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Words Change Your Child’s Body

As educators, we spend significant time talking about how “mindset” is important in education. This has always been en vogue in our field; attitude matters! Growth mindset! Grit! We are taught to not allow students to give up, to become comfortable with failure. Teacher education programs have always reveled in this kind of theory. There is no dearth of books, articles, speakers and workshops on mindset. In fact, just this morning, I coincidentally had an “Importance of Growth Mindset” email in my inbox.

Is it really all that important? Many Growth Mindset studies produced fairly feeble results. Educational research has a tendency to focus on qualitative factors, use small sample sizes, and rely upon self-reporting. Studies from the “soft” sciences have increasingly been under scrutiny, and Growth Mindset has been no exception. Even the great education researcher, John Hattie, found a very weak link between Growth Mindset and academic outcomes.

Now, stop and try to remember sitting at a desk before a test. Do you remember being stressed? Sweaty hands and anxiety? Losing sleep the night before? Many studies have shown how anxiety and a negative outlook can physically destroy a body (see studies here, here, and here). Studies about stress abound and nary a week goes by with yet another study correlating the negative mental states and life outcomes.

Thus, I was pleased to find an unusual study this weekend that shines the spotlight on the connection between mindset and positive physical outcomes. In 2007, a group of researchers at Harvard took a group of hotel maids, women with very physical jobs, and questioned them about exercise. Almost all of them reported that they did not get enough exercise. Cleaning hotels is, of course, very physical work. Not surprisingly, their daily routine was analyzed and found equivalent to many a modern workout. The researchers sat down and explained this to ½ of the hotel workers. They were, in fact, getting more than enough exercise, and told so.

Miraculously, just knowing this had a physical effect: knowledge changed them. Biomarkers were taken at the start of the study, and then recorded again after 4 weeks. The group of maids that had been told they were getting enough exercise lost weight, reduced blood pressure, and reported less stress even though nothing had changed except their perception. You literally can improve things just by changing the way you think about it. So, maybe we shouldn’t yet throw out the idea of Growth Mindset, even if we don’t know yet how to effectively implement it. Positivity is powerful.

We have tremendous influence on the mental state of our charges. Students may remember a negative remark for years, or kind words for a lifetime. Words matter, and our mindset is changed by them. With IB examinations in full swing, I encourage you to think of your children as hotel maids. Help them see the good in their work, and they will reap the benefits.

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