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Young people—mental toughness and raising aspirations

Toby Pearson, a head of year and professional mentor with both academic and pastoral responsibilities at St. George's Catholic School in West London, became particularly interested in the field of mental toughness when he changed careers from business into the teaching profession, finding that interactions within the school environment differed greatly from those he had experienced previously. Teaching Leaders gave him the opportunity of trialling MTQ48 as an assignment for an MA in educational leadership with Warwick University.

Given the pressure and time constraints of the school day, he felt the need to sharpen his communication skills in the “difficult conversations” he found he needed to have with colleagues and students, both underperforming in a complex urban school with a difficult past. Under pressure to improve, staff at the school were having to work hard at setting higher expectations and stricter behaviour boundaries and tackling the low self-esteem of most pupils. Toby wanted to build the capacity of his team of teachers in more specifically supporting pupil needs.

Tracking and monitoring pupil progress using performance data is commonplace in today's schools. Performance in each subject is measured by pupils' ability to meet targets and improve grades against a set number of National Curriculum sub-levels per term. As long as pupils hit their targets, teachers are satisfied and assumptions are made about an individual's ability to cope. However, few identify and track pupils' ability to withstand stress and overcome obstacles—and some don't even recognise it at all. Even fewer put in place interventions to counteract stress and develop mental toughness.

Toby decided to use Dr Peter Clough's attitude test with a group of sixty year nine pupils who had been identified as eligible for fasttracking to early GCSE entry (two years prior to the usual entry age). Toby thought that this would be a suitable test group to help him and other staff gain a better understanding of how students might cope with the added pressure, providing information about their relative performance in addition to assessment grade data. Most schools collect only the latter.

His decision stemmed from an interest in psychology and learning theory and a strong belief that young people can be helped to reach
their potential through developing a better understanding of their own behaviour, self-motivation and responses to all aspects of their whole experience of schooling. His focus was on how pupils handle perceived stress and what effect this had on their academic performance, an approach not commonly used in a systematic way in schools at present. Most schools will recognise the stress experienced by pupils at examination time, particularly in schools most in need of improvement and will put in place support, such as extra revision classes and one-to-one tutorials. But few have systematic strategies to help individual pupils cope with the pressure and stress associated with examinations— possibly because the teachers themselves are under stress.

The very choice of this target group is symptomatic of first the enormous pressure on schools today to fast-track students in order to boost GCSE results and improve the school's placing in the GCSE performance league tables and second, the heroic efforts of teachers like Toby, who work in the most challenging contexts, to increase the self-esteem and the life chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Examples of possible responses in relation to the four components of mental toughness resonated with him. As an experienced teacher, he would have predicted that such a selective high-performing group of pupils would naturally score highly on commitment, relishing the repeated opportunity to measure and prove themselves”, on emotional control, “building on positive results”, on life control, always completing their homework, enjoying the competition in challenge and being generally confident. He felt sure that students would be pleased that they had been selected for early entry, would rise to the challenge, having confidence in their own abilities.

However, the MTQ48 survey findings turned out to be surprising: it was clear that teachers' perceptions were very different to the pupils' own. In many cases the most academically able had the lowest mental toughness scores, clearly indicating that although they were seen to be achieving good grades they were in fact struggling with the whole experience of examinations and could improve on their performance if this were recognised and rectified. Pupils' responses fell into two main categories: those with confidence in their abilities but poor control and committed students who tend to shy away from challenge.

Toby was able to compare student mental toughness scores with achievement data and to share this with tutors, encouraging them to introduce students to mental toughness exercises after talking through with them the results of their MTQ48 diagnostics. The pupil behaviours
highlighted by the tests were very familiar to tutors—and probably to most teachers. The ones with low control were the poorly organised ones, the pupils most likely to dwell on failure rather than to take responsibility for improving their performance. They are the students who arrive late, without equipment and who respond poorly to criticism, blaming others or external factors for failure.

Academically able young people who shy away from challenge are often a mystery to their teachers. They are expected to do well but teachers often underestimate the emotional impact of change—of teacher or timetable for instance—or peer pressure. These are also the ones who respond poorly to competitive environments, with some reluctant to be seen as high achievers by their peers. Any classroom teacher will recognise these “types”. Simply adding more pressure—traditional teacher chivvying and nagging—does not work. Studying the MTQ48 data and associated coaching and remedial strategies, was a revelation. Toby felt that the usual strategies were failing because they were focused on the symptoms not the causes.

Toby's most powerful intervention was to interrogate and share the mental toughness test feedback alongside the usual performance data traditionally given to pupils and their parents on the school's targetsetting days (days in which a school's timetable is suspended so that parents can meet tutors to discuss their children's progress and set academic targets). Enlisting the support of parents in helping their children become more organised, to think positively or to praise in order to raise self-esteem resonated with tutors and they felt more empowered to suggest practical steps and coaching techniques to both parents and tutors. In preparation for target-setting day, the two tutors of the MTQ48 test group were given the developmental reports for all test subjects and trained on how to give feedback and in coaching techniques. This enabled the tutors to set very specific personal development targets alongside the usual academic ones. These interviews with young people and their parents had a very different feel to previous ones. Pupils felt understood, cared for, and advice was well received.

Although limited in scope and reliability and without yet a control group or retest, Toby's anecdotal evidence of the efficacy of interventions following test feedback shows promise in its approaches to thinking about the whole child and personality differences in relation to examination success. In addition to sharpening up target-setting, he tried out some of the exercises designed to develop mental toughness,
especially those around attentional and anxiety control and positive thinking, gently pushing students out of their comfort zones, finding them to be very receptive and thoroughly enjoying the tasks and games played.

For Toby a change in an individual's attitude was sufficient an indicator that these interventions could potentially help those who already do well to do better and to stretch them to their full potential. One or two pupils who previously seemed uninterested in tutorial sessions showed signs of real engagement and participation levels increased throughout the group. He believes that this in turn had an impact on their grades and overall achievement. Merely introducing pupils to the test made some of these pupils think about how they approach stressful and challenging situations. Indeed these interventions encouraged them to reflect on their former performance and set about improving it. As most teachers would agree, a reflective learner is a successful learner. Some of the pupils commented that they had never really thought about some of obstacles to achievement or negative aspects of their own personalities highlighted by the MTQ48. Merely naming them seemed to have an effect and they were open to reflecting on how they generally performed in certain situations and how to improve on that performance.

There is a growing interest among teachers in emotional intelligence and coaching techniques, including strategies borrowed from CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming), as well as more traditional concepts like “character building”. Movements such as the Mindfulness in Schools8 project and Curee9 are developing apace, with teachers looking to understand the whole child rather than just “teaching to the test”. These are important developments in schools dedicated to closing the achievement gap, where changing the mindsets and attitudes of both young people and their teachers is a key challenge for school leaders.

Rose Donald, director of teaching and learning at the Capital City Academy in North London, recalls an outward bound course designed for year eleven problematic students likely to underperform at GCSE—those with specific learning difficulties, persistent truants or children looked after, for instance—which had a remarkably transforming effect. They all did better than predicted and although Rose was not aware of MTQ48 at the time, with hindsight she felt that what they had acquired through the various activities was mental
toughness. The experience strengthened their ability to rise to the challenge, overcome obstacles, develop resilience. It had taught them to be aspirational.

 
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