Saturday / June 22

How to Inspire All Students to Believe in Themselves 

How do we help students to believe in themselves–to believe they can master complex content, and that effort determines their academic success? If they are behind academically, it’s not because there is something wrong with their brains or their “ability” is deficient. 

I will mention malleable ability throughout this article (malleable ability means ability can be altered). The growth mindset says academic ability in any area is not fixed, it can be grown (Dweck, 2007). Performance can also be grown to the point of proficiency given sufficient time, good instruction, and effective effort by the student. 

For students to accept this message, they need to hear that we as their educators believe in their capacity. Students need to hear these messages at every turn: 

  • What we’re doing is important! 
  • You can do it! 
  • I’m not going to give up on you! 

These messages should be incorporated in everyday behavior—what a teacher says and does. It is not a matter of personality, but it is a matter of behavior. It will help to share current research with students and teach them about brain plasticity, but that will not be enough for many students. This is because most of them have already accepted the message that ability is “fixed”. This belief in a fixed ability is a myth, and I took a deeper dive in debunking it in my book High Expectations Teaching. 

All children in all schools, regardless of income or social class, will benefit from consistently hearing the three messages listed above. But for children of poverty and children of color, our proficiency with these skills is essential, sometimes life-saving. Some things we can implement now to change these students’ trajectory: adapt our messaging, and positively support (emotionally and instructionally) the environments we control—the classroom and the school.  

To eliminate the achievement gap, we have to change these students’ minds about their supposed low ability and persuade them to become good students. Taking this on will bring us face-to-face with our own beliefs about our students’ capacity, our own biases, our racial assumptions, and our own inevitable doubt about malleable ability. So as we attempt to inspire our students to believe in themselves, we will need to wrestle with our own histories and conclusions about our own abilities. 

Students are profoundly influenced by the messages they receive from significant people in their lives regarding their ability. Below are five ways you can use a classroom scenario that happens every day—calling on students—to address unconscious biases and help build student confidence. 

Make the Change 

You can teach your students to believe that “Smart Is Something You Can Get” by acting powerfully in the zone you control—the school—to transform the educational trajectory for students of color and of poverty. Download the guide below for more information on classroom scenarios and do’s and don’ts for transforming student confidence.  

Download All 9 Classroom Scenarios  

Written by

Dr. Jon Saphier is the Founder and President of Research for Better Teaching, Inc. He is an author and co-author of eight books, including The Skillful Teacher and High Expectations Teaching.  His research is used as a text in 60 university teacher preparation programs, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, Middlebury, and Williams. More information at

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