As a mum of four children I have seen their confidence ebb and flow over the years. The onset of the teenage years clearly heralds the age old battle between self- doubt and confidence. You look at your children and see their strengths, their potential, their best qualities and you wonder why they aren’t more confident because they just should be! It was the thing I wished for them the most, after health of course. So hearing the headlines, earlier this month that new research has found 88% of young people, aged 11-18yrs in Britain today say they ‘lack confidence and doubt they will succeed in life’ made me sit up, pay attention and fret. The survey for Barnardo’s found young people in the UK feel increasing pressure to perform in all aspects of their lives, but don’t necessarily have the support they crave to help them cope. The majority of children asked said that a supportive adult – be that a parent or other family member, carer, teacher or employer – was the most important thing to help them pursue their goals and have a bright future.
65% said grown-ups they know are ‘not very good’ at telling them they believe they can succeed.
The findings are a wake-up call for parents, carers and teachers about the importance of expressing belief in children and young people.
Just before the launch of the Barnardo’s report, I had the privilege of celebrating a year- long project which involved 94 newly trained UFA peer tutors working with 138 tutees across four schools (two primary and two secondary), supported by seven adults. We were funded by The Mercers Company to develop Peer Tutoring programmes with four schools in the West Midlands. The project was well documented with a film crew following the progress of the peer tutors over a school year.
(Watch the films here: https://ufa.org.uk/home/ufa-in-action/programmes-caught-on-film/).
What struck me most from all the evaluation evidence, including the two films, was the reoccurring theme of confidence. Unanimously, all schools reported significant growth of confidence and the development of interpersonal skills and character building for both peer tutors and tutees alike. This growth in confidence has driven both peer tutors and tutees to new levels of success. Over and over again, we heard about how much more confident children and young people felt as a result of taking part in the peer tutoring programme. Clearly, they recognised this most significant change in themselves and their teachers saw it too. One commented
“Confidence is a word that has been used a lot but is probably the biggest personal characteristic that is noticeable in all that have contributed and taken part in the programme. This is something that cannot be achieved by passing an exam, it has to grow, develop and be nurtured.” Teacher
The training for both the young people and the adults who worked with them focused on three things. Firstly, that belief and mindset are the fundamental building blocks of successful learning relationships and that everybody has the capacity for taking charge of themselves as well as others. Secondly, that the confidence to take up the role and make a difference to the learning of others would come from skills that can be learned. Finally, that they would only get quality outcomes if they had the perseverance (AKA grit, resilience, drive) to improve their peer tutoring skills with deliberate practise using goal setting, review and reflection and peer feedback; so a habit of aspiring for excellence was created.
The supporting adults who continued to work with the peer tutors beyond the initial training continued to nurture this belief, confidence and focus on quality. Their role as the supporting adult was to show the belief they had in young people.
Professor Martin Seligman, one of the world’s most pre-eminent psychologists argued in The Optimistic Child that if we want our children to be confident kids, they have to be good at something – or competent. Research tells us that we DON’T get confident young people through praising them. Instead, confident young people tend to do certain things well. They don’t have to be the best but they have to feel competent at something and do it well. That’s how the peer tutoring programme builds confidence. The focus on effort, process and mastery builds both growth mindset and self- confidence too.
Back to our Mercer’s Celebration event. In the auspicious rooms of Walsall Council House, the young people mingled with likes of the Mayor of Walsall, the principal of a local college and local councillors amongst others. Without exception, everybody commented on how confident the peer tutors seemed, especially when talking about the project and their role within it.
“They are amazing… such confidence talking to new people. I wish I had their confidence at that age” Mayor of Walsall
The children from the primary schools were first to step forward and worked the room like true professionals whilst their older counterparts wrestling with teenage insecurities hung back somewhat and waited for people to approach them. Yet in all the evidence we had collected, both groups talked equally about their growth in confidence, but outwardly their confidence looked different to me. The secondary peer tutors didn’t necessarily act confident; they were a bit shy and very self-conscious. I was really curious and maybe even slightly confused by this.
What I hadn’t really taken time to really think about is what ‘confidence’ really is. It’s a word like ‘intelligence’ we use it all the time but don’t necessarily give it much deeper thought than that. Our younger peer tutors seemed to equate confidence with courage. They perceived confidence as overcoming the fear of having a go at something; it was the courage to try new things and to speak out to new people. They described a much more visible type of confidence, something you could easily see in their actions. Our secondary aged peer tutors, on the other hand described confidence in terms of a feeling about their worth; their confidence came from a feeling of “it’s OK to be me” and newly found perception that they didn’t lack anything. So, “it’s OK to be me, even if I am a bit shy at the moment.” They learned to trust themselves as well as care for others, so they felt good about themselves because they were good at peer tutoring, despite all the insecurities they carried with them. One secondary student summed it up as:
“For me, talking to other people is not that hard, so really I was in my comfort zone I’d say. I learned that to be a leader you have to be more self-aware. Once you know yourself you lead people better, it’s easier to try and help guide someone else. You can be confident on the outside but knowing yourself is different. Knowing yourself truly gives you confidence on the inside. This has helped me develop myself as a person; from knowing what confidence is to actually knowing myself.”
Self-confidence, self-esteem, self-respect, self-worth or even self-image are all aspects of confidence and for years psychologists and behavioural scientists have recognized it as the single, most significant force directing and determining your life toward success or failure, fulfilment or frustration, illness or health. Staff, parents and the young people recognized a growth in confidence as the single most significant change as a result of the peer tutoring programme.
Having worked with peer tutors over 20 years now, what I’m very confident about is that Peer Tutoring positively affects belief, aspiration, motivation and achievement, mindset, a sense of responsibility, behaviour, respect for others, resilience, teamwork, communication skills, leadership skills, social skills, I could go on but I won’t. Our peer tutors are more succinct with words than I am and they sum all of these up as
“I feel more confident.”
That’s pretty good at a time when so many of our young people say they ‘lack confidence and doubt they will succeed in life’.