Stealthy psychological interventions

25 April 2018

Author: Andy Tharby

At this half-term’s Durrington High School journal club we looked at David Yeager, Gregory Walton and Geoffrey L. Cohen’s paper ‘Addressing achievement gaps with psychological interventions’ (2013) that explores the way that carefully planned and delivered ‘psychological interventions’ can be used to boost student outcomes.

The article asks teachers to reimagine the classroom from the perspective of an individual student and her personal experience of school. Many students have beliefs and worries that are hidden beneath the surface. For example, students who struggle in maths might worry that they will be viewed as ‘dumb’ by their peers and teachers. Similarly, if “students are aware that negative stereotypes exist about their group, it makes sense for them to be alert to the possibility that stereotypes are in play.” Sometimes students from minority groups will worry that teachers are biased or unfair.

The article suggests that there are two types of psychological intervention that can improve a child’s sense of belonging and reduce stress. These are:

1. Social-belonging interventions which help students to understand that their concerns are not unique to them and that things will get better over time. Even short one-hour persuasive sessions can make a quick and profound change to a student’s beliefs.

2. Values affirmation interventions which give students a chance to “reflect on personal values that bring them a sense of belonging and identity, such as relationships with friends and family, religion or artistic pursuits”. These might include reflective writing tasks that coincide with stressful times of the year.

The article stresses that psychological interventions are not magic, but are far more effective than filling in worksheets or listening to clichéd ‘growth mindset’ phrases. They work in three ways:

1. By changing students’ subjective experiences in school – their construal of themselves and the classroom. Psychological interventions begin by finding out what school ‘feels like’ to a student. Even small interventions – like persuading a child that his brain forms new connections when it is challenged – can have a powerful, long-lasting impact.

2. By leveraging psychologically wise tactics. Often, school-based interventions can have hidden side-effects – i.e. the student feels stigmatised by being included as part of the intervention. Stealthy interventions do not make appeals to the student (“You must take on a growth mindset” or “We really do believe in you”). Instead they encourage students to ‘self-generate’ the intervention – by writing a letter to a younger student for instance. Often school-based interventions can backfire as repetition of the explicit message leads students to feel, subliminally, that they have been singled-out from the rest of the group.

3. By tapping into self-reinforcing recursive processes. Psychological interventions are usually one-shot, short-term ‘inoculations’ that build a gateway for further success and opportunity. If the interventions are well-timed (before negative influences gain momentum) then their effect can be long-lasting. Desirable outcomes, such as confidence, self-belief and improved relationships, will then become self-reinforcing.

Many schools and teachers already design interventions based on psychological principles. The problem is that psychology is subtle and easy to get wrong. One of the most common mistakes is to encourage students to make more effort when, in actual fact, they require a better strategy. In this scenario, students quickly become disheartened when they realise that putting in more effort does not always lead to more success. Another mistake is attempting to improve a student’s sense of belonging through blanket platitudes (“You should all take on the growth mindset”) rather than helping him to feel personally valued. Successful intervention, therefore, hinges on the personal touch.


Our journal club discussion raised many pertinent questions. For instance:

• To what extent are teachers qualified to deliver psychological interventions?
• How often do teachers try to see things from a student’s perspective?
• Has the recent interest in growth mindset been misplaced?
• How often do we try to evaluate the negative side-effects of our interventions?

Finally, each teacher left with something to try differently in the future:

• Focus on praising the use of strategies rather than increased effort.
• Rephrase expectations so that “Put in more effort” becomes “Put more effort into [insert specific strategy].”
• Continue to encourage a culture where making a mistake is okay.
• Put more time into thinking things through from a student’s perspective.

Andy Tharby

Posted on 25 April 2018
Posted in: Blog, Evidence
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