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Helping Students Start the School Year With a Positive Mindset

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)
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Boy happily running with his backpack

For students who have had trouble in school, or who have had a negative summer, it is especially important to get the school year off to a fresh start. And for all students, having a positive mindset makes learning much more likely. Here are four activities to help accomplish these goals.

Identity and Purpose: Who Am I?

Now that students are back in school, it's a good time to help them refocus on learning, their strengths, and the personal and other resources that will help them succeed. Students can individually fill out the grid below, and then pair-share, discuss in small groups, and finally share with the class some of their responses. (Students tend to be most comfortable sharing numbers 2, 4, and 6 below when in larger groups.)

You may also wish to use other creative forms of sharing, such as having students create a collage or chart with all of their answers to each question or the top three answers to each question. Consider integrating this activity into any journal writing your students do.

  1. What motivates me?
  2. What are my best abilities?
  3. How do peers influence me?
  4. When and with whom am I at my best?
  5. Who are my best sources of help?
  6. How can I do more of what will best help me to succeed?

A Living Poll

Read each statement and, based on students’ opinions, have them move to a part of the room that you designate to represent each of the answers below. The three areas of the room are for those who believe any of these three answers:

  • It's mostly true for me.
  • It's partly true and not true.
  • It's mostly not true for me.

You can choose to present the following questions positively or negatively:

  1. “I think school is pointless.” OR “I think school is important, and I need to learn so that I can succeed.”
  2. “I can be violent in some situations.” OR “I am more peaceful and would only use violence where there is a real danger.”
  3. “I think that trying doesn’t matter.” OR “I believe that the more I try, the more I can succeed.”
  4. “I do what makes me popular with others in school.” OR “I do what I want and what I think is the right thing to do.”
  5. “I come to class to pass the time.” OR “I am someone who wants to be involved in school and learn.”

After each statement (or others that you may wish to add), ask students in each area of the room to share why they believe as they do. There is great value in students hearing peers' views about why they have turned to a more positive mindset. And it's instructive for the teacher to get a sense of students' views. Note that students may move to an area where they "think" that the teacher wants them to be.

Asking them to articulate why they believe as they do is your check -- and their reality check -- on whether they really do have the belief that they’ve endorsed. You may want to end with a discussion of the challenges of sharing honest opinions.

Journaling About Beliefs and Mindset

As a supplement to the above or as an activity in its own right, have students respond in their journals to at least one of each stem:

  • I used to be _______ but now I am _______
  • I used to think _______ but now I think _______
  • I used to do _______ but now I do _______

There is added benefit to revisiting these activities mid-year, or even after each marking period, to see how ideas are changing (positively or negatively).

Make a Good First Impression

First impressions matter. Teachers have told me the importance of decorating classrooms in ways that catch students' attention and gives them something to think about at the same time. Give your students clipboards and a questionnaire asking them to notice different aspects of how the room is decorated. Come together to discuss what differences students noticed, why they think you made those choices, and what they would add if they were you. You can adapt this for younger children, as well.

Share with us in the comments section below your experiences with these activities and especially your more effective adaptations.

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MA1996's picture

It's a really tough quest to make them think positively, but thanks to you I think I will be able to do that ;)

Isabel Rosas's picture

I love these ideas. Do you have any ideas on how to incorporate this using technology?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Isabel, Instead of journaling about beliefs and mindsets, you could have students do some digital storytelling with an iPad app such as Book Creator or a web based Prezi. https://prezi.com

Isabel Rosas's picture

Awesome, thanks for your response. Do you think that that I should allow them to collaborate for this?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Collaboration is good as long as all students are involved. Sometimes matching up students with partners works well.

Anita OSullivan's picture
Anita OSullivan
3rd Grade Teacher at Dania Elementary

Absolutely! We as educators set the tone in the classroom. I enjoy using mindset in the classroom because our children/students can always use the positive and motivating encouragement. I believe we are responsible as teachers to help students persevere and to help them see the goodness of challenging oneself for a growth mindset!

MyraGuzman's picture

I like the four activities provided to help students start the school year with a positive mindset. I can see myself using the activities in my class since it involves collaboration and includes writing. I like the idea of including the activities in their journal and revisiting to redo the activities throughout the year. This helps to compare how their mindset and beliefs have change.

Ahbez Eden's picture

Thank you for the post. All the points mentioned above matter more when it comes to special schools. My son, who is enrolled in a special education school in Manhattan(http://www.aaronschool.org/), has regressed during the summer break in the previous two years and I really hope that there's will be something that prevents that from happening again.

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