The latest study on Mental Toughness sometimes termed grit or character) was designed to address the question “What is the state of “soft skills” development in Independent Schools and how did it compare with data from State Schools”. At this stage it doesn’t attend to questions such as, “Why is there a difference and what can both the independent school sector and the State school sector learn from the differences?”
Mental Toughness is a personality trait which describes to a significant extent how we respond mentally to stress, pressure, challenge and opportunity. It describes “how we think” which is an important determinant on “how we act” (behaviour) and “how we feel” (our emotional response to events). Research shows that an individual’s mental toughness is a factor in attainment, well-being, positive behaviour and aspirations. Often described as life skills; all are important in education.
Possibly the most interesting set of results was the trend across age (year groups). This showed that across the whole sample, scores for pupils in Years 5 & 6 (generally 9 and 10 year olds) were at a reasonable level. In Year 7 there was a slight fall off (possibly explained by the impact of transition to secondary school). However there was a significant falling away in Years 8 & 9. The scores show an upward trend from years 10 through to Year 13 but appear to be broadly in line with the original scores at Year 6.
This is interesting for a number of reasons. This is consistent with what we have found in many state schools – albeit in much smaller samples. It has recently been the subject of discussion in the UK – Years 8 & 9 are often called the “lost years”. Like any good study, it directs our attention to some important questions. Could flattening the dip enable mental toughness develop to a higher level – with its consequential benefits in exam performance, well -being (mental health) and behaviour?
Secondly, why does this dip occur? An area ripe for research, several hypotheses have been offered ranging from hormonal changes in adolescents, a lack of awareness about what is happening through to schools prioritising exam years and underplaying the importance of pupil development in the these middle years. The answer possibly lies in a combination of these hypotheses.
Even more interesting is the observation that looking at data by component (the 4Cs – Confidence, Control, Commitment & Challenge) shows that there are different patterns emerging. The most severe dip appears to occur with the Life Control subscale (this is where the sense of “can do” sits) and recovers slowly. Commitment (goal orientation) dips and never fully recovers. Both are important in attainment and well-being. The Interpersonal Confidence on the other hand increases steadily over the whole period with no perceptible dip in Years 8 and 9.
Developing these life skills and developing mental toughness purposefully in Years 7 – 10 is perfectly possible. The tools and techniques are there. They are easily built into curriculum. What might be required is a better more holistic approach to soft skills development.
The obvious question is why does that occur? It clearly needs further research, but we think that it might be that all schools are doing something in terms of developing these soft skills but that most are focusing on one aspect or another where they might more usefully adopt a more balanced approach across the range of life skills.
Thanks to Doug Strycharczyk for authoring this article (with a few adaptations from me).
A copy of the full report is available here: soft-value-added-final-report-2017-22122016