Anxiety, Mindset, and Motivation

On growth mindset

If we are telling students that it is important for them to develop perseverance and grit or grow new dendrites to get smarter, but the system remains stacked against them, is that really a healthy perspective to promote? From the point of view of students of color and historically looted students, does that just sound like a new version of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”?

Gutierrez, Political Conocimiento for Teaching Mathematics

“Our brain grows when we make mistakes” is not a helpful message for students. The majority of the time, these student aren’t making mistakes, they are building understanding. Rough drafts are not mistakes and classifying student thinking as a mistake can distract us from what students actually do understand.

Compounding this difference of perspective about growth mindset is our focus on time. We are used to disequilibrium being resolved in a 45 minute class period, or an episode of our favorite sitcom, or between the warm-up and the cool-down, or the pre-test and the post-test. We grow slowly and continuously over time – through consistency and revisions to our thinking mixed with reflection and experience

Growth mindset can be constructive, provided that we recognize its limitations. Instead of telling students their brain grows when they make mistakes, we need to support students in making revisions to their thinking, build from their strengths and enable them the time and support for all students to see and believe in their own brilliance.

How can instructional routines help?

In my early years of teaching, I became aware that my default way of functioning as a teacher was closely aligned to what I experienced in my time as a student. I struggled to try new strategies and get them to stick, being constantly torn between striving to implement new strategies and trying to do no harm to the amazing teenagers under my influence. When trying something new, if it doesn’t go well the first few times, I would resort to more familiar, and less ambitious, methods.

With instructional routines, my students and I committed to working through a set of thoughtfully planned interactions regularly with varying, and carefully selected content. Through this consistency, I was able to reflect and make minor adjustments to the routines – the wording of a question, wait time, when to pair students or allow individual think time –  to make these interactions increasingly effective.

Isn’t this what you think of when you hear about growth mindset? Long term, thoughtful revisions to improve a technique, or approach – not a quick fix of a “mistake.” Let’s model this behavior.

What does anxiety have to do with it?

Being an adolescent is hard. They’re realizing that their parents are not as perfect as they thought, their body is changing, they’re trying to decide how they fit in society and in the social groups at their school. The National Institutes of Health reports that one in four thirteen-eighteen year olds have anxiety, which can be presented as: ADHD, disruptions, off task behavior, shutting down, shouting out, substance abuse, or depression. Understanding the role anxiety plays in behavior is crucial to creating a safe environment.  

Unstructured time and transitions are two primary triggers for students with anxiety. Once anxiety has set in, students working memory declines, making it difficult for them to recall or retain information, initiating a downward spiral for that class period. Routines can be a critical component in preventing the onset of student anxiety and creating a predictable and safe class environment.

Teaching is a stressful job, and anxiety is common among teachers too, impacting our working memory and hindering our ability to be aware of everything happening in our classroom. Like when I am late for work and can no longer remember where I left the car keys, frantically running around the house unable to think clearly. Routines help us too, reducing the cognitive load of every interaction in a lesson and using to a familiar format that’s been adapted to work for your personal style, making space to be able to pay attention to student thinking instead of behavior management.

Bridging from research to action

Thoughtfully selected, developed, or adapted instructional routines, implemented regularly, can help manage student’s anxiety and build on their strengths to authentically develop students confidence and persistence. Over time, teachers build confidence implementing certain routines and student adjust to the expectations of the routines understanding how to find success leading to their development as a mathematician and contributing human being.

I’ll be presenting on this topic with Dylan Kane at NCTM Regionals where we will practice a few routines that allow students to see their own brilliance and discuss many more while considering how they can be adapted to fit your own classroom.

Come join the discussion in our session at NCTM Regionals in Seattle:

Anxiety, Mindset, and Motivation: Bridging from Research to Action
November 30, 2018 | 9:45-11:00 a.m. in Washington State Convention Center, 606

Developing a supportive class culture and growth mindset can reduce students’ anxiety, allowing learners to engage thoughtfully with each other around mathematics. Participants will discuss the challenges of shifting mindsets, experience routines as learners and leave with resources and ideas to implement these structures in their classroom.

Notes and scattered thoughts from Learning & the Brain Conference

I attended the conference on Learning and the Brain: The Science of Character in Boston, MA on November 13-15 2015. Below are my notes and thoughts from sessions that really stood out to me during the conference.

Executive SkillsMargaret (Peg) Dawson and Richard Guare

Students need to be taught to practice executive skills which include (in order of development):

  • Response Inhibition
  • Working Memory
  • Emotional Control
  • Flexibility
  • Sustained Attention
  • Task Initiation
  • Planning/Prioritization
  • Organization
  • Time management
  • Goal directed persistence
  • Meta cognition

Executive skills, like any other skill can be improved through explicit practice and reflection. These skills are negatively impacted by fatigue and stress, which means when students are not getting enough sleep or are under stress at home or in school, they lose the ability to efficiently and successfully complete tasks – which then adds to the stress. I know by experience that this also is true of adults. A most basic example is that when you are running late for work you can’t find your keys, but if you are calm finding your keys is not difficult. Stress really hurts our thinking and development. More on that later.

There are two periods where children have a highly increased development of synapses in their brains (making many connections and developing executive skills): ages 3-5 and 10-12. From approximately ages 14-20 adolescents go through a synapse degenesis where brains basically complete a “pruning” of skills. Adolescents keep or lose synapses to make way for new learning and solidify important skills.  

Another interesting fact is that context affects executive functioning. For example, a student may be very good at planning and organizing at school but then in a social situation, they lose the ability to even be aware of the time of day. This is because their brain is still developing, not because the adolescent wants to make their life more challenging.

Strategies for teaching students executive functioning skills:

Include a time in the school schedule for daily coaching, setting and reflecting upon sub-goals is critical. Often students goals will not align to the goals that teachers may want for these children. This is ok, do not force them to adapt your goals for them but instead try to build in your goals using their interests where possible.

When coaching students:

  • Adapt common terminology when working with students around executive functioning.
  • Create a structure where students daily:
    • Review their goal
    • Evaluate their progress
    • Anticipate possible challenges
    • Plan strategies to achieve goal
  • Check out to see examples of an alternative school and their developed curriculum developing executive functioning skills with high school students.

How does the frequent use of cell phones & technology impact student self control? Interesting insight from Walter Mischel, author of The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control:

With technology, temptation increases, which also causes an increase in the need for executive functioning. Students get more opportunities to practice planning, adaptability, flexibility, sustained attention and emotional control.

I’m sure teachers and coaches can leverage students ability to develop executive skills with technology  to help students translate it to other aspects of their life. This is another example of context as mentioned above. Students executive functioning skills are not easily translated between contexts (school, home, with peers, online) but through coaching and helping them to make these connections, adolescents can be use their strengths in different arenas to support their weaknesses.

Building ResilienceRick Hanson

Two conditions are important for any learning to occur:

  1. an activated state (we are good at this)
  2. Time for information to stabilize and take root. (This is very hard to do)

As teachers it is important to slow down from time to time in order to encourage and protect installation.

The brain has a negativity bias. When I heard this I realized I already knew this was true. For example, if I have a great day teaching and my students all were successful, then I am happy, but I don’t really think about it beyond that day. If I have a bad incident with a student or get a negative evaluation, it is all I can think about for weeks. The impact of the negative event is much more profound than the positive event. Think about how people developed surviving – if you failed at making a positive event, such as killing a rabbit for food, you  probably got to live another day whereas failing at a negative event – being chased by a lion, for example – your life ends. As a result, brains developed to scan for and focus on bad news & overreact to negative stimuli.

Here’s why this matters: Focusing on negative events increases stress. Prolonged exposure to stress negatively impacts our ability to learn, to think clearly and our physical health. It is critical for our health and growth as individuals and as a society that we sensitize ourselves to the positive and support this in our students: Here’s how –

  1. Notice when positive experiences are happening
  2. Help the experience last through thinking about the event, reflecting on its personal relevance, reliving its intensity in your mind, etc.
  3. Allow yourself to absorb its warmth
  4. Link it to any related negative experiences, while keeping the positive more prominent in your mind.

If as individuals and as a society we repeatedly internalize positive experiences then we will become harder to manipulate through fear, greed and consumerism.

Some related thoughts:

Educating Hearts & Minds – Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl

She opened with this video:

  • acts of kindness improve happiness
  • rewards decrease motivation for altruism (I read this once before.. I think it was in Drive)

Practical Interventions for students with AnxietyJessica Minahan

Anxiety is often misdiagnosed as ADHD.

Behavior is a symptom of a different problem:

  • it is a way of communicating.
  • it has a function.
  • it occurs in patterns.
  • it can be changed.
  • We can only control our own behaviors.

Stop for a second and re-read those. Think about your students. This is deep stuff.

Negative behavior results in more predictable responses than positive behavior. This is comforting particularly to students with anxiety.

An example: Swearing or annoying tapping or fighting will generate a predictable response in 2-4 seconds. Doing the expected work may or may not come with some brief audible feedback from a teacher. Maybe a “nice” or a “good job” or no response at all. Students with anxiety like & seek predictability.

As teachers we need to make positive attention just as predictable, efficient, obvious and dramatic. Some students prefer private praise and it  is important that we as teachers understand and value this. we can also teach students how to wait by giving them strategies such as coloring or doodling.

Triggers for students with anxiety: (be prepared with a plan)

  • unstructured time
  • transitions
  • writing tasks
  • social demands
  • unexpected change

Support students at these times by making it predictable. This is a great reason to have a Warm up Routine. If you notice a student who finished their work sitting anxiously, make them busy ask them to help clean up, sharpen pencils, push in chairs…

Students with anxiety struggle with:

  • self regulating
  • positive thinking and stopping negative thoughts
  • social skills
  • executive functioning
  • Flexible thinking

Anxiety and homework: It is helpful to have homework include a preview or preteaching of the content  because student anxiety (and related behaviors) is reduced if they know what to expect next class.

Teaching executive functioning skills and growth mindset helps students learn to self monitor and identify their areas of stress. Help students build skills in order to manage behavior. ASCD article

Building ResilienceKen Ginsburg

“Stop looking at the child in front of you and start looking at the 35 year old that you are growing.”

  1. people matter
  2. young people need to feel valued
  3. young people are watching adults

Nothing discourages mastery more than an adult who steps in and says: “Let me do that for you.”

Resilience is a mindset.

Young people are most resilient if they know that adults genuinely believe in them, know them and have high expectations for them – but it has to be genuine.

Adverse childhood experiences (abuse, neglect, racism, violence) increase cortisol in their bodies which over prolonged periods increases likelihood to develop addictions, health problems, learning challenges.


If a child had adverse experiences, but there is a loving & caring adult in their lives, the adult protects the child’s from developing hyper cortisol affects.

Developing Resilience


Find competences and build confidence.

Adolescents who abuse substances are trying to become numb. This is because they are SENSITIVE PEOPLE.

Talk through what if’s when a child makes a bad decision. Allow them to conclude for themselves the best path to happiness.

Distinguish real problems from fake problems: Recognize when bad things are temporary and when good things are permanent.

General Themes

  • Be patient, kind, empathetic, accepting, tolerant and compassionate with everyone.
  • Promote kindness & teach empathy basic human needs
  • Students will learn more if they feel valued
  • Support student development of executive functioning skills through a comprehensive school-wide plan including daily coaching, goal setting & reflection.pft-0330

What ideas in these notes stand out to you?

How do you address them with your students?