In working with thousands of students over the years, Terri-Leigh Ryklief has come to see that there’s far more to academic success than hard work and intelligence. To achieve their goals, students need the right mindset and a dynamic ecosystem of support.

Terri-Leigh Ryklief, Milpark Education’s registered counsellor and the Student Support and Development Advisor, has spent many nights talking to students who are overwhelmed by the pressures of life, work or family and the demands of their academic programme. “For many students, this is a critical moment,” Terri-Leigh says. “Do they ask for help? Do they have tools to help themselves?” When these students manage to succeed despite the odds, it is almost always due to one thing:


The power of a positive mindset

Terri-Leigh is a big believer in the work of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In the book, Dr Dweck demonstrates the power of a positive frame of mind, contrasting people who have fixed mindsets about their talents and abilities with others who have growth mindsets – those who believe their abilities can be improved and developed. Multiple scientific studies, from various universities like Kings College in London, the University of Kentucky and the University of Pennsylvania, amongst others, have shown that positive thinking boosts not only academic success, but health and mental wellbeing and career success.

“Often students think failing a test is the end of the road for them,” says Terri-Leigh. They become plagued by negative thoughts and self-doubt, which drive feelings of powerlessness and helplessness. In helping them to proactively build a positive mindset, students become empowered to devise plans and strategies to achieve what they want and to see more clearly what is stopping them from realising their potential. Having a positive mindset should be seen as a daily practice, says Terri-Leigh; it’s as important as physical exercise – a kind of mental exercise, if you will.


Is success all in the mind? 

The first stepping stone to building a positive mindset is self-awareness. This is something everyone should cultivate; it involves looking critically at yourself and exploring your motivations and beliefs. For students, questions to ask might be: do you really know why you are studying what you are studying? What is your end goal and how important is it to you that you reach it? A more complex question would be: have you dealt properly with the trauma in your past or any failures that caused you deep shame or humiliation? Examining answers to these questions is uncomfortable and best navigated with a structured therapeutic process with a professional like Terri-Leigh. These counselling services are offered for free at Milpark Education – and provided when it’s convenient for students’ own schedules.

Journaling is another tool for building a positive mindset. Even just 15 minutes of writing down your feelings every day can release many thoughts – and the emotions they bring up, helping you to process troubling experiences. Psychologists say journaling can be cathartic, and a way to let go of bad feelings and memories.

Terri-Leigh says, “When you write thoughts and feelings down, it is a way of getting them out of your head and it becomes easier to make room for positive thoughts.”

Form habits

In addition, students should think about consciously forming habits that support their success. This means doing things differently, coming up with a plan and keeping to it. This could mean organising your study schedule more effectively and being accountable to a peer about sticking to it. It could mean journaling or doing physical exercise. It could even be playing certain motivational songs or listening to podcasts of people who inspire you. This can break the cycle of negative thinking and create an optimistic outlook in which you work towards living in the reality you want to be in.

Terri-Leigh is the first to acknowledge that not all students are alike – what works for one student may not work for another. The important thing is to find something that fits into your life that you can actually commit to. This sometimes means accepting that failing can be a part of success and that mistakes are lessons teaching us how to do better in future.

It can be an amazing thing when a student is finally able recognise that their studies may be the biggest challenge of their lives, says Terri-Leigh. “But once they know this and have decided how they will proceed, they are ready to conquer that mountain. When they do conquer those mountains, it is such a wonderful moment to behold.”