Social Emotional Solutions: October 2022

October 25, 2022

Social Emotional Solutions: A monthly blog showcasing strategies and bright spots for Colorado’s schools

The Four Academic Mindsets Something We Can Agree On

By Finessa Ferrell, CEI Social Emotional Learning Specialist


Every educator knows the power of asking the right question. In the 1980s when school attendance and graduation rates plummeted, researchers asked a lot of the wrong ones. Spurred by the A Nation at Risk report in 1983, study after study focused on what students lacked – their academic and character deficits, their risk factors, their life circumstances – and painted a dismal picture of American youth in crisis and the paradigm for K12 education as the “fixer” of kids and their families took hold. Beneath the surface, though, a movement was coalescing and in 1990 burst onto the national scene with new questions about what kids have rather than what they don’t. Some people called it being “strengths-based” rather than deficit-based; others called them “developmental assets.” Today we probably know this best as the movement toward positive youth development.

The most dramatic short-term change was the asking of different questions about young people. Instead of asking why students failed, researchers studied successful students to learn how and why they succeeded, resulting in such powerful knowledge on student trust and mindsets. This research is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago.  

The Four Academic Mindsets

A surprise to no one, what research had shown for some time was that four “academic behaviors” were highly correlated to getting better grades in school: attending class, studying for tests, completing homework, and organizing class materials. But what if students who did these things had other things in common? And, if so, could we intentionally build these things in young people as they developed through their life, including their life at school? 

These were excellent questions. The resulting studies showed that students who went to class, studied, organized, and practiced shared a set of traits in common as well: they had high levels of self-discipline and academic tenacity. They were motivated to learn and didn’t give up; they persevered.  

But the real showstopper was what sat underneath those traits and behaviors. These students also believed four things about themselves and these beliefs – called academic mindsets – were the critical drivers of the actions they took to be academically successful. From the UChicago Consortium on School Research, the Four Academic Mindsets that are critical in supporting students’ academic behaviors, persistence, and performance include: 

1. I belong at school

Belonging – the belief that you fit in and are accepted by a group of people – is complicated. Because feeling supported and cared for is so important to our positive concept of self, it is critical that young people have strong individual relationships at school that demonstrate support and care. The literature on trust at school is incredibly persuasive about the need for students to trust their teachers and believe their teachers care about them. In fact, it is the number one reason why secondary students choose to attend class – one of the core academic behaviors. Many schools have prioritized every student having at least one trusted adult at school. This is absolutely the right direction and schools are seeing their students reporting better (and more) relationships with adults. Lagging far behind, however, are students reporting that they feel they belong. At the core of belonging is group membership, not individual relationship. Having one teacher who cares about me is not the same as saying all my teachers, or even most of my teachers, really care about me and think I have great things ahead of me. If I believe that is true, I’m likely to believe I’m similar to all the other students at my school in that teachers think have potential. “I am like other learners – I belong here.” Additionally, feeling that you belong is overwhelmingly driven by the group of people a student most wants to be accepted by. While adult care and support gives students a sense of safety and hopefulness they need, it is belonging to a strong peer group of friends, fitting in with the whole class, and having social power with peers that is crucial. To this end, building belonging requires creating opportunities for students to be accepted and affirmed by their peers.

2. My ability and competency grow with my effort

I often to refer to this as the belief that “I control how smart I am”. You will recognize this as growth mindset, something most educators are familiar with. Brain science is clear that there is incredible plasticity in the brain and that learning is neither innate nor static. The key to growth mindset is the control element – that student effort pays off. But it’s not just about the effort alone, the effort must be productive; a student has to see they are improving. As a result, this belief that “I can get smarter and do better if I put in the work” must be developed in an environment where a student is pushed to think differently, try new ways to solve a problem, ask for help, and trust that with the right support they will get it if they don’t give up.

3. I can succeed at this

Believing you can succeed is a confidence conundrum. I use the word “conundrum” because the primary way you build confidence is to experience success and see evidence of success – which, in turn, builds more confidence that you have what it takes to be successful. In fact, intrinsic motivation rests in large part on the belief that you have skills that are valuable to others and that your use of these skills will help you be successful in the future. So how do educators build a sense of confidence if it relies on success and a student is struggling to be successful? Broaden the definition of success within a school and classroom culture to emphasize growth, improvement, and discovery and communicate persuasively to students that you are there to help them improve their skills and uncover hidden talents. Teach students about the plasticity of the brain (academic mindset 2) and that they have power to shape their success, particularly with the warm support you will provide. Capitalize on small wins to build buy-in for greater effort and a growing sense of confidence and seize all opportunities to increase the level of challenge.

4. This work has value for me

Put simply, students must believe that what they are being asked to invest energy in at school will do something for them, bring something of value, something they want. What a 3rd grader values is likely different than an 8th grader or a junior in high school, but all young people value finding things they are good at and feeling a sense of pride about that, particularly if the thing they are good at is valuable to other people and attached to a future that looks bright because of it. The cultivation of hope is no small thing. In fact, many studies have shown that hopefulness about your own future specifically – more so than optimism about life in general – predicts graduation from high school and completing postsecondary programs. All sorts of things help to make these links explicit for students: connecting core academic content to individual interests; creating opportunities at school to develop talents, discover new interests, and cultivate passion; establishing interest pathways and strategies to build and practice skills in both school and community settings; and at the highest level, investing in helping every student find their why.  

These four student beliefs – I belong here, I can get smarter if I work at it, I can do it, and it’s important that I do it – are the foundation for everything we want students to accomplish. Personal beliefs we hold about ourselves and others come from the experiences we have in a multitude of contexts, both within the school day and outside it. The best part about moving away from education as “fixing things that are wrong” to “building the mindsets that fuel the success of young people” is that it doubles down on education as the connector of students to their best future, a future in which they see themselves uniquely positioned for success.