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Habits for a lifetime

Reva Klein on a Californian academic's scheme to remotivate children failing to meet their potential.

In the cities, suburbs and rural towns of America, Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand, children are failing to achieve their potential. They are bored, unmotivated and unable or unwilling to meet the academic demands that are being made of them.

So believes Dr Michael Bernard, associate professor of educational psychology at California State University. His is a vision of children ground down by low expectations, self-esteem and attainment. But he has a remedy: his teeth-clenchingly American-sounding "You Can Do It!" programme has been designed to reverse the trend by changing the attitudes of pupils, schools and parents.

This guy makes Pollyanna look like Eeyore. And in a country for whom Eeyore is something of a spiritual leader, any programme that chivvies us up with exclamation marks and dollops of wholesome aphorisms (example: "The attitudes you need to encourage are: 'The harder I try, the better my success!'") presents a culture gap on the scale of Buckingham Palace versus Roseanne's house. How can you, Dr Bernard, breeze in, all suntanned and boyish from Long Beach, and presume to break through the mindsets that keep Old Blighty what it is today? How dare you tell us to think positive. To adopt a hard work ethic. To be guided by self-discipline and self-belief. Pack up your alfalfa sprouts and go back where you came from!

Except for one small detail. His thinking and his programme are eminently sensible and based on sound principles of child development and psychology. The man's been around, despite looking like he just walked out of his high school yearbook. And despite the simplistic, how-to-do-it tone of his materials for parents, schools and pupils, he knows his stuff. He worked as a child psychologist and academic in Australia for 20 years. In the past nine years, 40 per cent of schools in Australia and New Zealand have adopted the "You Can Do It!" programme. His research data shows that it works. After eight weeks of pupils, teachers and parents keeping to its guidelines and recommendations, reading and maths test results improved significantly.

The whole approach is predicated on the assertion that children need to know who they are and to accept themselves. That they should not be defeated when they fail at something or get frustrated when things aren't entirely to their liking. That they should have an optimistic, hopeful outlook and that they should be comfortable with setting goals for themselves and sticking to them. These are just some of the 11 habits of the mind, as Bernard calls them, that children who follow the programme will learn to adopt (see box).

But aren't these home truths that we all know, understand and try to communicate to children? Of course they are. But Michael Bernard believes that we have veered so far off course that we need to be reinstating these principles in very deliberate ways. "Kids today are more diverse in their needs than they were 30 years ago."

Dr Bernard's answer is not to shake up the system but to shake up our ideas about how to get children achieving and progressing. He has no truck with the state of California's focus on self-esteem work as a way of softening the blow. "It's become a feel-good movement that has taken the challenges away from children. Good self-esteem is led by achievement."

To help pupils achieve, often in difficult, overcrowded classrooms, teachers have to motivate them by teaching habits that will help them cope with the attendant ups and downs of modern school life. In the Bernard scheme, this can simply mean teachers doing what they already know is right and appropriate, but often don't have the time or space to do - things like helping children to organise their time and their work, to plan their activities and homework, to keep to consistent monitoring. This must take on a whole-school dimension if it is to work effectively, so that, in Dr Bernard's words, "the whole school culture acknowledges and respects achievement".

Parents' involvement must go hand-in-hand with the school. This takes on the notion of home-school partnership as going beyond shared reading and initialling homework. Parents must absorb the tenets of these teaching habits and reflect and reinforce them in their dealings with their children. It's hard work, this one, particularly when positive, proactive patterns of behaviour are not in place. But without affirmation of the attitudes in school, a child will ultimately feel unsupported.

But at the end of the day, even with the most supportive schools and parents, it's in the heads of the kids themselves where the most crucial changes have to happen. "We have to nurture kids, to inoculate them to cope with a system that's not meeting their needs. I'm teaching kids to be successful and make the best of whatever school they attend by equipping them with the foundations of learning, habits of the mind that will help them fulfill their potential in the imperfect world in which they find themselves."

Dr Michael Bernard's "You Can Do It" curriculum materials for teachers, parents and children, published by Anglo Scholarships Group, are available through Rob Lowman Associates. Tel: 01283 575671

"Habits Of The Mind": PUPIL Achievement And Motivation. * Goal setting: Ability to do this - short or long term - gives students a big advantage. Finding ways of accomplishing goals requires commitment to learning.

* Time management: When work is set does the student know how to break tasks down into small, manageable parts?

* Internal focus of control for learning: Do your students believe that the harder they try, the better their results will be?

* Optimism: When trying something new or hard does the student expect success, refusing to let mistakes get in the way?

* Reflective problem-solving: When faced with a problem does the student think of different ways she can resolve it? Or does she act impulsively?

* Tolerance of limits: Can the student tolerate rules and limits set by school, recognising that these things assist achievement?

nHigh frustration tolerance: Can the student accept that sometimes school work won't be fun, interesting and exciting? Can she put other things off until the work is done?

nTolerance of others: Humans are fallible and make mistakes but do your students know this? Do they make judgments about people on the basis of one mistake?

* Independence: Does the student believe in herself and know that she doesn't need constant approval to be successful. Can she accept criticism?

* Risk-taking: Does the student believe that trying new and challenging tasks is an essential part of learning?

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