Education: Getting the habits that lead to success

Nearly one third of children in well off areas under achieve and nearly all the children in poorer areas do. But it doesn't have to be like this says Hilary Wilce
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What are keys to success?" Michael Bernard asks a meeting of parents of pupils at St Joseph's Catholic Comprehensive, Swindon. "Do you have to have a high academic ability? Do you have to have supportive and loving parents? Do you have to go to a good school and have a good teacher? No you don't. It may be nice to have them, but we all know people who have done well without them."

Earlier in the day he has given the same message to their children. "Success is open to everyone. The past does not predict the future... I can show you ways to get from where you are now to where you want to be..."

"My daughter came home saying he was brilliant," said Caterina Durston. "I don't think it's that what he says is new, it's the way he puts it over."

Michael Bernard is an Australian educational psychologist, now based at California State University, whose upbeat ideas on pupil motivation are rousing interest in Britain. He tells students that their "mindset is what's between your eyes, and no one controls that but you" and parents that "the strongest and most powerful tool you have to help your child is positive praise". To teachers he says bluntly: "Unless we provide all students with the foundations to be successful at school, we are failing."

According to Bernard up to 30 per cent of children in school in advantaged areas and up to 90 per cent of children in poorer areas are underachieving in school, and all children, can achieve more and feel better about themselves by learning the keys to success. These, he says, are confidence, persistence, organisation and the ability to get along with others, and they can all be taught by encouraging children to develop the 11 mental habits (see box) that support them.

Conversely, if these foundations are not in place, all the educational innovations in the world - literacy and numeracy drives and fancy new computer networks - will merely be throwing good money after bad. "If children are not being brought up in a culture of achievement and shown how to help themselves achieve, there is no way they are going to meet educational targets set for them from outside."

Bernard's materials bring together good old-fashioned virtues such as self-discipline and sticking-to-it with the modern feel-good factor of positive self-talk, optimism and self-esteem. They rely heavily on specific goals and precisely-targeted praise ("I really liked the confident way you spoke out on that") and on helping students turn negative thoughts ("I totally can't do this assignment!") into positive ones ("If I keep trying, I'll do it").

They provide an army of detailed ways in which children can be encouraged to take charge of their learning, manage their time, tolerate frustration, get on with others, feel confident about their abilities, and understand that effort brings rewards. "Children need to know where they stand and what's expected of them. We have to make the implicit, very, very explicit."

For parents, there are programmes which go from an overview of effective parenting styles down to the smallest detail of how to help - or not - with homework, to handle family arguments, or to read aloud to your child.

Bernard's materials are in 40 per cent of schools in Australia and widely used in Canada and California, where research has shown that his methods work. While there is no such evidence here yet, schools which are starting to use his "You Can Do It!" programme are sure there will be.

"It's a structured way of helping teachers get the pupils they want," says Peter Coates, head of Wednesfield High School, a large Wolverhampton comprehensive, which has already seen an improvement in GCSE work completed on time since it started the programme a year ago.

One of the hardest things his staff has found, he says, is to offer behaviour- specific feedback. "Traditionally we tend to just say `Well done' without saying what it's for. This is forcing us to intellectualise about what it is we're pleased with students for doing."

Steve Hall introduced the scheme to his school, Cooper Perry Primary, in Seighford, Stafford, when he saw it was for all children, whatever abilities.

"There's a huge problem with those children who appear to be doing everything alright, but you know there's a lot more to them. And this wasn't a bolt- on to personal and social education, it was something that could be part of the whole school culture."

All teachers, as well as dinner ladies and office staff, have been introduced to the materials, but for him the real value is the way it brings parents into partnership with the school.

"We piloted some parent evenings last year. Parents were given an idea of a child who is under-achieving and you could see them all thinking `God that's my child' and looking at the school and thinking `What do they think they're doing?' Which made us feel hot under the collar. Then they were given information about the different styles of parenting and how parents can get it wrong, and it was their turn to get hot under the collar! It isn't easy, but if you're going to have a meaningful partnership you've got to sing off the same hymn sheet."

For Pam Abel, advisory teacher for You Can Do It! Education, in Dudley, the local authority which has introduced Bernard's work to the UK, initial scepticism vanished when she used the materials with her class of year six pupils.

"They were the top set for English, and their attitude was `we're the best' but they weren't producing the work they should have." She found the methods worked both with quiet, capable girls who needed confidence and to be encouraged to take risks, and with the 'likely lad" boys who needed to learn to knuckle down. "I couldn't believe that it could have such a significant effect on these youngsters." They particularly liked the programme's cartoon material identifying different types of under- achievers which, she says, helped soften "what is really quite a tough message".

She has also used it at home with her son and daughter, both now at university. "It helped me to know how to help them with exams and managing their time. And it gave me the confidence to step back and say this is your responsibility, this is mine. Now, how are we going to work it out?"

You Can Do It! Team, Saltwells EDC, Bowling Green Road, Dudley DY2 9LY. Fax: 01384 813801


The over-protective parent: Hovers over child, rescuing child from difficulties. Child becomes anxious and dependent.

The permissive parent: Too few rules enforced inconsistently. Child easily frustrated, allergic to work, with too much freedom and power.

The authoritarian parent: Too many rules enforced too harshly; child kept out of decision-making and may feel inadequate and anxious and use tantrums to assert power.

The over-emotional parent: Gets angry, panicky, or depressed over child's problems. Child learns to punch parent's emotional buttons, or finds it hard to give up problems.

The lack-of-expectations parent: Fails to support child's educational efforts. Child comes to believe school and education doesn't matter.

The unsupportive-of-school parent: criticises teachers in front of child and is unsupportive of homework policy. Child loses respect and interest in teachers and schoolwork.

The excessive-expectations parent: nags child to do well and is seldom satisfied. Child feels he can never live up to demands and gradually gives up.

The effective parent: Sets rules and structures consistent with the maturity of the child; provides rational reasons for the rules; is non- punitive and gives necessary punishment without anger; gives lots of parental warmth.


YOU CAN Do It! Education says all achievement is based on having confidence, persistence, organisation and the ability to get along with others.

Building confidence

1. Self-acceptance: learning not to rate yourself as "good" or "bad" on the basis of school work.

2. Risk taking: learning that the greatest mistake is to be afraid of making mistakes.

3. Independence: not to be too concerned about what other people think of you.

Building persistence

4. Optimism: make positive predictions of success, not being knocked back by having done something poorly.

5. Internal focus of control of learning: the harder you try, the better the achievement.

6. High frustration tolerance: doing things you don't like in the short- term for longer-term gain.

Building organisation

7. Goal setting: learning to set short and long-term goals.

8. Time management: breaking down big pieces of work into smaller sections, and to schedule things ahead of time.

Building getting along with others

9. Tolerance of others: learning not to condemn people as bad on the basis of their actions.

10. Tolerance of limits: following rules keeps you out of trouble and helps protect your own rights.

11. Reflective problem solving: deal with conflict by weighing up courses of action, thinking about the consequences of actions, and anticipating the impact of your actions on other people.