Are Your Students Life Ready?

Guest post by Akil E. Ross

As principal of Chapin High School (CHS) in South Carolina, I’m always trying to promote ways to make our students college and career ready. After all, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) calls for our students to meet higher academic standards and for us to help them find success beyond high school. But I often find myself wondering: Does college and career ready mean life ready? Regardless of which path our students take, just possessing the knowledge and skills to succeed in college and a career is only one part of the equation to becoming a productive and happy human being. In addition to making our students college and career ready, my goal is to make 100 percent of our students ready for life.

What does it mean to be life ready, and how can schools prepare students? By promoting a growth mindset, you can help students gain self-control and deal with anxiety, and you will put them on the path to becoming mature, productive members of society.

The Most Important Life Skill: Self-Control

AnneMarie Rossi, the executive director of Be Mindful, a nonprofit educational organization, referred to a Harvard University study in her TEDx Talk on mindfulness. She cited self-control as the most important skill for successful life outcomes of health, safety, and wealth. Therefore, success depends heavily on the ability of a young person to:

  • Focus on tasks
  • Pay attention to the main objective
  • Regulate emotions

As any educator knows, self-control is not a skill that comes easily for many of our youth today. Self-control can often seem like a mystery in the classroom; some students have it and some don’t. What causes students to be able stay on-task, pay attention, and regulate their emotions? What factors prevent students from being able to do these things?

Addressing the Anxiety Barrier

Many stressors in the life of today’s teens did not exist a generation ago. Some of these stressors are caused by schools, such as the intense focus on test scores, college admissions, and grades. As a result, our students pay less attention to developing more important skills that would help them succeed in learning, work, and life. Anxiety is at an all-time high for today’s students. Time magazine’s cover story on adolescent depression stated that 6.3 million teens in the U.S. are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Anxiety can be a tremendous barrier to success, and with a quarter of the teens in the country suffering from anxiety, school leaders need to address this important issue. As a principal, I found myself ill prepared to deal with the growing number of student accommodations for stress and anxiety. Teachers show increasing frustration with these barriers because the anxiety typically manifests itself as a withdrawal from authentic learning.

Growth Mindsets to Promote Resiliency AND Achievement

So how can school leaders combat anxiety and cultivate self-control in students to prepare them for life? Last summer, I read Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, which truly inspired my leadership and educational philosophy. Dweck promotes the development of a growth mindset that helps build resiliency and discipline which allows children to stay focused, pay attention, and regulate emotions. Dweck outlines how a growth mindset in children helps them to keep going in the face of adversity. Instead of focusing on the results of their efforts such as grades, scores, or acceptance letters, children who possess a growth mindset are focused on the process of getting better.

Interestingly, one of the benefits of possessing a growth mindset is higher achievement. A study in Psychology revealed that students with low achievement show little brain activity in the frontal lobe—the area responsible for rational thought—when faced with a challenging problem. In contrast, high achievers show tremendous activity in the frontal lobe when faced with a challenge. So, when we coach students to be resilient and face their challenges, not only are we training them for life, we are also preparing them to be ready for college and career.

Best Practices From Chapin High School

What are the best practices that promote these essential growth mindsets in our students? Here are a few strategies used by our team at CHS that other leaders can incorporate in their schools:

  • Conduct a Mindset book study with parents and faculty and discuss the different ways to cultivate a growth mindset.
  • Find ways to praise the process of learning and student progress instead of recognizing students’ achievement outcomes.
  • Teach students to embrace adversity—we use the acronym FAIL (facing adversity in life) to help normalize failure as part of the learning experience.
  • Provide opportunities for renewal for students and staff, including wellness programs like yoga, walking teams, and quiet areas.

What is your school doing to build a growth mindset and prepare students for learning, work, and life?

Akil E. Ross, Sr., EdD, is the principal of Chapin High School in Chapin, SC. He is the 2018 NASSP National Principal of the Year and was the 2017 South Carolina Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @DrRossChapinHS.

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