What makes a child do well in school? The obvious answers are a terrific school, well-run lessons, skilled teachers, and a creative curriculum.
At Alice Smith, we have high expectations of all, we believe in knowing each student as an individual and equipping them appropriately for their own futures. In preparing young people for the ‘international’ world, it is vital that we provide them with the opportunities to develop informed aspirations for the future, confidence in their own abilities, useful transferable skills, up to date knowledge and an understanding of the melting pot of cultures and belief systems that they will encounter in their further education and future careers. But what else does a student need to succeed?
There is growing evidence that character traits such as resilience, persistence, optimism and courage actively contribute to improved academic grades and success. In her recent article in the Independent newspaper (14th January 2014), Hilary Wilce defines six key qualities that parents can foster in their children that will help them do their very best in school. These are:
1. Joie de vivre
The ability to love and appreciate life might sound wishy-washy in the hard world of exam results, but love and security feed a host of qualities that great learners need. These include the ability to be open and receptive, to be willing and to feel connected.
Meanwhile, cultivating an attitude of appreciation means being able to enjoy the journey of learning, wonder at nature, relish a good story, feel good about achievements, and enjoy the companionship of the classroom. All of which, in turn, feed confidence, excitement and curiosity back into the learning loop.
For years, resilience has been known to be essential for great learning. Martin Seligman, the US psychology professor who has studied this extensively, has shown that it helps children think more flexibly and realistically, be more creative and ward off depression and anxiety.
Resilient children give things a try. They understand that learning has plenty of setbacks and that they can overcome them. Resilient children talk to themselves differently from non- resilient ones, and don't turn mistakes into catastrophes ("I've failed my maths test, it's a disaster. I'll never get maths!").
Instead, they look at a wider, more positive picture ("Ugh, that was a horrible test, and I messed up, but I didn't do enough work. Next time I'll do more revision, and it'll probably be a better paper as well").
There are many famous pieces of research that show that children's ability to control their impulses appears to lead to better health, wealth and mental happiness in later life. In school, self-discipline is central.
Great learners need to listen, absorb and think. They need to keep going through difficult patches, stick at hard tasks, manage their time well and keep mental focus. Children who bounce about the classroom shouting the first answer that comes into their heads will never be great learners.
Of course, a joyless, overly controlled child will never be one either. Balance matters. All children need is to develop a functioning "internal locus of control".
Honesty matters for great learning because its opposites – deception and self-deception – hinder progress. Great learners don't say "I'm brilliant at science" but, "I'm OK on photosynthesis, but not sure I've mastered atomic structure yet." This attitude needs to start early.
The Pre-schooler who speaks up and asks what a word means in a story, rather than pretending to know, is already on the way to being a skilful learner. Honesty allows children to build good links with teachers and mentors. It grows confidence, attracts goodwill, and gives children an infallible compass with which to steer their learning.
Learning anything – piano, physics, tennis – is about approaching the unknown, and stepping up to new challenges. Great learners are just as frightened of this as others, but can overcome their fear and find focus.
They are able to try, fail, and try again. They can also navigate school life skilfully. Children need moral courage to turn away from distractions and to be willing to be seen as "a geek" if they want to study, while developing courage also helps them to stand their ground through the temptations of the teenage years.
Great learners are kind to themselves. They understand that learning is sometimes hard, and not always possible to get right, but keep a "good" voice going in their heads to encourage themselves on.
A kind disposition also draws other people to them and bolsters their learning through the help and support of others, as well as allowing them to work productively in teams and groups. A kind disposition also feeds listening and empathy, which in turn foster deeper, more complex learning.
All these character qualities are great for learning – and also for life. Research shows that they help people build more confidence, face challenges better, earn more money, have more satisfying careers, build stronger relationships, and keep depression and anxiety at bay.
Hilary Wilce is an education writer, consultant and parent coach. Her latest book is 'Backbone: How to Build the Character Your Child Needs to Succeed'.
Head of Curriculum Team - Languages