How to help high achievers deal with pressures

Author Jackie Beere offers her advice on developing resilience through ‘growth mindset’

A government survey has found evidence of a ‘slow growing’ epidemic of mental health issues in schools and we often see it is our high achieving students that are most vulnerable to the anxiety that precedes depression.  There is nothing more frustrating and upsetting than to see our brightest and best students suffering from self-doubt and stress as the pressure to pass exams from the school, their parents, but mostly themselves, threatens to overwhelm them.

We need to help with this (well) before that happens. And we need to understand why.

When all the evidence is clear to see that these high achievers are performing well, why do some succumb to paralysing fear which impacts on their performance? Some can be addicted to success and suffer from the self-doubt of the perfectionist. This makes it hard for them to take critical feedback or stretch their comfort zones enough to fulfil their potential.  When you grow up getting complimented for your top marks it is easy to become haunted by the possibility you may fail at something. As a high achiever you can either opt out of trying, or try so hard you burn out.  Either option is damaging to both results and wellbeing.

In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ approach to create more resilience for all our learners. Dweck suggests that our able learners are especially susceptible to developing a ‘fixed mindset’ that means they believe intelligence and personality is innate and set for life.  Dweck found in her research that people who are told they are ‘clever’ develop an addiction to success. Failing isn’t congruent with their ‘high achiever’ identity and this anxiety combined with the peer pressure to navigate successfully a world fixated with social media piles the pressure on.  Parents can also be that confusing combination of over protective while demanding nothing less than the highest grades possible.

Thoughts create feelings

Understanding the way our thinking works and how to control the inner voice of doubt and worry is the key to developing more resilience for students. We can help them ‘think on purpose’ instead of developing thinking habits that make them hypersensitive to the judgement of others.  This way they can develop the ‘growth mindset’ that Dweck discovered was the key to being a successful, lifelong learner. Having this type of mindset means we value critical feedback and enjoy the challenge of a struggle. Instead of wanting to get the high grades to prove we are clever, we are open to a challenge and have the self-belief to make mistakes into learning experiences. 

Help your high achievers think on purpose with a growth mindset to develop resilience and emotional intelligence

Action Plan

  • Train staff in the above so that they feedback to students in all classrooms how to ‘think on purpose’
  • Set up a voluntary EQ (emotional intelligence) workshop to practise all of the above 
  • Invite parents in to share the information in this article with tips on how to help and support their children
  • Teach students about their brain, how anxiety works and how to make stress work in a positive way for them. (For learning to learn scheme contact jackie.beere@virgin.net)
  • Teach them learning and memory strategies that help them remember. 
  • Run health and fitness classes at lunchtime or after school
  • Organise mindfulness sessions for all in assemblies or tutor periods
  • Assign a mentor or learning coach to each of your most able students.  This can be a teacher or any other member of staff or even an older student. 

By embedding the following messages at school and at home we can all develop our student’s resilience:

  • We can all change and grow – nothing is fixed or forever
  • Learning grows your brain. No matter what our starting point we can always become better learners
  • Effort and struggle are the path to mastery and a strength, not a weakness 
  • Learning is a lifelong journey with highs and lows
  • Failure and mistakes are a crucial aspect of learning
  • Everyone needs to expand their comfort zone to keep learning
  • Anxiety and stress can enhance performance, if we get our thinking right
  • It’s not the strongest or brightest that thrive, but those most responsive to change

In my book ‘Grow’ I explain how to develop a growth mindset by deliberately embracing challenge, thinking the unthinkable and challenging that doubting voice in your head so that you can face your fears and grow stronger. Schools that create a growth mindset culture make thinking on purpose a powerful lever for growing resilience and school improvement. 

Jackie Beere is author of ‘GROW: change your mindset, change your life, a practical guide to thinking on purpose’, published by Crown House Publishing

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Thursday 4 November 2021, 11am (GMT)