The science of mindset has revolutionized education. Decades of research have shown that when students believe they can get smarter with effort, they work harder and achieve more. But it isn’t always that simple.

“Growth mindset is a hot topic. Everybody is talking about it—but it doesn’t work for everyone in every context,” said Ming-Te Wang, EdD, a developmental psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh. His research shows that when it comes to motivation and engagement, context matters.

Wang and his colleagues have explored mindset in a series of longitudinal studies of adolescents in diverse, socioeconomically disadvantaged, urban public schools. They have focused on growth mindset in math, a subject for which kids are particularly likely to believe that success is due to innate talent rather than hard work. While a growth mindset can benefit all kids, Wang and his colleagues found that for kids from lower socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, mindset alone may not be enough. While kids from higher SES backgrounds benefited from learning the value of effort, kids from disadvantaged backgrounds did not—unless they were also taught skills necessary to realize the potential of a growth mindset. “They need the metacognition skills to know how to engage with learning materials,” Wang said—skills such as identifying a goal, monitoring their progress toward that goal, and evaluating their understanding so they can adjust their learning strategies (Child Development, Vol. 92, No. 5, 2021). In other words, he said, “kids need the will and the skill.”

Mindset is one of several themes Wang studies at his Developmental and Motivation Research Lab at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), where he is affiliated with the Departments of Psychology and Education and the university’s Learning Research and Development Center. His work focuses on what motivates students to succeed and the ways that schools, peers, and family settings influence kids’ motivation and engagement with learning. That includes a line of research on biased school discipline practices, which can damage children’s trust in educators and derail their motivation to learn.

“My research aims to address educational and health disparities with historically marginalized youth. The goal is to inform policy and practice so we can promote equity as well as academic, social, and emotional well-being for all kids,” Wang said. “Equity and opportunity are the main themes.”

How to keep kids engaged

Wang got his start as a school counselor, working with middle school children in a remote area of Taiwan. His students were primarily members of a local Indigenous group that faced many hurdles. “These kids struggled with a lot of issues, including poverty and discrimination. They were really talented kids, but it was hard to keep them engaged and show them that education is important,” he said. “It really got me thinking that when we try to understand a kid’s behavior or development, we really need to understand the environment they interact with every day.”

He went back to school with the goal of understanding how environment influences children’s motivation, and he received his doctorate in developmental psychology from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education in 2010. There, he was coadvised by Robert Selman, PhD, a developmental psychologist, and John Willett, PhD, an expert in statistical methods for modeling change, learning, and development. That combination was a perfect fit for Wang’s interest in following student trajectories over time. “I’m well versed in developmental theories,” he said, “but I’m also able to use the latest statistical approaches to look at development from a longitudinal perspective.”

Following a postdoctoral research position at the University of Michigan, Wang founded his lab at Pitt in 2012. Loyal to his original interests, Wang has continued to study school engagement. One of his longitudinal studies, which has been in progress since 2014, follows several cohorts of children—beginning in fifth, seventh, or ninth grade. “Since I was a school counselor, I’ve been asking myself about the best ways to keep kids engaged in school and in learning, and this has been a flagship study for the lab,” he said.

One notable finding is the importance of promoting racial-ethnic socialization at school. Assessing 961 African American students enrolled in 17 public schools in the mid-Atlantic region, Wang and his colleagues found that youth who received positive messages about their racial group from their teachers had better grades 1 and 2 years later (Child Development, Vol. 92, No. 4, 2021). “When you promote multicultural education in school, kids are more engaged and have a better sense of belonging,” he said.

Despite the benefits, most work on racial-ethnic socialization has focused on parents and families. “We rarely talk about it in schools, which is problematic,” Wang said. Yet integrating these concepts into the classroom doesn’t have to be complicated, adds Juan Del Toro, PhD, a research associate and lead author of the study. “Racial socialization at school can include things like taking 5 minutes to share daily routines from the home, acknowledging holidays that students celebrate, and including books from diverse authors,” said Del Toro. “When youth get these messages from educators, they have a better relationship with teachers and with other students.” That, in turn, leads to more positive racial-ethnic identity development as well as better engagement and academic success.

Racial disparities in school discipline

Most of the schools Wang works with are racially and ethnically diverse. And among those schools’ biggest concerns, he says, is the issue of discipline disparity. Students of color are more likely to be suspended or expelled than their White peers for the same behaviors. Those exclusionary punishments lead to kids who are more likely to engage with the criminal justice system—a disturbing pattern known as the school-to-prison pipeline. To address that disparity, Wang is collaborating with James Huguley, EdD, a professor in Pitt’s School of Social Work, to develop the Just Discipline Project. This research-to-­practice initiative aims to advance achievement through improved school climates, socioemotional learning, and restorative school discipline.

In one study to better understand disciplinary disparities, Wang collected data on school climate, student-teacher relationships, and information such as how teachers decide whether to send a child to the principal’s office. “We found that educators believe if they don’t punish kids for their misbehavior in the first place, they’ll engage in more serious behaviors later on,” Wang said. “But it’s quite the opposite. We found that if you punish kids for minor misbehaviors, it undermines the relationship and the kids’ trust in their teachers. And kids then tend to engage in more serious misbehaviors” (American Psychologist, online first publication, 2021; Amemiya, J., et al., American Psychologist, Vol. 75, No. 1, 2020).

That finding, Wang says, led to an aha moment for many of the teachers his team works with. “When we show them the data from their own schools, that’s really powerful,” he said. “Once you show them what’s working, and what’s not working, most teachers are open to change.”

To address that desire from educators, Wang and his colleagues developed a school-based intervention to improve school climate and address student misbehaviors. In a pilot test of students in third through eighth grade, the intervention reduced office referrals by 25% per year. Meanwhile, student achievement test scores increased by 15% per year. The results are still being prepared for publication, but the team is already planning a larger randomized controlled trial of the intervention in 30 Pittsburgh-area schools, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education. “The intervention rebuilds trust between students and teachers, which improves school climate and reduces disciplinary referrals. And when kids are less likely to be suspended or referred to the office, they have more time for learning,” Wang said.

Both learning and student­teacher relationships were tested in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to transition suddenly to distance learning. The lab was able to continue research by moving their data collection to online surveys. They realized it was also an opportunity to gather information about students’ responses to the pandemic. “When COVID closed schools, we were in the middle of collecting data for another project, but quickly we designed a multiwave daily diary study that would let us explore students’ well-being throughout the pandemic,” said Christina Scanlon, PhD, one of Wang’s former doctoral students and a current postdoctoral mentee. “And because we have such a long-standing relationship with many participants, we have 3 or 4 years of rich pre-pandemic data to use as a comparison.”

One of the first analyses from that effort explored stress in adolescents during the early days of the pandemic. The researchers found that parental support and use of coping strategies such as acceptance, distraction, and positive thinking helped buffer the effects of financial- and health-related stress reported by students (Journal of Affective Disorders, Vol. 294, 2021).

Another analysis explored what motivated children to practice social distancing during the early days of lockdown. “Social distancing behavior violates adolescents’ needs for relatedness; we know adolescents need to hang out with their friends,” Wang said. “We found that when we emphasized that social distancing doesn’t just protect you but others as well, adolescents were more likely to engage in distancing. They do it because they want to keep other people safe” (Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 68, No. 6, 2021).

Respecting youth

At first glance, social distancing and disparities in school discipline seem like very different topics. But both lines of research point to a common conclusion, Wang says. When you respect adolescents and support their autonomy, they’re more likely to make choices that benefit themselves and the people around them. That’s true whether they’re misbehaving less often in the classroom or complying with social distancing guidelines to protect vulnerable members of the community.

That sense of respect runs through all of Wang’s work. His team views students, educators, and school administrators not as mere research participants but as important partners. “Teachers play a very large role in the work we do, and we’re constantly looking for their feedback and trying to get a sense of their needs,” said lab manager and research coordinator Jacqueline Schall. The team regularly provides reports and professional development training to educators to help them understand what’s happening in their schools and how to translate that into daily practices that benefit students.

Schall joined the lab in 2013 after completing her master’s in applied developmental psychology at Pitt. She has stayed, she says, because of the impactful work being done by Wang and the rest of the team. “As a researcher, he’s got his finger on the pulse of what’s happening both in research and in practice,” she said. “Every team member has the opportunity to make contributions to the overall work and to benefit in their own personal growth.”

The team currently includes two doctoral students, three postdoctoral researchers, four full-time research staff members, and six undergraduate researchers. In the past few years, Wang has chosen to downsize the team by nearly half to better dedicate himself to his mentees. It’s a formula that’s working, says Del Toro, who turned down job offers to extend his postdoctoral research for an additional year. “When I was interviewing with Ming, I could feel his energy and excitement. He’s very dedicated to supporting scholars’ individual success,” said Del Toro. “I’m not going to leave until I know I’m going to have something just as good as what I have here.”

Wang has high expectations of his students and advisees, and he provides the support to ensure they meet them, adds Tara Hofkens, PhD, a former doctoral student in the lab who worked with Wang on projects including developing new measures of student engagement in math and science (Learning and Instruction, Vol. 43, 2016). Hofkens, now a research assistant professor at the University of Virginia, says she most appreciated how Wang approached applied developmental psychology as a developmental scientist. “He’s a great academician at his core, doing applied work,” she said.

And Wang applies his own findings from motivation research to the mentees he oversees, Scanlon added. “He pairs high expectations with a growth mindset and ongoing support,” she said. “You see him use the same type of approaches when teaching undergraduate and graduate students as well as when interacting with our community research partners.”

For Wang, the application of his research is the fuel that keeps him going. “The beauty of our work is the really strong connections we have with schools and communities. One thing I’m most proud of is the feedback we’ve been able to provide to schools, and that our research has informed school practice and policy,” he said. “We want our work to have a real impact on the real world.”

  • Weir, K. (2022, January 1). Keeping youth engaged in school. Monitor on Psychology, 53(1).