Breaking down the psychological barriers to success at school

Looking into how carefully-targeted low-cost interventions can reduce the psychological barriers to success of some groups of school students and help them prepare for a happy and productive life.

by Ian Hadden

It only takes a quick glance at GCSE results across the country to see that some groups of students don’t do as well as others, notably boys, students from some ethnic backgrounds, and students from poorer families. Some well-known structural barriers to success, such as poor nutrition and low-quality housing, play a crucial role. But social and cultural factors that students experience in their everyday environment can create other, more subtle, psychological barriers. Here’s a quick look at how three of these factors can lead to barriers that affect some groups of students more than others.

Barrier 1: Low expectations leading to lower confidence. There can be widely-held expectations across society that certain types of student will do poorly at school. This can either be across the whole curriculum (e.g. “white working-class boys just don’t do well at school”) or in certain subjects (e.g. “girls aren’t cut out for maths”). Unsurprisingly, these expectations may cause students to doubt their ability to thrive academically. The result can be a vicious circle of lower confidence leading to lower performance and further reduced expectations.

Barrier 2: Lack of role models leading to a lower value placed on school. Now consider students who look around them and don’t see people like them – family members, members of their community – doing well at school and progressing into high-status universities or occupations. For example, when only 6% of doctors describe themselves as being from a working-class background, students from low-income families may not see the medical profession as a realistic life path for them. Such a lack of role models with whom they can identify may lead them to question the value of doing well at school.

Barrier 3: Mismatch in values leading to a lower sense of belonging. Finally, research suggests that people from different national, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds place different emphasis on independent versus interdependent values. Is it more important to flourish as an individual, or to play your part in a tightly-knit family or community group? If school emphasises one of these sets of values, then students from backgrounds that emphasise the other set may feel a distinct lack of ease. This sort of mismatch can lead students to feel that they don’t really belong in school, with predictable consequences.

Researchers have tested a wide range of low-cost, simple-to-implement interventions aimed at reducing these types of barriers to success, and many have resulted in surprisingly large improvements across a range of outcomes. For example, I recently trialed a very low-cost intervention aimed at increasing the confidence of a group of underperforming Year 7-9 students. The intervention reduced the stress they reported experiencing and raised their academic performance; as a result, they closed well over half of the pre-existing gap in maths scores with their peers.

So, how might any particular school benefit from all this? Well, I’m currently testing a three-stage process: diagnosis, design and trial.

1. Diagnosis. The first stage is to ask the school’s students, teachers and parents about their experiences through a series of surveys and focus groups. This will help unpack the social and cultural factors that the students are experiencing and build a rich picture of any psychological barriers that might be suppressing outcomes for some.

2. Design. Based on this diagnosis, I aim to identify an environmental factor or psychological barrier that seems to be most suppressing outcomes for some groups of students, and design a simple but potentially high-impact intervention aimed at reducing it. This is likely to be based on a proven intervention from prior research, tailored for the specific social and cultural context of the school.

3. Trial. Finally, the school will test the intervention in a randomised controlled trial across a school year. Depending on the results, the intervention could potentially become embedded in the school’s curriculum or working practices in subsequent years.

My work is, of course, just the start. While a good deal of evidence has already been accumulated, most has been in the US and it’s not clear how it will translate to the different contexts of different schools in England. We will need an extensive programme of research in order to fully understand in what contexts these types of intervention are effective across the country.

This is an exciting time for research that has the potential to make a substantial difference to the lives of many young people.

Ian Hadden is a PhD student under the supervision of  Dr Matt Easterbrook and Prof Pete Harris. He is also part of the Self Affirmation Research Group (SARG). Other posts by Ian: Grouping by attainment in schools: can psychological interventions help turbo-charge poor students’ performance? and An appetite for bringing research into practice at ResearchED

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