Student Experience Research Network Blog

The Student Experience Research Network launched an interdisciplinary initiative in Fall 2016 to explore how learning environments shape the mindsets students develop about learning and school. The project’s aim is to generate scientific evidence about how educators, school systems, and structures can convey messages to students that they belong and are valued at school, that their intellectual abilities can be developed, and that what they are doing in school matters.

Fourteen projects were awarded over two rounds of the initiative. Funding was generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Joyce Foundation, Overdeck Family Foundation, and Raikes Foundation. Seventeen different Network scholars are participating along with over 20 external collaborators. The projects span a wide range of topics, from exploring how teacher practices cultivate learning mindsets and identity safety in K-12 classrooms, to the relationships between learning mindsets and neural processes throughout adolescent development.

This is part of a series of blog posts in which we will hear from the leaders of each of the projects funded in the second round of the initiative to find out more about the questions they are exploring, what they are learning, and how their work is advancing the field of mindset science.


The project, A Neurobiological Investigation of the Relationship between Early Adverse Experiences and Learning Mindsets, focuses on children who have experienced a range of early childhood adversities (e.g., significant caregiver separation, domestic abuse, history of contact with Child Protective Services, foster care or institutional caregiving, living in a warzone).

Early childhood adversity—and the “toxic stress” that can accompany it—has been linked to a range of negative developmental outcomes, including poor academic performance and school dropout. Some children, however, exhibit remarkable resilience. In this project, the researchers are seeking to understand why some children, despite facing adversity, develop a growth mindset about their ability while many of their peers do not.

Who are the members of the research team?

The four members of the research team are well-positioned to provide a multidisciplinary examination of the research questions. Mindset Scholar and principal investigator Andrei Cimpian has expertise in learning mindsets and cognitive and developmental science. Joint principal investigator Nim Tottenham is a developmental neuroscientist. Dr. Kali Trzesniewski has considerable experience in adapting mindset measures for diverse populations of students and is advising the PIs on the construction and administration of a mindset scale for young children. Lastly, Dr. Joseph Cimpian, with expertise in machine learning techniques and econometrics, is advising the PIs on the statistical analysis of the data.

“It’s been incredibly rewarding to collaborate with, and learn from, experts in such diverse areas,” Andrei said. “The fact that we have multiple disciplinary perspectives represented on our team also means that we can investigate our research questions with a degree of nuance and precision that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.”

What is the purpose of the project and how will it fit into the field of mindset science?

Prior research tells us that students’ mindsets about learning are shaped by their environments, and that students who are economically disadvantaged are more likely to report a fixed mindset (the belief that intelligence and ability are set in stone). We also know that a growth mindset (the belief that intelligence can be developed through effort, effective learning strategies, and seeking help) can be a protective factor. But no research to date has examined the environments of children growing up in adversity to determine what aspects of these environments predict whether children adopt resilience-promoting growth mindsets—or how these experiences “get under the skin” in terms of these children’s neurobiological development.

“While much has been learned about mindsets of children, there has been much less examined in the area of adversity. Given the importance of mindset for cognitive development, we were motivated to assess mindsets in children with exposure to adverse or stressful early lives,” Nim said.

In this project, the research team is examining environmental factors that predict children’s adoption of a growth mindset despite exposure to adversity. The project will also compare the brain development of adversity-exposed children who report a growth mindset to the brain development of those who do not. A group of children who have not experienced adversity will also be included as a comparison.

The results have the potential to aid in efforts to optimize learning environments and outcomes for children affected by adversity. “Identifying the aspects of the environments of these children that are associated with resilience can be used as the basis for policy recommendations intended to maximize each child’s potential, academically and otherwise,” Andrei said.

About the data

This study sample will include 300 six- to 12-year-old children who have experienced various levels of early adversity and who are part of a five-year, federally-funded longitudinal study in Nim’s lab. Nim has partnered with consultants in the New York area to ensure successful recruitment and retention of children who have experienced adversity. So far, the research team has collected data on almost 150 children, a majority of whom have experienced some form of childhood adversity.

Initial findings

To evaluate growth mindset, the team developed a new tool to assess beliefs about whether ability is fixed or malleable among young children. The researchers used a measure of growth mindset developed by Carol Dweck and adapted it by writing child-friendly vignettes about characters who are working on mathematics, spelling, and drawing. Three characters start out lacking an ability and then work hard to acquire it, while three other characters start out very skilled but do not have an opportunity to practice their skill. Children are asked whether they think the characters’ abilities will change based on their situations and the researchers rate their growth mindset accordingly.

In their initial analyses, the team focused on differences in growth mindset scores between children exposed to adversity and others not exposed to adversity. In the initial sample researchers found that, on average, children exposed to adversity had lower growth mindset scores. “These preliminary results are consistent with prior research findings showing that exposure to adversity is negatively correlated with growth mindset,” Andrei said.

Importantly, the researchers also found variation within the group of children who had experienced adversity – that is, some children who had been exposed to adversity had a growth mindset while others did not. This finding provides a strong foundation for the next phase of the study, in which the team will look to explain this variability.

What are the next steps for the project?

Along with the growth mindset exercise, children in the study completed behavioral testing and brain imaging. Behavioral testing included observations of the children’s homes and interviews with the children about their relationships with their caregivers. Brain imaging examined the structure of children’s developing brains. This neuroscientific assessment is an important addition to the field of mindset science and the development of learning mindsets. Many neural bases of academic performance (e.g., dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, parietal cortex, basal ganglia) remain malleable into late adolescence, suggesting that positive social influences experienced even after early adversities can have a powerful impact on students’ academic trajectories.

Going forward, the team will use machine learning techniques to understand differences in children’s environments (e.g., their caregivers’ learning mindsets, the nature of children’s attachment to their caregivers, the physical environment of children’s homes) and brain development to explain why some children adopt a growth mindset despite exposure to adversity.

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