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January 28, 2021

Mindset Coaching for Mental Health

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Improving mindsets related to classroom settings plays a role in overall well-being.

LeadershipSocial-emotional learning
As a beginning teacher, I thought that students should automatically respect me because of my positional authority. When my middle-schoolers did not immediately do as I asked, I was shocked. From threats to totally giving up on a lesson, my range of behaviors led to me create an unsafe environment for students. I was also at the end of my rope when it came to my own mental health. I was lonely, distracted, sad, scared, and felt completely disempowered. Moreover, I did not think therapy was accessible to me and was scared to go.
But it was clear that I was not going to get out of my personal despair without help. I was fortunate to have a teacher friend who saw what I was going through and held the mirror up. After many tearful, wine-fueled nights, she said, "You can't just assume that students will respect you. You have to earn it." Eventually, these conversations changed my thought patterns and helped me make strides in addressing my mental health.
It is no secret that how a person thinks through her situation affects her attitudes and behaviors. These thought patterns are commonly referred to as mindsets. A mindset is an entrenched way of thinking that drives behavior. A mindset is formed based on personal experiences, assumptions, biases, values, and environment. My mindset was that you always default to respecting authority. However, this assumption is what led to me feeling completely helpless about how to change my situation.
Anyone that has been to therapy knows that therapists are good at unpacking your beliefs, ideas, and emotions, but they often do not know about the challenges of teaching. As leaders, we need to be able to identify when a mindset is negatively influencing a teacher's performance or well-being. In the wake of civil unrest, uncertainty, a global pandemic, and political divides, we need an intense focus on mindsets to foster resilient, anti-racist educators who can persevere with their mental health intact. Mindset coaching doesn't replace therapy and other important supports for personal mental health; rather, it is one component of improving mindsets related to classroom settings, which plays a role in overall well-being.

Identifying the Need for Mindset Coaching (and Intervention)

Over the past decade, I have worked with hundreds of beginning teachers and studied specific coaching methods for shifting instructional practice (Lein, 2017). Early on, I noticed patterns of behavior with teachers who were struggling to make positive change in the classroom. From total defeat to angry outbursts, the behavior of teachers is often a cry for help and a sign that something deeper is going on with them.
My team and I developed a mindset coaching framework and have trained coaches throughout Oklahoma. To spot evidence of a disempowered mindset, and thus potential challenges with mental health, look for these profiles and the corresponding coach responses:

Mindset Coaching for Mental Health-table

Detachment

Surrender

Overcompensation

ThemeDelusion, lack of emotion, apathy, "I can do it myself"Hopelessness, absolution of responsibility, blame, defeatDefensiveness, blaming others, unwillingness to change behavior
Thrives OnSilence, other detachers, solutions orientationCommiseration, too much empathyPraise and/or confrontation, excuses
NeedsAcknowledgement of discomfort, transparency, empathy, a fine line between no-nonsense and nurturer, recognition that emotion is okay and normalValidation of presenting emotions; directive, no-nonsense observation of surrendered behaviorEmpathy, safety to admit failures, more nurture less no-nonsense
Corresponding Coach Behavior"More Nurturing, Reflective (Feel your feelings. Move on.)""More No-Nonsense, Direct (Get it together. Buck up.)""A Combination of Nurturing and No-Nonsense (I see your efforts. Now put your efforts here.)"

For example, take the single disempowered mindset of "Students should respect me." Though we may have grown up believing in this passive mindset, it does not empower us to take action. This mindset can result in different manifestations of behavior for a teacher, including:
  • Detachment: When a student is misbehaving or not meeting expectations, the teacher may simply glance at a student, but not say anything. Coaching Response: "You noticed the misbehavior but didn't address it. What is giving you pause when you need to redirect a student?"
  • Surrender: If the classroom is out of control or only a few minor misbehaviors are disrupting the class, the teacher may go to their desk, tell students to put their heads down, or leave the classroom entirely. Coaching Response: "What are you thinking about? How do you feel when kids don't listen to you?"
  • Overcompensation: The teacher may yell at a student for their disrespectful behavior to "get through to the student." Coaching Response: "I noticed this happened in the classroom. Tell me what was going on for you that caused this to happen."
The more empowered mindset is "I need to earn my students' respect." This approach is consistent with self-determination theory, which is based on the proposition that humans must have agency to feel motivated to persist (Deci & Ryan, 2002). With this mindset, teachers have agency, control, and concrete moves that they can take. With a coach's help, the teacher can learn new practices to maintain emotional constancy and create a safe and respectful environment for students (Lemov, 2010).
Disempowering mindsets are not limited to classroom management. Now more than ever, educators are feeling alone, confined, and confused. Recently, I noticed one of my teachers stopped lesson planning entirely. She would show up to class (with a mask on, of course), flip open her teacher's guide, and read straight from the book. When probed, she revealed her own mindset, "I can't expect students to achieve because they have so many challenges. What's the point?" In addition to mindset coaching, this teacher required therapy. After months of revealing to her that her kids can achieve despite the challenges they are facing, she returned to regularly lesson planning. We now celebrate student progress each week.
Mindsets shift often and require regular maintenance and assistance. I brush my teeth every day, but occasionally I get a poppyseed stuck in my teeth. Sometimes I need someone to tell me that the poppyseed is there. The same is true with teaching. Teachers need the tools to manage their shifting mindsets and support from coaches to maintain them.

Coaching Methodologies and Philosophies

According to Jim Knight (2018), there are three main types of instructional coaching styles: facilitative, dialogical, and directive. Regardless of one's specific coaching style, all coaches need the skills to shift mindsets. But mindset coaching does not happen overnight. It is an ongoing process that requires exposing and exploring the mindset directly or engineering experiences to confront that mindset.

Method 1: Mindset – Change

The coach and teacher directly address the mindset(s) in order to drive changes in behavior. There are three main ways to do this:
  • Telling: Coach explicitly names the mindset that is driving teacher behavior (i.e. "Your thinking might be off here, and I want to challenge your thinking.").
  • Probing: Coach asks a set of questions that allows the teacher to understand the underlying mindset driving behavior (i.e. "Why is that challenging for you? What is underneath that?").
  • Discovering: Coach describes specific classroom-based evidence and opens the teacher up to notice patterns (i.e. "Here are some data that I collected in the classroom. What is coming up for you as you review this evidence?").
After these conversations, the coach and the teacher identify a specific action step that will allow the teacher to test her new thought pattern in the classroom. This method is powerful because it allows the mindset to become the central focus of a coaching event. The change in thought pattern will ultimately empower the teacher outside of the coaching experience, supporting teacher mental health and agency.
For example, over the past several years, I noticed a pattern with a lot of beginning teachers called consequence avoidance, which manifests itself as teachers asking rhetorical questions, threatening students, or getting to the end of their rope. There are several mindsets that could be driving this behavior, from "I don't want to be mean" to "They should just do what I ask the first time."
This year, I had a teacher who was not giving any consequences to students even though she had a clear system and many reasons to give consequences. I created a seating chart to gather evidence about this consequence avoiding behavior—tallies next to student names of either a redirect (i.e. "cut it out") or rhetorical question (i.e. "what should you be doing right now?"). I presented the data to her and asked, "What does this tell you?" She revealed her desire for her students to like her and her fear in harming relationships if she gave consequences. "Why does that scare you?" I asked. Through tears, she revealed factors that influenced this thinking, from "I am so lonely" to "I feel like it will get out of control."
I challenged the mindset directly, saying, "Giving students consistent and fair consequences actually creates a sense of safety and trust. You will strengthen your relationships and make the classroom even more controlled." Then, she practiced delivering the consequence in a role play. "How did that feel?" I asked. "Empowering," she said.
As educators, it is easy to get stuck in our heads, create assumptions, and accept patterns as truths. We all carry mindsets and burdens. As our environments and situations change, we all need someone to ask you, "Why are you scared?" and hold the mirror up.

Method 2: Change – Mindset

The coach creates experiences that challenge teachers' mindsets. There are two main ways to do this:
  • Mastery Experiences: The coach asks the teacher to practice a set of instructional strategies either in the classroom or in a coaching session to build skill and reflect on the thoughts and feelings during the practice.
  • Assumption Tests: The coach asks the teacher to create a scenario to test assumptions about students or instructional practices and then debriefs on how it went.
This method makes the instructional practice the central focus. Teachers practice the identified action step first and then explore related mindsets. This fosters talent (i.e. Coyle, 2010; Joyce & Showers, 2002). As Kathryn Kee (2010) states, "the act of having moments of insight and epiphany give off the kind of energy needed for people to become motivated and willing to take action" (p. 16). To create these insights, coaches must have teachers practice the action step and then have deeper conversations about the underlying reasons behind the teacher's natural tendencies.
For the same behavior around consequence avoidance,  I could set up an "assumption test" and ask the teacher to list her assumptions about what would happen if she consistently gave consequences (Kegan, & Lahey, 2009). These assumptions may include "My students will hate me" or "They will lash out at me." Then, we would outline what we would see in the classroom if those assumptions were true. Once we have reached an agreement and practiced the specific change, we would take it ‘live" (Bambrick-Santoyo, 2016). I would then gather evidence about the assumptions through observational evidence and interviews with students (i.e. "What did you think when she gave you that consequence?"). After teaching, we would review the evidence and unpack the assumptions versus the reality.
This example highlights the importance of having someone that can help directly attack thinking patterns to shift behavior. Kegan and Lahey, the authors of Immunity to Change (2009), describe the importance of exploring assumptions and mental models to change behavior. Their 'immunity to change' dynamic "actively (and brilliantly) prevents us from changing because of its devotion to preserving our existing way of making meaning" (Kegan & Lahey, 2009). The coach can make lasting change by helping the teacher shift their way of thinking and attack assumptions they use for self-preservation.

Healthier Mindsets

In the classroom, teachers often become defeated, overwhelmed, angry, or fearful. It is the responsibility of leaders, specifically instructional coaches, to intervene while working together to develop concrete skills that will positively affect student learning. If we want to improve educators' mental health, we must shift mindsets from being disempowered to empowered. This gives teachers agency to take control of their situation, change their practice, and ultimately, persevere in their work.
References

Coyle, D. (2010). The talent code greatness isnt born. Its grown. London: Arrow.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2002). Handbook of self-determination research. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.

Joyce, B. R., & Showers, B. (2002). Student achievement through staff development. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Kegan, R., & Lahey, L. L. (2009). Immunity to change: how to overcome it and unlock potential in yourself and your organization. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press.

Kee, K. (2010). Results coaching: the new essential for school leaders. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Knight, J. (2018). The impact cycle: What instructional coaches should do to foster powerful improvements in teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, A Sage Company.

Lein, J. (2017). Building teacher competence through modeling and practice in an instructional coaching session (dissertation). Retrieved from https://shareok.org/handle/11244/52421

Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion: grades K–12. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Inc Pub.

Jo Lein is an author, consultant, and professor of education at Johns Hopkins University. She is the founder of the Teaching & Leading Initiative of Oklahoma, a nonprofit organization that brings instructional coaching to under-resourced districts and trains existing leaders in areas of instructional leadership. She is also currently the co-chair on the Commission for Oklahoma’s Office of Educational Quality and Accountability.

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