Monday, 23 June 2008

Children must learn to be tough to succeed, says academic


Just William

Just William, the bold and resilient schoolboy. Academics say that even those with less ability can be successful if they have enough drive

Nicola Woolcock

“Happiness lessons” that are used in many schools to teach children to be sensitive, empathetic and caring are under threat from a new hardline approach that advocates mental toughness.

Academics say that instilling a robust attitude among pupils can improve their exam performance, behaviour and aspirations dramatically.

Mentally tough children are less likely to regard themselves as victims of bullying and will not be deterred by initial failure. Having this outlook can be learnt, according to Peter Clough, head of psychology at the University of Hull.

Along with AQR, a psychometric-testing company, he is conducting a long-term study of children and evaluating their mental toughness.

His ideas — based on sports psychology — have been used in industry. Dr Clough claims that a simple test and follow-up techniques can transform performance.

He said: “We know that students with higher levels of mental toughness perform better in exams. They are also less likely to perceive themselves as being bullied and are more likely to behave more positively.

“We also know that by using a variety of techniques — many of them very simple — we can increase an individual's level of mental toughness.”

Dr Clough is working with 181 pupils aged 11 and 12 at All Saints Catholic High School in Knowsley, Merseyside. He will help to make them mentally tough and hopes this will “open doors of opportunities that they would not previously have considered”.

Parents and teachers are also being shown the intervention techniques.

Dr Clough said: “There is no point in working with pupils who then go into a classroom environment where nobody understands the process, and home to parents who have no interest. Showing the teachers how the techniques work means that the benefits that pupils are getting from this study can be repeated year after year.”

Dr Clough and his team measured the levels of resilience and emotional sensitivity of pupils using a questionnaire. They then picked almost 40 pupils with low scores. They are now using techniques to improve their rating, such as visualisation, anxiety control and relaxation, improving their attention span and setting goals.

It comes a week after two academics said the emphasis on Seal (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) was “infantilising” students.

Dennis Hayes and Kathryn Ecclestone, of Oxford Brookes University, said that teenagers were encouraged to talk about their emotions at the expense of acquiring knowledge. This left them unable to cope on their own.

They pointed to the increased presence of parents on campus, and of counsellors and support officers, saying that “everyone was looking for a disability to declare”.

Dr Clough said that he helped children to set realistic goals and used techniques that worked rapidly. These include imagining scenarios and random-number tests that forced them to concentrate.

He said: “Really concentrating is a skill a lot of them have never had. We try to get them to realise they are in control of their lives and need to stick a foot in the door when they get the opportunity. No one else is going to make that decision.

“They don't recognise that people who are successful sometimes have less ability but more drive. They are drawn to a 'shortcut culture' of instant success and dream of winning The X Factor, but don't see that you need to practise before auditions.”

Of happiness lessons, which aim to boost self-esteem, Dr Clough said: “All the positive thinking in the world isn't going to make a third look like a 2:1.”

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