Walk in Their Shoes: Mindset Interventions to Improve Equity

All students are impacted by stereotypes about their race, gender, culture, and more—some much more than others. These stereotypes can have important implications on the motivation, learning, and achievement of students.

Understanding the psychological experiences of students at school is an important part of a school’s efforts to achieve equity. When we examine our students’ psychological experiences, we may consider how stereotypes impact student confidence, how low expectations undermine motivation, or how traumatic experiences impact readiness to learn. When educators invest in understanding the social isolation, low expectations, lack of relevance, and discrimination that many students experience, we can make important shifts in our mindsets and potentially in those of our students.

Teacher Mindsets

As educators, our thoughts, beliefs, and mindsets about different races, genders, and cultures can have important implications on the achievement of our students. Since Robert Rosenthal’s work, the impact of labeling effects on achievement has been widely researched. Rosenthal described the influence of labels on student achievement as the Pygmalion Effect. As you can see below, teachers' beliefs influence their actions, which can shape students’ beliefs and actions. Then those actions often reinforce the teachers' initial beliefs, and the process repeats.    

Consistent with Rosenthal’s findings, the Mindset Scholars Network has found that teachers’ mindsets influence how they interact with their students: 

Teachers who have fixed mindsets are more likely to assume students who do poorly have low ability or aren’t smart enough. Even one bad test grade is enough to lower these teachers’ expectations. They don’t believe these students can improve with effort. Instead, they try to console or comfort students, to make them feel better about their low ability.

In one widely cited examination of the impact of mindset on prejudice, researchers questioned psychology students, identifying participants as either fixed or growth minded. The researchers found that the fixed-minded participants agreed more strongly with stereotypes, thought that stereotypes reflected innate or inherent group differences, made more extreme and quick judgments of a group's attributes on the basis of limited information, and were more likely to believe that the limited information they received was sufficient to justify their judgments.

Recognizing the impact adult mindsets can have on student achievement has led researchers to begin exploring how to shift the mindsets of teachers. For example, researchers at Stanford implemented a mindset intervention on middle school teachers designed to shift how they interpret problem behavior. Teachers took part in a brief, 70-minute online course that encouraged them to adopt an empathic mindset about discipline. Afterwards, the suspension rates at five different middle schools was reduced by 50 percent. 

Student Mindsets and Equity

A learning mindset is the result of a sense of belonging, task relevance, and the belief that one can improve with practice. When students have this mindset, they tend to be more motivated, persistent, resilient, curious, and higher achieving than students lacking these beliefs. Unfortunately, many students may not feel a sense of belonging when they arrive at school. Similarly, victims of bias and discrimination are often less likely to believe their hard work will pay off.

When schools are not culturally responsive, many students may struggle to understand how it's relevant to their life. As a result, many African American students’ experience in school is impacted by what researchers call stereotype threat, or “the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype or the fear of doing something that would inadvertently confirm that stereotype,” which has been shown to undermine their performance and ability to learn. 

Fortunately, psychological research has shown that mindset interventions that create a sense of belonging or shift students’ beliefs about intelligence can reduce the impact of stereotype threats and have important implications on the achievement of African-American students. For example, Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen designed a brief mindset intervention designed to lessen the stereotype threat by framing social adversity as common and temporary, thus cultivating a sense of belonging. During the subsequent three years of intervention, African-American students’ GPAs rose and their self-reported health and well-being improved, which ultimately cut the minority achievement gap for their sample in half. 

Communicate High Expectations

Many African American students are skeptical about equity in schools and worry about being perceived according to stereotypes. As Cohen, Steele, and Ross explain, “Minority students may wonder whether they are being viewed through the lens of a stereotype rather than judged on their own merits and recognized for their full potential.” In order to alleviate this, the researchers sought to capitalize on what they considered “the guiding philosophy of many of the most successful programs aimed at minority youth,” which is “an emphasis on the malleable nature of academic ability—the message that ‘intelligence can be taught.’”

The researchers found that when teachers delivered high-quality, critical feedback along with “additional assurance that the student was personally capable of meeting the higher standard,” African American students made dramatic shifts in their identification with writing, task motivation, and perceptions of fairness. The image below is an example of incorporating learning mindsets and high expectations into student feedback.

Recently, researchers extended these findings, further demonstrating the impact of communicating high expectations. The researchers had teachers attach the statement: “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations, and I know you can reach them.”  Attaching this simple statement increased the likelihood students would resubmit their essay and improved the quality of their final drafts. Additionally, the researchers found that the intervention and wise feedback halted the growing sense of mistrust in African American students.

As noted mindset researchers explain, “Our research investigates why, sometimes, no matter how hard you work to create a good lesson plan or provide high-quality feedback, some students don’t stay as motivated or learn as much as teachers would like.” In order to more effectively teach all students, educators need to invest in understanding the psychological experiences of our most challenging students. This is the foundation of mindset research.

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Learn more about the new K-12 HMH Into Reading and HMH Into Literature programs, which embed learning-focused mindset strategies into your lessons.