Comfort vs Strategy. (Don’t project anxieties; make things possible)

As a parent I observed early on how often our kids would take their emotional cues from us. I also learned a great deal from my wife about minimizing drama. Whether it was an ‘alarming’ nappy-change moment in the those first weeks of uncertainty, or one of the kids had grazed a knee in the playground, whatever her true feelings were, her instinct was to model calm reassurance. I’d be thinking Oh Christ; what a mess; what now??; is this normal; Jeez; so much.. Yikes. Or, Blimey.. ouch!!! ..they’ll be scarred for life… But my wife would already be saying Good girl! That’s brilliant. Well done. All done now. That’s lovely… Or: You’re fine, you’re fine.. it’ll feel a bit sore, that’s ok. Don’t worry; have a bit of a cry, that’s good, poor you. You’ll be fine.

The combination of messages that I have seen work well on many occasions seems to be:

Let your feelings out – that’s great. But what you’re experiencing is normal – so don’t worry about the feelings you’re having. Keep it in perspective; things are not as bad as they appear at first – trust that it’ll pass. We can sort things out; it’s not a big deal and you’ll be fine.

I’ve been thinking about this in the context of all the well-being talk surrounding schools returning after the lock down. I’m a solid believer that student well-being is paramount if they are going to enjoy school and learn well. But the question is how best to secure it?

A piece of research that jumped out at me is a study featured by Bradley Busch and Ed Watson from Inner Drive in their The Science of Learning book . In their podcast with Craig Barton they talked about a study that compared Comfort-Orientated messages with Strategy-Orientated messages. Their blog summary is here and the original paper is here.

  • Comfort feedback contains messages that sound caring and give reassurance but also seek to take pressure off – suggesting some easier paths or less pressured situations.
  • Strategy feedback also sounds caring but is focused on addressing the existing challenges in a solutions-focused way.

This study is in the context of students receiving feedback about their performance in maths but what is significant is that is showed students’ responses can be manipulated by the type of messages their teachers gave them:

These results illustrate the process through which well-intentioned individuals who are focused on making students feel good about their outcomes can communicate messages detrimental to students’ long-term educational outcomes. As upsetting as poor performance may be to a student, receiving comfort that is oriented toward helping them to accept their presumed lack of ability (rather than comfort that is oriented toward helping them to improve) may be even more disturbing.

…..Students exposed to a comfort-oriented (versus strategy-oriented and control)message were .. more likely to view their professor as having lower engagement in their learning. Moreover, the comfort feedback led students themselves to feel less motivated and to expect lower final grades than did the strategy or control feedback. It is important to note that caring statements alone (i.e., the control feedback) did not lead to the most negative outcomes. Instead, it was the addition of statements of consolation for low ability (even when phrased positively) that led to the negative outcomes for students

I think the concept of Strategy vs Comfort is entirely relevant in relation to wellbeing. I’ve known plenty of staff members in schools who could make a drama out of a crisis – ambulance chasers, amplifying students’ emotions by adding their own into the mix, adding fuel to the fire, projecting their own anxieties, whipping up a frenzy. This isn’t helpful. As this research showed, even if calm and well-intentioned, it is possible to give the opposite message to the one you intend.

If students are going to be reassured, then the best approach is likely to strategy-orientated. This kind of approach, this mindset, also offers comfort and supports well-being because it shows students a way forward. It doesn’t ignore or soften the challenge; it doesn’t reinforce self-doubt or create obstacles out of fears and anxieties. Being strategy-focused channels the need for a response into something productive; getting out of the pit, now sinking further into it.

One very good reason for promoting a strong business as usual, let’s get on with it message on returning to school post-lockdown, is that this is what teachers are good at. We’re not trained to be psychologists and counsellors so there’s a risk of reinforcing doubts, anxieties and feelings of being overwhelmed by the catch-up challenge if we spend too long looking for those things. What we can provide is a safe sense of normality – the security that comes from learning things and getting better at doing things. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the students who have been having a rough time during lockdown will be delighted to be back to school – so, good reason to make it feel like normal school. It’s actually the students who have thrived at home (either working hard or happily doing little) who might be less pleased to return. They’re the ones who’ll need persuading that being back is better than being at home – so again, making it feel good to be back into the groove of learning things will be key.

Beyond the whole post-Covid response, the general idea of maintaining a strategy-orientated mindset is worth exploring on an ongoing basis. However hard the academic or personal challenges might be, acknowledge the feelings but make it all seem possible.

See also: Engineering Success. A positive alternative to generic mindset messaging


  1. Oh thank goodness – I have been worrying that the Bubble lessons we had planned were too ‘business as usual’ but my own pragmatism and (ever-hopeful) common sense was erring on the side of the overall message here.
    Thanks again.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Opening the door to give children an excuse not to work hard or blame something for their own lack of commitment… always a bad move.


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