The motivation behind this article came from several different places. We work a lot with teenagers who struggle in the education system and become, in many cases, early school leavers. Obviously, there are a wide variety of differing reasons for this and all very individualised. More and more we find young people being referred to us to deal with stress and anxiety around school and exams. These young people are not what many would see as those who would generally struggle with school. They come from supportive homes and parents who would always have had an expectation that their child would finish school, go to university and get a decent paying job. So why are they struggling so much? Where is the pressure coming from? Is it home, school, themselves? 

One element that we have noticed with these teens is the presence of phrases such as “could do better” or “needs to work harder” on their report cards from school. These “motivational” inputs have been around for years and years and I’ll hazard a guess that most of you reading this will, at some point or another, have had this on a report card or relayed to your parents at a parent-teacher meeting. But what does it actually mean? How do teachers actually measure this? Now it is important at this point to highlight that this article is not about pointing the finger at teachers, rather it is to highlight the pressure being placed on young people and teachers by the education system and the structures that we have in place. I know many teachers use this term as an encouragement as they can see more potential in the students they teach on a daily basis, but does it actually work as a carrot or a stick? One recent client was a young teenager who had developed severe anxiety. When we explored the root of this it became apparent that he felt that his best was never good enough. He worked really hard at school time and for exams and generally his results were good, but there would usually be the “X will need to work harder to reach his potential”, like statement on his report card. This brought pressure from his parents as they felt he was not working “to the best of his ability”. He ultimately felt he didn’t know what else he could do as he studied every night for a minimum of two hours per night.  

Having worked with young people who have really struggled in school and would be seen as “trouble-makers”, so many would say that they just didn’t actually understand what was going on in the class. They thought everyone else in the class knew exactly what was happening and this compounded their feelings of being stupid. It then becomes clearer to see these young people get into trouble or disrupt the class as they will generally get put out of the class and they then don’t have to think about not understanding what is going on from an educational perspective. When they didn’t pass exams, this left them feeling extremely low, so “what’s the point in even trying?”.  

Our education structure has improved in recent years but we do have a long way to go. In 1983 Howard Gardner introduced his eight multiple intelligences. He believed that the traditional way of viewing how we learn was too restrictive and that as individuals, we actually take in information in different ways. In our work with both adults and children, this has had quite a significant impact on, not only people’s understanding of how they can improve their ability to hold onto information, but how they see themselves in the world. By understanding and working from their more dominant “intelligence”, they have begun to feel that, in fact, they are not stupid. All of a sudden they can begin to view themselves as having the ability to understand different things.  

Let’s take a moment to really process this. Imagine you have spent most of your life believing that you were not as smart as everyone else around you. Now imagine how that would make you view your future prospects for employment and a fulfilling life. As a society we have a responsibility to every child to support their learning around how they best learn and not just an archaic education system.  

The education system does seem to be moving more towards a model that can incorporate building a learning platform to support the individual rather than try and shoehorn everyone into learning one way. For this to develop further it will take a groundswell of action to see it through though. As parents, educators, or social scientists, we really need to start at a grassroots level. We need to show those who hold the purse strings that by supporting the individual child, we will reduce the chances of anti-social behaviour, early school leaving, increased levels of stress and anxiety in young people and can make learning fun and enjoyable for all….while saving money for the state.  

When I started to think about writing this article, completely out of the blue, I actually came across an old school report of mine and I had five, yes five, comments along the lines of “could do more and needs to work harder”! When I think back, it had actually no impact on making me work harder, if anything it made me want to do less, but this may say more about me than anything else! 

There is a fine line for parents when it comes to encouraging their children to do as well as they can, and pushing them beyond their capabilities. What we do need to remember is that if a child doesn’t get the best results in their final exams, this is not the end of the world. There are always ways to get to where you want to, yes it might take longer if you don’t work as hard in your state exams, but that’s just a natural consequence that each of us has to deal with. We are strong believers in allowing natural consequences to take place. If we work hard, results will come quicker, if we don’t work hard, they may not come or just take longer but this is okay. We can’t force our children to work, even if they sit in a bedroom for 5 hours a night, they may not actually study. Let’s be realistic, try and help them find the best way they can learn and make home a place that supports this process.