Pressure to overachieve and other factors can create unhappiness that ultimately affects performance
One of the largest ever studies of international schools has concluded that a significant minority of students have attitudinal issues that could be affecting their wellbeing and academic performance. As the pressures on students to succeed increase, governments, schools and parents have become more concerned about the effect they are having on students’ wellbeing.
High performing schools have even been dubbed “epicentres of overachievement”, where students, to quote American psychologist David L. Gleason, “hear the overriding message that only the best will do in grades, test scores, sports, art, college… in everything”.
The consequences of this constant insistence to achieve have led some governments, for example Dubai, to make student wellbeing a measure of school success. This is not only because there is a strong correlation between student wellbeing and academic performance, but also because a happy and well student is more likely to become a contented and productive adult than an unhappy and unwell one. If we want our children to achieve their full potential in life, if we want to reduce the prevalence of poor mental health that afflicts so many young lives, we have to start by making sure that they are healthy, happy and confident in school first.
“Teachers have to look for the early indicators of trouble.”
At some point, a significant proportion of children will underperform at school because they have attitudinal issues. A few may display obvious signs that all is not well, but many more will not. Teachers therefore have to look for the early, subtle indicators of trouble – poor engagement with learning and school, for instance – that could suggest that their wellbeing and confidence is more fragile than supposed.
Research has shown that if students believe they are in control of their success they are indeed more likely to succeed. Conversely, a student’s lack of belief in their ability to succeed, or a fear that they do not possess the tools to learn, or having negative attitudes towards their schools and teachers, are all factors that tend to undermine academic performance.
Students’ attitudes to themselves and their schools are therefore extremely important to any educator. But attitudinal issues are probably even more pertinent in international schools because their students have additional problems to contend with. Many speak English as a second or even third language and many move between countries frequently. Unsurprisingly, this can greatly affect their academic studies.
If they struggle with English, for instance, they may begin to perceive themselves as less able, because they associate the difficulties they have with the language with learning generally. If families move frequently, or their children attend school in cities with a relatively high transience rate like Dubai or Singapore, student and staff turnover can be exceptionally high. As a consequence, students and staff have less time to get to know one another, even though the need to get a sense of the child behind the grades is arguably greater and more urgent than in less transient schools.
This is borne out by our latest study, one of the largest ever carried out in international schools and based on data from over 95,000 children aged from 7 to 16 in the Middle East and South East Asia. The study, Global Perspectives: Pupil Attitudes to Self and School 2018, found that although students were generally very positive about their schools and their own abilities, significant numbers were not.
“One in ten international students had an attitudinal problem with their own learning and their school.”
The Pupil Attitudes to Self and School psychometric measure, from which the data was drawn, breaks down student attitudes into nine main factors: feelings about school, perceived learning capability, self-regard, preparedness for learning, attitudes to teachers, general work ethic, confidence in learning, attitudes to attendance and response to curriculum demands. Our study then classified student attitudes to each factor into four categories: high, moderate, moderate low and low.
On the whole, and across all factors, our study showed that approximately one in ten international students had an attitudinal problem with their own learning and their school. Almost one in six (15 per cent) registered low or moderately low satisfaction in their work ethic, and similar proportions said that they had poor attitudes to teachers (14 per cent) and to the demands of the curriculum (16 per cent). Admittedly, far more students – almost three-quarters in each of these cases – were highly satisfied with each of these factors. Nevertheless, compared to independent schools in the UK, international students tended to register slightly higher dissatisfaction in most categories.
The averages, of course, concealed some widely divergent individual findings. Take the scores of 8-year-olds in two schools in the Middle East that, on the surface, performed equally highly overall, which we will label School 1 and School 2. Almost two-fifths of School 1 students (39 per cent) were in the bottom two categories when it came to coping with the curriculum, compared to only 16 per cent in School 2. Only half (51 per cent) of pupils in the former were highly satisfied on this measure compared to over four-fifths (82 per cent) of children in the latter. Other factors showed similar wide discrepancies.
The point is that regional trends can disguise an awful lot of divergence at the school or even at class level. As a result, children will require very different kinds of support and intervention. For instance, EAL pupils who struggle with English can typically exhibit low self-regard or preparedness for learning, even though there is no problem with their general academic ability.
“Teachers cannot be expected to just ‘know’ their students.”
Work ethic, too, can be a problem among certain cohorts in some international schools. Erika Elkady, head of secondary at Jumeira Baccalaureate School, Dubai, says that understanding students’ attitudes is key to tackling the problem and takes from the data the message that some students are saying, “I know how to be a good learner, but learning is hard and I’m not motivated to do or complete the work.”
What then should schools do to help students who have attitudinal issues with their education? Nicola Lambros, deputy head whole school, King’s College, Soto, Madrid, points out that “as every school is different, there is no one programme, intervention or approach that should be adopted to tackle the areas of development identified through data analysis”. But she recommends that student self-efficacy, the belief that they are in control of their learning, is key. Increase their self-regard, confidence and perceived learning capabilities, she says, and academic performance will improve.
Ultimately, as Matthew Savage, principal of International Community School, Amman, argues, teachers cannot be expected to just “know” their students. They have to “peer under the mask” to truly understand them, and that entails grappling with data that reveal their often-concealed attitudes to learning and school.