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As highlighted by this artwork by W.E. Hill, perception powerfully influences what we see. Looking at this picture some will see a young woman staring off in the distance, others an elderly woman sadly looking downward. Similarly, as educators, parents or professionals our perceptions can cause us to look at the same child and reach different conclusions depending on the mindset we are operating from. Mindset research aims to help people shift their perceptions about the causes of success or failure.
Many teachers are embracing growth mindset and in so doing have shifted the way they teach and invite students to learn. Educators, who have adopted a growth mindset approach, explicitly teach their students that intelligence grows by exerting effort, that this growth occurs most when facing challenges, and that likely – in fact, undoubtedly – students will make mistakes as they learn. So when students make mistakes while facing a learning challenge, the teacher guides them to use their effort and fix their mistakes.
Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) is a data driven decision making process to ensure schools educate the whole child. PBIS is an instructional approach to behavior that teaches students the soft skills of achievement such as persistence, respect, responsibility or other non cognitive skills. This emphasis on teaching student behavior can be a tool for schools to ensure students understand the importance effort in their learning and to grow student agency.
The PBIS framework and growth mindset programs go hand in hand. PBIS is based on the recognition that kids come to school with a range of needs and skills beyond academic skills. This framework empowers schools to identify their values and priorities in order to teach students the behaviors and social-emotional skills that will lead to greater academic success. PBIS is not a curriculum - rather it is a process that helps schools organize and coordinate nonacademic supports to make sure they educate the whole child. This framework aims to provide supports to students ranging from school-wide to individualized supports, depending on student need. The success of this framework has greatly improved the climate and behavior at schools across the country, with now over 20,000 schools implementing.
One criticism of the PBIS framework is a perceived focus on controlling students and preventing misbehavior.
My co- teacher, Courtney Zaleski and I teach an inclusion 7th grade class. In order to set the stage for the year, we teach them that mistakes are not only OK, they are necessary:
Ask an adolescent how they feel about making mistakes and they will be very honest (sometimes brutally so). This year, on the first day of school, we asked our students to write down their thoughts on a post it note and compiled their responses on chart paper titled “making mistakes.” The students are then asked to stay and read their classmates’ comments. Words like “dumb,” “foolish,” “angry,” and “bad” were common responses.
No wonder so many kids don’t take academic risks. Who wants to feel like that?
As the students returned to their seats, we handed them each a personalized envelope. Inside, they found a pink eraser, a pencil with “Think Different” inscribed on it (“Think Different” is our class name), and a Maichin Welcome Back Letter. We asked them to open the envelope and read the letter silently.
My former student David Yeager and I have been very concerned about violence in school. The problem in high school gets worse. People are shifting social groups; social labels are flying around, and kids are really stressed. If you add to this the common belief that people can’t change—that everyone is fixed in their roles and that you are always going to be picked on or always going to be a loser— then the conflagrations begin.
In other words, we realized that students’ beliefs play an important role in this. In our study, we saw that many students believe that people are just fixed. They believe that if you are a bully you’ll always be a bully and if you are a victim you’ll always be a victim. When these students are picked on, they feel like losers, ashamed of themselves, and they desire violent retaliation.
David Yeager created a training program that taught students a growth mindset, the idea that people’s behavior is due to thoughts and feelings that can be changed. Then we brought students into a situation where they were excluded and they had the opportunity to retaliate against the excluder. We showed that kids who have the growth mindset intervention were 40% less likely to retaliate and 2-3 times as likely to engage in pro-social behavior than students who did not receive the training. Furthermore, their teachers reported much improved conduct in the classroom, students’ attendance at school was better, and their suspensions were way down.