Chelsey Taylor

The issue

Many students experience the impostor phenomenon—a feeling that their successes are due to luck rather than ability and effort. Certain populations are especially vulnerable: ethnic and racial minorities, those from historically marginalized communities, women in male-dominated fields, and students from high-achieving families.

Why it matters

Feeling like an impostor undermines the development of resilience. It is a barrier to integrating socially and academically with the school community (a key to student success). “Impostor” students may see challenges as evidence that they don’t belong rather than as opportunities for growth.

How to help students integrate with the school community

Help grow students’ sense of belonging

Incorporate “social belonging” messaging into communications. “The primary message is a message of growth—that over time, everyone comes to feel at home,” writes Dr. Greg Walton, associate professor of psychology at Stanford University.

How to get the message right*
*Note: This is designed for new college students but can be applied to high school students as well.

Connect students with similar staff members

For example, create a way for teachers or staff to share their relatable stories of successes and failures, and show that they are available to meet with students.

Normalize and reframe impostor feelings

Acknowledge the impostor experience and demonstrate how to reframe these feelings and accept praise. Incorporate this strategy into staff training. “You have to practice reframing the thoughts in your head,” says Dr. Valerie Young, author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It (Crown Business, 2011). Here’s what that might look like:

Teacher: “Your feelings are common. You deserve to be here. In fact, I recommend you sign up for the advanced class again next year.”

Student: “Whoa, but I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Teacher: “You’re ready. Think about how much you’ll learn and what a great opportunity this is to challenge yourself.”

Recognize the value of failure

Emphasize that asking for support and experiencing failure help move us toward success.

“It’s OK to raise your hand and ask the question or say, ‘I’m not following; please explain again.’”