Category Archives: brain science

Motivating Students

At a recent elementary school training, a teacher began asking me about strategies for a student who has no motivation.  He refuses to do any work at all and she has tried numerous strategies already.  “I’ve tried everything and nothing works,” she said.  As a school counselor for 20 years, I often heard similar concerns.

I understand the frustrating and difficult job of teaching students in today’s society.  Many students come to the classroom with little preparation in the way of academic skills, positive encouragement or mental preparedness.  However, I often think that we begin at the wrong end of the continuum in our attempts to change behavior.  We begin with rewards and consequences.  We test for deficits and disabilities.  What if instead we began teaching and regularly encouraging a growth mindset?  What if we believed in the effectiveness of a growth mindset ourselves?

What is a growth mindset? Carol Dweck in her groundbreaking work, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success defined it this way: The growth mindset is one where a student believes that their personality, intelligence, ability or skill is changeable and with focused effort and training they can change the outcome.

What if you set the stage every day for a growth mindset and success?

What would it look like?

Begin with  brain facts-What we know about the brain is that thoughts and beliefs that we repeat regularly become a familiar neural pathway.  Neurons that fire together, wire together and become dominant.  This is important to know if you are an educator trying to motivate a student who is determined to spend the day distracted and unfocused rather than learning and growing.  It means that even if a student has already created a negative set of thought patterns that the possibility exists to replace that mindset with a more positive, motivating one that will ensure success not only in the classroom but in everyday life. Teach students that the brain is plastic and changeable.  Teach students that the brain is like a muscle that when used repeatedly grows stronger and stronger in the areas where it is used.

Develop positive mental messages or mindsets: It’s not necessary to be creative or unique.  There are already plenty of inspirational mantras or quotes available to choose from.  Pick something that resonates with you and with your style of teaching. Here are a few examples that illustrate the growth mindset:

  • Every day in every way I’m getting better and better through practice and persistence
  • Love challenges, learn from mistakes, give your best, and always keep growing
  • Learn, grow and help others
  • Great effort and frequent failure is the recipe for great success

Repeat the message regularly:  This isn’t a matter of putting up an inspirational poster that becomes a piece of the woodwork.  Instead, this is a message to begin the day, to end the day and to repeat throughout the day. It is a message to work into academics, physical activities and social occasions. Make it visual. Make it auditory. Have students memorize and repeat it.

Changing fixed mindsets isn’t easy.  We all have stories and messages that we’ve learned and incorporated into the fabric of our lives.  However, helping students develop a mindset that spurs them on to be life long learners and persistent in the face of failure and mistakes will serve them well throughout their lives.

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Doubtbusters for Kids

Wyatt the Wonder Dog Learns about Winning

Wyatt the Wonder Dog didn’t make it on the All Star baseball team and he feels like a loser.  All  his friends will be playing baseball this summer, while he and his pesky sister, Callie, visit grandparents at the beach.  How Wyatt learns to handle disappointment and failure will be an important lesson for the future.  Will he give up trying new things?  Will he have the confidence to try again?  Are there some things that take more practice and persistence to learn than others?  Wyatt the Wonder Dog Learns About Winning
Wyatt the Wonder Dog Learns about Winning (Wyatt the Wonder Dog Books) (Volume 5)

Use brain science to teach effectively

Back in the day when I was teaching lessons to children regularly as a school counselor, I was always trying to determine the best way to engage children in the lesson as well as make sure that they could actually learn and remember it later.  Lucky for educators and parents today, there is all kinds of brain research to show the way.  In her book, Wired to Grow: Harness the Power of the Brain Science to Master any Skill, Britt Andreatti identifies three steps to learning anything well.

  1. The first step is simply the process of listening and taking in the information.  Research has shown that the attention limit is about 15-20 minutes, so keep your presentation short.  So much for those long drawn out lectures we used to listen to in college.  We knew it wasn’t a good way to learn even then.
  2. The second step is getting the information into your long term memory.  There are specific ways to do this and they mostly involve practicing some sort of retrieval that involves participation.  Have students summarize information, take a quiz on it, play a game or use it in some way that involves remembering the essential facts. Three times of intermittent repetition is the sweet spot.
  3. Finally, the last step involves behavior change and in order to effect behavior change, you must practice for about 40-50 repetitions.  I know that sounds like a lot but if you think about it there are lots of things that we repeat numerous times in a given day.

Here’s what a typical lesson might look like:

Teach a lesson on being a good friend; you can include a story, examples of students practicing the qualities of friendship, a list of good qualities, etc.

Review the material.  Here are some ideas:

  • play a game
  • have students role-play ways to be a good friend
  • complete a worksheet
  • make a booklet
  • have students quiz each other on how to be a good friend.

Practice being a good friend throughout the day.  Point out each time you see students practicing friendly behaviors.  Try to catch students modeling the behaviors you are teaching.

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Wyatt’s Leadership Series for Kids

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Wyatt Learns about Being Organized

Wyatt Learns about Winning

Wyatt Learns about Cooperation

Wyatt Learns about Friendship 

Wyatt Learns about Good Manners

Wyatt Learns about Giving 


7 Lesson Plans based on Stephen Covey’s 7 habits of Highly Effective People


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