Employability skills are a set of skills outside of technical or academic competencies that are desired by potential employers and considered imperative to being a successful employee and team member. This set of skills might include things like: communication, teamwork, initiative, problem solving, planning and organizing, self-management, and more. You may have heard them referred to as “soft-skills.”
Personally, I believe they are as important as anything else we teach, but I suppose that aligns with my chosen profession as a school social worker! In an effort to ensure these skills are integrated into academic settings, the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) has arranged these competencies into four categories: mindsets, work ethic, learning strategies, and social emotional learning.
The overall goal is to integrate the development of these standards into policies, procedures, and academic content. When woven through other content areas as well as policies and procedures, these skills can be developed and practiced in a way that allows them to become habits, even automatic behaviors. This embodiment of skills gives our students an advantage in the workforce compared to others who may be learning these skills later in life.
Throughout the year I will address each category in it’s own blog post. The first in this series will be mindsets! According to the IDOE, mindsets are an established set of attitudes impacting self-growth. They have broken these down further to include:
Life-long learning – demonstrate willingness to work and learn and continually apply new knowledge
Self-confidence – possess belief in own ability to succeed and assert self when necessary
Together, we will explore strategies to create conditions that support growth and simple but impactful implementation ideas for your classroom!
Creating the Conditions for a Growth Mindset
“It’s your attitude not your aptitude that determines your altitude” I can still hear my dad repeating these words with the magnanimous energy that drew people to him as a coach and leader. Struggling with classwork? Stay positive, be creative, find new ways to learn the content. Not the star athlete you hoped to be? Cheer on your team members and put more time in at the gym. Persevere, speak positively, remain open to learning from those around you and success will come. It’s interesting that my dad’s voice came to my mind as I sat down to write about mindsets. It’s also an important lesson for us as adults who influence so many young people. Our voice has the potential to become the voice in their heads. That is powerful and brings me to my first strategy.
It Starts with You
Teach, model, and practice. You might begin by bringing awareness to your own mindset! A person operating from a fixed mindset believes that the intelligence, talent and other qualities they possess are unchangeable. On the surface, we likely all immediately disagree that we operate from a fixed mindset but once I dug into some examples, I certainly noticed areas of improvement for myself and perhaps you will as well. As an awareness practice, consider the following questions:
When I receive feedback, do I more often feel it is criticism or an opportunity for growth? Can I differentiate the feedback I receive from others?
If I am not good at something, do I dismiss it as a personality flaw or believe that skill can change if I’m willing to engage in learning and practice? (example – I’m just bad at math, it’s not my thing!)
Do I compare myself to others and see their success as a threat?
When faced with obstacles, do I view them as part of the process?
Can I see the value in effort or do I only focus on the end result?
Contrary to a fixed mindset, a growth mindset places value on the process of learning, engagement, discipline, and practice. This mindset in individuals and organizations (classrooms, schools, companies) produces more collaboration, innovation, and empowerment! So, again, I encourage you to start with yourself! Practice using the language of a growth mindset that encourages lifelong learning and self-confidence and model the thought process in your classroom. That voice will become the voice in many of their heads even when they leave your classroom!
Beyond modeling, how do we create the conditions to support a learning environment that focuses on growth versus a fixed mindset? We can start with something as simple as visual prompts! I’ve seen many classrooms with phenomenal examples of growth versus fixed mindsets plastered on the walls. These models can assist us in modeling and encouraging self awareness in our students. Use these visual aids for check-ins throughout the day. Where are you now when you look at this brain? Are you open to new ideas and challenges or are you feeling closed off? Take it a step further by showing them how to move into a more open minded space with the use of deep breath and positive self-talk!
Challenge Automatic Negative Thoughts
Part of building self-confidence and seeing the value in effort, mistakes, and constructive feedback is acknowledging that our brain sometimes lies to us in an attempt to protect us! Our brains are wired with a negative bias and this can make developing a growth mindset difficult at times. While created to protect us, this negative bias may cause students to perceive environments, experiences, and relationships as unsafe when they are not. This is particularly true for people who have endured trauma.
We each have a unique neuroception, or neural process of evaluating risk without awareness. This system of identifying safety versus danger in our environment is often subconscious and relies on creating stories based on past experiences. A student with a history of neglect, trauma, or abuse may be unconsciously using those experiences to assess relationships, safety, and connection in your classroom. The good news is that each experience you give your student has the potential to change the way they perceive themselves and the world around them.
While it may be a complicated process, there are some surprisingly simple strategies that can help challenge the automatic negative thoughts in students’ brains and help them to begin seeking the positive when in a non-threatening environment. I will warn you that these may seem too simple to work, but I encourage you to try anyway! I’ve had great success using these strategies with my students, clients, and my own children.
Dr. Daniel Amen recommends bookending our day by intentionally seeking the positive. This can be done by beginning each day by saying aloud, “Today is going to be a great day!” At the start of class, give it a try! The kids lean into it much quicker than adults in my experience and after a few weeks, you’ll notice that it does give you a little extra pep in your step! It certainly doesn’t prevent us from difficult times but it does help us to build hope and train our brain to look for things that support that morning declaration!
Dr. Amen recommends ending each day reviewing the positive things that happened. In a classroom this could be done at the end of the school day with a simple prompt, “what went well today?” Take a few minutes to brainstorm as a class and write down what your students viewed as positive! Alternatively (or additionally), you can integrate a practice of gratitude into bell work or end of day procedures by asking students to write down three things they are grateful for each day. This practice has been shown to increase happiness, reduce stress, and even cause people to be nicer! I encourage you to give these bookend strategies a try for nine weeks and see what you notice!
While working on turning that negative brain bias into positive, it might also be beneficial to develop an understanding of cognitive distortions that come in the way of automatic thoughts and disrupt a journey towards a growth mindset. I highly recommend the book Captain Snout and the Super Power Questions: How to Calm Anxiety and Conquer Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) for this lesson! The characters in this book would make for great visual prompts as well!
Beyond simply seeking the positive, mindset is about reinforcing the value of effort, persistence, challenges and learning from mistakes. Facilitate lifelong love of learning by engaging in the process, meeting students where they are, focusing on the journey not the destination. A great strategy for recognizing and supporting these skills is to praise the process through “I noticed” statements. We want to acknowledge things we notice in terms of effort, strategy, and steps taken along the way that align with our end goals even when the outcome isn’t what we desired.
This is particularly helpful with students who have low confidence and/or disruptive behaviors. Lasting change comes at a much slower rate than we would like. When we acknowledge even the smallest wins, we increase self-confidence and motivation and encourage the sustainability of change. An example of this might be talking with a student who used language to express themselves when frustrated by simply saying, “I noticed you were able to tell me you were frustrated this time. That was really helpful for me.” If you see a student putting forth a lot of effort on an assignment, simply write on a post-it note, “I see how hard you are working!” and place it on their desk. These small gestures not only make students feel great about themselves, it helps them to connect positively to the process of learning and growth.
Giving and Receiving: Feedback Strategies and Practicing the Pause
Creating an environment where students can give and receive feedback in constructive ways is certainly a challenge. It can not occur productively without first spending time creating a safe and connected learning environment. Once you have attained this supportive culture in your classroom, I encourage you to discuss and create classroom norms and expectations around feedback. You might model approaching with feedback only when in a regulated brain state and even pausing the acceptance of feedback until you are regulated and ready to receive.
For example saying, “I want to hear what you have to say; however, I’m feeling defensive/self-conscious and need to ready myself. Can we talk in an hour?” Again, this is really tough stuff! Still, it is a priceless skill that increases growth mindset and open and respectful communication in beautiful ways! Learn more about how you might guide students to lead this process here. I found this feedback choice board to be extremely helpful!
In preparation for this blog, I spoke with some fifth grade students and asked them what teachers have done that have helped them develop a growth mindset. They were excited to answer and shared things like, “I never thought I was good at math and so I didn’t like it until 4th grade when Mr. D showed me that math was important for things like launching spaceships! That made it fun and then he broke everything down to make even hard math seem simple and fun. We ended up doing 6th grade math that year!” and, “Mrs. B always reminds us that if we don’t know something, it just means we don’t know it YET but we can learn it! That makes me feel excited to learn!” In summary, what I gathered from this group of ten and eleven year-olds was that they prospered in environments that were taught from a growth mindset through novelty, connection, encouragement, being met where they are, and watching their teachers share vulnerably about their own experiences.
Employability skills, soft skills, social emotional learning – whatever you call them, these skills are critical to academic achievement as well as personal growth. By integrating these ideas into your daily work, you are giving your students the gift of self-confidence and a lifetime love of learning. In my opinion, those are foundational skills to being a productive, joyful, and successful citizen of the world.
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