It’s a long-understood psychological principle that our story follows our behaviour. We decide who we are based on what we do. We act ourselves into feelings; we don’t feel ourselves into action. Or, put another way:
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.Kurt Vonnegut
A brief example
How many times have you said, “I’ll start going to the gym when I feel better”? But the thing is, you’re never going to feel good enough to make a huge change like that. It’s practically impossible to feel physically fit and healthy while being a couch potato.
Once you start going to the gym though, and you start feeling good about your hot bod, you start seeing yourself as someone who is fit. Unconsciously, we know people who are fit must workout, which means since you’re fit, you must workout. So you keep going to the gym, and feeling better and better. You acted your way into a feeling.
The story students tell themselves
If the story we tell ourselves about ourselves follows from our behaviour, then struggling students need to be successful before they will see themselves as successful. They need to DO good before they FEEL good.
This flies in the face of typical conversations at school:
Student: I’m stupid.
Teacher: No you’re not. Don’t say that about yourself! You can do this.
Student, who cannot change her mindset just because you said so, who has not had success that would demonstrate her capability, and who is not moved by your pleas: No I can’t.
A student can’t change their mindset just because you told them to. It’s obvious now, but not so obvious in the moment.
Teacher: Okay, so what should I reply instead?
The student needs to see herself do well, multiple times, possibly over a long period of time. Then, just like with you going to the gym, she will start to see herself as someone who does well. Doing well must mean she’s capable, and maybe she’s actually good at this. Her actions have changed the story she tells herself.
How to help struggling students
As with any lesson, simply telling students rarely teaches them anything: you have to show them. Showing students how successful they can be through real experience is a much better way to boost their confidence and change their self image.
Now that you’ve finally got them on the right track, the last thing you want to do is burst their fragile bubble:
Keep grades out of it.
Delay any numerical evaluating for as long as you can. It’s okay, no one will notice, and you won’t get in trouble. More importantly, your struggling students will have a chance to get some traction on the road to success.