What we sought to implement, why, and how we went about this
There is evidence, both nationally and internationally, of the efficacy of mental toughness and the psychometric test used to monitor change, MTQ48. In education, mental toughness can be applied to all ages from pre-school through to higher education and evidence has shown significant relevance to outputs such as performance, behaviour, employability, wellbeing, social behaviour, and completion of studies. It is also a major factor in transition at every key stage and a range of studies
have shown development in various aspects of the adolescent brain, linked to mental toughness.
Knowsley had long been keen to explore ways of improving the personal and social development of its children and young people, and as such trialled interventions such as SEAL and TaMHS.
These interventions garnered little, if any, quantifiable evidence that a demonstrable difference had been made to the development of the skills of young people.
However, mental toughness proved to do just that, and on the basis that it is definitively improving levels of resilience in young people, we sought to further embed the practice across youth work and education.
In Knowsley, we saw individual improvement due to the implementation of interventions such as: coaching for success, mentoring, one-toone tuition and examination preparation, and practice techniques.
This has the potential to impact not only on children and young people, but on the institutions that support them, as it aids their strategic commissioning and allows them to target their resources to an intervention that clearly has a positive impact.
As such, we set up working groups with the schools, each of which had a nominated mental toughness lead, and held a series of workshops to identify and design the interventions which we believed had the greatest potential impact. We stressed that mental toughness was not something that you could teach, and shouldn't be factored into the timetable, but rather that it was an approach that should permeate every aspect of the school day, and constantly be of benefit to pupils, teachers, and parents alike.
The pupils were then tested at the beginning and end of the academic year, with the interventions being run in the intervening period. What this saw was a great deal of collaborative working between schools, who shared similar characteristics but were able to understand the need to adapt their practice to best reflect their own individual circumstances.
All the data that was analysed at the end of the year showed that there was a direct correlation between increased mental toughness and increased levels of school attendance, uptake of free school meals, and academic performance, with further work ongoing to identify potential links with childhood obesity.
These insights allowed schools to better target their resources so that they could meet the needs of the children who were affected by low
levels of resilience and provide them with tailored support, along with support for their parents and the platform for them to achieve to their full potential.
How we are seeking to embed mental toughness at The Children's Society
At The Children's Society, we are committed to working with children and young people to increase their levels of resilience and mental toughness. We are set to work with local authorities across the country so that we can coordinate our work more effectively, and help to ensure that children and young people are able to make the most of the opportunities that life presents.
Many, if not the majority, of The Children's Society's programmes, services, and children centres work with children, young people, and families who are struggling with issues of mental health and/or emotional wellbeing and many refer on to and work in close partnership with mental health services.
The Children's Society's practice base has not used this approach before. We are currently exploring avenues for how work can be done with children and young people either through schools or through other community or group settings. The approach requires both service design and monitoring; service design would require the implementation of evidence-based interventions and coaching reports, monitoring would require the use of the specifically designed test, the MTQ48.
This would be a new approach for The Children's Society's direct practice work, and involves a different way of conceptualising the issues faced by children and the method of improving the situation that children are facing. With a move towards integrated working, trialling this method, and particularly in the event of a wider roll-out, would have implications for the stance and messaging of the organisation.
We have a long-standing interest in the wellbeing of children, and are keen to build from this internationally renowned evidence base to further incorporate the measurement, evaluation and intervention necessary to establish mental toughness as a complimentary service.
There are currently pockets of work that are emerging across the organisation, with work in Greenwich with a cluster of schools being established, and through a project with the drug and alcohol service in Essex which seeks to increase the resilience of young people. As we seek to expand the range of locations and interventions, we will seek to be locally responsive, understanding that with mental toughness, context is an imperative consideration.
The London Borough of Newham and the Young Foundation have done some fascinating work5 on wellbeing and resilience, which has explored links between inequality and resilience, and the euphemism of how resilience is seen as masking state withdrawal, when really it is more about seeing social capital as a community asset.
The work that we are doing around wellbeing and resilience will define what strengthens it, what acts as a barrier to it and identify how and where we can work to have the greatest possible impact.
Our work will see The Children's Society move away from the model of the negative perception of a resilience deficit towards an adaptive resilience model, whereby we can highlight and learn from how children and young people have increased their resilience through a mixture of direct support and collaborative resourcefulness.
The reason for seeking to embed the approach at The Children's Society boils down to two fundamental points: first, we have a commitment to working with the most disadvantaged children and young people, and second, resilience is always brought to the fore in terms of austerity, but so far there has been inadequate definition and focused work to drill down into what it means and how it can be best harnessed.
The disruptiveness of the welfare cuts will have a serious, negative impact on the resilience of both individuals and communities, and are a counterbalance to the embryonic stages of promising work across the country.
There are clear links to empowerment, and the concept of “resilient movers”6, coined by Angie Hart, Professor of child, family and community health at the University of Brighton, is an emerging area of debate that we believe is well worth further exploring.
Further emergence of resilience as a concept and how it's profile is growing.
Some insights from neuroscience are relevant from the development and use of adaptive digital technologies. These technologies have the potential to create more learning opportunities inside and outside the classroom, and throughout life. This is exciting given the knock-on effect this could have on wellbeing, health, employment, and the economy. There is great public interest in neuroscience, yet accessible high quality information is scarce. Caution is urged in the rush to apply so-called brain based methods, many of which do not yet have a sound basis in science. There are inspiring developments in basic science, although practical applications are some way off.
The emerging field of education neuroscience represents opportunities as well as challenges for education; it provides means to develop a common language and bridge the gap between educators, psychologists, and neuroscientists.
The research has shown that puberty and pre-puberty heralds the beginning of a rapid and considerable reorganisation of the brain. Immediately prior to puberty a “second wave” of grey matter development and synaptic over-production is thought to take place (the first “wave” having taken place in early childhood).7 This is followed in adolescence by a time of “massive” synaptic pruning, with substantial loss of grey matter,8 while at the same time myelination and axon growth is occurring, increasing the speed with which information is communicated in the brain.
Breakthroughs in understanding provided by such research, and supplemented by more readily accessible texts such as the Young Foundation report for Camden Council,9 or the work of the charity Mothers Against Gangs,10 which has based a great deal of its work on the concept of resilience in youth, the community, and the police force, means that there is a wider appreciation of the changes that children and young people go through, and the need to adapt practice and policy to better reflect this.
A more in depth piece of work was undertaken by Oldham Council,11 who looked to work in partnership with both its secondary schools and colleagues from National Strategies to implement a programme, entitled Accelerate, which sought to close the attainment and progress Free Schools Meals (FSM) gaps as measured in GCSE results and KS2-4 progress data.
Five of Oldham's ten secondary schools participated in the programme, with a focus on FSM students in year ten. In terms of attainment and progress, the Accelerate cohort did not present a normal distribution pattern, but was skewed to the middle and lower groupings. There were individual exceptions, but the overall picture was of a cohort of students who would gain lower grades at GCSE and would
be less likely than average to make three levels of progress between KS2 and 4.
The undertaking of such work is a critical step in the development of a wider understanding of cognitive development and how resilience affects academic behaviour in adolescents.
We have found that using the four C's mental toughness model, and its related measure, have provided a structure and evaluation mechanisms that been used effectively in a wide range of settings working with young people.