Walking through the halls of your school and overhearing the chatter of students in the hallways and classrooms, have any of these phrases ever caught your attention?

 “What a loser!”

 “He’s just a mean person; there’s no changing him.”

 “She doesn’t fit in anywhere.”

What do all of these statements have in common? They all imply a person’s inability to change — this is what we call “fixed mindset” thinking.

This may be different from how you’ve heard fixed mindsets discussed in the past. You might be thinking, “Wait, I thought a fixed mindset was thinking that your intelligence and abilities can’t change and a growth mindset is believing that people can develop with effort and practice?” Well, yes, you would be correct. This is how growth and fixed mindsets are commonly discussed. But that’s not all fixed and growth mindsets are.

Growth mindset beliefs about people’s capacity for change also applies to beliefs about personality and character, not just intelligence or skill. The mindset of a person who is being bullied is a key predictor of how they will respond to the adverse effects of bullying. In fact, people with a growth mindset are often more resilient in the face of bullying compared to people with a fixed mindset. The main difference is that having a growth mindset reassures students that their situation is not permanent, their role as one who is bullied is not fixed, and thus they will not always feel or see themselves as weak or submissive. More importantly, if students understand that circumstances can change and roles can change for participants on both ends of a bullying situation, they are more likely to refrain from retaliatory behavior in the face of social exclusion, and they might even behave more prosocially.

David Yeager and colleagues studied the behavior of high school students who, as part of the experiment, were intentionally excluded from a game of virtual catch with two supposed but fictional peers. They discovered that students who were taught a growth mindset were less likely to seek retaliation against the peers that excluded them and react in more prosocial ways, such as writing nice letters to them, compared to students who received coping skills lessons or no programming at all. In addition, students who received coping skills forced their victimizing peers to consume more “virtual hot sauce,” knowing that the peer did not like it (Yeager, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2013). This is an important finding because teaching coping skills is a commonly used method for addressing adolescent aggression, but it was growth mindset instruction that made a significantly greater impact!

To combat bullying and promote prosocial behavior in the classroom, we must strengthen students’ understanding that all people can change, and we should continuously encourage students to take action to promote such change for the better. Bullying is sometimes contagious and is often fueled by groupthink or other social pressures. It decreases empathy and increases unkind behaviors. If we can make a person who feels bullied more resilient and limit transferring that experience to other people in retaliation, then we can reduce the amount of negative behavior in the world, preventing the spread. This is where teaching a growth mindset about personality, not just ability, is critical. When students think about one another and themselves through a growth mindset lens it will benefit not just those who are bullied, but also those who do the bullying, potentially stopping the vicious cycle of bullying.

How can we begin?

  1. We can create a safe space to have an open dialogue about bullying and mindsets. We can teach about the potential to grow our brains and change our attributes, and emphasize that sometimes people behave a certain way but it is not a reflection of their character, as it might be due to their individual circumstances.
  2. We can model growth mindsets in how we talk about ourselves, our traits, our social skills, and our personal experiences. You can share a time with your students when you treated someone badly or acted a certain way and then afterwards looked back on it and realized, “You know what, that wasn’t very reasonable of me. I was having a bad day but that doesn’t make me a bad person.”

Try out this writing prompt:

A time when I treated someone badly or behaved in a way that I didn't feel good about was ________.  Even though I’m not proud of that behavior, it doesn’t make me a bad person because _______.

Create an example based on this template and share a personal experience, then have your students do this as an exercise.

  1. We can break down social situations in the classroom by discussing differing perspectives with the goal of reaching a common understanding. Try to steer clear of “right” or “wrong” perspectives and reassure each student that their perspective and feelings about the situation are valid but may be experienced differently from others.

Instead of pointing fingers, we can dig into the feelings that prompted the behavior through reflection. Have students practice hearing the other’s perspective and recognizing where they may be different but equally valid to help understanding of one another and encourage empathy.

Try out this writing prompt:

I saw this situation in this way: __________.

I imagine the other person saw this situation in this other way: __________.

Now that I have more understanding I can see ______.

You can also have students engage in the conversation above. Student can take turns sharing their responses. Instead of having students imagine what the other student’s perspective was, have them ask each other.

Try out this discussion prompt:

In a situation where you have a challenge, first describe how you saw it and what you were thinking and feeling. Then ask the other person what they were thinking and feeling, and listen carefully.

Now that I have more understanding I can see____.

Have you tried out these prompts above? Let us know your experiences by sharing in the comments below!