How to Identify and Improve Student Mindsets: Stories from a Title I High School

April 26, 2018

All students face barriers and challenges when it comes to being adequately prepared for college! For counselors and teachers serving students in Title I schools, however, there can be unique challenges that require a broader set of mindsets and solutions.



Working in a Title I school, our staff faces many of the common challenges of public schools: understaffing, poverty, and lack of resources. Students can take issues from home to the classroom - including being properly nourished, getting enough sleep, and having a quiet and safe place to study.


Teachers and staff at our school work diligently to provide support and maintain strong relationships with students and families in our community. Just as important as being empathetic, however, is to hold high expectations - not only for our students, but also for ourselves - to equip students with every opportunity to succeed


A conscious, mindful strategic approach has been key for relationships to help students succeed. When issues arise. I follow three steps: first, as an educator I try to identify the specific behavior and observe what is happening. Second, I attempt to identify the true or real root cause behind a behavior or situation. Finally, I work with our team to intervene early and often to help individual students and also change practice in order to help more students in the future.


Identifying and Addressing Student Fatigue


It is not uncommon for students in my school to be found with their heads on their desks sleeping. At first sight this might seem like the student is disinterested in what the teacher is teaching. In Title I schools, students suffer disproportionately from childhood trauma and trauma in general. Trauma can come in many forms - verbal abuse, physical abuse, loss of someone close. 


On more than one occasion this has happened in my classroom. One of the most effective ways to address this is to begin a conversation with the student as to the root cause of why they are sleeping in class. Patience is important because students who suffer from trauma also have issues with trusting others. In order to supply the support that students need, one needs to get a better understanding of what is driving that behavior. 


Start with building rapport with the student to develop a relationship. It could start with asking them why they are tired. In my case a student was sleeping in class because her sister’s baby was staying at the house and she was tasked with the care of the baby. Further, her parents would argue late into the night.


If one can get the student to talk about what is causing the issue of sleeping in class, it becomes easier to build a relationship that will set the foundation for helping the student. 


As one works through this process, it is crucial to keep in mind that a student sleeping, in all likelihood, is not being deviant but is having troubles processing their emotions. Helping them work through that will aid in getting them more involved in school.


When Students Miss Deadlines, are Underprepared, or “Don’t Take Seriously” Test Dates


Sometimes, students can walk into the classroom on the day of the big test without being adequately prepared for the test. In some cases, they might be hearing about the test for the first time. In others, they might crack a joke, take a nap, or skip questions. This can be frustrating for teachers and schools who have spent a lot of effort reminding, nudging, and otherwise trying to help students be prepared for milestones in the college application process.


This often occurs out of the fear of failure. Too often students in Title I schools feel as though they are defined by “being a failure”. The result of this leads a student seeing him or herself that way, setting them up for current and future struggles. Helping students understand that much of success, both academically and professionally, comes from putting in hard work. 


For students who are viewed and view themselves in this way, getting frustrated with them being “under-prepared” for a test or project misses the root of the problem - fear of failure. Often students will disengage from work, thus making them ill-informed, because, in their eye, it is better to fail not trying then to fail trying. 


One must work to help this type of student see that a change in approach will help mitigate this helpless feeling of failure. Begin to help equip students with the tools to navigate the process through hard work and then praise that process. This is a long game and results will take time but once a student sees that failure is just starting point to learning instead of an end point defining them, she will begin to feel the intrinsic benefit of working hard through the learning process. For information regarding promoting this type of mindset in students, read Carol Dweck’s book Mindsets.



Addressing Classroom Outbursts Via Social-Emotional Needs


For those of us who have worked in a Title I school, we have all had a student dig in their heels regarding following one classroom expectation or the other. Here is the scene - Teacher asks student to do X, student doesn’t want to do X. They go back and forth, the student is sent out for insubordination, and given an in-school suspension.


The root cause for this behavior likely this lies in the fact that students can often come from neighborhoods and homes where they feel they don’t hold any power or control. The response is often trying to find power where they can - standing up to a teacher can give a false sense of power. 


But in the end, this can stunt the growth of a relationship. Subsequently, the “disciplinary action” can inadvertently remove them from the classroom, hurts the student’s ability to learn and gain the skills necessary to be successful. This scenario is driven by a compliance culture and “no tolerance” attitude still pervasive in schools. 


A different approach starts with recognizing a student’s will for control and providing an opportunity to support that. A student who is fighting for control doesn’t necessarily understand how to be accountable for their actions. In order for a student to improve, he needs to be aware of how his actions are affecting him and others. 


Ask the student if the there is some in the building that the he trusts and feels safe speaking to. Borrowing from the idea of restorative justice, one can use a student/mentor situation to have a restorative conversation. Such as, how is he viewed by others, grades, confidence, etc.? 


The nature of the restorative conversation is to provide a safe place where everyone has a voice, including the student. It is not a punishment and so the conversation should not be punitive but reflective. It is also not a one off.


Depending on the student, restorative conversations should occur on weekly basis at the start and then, based on the student’s growth, this can be paired back over time.




These methods have proven to be helpful for me. When taking these approaches you will run into walls and hurdles. The underlying key is to be consistent and take each students case with the understanding they are unique individuals so adjust each approach to fit the needs of the particular student.

Do you work in a Title I school or face similar challenges in motivation, behavior, and information?


What are your thoughts or approaches you use?

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