News & Insights 13 December 2019

Fear and Limiting Beliefs: How Your Pupils Might Have Stopped Before They Even Started

A good friend of mine recently bought me a fantastic book called ‘The Student Mindset’ by Steve Oakes and Martin Griffin, a “30-item toolkit for anyone wanting to learn anything.” The book does exactly that – provides creative techniques and activities, combined with thought-provoking questions, all underpinned by the psychology and academia surrounding successful mindsets and behaviours. Plus, it discusses fear and anxiety – a topic that’s been playing on my mind over recent weeks (ironic, I know).

Fear, motivation and confidence usually come into focus closer to exams, but fear needs to be acknowledged, addressed and neutralised ASAP; then you can start making meaningful progress. I’ve been noticing fear since the start of term; pupils’ nervous faces, pale complexions and aggressive head-shakes at my “how were your mocks?” questions; tutors quietly quaking in the reception area ahead of meeting their pupils for the first time. Most fears are small and unnecessary, but they can have huge consequences on our mind, motivation and action.

‘The A B C of fear’

Drawing from the work of psychologist, Albert Ellis’, work (1957), the book highlights three barriers people face when attempting to learn something new, all underpinned by fear.

  1. Activating Event” – an event that triggers fear, e.g. Year 11 pupils are told at the start of the year that this is going to be their hardest year of school so far and thus a lot rests on their grades, such as college and university.
  2. “Belief” – a limiting belief is created that reduces or obliterates motivation, e.g. over their school years, pupils have acquired the belief that they’re not intelligent and will never achieve the right grades.
  3. “Consequence” – g. pupils immediately feel GCSEs are too hard for them and they’ll never achieve. They switch off and stop trying, working far less hard than in previous years.

So how could we address these embedded beliefs and barriers and turn them into something positive? Ellis suggests “disputing” one’s limiting beliefs by asking questions, such as “what event or conversation has caused me to have this belief?.” Personally, I draw three rings on a piece of paper (diagram below): the inner ring with the question “when did I decide I wasn’t good at X?”, the middle “what have been the consequences of this?” and the outer ring “what 3 pieces of evidence tell me the belief is not true?” (Ellis calls these “energising alternatives.”) The purpose is not to dive deep inside the pupils’ psyches, but for them to realise that, at some conscious or unconscious level, there was a pin-point when they formed a belief about themselves and their ability, triggered by fear, and stopped taking positive action as a consequence. Most importantly – that limiting beliefs just aren’t true and can be changed! You don’t have to like a subject to work hard, but fear puts us off. We are only human, as they say!


So what’s my gift to you?

  1. Observe your pupils: is there a continual pattern of fear or lack of confidence that is preventing you from making meaningful progress? What activity can you do, or question can you ask, which will help acknowledge and address this fear?
  2. Observe yourself: how can you draw on times you’ve experienced fear (algebraic fractions still haunt my dreams…) and use this to support your group?
  3. And finally: have a look at ‘The Student Mindset’ by Oakes and Griffin. Buy it, borrow it, research it. I’ve got a plethora of mindset books, and this one is up there with the best.