Mindsets and the learning environment: How childhood adversity impacts students’ learning mindsets
The Mindset Scholars Network launched an interdisciplinary initiative in Fall 2016 to explore how learning environments shape the mindsets students develop about learning and school. The project’s aim is to generate scientific evidence about how educators, school systems, and structures can convey messages to students that they belong and are valued at school, that their intellectual abilities can be developed, and that what they are doing in school matters.
Fourteen projects were awarded over two rounds of the initiative. Funding was generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Joyce Foundation, Overdeck Family Foundation, and Raikes Foundation. Seventeen different Network scholars are participating along with over 20 external collaborators. The projects span a wide range of topics, from exploring how teacher practices cultivate learning mindsets and identity safety in K-12 classrooms, to the relationships between learning mindsets and neural processes throughout adolescent development.
This is part of a series of blog posts in which we will hear from the leaders of each of the projects funded in the second round of the initiative to find out more about the questions they are exploring, what they are learning, and how their work is advancing the field of mindset science.
Childhood adversity is an all-too-common problem that has been consistently linked to poor education outcomes, from low grades to increased risk of repeating a year or dropping out of school. An ongoing research project supported by the Mindset Scholars Network, Social and environmental influences on motivation for learning: The role of childhood adversity in affecting motivation among older children and adolescents, aims to expand understanding of these connections and identify ways to disrupt them.
Who are the members of the research team?
Katie McLaughlin, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University, and Mindset Scholar Rob Crosnoe serve as the study’s co-principal investigators. Their team is interdisciplinary, drawing on experts in child development, clinical psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and sociology.
What is the purpose of the project and how will it fit into the field of mindset science?
Population-based studies indicate that up to one-half of children in the U.S. will experience some form of adversity by the time they reach adulthood. To date, researchers have typically conceptualized childhood adversity using cumulative risk models, which count the number of adversities a child has experienced without regard to the type or severity of the experience. They then use this risk score as a predictor of outcomes. While this model has highlighted the strong links between adversity exposure and developmental outcomes, as well as the importance of preventive intervention, it does not capture the diverse mechanisms through which adversity increases risk for academic difficulties.
In this project, the research team applies an alternative conceptual framework developed by Katie McLaughlin and Margaret Sheridan. “After years of working with children who had experienced trauma (e.g., abuse or domestic violence) and those who had experienced deprivation associated with prolonged institutional rearing, I noticed that these groups of children often exhibited very different types of developmental challenges,” explains Katie. “This was the inspiration for developing the theoretical model that we applied in this research project.”
The new model extracts two core dimensions of adversity: physical threat (i.e., exposure to trauma and violence) and deprivation (i.e., the absence of expected inputs such as cognitive stimulation, complex language, and consistent interactions with a caregiver). Socioeconomic disadvantage is also studied as an important context that increases risk for both dimensions of adversity. In this project, the model is used to investigate how exposure to threat, deprivation, and socioeconomic status children’s motivation for learning, their purpose for learning, their sense of belonging in school, and their perceived value of school. These relationships have not been studied previously, even though these motivational factors are likely key factors in the link between adversity and academic difficulties.
The study will generate critical information that can be used to target interventions (e.g., interventions to foster and support growth mindset versus perceived utility value of school) to children who have experienced distinct types of adversity. Because the study includes many schools and information on school context, researchers will also be able evaluate whether certain school characteristics buffer or magnify the effects of adversity on motivation for learning and school performance. Such information would allow practitioners and policymakers to target interventions to specific schools and contexts where they are most needed.
About the data
This study includes mindset measures for 404 children and adolescents that Katie collected across two other ongoing projects. The first project includes children between the ages of 10 and 18 who have experienced trauma including abuse, chronic exposure to domestic violence, and other types of interpersonal violence; exposure to deprivation and socioeconomic disadvantage is also common. The second project involves a sample of children between the ages of 10 and 12 selected based on socio-economic status, with approximately half the sample living in or near poverty. Children in the second sample have wide variability in their exposure to adversity, including threat, deprivation, and socio-economic disadvantage. To this existing data collection, Katie added validated measures of motivation for learning compiled by the Mindset Scholars Network.
“Given that we already had two large-scale data collection efforts in the field with samples of children with high levels of adversity exposure, we wanted to examine how these experiences influenced motivation for learning,” said Katie. “Collaboration with Robert Crosnoe and the Mindset Scholars Network provided us with the tools we needed to assess these constructs and leverage these unique datasets for this purpose.”
The strategy allowed the project team to address novel questions about associations between childhood adversity and academic motivation in vulnerable populations. Findings from the study will be used to identify groups of students who might be particularly likely to benefit from interventions promoting growth mindset and perceived utility of school. They will also inform data collection in larger observational studies (e.g., the National Study of Learning Mindsets).
The research team expected to find that different forms of adversity—particularly those characterized by threat rather than deprivation—would have distinct influences on children’s motivation for learning, purpose for learning, sense of belonging at school, and perceived utility value of school. These broad hypotheses were largely supported.
Adversity produced by threat was strongly related to reduced growth mindset, lower feelings of belonging at school, and reduced perceived utility value of school, but was unrelated to the perceived purpose for learning. Adversity resulting from deprivation, on the other hand, was associated with reduced feelings of belonging at school and lower perceived purpose for learning but was unrelated to growth mindset and perceived utility value of school. These patterns warrant replication in future research. They could suggest that interventions aimed at reducing disparities in academic achievement among children exposed to adversity need to focus on supports and instructional practices that target different mechanisms based on the types of adversity children have experienced.
What are the next steps for the project?
The team is still cleaning data on academic performance for children in the study. Prior research has shown that students who are exposed to adverse experiences have worse academic outcomes, and the team’s current findings indicate that such students self-report lower on various measures of motivation. This fall, the research team will continue evaluating how learning mindsets play a role in the pathways between diverse forms of childhood adversity and poor academic performance. Given the richness of the dataset, there is also the potential to pursue interesting questions related to the different aspects of school context that either mitigate or exacerbate the negative effects of adversity.