Help forward-looking teens to get ahead

19th January 2018 at 00:00
Early research shows that focusing on the future can improve adolescents’ learning and wellbeing

Adolescence is lived in a vivid present tense. It’s an intense time when new emotions, interests and obsessions can overwhelm, and any thoughts of mortgages and pensions belong in a distant parallel universe.

Yet what if simply thinking about the future held out the prospect of improving children’s life chances? If breaking out of the bubble of the present could improve their health – both mental and physical – and help them get more out of their education?

That was the prospect presented by a keynote speaker, Dr Michael McKay, at the most recent annual gathering of Scotland’s educational psychologists. The University of Liverpool research fellow is an expert in a “temporal” understanding of psychology, the idea that we don’t all relate to the past, present and future in the same way.

Teenagers may find it hard to look forward, says McKay, or, as an extreme example, a person who has suffered abuse will struggle to see beyond their traumatic past. Research in this area of psychology has largely focused on university students, but McKay says there is compelling data emerging that suggests thinking more clearly about the future may help improve young people’s lives, including their educational prospects.

‘Positive time attitude’

“There’s something around the way in which adolescents perceive time, how they feel about the past and the present or future, that predicts quite important health outcomes,” says McKay, who has accrued some of his data from Inverclyde schools and hopes to do more work in Scotland. A “positive time attitude” – where young people think positively and clearly about the future – appears strongly linked to good health and mental wellbeing and abstinence from drugs such as nicotine and cannabis.

McKay stresses that research in this area is still at a relatively early stage, but that helping young people think differently about time could provide a tool to help tackle myriad social and educational problems. He speaks of a research colleague in Uruguay who found that teachers who used the word “future” repeatedly helped children become “more future-oriented and led them to be more aspirational in terms of their academic outcomes”.

“If we can get people to think more positively about the future – and maybe reframe their past and their present – even to a marginal degree, it could be that these have health, social and emotional outcomes, without ever having to mention the words ‘health’, ‘social’ and ‘emotions’,” he says.

People who are more “future-focused”, the theory goes, are more likely to adhere to medical advice or to persevere with education if they can more clearly see the benefits of doing so. Data from universities in the US, says McKay, “clearly demonstrated that grade-point average is related to the way that people perceive time”. He adds: “To me, it’s a reasonable working hypothesis that the more that we can get people to be considerate of the future, the less likely they are to compromise that future by doing stupid things now.”

Uncertainty and unpredictability

Educationalist and former secondary headteacher Frank Lennon says: “It is certainly true in my experience that young people whose lives are filled with economic, emotional or psychological turmoil tend to focus on the present – getting through the day or week is far more important than anything else. This is also true of those who, at a less traumatic level, go through periods of major uncertainty and unpredictability in their lives.”

However, he adds: “For children in both circumstances, the idea that they can be made to be ‘considerate of the future’ by professional interventions and thereby have a greater chance of faring well in life seems to me to be highly questionable.”

Lennon says that preventing poverty and psychological distress would be a better way to reduce the chances that young people will “compromise their future”.

Gordon Cairns, a teacher and education writer, says McKay’s views echo some of his own experiences in the classroom: “Pupils can’t grasp the concept of themselves as adults and so don’t think about consequences.” But he stresses that “simply thinking about the future is a bit too nebulous”. Instead, Cairns has written about using face-ageing technology to motivate pupils to work towards future goals (“How face-ageing apps can help pupils to plan their futures”, Tes, 2 November 2017).

He had been intrigued to read about Princeton University researchers who found that thinking about your future self can positively influence behaviour in the present, if a physical image of how you might look in the future is used.

“If you’re fighting the temptation to eat a whole box of deliciously sticky doughnuts, looking at a picture of your face in 10 years’ time will help you to make the right choice – in this case, to not eat all the cakes,” says Cairns.

Cairns has used a face-aging app – AgingBooth – with 14-year-old pupils when they are losing focus: he asks them to get their phone out, look at their older self and imagine how that person would want them to behave. He admits this is not scientific, but has seen early signs of a positive short-term impact on pupils’ attitudes to work and their behaviour.


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