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Performance, behaviour, and career aspirations of students in secondary education—mental toughness case study

David Ayre and Damian Allen

Modern society and the demands of twenty-first century life constantly challenge us to deal with difficult and often stressful events that change our lives. Many people react with a

flood of strong emotions and a sense of uncertainty. Yet, people, particularly young people, generally adapt well over time to life-changing situations and traumatic conditions. Why are we sometimes able to do this well and in others cases, with little or no success?

The point that children anywhere can achieve, irrespective of their background, is an important one, but it is essential to see resilience within the broadest possible set of determinants. This is an emerging area of debate that is far from clear, but it is well understood that it is important to gain a more complete understanding of the cognitive function of children and young people so we can better help them develop. With developments in neuroscience and psychology this is increasingly possible.

To a large degree, this course of action requires mental and emotional resilience and toughness—an ongoing process that requires time and effort, and engages people in taking a number of steps, or very often, predetermined and well planned interventions.

Developing mental toughness and resilience is a personal journey—individuals and in particular young people, do not all react the same way to pressure, demands, and stressful life events. An approach to building mental toughness and resilience that works for one person might not work for another.

The ever increasing understanding of, and appetite for, resilience and mental toughness building interventions means that there is the potential to impact not only on children and young people, but on the institutions that support them, as it aids their strategic commissioning and allows them to target their resources to an intervention that clearly has a positive impact.

The impact of various different pieces of Government legislation and policy positioning, it was felt, did not do justice to the necessity of considering the impact on the resilience of children and young people. From the removal of the EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) grant for students, to the implications of the Tickell and Wolf reviews, there is a great body of evidence that leads to the conclusion of specified support for children and young people being a prerequisite for their success, without being explicit.

The work of eminent academics such as Sarah Jane Blakemore1 at University College London has seen the subject of neuroscience come to the fore in the last three years, and a paper on adolescent brain development by the DofE research department was the first indication of the Government beginning to take the subject area as a serious concern.

Underpinned by the work of John Abbott,2 and various international studies, we were keen to explore the potential benefits for ourselves, and continued to build on this for over six years.

Initial pilots in Knowsley

In Knowsley we measured the resilience of our students, using the mental toughness MTQ48 questionnaire. This work showed that there is a close correlation between an individual's mental toughness and their performance in tests, their aspirations and their wellbeing. However, it also revealed a negative skew in the results of cohorts of pupils, indicating the effect of a broader cultural deficit at play in the borough.

The evidence would suggest that the ability of a young person to achieve cannot simply be explained by a genetic or innate predisposition; the effects of poor conditions in localities such as
Knowsley impacts on the mental toughness and resilience of the children and young people that live there. In effect, this prevents them from developing the levels of resilience necessary to fulfil their full potential.

Mental toughness was first established in Knowsley as part of the “Targeted Youth Support Pathfinder”3 which began in 2006. This project was to test the hypothesis that mental toughness is related to performance, behaviour, and wellbeing.

The whole mental toughness concept was originally used with year ten and year eleven pupils in helping them to achieve maximum attainment and to help them fulfil their potential.

In 2007, All Saints Centre for Learning participated in the Deep Support Programme, which aimed to increase students' level of self-worth and resilience.

In 2009 the Firm Foundations Programme4 (a cross-borough programme across secondary schools focused on improving English and maths GCSE performance) used the MTQ48 with those pupils at risk of underperforming. Staff were trained in giving feedback and providing interventions.

These pilots built on a commitment from senior management to mental toughness, and were underpinned by the Mental Toughness Strategy. Following work on SEAL (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) and TaMHS (Targeted Mental Health in Schools) it was decided that the work, whilst promising, failed to yield the defensible evidence that was craved.

The schools in Knowsley were broadly supportive of the work, and once presented with the evidence of the efficacy of the interventions, were keen to see the work continue.

 
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