The secret of success

… may by losing, at least when it comes to learning the skills necessary for adult life, suggests Heather Miller

If I had a pound for every time a parent asks me how they can best help their child to be as successful as they can, I would be rich. To me it appears to be the question which causes parents the most angst. Certainly, I have known parents who have filled their child’s every waking moment with activities on the assumption that the more they do, the more chance they have of being successful adults. Indeed, some have hopped from school to school in pursuit of the perfect environment to foster success.

Although inspirational teaching, creative curricula and high expectations play their part, the most significant factor is what the child brings with them to the school environment. Those with a positive attitude will flourish, whilst those with a mindset that hampers learning will not make the most of experiences. Parents who lay down positive foundations at home will encourage their child to face the challenges in the classroom more successfully. Growing research evidence points to the fact that resilience, persistence, optimism and courage actively contribute to educational success.

During the late 80s and early 90s, the idea that “winners” and “losers” in schools was damaging children’s self-esteem became a popular concept that has since been proven wrong. Paul Tough in ‘Whatever it Takes’ highlights the importance of failure as a key character- building tool. “If we do not let our children fail – from the bumps and knocks of the first few years to losing childhood games and sports – they will not develop strong enough ‘characters’ to survive later on in life.”

Standardised tests have their place in the provision of education, but they don’t fully correlate with what we now know helps children succeed. Professor Luthar at Columbia University suggests that the pressure children are under to succeed, to win trophies and achieve the top test score can also be counterproductive. Professor Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, meanwhile, suggests that by failing we learn to succeed. She says that when we reflect on our own school experience and the teachers who helped develop our character, they are likely to be music, chess or sports teachers because these types of teachers help children through situations where they are exposed to failing.

So what can you do to ensure you support your daughter to be the best she can? First, I would suggest you reflect on whether she is pursuing her own dreams or yours. Encourage her to explore activities until she finds those she likes. Try to avoid boasting about her talents. It is important to let her flourish at her own pace and own her achievements – let her speak for herself.

Ensure there is balance in your daughter’s life. If she excels one area, encourage her to expose herself to other hobbies and activities and ensure she spends time playing with friends. To succeed we have to know how to make friends and cooperate with others – so step back and allow her to socialise with her peers. If you are always hovering, you rob your daughter of a sense of her own competence; you are inadvertently telling her she can’t manage without you and that you don’t believe she has the skills to make the right decision. Find time to focus on your personal relationships – a secure parent partnership will assist your daughter in feeling secure about who she is as an individual. It is important to have some time that is not child-centred.

Finally, allow your daughter to fail. In fact, I would go so far as to say celebrate when she gets it wrong. Praise her for trying, not succeeding. ‘Losing’ can be painful, but it is important to allow your daughter to express those feelings and work through them. Avoid making excuses for your daughter’s perceived failing. Instead, encourage her to identify what she has learnt from the experience.

Heather Miller is junior school headmistress at Burgess Hill School for Girls


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