This article discusses a pilot program to develop mental toughness in primary school children. The program was developed by Niels van Hove, a mental toughness coach and author of children’s book My Strong Mind. Over a period of 5 months, he coached the teachers of two grade 3 classes, both with 23 students, to measure and improve the mental toughness in their students. The pilot resulted in a significant positive shift in the mental toughness of both grade 3 classes. This in turn will have a likely positive impact on student mental well-being and performance.
Mental Toughness explained
Mental Toughness is a combination of resilience, the curiosity and drive to grow yourself, interpersonal confidence and confidence in your own abilities. The mentally tough are comfortable in their own skin and use a positive mindset to get the best out of themselves.
Research shows that mentally tough primary school children perform up to 25% better in exams. They sleep better, are more engaged in the classroom and have higher aspirations. They also transition more successfully from junior to secondary education, perceive less bullying and are less likely to adopt anti-social behaviour.
Clough and Strycharczyk (2012) describe mental toughness as; “A personality trait which determines, in large part, how people respond to challenge, stress and pressure, irrespective of their circumstances”. They emphasize that mental toughness defines how we think and react to any event under any circumstance. They identified the 4 Cs with eight attributes of mental toughness as described in the table below.
The growing need to be mentally tough
The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), defines rising workplace stress and mental health issues as one of the 6 megatrends to shape future workforce environment. This megatrend will further exacerbate the 50% of employees already feeling stressed and the 25% of adults that feel some form of depression at any time.
Children show similar concerning statistics, with 10% of children suffer from anxiety, depression or diagnosable mental health issues, 65% of adolescents seek no help for mental illness and with suicide the number 1 cause of death for children aged 5-17.
The case to develop mental toughness in children, improve how they respond to the challenges, stressors and pressures of life, and prepare them for ever increasing childhood and workplace stress, seems evident.
Mental Toughness measurements
The 4Cs of Mental Toughness and its 8 attributes can be measured and improved. The Mental Toughness Questionnaire (MTQ-plus) is a psychometric tool and the world’s most widely used mental toughness measurement for adults. The Junior Mental Toughness indicator (JMTi) is a survey used for young children. For very young children, an adult will answer the survey questions.
Both measures score the 4 Cs and eight attributes of mental toughness on a normally distributed Sten Scale of 1-10. Stens 1-3 are typically seen as ‘low’ scores or mentally sensitive and Stens 8-10 are typically seen as ‘high’ scores or mentally tough. The norm group against which students are measured consists of pupils from year 1 – year 6.
Primary school pilot approach
The following steps were taken in the primary school mental toughness program that was conducted between March and November 2018 in Melbourne Australia.
- Teacher introduction: teachers were introduced to the history, the concept and application of mental toughness during a presentation. Two grade 3 teachers were chosen to join the pilot.
- Teacher measurement: both pilot teachers took the MTQ to develop an understanding of their own mental toughness. This included a short coaching session about their MTQ results.
- Student introduction: the pilot teachers introduced the children to mental toughness through an explanation of the 4 Cs and through reading and discussing of the book My Strong Mind.
- Student measurement: the JMTi was used by the pilot teachers to measure their grade 3 classes and define a mental toughness baseline.
- Improvement exercises: over a period of 5 months the teachers used a selection of 25 exercises to work on the 4 Cs with their classes.
- Teacher support: teachers mostly worked autonomously after the mental toughness introduction and teacher measurement. Teachers were explained how the 25 exercises worked and decided themselves what exercises to use. There was a fortnightly check-in and light coaching to support the teachers.
- Parent introduction: during an evening information session, parents were introduced to mental toughness, the school program and how they can support their children with developing mental toughness.
- Student re-measurement: the JMTi was used by the pilot teachers to re-measure their grade 3 classes and understand progress made versus the baseline.
Outcome student baseline measure
The results of the first measurement in April 2018 can be seen in below table. This shows an overall mental toughness mean of 7.83 and 7.17. This can be considered a high baseline versus a normally distributed mean of 5.5
Outcome student re-assessment
After 5 months of class exercises, the teachers re-assessed their classes using the JMTi. This resulted in the below score and progress made.
The conclusion of the primary school pilot is that there has been a positive shift in the mental toughness of grade 3 classes as interpreted by their teachers. The pilot found that although the classes started from a high baseline:
- Overall mental toughness grew in both classes
- Progress was made in both classes across all 4Cs
- Progress was made in both classes across all 8 attributes
- All children made progress in their overall mental toughness. No student went backward
This indicates that targeted class exercises over a 3 to 5 months period can improve mental toughness of primary school students in the age group around grade 3. Appreciating the many researched benefits mental toughness has on primary student behaviour, health and performance, it is likely that both the students and the school will benefit.
Niels is a mental toughness advocate and founder of mentaltoughness.online. He wrote the children’s books My Strong Mind I & II and developed a primary school program to help teachers and children improve mental toughness.