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growth mindset

Becoming Your Child’s Learning Coach

Blog Type:  Learning Date Posted:  Thursday, August 13, 2020

father and son doing homework

“Homework sucks!”

I am sure you have heard this before. So have I. I have heard it from students who would like to be doing anything other than more schoolwork. And I have heard it from parents who feel that homework is driving a wedge between them and their children. I hope to help you develop some strategies to structure at-home-learning time to keep emotions in check and to promote better learning. While parents can implement these strategies at any time, they are particularly useful when students are learning remotely with less structured learning time and without the close support of a teacher.

Provide Structure for Optimal Learning 

optimal learning graphic

Some learning tasks can be completed with relative ease because they are clear and engaging. Students say “Homework sucks!” when they are thrown out of the optimal learning zone and into the zones of boredom or frustration. 

Students become bored if tasks do not interest them or seem below their level. Even if too easy or uninteresting, the practice of learning is worthwhile. (Tip: If your student is bored, have them stand up to get a physiological boost to compensate for low demand on mental energy.)

Frustration Creates Avoidance Behavior

Frustration happens because, well, learning is hard work! It is hard mentally and emotionally. Students often become frustrated with tasks and develop the negative behavior of task avoidance. This is a regularly observed phenomenon and is studied by motivation theorists around the world. Being motivated to avoid difficult tasks is often thought of as procrastination or laziness, but it is actually a result of students not having a strong growth mindset to help them persist through difficulties or not having strong help-seeking abilities. In this post I want to focus on coaching students through their academic tasks so they achieve success through the use of strong learning habits that will provide greater confidence and fewer avoidance behaviors.

Planning Your Learning Time

Intentionally structured learning time is intended to keep the student in the optimal learning zone as much as possible. Establish set times for learning each day and make sure that you are available for some of the learning time to support your student with more difficult tasks. 

At the beginning of the learning time, take 15–25 minutes to make a plan for the learning session. 

Establish set times for learning each day and make sure that you are available for some of the learning time to support your student with more difficult tasks.

Students should work on the tasks that they are most interested in and are most competent with when you are the least available. More challenging tasks that cause the student frustration should be planned for a time when you are free to provide the patient guidance and support of a learning coach. In time, you can encourage your student to work on these more difficult tasks independently if you feel that they will be able to use metacognitive strategies to identify where they are having difficulties and then share those difficulties with you to debrief and receive guidance.

Creating the Learning Task List

  • List all learning tasks that must be completed during the learning session.
  • Put the tasks that the student feels most comfortable with at the top of the list. These are tasks that the student can do on their own without support. Acknowledge this independence to help boost their confidence and let them know you would be interested in seeing their completed work to celebrate their independent learning abilities.
  • List the tasks that are challenging for the student. These are tasks that the student needs support to accomplish. They need a task attack plan! Sometimes adequate support can be delivered in helping the student structure the task. Ask the student:
    • Do any of these tasks need to be broken down into smaller component parts? Writing down this plan of attack will help the student maintain effort and focus without escalating into frustration. For example, if a student is assigned an essay, have the student plan to spend 25 minutes on pre-writing with a graphic organizer, 40 minutes on writing the essay, and 10 minutes proofreading. For an elementary student, directions for completing an assignment can be confusing. Rewriting multi-step instructions as numbered bullet points can help students tackle each discrete task in the assignment.
    • Are there instructional resources from the teacher that might support you with this task? Teachers have often created or curated resources and shared them through the learning management system (like Google Classroom, Blackboard, Schoology, or Canvas) or as physical resources. Students may also have other resources that they are familiar with like Khan Academy, Study.com, and ReadWriteThink.
  • If the student is not aware of any resources or is still uncomfortable completing the task without support, let them know when you will be available for a set period of time to assist them. Write down the time that you will work on the activity together on the learning task list so no further mental or emotional energy is spent considering how and when that work will get done.

Task Management During Learning Sessions

To stay on task, we must help our students avoid distractions, keep their emotions in check, and not overburden them! Creating a learning environment free from distractions is hard, but by using a task management strategy you can use behavioral practice to keep distractions at bay while you are on task and then reward your student with a break to check social media, play a quick game with a younger sibling, or practice a new dance step. 

One way to track time-on-task and provide regular breaks is through the Pomodoro Method. This time- and attention-management strategy has the learner set a timer to self-monitor 25-minute work sessions followed by a 5-minute break. After completing four sessions successfully, the reward is a longer break. This provides a physical and mental break at regular intervals as well as a rewards structure—strategies supported by research for all students and particularly those who experience challenges in executive function, attention, and self-regulation.

Be More Than Their Learning Coach

I hope that these tips are helpful for you as you work to help your child with their learning, but remember that you are more than a learning coach. If you are working from home, try to make time to have lunch with your kids during a longer break. And if you do need to ask a question about learning, don’t ask them about their schoolwork…ask them how their learning methods are working. Revise until you have a plan that keeps them in the optimal learning zone.

About the Author

Michael Hildebrandt, Ph.D., is the founder of RenewED Learning–educational consultations and coaching. He teaches courses in special education and educational psychology at Gordon College and the University of New Hampshire and has over 15 years of experience providing educational support to students and families.

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Tags:  Executive Function growth mindset homework homework strategies metacognition pomodoro method remote learning

Fostering a Growth Mindset

Blog Type:  Learning Date Posted:  Friday, November 15, 2019

female Landmark Middle School student

By Adam Craig and
Kristine Burgess, contributor

“The greatest teacher, failure is.” (Yoda, The Last Jedi)

Wise words when developing skills to become a Jedi Knight, a successful high school student, or a master of virtually any skill in the universe. Unfortunately, it is much easier to smile and nod, while Yoda speaks the truth, than actually live out the painful, yet rewarding journey of trying something over and over again … refusing to give up or surrender … pressing forward with a “not yet” mentality.

Navigating math class is one of those journeys that can bring out the best and worst in all of us. Some love math’s structure and certainty: “Every problem has an answer.” Others have struggled to find that answer so many times, they categorize math as a chore to be avoided at all cost. However, math is not meant to be something that you are either good or bad at, finding answers that are either right or wrong. Math was invented to make sense of the world. It is a language that requires explicit instruction and strategic intervention.

In a Growth Mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.

In response to the cries of many students, claiming that they “are not good at math,” the Math Department where I teach adopted language and methodologies to foster a mindset of growth and perseverance. Carol Dweck, a leading researcher in the field of motivation and professor of psychology at Stanford University, coined the phrase, “Growth Mindset.” In a Growth Mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work. 

Dweck has brought attention to research that shows how our brains are like a muscle that needs to be pushed in order to develop. She also shed light on the fact that new neural pathways actually grow when we persevere through a difficult task and eventually “figure it out.”  Khan Academy has collaborated with Dweck to provide free resources to educators interested in promoting these concepts in their classrooms.

The Reading Department at my school also strategically promotes a Growth Mindset in their classes. Kristine Burgess, Reading Department head, described this process as follows:

For many of our students, reading class is an area of stress and anxiety—focusing attention on areas of challenge and deficit. The language of growth, the esteemed value of mistakes, and the constant reassurance that with every challenge new pathways form in the brain proved to be helpful for our students to think both abstractly and concretely about difficulty.

One student in a reading class heard this language being used and said, “Hold on! That’s what we talk about in math class. This isn’t math class!” And that’s where the rubber meets the road. The need to grow is not a math thing or a reading thing … it’s a life thing!

What can we do to help foster a growth mindset within our learning communities?

The biggest change that we, as adults, can make in this regard, whether at school or in our homes is modeling a growth mindset ourselves. So, we should push ourselves to try new things, make mistakes, normalize mistakes by laughing about them and/or reflecting aloud, and try again. One can’t get around the importance and power of showing students what this process looks like. It will be a struggle … and the struggle will “be real” … but it will also be REALLY worth it!

Free online resources:

About the Author

Adam Craig is head of the Math Department at Landmark High School, and Kristine Burgess is head of the Reading Department at Landmark High School.


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Tags:  Carol Dweck growth mindset
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