"Developing life skills and mental toughness is perfectly possible. The tools and techniques are there."

Posted on: 19 Jan 2017

Having conducted research into soft skills and mental toughness at independent schools, Doug Strycharczyk, Managing Director of AQR International looks at what the results may mean and how they can now be used.

Today's schooling is a results business. But ask any teacher or school leader what matters to them most, it's as likely to be the welfare of their pupils as the GCSE and A level grades they achieve.

With child mental health firmly on the political agenda we see and hear much about how provision in this area is potentially lacking. Government, schools and parents are all being told they could and should be doing more to combat what may become a 'crisis'.

How then do we actually go about improving wellbeing whilst maintaining focus on pupil attainment? And perhaps crucially, how can we shift the focus to prevention?

Research by AQR International, published by the Independent Schools Council, puts figures on different areas of what we call 'mental toughness'. We believe this work can now help schools focus on how they can go about boosting pupil welfare.

Mental toughness is a personality trait which describes how we respond to stress, pressure, challenge and opportunity. It describes 'how we think' which is an important determinant on 'how we act' and 'how we feel'. An individual's mental toughness is a factor in attainment, wellbeing, positive behaviour and aspiration.

In short, mental toughness is the 'mindset that every person adopts in everything they do'.

To quantify mental toughness we used our well-evidenced 'MTQ48 psychometric' to measure mental toughness across its four components - Control, Commitment, Challenge and Confidence - the 4Cs. Individual results are scored on a 1-10 scale (which, for the technically savvy is a normally distributed sten scale).

The clearest thing to note from our research of 10,000 pupils of all ages in 60 independent schools is that on average children aren't necessarily lacking confidence.

An average Confidence score of 4.47 is the highest score for the 4Cs and is higher than the total average mental toughness. It mirrors closely the level of Confidence seen in state school children. Clearly our children believe they have ability (or at least think they can find the ability), can engage with others, ask questions and stand their ground.

However, if we then look at Control - the ability to manage emotion and really be in charge of the ability to get things done - results for independent school pupils are slightly higher than scores for state school pupils

Sitting in the middle of these outliers are Commitment (setting goals and keeping promises) and Challenge (taking risks, being unafraid, learning from experience and giving things another go). There the gap widens in favour of independent school pupils to more than 0.5 in each.

By splitting mental toughness into the 4Cs, schools can look at their wellbeing provision in distinct chunks and add focus and value where it is most needed.

Overall it seems a strong focus on confidence building is not sufficient to develop the rounded life skills schools could usefully be looking elsewhere, on areas such as emotion, goals and facing setback. Schools might usefully look at developing complementary areas such as emotional control, managing goals and aspirations and showing pupils that they can learn from their setbacks as well as their successes.

The report shows average scores across the sector for mental toughness and each of its factors. However, the term average will mean that some schools achieve better scores and some score lower. And we see variation in results for each of the factors across different schools. The obvious question is why does that occur? This 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.

Much of the development activity needed can be comfortably incorporated into lessons and can be tailored around needs. It is also useful to develop emphasis in activities beyond the classroom in sports, societies, drama and other ventures.

It is perhaps the broader range of extra-curricular activities available in independent schools and time spent outside the formal curriculum that account for higher average scores in three of the four Cs. It could also be argued that the greater capacity for independent schools to build-in mental toughness is an important step towards university, career and life success.

What else have we learned?

Possibly the most interesting results were seen across different year groups. At Years 5 and 6 we see reasonable scores, before a slight drop in Year 7 and a significant falling away in Years 8 and 9. This bounces back in Year 10 before growing consistently to Year 13, ending up broadly in line with the original scores at year 6.

On a graph this gives us a U-shaped curve, consistent with what we have found in many state schools - something which has recently been the subject of discussion in the UK. Years 8 and 9 are often called the 'lost years', coming after transition to senior school but before the intense process of public examinations beginning in Year 10.

Because we know mental toughness correlates with attainment, could a concerted effort to flatten the dip by focusing more on the middle school years enable mental toughness to develop to a higher level in later years, with its consequential benefits in exam performance, wellbeing and behaviour?

Developing life skills and mental toughness purposefully in Years 7 to 10 is perfectly possible. The tools and techniques are there. They are easily built into curriculum.

Ultimately the purpose of this study was to pin down some evidence around some of the myths and ideas that circulate in education. The study has done that and it has shown its value in signposting schools and educators generally to where productive development can take place. It is continuous improvement in action and valuable learning for all schools.

(Blog supported by Peter Clough, Professor of Applied Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University, research moderator).


About Doug Strycharczyk

Doug Strycharczyk is managing director of leading psychometric test publisher AQR International.