The Steppingstone Foundation’s newest program is their College Success Academy, where students receive a wide variety of academic, social, and emotional supports over multiple years. In hopes to go to college someday, students apply to several high schools and prepare themselves to be successful, well-rounded students. During the summer, they have full days of academics classes including electives and activities dedicated to mindfulness, team building, and social and emotional learning. Steppingstone continues to support them during high school, while entering college, and beyond.

Key Takeaways

  • We can help students keep their goals top of mind, whether that goal is college or any other path.

  • Language matters when nurturing a growth mindset, so make sure staff all understand the consistent message you’d like your students to hear.

  • Keep group sizes small, and when possible assign staff members to individually advise certain students in the late elementary grades.

What kind of language or encouragement do you use with students to emphasize the importance of effort rather than relying only on their innate abilities?

We do briefly teach kids about growth mindset so they understand the terminology. We talk about how their brain is a muscle and they have to work it and exercise it, and that helps them build a foundation for understanding what growth mindset is. We encourage our teachers to normalize mistakes and errors so that kids know that it is okay to get something wrong and that they should try it again. Students go to school because they don’t know everything, and if they knew everything, they wouldn’t have to learn. They tend to understand that if you talk about it with them. We ask our teachers to be really purposeful when talking to students about the effort that they put in, and to not be shy about pointing out when students have made mistakes. It’s not a bad thing. One effective engineering activity we do is to have students build prototypes and improve them. For example, they have to build a rollercoaster out of this foam tubing through which they’ll roll marbles down the track. They have to go through numerous versions of this in order to get their marble to do what they want it to do. We talk about how this is the process that scientists go through. Scientists develop an experiment, try it out, and if it doesn’t go well, they change their methods in order to make it better every time and eventually reach their goals. That’s a really tangible way to help students think, “Oh, I just have to try this out a couple of different times, and each time I learn from something that didn’t go well the previous time.”

When students have a setback or a failure, how do you help them see that as an opportunity for growth?

When kids are struggling, we work with them to help them figure out how they can do better. Teachers work one on one with kids in study hall. We actually have a tutoring period a couple times a week. We’ve worked over the last many years to help kids see that tutoring is not some sort of punishment. It doesn’t mean they are not smart or they can’t do it. Tutoring is something they should ask for when they need help. Their teacher might recommend it, but we also try to reinforce to students that if they think they need help to please request to go to tutoring! We try to normalize the fact that they’re not going to be really good at everything at the beginning. We try to give kids the tools to improve by offering small things like assistance with organizing their work or an offer to pair them up with a buddy in the class they can call if they forget what the homework is.

How are you able to frame constructive criticism to students?

We give students feedback on their work instead of grades during College Success Academy. We always tell our teachers to be very factual on work and reports they give back to students. For example, “This student is struggling with subject-verb agreement in her writing.” The specific skill is subject-verb agreement. Then, give a suggestion for how that student can improve. We try to keep the language very neutral. This student did really great at these things, and here are the things that were harder for this student. Here’s what she can do to improve that for this fall, or for the next three weeks of the summer. Speak in a matter-of-fact way. We also do some intentional community practices to lift students up. At our community times, students can give props to each other and teachers can give props to a student. We make sure they’re applying to a wide variety of schools so that there’s always some sort of back up. We just say “Next year, when you’re in 7th grade…” so that if a student doesn’t end up placing in one of the schools they really want to go to it’s not a big deal. We make sure it’s very clear that they are a Steppingstone scholar no matter where they go to school. They can still achieve their goals of going to college and Steppingstone will always be supporting them. We’ve been very purposeful about that over the last several years.