In this Educational Insights Series, experts from across the Wellington College group give advice, practical help and tips for parents who are keen to give further support for their children’s learning. In this article from the series, Julian Jeffrey discusses “How to help children with the feeling of anxiety and self-doubt?”
The second short break of the term is ongoing this week, and I know that members of our community will be using the time to recharge their mental batteries for the final six weeks of 2019. For pupils in Years 2-10, though, the holiday is just a brief pause before their termly assessment week (18-22nd November). As such, they will need to use the time to prepare by revising the work covered in class since August. The results will give an invaluable insight into the attainment and progress of our learners, as well as indicators of the next steps for each child.
The overwhelming majority of children take such examinations in their stride, but for a significant number, they can provoke feelings of acute anxiety and self-doubt. For such youngsters, the pressure of succeeding in examinations, or indeed, in schools in general, can become a source of lasting trauma, ultimately damaging to both a child’s academic progress and long-term wellbeing. Any parent who has witnessed a child struggling with such emotions will know exactly what I mean, and will also know your feelings of helplessness in the face of such a reaction.
Wellington is well-placed to offer support to children who experience such challenging emotional responses. The nature of an international school is that it has pupils at all age levels for whom the qualification, and even the very language of tuition, is unfamiliar. Our determination to provide the best outcomes for our examination candidates means we inevitably compare ourselves, and our results, to those of the best schools in the UK and internationally. There are also, of course, the expectations of home: no child wants to let his or her parents down by underperforming, and as the pathway into top university places becomes ever more competitive, this too can place an added burden on a young person.
Aside from the work, we do on wellbeing and pastoral support in the school – much of which is centred on improving interpersonal skills, time management and examination preparation – we are also developing some research work on one specific area of child development; addressing low levels of learner self-regard. The data we track is produced by the children when they do their annual PASS test. PASS stands for Pupil Attitudes to Self and School and generates a report we use to assess the impact of pastoral work across the school. As the title suggests, it is not a test of knowledge, but rather looks at the different ways pupils perceive their ability to succeed in school. There are nine categories, but for us, the one which triggers most interest is the third of them: learner self-regard. The official guide to the PASS test says this about the category, “equivalent to self-worth, this measure is focused quite specifically on learning. Unlike self-esteem, self-regard, therefore, shows a strong correlation with achievement.” You can see from this how significant the implications of a low score in this category can be for a child. It is often the highest potential achievers, those with a genuine prospect of getting the best grades and accessing the world’s top universities, who register the lowest scores. Put simply, some of them do not believe that they are capable of achieving high grades, even though they may well be working for long hours at their schoolwork.
For parents who have had first-hand experience of a child with such low regard as a learner, you will know all too well that reassurances about ability and talent appear to have little or no impact. Our teachers also find it hard to encourage a child who does not believe they can succeed, despite all the evidence to the contrary. This may well be because the response is not an intellectual one, but rather an emotional reaction to a situation in which the child feels themselves to be outside their comfort zone, and no longer ‘in control’. The links to more serious, and longer-term, mental health issues are obvious. In a recent study in the UK, “19% of 7-14 year-olds had low or moderately low attitudes to…self-regard”. Wellington’s data is much more promising than this level indicated in the UK, but nevertheless, it is the category that scores most consistently below that of the others, so it has become a focal point for the work done across the school this year.
How is Wellington working to combat these feelings of academic inadequacy? The first thing to say is that children can improve their sense of being effective learners; interventions such as the ones listed below can and do make a real difference, as has been shown in our annual PASS tests and comparative historical data.
- A key initial step is, to identify the pupils who report lower than expected levels of self-regard. This is relatively simple as all pupils from Years 5-13 take the PASS test each year, and from the results, we monitor the responses of individuals. Instead of relying on a mass of faceless data, therefore, we can use specific, bespoke intervention strategies to help pupils to improve.
- We have put together a team of staff to serve as mentors to those pupils who have registered the lowest scores. Mr Roundell has organised a group of our most experienced adults, carefully selected to pair up with an individual child and offer a coaching programme over the course of the year. The aim is to give our most vulnerable learners a sympathetic, trusted adult to work with on matters that concern them. We have included some of our most committed colleagues from the non-academic team in this mentor programme as well, as they have all had training in coaching others and helping people to resolve issues through reflection and support.
- One of the common factors behind low levels of self-regard as a learner is poor self-confidence. Those pupils who find setbacks hard to deal with, or who are afraid to make mistakes, need help to build up their resilience. I have written a great deal about the need to develop this in our pupils as a part of helping them to prepare for the uncertainties of adult life. The recent bestseller Grit by Angela Duckworth is now widely available in translation, and I strongly recommend her work to parents. At its most basic level, she argues that the emphasis on developing young people should focus more on effort (the ‘grit’ of the book’s title) than on some concept of inherent ability. Building up an individual’s ability and willingness to keep going, no matter the challenge that faces them helps to establish genuine resilience. This helps to prevent too much emphasis on external factors, such as luck or talent and gives the individual the power to overcome adversity.
- We aim to work more closely with the parents of those children who need our help most. This can be a richly rewarding experience for both parent and child, as a dialogue based around data such as that generated by PASS helps to depersonalise some of the issues around the challenges of school. Parents understandably can get frustrated if their child has high levels of reported potential, but then seems to struggle to convert that into a really successful school career: as so often in the world, “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner” (to understand all is to forgive all).
The overall aim, therefore, is to build capacity in our children to face the challenges and complexities of life with targeted support, training and wider understanding. Through collaborative work, focused on the intervention programmes I referred to above, I think we can show some really meaningful progress in making our pupils’ lives richer and more fulfilling. In that way, they too can all enjoy the benefits of a few days of holiday, rather than face the prospect of assessment week with trepidation.
 Angela Duckworth, Grit: the power of passion and perseverance, London 2017