Do you tend to think that your health was predetermined by the genes you inherited from your parents? Think again. Discoveries in the field of epigenetics are showing that we have a huge amount of influence on our genetic expression when it comes to health, well-being, and disease prevention. 

Epigenetics is the study of how our genes express themselves as dictated by our environment and personal experiences.  In the field of disease prediction, scientists are finding shocking results when comparing genetic influences to environmental impact. For example, according to Rachel Carlton Abrams, M.D., 5-10% of diseases are attributed to inherited genetics, while 25% are influenced by womb experiences, and 65-70% are influenced by environment.  This means we have much more control over our health and longevity than many previously thought.

But what does this have to do with mindset?  The new research on epigenetics echoes what Carol Dweck’s research has shown about growth and fixed mindsets: the nature of abilities and intelligence is malleable and heavily influenced by our belief in our own capabilities.  As a teacher, I find this both interesting and exciting!  We now have further evidence that our mindset can change our achievement and ability in a variety of ways.  The burgeoning field of epigenetics research is helping to show that a growth mindset works for students.

So, what can we do with this new information as teachers?

1.  Teach students of all ages about this new field of research.  Having conversations with students about our control over our genetic expression will aid in promoting a growth mindset.  For example, I see this with students who think they are “bad at math” because their parents don’t have an aptitude for it. If a teacher is able to cast doubt on the “genes = me” equation, students will be more likely to believe that personal choice, thought, and effort lead to achieving success.Just having this context as a touch point can also help students see how much of their life is in their control.  Teens in particular, who are often looking for ways to have some autonomy in their lives, can benefit from this knowledge. 

2.  Believe this research in light of your personal life.  I see many teachers who are supportive of students having a growth mindset; however, they live their personal lives in a way that is fixed.  For example, some believe they will “always” struggle with their weight or will “never” meet a great life partner, or they continue to use phrases like “I didn’t get the coordination gene.” While some things are out of our control, scientists are finding proof that, in many ways, we are in the genetic driver’s seat - or at least a bossy co-pilot. Lifestyle choices that include stress management, exercise, sleep, and healthy diet make a difference.  It is empowering for both teachers and students to know that our choices do make a difference in our lives.  With a growth mindset we can accomplish any goal, whether it is to lessen the dosage of diabetes medication through exercise and diet, run a 5k, or get that master’s degree. 

As teachers, we are role models for our students.  If we emanate a growth mindset, students will take notice. Encouraging comments and positive lessons from our personal lives speak volumes.  As an example, I love singing but don’t think I am very good at it.I used to often feel discouraged, thinking that a person was either naturally talented at singing or not. In the past, I’ve even said to students “I have never been a good singer.” By saying this out loud, I communicated that people are either good at something or not, with no option for improvement. In reality, I should have said that I also have never taken voice lessons, and the only time and effort I put into singing is on the drive to and from school. If I choose to put real time and practice into it, I can improve my singing abilities.    

3.  Continue to highlight experiences where someone “beat the odds.”  Telling students stories about people who have overcome obstacles through hard work serve as reminders that nobody is fixed on one life path. Sharing other’s experiences will remind them that what they choose to do every day can impact who they become later.  Our job is to loosen the belief among many that they are genetically determined to be “good” or “bad” at a variety of things.  It is also our job is to help students see that practice and effort impact their outcomes.  Epigenetics research is only strengthening our efforts to prove that a growth mindset is vital for learning and for living healthy lives.

As teachers, we can continue to follow the exciting science behind epigenetics through articles, podcasts, and YouTube videos, and then help our students connect the dots between a growth mindset and achievement. If you are interested in learning more about this field check out the resources below.

Epigenetics 101 from The Guardian

Epigenetic transformation -- You are what your grandparents ate: Pamela Peeke at TEDxLowerEastSide

Interesting podcast featuring Dr. Jennifer Stagg, specifically speaking to genetics testing and epigenetics