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You Belong Here: Two new insights from education research

Photo by Marvett Smith.

The good news about education research these days is that there are new voices exploring not only how kids learn, but why they do or don’t succeed, and what other outcomes are connected with education. I think Paul Tough is doing some of the most fascinating work in this area as a research journalist beating down the doors of education innovators and researchers around the country (check out How Children Succeed for a surprising read on what matters and what doesn’t).

My team member Irene Cho, who coordinates our Urban Youth Ministry Certificate program, recently sent me this lengthy Paul Tough article entitled “Who Gets to Graduate?” In it he explores not only the college dropout crisis, but also a couple of insights that I think matter for our ministry with teenagers beyond education.

As it turns out, college students who think they’re going to fail or drop out have a higher rate of doing so. That sounds pretty basic, but think about the things that happen to students that strip away their confidence: They show up on campus and don’t know a soul, immediately feeling lonely and left out. They struggle in a regular math class and get put in the remedial section. They fail one course and are told they might not be cut out for college. It’s no wonder over half of students who enter colleges in the U.S. fail to graduate within six years. And for minorities and first-generation college students, the statistics are much worse.

But here’s some news. Success at the high school and the college level—measured on a number of indicators from GPA to physical and emotional health—can be boosted by changing young people’s mindsets around two areas:

1. Belonging

2. Ability

First, reducing students’ anxieties about belonging can improve the transition to high school or college. Learning from older students that everyone feels alone at first, but over time most people find others with whom they fit in, changes outcomes in dramatic ways from students who don’t hear this message. And it does so for students who are at particularly high risk of failing or dropping out—those who come from low-income and/or minority families or are first-generation college students.

Second, students need to believe that growth and change are possible, both socially and in terms of intelligence or ability. Hearing a message that when someone is hard on you or excludes you, that’s probably a short-lived thing rather than a permanent trait in that person or in you, had a stabilizing effect on depression rates in high school freshmen (a time when depression typically soars). In another study, simply reading an article that practicing new ways of doing math can grow students’ brains in new ways even if they haven’t done well on math in the past cut the math drop-out rate in half for nearly 300 community college students.

What’s fascinating in this cluster of studies is that the interventions are always incredibly brief—from 25 to 45 minutes of reading an article or essay and sometimes watching a video from an older student—and yet yield surprisingly strong results. Researcher David Yeager suggests that what’s going on here isn’t actually changing students’ minds in 25 minutes. Rather, the interventions “are simply keeping them from overinterpreting discouraging events that might happen in the future. ‘We don’t prevent you from experiencing those bad things,’ Yeager explains. ‘Instead, we try to change the meaning of them, so that they don’t mean to you that things are never going to get better.’”

What does that mean for youth ministry?

There’s something powerful about this insight for those of us in ministry. We interact with students who face failures of all kinds—academically, socially, morally, relationally, spiritually—during their season in our care. I wonder what difference it might make in how they interpret those events if we set them up ahead of time to know that 1) change is always possible, and 2) you belong here. No matter what, no failure is too big for our community to handle. And most importantly, no failure is too big for God to handle. I suspect too few young people hear this message soon enough.

  • When you look around your ministry and think about who is transitioning in—this year’s freshmen or sixth graders, or new kids to town—who among them might be particularly at risk for feeling like they don’t belong?
  • When you look at your recent graduates who are heading off to college, who might experience those same fears, or fears that they don’t have what it takes to succeed?
  • The researchers emphasize that these studies on belonging and ability need to be contextualized to the specific audience for each intervention. In other words, there’s not a one-size-fits-all confidence-boosting message. So what are some ways you can communicate belonging and ability to your unique students, even in snapshot interactions?

You might find that you end up unleashing a young person’s potential through a simple message that they belong, no matter what.


Brad M. Griffin

Brad M. Griffin is the Associate Director of the Fuller Youth Institute, where he develops research-based training for youth workers and parents. A speaker, blogger, and volunteer youth pastor, Brad is also the coauthor of Sticky Faith ​and Deep Justice Journeys. A native Kentucky youth pastor, Brad now lives in Southern California with his wife Missy and their three children.

...read more by Brad M. Griffin

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