March 14, 2018

Growth Mindset: The Difference Between Defeat and Success

What teachers and parents communicate to students about their intelligence, capacity to learn, talents, and traits has profound impact on student success. The language adults use and the feedback they give to youngsters shapes their mindsets, which directly impacts how well they do at school and in life.

The concept that mindset affects success has been proven through rigorous research over decades. A “growth mindset” reflects the belief that intelligence and talent can be developed. A “fixed mindset” says that intelligence and talent are something you’re born with and can’t be changed.

Students with a growth mindset do better in school; and embrace challenges and bounce back after setbacks far more readily than students with fixed mindsets. They are able to seek help, use available resources, identify strategies that produce the results they want, and persist until they reach their goals. This mindset also enables them to do better later in life as students in college and adults in the workforce.

This quick webinar gives you the practical tips–grounded in solid science–that you need to transform your thinking about learning, talent, and achievement.

Upcoming Webinar: Thursday, March 22

Topic: Teachers as Coaches: Different But Complementary Roles

Date/Time: Thursday, March 22, 2018 at 2:00 pm EDT


June 5, 2017

Why Problem-Solving Doesn’t Help Students Succeed

It’s a surprising concept, but solving problems and seeking solutions are entirely different…and seeking solutions works a lot better a lot of the time than trying to solve problems.

How could that be?

When we present this idea in our professional development sessions at schools, it makes teachers scratch their heads.

After you read this article, you’ll see how they’re different and why it matters.

First, consider this scenario:

Maria is a gregarious, cheerful sophomore who appears to like school and wants to do well. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to have made the transition to high school as well as expected. Her attendance is stellar, but it is not uncommon for her to forget something, whether it’s her homework, notebooks, textbook, or other items she needs. Her work is satisfactory, but she sometimes submits assignments late and doesn’t do as well on tests as her participation in class would would suggest. You never know what Maria’s story will be on any given day, but you aren’t surprised when on this day, she is missing her history textbook, which she left at home.

What would you say to Maria?

The common reaction is to problem solve; that is, find out why, when, and how the problem is happening so you can help Maria to solve it. Right?

Here are the kinds of problem-solving comments teachers at our PD sessions offer:

  • “Why did you leave your book at home?”
  • “You keep forgetting your materials at home and are coming to class unprepared. What’s going on?”
  • “Why aren’t your books here? Don’t you want to do well in this class?”
  • “Are you putting your book in a place that makes it easy to find in the morning?”

These are the kind of comments Maria’s teachers also make, but to no avail.

Why doesn’t problem-solving work?

Problem-solving doesn’t work as well as we’d like it to because problem-solving focuses on what’s wrong, emphasizes deficits, and assigns blame.

The comments teachers make suggest that Maria is forgetful, comes to class unprepared, has a bad habit, and may not care about how well she does.

If this problem-solving approach doesn’t work, what’s the alternative?

Focus on Solutions to Build Self-Efficacy and Empower

The alternative to problem-solving is to seek solutions. You may think that they are the same, but keep reading to discover the difference…a difference that counts!

The concept of finding solutions rather than solving problems comes from the breakthroughs in psychotherapy developed by Stephen DeShazer and Insoo Kim Berg in the 1980’s. The principles of DeShazer and Berg’s solution-focused brief therapy model apply not only to therapy, but to many other settings, including the classroom.

A solution-focused approach builds on what’s already working, triggers the imagination to consider a future when the problem no longer exists, marshals people’s existing strengths, and is founded on the belief that change is possible.

Four Easy Steps to Begin Solution-Focused Conversations

Here are four easy steps to initiate a solution-focused conversation using Maria as the example:


Start with a compliment and consider including an open-ended question to engage Maria in conversation. When you begin with a compliment, you are priming your student to notice strengths.

  • “Thanks for coming to class on time today, Maria. Your attendance shows that you’re a dedicated student.
  • “You do a great job getting to class every day, Maria. You’re conscientious about your attendance
  • “You’re such a cheerful person! What enables you to put a smile on your face every day?”


Focus on what’s working. Emphasize action rather than insights or feelings about why or how the problem has evolved because understanding the “why” or “how” doesn’t offer solutions about what students can do to make better things happen.

  • “Although you’re missing your book today, you had it with you yesterday.”
  • “You do a good job bringing all your material to class a lot of the time.”
  • “Yesterday you brought all your materials with you, even extra pens.”


Examine what makes it work.

  • “On the days you do bring all your materials, what’s happening?”
  • “When you have all your materials with you, what are you doing to make sure you have everything?”
  • “How did you manage to make sure you had your book?”
  • “What’s different on the days when you do bring all your materials?”


Visualize life without the problem to trigger the imagination for solutions. Use the trigger, “Suppose…” or “Imagine…”

  • “Suppose you come to class tomorrow with all your materials. What will you be doing differently? How will others know? What will they see or hear that tells them something will be different?”
  • “Imagine that tomorrow you have everything you need for class and you feel very proud of yourself for having done that. What did you do to make that happen?”

Notice how this solution-focused approach works by:

  • Shining a light on what Maria is doing right.
  • Engaging her in reflecting on what’s happening when things are going right.
  • Reinforcing the idea that change is possible.

The next step is to help Maria decide which small behavior she can do right now based what she’s already doing that works for her.

Start practicing solution-focused conversations by offering compliments and looking for strengths. Then, follow up by noting what’s already working…even if it’s just a little bit.

In our next article, we’ll share the next steps in creating solution-focused conversations that lead to positive, lasting change.

This is the second in a series, Why Problem-Solving Doesn’t Help Students Succeed

In the first article, we examined a scenario involving Maria, a cheerful student who was having trouble organizing herself for school and maintaining her grades.

In the article, we talked about how the traditional problem-solving approach emphasizes deficits, assumes to know what’s best for Maria, suggests a solution for her to try, and increases the “power” of persuasion by reminding her that her forgetfulness is getting to be a habit that could result in more serious consequences down the road.

In contrast to focusing on problems and giving Maria ideas about how to solve them, we introduced you to the concept of seeking solutions by first finding out what’s already working and helping Maria do more of that.

Remember the first four steps in a solution-focused conversation:

  1. Offer compliments
  2. Notice what’s already working
  3. Examine what makes things work
  4. Focus on a preferred future

By starting the conversation with Maria by noticing what she’s doing right and exploring what’s making things work when they do work, Maria is relaxed, open, and engaged.

Maria responds to questions about what’s working (ie, “On the days you do bring all your materials, what’s happening?”) by revealing that on the days when she has all her materials, she comes to school straight from her mom’s house. Her mom has a special cubby for Maria right at the front door so Maria puts all her school work there when she finishes it at night so it’s ready for her to take with her the next morning.

Another powerful question (“What else?”) reveals that when Maria is home with her mom, her mom keeps the house quiet so Maria can concentrate on studying. Her mom also makes sure to wake Maria up in plenty of time to allow Maria to eat breakfast, double check that she has everything, and get out the door on time to catch the bus. It turns out that on the days Maria forgets her materials and is less prepared, she has spent the night before with her grandmother because her mother works nights. Maria complains that her grandmother “always” watches TV very loudly which disturbs Maria’s studying, and prevents her from getting good sleep and waking up on time.

When Maria thinks about her preferred future and imagines what will be happening when things are better for her regarding her school work, she describes a scenario in which her grandmother’s house is quiet, she has somewhere to put her backpack at night after she finishes her homework, and she is able to get up on time so she can eat breakfast and double check that she has everything.

Let’s continue exploring a solution-focused approach to help Maria. Here is a powerful tool that helps build self-efficacy (the confidence and optimism that the person can make a change):

Ask the Question

Scaling questions ask students to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, various factors that contribute to change. These factors can include their confidence, interest, or readiness levels, or most any other factor that helps move someone forward in the self-change process.

Scaling helps students put their observations, impressions, and intuitions into concrete, quantifiable terms.

Use a scale from 1 to 10 and ask the question this way, “On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the [highest] and 1 is the opposite, how would you rate [factor that will help in the change process].

Here are three examples of scaling questions that could be used with Maria:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the most important and 1 is the opposite, how important is it for you to do well in school?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the hardest and 1 is the opposite, how hard are you willing to work to find a solution for making sure you have your materials with you when you come to school after staying with your grandmother?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the totally ready and 1 is the opposite, how ready are you to take a small step toward a solution so you can have your materials with you every day?

Follow Up with the Unexpected

Whenever we teach scaling, students assume that the next step is to respond by asking the student what it would take to get them higher on the scale, or even to a 10. That’s totally logical.

Unfortunately, this “logical” approach usually backfires because students either tell you that they don’t know or they’ll give you a lot of reasons why they can’t. In other words, you’ll get nothing, or you’ll hear more “problem” talk, not “change” talk (ie,“I can’t go higher on the scale because…”).

Instead, follow up with the “unexpected.” Ask what makes them at the number they’ve said and not a lower number!

  • What makes you say a “7” and not a “6” or a “5”?
  • What makes you a “3” and not a “2”?

When asked that way, you’ll find out something remarkable: Students talk about what’s working, what they’ve already accomplished, skills they have, and people that might help them!”

Once they’ve shared with you what’s working and why, you can build on that. We’ll give you some tips on that in our next article.

Next Steps

This week, consider asking a student a scaling question and make sure to follow up with the “unexpected!”

I look forward to hearing from you!

May 22, 2017

The Paradox of Greatness

Top Performers Seem to Make More Errors

When Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmundson was a graduate student, she studied medical teams in hospitals to identify characteristics of best performing teams. What makes great teams tick?

You may imagine, as she did, that the best teams made the fewest errors.

To her surprise, she found the exact opposite: The best performing teams seemed to make more errors than the worst performers.

How could that be true? Make mistakes, do better?

Eventually, she realized the truth: The best teams weren’t making the most errors. The best teams were admitting their errors and discussing them more often than other groups.

Edmundson has spent her career examining top-performing teams and discovered one trait that distinguishes them all: They create psychological safety for all team members.

What is psychological safety? Edmundson defines it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.”

Psychological safety makes individuals comfortable with making mistakes, learning from all experiences–both failures and successes–and working with others to apply the new insights to what they’re doing so they can get better.

Whether it’s a hospital, factory, software startup, or school, people excel when they feel psychologically safe, when they feel accepted, and when the goal is learning, not just getting it right. Conversely, the absence of psychological safety jeopardizes learning.

Social science research echoes Edmundson’s results, too. Psychological safety helps students embrace learning more fully by fostering more critical and creative thinking, active participation in group activities, and fruitful collaboration.


Take One Simple Step to Create Psychological Safety in Your School

Creating psychological safety is a multi-faceted process, but small steps can produce big rewards.

To begin, ask yourself: How do students or staff in my school respond when they think someone has made a mistake or they have a different idea? If your school is like most, it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase, “You’re wrong, “ or “I think you’re wrong…”

Regardless of how respectfully, kindly, or nicely it’s said, risking being told you’re wrong can be a significant deterrent to learning.

One powerful small step you can take right now is to reframe how people respond to each other when they see things differently.

Simply replacing “I think you’re wrong” with “I see things differently,” or “I have a different perspective” can have a big impact on how safe students and staff feel. Seeing things differently or having a different perspective shifts the conversation from finding what’s wrong with someone else’s ideas to inviting people to share different perspectives or consider multiple options.

In an informal survey we conducted at Bergen County Academies, students who participated in our peer wellness coach training practiced using “I have a different perspective…” They reported feeling that although it was a simple change, it (along with other strategies they learned) could have a significant effect on improving school climate by reducing fear, increasing curiosity, and boosting respect. In other words, it could foster psychological safety.

IWE offers evidence-based training for students and school staff to improve overall well-being, starting with creating psychologically safe environments through caring language and empathy.

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