Mental toughness gives young people the confidence to change perspectives and challenge the status quo

I am very conscious that in the 21st century one of the areas of great concern with regard to young people, and especially girls, is the prevalence of feelings of unhappiness with a tendency to internalise worries and negativity. The faux-perfection of the online world certainly plays a part in feeding this reticence about being open when grappling with challenges, yet we know that not having strategies to manage difficulties can be a great barrier to leadership.

I do wonder if some of this is linked to "expectations" and the prevailing sense that there is an overriding need for an opinion and a judgement on everything. Certainly our online lives constantly ask us to ‘rate’ the content that we see. This brings me to the old saying ‘you are either a glass half-full or a glass half-empty person’. Not only does it surprise me how prevalent this saying is, but also the fact that it hinges on an expectation that one is either one thing or the other. What I want to say to my pupils is this: Forget the glass. You are in control of your lives. If one perspective is not working for you, have the courage and the mental flexibility to change it.

We recently participated in research by the Independent Schools Council that aimed to assess the impact that an independent education has on pupils’ mental toughness. The study looked at the 4Cs: Control - how much the students felt that they were in control of their lives, emotions and environment; Commitment - to setting goals and achieving them; Challenge - their willingness to take risks, and finally Confidence in their ability to succeed. It was naturally pleasing to see that the research found a correlation between an independent education and higher levels of mental toughness, but for me one of the benefits in taking part in the study was to see the trends in the different age groups and to understand more about how mental toughness fluctuates as our students progress through their education. This will help us to further refine our pastoral programme to ensure that our girls get the support they need, at the point at which they need it, to enable them to build the qualities and character that will lead them towards fulfilling lives.

So what are we doing that is supporting this increased character and mental toughness? Having thought about this I’ve come to the conclusion that (to paraphrase) “character is what is learnt while you’re busy doing other things”. It’s in providing those “other things” that I believe we excel as a school. Whether it’s running a small business, writing a school magazine, decorating a cupcake, learning a new sport or any of the myriad other opportunities that are part of the DNA of The Abbey, they all come with the chance to step out of a comfort zone and to follow where curiosity leads.

The Abbey is a school that has strong values at its heart and these values, along with the willingness to take risks and set goals, is far more helpful than the fixed mindset that tells us that a glass must be either half-full or half-empty. So let’s abandon the glass and look to a future with the principled, committed and confident leaders that our girls will become.

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