Monday, 9 January 2017

Building Resilience Early for Later Success: preventing potential mental health issues and poor achievement

As an experienced educationalist, I am a great believer in developing learners through encouraging their effort and providing constructive guidance on future learning. This approach not only helps to develop the right attitudes to learning, leading to improved outcomes, but, with focus on actions, it takes the ‘person’ out of the frame and allows the learners, whatever their abilities, to direct their attention to working on tasks in hand.

All teachers would have encountered learners, including those considered as highly able, who can be reluctant to try for fear of failing. Carol Dweck’s extensive research into the psychology of learning confirms that learners’ attitudes, and especially their willingness to put the effort in, not abilities, are crucial to successful learning and making progress. So how can we ensure that our pupils develop these right attitudes needed for future success?

All young children are keen to explore, discover and learn. During their early development, they make rapid progress and soak up new knowledge like ever expandable sponges. As Dweck says, “You never see an unmotivated baby”. However, as children grow older, they develop different attitudes to learning (“mindsets”), which can have an enormous impact on their future achievement. As adults, we influence children’s thinking and shape their mindsets through our own sets of beliefs and values. In societies that place value on ability over effort, children who feel that they are clever, but are faced with obstacles, can become reluctant learners in order to avoid looking stupid. Such mindsets (“fixed mindsets”), according to research, are formed by adults who tend to focus their praise on the person (“What a clever girl!”), rather than the actions, and this has a negative impact on the child’s future success, especially when that child is faced with some difficulties. Moreover, when these children cannot get by on wits alone, they can develop various avoidance mechanisms and behavioural issues that can lead to more serious mental health problems in the longer term. It is this inability to compete on equal terms with others, who they perceive as no more able than them, and the fear of visible failure that can lead to isolation, depression and poor self-worth.

The demands of the global economy, parental expectations of high achievement to secure first class qualifications for better job prospects, increasing higher education costs and other accountability measures based on sometimes flawed assessment systems all contribute to greater pressures by young people for improving their outcomes. It is therefore crucial for education and health care professionals to take note of evidence-based strategies in order to help young people develop effective self-regulation skills to enable them to cope with temporary failures and to equip them with strategies in overcoming setbacks. Teaching young people the value of effort through praising their actions and trying hard, and preparing them for bugs through challenging tasks, where they have the opportunity to progress at their own level with appropriate level of guidance to experience success, are some of the strategies that can be used to build resilience. The aim of these strategies is to enable these young people to bounce back from difficulties through their own efforts. Since prevention is always preferable to cure, early focus on developing the right mindsets to learning and cultivating the strength of mind through encouraging and praising effort can avert the development of mental health problems by school pupils, and help them to build resilience.

However, building resilience through developing the right attitudes to learning requires consistency of approach by all professionals and greater understanding of developing self-regulation strategies in young children. It is counter-productive and utterly frustrating when I repeatedly hear early years education and health care professionals/therapists lavish their praise on my young grand-daughter in the form of “clever girl”. Developing the growth mindset by instilling the value of effort to future success, through praising effort, not the person, is important to building resilience and determination early, and preventing emotional or behavioural problems later on. Ego-enhancing strategies, however, can result in creating a fixed mindset, where an individual’s full potential can be compromised, and where the lack of adequate effort and running away from challenges can lead to failures and wasted talents.