Voices of #PhysEd: The Growth Mindset and Invisible Disabilities


Growth mindset GIF

Teaching students to have a growth mindset has become a trend within education over the past few years. The idea of the growth mindset is based upon research on achievement and success by Stanford University Psychologist Carol Dweck. The growth mindset says your ability to learn isn’t fixed, but rather the harder you try the more likely you are to learn a specific concept or skill. In my physical education program I have worked hard to teach my students to have a growth mindset and embrace life struggles as opposed to trying to overcome them. My strong desire to instill in my students the idea that failure is okay and that great learning results from failure comes from my own life experiences, specifically, being diagnosed with a learning disability. I would like to shine some light on what it’s like to be a student with a learning disability and ways in which physical education teachers can meet the needs of students like myself.

My Story

When I was five years old, I was identified as having a learning disability. Unlike physical or mental disabilities, my learning disability is not readily noticable. It’s unique and invisible to others. My learning disability affects multiple subject areas, including math, reading, writing and spelling (I’m using my voice to dictate this blog rather than type it). These are all things that take me at least twice as long to work through as the average person.

Starting at a very young age I had many people in my life who were invested in my success academically. These people included my parents, my teachers and professors, and other specialists who worked at the schools I attended. Through their willingness to investment in me I was able to be successful throughout my career as a student and beyond.

One of the reasons I had so much support over the years was that I learned how to advocate for myself. My biggest obstacle in learning to advocate for myself and ask for help was being able to understand that I didn’t need to overcome my disability but rather embrace it as a strength. What I mean by this is everything that I have been able to accomplish in my life has been derived from the determination and persistence I developed because of my learning disability. Seeing my learning disability as a strength took a lot of time, maturity and encouragement by others for me to realize. However, by the time I started college I had come to view my learning disability in a positive light. I became an expert at advocating for myself by sitting in the front row of my college courses, getting to know my professors really well and allowing them to see how hard I was working. This led to me being able to have a few D+’s changed to C-‘s so that I could get into graduate school and pursue my Master’s in Physical Education Teacher Education. Although it seemed that everyone else was studying less than me and receiving higher grades, I was able to celebrate my growth and progress through small successes, such as receiving a passing grade on my physics final.

As I reflect on how I struggled and clawed my way through school I can see how it has really shaped me as a physical educator. I believe every teacher has had different life experiences that contribute to their strengths as a teacher, and I believe my learning disability has given me the ability to help students who not only have visible disabilities but also to take notice of and advocate for ones who have hidden or invisible disabilities. Listed below are several ways I have discovered to help develop a growth mindset in students who perhaps struggle in one way or another in physical education. 


We are all very aware that relationships are a key component to students finding success in a physical education setting and helping to remove barriers that could inhibit learning. I think this is even more true when working with students with learning disabilities.

As physical educators we have the skill of quickly scanning and assessing our students’ ability to perform a task, and we can see if they were or were not able to perform well on a cognitive test. When we have a student who is not performing well, the question to ask ourselves is why is this happening. By having a great relationship with our students we may be able to answer this question more quickly and correctly. A relationship is an investment and takes work, but it always pays dividends. Simply spending a few minutes having an independent conversation with a student and learning how to relate to them can build a high level of trust. Trust is key when it comes to fully engaging in learning. With trust comes a feeling of safety, and when a student feels safe they are more comfortable with failure and making mistakes.

Individualized Education Program (IEP)

If your physical education setting is anything like mine then you teach a large number of students. This school year I teach a total of 650 students. It is difficult to get to know this many students personally and is why I suggest that you request to be included in all the IEP’s in your school. It is important that if some of your students have a different way of processing learning, you know about it and can make the proper learning accommodations. Being involved in an IEP for those students is a way to get on the right track and is often an untapped resource for physical educators.

Give Students a Taste of Success

Having a learning a disability takes grit! By grit, I mean a commitment to learning long term, through the ups and downs. Grit is the key to success when students process things slower, and in order to develop grit students must first feel success. I suggest finding small ways to show students with learning disabilities that they are making progress and verbalizing that you know how hard it is for them. Telling a student that you are proud of their effort whether they succeed or fail is vital. The more grit a student is able to develop, the longer he or she is willing to work for success.

Embrace and Celebrate Failure1

Some of you might have seen something along the lines of this picture before floating around the internet. Failure is part of the learning process. If every student within your class realizes that they will fail at some point and that when they do their efforts to succeed will be celebrated, then the barrier of failure begins to break down. It will also encourage the students in your class who have a harder time performing a task or who process things slower to continue trying.

Student Comparison

Considering the nature of physical education it can be difficult to avoid one student comparing themselves to another. Telling students on a daily basis that everyone is learning at their own pace and that the process of learning a particular skill is just as important as mastering that skill tends to help prevent this. Furthermore, never forcing students to demonstrate a skill in front of peers can help avoid this comparison.

Teaching Strategies for Working with Students with Learning Disabilities

There is no one teaching strategy that will work with every student with a learning disability because of the variety of different learning disabilities. It requires time getting to know and understand each individual student and their disability before finding the best way to help them learn. Here are a few strategies I suggest you try when working with a student who has a disability.

1) When explaining a learning objective always verbalize itdemonstrate it and give time for students to practice doing it. This may sound easy enough but often I catch myself at the end of class trying to fit one more thing in as students are leaving by verbalizing it only. However, this doesn’t resonate with all of my students. Some must be able to see what I’m talking about in order to grasp the concept and others will only learn and remember by doing it. When concepts are verbalized, demonstrated and performed it is more likely that the needs of students who process thing slower will be met.

2) Make sure to check in with students with learning disabilities often. What I mean by this is have informal conversations throughout the course of your lesson to check for their understanding. By doing this your more in-tune with your students’ comfort level during the learning task. Furthermore, it gives students the opportunity to advocate for themselves if they do not understand something or need a modification to the task.

3) When testing or assessing learning outcomes, realize that students with learning disabilities may understand the learning outcomes but be unable to show you their comprehension in the way you are asking them.  For example, when a student with a learning disability takes a written test, he or she may not score as well as if you were to assess them using a different format. Alternative ways to assess students could be, 1) Administer the assessment verbally to the student. This could be done by reading an assessment out loud to a student and having them verbally give you the answer to the assessment. Adding in visuals could also be helpful. 2) Have the student act out the assessment. An example of this would be having a student show you the correct overhand throw form compared to picking out a picture or a written description on a multiple choice test.

Help Students Embrace Their Learning Disability

It is important to realize that learning disabilities are never overcome in the sense that they don’t go away, but they can be embraced as a strength. This can take a while for those who have a learning disability to understand. This is the process I went through as I figured out my learning disability and it could be similar for others as well: 1) Discover you have a learning disability, 2) Learn to advocate for yourself because of your learning style and 3) Fully embrace your learning disability and look at it as a strength.LDGIF

The biggest role I see physical educators playing is helping teach students to advocate for themselves. This is a learned skilled. Simply being approachable and reminding students to communicate with you about what they need is a great starting point.

Never Put a Ceiling on Your Students

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I want remind physical educators that putting a ceiling on someone’s ability to achieve, whether it is in our class or within their life, is a huge disservice. I can think back to a few instances within my life where I was told what I would or wouldn’t be able to achieve. To this day these experiences are still distinct memories of frustration to me.  When it comes to measuring someone’s ability to be successful in our classes we need to have an open mind and not make assumptions or judgments.

It was a 20 year journey to work through this process of embracing my learning disability and it took a lot of encouragement from my family and teachers along the way. I can remember vividly all of those who helped contribute to me being successful in school and I am so grateful. I desire for students to exit my classroom with a similar feeling. I leave you with my favorite TED Talk from Angela Lee Duckworth discussing her research on the growth mindset.

13 Comments on “Voices of #PhysEd: The Growth Mindset and Invisible Disabilities

  1. Oh how beautifully written… And ironically, I felt I was reading my story. I too have a learning disability and struggled to get through school. The lessons along the way certainly do help us become the people we are today. I was ashamed of my disability and learned to hide it. So, I thank you and celebrate you for your courage to share this. It means so much to me personally.

  2. Great read. Respect the vulnerability and courage to share a personal story.

    We are all better personally and professionally having read that & it sets a great example for us to follow in sharing our stories.


  3. Colin:

    It’s amazing what we hear when we really listen. Thanks so much for “sticking your foot out in the highway” during your journey (and I know you continue to do so) Having the courage to stand up as a youth speaks to your character and those around you. I hope that you still keep in contact with those folks and they celebrate with you their growth too. I had a professor in my PETE program that said, ” we all have disabilities, some a visible and some are not”. These words resonated with me and today I still try to see all the colors in the frame, and not just those that are clear and primary. Kinda goes with the glass half full or half empty. Thanks for sharing your story, as we as physical educators work hard to make our world a better place with Ss of all ages, in a growth mindset!

  4. Collin great post! Thanks for being vulnerable and giving us an inside view.

    I agree with CJ whole heartedly.

  5. Love this blog post. I guess you are proud of me for having GRIT & fighting through the Anatomy 4D / Aurasma process – lol! Thanks to your PESummit Google Hangout I was super motivated to bring Augmented Reality to my school. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and ideas as you are really good at it, and what you share does make a difference. The quailty of PE my students receive is better because of you!

  6. Bravo, Collin! As you know, you have been to a presentation of mine where I whole heartedly give ALL students an opportunity to have positive experiences in class. My brother has/had a learning disability, my aunt in which I was raised right next to had an intellectual disability-these relationships have had a profound affect on my teaching and trajectory. At my school we studied Carol Dweck’s work as elementary teachers, “Fail Better, Fail Faster” and I think you have made many many excellent points- courageous ones at that!!! Thank you!

  7. Nicely written and some very insightful advice for all of us. Thanks Collin. Great to see you in Seattle and appreciate your support for “50 million strong by 2029.”

  8. Well done, what a great way to share your personal experience while also advocating for all students who may have a learning disability. Thank you for sharing this!

  9. Bravo Collin! Very well written and so inspiring! Thank you for sharing your story which provides
    even greater insight into your success as a most remarkable teacher!

  10. Pingback: The PE Playbook – April 15 Edition | drowningintheshallow

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