Schools are facing two challenges…or will face them soon:

  • How to connect with and engage students in virtual environments.
  • How to re-establish relationships and school and classroom cultures as students return for full or partial in-person instruction.

The “answers” to these challenges (to the extent that there are answers) are tried, true, and research-based: Establish positive relationships with students and nurture positive mindsets.

In my district, we use an empowerment mindset (EM) equation to focus on enhancing student empowerment and improving student mindsets. This equation is as follows: 

EM = (relationships + rigor + relevance) + (student voice + choice + agency)

Here are a few examples of how we boost EM. 

Making connections with the students: We have accepted that students respond well to teachers they like; in effect, they won’t care to know until they know we care. A student’s sense of belonging increases when a school acts on the knowledge that relationships matter (Walton & Cohen, 2007, 2011; Yeager & Walton, 2011). Making connections with students is critical. It’s common sense: when students are connected to something or someone on campus— when they feel like they belong—they are more committed and more engaged. Recognizing this common-sense truth, we set the big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG; Collins & Porras, 2004) that every student has a connection to something and someone at school, whether it be a person, a sport, a band, or a club. 

Promoting more positive student and staff mindsets: We are developing action plans that include the following concrete steps for promoting more positive student and staff mindsets. 

  • “I belong in this academic community.” To increase students’ connections to school, we are reinvigorating advisory periods in secondary schools and classroom meetings in elementary schools. Classroom teachers, or the staff who serve as advisors to a group of students across their middle or high school careers, are tracking interactions within classrooms to ensure that a conversation (however brief) happens with every student at least every week. We are expanding the quantity and types of school activities or clubs so that every student can be involved, and we are holding students accountable for staying involved in and connected to something on campus. We are fully including all students, including students with special needs, in college preparatory courses, which two credentialed teachers typically co-teach. 
  • “My ability and competence grow with my effort.” To increase student and staff beliefs that, given time and the right supports, all students can learn at high levels, several PLC teams no longer assign points to assessments before they return them, instead highlighting errors (opportunities for improvement) that they expect all students to correct or improve. Several teams no longer assign zeros, which either condemn students to a low grade or effectively let them off the hook. Instead, these teams assign incompletes and require students to complete all assignments that were worthy of being assigned in the first place. We are increasingly requiring students to refine assignments and retake tests on which they show less than the agreed-on level of mastery, instead of denying them the opportunity to show us what they now know after correcting errors, relearning concepts, and receiving support. We are more consistently communicating a “not yet” approach to lack of understanding, as in, “I don’t get this yet,” instead of, “I don’t get this.” Finally, we are making more of an effort to ensure that we explicitly learn from errors; we use routines like My Favorite No, in which a teacher shares a “good” mistake with the class as an opportunity to grow. A good mistake is typically one from a solution in which much was done correctly but a pivotal, significant step was missed; reflecting upon, analyzing, and correcting these errors proactively addresses misconceptions. 
  • “I can succeed at this.” To increase students’ and staff’s beliefs that success with a task is possible, we have acknowledged that we do not know enough about what differentiating and scaffolding are and how to do them. Differentiation strategies are now shared and modeled at all professional learning events; and we have a long way to go. We are differentiating content and processes so that all students can access grade-level and course-specific concepts. We are providing students with multiple ways of showing what they know (for example, by recording their responses as video, a screencast, or audio). 
  • “This work has value for me.” To increase the relevance and purpose that students see in schools, learning, and tasks, we are striving to design experiences that tap into students’ lives. In addition, we are working to individualize supports at all tiers, promoting more voice, choice, and agency so we increase the value that students place on their learning. We are listening to students’ voices and using their input when providing options for the content with which they engage, the processes they use for learning, the products they use to show what they know, and the needs that they have. We are increasing choice, allowing students to exercise some agency over the place, pace, path, and time of day that they learn. We are striving to increase agency, giving students a stake in their learning, inviting (or requiring) them to track their progress toward learning. 

Mindsets are foundational to students developing the social-emotional and non-cognitive skills that are essential for success in school, college, career, and life.

So many schools are seeking guidance and supports with coming back to school and coming back to school safely. The search is over.

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