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Helping Students Start the School Year With a Positive Mindset

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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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 three activities to help accomplish these goals.

Who Am I? Identity and Purpose

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 fill out the grid below individually, and then pair-share, discuss in small groups, and then 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 also 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 have students move to a part of the room that you designate to represent each of the answers below based on their opinions. The three areas of the room are for those who believe for any of the given questions:

It's mostly true for me

It's partly true and not true

It's mostly not true for me

1. I used to think school was pointless. But now I think school is important and I need to learn so I can succeed.

2. I used to be violent in some situations. But now I am more peaceful and would only use violence where there is a real danger.

3. I used to think that trying does not matter. But now I believe that the more I try, the more I can succeed.

4. I used to do what would make me popular with others in school. But now I do what I want and what I think is the right thing to do.

5. I used to be someone who just came to class to pass the time. But now 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 to the teacher to get a sense of students' views. Note that students may move to an area that they "think" the teacher wants them to.

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 they have 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 enter in their journals responses 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).

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

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Maurice Elias's picture
Maurice Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

I think the main advantage of starting at the beginning of the year is to set up a naturalistic process of checking in that allows teachers to pick up on doubts and problems before mindsets turn negative in an entrenched way. So I suggest revisiting activities like the ones recommended, and Alex's variation, no less than every marking period.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program

I've just discovered this Learner Sketch tool from the QED Foundation. (http://qedfoundation.org/learner-sketch-tool/) I can see it being really useful in helping kids to move away from a fixed mindset, because it provides objective tools to help kids define what they're good at naturally and what they could choose to work on- and it provides tools and narratives to help them do it- but it keeps them in the driver's seat.

Oleksandra Voychyshyn's picture

Dear Maurice Elias! Thank you very much for the great ideas you are sharing in the article. I will definitely use them in my lessons and will recommend my colleagues to read your article, because it's worth reading and learning about some creative approaches to help young people to succeed!

HMahmud's picture

I appreciate the implications about identity in this article. It's no wonder that so many have a fixed mindset about learner identity when we tend to apply a fixed identity to race and gender. It's about time that a new chapter opens on learner-focused identity in schools.

Thank you!

Caitlin Hogan's picture

I love these ideas! I hope to work with the EBD population someday and getting them off to a positive start is crucial. Also, knowing their beliefs about their abilities can let me know where their struggles are and figure out how to help and motivate them. Thanks!

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

I try decorating my classroom in a manner that will catch the eyes of my students and give them something to think about at the same time. Students walk around the room with clipboards and a questionnaire asking students different questions. Afterwards we come together and share our responses. Carve out five minutes daily (at the beginning or end of small group instruction). Talk with students about what they've read. Let them share; and ask -- with wondering, pondering questions -- what helped them understand a text.

Ursula's picture

Thanks for the wonderful ideas. I work on a one on one basis with learners and it so often how they not only see themselves but also verbalise those perceptions that puts them in that negative fixed mindset. These ideas are really going to help me to put them in a more positive mindset. Thanks again!

Ellen's picture

It's crucial that students know that the new year is a clean slate. It's time for new beginnings and starting over with peers and administrators that they may have had negative interactions with previously. Extenuating family, social, or emotional problems may have been the impetus for poor behavior. So, don't let the past follow them, they are too young. Peers should be focused on their own positive aspirations. No one should feel trapped by old behaviors. I like the journal reflection the best because it allows them to explain how they have changed. But standing where they see themselves is also important. If that's what they believe and they are choosing the optimistic path, as long as they have a full understanding of the commitment they are taking Especially, if it's going to be revisited each grading period, or at other times throughout the year, then that will be the time to reevaluate. But keep the spirit of beginning of the year, let everyone share in the exuberance of all that can be accomplished. After all, new approaches to learning can change a student's class performance and any social emotional, or medical conditions may have been addressed. So the most challenging student may have a bright year ahead of them. More traditional students may be challenged by increased Project Based Learning and increased inclusion of each student. They may experience a learning curve, frustration, or some acting out. Supports must be in place for all. But let the first day take off with the momentum of the positively charged learning environment, where so much growth and change will occur for each child.

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