How to Develop Mindsets for Compassion and Caring in Students

Early in his career Dr. Robert Brooks became the principal of a school in a locked-door unit at McLean Psychiatric Hospital. He and his staff of teachers worked with children and adolescents who were severely disturbed and whose behavior showed their turmoil. Within the first few months, Brooks felt demoralized and dreaded work each day.

“I had a very negative mindset,” Brooks said at a Learning and the Brain conference on mindsets in San Francisco. Brooks is now a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is the author of over a dozen books, including Raising Resilient Children. He has spent his career researching how to help develop resilience in children and adults, working extensively with educators in many contexts.

Brooks’ experiences at McLean gave him insight and empathy for how difficult teaching can be, especially when students don’t outwardly appear to want to learn. When faced with so many challenging students, he felt like nothing he or his staff did would make a difference for how much kids learned or their behavior. He began to feel that when they were released from the hospital they would likely end up on drugs, in jail or dead.

“What I realized is when you feel you are losing control in a classroom, you become more controlling,” Brooks said. But as he and his staff tried to make their students do exactly as they said, they only behaved worse and learned less.

“What changed was a group of courageous educators who totally shifted their mindsets, and when they shifted their mindsets they shifted the practices they were using,” Brooks said.

RESEARCH ON RESILIENCE

When Brooks speaks with teachers, he always tries to remember how he felt in his lowest moments at McLean. He remembers that he was so emotionally depleted that he probably wouldn’t have been able to hear advice from even the most accomplished experts. But he has found that often discouraged educators respond to his message about helping students to develop mindsets for caring and compassion when they hear about the research.

Julius Segal’s work on the factors that help kids overcome adversity is particularly powerful. He found that the common denominator among kids who’d overcome great hardship to succeed was the presence of a “charismatic adult” in their lives. Segal defined that person as an “adult from whom children gather strength,” and specifically said often that person is a teacher.

“We have to start with the assumption that everything you do in the classroom can have a major impact on a child’s life, not only in the classroom but later, too,” Brooks said. He stressed that teachers can have meaningful impact with even small gestures of kindness, dignity and respect for students. Greeting students by name at the door and smiling are two easy things that students themselves identified as making a big difference in creating a welcoming environment. Spending a little time getting to know kids individually also goes a long way.

At McLean, Brooks began to notice some important practices that made the most difference for school climate, student motivation and the staff’s ability to build relationships with students. He has since researched many of these early observations and has found that what worked anecdotally in his personal experience was true for many other kids in less severe situations too.

“One key ingredient I found is that students will feel more motivated if they have some say over what happens in the classroom,” Brooks said. That doesn’t mean he advocates that teachers give over all their authority to the students, but it could mean creating a student advisory panel in charge of making decisions about space within the school. Or involving students in the process of developing class rules and consequences so that discipline is no longer a long list of “dos and don’ts.”

Another major finding: “Kids will be more caring and compassionate and resilient in those environments where they feel they are making a difference,” Brooks said. Sometimes teachers push back against this idea, wondering why students who haven’t finished their own work should be given jobs helping others. Brooks responds that every student should feel like he or she is contributing to the class, and when that type of environment is fostered, motivation flourishes. “Caring leads to resilience,” Brooks said.

Brooks also began to realize that part of the reason he had been so negative about his students at McLean was a tendency to focus on their deficits. He began to look for their strengths instead, what he calls “islands of competence.”

“If you just focus on what’s wrong with kids and you don’t spend as much time on what their strengths or beauty are, kids know that,” he said. It’s hard for a child to have a resilient mindset when he believes everyone thinks he’s bad.

Teachers often complain about a lack of student motivation, but Brooks cautions educators not to jump to conclusions about students. No student wants to fail; humans have a natural “drive for effectiveness,” and the unmotivated affect some students show may really be “avoidance motivation.”

“It’s not that they’re not motivated,” Brooks said, “they’re just not motivated to do what we would like them to do.” Instead, they put all their energy into avoiding work that might lead them to fail, or that they don’t find relevant to their lives. There are lots of reasons kids might be motivated to avoid, but calling them lazy or lacking in perseverance or grit is not likely to improve attitudes.

“Once you say a kid is unmotivated or doesn’t care, you’re already reflecting a mindset in which you’re blaming the child, whether you mean to or not,” Brooks said. It’s far more productive to ask questions about why a student might be avoiding work. Getting rid of the accusatory stance will actually free educators to think more creatively about how to help students find purpose, make them feel like they belong, and help them see their own strengths.

A social worker Brooks knows came up with one such creative solution for five of the most problematic students in the school. She made those five students the committee to study how to improve attendance. She asked them to come up with two or three reasons kids don’t come to school and two to three reasons kids want to come to school. They then poured over attendance data and made it their personal mission to convince specific kids to come to school more often. The attendance committee — who had themselves been absent the most — felt like they were contributing, and three months later they hadn’t missed a day of school.

SUPPORTING TEACHERS TO SHIFT MINDSETS

Brooks acknowledges that this is not easy work. Some students take a long time to warm up to adults, often pushing a potential ally away just when it seems like progress is being made. And it’s very difficult for teachers not to take behavior personally, to continue reaching out and finding student strengths. Brooks recommends a few activities to help teacher develop “stress hardiness” and ward against burnout.

Reflecting on why they became teachers in the first place can be an effective way to gain perspective. Brooks recommends school principals devote some staff meeting time to reflection on the qualities adults in a school remember about their favorite teachers. These conversations get educators thinking about whether their own students would describe them the same way they are positively describing their favorite teachers. The exercise can sometimes help illuminate ways that a teacher might be more welcoming to a student or offer more opportunities for choice.

Resilience in teachers is just as important as it is in students. Teachers who are less stressed are able to see changes in the school as inevitable. They seek opportunities to learn from change, rather than seeing it only as a challenge. Resilient people also tend not to blame other people or themselves when things go wrong. Instead, they look for proactive ways to improve the situation.

“Resilient people basically look at what they have control over and they don’t waste time on what they don’t,” Brooks said. So, for example, a teacher has no control over how prepared students are when they enter her classroom, or what kind of experiences they’ve had at home. But she can control how she interacts with those students, so she focuses there.

“It’s not easy to change mindsets,” Brooks admits, but he’s optimistic about the power such a shift can have on school culture, and on educators’ ability to grow mindsets of caring and compassion in their students. “One of the most important things you can do is model compassion,” he said. “Do you model caring? Do you make every child feel they belong in the classroom? It’s not that you have a formal lecture on this.”

He laments what he views as a false dichotomy between social and emotional skills and academics in classrooms. He often hears from teachers that the strategies he advocates take time away from academics, but he firmly believes students won’t learn without attention to these issues. Increasingly, schools and districts are agreeing with him, putting more emphasis on non-academic skills for school and life success.

“You have to have a sense of meaning or purpose because if that’s not there we’re going to have kids who say that achievement and GPA is more important than compassion and caring,” Brooks said.

That may already be happening. One national survey of youth across the country found that they valued their own personal achievement above caring for others and they believed that their parents did, too. Brooks hopes that if every educator and parent focuses on helping students develop mindsets for caring, they can reverse that trend.