A Benefit Mindset Helps Students Overcome Trauma (Education Week featured article)

Every student benefits from curriculum and assignments that take them outside of themselves and their own personal (and perhaps painful) worlds.

How can anyone say they’re only interested in a narrow range of subjects or activities if they haven’t been consistently exposed to people, places, topics, and situations that may be initially foreign, yet on closer examination, become astonishingly familiar?

How can we presume that just because a kid is struggling academically or hurting internally they won’t benefit from challenge, a change of pace, or the chance to help others?

As always, the answer is balance.

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As I write in my book, Teaching the Benefit Mindset, there’s ample reason for teachers to honor a child’s current individual interests and experiences (both heartbreaking and heartwarming), as well as to expose every child to the unknown, unexplored, and unexpected. And we owe such an expansive, experiential educational approach to our most needy students, just as much as to those who have already been labeled gifted.

This sense of mystery, wonder, and discovery about people and lands from long ago and far away leads to the openness and empathy that feed a benefit mindset. The benefit mindset is about expansion, reverberation, and connections. It’s noble to share our passions and talents with the world, but the gift the benefit mindset provides to those who actively participate in its expressions of love and leadership is that through such sharing and generosity, our interests grow and our talents flower in ways we could’ve never imagined. We actually become more, the more we include others in what we enjoy and what we’re good at.

When approached respectfully and strategically, all students rise to intellectual challenges, as well as to altruistic calls of duty. Similarly, every student feels prepared and validated to meet their teacher’s high expectations when they’ve been given the proper support and encouragement to stretch their supposed, often self-imposed, limitations and illusions of separation from their fellow man.

Adolescent education owes a great deal to the work of Stanford psychologist William Damon, who developed this definition of purpose: “A stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.”

Imagine if every school had this sense of common purpose included in their mission statement!

Ask your students what lights them up and what breaks their hearts. For it is in these explanations of personal joy and deep concern where we each find our calling—and our tribe. Educators talk about student agency; but when we allow students to actually become agents of change, they experience a sense of control and purpose in a life that may had heretofore been chaotic and incomprehensibly unfair.

By teaching the benefit mindset, the driving question of education becomes: How can we use what we’re currently learning to tap into each student’s individual passions and talents, as well as to address the injustices and dilemmas that cause us concern, in order to support the wellbeing of ourselves, others, and our planet?

Every child wants to be moved, yearns for purpose, and seeks meaning. The trick is in tying all those motivators to what you’re teaching your students today, tomorrow, and next semester. This is teaching the benefit mindset, and it just may be the key to inspiring all your students, even the most rebellious or withdrawn, to begin to care—to care about themselves, their education, their fellow human beings, and our world.

Learning can be liberating. It should expand our minds, our souls, our dreams, our social circles, and free us from the burdens of the past and present that may be holding us back, haunting us, or causing us to hate ourselves and all of humankind.

We can heed the warning of Shawn Ginwright, Ph.D.: “The term trauma-informed care runs the risk of focusing on the treatment of pathology (trauma), rather than fostering the possibility (wellbeing).”

We must be careful not to allow trauma or “the worst thing that ever happened to you” define anyone, especially a child. Educators can use the benefit mindset to teach kids to move beyond bad experiences to a place of self-healing, a big part of which occurs when we also focus on the healing and happiness of others.

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Classroom Q&A

This article was first published in Education Week on 5/22/19.

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Read more about moving empathy, inclusion, and altruism to the forefront of education in Robert Ward’s latest book, Teaching the Benefit Mindset.

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