One night, my wife and I had just sat down to dinner at a local restaurant when one of the waitresses came rushing over to our table. I recognized her immediately—she was a young woman who had been a resident of a group home that I used to run. She had been in her first or second year of high school when she joined the program and was struggling with behavioral and emotional issues, substance abuse and unresolved childhood trauma.
Over the course of her stay, she worked extremely hard to cope with her issues, reunite with her family and return to the community. I hadn't seen her for a few years, and when she recognized me in the restaurant, she updated me about her continued success. She'd graduated high school, was enrolled in college and was working to pay for school.
We had a great conversation, and I remember thinking about just how much adversity she had to overcome in order to get her life back on track.
I cherish that memory to this day—as I do all of the success stories I experienced.
Academic Success Doesn't Happen in a Vacuum
At MIND, we talk a lot about perseverance and growth mindset when it comes to problem-solving and mathematical success. The very first Standard for Mathematical Practice in the common core speaks of helping students be able to "make sense of problems and persevere in solving them."
But academic success doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and skills like perseverance and resilience affect much more than learning in school.
I spent the last 20+ years in human services, working in and then overseeing programs that served children and adolescents. In the early part of my career, I worked with teenagers at a stage in their lives where they needed residential treatment in order to deal with issues that stemmed from early childhood.
These kids lacked appropriate support during their youngest years, and many of them had not developed self-regulation and coping skills, or a sense of resiliency. In most cases, they struggled with academics and behavioral issues at school, which went hand-in-hand with their struggles at home and in the community. And unlike the young woman I spoke of earlier, many of those kids continued to struggle into their adult years.
While overseeing family child care programs, I saw first hand the impact positive adult interactions, as well as a strong educational foundation can have on the lives of young children.
For me, MIND’s mission to equip children to become the world’s problem solvers is a natural extension of the work I’ve been involved in my entire career. Because building perseverance, resilience and a growth mindset in students is not just crucial to their academic success, but to their social and emotional success as well.
Research on Social-Emotional Competence and Learning
The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines Social Emotional Learning (SEL) as "the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions."
A meta-analysis of 97,000 students published in July of 2017 found that students who had been exposed to SEL programs were an average of 13 percentiles higher in their academic performance than those who had not.
The Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP) has listed Social and Emotional Competence of Children as one of the five protective factors in their Strengthening Families model for reducing the risk of child abuse.
A 2016 study of Chinese primary and middle school students found that growth mindset is “positively associated with resilience, school engagement and psychological well-being.” A 2017 study explored whether growth mindsets about anxiety functioned in a similar way to those regarding intelligence, and found encouraging results.
Resilience, perseverance and a growth mindset are not just critical for students’ academic success, they are important for kids’ mental health.
As students learn to persevere through challenging problems, learn from their mistakes and believe in their own ability to achieve, they are also developing skills that will help them navigate the world outside of school.