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Helping mentors cultivate a growth mindset in the students they serve

For decades, MENTOR and City Year have been leaders in high-quality mentoring and youth development in hundreds of communities and schools across the country. Our experiences, as well as extensive research, have taught us that positive developmental relationships with caring adults are crucial to helping all students achieve at high levels. We know that mentoring relationships can be particularly powerful for the more than 16 million children living in poverty in the United States who experience prolonged stress and adversity that can impede their cognitive, emotional and social development. This is especially true for the millions of children who grow up in areas of concentrated poverty — neighborhoods where 40 percent or more of residents live below the federal poverty threshold — and attend schools facing a plethora of challenges.

There are many structural and systemic factors that place young people at greater risk for personal, educational and professional challenges, and working toward those solutions will require structural, systemic collaboration and change. It’s certainly not the work of one person. But as mentors, parents, educators and youth development professionals, we strive to identify ways that we can help the young people in our lives persist, thrive and strive in a world that is often unjust.

City Year, MENTOR and the growth mindset

One promising strategy comes from a concept called “growth mindset,” which was pioneered by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck. Growth mindset is the belief that intelligence is changeable instead of fixed and can be enhanced over time through hard work, effective strategies and input from others. When people possess a growth mindset, they are more persistent with their effort and are better equipped to respond positively to adversity in the learning process. Research has shown that a young person’s mindset influences a host of other behaviors and attitudes, and that having a growth mindset helps them retain confidence, perseverance and resilience and cultivate positive decisions, in addition to performing better in school.

City Year AmeriCorps member in school with students

These are some of the reasons why, as part of the U.S. Department of Education’s Mentoring Mindsets Initiative, MENTOR and City Year partnered with Stanford University’s Project for Education Research that Scales (PERTS) Lab (an applied research center that develops, tests and disseminates learning mindset resources), with support from the Raikes Foundation, to develop and pilot an accessible and easy-to-use Growth Mindset for Mentors Toolkit. City Year’s experiences as a first adopter will influence the development of tools that will be accessible to a myriad of mentoring programs and mentors.

In early 2016, City Year launched the toolkit with more than 200 City Year AmeriCorps members in Columbus, Ohio and Miami, Florida. Like all of City Year’s 3,000 highly trained young adult AmeriCorps members, they serve full-time in some of our nation’s highest need schools. They work side-by-side with teachers to deliver research-based, personalized, integrated academic and social-emotional supports to struggling students and provide whole-school supports that improve school culture and climate. They are tutors and serve as “near-peer” mentors – older than the students they assist, yet young enough to relate to the students’ perspectives.

These City Year AmeriCorps members piloted the toolkit’s tips and approaches as they worked with hundreds of elementary, middle and high school students in 23 schools in Columbus and Miami. They also participated in two surveys designed to help researchers at PERTS understand how mentors might be uniquely positioned to encourage growth mindsets in the students they serve, given their non-disciplinary role.

On February 25, officials from the U.S. Department of Education, Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement Nadya Chinoy Dabby, and Max Lubin, Strategic Advisor for the Office of Innovation and Improvement, visited Livingston Elementary School in Columbus and observed City Year AmeriCorps members working with students and engaging with the toolkit.

“Great inventors and educators know that struggling is an essential part of learning, growing, and ultimately succeeding,” said Assistant Deputy Secretary Dabby. “That’s why it was especially exciting to watch mentors work through the toolkit and better understand how they–and their students–can learn and grow from the challenges they’re facing.”

Feedback on the toolkit has been overwhelmingly positive, with 98 percent of City Year AmeriCorps members in Columbus and Miami agreeing or strongly agreeing that the toolkit is valuable to their role as mentors to struggling students.

The toolkit has enabled these mentors to cultivate their own growth mindset as well as learn how to nurture it in others. “I struggled with seeing failure as a tool for growth when I was a teenager,” said one City Year AmeriCorps member. The toolkit “helped me to recognize my own mindset. I think sharing my own experiences with failure and growth will help shape my students’ ideas about tackling challenges.”

We have also seen the toolkit help mentors cultivate resilience and persistence in their students, and to let go of the fear of failure in their learning process. City Year AmeriCorps members are saying to students: “I’m here to stretch you and challenge you in our time together. It’s okay to make mistakes; that’s how we learn together.” Several said that introducing the word “yet” helped frame positive exchanges with students who were struggling with a particular academic concept or problem such as: You haven’t mastered that yet, but what other strategies could you try to get a different result?

We are committed to this work and hope the Growth Mindset for Mentors Toolkit, which will be updated based on findings from this pilot, will be widely used and shared by mentoring programs, mentors and all caring adults who work with students.

We believe that applying a growth mindset to mentoring relationships can help student development in many ways: cognitively, by helping inform their decision-making process; socially and emotionally, by helping them manage and deal with emotions and conflict; and identity development, by modeling behaviors and showing students what they might be able to achieve in the future.

David Shapiro is President and CEO of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, which is dedicated to expanding the quality and quantity of youth mentoring relationships for the nation’s young people.

Jim Balfanz is CEO of City Year, an education nonprofit that leverages young adults in national service to help students and schools succeed.

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