Helping Children Build Empathy & The Growth Mindset

In the past, I have to admit fully that I've been somewhat critical of Classdojo for their app used by some school teachers for classroom management (classroom manipulation?) However, in recent months i believe that the people at classdojo have hit on a winner with their short series of videos based on the experiences of the monster Mojo.

They started out tackling Growth Mindset, working alongside experts of Stanford University making a series of short videos based upon the engaging little monster Mojo. These are designed for teachers to use with children, are engaging, attention grabbing and really quite thought-provoking.

Now, as this article highlights, they've built on that success by working with experts from Harvard Graduate School of Education on empathy. The principle behind these initiatives is that if there is promising research and ideas on skills development in the social-emotional domain, such vehicles can enable swift transfer to the learning environment to benefit teachers and pupils.

Huffington Post - Empathy Videos

The Growth Mindset video series hthey've gone on to work further with the team from Stanford on a new series on Perseverance. The first has just been issued, with two further episodes to follow over the next couple of weeks.

All three sets of videos, accompanied by discussion questions that can be used in class, can be found here;

ClassDojo - Big Ideas

There is a wealth of evidence that the development of strong social-emotional skills early in school life have a big impact in improving behaviour in school, interpersonal relationships, but also benefit academic performance from an early stage. I personally think these videos would make a great added resource for classes using Jenny Mosely's 'Quality Circle Time' principles to explore and address issues of how children behave, regulate their personal relations and develop strength as social beings.

And, the earlier children embark on such learning the greater their potential to build strengths that will be vital as they grow and valuable in their adult life.

Good Stress and Competition

A few days ago I wrote about the changing views in education relating to grit/ resilience/ perseverance and the recognition of mistakes made in the past when educators somehow believed that everything in education had to be about ‘unburdening’. Even as recently as the last few years, education authorities in India believed the answer to student stress, anxiety and even high rates of suicide was to make the examinations ‘low stakes’.

This is closely tied to Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth of Fixed Mindsets. The implications for the growing child, and in to later adult life are enormous in terms of their willingness to take on challenges, how well they deal with stress, the extent to which they perform up to their potential in situations that carry stress.

In this connection, I was fascinated to reread this article I first came across a couple of years ago from the New York Times;

New York Times – Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?
(Right click on the link above to open the article and read. You should be able to read without taking out a New York Times subscription)

The article is fascinating for what it reveals are clues as to the interrelationship between different factors that shape an individual’s ability to cope or even flourish under pressure and to respond effectively to stress. It highlights a genetic factor linked to the rate at which dopamine is cleared from the prefrontal cortex – which makes worriers of some and warriors of others.

Those who had the gene that only cleared the dopamine slowly were the worriers. What was particularly interesting was that they had higher IQ levels on average and that they could overcome the negative implications from the stress if they were trained and competent in what they were doing. This, to me, reinforces the need for a focus on the ‘how’ of studying and exam preparation as much on the ‘what’.

What is a little surprising is that this article came out in 2012, but i’m not aware of any further developments relating to these lines of research. What would be particularly valuable would be to treat this as a further element for differentiation of learning experiences for different children, based upon the cues and clues about which gene is at work for them – and therefore whether they need to be pressured, but with appropriate training or experience reduced pressure.

Finally, the article reinforced for me that when we applaud certain students for their academic achievements over others, sometimes we’re merely praising them for something that happened by chance and over which they had no overt or direct control. In the meantime, others are missing out on the motivation from praise and recognition even though they may be producing performance that challenges their genetic and other limitations.

Stress is a factor in most lives, especially for anyone who wants to achieve or aspire to rise above the commonplace. In such circumstances, young people need to acquire the tools and learn the strategies to not only cope with it, but to even, potentially relish it and flourish on it.

Resilience

Resilience is a critical attribute for any person to grow up to be a fully healthy, self-actualizing person. However, until recently, really relatively little was known about resilience – how important it is, what increases a person’s ability to grow up with a healthy level, what are the impacts of childhood trauma and stress on it?

There was a time when the prevailing ideas were that all stress was inherently bad and that children should go unburdened in every way possible. Far more importance was placed on boosting self image, by telling children positive things about themselves, praising them endlessly and avoiding talking about weaknesses or shortcomings. Today, many believe that the prevalent views of the self image movement has resulted in a generation of young people who struggle to handle feedback, who can’t take strain or stress and who believe that they should be praised for every little thing they do. These young people all too often come across as needy, overly dependent on extraneous motivation and incapable of handling pressure effectively.

In more recent times a new word has become a strong force in education, especially in the USA. That word is ‘Grit’, which to me is another name for resilience. Much of the work, received with mixed feelings by others in the education field, has come from writer and academic, Angela Duckworth. Here’s a TED talk in which she explains her viewpoint on the role of Grit. One of my favourite lines – “Grit is living life like a marathon, not a sprint.”

This concept is also tied to issues of perseverance and also Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth Mindset (see earlier writing on this blog). I believe that the more we acknowledge this, the more we realise how much education has been failing children when it asked nothing of them, failed to stretch them and didn’t make sure they followed through adequately. These are young people now moving in to the world of work believing that life should be easy, rewards should come to us simply for showing up and that failure is a reason to immediately back off/ give up or take the path of least resistance.

Somehow, persistence, sticking at things through difficult or challenging times, went out of fashion. There was some kind of notion that really smart people didn’t need to break a sweat – that sweating the tough stuff was for the plodders. The self esteem movement positively railed against anything that looked or felt like hard work in schools, claiming that this was harmful to the vulnerable developing child. Instead, they wanted us to praise every effort, however small. Out of this came many things including primary school sports days where nobody should be a winner or a loser, everyone got a medal and the key was turning up and participating, mass handing out of classroom stickers for everything and a reluctance to ask children to stretch.

For those of us right now enjoying the four yearly feast that is the Olympics, the question is simple – would any of those athletes even be there, let alone be winning without grit, perseverance, resilience or a growth mindset? I think the answer to that one is pretty clear.

There is an interesting additional aspect to this question. Some children, sadly, are subjected to levels of challenge, strife or stress inducing trauma or tragedy in their young lives that we may wish would not afflict any child. In the past, conventional wisdom suggested that it was almost inevitable that such children receiving an excess of challenges beyond all reasonable levels of grit, perseverance or resilience will almost inevitably carry scars and negative impacts. However, we always knew that despite this – there were individual cases of children who appeared to have shown enormous levels of grit to rise above the circumstances and to flourish later as adults. So, I was very interested to see that there’s been recent research in this area seeking to understand better individual levels of resilience and how some children appear to ride out levels of trauma that would be beyond the capacity of the vast majority.

Quartz – Children Need Some Stress in Their Lives

Reading this article, I’m left with the feeling that research still has a long way to go. However, we do appear to be at least a step or two closer to understanding how to help children achieve optimum levels of stress in their lives so that they are capable of building grit and resilience and also how to help children whose young lives are impacted by extreme negative events or trauma so that they have a better chance of riding them out and maintaining functional ability to fulfil their potential.

This is going to be a fascinating area to follow.

The Motivated Brain

Sometimes, teachers indicate that it’s a bit bewildering and overwhelming to be faced with all the pressures to change the way they teach; to differentiate, to personalise learning, to take on board all the neuroscience findings, to develop a growth mindset, to support the holistic learning of each child, to take in to account children’s motivation to learn etc.

So, today, I want to share a book that I’ve read recently that does a really good job of putting all this new knowledge in to context and shares a lot of simple ideas for how these would actually look when implemented in the classroom.

It’s ‘The Motivated Brain: Improving Student Attention, Engagement and Perseverance’ by Gayle Gregory and Martha Kaufeldt. You can buy the book online (or the ebook) from the following links:

ASCD – The Motivated Brain
Amazon – The Motivated Brain

A book like this has to go in to some of the hard science of the newer discoveries, but it does a good job of remaining practical, hands on and relevant for teachers. It avoids getting too jargon heavy or technical and is very readable.

Many teachers will ind that it take learning they’ve had exposure to in bits and pieces and bring them together in to a cohesive whole centred around the key needs of the student for motivation and engagement.

Well worth the investment of money and time.