From the Field: Psychology and Interventions Into Action

As part of continuing professional development, I recently read this article: Social-Psychological Interventions in Education : They’re Not Magic by David Yeager and Gregory Walton.  My response on how to put this research into action is below.

The Yeager/Walton article provided some very useful information that was, at times,  seemingly at odds with current practice in schools. I was particularly interested in the idea of timely, stealthy interventions at key junctures in a student’s academic progression. As a middle level teacher, I recognize the importance of creating a positive experience for students as they encounter two of the most important transitions of their educational lives: from elementary school to middle school and from middle school to high school. The author’s discussion of timing interventions to support students’ engagement, sense of belonging, and achievement was well-taken. Using the strategies and interventions proposed by Yeager and Walton could have profound effects on student performance and foster a sense of belonging that could have dramatic impacts far beyond my classroom.

The first useful tip from the authors’ study is the idea that successful interventions do not have to be highly defined, overt exercises explicitly outlined for students (like much of our current curriculum). In fact, the authors recommend a far more subtle approach. “Although these delivery mechanisms are psychologically powerful, the interventions are in an important sense “stealthy,” a quality that may increase their effectiveness (Robinson, in press). In none of the interventions were students exposed to a direct persuasive appeal or told that they were receiving “an intervention” to improve their performance” (Yeager and Walton, 19) I think this is something that educators miss too frequently. Browbeating students with the latest information on how to be a better student can often have the opposite effect; it can sometimes ‘turn students off’ and fail to achieve desired results. Instead, we need to develop these interventions in a more concisely targeted manner that will engage students in brief interventions that have, hopefully, long lasting impacts.

A second important aspect of these interventions is their timing. “If effective psychological interventions alter recursive processes in school, then the timing of these interventions is critical. In many cases, it may be essential to deliver psychological interventions at key educational junctures, such as at the beginning of an academic year (Cohen et al., 2006; Cohen et al., 2009), during an important transition such as when students enter a new school (Walton & Cohen, 2007, 2011; Wilson & Linville, 1982, 1985), or before an academic gateway….” (Yeager and Walton, 22). It would seem that these interventions would be particularly effective when used as a support for students entering significant transitions wherein they may also begin to question their academic ability or standing in the educational community. By creating a system of brief, stealthy, and effective psychological interventions, the educational system as a whole could develop a supportive bridge for student movement across these transitions.

Finally, I was taken aback by the different examples of how strongly stereotypes can impact students’ self-perception of their ability to succeed in the educational environment and how those perceptions can lead to disengagement and failure. It made me consider the practices, procedures, and protocols that schools currently have in place that may reinforce negative self-perceptions for students. The first example that comes to mind would be our discipline system and the use of detention. I wonder how many students, when given a detention, use that experience to self-identify as someone who cannot succeed in the educational system, as an outsider, and worse, a failure. Perhaps, instead of detention, we could institute a practice of interventions that would help students develop more positive behavior.


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