Math was by far my favorite subject in elementary school. Other subjects required more effort. But math felt comfortable and full of ease. It felt great when others offered praised for my “natural” math abilities.
This was all well and good until my eighth grade geometry class. I was completely lost from the moment I cracked open the geometry textbook and tried desperately to follow along with the lessons.
In response to this disorienting challenge I did what any math wizard would do. I moved to the back of the class, made myself small, and did my best to fake it. My general confidence and enthusiasm for math was quickly replaced by stomach aches and a generalized dread of all things school.
Luckily, I wasn’t left to this strategy alone for long. The reality is that faking it in math class doesn’t work once you start turning in assignments. More importantly, my teacher gently asked the most simple question after class one day, “You doing okay?”
It didn’t take much to puncture my poorly patched together armor. I immediately started sobbing and admitted the painful truth I had learned quickly in her class: turns out I wasn’t good at math after all.
She waited patiently and after I had pulled myself together, she probed a bit. I went on to explain that geometry was not easy (like things are supposed to be when you are smart). Instead, math class had essentially turned into a wrestling match with a bear accompanied by a racing heart, sweaty palms, and a slightly sick feeling in my stomach. Clearly I was not cut out for the challenges that geometry had to offer.
I don’t remember exactly the words she used but it was something along the lines of, “It certainly sounds like it would be hard to learn in that state. But I have to say, if you have never been stressed by math before now then we have failed you a bit.”
“What do you mean?” I responded.
“Well, it sounds like math has been way too easy for you for a long time,” she explained. “So now you are interpreting stress as a sign of failure. But It’s often a signal that you are about to learn something.”
A New Mindset Intervention That Embraces (Some) Stress
Whether my eighth-grade geometry teacher knew it or not, that conversation provided a “synergistic intervention” to my understanding of stress and challenge at school.
Of course she didn’t have this exact language (nor was the research underway yet). But it turns out that helping teenagers understand that intelligence is developed through effort (growth mindset) and that our physiological response to challenge can actually be an asset (stress-can-be-enhancing mindset) is very protective for mental health.
Why is this dual message so powerful? Because if teenagers interpret their physiological response to challenge as a sign of failure, pathology, or inadequacy (like I did in geometry class) they are far more likely to retreat from challenge. Plus it can amplify anxiety by making teens “stressed about stress.”
Researchers recently tested this very intervention on groups of teenagers and found that teaching teens both the “growth” and “stress” mindsets had a significant positive impact on adolescent stress levels and wellbeing.
We have to befriend (some) stress to grow.
There has already been a lot of research on the effects of growth mindset interventions. So why is the addition of the “stress mindset” so important? Stress is actually a normal and expected part of adolescence. Part of growing up is learning the skills to navigate an increasing number of challenges and responsibilities – many of which are bound to be stressful. Yet stress is often portrayed as something that should be avoided at all costs. While too much stress can be toxic to our health and wellbeing, manageable stress (in the right dosage and with the right supports) can help us focus, provide energy, and build capacity.
The reason this intervention is so promising is it helps teens reframe struggle as a sign of learning rather than an indication of failure. Namely, “I can learn and grow by working at new things even when they are hard.” It also helps them reframe their own stress response during that struggle. Namely, “This amount of stress is manageable and can actually help me get where I want to go.”
This is not a therapeutic intervention to trauma, abuse, or toxic stress.
Given the enormity of the challenges that young people are currently navigating, it is essential to be crystal clear on the goal here. These kinds of interventions are decidedly not about reframing or putting a “positive spin” on toxic stress or trauma. The Harvard Center on the Developing Child identifies toxic stress as stress that is “too big, goes on for too long, or is experienced with too little support.”
We know from a mountain of research that these kinds of persistent and significant stressors can have cascading life-long negative impacts on our health and wellbeing. Re-framing experiences like racism, ableism or other -isms, abuse, or bullying as “helpful” is not only harmful, it is downright dangerous.
Like any individual intervention, mindset work demands that we turn our attention to systems with as much or more urgency. Telling our teens to reappraise the demands of big challenges without equitable access to mental health support or to resources, supports, and opportunities for success can simply reinforce entrenched inequities.
Individual mindset interventions are transformative when we build just and equitable systems that allow everyone to flourish.
“You are about to learn something.”
So where does that leave us?
According to researchers, these two mindset interventions are designed for the “rigorous but useful social or academic stressors.” These might include things like enrolling in challenging courses, auditioning for the school play, navigating social conflicts, or stepping up to community leadership opportunities. What constitutes “useful stressors” is unique to each teen. But no matter the challenges, each might evoke a stress response due to level of difficulty and/or because teens perceive them as opportunities to be judged by others.
That’s why is is important to acknowledge that reaching towards the edges of what we think we are capable of can be scary and vulnerable on multiple levels. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it anyway.
So in lieu of administering a formal mindset intervention to our teens, we can at least start conversations like the one that my eighth grade geometry teacher started with me. We can model ways to embrace struggle and stretch mistakes. We can work hard to create systems that are built for all young people to meet their goals. We can do everything in our power to protect teens from toxic stress and trauma.
And then for the useful challenges at our learning edges, we can remind them that a moderate stress response – our racing hearts, sweaty palms, and upset stomachs – can be manageable and useful. It is our bodies’ way of telling us that we are about to learn and grow.