06 Oct 2017

Alex Hems: Head's Blog Oct 6, 2017

Alex Hems for websiteCan Resilience be taught? 

Resilience is one of the big buzzwords in education at the moment, and it is certainly an attribute that we all recognise as important in any successful adult. It encompasses the ability to recover quickly from setbacks, to respond positively to change, to see the opportunities in life, not just the challenges. We felt it was an area that we wanted to focus on this session at St George's, and we were delighted that we were able to welcome Mollie Hughes to the school last Friday, to speak to girls from Junior School upwards at different points throughout the day. At 26, Mollie is the youngest woman in the world to have climbed Mount Everest from both the North and the South sides, having completed her second ascent earlier this year. One of the most extraordinary aspects of Mollie's achievement is the fact that she does not like heights, and therefore, as she explained, overcoming her own fears was a crucial step if she was to succeed in the goal she had set for herself. Needless to say, watching footage of her crossing a deep crevasse, and hearing the sound of her crampons clinking on the unforgiving and insubstantial looking metal ladder that she was walking across, was fairly challenging for the audience in the RMC last week, but vividly brought to life what the conquest of fear might mean. One of Mollie's key messages for the girls was to remember that little steps still count, and that if you take enough small steps in the right direction, and keep on going, you will reach your goal. This was vividly brought home by another clip, this one filmed at over 8000m, where lack of oxygen meant that Mollie had to pause to recover after every painful step forward, but with the summit in sight, she pressed on.

The girls were clearly inspired by what they had heard and of course we hope that some of Mollie's energy and positive approach to life will have rubbed off on them. Resilience, like happiness, however, surely has to come from within. There are certainly people who seem to have very high levels of natural resilience, but that does not mean that it cannot be fostered in us all. Research suggests that a key factor in generating resilience in children, aside from having a strong relationship with a parent, teacher or carer, is what is known as an 'internal locus of control'. This means that a resilient adult or child will perceive themselves to be in control of their own fate, an active agent in determining their own outcomes. As parents and teachers, this is something that we can undoubtedly influence. The language that we use, our own responses to adversity which will be unconsciously absorbed by the children and young people around us, the kind of play that we allow them to experience, are all powerful factors in instilling this sense of self-belief early in life. If we clear the path before our children of all obstacles in their way, they will never learn to negotiate difficulty for themselves. None of us wishes to see an unhappy child, of course, but a child who has never had to work hard to overcome a challenge has learned only at a very superficial level. They will not develop the capacity, or the knowledge of their own abilities, that they will need to draw on when they encounter any one of the 'thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to', in other words, the ups and downs of normal life. Of course, in an educational context we manage levels of difficulty and challenge so that they are appropriate for the age and stage of the child, whereas in life that is not always possible, and sometimes children are unavoidably faced with situations from which we would much rather protect them.

This term at St George's we are reflecting particularly on Approach to Learning, and we are piloting using an Approach to Learning grade with Remove through to Upper 4, to help the girls to think not only about what they are achieving but about the steps that they take for themselves along the way: organisation, their own engagement and work ethic, the level of independence that they show as learners, their response to feedback and finally their willingness to embrace challenge. Girls in Lower School are keen to collect their PROUD points, which require them to be Up for a Challenge and Determined among other things. We hope that by focusing attention on the processes of learning, and highlighting the degree to which an individual can take control of her own progress, we are helping to build that sense of an 'inner locus of control' that is at the heart of longer term success and true resilience.

Mrs Alex Hems MA Oxon
Head, St George's School for Girls

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