. If a student is passionate and perseveres
through adversities such as poverty, then this research supports that they may be likely to
succeed academically (Elish-Piper, 2014; Gregory & Kaufeldt, 2015). In short, grit may provide
the tenacity necessary to achieve in school. On the other hand, growth mindset may provide the
attitude needed to motivate students especially those who have already experienced school
failure, including children who are on the lower end of the income-achievement gap. Growth
mindset may help motivate students because it can encourage students to not simply accept
failure but to realize that they may be able to achieve more with increased effort. Providing these
tools for students could be achieved in many ways described above in the intervention model.
Although there is evidence supporting the correlation between non-cognitive skills and
success, there are also reasons to be cautious. It is important first to note again that studies
suggest that equating poverty and under achievement negatively impacts school performance.
This can lead to an erroneous stereotype of children from low-SES households, resulting in
lower expectations and a fixed mindset about their ability (Delpit, 2006; Osborn, 2014). This is
why any such intervention would be provided to all students.
There is also no guarantee that changing the attitude of students, teachers, and parents
would improve the deficit in achievement between children who live in poverty and their peers.
There are no panaceas in education (Osborn, 2014). All suggestions for decreasing the income
achievement gap are options, not prescriptions. Timar (2012) warns against Christmas tree

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schools. These are schools that implement a self-contained intervention but the core of the
school is intact and rotting like a tree that has been cut down. In these schools an intervention is
said to be in place although major changes in operation have not yet begun. It is important for the
staff to truly believe in the intervention for it to be fully implemented. This type of intervention
would need to be tested and studied in the future because it has not yet been implemented as a
holistic approach to address the income-achievement gap.
Another limitation may be parental access to information-sessions or classes on grit and
growth mindset. Not all parents come to school events for various reasons, so there is no
guarantee that all parents would be reachable in this case also. However, information could be
sent home in newsletters, but this still would not assure parent knowledge of the intervention.
The income achievement gap is a prevalent problem in schools in the United States today.
Children who live in low SES households face different risk factors than their peers including
health, kindergarten readiness, emotional well-being, and erroneous stereotypes. A psychological
intervention such as creating an educational community that supports non-cognitive skills
including grit and growth mindset could help most to address the emotional risk factor. It seems
to be a very reasonable intervention as there is minimal cost besides time and resources used in
faculty professional development, teaching parents, and teaching students how to use these skills
and why they are important. There are many studies that suggest a relationship between these
skills and success, especially in the field of education including those previously mentioned
conducted by Duckworth (2007) and Dweck (2007). To implement this type of intervention, the
whole school community including teachers, parents and caregivers, and students must buy-in

Beier 25
and accept the importance of these traits. However, not many interventions like this have been
attempted, so there is not yet conclusive evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of such an
intervention in general.
Further Research
Further research would be necessary to draw more conclusive data. There is limited
research on the exact relationship between a non-cognitive skill intervention and school. An
intervention such as this could to be attempted at individual schools and studied longitudinally to
ascertain whether or not it could help reduce the income achievement gap. Also, a curriculum for
such an intervention could be developed to make it easier to share information with
administrators and teachers about ways to successfully create a school culture supporting grit and
growth mindset.

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