Journalist and Writer
Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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Six of the Best: traits your child needs to succeed

Published By: The Independent - 23 Oct 2013

What makes a child do well in school?

When I ask parents that question, they always have lots of great answers. A high IQ. A terrific school. Well-run lessons. Skilled teachers. A creative curriculum. High expectations.

In fact, although these things all help, the real secret of great learning lies elsewhere altogether – inside children themselves.

Increasingly researchers are discovering that what children bring to the classroom matters every bit – and in many ways more – than what the classroom can offer to them.
Children with the attitudes and dispositions that encourage good learning will manage to flourish even in a mediocre school, while those who come with a mind-set that hampers learning won’t be able to make much even of the best educational opportunities. Numerous studies in the US and elsewhere show that test scores leap up, often by more than 10 per cent, when children are encouraged to develop good attitudes towards themselves and their learning.

As a result, schools around the world are starting to offer programmes to help their students develop key character strengths. A recent ‘positive education’ conference at Wellington College drew participants from the US, Singapore and Australia to discuss how teachers can help students grow their inner cores.

But parents have been left out of this learning loop, and often don’t realise that there is far more to securing a good education for their children than simply bagging a place at the best school in the neighbourhood -- schools and teachers can only turn children into terrific learners if those children’s parents are laying down the foundations at home that will encourage pupils to step up to the challenges of the classroom.

My new book examines the growing evidence that character traits like resilience, persistence, optimism and courage actively contribute to improved academic grades. And it looks at six key qualities that parents can foster in their children that will help them do their very best in school. These are:

The ability to love and appreciate life. This 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.

The ability to be resilient For years resilience has been known to be essential for great learning. Martin Seligman, the US psychology professor who has studied this more than anyone in the world, has shown that it helps children think more flexibly and realistically, be more creative and keep depression and anxiety at bay. Resilient children give things a try. They understand that learning has plenty of set-backs 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 screwed 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.”)

The ability to be self-disciplined 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. And in school self-discipline is central. Great learners need to be able 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. A child who bounces about the classroom shouting the first answer that comes into their head will never be a great learner. Of course, a joyless, overly-controlled child will never be one either. Balance matters. But any child needs to develop a functioning “internal locus of control”, if they are to make the most of their education.

The ability to be honest. Honesty matters for great learning because its opposites – deception and self-deception – hinder progress. Great learners don’t say “I’m brilliant at science, me” but, “I’m ok on photosynthesis, but not sure I’ve nailed atomic structure yet.” And this 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 a child an infallible compass to steer their learning by.

The ability to be courageous Learning anything – piano, physics, tennis -- is about approaching the unknown, and stepping to new challenges. Great learners are just as frightened of this as other people, 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 in class and to be willing to be seen as ‘a geek’ if they want to study, while developing courage also helps them stand their ground through the temptations of the teenage years.

The ability to be kind. 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, both of 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. Yet, sadly, current figures also show that increasing numbers of children are growing up with less ability to control their moods, direct their actions, or show empathy and self-mastery, while many mental health problems, including eating disorders and self-harming, are on the rise.

Our children badly need us to help them develop stronger, more flexible backbones, and all the qualities that contribute to a strong inner core can be actively fostered and encouraged by parents. (Parents and schools working together is even better!) Just as muscles grow stronger with regular exercise, so character traits are strengthened by thoughtful encouragement and reinforcement. My book outlines why they matter, and also offers hundreds of practical ways in which this can be done.

• Research shows that what children bring to the classroom contributes as much as to their learning as what the classroom offers them. Good attitudes and dispositions are essential to great learning.
• Schools are increasingly offering programmes in positive thinking, ethics and happiness to encourage these character traits.
• These traits can be described in different ways. My list includes: love and appreciation, resilience, self-control, honesty, courage and kindness.
• All these qualities also foster health, wealth and general happiness in later life.
• Parents can actively encourage these qualities in their children.

Hilary Wilce is an education writer, consultant and parent coach. For ten years she wrote the weekly education advice column, Quandary, for The Independent. Her new book, “BACKBONE – How To Build The Character Your Child Needs To Succeed”, Endeavour Press, is available on Amazon. £2.99.
Contact her through Twitter: Hilary Wilce @hilarywilce.