Behavioral Mindsets

Carole Dweck’s concept of growth mindset, or the belief that intelligence is changeable rather than fixed, has been widely embraced by educators across the country. I know many teachers who have spent quality time in these first weeks of the school year fostering a classroom culture that values taking academic risks and making mistakes in order to learn and grow. There are google searches and pinterest boards full of ideas for posters, anchor charts, and lesson resources emphasizing the “power of yet” and the importance of growth mindsets. Research shows that this kind of teaching can impact students’ mindsets and leads to more positive motivational patterns and subsequent academic achievement.

I wonder…what would a classroom be like if a teacher also embraced a growth mindset with regard to student behavior instead of just academics?

Too often, teachers focus on controlling and tracking student behavior with management systems such as color-coded clip charts or online behavior tracking tools. A student misbehaves and a teacher gives a warning and then a consequence, like changing their card to a different color and missing part of recess. Management systems like this convey a fixed mindset with regard to student behavior. Teachers assume students are going to make poor choices and when they do, they need consequences to deter them from continuing to make poor choices. This system has an end result of making students feel labeled as a “good” or “bad” color. Not only is this humiliating, but it is largely ineffective, as students typically continue their patterns of behavior regardless of the change in color. Why? Because they are not actually learning the skills needed to change their behavior and grow in character or in composure. Their behavior is being judged and tracked, but not necessarily taught.

If teachers approached classroom management with a growth mindset, they would begin with communicating a foundational belief that all students are capable of behaving appropriately. They would encourage students to use effective strategies to self-soothe, regain focus, and practice kindness to one another. They would help students identify gaps in their behavioral skills and work together to problem solve and actually learn the skills needed to succeed in school. Not because they want to stay on a “good” color, but because they want to grow and improve in all ways.

What does this look like in a classroom? How can teachers actually manage behavior without a system like a color chart to track it? First, it is critical to define classroom expectations and procedures that are taught and practiced to perfection at the beginning of the year, and rehearsed as often as needed. Additionally, students need rationales for why the rules and procedures are important for the classroom community. This can be accomplished by a teacher-led discussion or by student input into the rules and classroom norms. Then, when infractions do occur, students can be immediately reminded of the agreed upon expectations. After a reminder, if the unwanted behavior continues, this should be recognized as an opportunity for growth, just as a mistake on a math problem can be viewed as a chance to learn. The student should be given an opportunity¬† to reflect on the behavioral issue, perhaps in a designated notebook or on a “stop and think” slip that the teacher makes available. The teacher can then follow up on the student’s reflection and use it as a teachable moment to brainstorm solutions or coping mechanisms to put into place the next time a similar situation arises. When students later use the appropriate skills, their improvement in behavior should be recognized and celebrated with praise.

In Catholic schools, we believe in educating the whole child. To me, this means having a growth mindset towards behavior as well as academics. We can respect the dignity of our students and meet them where they are in their character and skills development as we help them grow to their God-given potential in and out of school.


Teaching Tolerance

In the wake of the horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia, knowing that racism and violence still have a prominent place in our nation is frustrating and embarrassing. I am acutely aware of my own white privilege as I write this, knowing that it is my place of privilege that allows me to just be frustrated and ashamed of this situation rather than imminently threatened and afraid. My heart goes out to those facing discrimination and violence and I pray for greater tolerance and love in our communities.

Much has been written in the news and social media over the past few days in response to these events while protests and counter protests are spreading across the country. Thankfully, many educators are responding by sharing resources and ideas for teaching lessons about Charlottesville to combat the white supremacist beliefs and promote the value of diversity while examining historical roots of racism (see hashtag #CharlottesvilleCurriculum, for example, and NPR Education). There are lessons and ideas for every grade level to address these topics and teach tolerance.

As I think about this from a Catholic education perspective, particularly for elementary schools, I keep going back to the question: What is it that our children need right now? As students are being welcomed back to school after summer vacation and are hearing various versions of news stories related to white supremacy and racial violence, here are some things I believe they need from teachers:

  1. Students need to feel safe. This is a big one. More than anything else, our youngest students need to feel protected and safe in and out of school when they hear scary reports of current events. Of course, we unfortunately cannot guarantee their safety at all times. What we can do is to help them understand that these protests are mainly isolated incidents and the adults in their lives, including their teachers, are going to keep them away from any potentially violent situations. While random violence does happen, we should not dwell on the possibilities and let the fear prevent us from living our lives. We can teach children to focus on the words of the Catholic embolism: “…In your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.” May they be comforted by this prayer and feel safe in God’s peace.
  2. Students need to feel that they belong. The importance of community cannot be overstated. All students need to feel that they are worthy members of the classroom community. Especially in Catholic schools, students need to know that they are all children of God and that every single one of them is loved. They need to know that we are made in the image and likeness of God to love one another, regardless of differences in skin color, ability level, appearance, or any other way that we may be divided. The beginning of the school year is the perfect time for teachers to build intentional, loving communities in their classrooms and to send a clear message to students about the ways they are to treat one another. Appreciating diversity is a natural implication of this inclusive community building.
  3. Students need to feel hope and a sense of responsibility for the future. This one is a bit tricky with young children, because they may not be ready to comprehend the evil of racism and hatred and the myriad ways it manifests in our society, nor are they immediately capable of effecting change on a large scale. However, it is never too early to help children understand that there are things in our world that are not perfect and that they can participate in making the world a better place in the future. We can model our own hope in the goodness of mankind and our trust that our precious students will grow into loving, caring citizens who will always work for peace, justice, and kindness.

As the school year begins this fall, I pray that Catholic school teachers will unite to provide students with what they need and teach them to love everyday. Love God, love others, and love learning.