This Will Improve Academic Performance – But Our Schools Are Getting It Wrong.

An abundance of research has consistently demonstrated that a growth mindset – the belief that intelligence, ability and performance can all be improved with effort – will improve academic performance. The research is compelling.

Increasingly however, our schools are streaming students based on academic ability, a practiced steeped in the idea that ability and intelligence are fixed, and one that has been proven to undermine academic achievement.

Research has clearly demonstrated the plasticity of the brain and the capacity of students to become smarter through hard word and challenge.

The communication to students that learning comes with effort and is a process that takes time is critical in facilitating a growth mindset. Just as important is the message that neither ability nor intelligence are fixed and can be altered with time and effort.

The most successful countries in the world have growth mindset beliefs at the core of their schooling, communicating to students that learning takes time, and that effort and application will eventually improve academic performance.

The ranking of education systems is based upon international tests and education data, including the OECD’s Pisa tests and two major studies, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, and Progess in International Reading Literacy Study.

In 2014 the top five education systems were (1) South Korea; (2) Japan; (3) Singapore; (4) Hong Kong; and (5) Finland. The UK was 6th, Canada 7th, with the US, Australia and New Zealand coming in at 14th, 15th and 16th respectively out of the 40 ranked.

Sir Michael Barber, Chief Education Advisor of Pearson who publish The Learning Curve (an internationally respected quantitative and qualitative analysis of educational systems), writes,

‘… some conclusions from The Learning Curve can clearly be reached. One is the continuing rise of a number of Pacific Asian countries, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, which combine effective education systems with a culture that prizes effort above inherited ‘smartness.’ (The Learning Curve, 2014 Report)

Many Asian countries base their education on the idea that learning and achievement are determined by effort, as opposed to the idea that ability and intelligence are fixed. In line with this, the process of streaming students according to their academic ability is considered undesirable, even unacceptable. In Japan, the practice of streaming is seen as promoting inequality, and raises concerns that grouping students according to ability undermines children’s self-image, socialisation and academic performance.

However, schools in other countries that score lower on international tests, such as the US and Australia, base their schooling practices around ideas that ability is fixed. Despite extensive research demonstrating the plasticity of the brain, many countries persist with streaming students based on ability and achievement, communicating to students the message that their ability is fixed. The resulting fixed mindset beliefs have been consistently shown to undermine opportunities and performance.

Jo Boaler, Professor of Mathematics Education at Stanford University, writes, ‘In one primary school I attended in England that placed students into different groups for mathematics in Year 1, one of the students simply told me that ‘all the clever students had gone into a different class now’.

Students are very much aware of academic streaming practices at whatever age they are and the message they draw is clear – some students are clever and some are not.

Which Students Are Most At Risk?

Dweck has found that the students who are most at risk of being damaged by fixed ability beliefs are high-achieving girls.

From an early age, these students have generally been praised for their work, with attention drawn to how clever or smart they are – messages that promote a fixed mindset. The problem is that as soon as these students fail at something, the conclusion they are at risk of reaching is that they are not so smart after all.

High achieving girls with the mindset that people are either smart or not, when placed in a high academic stream group or an extension group, often suffer from the idea that they need to maintain the image of being clever. This mindset can undermine their ability to cope with failure and make them challenge aversive.

There are a number of studies which have shown that when schools move away from academic streaming to mixed or heterogeneous grouping, achievement and participation improves significantly.

A study by the University of Oxford of 14,000 children in England from years 4 through to 6 compared those taught in groups according to academic ability, with those grouped heterogeneously over the period of a year. They found that academic grouping undermined the progress of students, and that those taught in the mixed group performed significantly better on tests of mathematical reasoning.

According to Boaler the abundance of evidence internationally indicates clearly that academic streaming impedes the achievement of students in low and middle groups and does not improve the achievement of students in the higher groups.

A growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset, has repeatedly been demonstrated to enhance academic performance. Currently, the subtle messages that are descending from an education system which streams according to academic ability at the time of testing, serve to reinforce a fixed idea of intelligence and ability. The undeniable effect of this is to undermine academic learning, effort and performance.

In order to ensure our children and adolescents are provided with every opportunity possible to reach their fullest potential, the message that needs to be delivered with unwavering confidence is that achievement and intelligence depend on effort, and that students have the capacity to influence the outcome and improve academic performance.  

For information on how to develop and nurture a growth mindset in children and adolescents, see here.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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