Mind set of effective students September 4, 2012

Developing the Mindset of Effective Students in MCF-Shakopee By Dr. Schanus

I have been teaching resiliency skills at MCF-Shakopee for over four years now. During this time period I have noticed changes in the students' attitude in class. Four years ago it would take five or six weeks for students to warm up to each other in the classroom. I could almost count on some sort of flair up between two students. Eye-rolling and comments made under someon's breath were a common response to another student sharing a personal perspective, often leading to leading to angry words shared between two students. While I have yet to call an official "incident" and have squad intercede, there have been moments when it came close.

However, over the past two years I've been seeing students come to class already excited to be there. Noticing this change, I've asked participants why it is they're signing up, coming to class, and paying attention from the start. Many say they have heard good things about the class from their friends. Others say they have heard me speak in orientation class and are excited about learning more. Whatever their motivation for coming to class I can honestly say I don't have to work as hard any longer to hold the attention of the class participants. You can tell they are interested in what I am saying and how it applies to them. I have had two students tell me that as adult learners they have never been able to make it through an entire semester of classes without taking two "sick" and being automatically dropped from the class. They've told me that I held their attention throughout the semester. The material was so meaningful that one student reported that afterwards she had signed up for another class, and although the teacher was boring and the topic not inspiring, she felt if she stuck it out (no "sick"), she would learn something.

Dr. Robert Brooks is a nationally known speaker on topics regarding resilience, motivation, and self-esteem. He is currently on the staff of Harvard Medical School and has written numerous books about parenting and developing resiliency in high-risk youth. I was first exposed to Dr. Brooks' research about ten years ago, and in 2003 I met him after attending one of his presentations. Since that time I've followed his ongoing research in the realm of resilience. While I've been here at Shakopee, I've noticed many similarities between his research from working with high-risk youth and my work here with the women. These similarities inspired me to ask questions and figure out how to his research findings in developing new class materials for the women at Shakopee.

Approximately eighteen months ago, I held a telephone interview with Dr. Brooks. I had recently read his article, "Disciplinary Practices, Parenting Styles and the Development of Self Discipline" (Brooks, 2006), and wanted to make certain I was correctly interpreting his materials in light of my work in Shakopee. He, too, saw the connection between his research and the classes I was teaching, and after our phone conversation emailed me two chapters out of a recently published book he co-authored with Dr. Sam Goldstein, Understanding and Managing Children's Classroom Behavior: Creating Sustainable, Resilient Classrooms (Hoboken, N.J.: J. Wiley & Sons, c2007).

In the first chapter, "Developing the Mindset of Effective Teachers" he noted that the differing mindset or assumptions that educators possess about themselves and their students play a significant role in determining their expectations, teaching practices, and relationships with the students (Brooks, 2001a,b: Brooks & Goldstein, 2001, 2003, 2004).

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He states that effective educators:

  1. Understand the lifelong impact they have on students, including instilling a sense of hope and resiliency.

  2. Believe that the learning that occurs in the classroom and the behavior exhibited by students has as much, if not more, to do with the influence of teachers than what students might bring into the situation.

  3. Believe that all students yearn to be successful and if a student is not learning, educators must ask how they can adapt their teaching style and instructional material to meet students' needs.

  4. Believe that attending to the social-emotional needs of student is not an "extra- curriculum” that draws time away from teaching academic subjects.

  5. Recognize that if educators are to relate effectively to students, they must be empathic, always attempting to perceive the world through the eyes of the student.

  6. Recognize that students will be more motivated to learn when they feel a sense of ownership for their own education.

  7. Understanding that one of the main functions of an educator is to be a disciplinarian in the true sense of the word, namely, to perceive discipline as a teaching process rather than as a process of intimidation and humiliation.

  8. Realize that one of the greatest obstacles to learning is the fear of making mistakes and feeling embarrassed or humiliated.

(Brooks, 2001a,b: Brooks & Goldstein, 2001, 2003, 2004).

Although I believe all of these characteristics are important, the two that I see as having the most influence over the students are c and e. This had led me to adopt an empathic approach and adapt my teaching style and course materials to meet the needs of the students. I use many teaching techniques to help hold the attention of the students, including asking for feedback from students about the materials I just discussed before moving on to a new topic. I also have modified the course materials numerous times over the past three years to include discussions on how to apply the resiliency principles in day-to-day challenges the women face in prison. I think this has been one of the most meaningful findings I have discovered so far. The reaction the women have in the classroom to real-life events is intense and powerful. Throughout the semester I see many students have moments of insight when discussing these events.

In the chapter, "Developing the Mindset of Effective Students' Brooks and Goldstein state that effective students, those who are motivated to actively engage in the learning process:

  1. Believe that whether they learn or not is based on great part on their own motivation, perseverance and effort.

  2. Recognize that making mistakes is part of learning and thus do not view mistakes as sources of humiliation or indications that they are incompetent. Rather mistakes are opportunities to learn.

  3. Perceive the teacher as a supportive individual. When confronted with challenges they feel comfortable in taking the initiative to seek assistance from the teacher.

  4. Understand their unique learning style, learning strengths, and learning vulnerabilities. This understanding permits them to develop with the input of their teacher strategies that will help them to learn more proficiently.

  5. Interact with their classmates with respect, avoiding teasing and bullying. They recognize that such negative behaviors work against developing and sustaining a positive class room climate in which learning thrives.

(Brooks, 2001a,b: Brooks & Goldstein, 2001, 2003, 2004).

Dr. Brooks heard me discussing the changes I was experiencing in my students' behaviors. The defining characteristics of effective students fit perfectly with what I was experiencing in the classroom. The most profound changes I was seeing "the identification of learning styles and peer respect" he and Dr. Goldstein described in part d and e. The change that had occurred over time was that my students were coming to class prepared to be students, making the learning process all the more powerful for each individual. For me personally, it makes it a pleasure to come to class each day knowing there are students there with an interest to learn to change their lives. And the kindness and respect they demonstrate toward each other is evident in their daily interactions.