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It’s All In Your Mindset

From birth we are taught that some people are ‘talented’ and ‘gifted’ when it comes to certain traits, whether it be intelligence, creativity, personality or sporting prowess. As children, we attend schools and clubs that continually instil in us the idea that failure is bad and losing is for, well, losers.  We are told to fear failure and reap success, but what if we embraced failure? What if intelligence wasn’t fixed? What if ‘gifted’ just meant ‘resilient’?

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Carol S Dweck’s seminal research on the psychology of Mindsets is igniting much discussion and change in the fields of education, coaching and parenting. The Harvard Professor’s research has concluded that people have either a fixed or growth mindset when it comes to assessing certain traits and abilities. In short, those with a fixed mindset believe that certain ‘talents’ are fixed and cannot be changed, that if you have to ‘try’ to be excellent then you’re not REALLY that good after all. On the other side of the coin are those who have a growth mindset, people who don’t believe in the idea of being ‘special’ and that talent is just a starting point; true success comes from effort, engagement and tenacity. Fundamentally, Dweck tells us that intelligence and other traits that many deem as being ‘natural’ are in fact malleable and can be improved and enhanced through practice, challenge and resilience.

Dweck’s work within this area of people’s potential stems from her own experiences of having her intelligence and potential labelled by her sixth grade teacher who believed that a person’s IQ told the whole story of who they were. In her book, she describes what happened in her sixth-grade class:

Even as a child, I was focused on being smart, but the fixed mindset was really stamped in by Mrs. Wilson, my sixth-grade teacher… She believed that people’s IQ scores told the whole story of who they were. We were seated around the room in IQ order, and only the highest-IQ students could be trusted to carry the flag, clap the erasers, or take a note to the principal. Aside from the daily stomach-aches she provoked with her judgemental stance, she was creating a mindset in which everyone in the class had one consuming goal—look smart, don’t look dumb. Who cared about or enjoyed learning when our whole being was at stake every time she gave us a test or called on us in class?

Fixed Failure v Growth Failure

No matter what mindset we have, failure will always find us and for those with a growth mindset, this is a great thing as it provides yet another opportunity to learn and improve. But for those who hold a fixed mindset, failure is a crippling and distressing act that can lead to severe mental trauma. Dweck’s work explains that someone who adopts a fixed mindset when they encounter failure no longer see it as an action but rather an identity, a label that they use to judge themselves and those around them. Consequently, those who have achieved a successful outcome will turn down any further challenging opportunities that may put their ‘successful’ identity at risk for the fear of failing as ‘if you’re a somebody when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?’ ‘This mindset’ , Dweck states, ‘gives you no good respite for overcoming it. If failure means you lack competence or potential- that you are a failure- where do you go from there?’ Thus, resiliency is abandoned for blame, anxiety and depression. The growth mindset, however, doesn’t see failure in the same pervasive manner. Dweck found that for these people, failure is still a tough pill to swallow, but it doesn’t define them. Instead, failure is something to be faced, dealt with and learnt from; as a result, these people become resilient and tenacious in many areas of their lives, from work to relationships.

The Paradox of Praise

Dweck lists many actions that parents, coaches and educators adopt to instruct and educate young children that often lead to them adopting a fixed mindset, and the most surprising one can also be the most damaging: praise. Yes, that thing that we have been told to do to build a child’s self-esteem, to reward a student who has achieved 100%, to bestow on somebody who has done something exceptional- well, it can be extremely counter productive.

Dr Dweck conducted research with hundreds of students. She gave each student a set of 10 simple problems to solve from a non-verbal IQ test. Most of the students did well and when they’d finished, she praised some of the students for their ability (“you got a high score, you must be smart”) and some for their effort (“you got a high score, you must have worked hard”).

Both groups were exactly equal to begin with but, after receiving praise, some students started to suffer. The students whose ability was praised were pushed into the fixed mindset. When they were given a choice, they rejected a challenging new task that they could learn from, opting for more of the same instead. Dweck believes that this is ultimately due to the fact that they didn’t want to do anything which would expose flaws in their intelligence and bring their talent into question. In contrast, 90 per cent of the students whose effort was praised wanted to try the challenging new task precisely because they could learn from it.

Dr Dweck concluded that praising ability actually lowered students’ IQ whereas praising effort raised them. She also said that praising children’s intelligence harmed their motivation because, although children love to be praised, especially for their talents, as soon as they hit a problem their confidence disappears and their motivation stops. If success means they’re clever, then failure means they’re stupid.

Praise and Labels

Dweck’s research concludes that children have the most to lose from adopting a fixed mindset, and it is therefore essential that those of us who work with these vulnerable minds are able to use and foster a culture that reinforces a growth mindset approach to all aspects of life, from developing friendships to academic potential. And the way we praise and deliver feedback to a child is essential to this growth. Praising a child for being a ‘natural athlete’ rather than praising them for their dedication to training three evenings a week undermines their commitment and hard work; the actual skills that have lead to their athletic ability. Rewarding and labelling a student as ‘brilliant’ for finishing a test ‘quickly’ sends the message that if they don’t complete it as quickly next time, then they are not as good, and ultimately causes them distress in undertaking further challenging activities. Dweck’s work also tells us that this student would shy away from completing more challenging tests for fear of not living up to their ‘brilliance’. Instead, they would choose to undertake work that was of a similar difficulty level or easier so that they could uphold this label of being ‘brilliant’.

Fixed Mindset Narratives

But it is not surprising that this ‘fixed’ vocabulary is so often used when we evaluate performance; it has been instilled in us from a very young age through stories of success. Dweck uses the example of the tale of the tortoise and the hare to exemplify this point: the moral of this narrative is that success is either determined by being naturally talented (the speedy hare) or by expanding no effort (the slow and steady tortoise). Both of these assessments reinforce a fixed mindset when it comes to achievement as although the tortoise wins, it is not through problem solving, devising strategies or skilful collaboration; he too focuses on his ‘inherent’ capabilities and just slowly plods on.

The outcome of Dweck’s dedicated research seems more common sense than ground-breaking study: effort, resilience and tenacity are the real ingredients for success and potential, not ‘special gifts’ and ‘natural talents’. As Dweck states in her book, ‘what’s so heroic about having a gift?’ And she’s right: surely it’s more impressive to value your achievements based on how they were achieved as opposed to what was achieved. These findings are also nothing new when it comes to pedagogy; Benjamin Bloom, an eminent educational researcher renowned for his work with high achievers concluded that, “After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.” Thus, the foundations we lay for young people as they build their skills and capabilities must be conducive to growth and make room for failure; only then will they be able to fulfil their potential.

Changing Your Mindset

What is most promising from Dr. Dweck’s research is that we can change our mindsets from fixed to growth through our understanding of how the brain works. From educating others about the neurological processes behind stress to knowing strategies for enhancing neuroplasticity, we are able to not only change our own mindsets but also those around us: our communities, our families, our students and our children.

Grow Your Mindset:

Choose Neuroscience over Neuroses!

Neuroscience has changed our understanding of intelligence and has shown that your brain can grow. Make neuroscience a focus for your personal and professional development.

If you fall, bounce back up!

Failure has become one of the ugliest words in our vernacular and people will do anything and everything to avoid it. And if they can’t avoid it, they let it consume them. Practice resilience building skills and see every adversity as an opportunity.

Plan for Positivity!

Have you avoided doing something because it involves a risk to your supposed ‘identity’? Not trying out for a sports team? Avoiding certain ‘talented’ peers? Stop hiding and start planning! Make a plan to do something that you’ve always wanted to but were too afraid. Make sure the plan is achievable by forming habits that encourage consistency and are also realistic. Committing to joining a social soccer club and planning to leave work early one evening a week to train is much more rewarding and empowering than planning to be captain of the Soccerooos. I’m not saying it won’t happen, but having smaller, achievable goals will make the likelihood of you owning the next captaincy all the more realistic.

For further research examples, watch Carol Dweck’s talk from the ‘Happiness & Its Causes’ Conference that was held in Melbourne last October.

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New Study Reveals SEL Program Increases Literacy and Numeracy Skills and Decreases Behaviour Problems in Early Childhood.

Researchers at New York University have found that a Social and Emotional Learning Program aimed at decreasing behavioural problems in order to increase academic competencies has improved the reading and mathematic skills among low income kindergärtners and first graders.

The importance of SEL programs in the curriculum has always been met with contention due to the often conflicting demands of the education system: academic intelligence is often held in higher regard than emotional and social intelligence as universities and employers make offers based on students’ academic performance rather than their wellbeing and social skills. With so many time constraints dictating the content of the curriculum, educators are often forced to prioritise their time teaching the material that will ultimately lead to positive academic outcomes for students and reaching their appropriate level as opposed to their optimal social and emotional wellbeing. Researchers at New York University’s Steinhardt Department have conducted a study that finally illuminates the correlation between increased  social and emotional skills and improved academic performance, concluding that the implementation of an SEL program to curb behavioural issues and promote self-regulatory practices ALSO benefits students reading and math skills as students utilise the SEL strategies to improve their focus and engagement in daily classroom activities.
In their study, researchers at New York University selected 22 schools from low-income neighbourhoods and randomly assigned 11 of them to the SEL program INSIGHTS and the other 11 to a supplemental reading program. All in all, 435 children across 122 classrooms participated in 10 weekly sessions, with parents also receiving training concerning child management strategies throughout the 10 week period to provide consistency in the approaches being adopted inside and outside the classroom.

The Results
The results of the study provided convincing evidence of the benefits of a universal SEL program, not just on self-regulation, but for improving children’s academic development. Children who took part in the INSIGHTS program demonstrated:
INCREASED math achievement;
INCREASED reading achievement;
INCREASED sustained attention;
DECREASED behavioural problems.

A NEW APPROACH TO BOOST LITERACY AND NUMERACY
The findings suggest that schools would benefit from implementing a SEL program to boost literacy in young students rather than the common low-dose supplementary reading programs, as SEL programs enable students to develop attention and behavioural skills that are required to engage and focus in daily classroom activities. Additionally, this research reinforces the link between focus and function as the study concluded that SEL programs help students develop and practice the self-regulatory skills that they need to engage in daily numeracy activities in the classroom. This evidence has never been more necessary in our early years education; with research after research telling us that children who fail to develop basic literacy and numeracy skills by an early age are much more likely to drop out of school (Hernadez 2011; Duncan 2011), early childhood intervention could dramatically impact upon the education outcomes of students from low socio-economic backgrounds.
The findings from the study once again highlight the many benefits of implementing a Social and Emotional Learning program that works with students, educators and families within schools and communities.

To read the full journal, click here

UK Report Advises Schools to Build Emotional Resiliency in Students

A UK report is calling for happiness classes to become part of school life, to help improve young people’s deteriorating mental health in the wake of research that warns that approximately 10% of children currently have a mental health disorder which has led to more young people turning to alcohol, cannabis and self-harm.

happiness report

Early intervention

The report entitled ‘The Pursuit of Happiness: A New Ambition for our Mental Health’ from the Centre Forum Mental Health Commission calls for much needed prioritising and promotion of the mental health of children and young people from conception onwards. The report highlights the need for early intervention as ‘three quarters of lifetime cases [of mental health issues] are diagnosed before the age of 25 and half of all lifetime cases are diagnosed before the age of 14…However the majority of [UK] public spending on mental health is focused on crisis intervention and longer‐term acute care and support, rather than on prevention and early intervention.”

Parent and School Intervention

Proposals set out in the report include a requirement for teachers to educate children on how to look after their mental health, parenting programmes for families of children with behavioural problems, and regular development assessments at key stages during a person’s childhood.

In reference to schools, the report recommends that:

  • The national curriculum should include the requirement to teach children and young people how to look after their mental health and build emotional resilience through approaches such as mindfulness.
  • Teachers and other educational staff should receive training in child development, mental health and psychological resilience to enable them to identify children who are vulnerable.
  • For children experiencing mild to moderate mental health problems, there should be increased access to psychological and other therapies in schools or in the community.

Transforming Powers

The Commission urges governments to prioritise investment in the mental health of children and teenagers. It says this will not just transform people’s life chances but reduce the costs to society of low educational attainment, negative behaviour, worklessness, crime, and antisocial behaviour. Prof Sue Bailey, Chair of Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition and outgoing President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “I am delighted that this report points out the current stark reality of lack of resourcing for the well being, resilience and mental health of all children and young people from conception to adulthood. But more importantly the report offers practical steps that move from the rhetoric to the reality of how to best invest in the well being and mental health of children and young people. How to deliver effective early identification, assessment, timely support and treatment because our children simply deserve better.”

Nelson Mandela International Day: The greatest lessons.

Friday 18th July- the day that Nelson Mandela was born- marks Nelson Mandela International Day. In 2009, the UN General Assembly declared this day in honour of Mandela’s dedication to resolving conflict, promoting equality and striving for peace. His incredible courage, resilience and positivity is a lesson that continues to be taught throughout the world; he is a model for compassion and optimism and has taught us some of the greatest lessons for a happier healthier life.

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Stay positive, stay alive.

“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed towards the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

–              Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: Autobiography of Nelson Mandella.

Mandela’s optimism and positive mindset was what kept him moving forward rather than basking in his despair and misfortune. By looking up and keeping his head toward the sun, he ensured that he was always heading towards the light and moving away from the dark moments which often tested his resolve. His courage and conviction is inspiring and encourages us to always focus on the light in our lives and not dwell on the dark.

Model and teach positive emotions.

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion. People learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than it’s opposite.”

–              Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom: Autobiography of Nelson Mandela.

Educators, counsellors and communities all play a valuable role in educating and empowering young people through the modelling of positive behavior and emotions. Just as Mandela boldly states, we often teach our young people how to deal with emotions by example. But how can we effectively teach people to be positive and self aware if we are unable to identify and model it ourselves? In order to cultivate a culture that promotes self-awareness and confidence, we must become aware of our own ‘triggers’ that can ignite a negative emotion and learn to diffuse the feeling before it evolves into something corrosive that permeates the emotions of young people in our care.

In his publication ‘Why adults strike back: Learned behavior or genetic code? (1995)’, Nicholas Long reveals that ‘the number one reason for the increase in student violence in schools is staff counteraggression. While staff do not initiate student aggression, they react in ways that perpetuate it’. Take a pair of tuning forks for example; if one tuning fork is struck then the other fork will begin to vibrate, modelling the reaction of the first fork. People are no different: we mimic and absorb the negative emotions of others and often create more conflict as a result. Thus, in order to influence behavior, we must learn how to self-regulate our own counteraggressive actions. By training ourselves to be more self-aware and insightful about our own feelings, we can create more rewarding and purposeful relationships.

For further information concerning a student’s conflict cycle, see the full article at http://www.cyc-net.org.

Communication is Key to Improving Relationships with Culturally Diverse Students and Families.

Since 1983, the Harvard Family Research Project has helped to develop and evaluate strategies to promote the wellbeing of children, youth, families and their communities. One component of their complementary learning research focusses on family and community involvement in education in the form of FINE: Family Involvement Network of Educators; a network of people interested in promoting strong partnerships between schools, families and communities. An important question that the network have discussed as part of their ongoing research is how to better prepare teachers to work with culturally diverse students and their families and the skills that educators need to develop to do this successfully.

teaching is communicating with parents

 POSITIVE CORRESPONDENCE

Sherick Hughes, Assistant Professor in the College of Education at the University of Toledo, states that ‘teachers must come to understand the real life experiences of the families and children they teach…to set up plausible situations to give families a legitimate voice in their curriculum and unit planning… [to] encourage teachers to take the spiritual lives of families seriously as a key point of connection.’ Hughes further acknowledges that it is difficult for teachers to build rapport with families as they are not always able to go out into these diverse communities and make the necessary connections. She therefore advocates three family-specific alternatives for teachers to utilise at least once during the school year to build better relationships with parents and carers:

1. Call each child’s family with positive information regarding their progress;

2. Email each student’s family during the school year with positive information;

3. Through email, mail, or student delivery, send a positive message via audio or audio/visual medium regarding each student.

INVOLVE PARENTS

Eileen Kugler, a speaker and trainer on building community support for diverse schools, further reinforces Hughes’ advice to teachers to build relationships with families using positive information and states that they also ‘need to identify nonthreatening opportunities to welcome parents with diverse backgrounds to the school. At the end of a unit of study, teachers can invite parents into the classroom so the students can share their achievements with them. As opposed to the stereotype of not caring, parents frequently feel left out, just waiting to be asked to be involved.’ Communication is therefore essential for teachers, including planning and using opportunities to engage positively with families.

RAPPORT NOT RITUALS

Although teachers are deemed as being exceptional communicators when it comes to delivering information to their students, it can be a different story when it comes to delivering information to parents and carers. According to Bonnie Rockafellow, the Education Consultant for the Michigan Department of Education, teacher education needs to include more interpersonal communication skill building to ensure that teachers are able to effectively build rapport and share meaning with families. This is most evident in parent-teacher conferences, an opportunity for teachers to communicate and engage face to face with families. Rockafellow videotaped several parent-teacher conferences and through her analysis of the interactions she concluded that in each conference a ‘ritual played out. Most often the teacher presented the information she had prepared and at the end of the timeframe the teacher would ask if the parents had any questions, and then close the conference. The result of the conference was most often a reporting of the school’s information rather than an opportunity for teachers to meaningfully engage with families and listen to their suggestions and comments.’ She ultimately identifies a key opportunity for teachers to engage with families with meaning.

The FINE research and evaluation of strategies for improving the preparation of teachers to work with culturally diverse students and their families is vast and resourceful; identifying opportunities for teachers to examine their own attitudes and connect with those who ‘think and look differently’ than they do.

If you would like to read more about FINE, visit the Harvard Family Research Project at http://www.hfrp.org

Making a Difference – Part 2

Making a Difference as a Parent

As a parent building a close, loving relationship with our children is one of the most important things we can do.  When children feel loved, understood, accepted and safe they are able to thrive as it helps build their confidence, resilience and self-esteem, and it encourages them to try to do and be their best at all time.  As we all know feeling wanted and loved helps us navigate life’s challenges as we feel supported. The best way we can make a difference to our children is to spend time with them, talk with them and to do activities together.  In our house we have a rule that we always eat our meals at the dining room table, this way it allows us to talk about what we are up to, share ideas and laugh as a family.  In turn this helps to teach our child how to have caring relationships and open communication with other people like family members, friends, neighbours and teachers.  Importantly it makes it easier for them to reach out to others when they need help. Remember it is important to;

  • Comfort your child when they need support.
  • Be present with them and listen to what they are saying and show them you care about what they are saying and their opinion is valuable.
  • Acknowledge them and help them to identify how they are feeling.
  • Play with them, read with them and above all laugh with them.

Making a Difference as a Teacher

If we take time to reflect for most of us there was one teacher we remember who made a big difference in our lives.  For me, there are a few that I can still remember ……Mr Haydock in Grade 6, Mrs King (a stern, but inspiring English teacher) and Miss Matheson (the slightly heavy gym and physical education teacher) in high school.  Why, do I remember them, what made them special? Before I answer that, you need to understand who I was as a child……..when I was in 6th Grade I was 5’9” tall and a big girl, I was clumsy to say the least, not good a sport and the kids used to call me ‘Gronky’ after a caveman character in a TV series, but I cared about others and tried by very best in everything I did.  When I went to high school, I was just an average student, Mrs King the English teacher helped me see the world through very different eyes and encouraged my love of poetry and reading, she had such passion.  Being clumsy, I was always picked last at sport, was hopeless at gym, I could not jump the horse, I was scared of heights so no good at the beam or high and low bars and could manage a forward roll on the mat some days, but I tried, to my surprise Miss Matheson passed me, in fact, I got 70%, more than some of the kids that could do everything. So, getting back to what made these teachers special, simply they cared about me and bothered to establish a relationship with me.  They did not judge me for what I could or could not do, or who I was, they found my island of competence and encouraged me to try my best.  Due to that they helped shape my life that enabled me to become who I am today. As a teacher if you want to make a difference in the lives of your students, take time to develop a relationship with then, allow them to see you care, be present with them and really listen to them, help them identify how they are feeling, find their island of competence and build on it.

Students Making a Difference in the Classroom

Children need goals; they want to know what is expected of them.  They enjoy achieving, trying their best, doing a good job, having their efforts acknowledge and working together with others to get a job done.  They don’t understand their impact on others, nor how they can make a difference at home and in the classroom. Sometimes I don’t think we articulate to our children or to the students in our class what we expect of them, we just assume they know and have somehow absorbed the class expectations by osmosis.  I think the start of the school year offers a unique opportunity to have a discussion with your children and students as to what ‘doing their best means’.  Give the children an opportunity to set the standards that they want to live by.  Perhaps they could all prepare a ‘doing my best poster’ and present it to their peers.  I know it is not uncommon to set class rules, but rules and expectations, even the ones we place on ourselves can be very different. This year why not introduce the notion of ‘Make a Difference Monday’.  As a class review the previous week  and then decide how as a whole they are going to make a difference this week, either to themselves, each other, to you as a teacher and in the school community.  Remember, this can also be tied to projects or activities you are doing in the curriculum.  This is a great activity to work on as a team; it is setting a team goal and then learning to communicate to achieve this together.  There are endless ideas for this activity. Ultimately, we can all make a difference to each other, ourselves our community and our lives.  We just have to take the time to communicate with each other and to care!

Book Review: Big Al

Andrew Clemens, Artwork by Yoshi, For Ages 4-7

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Think about what it would be like to try and make friends if you were the biggest and ugliest fish in the sea. This is the problem that Big Al faces when trying to make friends. He is the friendliest fish in the sea but he is lonely because no one wants to make friends with him.

An important social emotional skill is the ability to make friends and young children often need to learn strategies that they can use. There are a number of books that we recommend for this and Big Al is great for younger children aged 4-7. In the story Big Al uses a range of different strategies such as disguising himself, trying to make himself bigger and smaller. Unfortunately none of these things work.

However in the end when the other fishes are caught in a net Big Al shows that he is a true friend and rescues them.

From this book children can learn to be true to themselves, that they don’t have to pretend to be anything that they are not. They will also learn about the value of accepting that others are different and that real friendship means helping each other.