For the School Supply List: 25 Ways to Promote Effort, Attitude and Respect

Wouldn’t it be cool, especially this time of year, if families and schools spent as much time thinking and talking about what students bring to the classroom from within (things like attitude, effort and respect)  as they do thinking and preparing the supplies they carry in their backpacks (notebooks, devices, completed forms, crayons, passwords, etc). 

We’ve written and thought quite a bit lately about establishing “broader aims,” identifying skills and dispositions we want students to know and be able to do — things that include, and go beyond, proficiency in reading and math. Whether we refer to these broader aims as non-cognitive skills, social emotional skills (SEL), employability, or character strengths, their development is maximized when reinforced at home and school.

As parents send kids back-to-school, and teachers welcome students into their classrooms, there is naturally a heavy emphasis on logistics — school supplies, clothes, devices, locker combinations, and schedules. This blog offers tips to also equip young people with very important mindsets as they head off to school. One of the great things about attitude, effort, and respect, is that they all focus on what we can control (such as mindsets) as opposed to what we cannot control (such as circumstances). 

  • Positive attitude: Choosing to be positive in every situation (half-full v. half-empty).
  • Full effort: Striving for excellence through daily discipline (give your best).
  • Respect for self and others: Treating others the way we want to be treated (Golden rule).

It sounds pretty simple: see the good, work hard, and be nice. Let go of things you can’t control, focus on things you can.

In practice, most of us need reminders on how to best implement the ideas (at least I do)! The particular tips included focus primarily on how parents can promote powerful learning. Most ideas listed are appropriate for teachers to use in the classroom as well. When it comes down to it, it’s about training kids how to think about learning and themselves.

Attitude. Positive attitudes toward learning, toward oneself, and towards others all matter. According to Steve Wilkinson, Gustavus Hall-of-Fame tennis coach, author, and the person who taught me and thousands of others these important life lessons, “It starts with attitude. No matter what the circumstance may be, we have the choice to be positive. Once our attitude is set, we position ourselves to give full effort in a positive direction.”

  1. Encourage students to think of the new year as a fresh start.
  2. Replace, “What did you do at school?” with, “What were two positive things that happened today?”
  3. Post quotes connecting attitude and learning,“Having a positive mental attitude is asking how something can be done instead of saying it can’t be done.” (Bo Bennett)
  4. Serve as your child’s emotion coach (see more from Gottman). Recognize positive attitude.  Use words like grit and perseverance (see more from Duckworth and Tough). 
  5. Encourage them to use technology, ideas and experiments to figure out how something can be done.
  6. Unlock the benefits of a good attitude by showing gratitude and thanking your children. Send a positive text.
  7. Model an attitude of a love for learning and let your kids see you enjoy reading. Read 
  8. Say, “I appreciate your good attitude,” instead of just, “good job.”
  9. Rest is key to attitude. Ensure everyone gets an appropriate amount of sleep each night.
  10. Ask, “What can this become?” instead of, “Will it always be this way?” A good attitude sees possibilities.

Effort. Full effort is at the heart of Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, encouraging people to “believe that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.”

  1. Say things like, “Give it your best” or “this may take a few tries.”
  2. Ask “What was something you did today where you felt proud of how hard you tried?”
  3. Use digital tools to maximize productivity and build ownership in learning. Leverage the fun built-in to apps that use gaming to motivate learning.
  4. Reinforce effort and process (not just outcomes) — “I noticed you’ve been preparing for that presentation for three nights and I bet you feel ready. Not sure what your grade will be but I know you’ve worked hard at it.”
  5. Set students up for success with a regular time and place to do homework.
  6. Likewise, establish guidelines for technology use. Use your phone to find information, not to socially text during homework time.
  7. Make it easy to work hard  — make sure they have tools to succeed. Digital tools are awesome and so are simple supplies. I have a friend who “decorates” her front hall table with a candy jar full of Post-it Notes, colorful flash cards, highlighters, device chargers, and other supplies that all are welcome to grab and use.

Respect. Treating others and oneself with respect changes communities and improves learning.

  1. Encourage students to look each teacher in the eye and shake hands.
  2. Be kind to others — be the first to reach out to new kids, include others.
  3. Find the good in everyone you meet.
  4. Think how attitude influences respect. According to Clay Christensen, “If your attitude is such that you can only learn from some people, your learning opportunities will be very limited. But if you have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody, your learning opportunities will be unlimited.”
  5. Use names like “scholar,” “student,” and “learner” as you talk with your child. Have fun with it “Scholar Simon…”
  6. Give your children/students your undivided attention — spend time with them and be there.
  7. Recognize and build upon strengths. When kids are affirmed for what they CAN do them it can help when they face something more challenging.
  8. Celebrate each others’ accomplishments in simple ways (special treat, acknowledgement).

Some of these tips may not seem all that new, for example, setting a time and place for homework. But, when such practices are coupled with a statement such as, “We want you to have the best chance to succeed and make the most of your effort,” the growth mindset is reinforced. Cara Lutes, a primary teacher in Iowa, insightfully noted, “We can build deeper levels of respect when start where kids are, tapping into their interests, strengths, and emotions.”

It can be fun when our kids show full effort and “succeed”– getting picked for the right team, scoring high on a test, landing a role in the play. It’s easy to feel proud and praise what they did along the way.

It’s more challenging – but even more important – to emphasize things like effort and attitude when things don’t go our way: when a test is failed, a concept not understood, a shot missed, an injury occurred, a learning disability is diagnosed, or a strained relationship with a friend. While those may not be things commonly posted on social media, times of challenge or suffering can provide opportunities provide great opportunities to practice these mindsets according to Neal Hagberg (who now directs Tennis and Life Camps).

A great acronym to remember these is EAR (Effort-Attitude-Respect). Just like a third base coach might tug on the ear to have a runner steal home, parents can tug on their ears as a friendly reminder. Or, switch it up and go with “ARE” and ask “How ARE you choosing to live today?”

As I think of all the things we expect of ourselves as parents, especially as it relates to education – making and supporting the best possible decisions about where to go to school, monitoring daily homework, creating experiences to raise “well-rounded” individuals, and more – it can feel daunting. However, by focusing first and foremost on the things we can control, it helps keep life in context.

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Very thoughtful article. Thanks!


Couldn't agree more. Great goals for life for our children and ourselves!

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