Can Mindset Training Reduce Student Stress?
Mindset refers to a person's set of beliefs or attitudes that frame how they see the world. A new study shows that mindset training can help adolescents manage stress and improve resilience and well-being. The online training module used in the study combines two existing interventions covering a “growth” mindset and a “stress-can-be-enhancing" mindset, which target different aspects of people’s experience of stress.
Experiences in which people feel they could be judged negatively—referred to as social-evaluative stressors—pose a major threat to adolescent mental health, the study authors note. They can cause young people to disengage from stressful pursuits, resulting in missed learning and other opportunities.
- “Growth” mindset - the idea that intelligence can be developed. This mindset encompasses the belief that ability (such as intellectual, athletic or musical) is “not fixed but can be developed with effort, effective strategies and support from others. Under this mindset normal but challenging stressors are helpful and provide opportunities for learning. The stressors are also “controllable because the abilities needed to overcome them can be developed.”
- “Stress-can-be-enhancing" mindset - the idea that one’s physiological stress response can fuel optimal performance. With this mindset, the authors write, our stress responses, such as sweaty palms, racing heart and feeling anxious, can be positive because they “mobilize energy and deliver oxygenated blood to the brain and tissues.” The stress can be controlled “because you can choose to take advantage of the enhanced capacity for performance it fuels rather than being worried and distracted by it.”
Mindsets are not a single point, but a continuum, and people can be at different points on the continuum at different points in time.
A growth mindset has been linked to a range of benefits for students, including improved mental health, decreased stress, and improved academic achievement. Growth-minded individuals tend to view mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve. Cognitive neuroscience research has shown that growth-minded individuals show higher accuracy after an error or mistake and show lower emotional distress in reaction to mistakes made during the task. In one recent study, U.S. students with a growth mindset outperformed those with a fixed mindset by 48 points in reading when they had low teacher support, but by 72 points when they had supportive teachers.
Can training impact mindset?
The new research, led by David Yeagar, Ph.D., with the University of Texas, involved six double-blind, randomized, controlled experiments that were conducted with high school and college students in the U.S. In the study, the two mindsets were presented to participants as intertwined and complementary parts of a whole. The messaging around the growth mindset encouraged the teens to think of difficult challenges as valuable opportunities for self-improvement. The stress-can-be-enhancing mindset messaging encouraged them to see their stress responses—both physical and psychological—as “a helpful resource that energizes their pursuit of valued goals, rather than as a problem.”
The researchers found that the mindset training improved stress-related cognition, psychological well-being, academic success, anxiety symptoms, and cardiovascular reactivity. The benefits of the intervention depended on addressing both mindsets—growth and stress—synergistically. “Our research has identified a treatment for adolescent stress that could, in principle, be scaled nationally at low cost,” the authors conclude. Developing the skills to manage stress and cope with challenges can have benefits for a lifetime.
- Yeager, D. S., Bryan, C. J., Gross, J. J., et al. (2022). A synergistic mindsets intervention protects adolescents from stress. Nature, 607(7919), 512–520.
- Yeager, D. S., et al. (2019). A national experiment reveals where a growth mindset improves achievement. Nature, 573(7774), 364–369.
- Ku, Y. R., & Stager, C. (2022). Rethinking the Multidimensionality of Growth Mindset Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review and Framework Proposal. Frontiers in psychology, 13, 572220.
- Sparks, S.D., ‘Growth Mindset’ Linked to Higher Test Scores, Student Well-Being in Global Study. Education Week. April 09, 2021