You can teach character and resilience

by Tougher Minds Director, Jon Finn.

Last week the Department of Education launched an award to recognise schools, offering specific programmes to teach pupils character and resilience. This prompted scepticism and a degree of sarcasm in some quarters.

Those who offered critical opinions are failing to understand the importance of what should be regarded as teaching young people how to fulfill their potential in the 21st century. In any case, perhaps much of the criticism was prompted by a lack of understanding about what is exactly meant by these terms and it is helpful to clearly define the concept of character and resilience education, when used in this context. Once the precise meaning is understood, the virtues of purposefully educating young Britons how to focus concentrate, manage confidence, boost motivation and regulate their emotions can be fully explored.

The terms character and resilience certainly could have many definitions, however, the Department of Education is using the understanding outlined in the All Party Parliamentary Group Character and Resilience Manifesto (2014). That uses ‘character and resilience’ as umbrella terms for ‘the attributes that enable individuals to make the most of opportunities, to stick with things when the going gets tough, to bounce back from adversity and to forge meaningful relationships’.

Another helpful definition comes from think-tank Demos, which, following their Character Inquiry in 2011, identified application, self-direction, self-control and empathy as key ‘character capabilities’.

My understanding is that the overriding principle within the Department of Education’s interpretation of ‘character and resilience’ is self-control. Professor Roy Baumeister, one of the world’s leading psychologists, labels self-control as the greatest human strength. That is an understanding, which is supported by research programmes that have operated since the early 1960’s. Professor Terrie Moffit and her colleagues recently published one such study. It consolidated much of what the scientific community thought that it understood about the importance of self-control.

The paper was titled ‘A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety’. It tracked a group of a 1,000 children from birth to 32 years. The data showed that an individual’s ability to deploy childhood self-control predicted adulthood physical health, substance dependence, personal finances, and criminal offending outcomes. Moffit and colleagues conclude their paper by suggesting that ‘interventions addressing self-control might reduce a panoply of social problems and their associated costs, save taxpayers money, and promote prosperity’. My understanding is that a young Briton who can deploy self-control will be happier, healthier and better able to positively contribute to society than a counterpart, who is not able to deliberately regulate their impulses.

The scientific community is clear that ‘character and resilience’ in the guise of self-control, is an essential ability for humans who want to flourish in the 21st century. However, scientific evidence also shows that different individuals have different abilities to deploy self-control. Some are very good, some are very poor, and some are in between.

The genesis of this understanding is rooted in the Marshmallow Test, which was devised by one of the world’s most prominent psychologists, Walter Mishel. This programme of research showed that different children had variable abilities to suppress their homo sapien survival impulse to pursue a fast reward: every child had different self-control skills. However, the good news is that children can also be shown how to improve their self-control skills.

Jon Finn outlines Tougher Minds techniques at Colfe's School

Jon Finn outlines Tougher Minds techniques at Colfe’s School

Self-control abilities are not a case of nature versus nurture, but nature plus nurture, where environments can be as deterministic as we once believed only genes could be, and the genome can be as malleable as we once believe only environments could be. Those seeking academic validation of this notion, should read the finding from cutting edge research in the article by Francis & Kaufer in 2011.

Another of the world’s most prominent scientists, Professor Richard Davidson, has recently written how neurobiological evidence shows that brain circuits underlying self-control are highly plastic, and can change in response to practice. Mental training in the guise of affect labeling and reappraisal can improve brain structure and function, which is relevant to successful self-control.

This aspect of his work is concerned with neurobiological processes and showing that training broadly results in reduced activation in areas of the brain involved in emotional processing (amygdala, parahippocampal gyrus). This, in turn, means that individuals who have trained in these mental skills require less regulatory resources to reduce emotional impulses that can so often limit our ability to use self-control. The research also suggests that an individual can change their emotional temperament if they are exposed to effective training. The challenge now is to understanding how effective and efficient different types of training can be transferred into schools, to help more young Britons improve their character and resilience abilities.

With this understanding, the Department of Education are using an award to promote the very best current efforts in schools to develop character and resilience.  The award is aligned with what big data from neuroscience and psychology says is required to flourish as a human in the 21st century. Purposeful character and resilience programmes, which explicitly teach pupils how to focus, concentrate, manage confidence, boost motivation and regulate emotions, are in their early stages. However, significant progress is being made in understanding how to teach young people these skills so they successfully deploy the type of self-control, which can help them to live happy, healthy and meaningful lives.

If you feel Tougher Minds can help you or your organisation, or if you would like to know more about our performance programmes for education or business, please contact us today.

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