Mindset and the Stories Our Students Tell Themselves

We begin our Mindset blog series with a post by thought leader Emily Diehl on students’ self-perception and how a sense of safety, belonging, and engagement can positively affect their ability to access executive function.

What is the story a student is telling herself about why she is succeeding or failing? It turns out this narrative is massively important for her teachers to understand if they are to foster classrooms that are engaging, growth minded, and allow students to thrive.

Growth-minded students are engaged in their classrooms. They are doing the work that their teachers are facilitating; they are asking questions, taking risks, using feedback, and focusing on tasks. Engagement can be surprisingly easy to measure in that way. But how do we create the conditions for more students to engage purposefully in our classrooms?

 It is important to know that when human beings enter an environment, we begin to survey our surroundings (Porges, 2004), asking ourselves a series of questions:

  • Do I belong? (safety)
  • Does this matter to me? (relevance)
  • Do I have control over the outcome? (locus of control)
  • Is this experience an opportunity to grow? (response to challenge)

It turns out that our answers affect our engagement. If our perception answers “yes” to all of these questions, our levels of engagement are typically very high. The questions come from our “lizard brain”, the amygdala, which is our fear center. It is designed to keep us safe from predators and danger. When it is very active, we are not accessing our executive functioning—which means we are not in a state of learning and growth. My colleague Dustin Bindreiff, Ed.D., and I have been collaborating on the model below to expose the thinking of students as they scan their school environment, searching for cues that help them decide whether to participate or not.

Safety: “Do I belong?”

When students feel as if they do not belong, they quickly feel isolated and lonely. We know this feeling of exclusion can even affect their choice to attend a four-year college (Yeager, Trzesniewski, and Dweck 2012). Unless they respond to the narrative of “not belonging” with reaching out and creating relationships, they will continue to be withdrawn and miss out on forging strong relationships at school, both with peers and adults. What can happen then is that they begin to identify with an out-group because the in-group of peers feels inaccessible to them. As they make those out-group identifications, they are ever more likely to purposefully choose out-group behaviors (truancy, incomplete work, arrogance, helplessness). 

The Mindset Scholars Network has done some work on this, providing educators with tips that cue belonging in students. Educators can help shift this narrative for students by intentionally planning for building relationships among students and between the teacher and the student. Creating feelings of belonging is doable by taking the time for warm greetings, learning names and interests, and posting artifacts that reflect the students’ population as well as those that reflect who the staff is.

Relevance: “Does this matter to me?”

If we want students to answer yes to this question, we can take on the opportunity of the shifts in our state standards to design truly relevant tasks for students. It is not that we have to take juvenile interests and teach all subjects through the lens of their experience. Instead, to create relevance, we open their eyes to how these fundamental concepts and skills are critical components of the real world. 

Taking the time to explain “the why” is probably the most facile shift educators can make to change this narrative from a “no” to a “yes.” We can also explicitly encourage our students to be inspired to ask us “why” whenever they are taking on a new task from us. And finally, showing them how knowing fundamentals has led to new discoveries helps students see the future role they can play in innovation and contributing to new technologies.

Locus of Control: “Do I have control over the outcome?”

When we shift the locus of control to internal (“The things I do matter”), people show more agency. This is the essence of a growth mindset: I can grow my brain. It reflects internal locus of control. So those messages about intelligence and what it means to get smarter must be a regular part of what we do in school (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, and Dweck 2007).

Additionally, we can deepen students’ sense of control by giving choice when appropriate and allowing for opportunities to re-do work, submit a replacement task, and apply feedback from their peers and teachers. When students are allowed these options, and those options are reflected in their grades, it creates a virtuous cycle and increases their motivation, engagement, and agency.

Response to Challenge: “Is this experience an opportunity to grow?”

How we view challenge—whether we define it as an exciting opportunity or a scary thing that might hurt us—is what drives the narrative here. We all face situations that feel like a threat. Rather than give in to nerves, we can redefine what nerves mean. Instead of feeling nervous, we can tell ourselves, “This is exciting!  This response is my body getting ready to do something hard.” More about how we can reframe is in this terrific TEDx talk by Kelly McGonigal, “How to Make Stress Your Friend.”

Thus, our brain can shift that narrative from one of fear and withdrawal to one of opportunity and growth. We can be excited to have those feelings, and tell ourselves that this is what it feels like to be alive. As educators we want to send a strong message that hard things are good for us; challenges can be embraced rather than avoided.

The engagement equation of these multipliers (Safety, Relevance, Locus of Control, and Response to Challenge) results in learners with agency who are ready to take on the instructional shifts at the heart of the Common Core. And, more important, learners are engaged in ways that will ensure they are developing the competencies they need to thrive in their careers and in life.