Over Half of all Teachers Make These 2 Mistakes.

Brain based teacherWe could focus on all the “holiday” stuff (like how to help you “navigate the holidays without adding inches to your figure”), but it’s the school year and we turn to how to affect one of the “Big Four.”

The first mistake (over 50% of all teachers make) is selling yourself short. You have far more influence than you think. The “Big Four” in teaching are: effort, behavior, cognitive capacity and attitude. When you strengthen these four, your students improve dramatically. The good news is that every one of these is teachable.

I’ll illuminate just one way you can influence a student’s attitude. The second mistake (over 50% of all teachers make) is to talk about a student’s “attitude” as if it was a fixed entity. Attitude is NOT fixed. In fact, new research shows how much teachers can influence a student’s attitude. For example…

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The Research

The Malleability of the Brain and Attitude

First, we start with a core driver of student achievement: student attitudes. Yes, I said it. Students do influence how they’ll do by their thinking, analysis, beliefs and predictions of how they will do in your class. Their predicted performance goal is critical. The goal is represented in the visual, auditory, and sometimes tactile area of his or her brain. The prefrontal cortex creates and holds these representations based on experiential input (Yamagata T, Nakayama Y, Tanji J, Hoshi E. (2012).

The relevance is that these “goal representations” are NOT FIXED, but instead can be “molded” by purposeful teaching. In fact, the simple act, by the kids, of making predictions based on their assessment of their chances for doing well is a top 5 predictor of how students do in school (Hattie, 2009). That sounds like bad news. But it’s not bad; you can influence that factor. We’ll show you how to do it in a moment.

Here, we’ll investigate three ways you can influence student attitudes. Each has a strong research backing. Let’s get started.

First, you can influence students expectations and predictions of how they’ll do in your class. Teachers can either 1) offer choice such as asking students to “strive to do your best” or “face your challenges” or, 2) simply set high, challenging goals. Which one would you predict increases student achievement? We’ll tell you in a moment.

Second, you can influence student attitudes by stopping the “comfort talks.” Evidence shows that teachers should NEVER console underperformers by saying any of the following:

  1. “Bless your heart.”
  2. “Plenty of people have trouble with this.”
  3. “You have other strengths.”
  4. “Not everyone is cut out to pursue a career in this field.”

Why? “Comforting comments” are a strong demotivator of excellence (Rattan, A. Good, C. and Dweck, C., (2012). How? Each of the phrases above conveys to the student that they are not “cut out” to achieve high in a particular topic. The second that you lower their sights, they change their prediction of how they’ll do. Their brain simply alters their “goal representation” and the student then focuses on a new, more modest, goal. And, as you recall from earlier, the student’s prediction is a strong indicator of how they achieve. This suggests that you should RAISE the bar, not lower it.

Finally, stop labeling students as either bright, smart or a genius. In fact, NOT labeling students is a strong factor in improving student achievement (Hattie, JA, 2009). Many students are not even remotely in those elite categories. Don’t lie to them. What’s much more important is what you do tell them. Our third way you can raise student attitudes is by using the “Big 3” modifiers of strategy, effort and attitude (S-E-A). These contribute to the more generalized attitude (vs. narrow, specific attitudes). Students who are told they can improve in school, not because they’re smart but because they can alter their strategies, effort or attitudes, will do better. Those contribute to the “growth mindset” championed by Carol Dweck (Blackwell LS, Trzesniewski KH, Dweck CS., 2007).

Now, let’s turn to the practical world of how to apply these in your work (or at home with your own children, nephews, nieces or grandchildren.)

Practical Applications

Here, I’ll show you three simple ways to apply what we learned about student attitudes and how to influence them.

1. GOAL-SETTING. Research tells us DO NOT LET students set personal goals to “strive to do my best” or “face my challenges.” This lowers expectations.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Set high, challenging goals. If students do not think that they can reach them, start by 1) telling them their brain can grow and change, 2) telling them HOW they’ll be able to reach the goals, 3) reassuring them that you will not let them fail; be a support for them, and 4) allowing students to set micro goals; such as for a single class. In short, stop selling yourself short. Stand up, be bold and tell students that you’re the bus driver and everyone should jump on board, because you’re driving to “success.”

2. COMFORT WORDS. Research says, DO NOT COMFORT struggling learners with phrases such as, “Bless your heart; at least you’re trying.”

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Simply say to a struggling student the truth. Tell them they are behind a bit and that you’ll help out. Say, “It looks as if you were not prepared last year as much as I’d like for this class this year. But I’ve got a plan. Let’s get you caught up so you can succeed. Stick with me; I’ll help you make it this time.”

3. LABELS. First, STOP LABELLING kids as “smart” or “brilliant” or a “genius.” Stop labeling kids as “slow” or “always behind” or “unmotivated.” These can easily become self-fulfilling prophesies. Each of these words alter the students predictions of how they’ll do or hurts their self esteem. If you always tell a kid how smart he/she is, they are in for a rude awakening when they find out that: 1) they actually have to study to get good grades, 2) other kids are also pretty smart, and 3) somebody lied to him/her!

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: Start affirming the “Big 3.” You can raise student attitudes by using the “Big 3” modifiers of strategy, effort and attitude (S-E-A). Here are 3 examples, using the “S-E-A” acronym:

“I loved how you kept trying so many strategies on that problem until you got it.” (strategy reinforced)

“I like that you refused to give up, even when it took a lot longer than expected. That extra effort will help you succeed again and again.” (effort reinforced)

“Before you began, you thought you could succeed. I think that positive attitude helped you come through.” (attitude reinforced)

So let’s summarize what we have so far in a few “bullet points.”

* Most teachers make mistakes in how they deal with student attitudes
* Attitudes matter in that they are a contributing factor for student achievement
* Better attitudes can be taught (if you know how)

Now, how about if you share a few of these strategies with your fellow staff members? That would be a great present for the holidays!

Your partner in learning,

Eric Jensen

Eric Jensen
CEO, Jensen Learning
Brain-Based Education



Blackwell LS, Trzesniewski KH, Dweck CS. (2007) Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: a longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Dev. Jan-Feb;78(1):246-63. Hattie, JA (2009) Visible Learning. London, UK. Routledge.

Rattan, A. Good, C. and Dweck, C., (2012) Not Everyone Can Be Good at Math. Unpublished (in review). Contact: e-mail: arattan@stanford.edu.

Yamagata T, Nakayama Y, Tanji J, Hoshi E. (2012) Distinct information representation and processing for goal-directed behavior in the dorsolateral and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the dorsal premotor cortex. J Neurosci. Sep 12;32(37):12934-49.

1 reply
  1. Chad
    Chad says:

    The fact that socioeconomic stauts effects the brain in a multitude of ways is a clear indication that we as educators need to rethink and reinvent our curriculum in terms of delivery and content. I found it interesting that the content really has not changed in many years, but not surprised. Today’s student is much different than those of previous generations and needs to be cared for in new ways. We now realize that one out of every five students live in poverty, which has a profound impact upon their learning. While reviewing the information provided in our learning session, I tried to think of students whom are in this category and the impact that it has on their success. In our online setting, it is very difficult to gauge whether or not our students are suffering from a difficult and unpredictable home life and if they are, how that stress negatively impacts their brain. The thought that these students do not focus on their future, but only day to day living is very disturbing to me. It is no wonder that these students living in impoverished conditions are stressed beyond belief and basically shut down.References:Born, C. (2011). Understanding poverty. PPT., Franciscan University of Steubenville, OHJensen, Dr. Eric. How does poverty change the brain . Web. Retrieved from

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