“I have two alarm clocks. I set one for getting up and another for going to bed. It really helps me make more out of my days.”
These words are not lifestyle advice from a top chief executive in a profile for a weekend supplement. They come from an 11-year-old girl. In specific lessons showing how to best transition into secondary school, she has been taught how to manage herself.
Why? Because moving schools is difficult. Even experienced teachers have problems moving schools: and getting used to the different buildings, different systems and different people. So to help children cope better with this hurdle, it makes sense to explicitly teach them how to do it.
At the heart of the problem and the solution of transition is the adolescent brain. Its aim is to stay alive today, to stay with the in-crowd and to conserve energy. A typical Year 7 child’s ape-brain is likely to worry excessively, to daydream in class and to put off doing homework, especially when it concerns lessons that they find difficult, and when Xboxes and iPhones offer easy entertainment.
My role as head of performance learning at the independent Colfe’s School in London led me to search for a solution that would put Year 7s on an early path to exam success.
It was on this search that I came across psychologist Dr Jon Finn, who drew on his research and experience in professional sport to design a performance psychology programme that can be taught in schools.
Top sportspeople, such as Victoria Pendleton and Jonny Wilkinson, have benefited from learning to use what are known as “metacognition” techniques, and Finn’s programme claims that children can, too.
Learn how the brain works
Drawing on the behaviour change expertise of Jim McKenna, professor of physical activity and health at Leeds Metropolitan University, Finn designed a programme – known as Tougher Minds – in which participants learn how the brain works and why it is tempting to seek short-term gratification rather than persist with long-term aims.
The programme is also peppered with simple, practical techniques to improve self-management a little every day.
In the Year 7 transition programme at Colfe’s School, all pupils now use a bespoke performance planner to help them set targets and, crucially, plan how to achieve them. In addition, each day they assess their sleep, diet and exercise, and plan to improve one of these.
They also create a timeline for their school days and their evenings, identifying challenges and planning how to overcome them. At the day’s close, they reflect with positive weighting on what they have achieved and where they would like to improve.
One girl was initially concerned that filling out the planner would only add to her workload, which was already a great worry to her. She now considers it her prized possession. Evenings packed with homework, swimming lessons and clarinet practice run more smoothly and with significantly less stress once they are planned out. Other pupils have used the planner to break long-established habits, such as packing their bag at the last minute or treating their bedroom floor as a horizontal wardrobe.
Parents are part of the solution, too. More than 200 have participated in six 75-minute small group sessions, using the insights gained to support their children’s use of Tougher Minds techniques at home.
The impact has been significant for us, but is this transferable to other schools? The programme comes at a cost – roughly £2 per head – but we at Colfe’s believe that it is good value for money.
A version of the programme has been delivered in the state sector, at Quintin Kynaston (QK) in North London. The school’s pastoral deputy headteacher, Celeste Fay, says that the approach helped pupils begin to self-manage their respective difficulties. QK parents also engaged with the programme.
How can you get started yourself? Here are some tips to help your Year 7s build resilience during their transition to secondary school:
Aim for every pupil to become the active manager of their own health, happiness and performance. This is not so odd: we expect pupils to complete maths problems and English essays for themselves, so why not teach them the generic skills that can help all subjects and much beyond?
Parental involvement is key. Parents often want to help their children more than they currently do. Whatever enthusiasm you can generate will be valuable. Nurture and grow their involvement.
Sleep, diet and exercise are the cornerstones of increased resilience. Incorporate self-monitoring and planning around these three behaviours into pupils’ daily routine.
Do it yourself. Pupil and teachers share the same space during the day, making them more alike than unalike. Practise what you preach to gain insight into the efforts that resilience-building requires.
Any intervention into pupils’ behaviour or preparation has to be repeated regularly. Teaching resilience is about building habits; one-off sessions do not work.
Andrew Foster is head of performance learning at Colfe’s School, London and works with the Tougher Minds programme. You can find out more about Tougher Minds at bit.ly/TougherMinds