In everyone’s life there are specific milestones, which are ostentatiously celebrated with great levels of fanfare. Birthdays, weddings, graduations, and births all fall into this category. However, arguably there are certain events that are equally profound, which reflect an individual’s transition to another stage of his or her life, which typically we do not revel in. One of these is your first day at school.
Memories about this day may be lost by the individual experiencing it, but parents are fully aware of its awe-inspiring importance. The first day at school elicits a range of emotions and activities such as self-reflection, terror, joy, existential angst, and pride (in yourself for keeping them alive, and in them due to their sheer awesomeness). These heightened emotions are confirmed by the millions of photos posted by proud parents, such as myself, to a potentially disinterested social media audience.
So why does the first day of school inspire such a reaction? Other than the practical challenges that it typically creates, it is an event that symbolizes your baby becoming an official member of society. They are no longer renegades living on the outskirts of civilization, they are now citizens of the world, starting their long and storied journey to adulthood and ultimately to the world of work.
Education is ultimately a vehicle for preparing us for the world of employment. This aspect of school is something that has always fascinated me as a Business Psychologist. As much as I recognize that knowledge and skills attainment are the foundations of the school system, I have always been interested in how the other softer, work-relevant skills are implicitly or explicitly developed.
Having worked with charities and social enterprises that help young people enhance their employability and resilience, I have seen first-hand the benefits of focusing on these softer skills. In fact, these programs have shown to improve attendance, life satisfaction, confidence, and reduce the likelihood of at-risk young people becoming NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) and helped raise their aspiration.
So why even talk about developing employability skills and attitudes so early in a child’s development? Recent advances in neuroscience have shown us that the brain is far more malleable than we have ever known. Research on brain plasticity has shown how connectivity between neurons can change with experience. With practice, new neural are created, existing ones are strengthened, and insulation is built that will speed up transmission of impulses. Obviously the younger you can facilitate these changes, the better.
Now that I have a young person of my own, it has led me to ask the question of what insights from the intersection of business, employability, and psychology can help the next batch of little people thrive during this important time? What are the qualities and attitudes that we, as guardians, can try to help facilitate in our youngest of peoples?
Spoiler and caveat warning:
- There may be other attitudes/activities that may also be important, as each child is unique (and so is every parent’s approach to parenting).
- This is just a short blog post, and it does not reflect the complexity of actually putting the words into action.
- This may end in failure, as personal development may not be as a high on a child’s priority list as unicorns, dinosaurs, beige/sugary snacks, running aimlessly, putting himself or herself in danger, glowing tablet screens, hypnotic YouTube videos, and virtually every other activity available to them.
Challenge Orientation can be defined as "the extent to which an individual perceives stretching situations as opportunities to learn and develop". It is a useful attitude to foster and develop as it helps them view situations that they are finding difficult or hard, as a challenge or learning opportunity. In fact, “challenge” is one of the three elements to resilience identified by Kobasa (1984) who defines it as “the anticipation of change as an exciting challenge to further development” (p.3) and distinguishes it from “irresponsible adventurousness”.
By consistently getting your child to review any experiences that they find negative and helping them identify what they have learnt may help foster this challenge orientation. This re-framing of these potentially negative events can help young people confront these challenges and strive to overcome them.
Adaptability is defined as “the extent to which an individual is willing to adapt their behavior and approach in response to changing circumstances”. Being adaptable is important as it allows an individual to flex their behavior to changing situations and find different ways of achieving their objectives. This ability to manage change is particularly significant for the current set of school joiners as the advances being made in the realm of Artificial Intelligence and technology are astounding, so the world of work in 20 years’ time is likely to be a remarkably different landscape. If an individual is unable to adapt, it will ultimately limit their potential to navigate the world around them.
Whilst research indicates that the nature and management of the change will determine these attitudes to a large degree (eg Hannan & Freeman, 1984), there is also evidence for "individual differences" which impact these perceptions. Being able to help your child to see the benefits of change and use alternative approaches to address the same situation may help them able to flex to changing situations and find an alternative way to achieve the same outcome. Letting them see that change is constant and that there are multiple ways to deal with the same problem will hopefully make them feel more adaptable.
Determination is "the extent to which an individual is willing to persevere and expend effort to achieve their goals". An individual cannot accomplish anything without putting in the necessary levels of effort to get there. The most successful people are not always the most gifted, they are the ones who are willing to be persistent and put in the effort. Determination has similarities to Dweck’s construct referred to as "Grit", which is defined as perseverance and passion for long-term goals.
As most parents can attest to, especially those who regularly have battled a child to rectify the devastation that they have wrought on their living quarters, the application of exerted effort is probably the hardest to facilitate in young children. However, trying to highlight that effort is valuable and congratulating/rewarding your child on the effort they have put in rather than the outcome they have achieved, will hopefully remind them that effort in itself is important and valuable. Taking the time to highlight what they have achieved via exerted effort will hopefully help them along the way and see the value of effort.
It should be noted that childhood is ultimately a magical time. It is about your child enjoying the richness, magnificence and glory of the world around them. They have the rest of their lives to worry about work and now is not the time to batter them with personal development rituals and leadership mantras. However, if you can gently help them realize a few key messages about the value of challenge, change, and effort, hopefully they will be better placed to thrive along their journey to adulthood.
If you would like advice on how to use talent measurement and assessments to increase or measure employability, feel free to get in touch with the team here at PSI Talent Measurement.
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