Superhero Costumes Can Help Students Persevere with Homework

When I was in school, I absolutely despised writing papers. In my head I knew what I wanted to say, but somehow my words always got jumbled up when I tried to put my ideas on paper.

In college, I developed an odd coping mechanism that required costumes. I was a big fan of old movies, so I would dress up in one of my vintage dresses, put on some 40s style makeup, and then, most importantly, paint my nails. I would pretend that I was a 1940s movie secretary who had no problem typing 140 words a minute. Embracing my new identity, I would instantly sit straighter, be more alert, and take tactile pleasure in typing briskly with my painted nails. My college roommate thought I was really strange!

So I was really excited when I saw this article: Let Kids Dress as Superheroes While Doing Homework to Increase Perseverance. The article describes the positive effect of letting kids do their homework in superhero costumes, essentially the same motivational strategy I used in college. The research that supports this strategy is interesting:

The results have to do with what psychologists call self-distancing. When we’re in the middle of something difficult, it’s easy to crumble under the pressure and sink into obsessive analysis… mental separation helps people “transcend the urgencies of a situation and take on a more distanced perspective.” And for young kids, identifying with a character’s positive qualities can give them a greater drive to succeed.”

When we ask students to work on a task that they know will be hard for them, they carry a lot of baggage. If they have failed in the past, they may be unsure of their abilities, even if they have the skills they need to succeed. Letting them take on a persona helps them distance themselves from their anxiety and truly show what they know. And the effect isn’t limited to kids.

The dress-for-success trick works with adults, too. In another study, Northwestern University researchers had a group of subjects wear white lab coats. Those who were told they were wearing doctor’s coats were more focused than those who were told they were wearing painter’s coats.

What a fun and simple way to help increase motivation! I might have to break out my nail polish during my next tough writing task. Do you think this type of strategy would work for your students? Let us know the comments!

  • Elizabeth Ross M.A., SMARTS Media Manager