Steve Wilkinson (“Wilk”) has dedicated his life to teaching – and modeling – the art of focusing on what one can control (such as mindset) as opposed to what one cannot control (such as circumstances). While Wilk – professor, Hall of Fame tennis coach, author and friend – has chosen the venue of tennis to teach mindsets of effort, attitude and respect, his teachings apply in any circumstance. These principles, which my teammates an I were exposed to during college years, continue to profoundly impact my thinking as an educator and parent.
As parents send kids back-to-school, and teachers welcome students into their classrooms, there is naturally a lot of emphasis on logistics – school supplies, devices, passwords, locker combinations, and schedules. This blog offers tips to also equip young people with mindsets – such as those emphasized by Wilk – as they head off to school:
Full effort: striving for excellence through daily discipline
Positive attitude: choosing to be positive in every situation (half-full instead of half-empty)
Respect for self and others: treating others the way we want to be treated (Wilk stresses sportsmanship)
It sounds pretty simple – let go of things you can’t control, focus on things you can. Try hard, stay upbeat, and be nice.
Living out this approach personally on a daily basis is challenging – at least for me. Fostering these dispositions in our own children is even more challenging. During this back-to-school season, I’m working on reinforcing these mindsets – as a parent – within an education context (and while this particular piece focuses on the parent perspective, these ideas can also be used in the classroom). When it comes down to it, it’s really training kids how to think about learning and themselves. What follows are are some ideas that apply them within the context of school:
Effort. Full effort is at the heart of Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, encouraging people to “believe that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.”
- Say things like, “Give it your best” or “this may take a few tries.”
- Ask “What was something you did today where you felt proud of how hard you tried?”
- Use digital tools to maximize productivity and build ownership in learning.
- Reinforce effort and process (not just outcomes) — “I noticed you’ve been preparing for that presentation for 3 nights and I bet you feel ready. Not sure what your grade will be but I know you’ve worked hard at it.”
- Leverage the fun built-in to apps that use gaming to motivate learning.
- Recognize and build upon strengths. When kids are affirmed for what they CAN do them it can help when they face something more challenging.
- Set students up for success with a regular time and place to do homework.
- Likewise, establish guidelines for technology use. Use your phone to find information, not to socially text during homework time.
- Make it easy to work hard – make sure they have tools to succeed. Digital tools are awesome and so are simple supplies. I have a friend who “decorates” her front hall table with a candy jar full of Post-it Notes, colorful flash cards, highlighters, device chargers, and other supplies – all are welcome to grab and use.
Attitude. Positive attitudes toward learning, toward themselves, and toward others all matter. As Wilk says, “[It] starts with attitude. No matter what the circumstance may be, we have the choice to be positive. Once our attitude is set, we position ourselves to give full effort in a positive direction.”
- Encourage students to think of new year as a fresh start.
- Replace “What did you do at school?” with, “What were two positive things that happened today?”
- Post quotes connecting attitude and learning,“Having a positive mental attitude is asking how something can be done instead of saying it can’t be done.” (Bo Bennett)
- Then, encourage them to use technology, ideas and experiments to figure out how something can be done.
- Recognize positive attitude, Use words like grit and perseverance (see more from Duckworth and Tough).
- Unlock the benefits of a good attitude by showing gratitude and thanking your children. Send a positive text.
- Model an attitude of a love for learning. Let your kids see you enjoy reading.
- Say “I appreciate your good attitude” instead of just “good job.”
- Rest is key to attitude. Ensure everyone gets an appropriate amount of sleep each night.
- Ask “what can this become?” instead of “will it always be this way?” A good attitude sees possibilities.
Respect. Treating others and oneself with respect changes communities and improves learning.
- Encourage students to look each teacher in the eye and shake hands.
- Be kind to others – be the first to reach out to new kids, include others.
- Find the good in everyone you meet.
- Think of how attitude influences respect. According to Clay Christensen, “If your attitude is such that you can only learn from some people, your learning opportunities will be very limited. But if you have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody, your learning opportunities will be unlimited.”
- Use names like “scholar,” “student,” “learner” as you talk with your child. Have fun with it “Scholar Simon…”
- Give your children/students your undivided attention – spend time with them and be there.
- Celebrate each others’ accomplishments in simple ways (special treat, acknowledgement).
Some of these tips may not seem all that new – for example, setting a time and place for homework. But when such practices are coupled with a statement such as, “We want you to have the best chance to succeed with the effort you are putting in…,” the growth mindset is reinforced.
Further, It is fun when our kids show full effort and “succeed” – get picked for the right team, land a role in the play. It’s easy to feel proud and praise what they did along the way. It’s more challenging – but even more important – to emphasize things like effort and attitude when things don’t go their way: when a test is failed, a concept not understood, a shot missed, an injury occurs, a learning disability is diagnosed, or a strained relationship with a friend. While those may not be things commonly posted on Facebook, they are part of life and are perfect opportunities to practice these mindsets.
A great acronym to remember these is “EAR” for “Effort-Attitude-Respect” Just like a third base coach might tug on the ear to have a runner steal home, parents can tug on their ears as a friendly reminder. Or, switch it up and go with “ARE” and ask “How ARE you choosing to live today?”
As I think of all the things we expect of ourselves as parents, especially as it relates to education – making and supporting the best possible decisions about where to go to school, monitoring daily homework, creating experiences to raise “well-rounded” individuals, and more – it can feel daunting. However, by focusing first and foremost on the things we can control, it helps keep life in context.
Steve Wilkinson has emphasized these mindsets throughout his life. He has had a new context in which to practice them as he lives with cancer. Wilk is on year 6 of living with cancer that was predicted to take his life 5 years ago. If he can choose to focus on these mindsets during this endeavor, we can all focus on them during our daily challenges.
Mary is a Getting Smart Director of Strategic Design.