Positivity is all in the mind

17th January 2014 at 00:00

How often have you heard a teacher bemoan that such-and-such a child has a "bad attitude"? I vividly remember being called to a classroom when I was a headteacher to remove a boy for persistent poor behaviour. When I got there, the teacher launched into a very public tirade about the child and how it all came down to his poor attitude.

The remarkable thing was that in classes that morning I had observed the same child engaging and learning in a very positive manner, in a subject area not that different from the one I was about to take him out of that afternoon.

Looking at the research, it seems as though "attitude" is what happens when a person has a settled way of thinking or feeling about something. It is this disposition, or inclination to a certain type of thinking, that then becomes a predisposition. If repeated often enough, this predisposition transforms itself into a recurrent pattern of behaviour and an associated state of mind. In other words, attitude can be habitual.

To return to our young boy with the "bad attitude", he had obviously developed a predisposition to believe that things were not going to go well for him in that particular class. He was therefore inclined to misbehave, or at the very least disengage. In his other classes, meanwhile, he had a different inclination - one that disposed him towards positive participation.

So why was his attitude so different in these two adjacent classrooms? One can only put it down to the learning environment established by the teacher. In one class, the teacher sought to engage and stimulate the young people's curiosity, while in the other the material was delivered almost regardless of the children.

And my point is? Attitude is never fixed. It can always be influenced, especially if someone can be brought to appreciate the pleasure to be gained through a particular activity.

To that end, my own personal definition of attitude is that it is what a person "carries into a room". And just as with any burden, it can be set down and exchanged.

This, of course, goes for teachers just as much as for their students. Plenty of them are described by their school leaders as having a "bad attitude" because, just like the boy in the classroom, they have become predisposed to be negative and critical and to disengage from the school agenda. But the fault does not always lie with them. For if we accept that attitude is not fixed, it is possible to help them to change.

However, as with the student, they won't mend their ways just because you tell them to. Instead, look at the environment you have established and the degree of pleasure to be gained from active participation.

There is no better feeling for a teacher or a leader than to see an individual gradually set aside a negative attitude and become an active and positive participant. Now that's what I call teaching.

Don Ledingham is director of innovation leadership at personal development consultancy Drummond International.

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