Challenge vs Threat Mindsets

We are at an intersection: 

An educator-evaluator meeting is about to begin.  The teacher walks slowly down the hall to the administrator’s office.  The teacher’s mind is running:  lesson plans, student successes, students acting out, unfinished grading, parents to call, curriculum to review!  Attitude, perception and creativity hang in a balance as the teacher appraises the situation.

This moment is of great importance.

Districts across the country are giving feedback to teachers, pushing out new initiatives, and attempting improve the education outcomes for all kids.

Teachers are feeling the push and, according to psychological research, teachers will perceive their situation in one of two distinct ways.

Perceptions in Accountability and Learning

  1. Threatened Mind-Set

  2. Challenged Mind-Set

threat scales

The biopsychosocial model of challenge and threat offers great insight.  The model is typically applied to situations in which the performer is evaluated and the outcome of the evaluation is relevant to his or her personal goals (Blascovich et al, 2003).  In this case, the performer is the teacher and success on an SLO, evaluation observation conference, curriculum changes, etc. can determine job stability.

So, facing this situation, the teacher’s perception determines if the event will be processed as a threat or received as a challenge.  As you might imagine, the physiological response of the body in threat state is quite different than the challenge state.

Threatened Mind-Set:

In the threat state, we see an automatic reaction much like the one from early human history.  Back then, it was quite helpful for our survival: Fight or Flight.  Threat responses mobilize our minds and our bodies in extreme ways (Myung & Martinez, 2013).  For example, the threatened individual has a quickening of the heart rate and release of hormones and other stress chemicals.  Most importantly to our situation, the amygdala takes over and the reaction can prevent thoughtfulness and problem solving.

Challenged Mind-Set:

On the other hand, in a challenge state, we see that the body mobilizes in some ways similar to threat, but the mind is still flexible and open to changes or alternatives, allowing space for creativity or thoughtfulness (Myung & Martinez, 2013).  The individual becomes excited with positive energy!  The challenged teacher in a challenged mindset is in a motivated performance condition.

Which Will It Be?

Research has shown that the performer’s appraisal of situational demands vs. resources will influence the extent to which the performer enters a threatened or challenged mindset. (Tomaka et al, 1997)

Demands which heat up a threatened mindset  include the type of critique they perceive, the potential danger to their job, or the uncertainty of what needs to be accomplished.  On the other hand, we have resources such as professional dthreat and challengeelopement, external support, staff dispositions, and more which all contribute to encouraging a challenged mindset.  The ultimate weighing of the two will find one side of the scale tipped over the other.

In other words, if a teacher believes the change in front of them, or critique through evaluation comes with more resources than demands, they will believe that this is a challenge for improving his or her abilities.  It is a motivated, positive energy mindset.

Perceptions are Key

Crucially, how a teacher perceives the interaction (or how the administrator portrays it) can have profound effects on what happens in both the mind and on a biological level in the body.  It may not be the feedback or initiative itself that Challenge Mind-setcauses the teacher to react positively or negatively.  It is rather the perceived meaning of the initiative or feedback and the recipient’s interpretation of teh resources available to them in this learning process.







Blascovich, Jim et. al., “The Robust Nature of the Biophychosicla Model of Challenge and Threat: A Reply to Wright and Kirby,” Personality and Social

Psychology Review 7, no.3 (2003): 234-243.

Gregorie, Michele.  “Is It a Challenge or a Threat?  A Dual-Process Model of Teachers’ Cognition and Appraisal Process During Conceptual Change”

Educational Psychology Review, 15, 2. (2003): 147-179


Myung, Jeannie and Martinez, Krissa.  “Strategies for Enhancing the Impact of Post-Observation Feedback For Teachers,”  Carnegie Foundation for

the Advancement of Teaching.  Brief, July (2013) 1-10.


Tomaka, Joe et. al., “Cognitive and Psychological Antecedents of Threat and Challenge Appraisal,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73

(1997): 63-72.