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MindSet: The Template For Successful Learning and Change

       An article in the May 18 Sunday New York Times Magazine about research out of the University of Texas discusses some truly exciting and important work linking students' mindset to their academic performance and long-term chances for success. Everyone should read "Who Gets To Graduate?  because it investigates an important and pressing problem in our culture: promising, highly-motivated students who lose their way in college and leave without graduating, in debt and demoralized. And because the research has implications for understanding what works in the process of making change, which impacts all of us. 
by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP
Maybe this article connected so deeply with me because I dropped out of college twice before I was able to navigate the feelings described by participants in these studies: low-income and minority students who had earned the right to be in a good school but felt out of place nonetheless. For me, financial pressures were intertwined with a sense that I did not belong with peers who did not have these problems, and I took it as a given that the reason I flailed academically was because I had gone as far as I was able, that I did not have what it takes to succeed at a higher level. It never occurred to me that the stress of working full-time was amplified by feeling wildly out of place much of the time. This wasn't something I thought about very much. Feeling like a loser was just how things were. So I gave up. Twice. When I was 21 and all my high school friends were graduating I jumped back into the pool once more. That third time I was enrolled in a major about which I felt passion and purpose - music therapy - but also a program that featured small classes, a group of cohorts going through a process together and some hands-on experiential field work that built up a new set of ideas about what I was capable of doing. I experienced that shift in mindset, and it gave me the energy to pilot through the academic struggles while working full-time and finally shake the mistaken idea that the past was an unalterable  template for my future.
    The research discussed in the NY Times article explored those issues exactly. Students who fell into the vulnerable groups were found to have negative thoughts about their place in the world of successful peers and about their own ability to improve. "The negative thoughts took different forms in each individual, of course, but they mostly gathered around two ideas," writes Paul Tough. "One set of thoughts was about belonging. Students in transition often experienced profound doubts about whether they really belonged — or could ever belong — in their new institution. The other was connected to ability. Many students believed in what Carol Dweck had named an entity theory of intelligence — that intelligence was a fixed quality that was impossible to improve through practice or study. And so when they experienced cues that might suggest that they weren’t smart or academically able — a bad grade on a test, for instance — they would often interpret those as a sign that they could never succeed. Doubts about belonging and doubts about ability often fed on each other, and together they created a sense of helplessness. That helplessness dissuaded students from taking any steps to change things."
     The barriers that seemed insurmountable to me are many times more bewildering and overwhelming to poor or low-income black and Latino students, who encounter racial and social factors that heighten the effect of internalized beliefs. What the professors at the University of Texas implement to support these students at risk of dropping out has implications for educators at every level but also therapists, counselors, and change agents in organizations. To change behavior - to quit smoking, or spend less money than we make, or cook meals instead of wasting money and calories on take-out, or get out of a toxic relationship - is to confront the ways that change in behavior intersects with identity, self-perception, social connection. Organizational and cultural change is disorienting and difficult for the entire group, can induce the full spectrum of emotions related to loss and often get stuck at the corner of denial and anger. Threats to a person's sense of belonging, especially combined with negative beliefs about his/her ability to change anything, will interfere with the ability to learn new habits and adapt to new realities.
     Change is difficult for many reasons not the least of which is the sense of dislocation and emptiness it inevitably brings, even when the change is something we deeply desire. But according to this research, something as simple as knowledge that those difficult emotions are not only manageable but a common and completely normal part of the struggle to grow and change can give a person the strength to endure. Shifts in mindset can occur rapidly through a combination of cognitive and emotional heightening with some form of action or experience. Applied improvisation, action methods, writing, storytelling, music and other creative forms are uniquely powerful for producing the interpersonal connection, expression of deeply-held values, examination of beliefs and creation of a supportive environment that the evidence shows promotes durable, long-range behavior change.

  Researchers David Yeager and George Walton at Stanford University - who worked with U of T researcher David Laude to develop these kinds of interventions - write that "seemingly 'small' social-psychological interventions in education-that is, brief exercises that target students' thoughts, feelings and beliefs in and about school-can lead to large gains in student achievement and sharply reduce achievement gaps even months and years later. The interventions do not teach students academic content but instead target students' psychology, such as their beliefs that they have the potential to improve their intelligence or that they belong and are valued in school. Their article, published in the Review of Educational Research, emphasizes that these interventions have lasting effects because "they target students' subjective experiences in school, because they use persuasive yet stealthy methods for conveying psychological ideas, and because they tap into recursive processes present in educational environments. By understanding psychological interventions as powerful but context-dependent tools, educational researchers will be better equipped to take them to scale."
     Mind and attitude change occurs through direct experience, and social factors can be designed to influence our sense of connection and possibility. Group work of any kind-therapeutic, educational, training, and particularly any groups related to behavior change-turns on the core human needs to belong and know that we belong, and to believe that our minds as well as our fortunes can be improved through effort. I have always been grateful for the confluence of forces that fostered a shift in my mindset as a young adult and gave me the strength to manage anxiety and self-doubt as well as a skill set and knowledge for helping others do the same. Now is a pretty great time to be a therapist and trainer, with so much new and exciting scientific evidence that empowers all change agents to help people shift their thinking in ways that redirect their lives. 

Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. She is host and creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS storytelling slam.


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