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How to develop mental toughness in primary school children

19 ways to build mentally strong children

School is a fun and exiting time, but it is also full of countless challenges, setbacks, failures, and difficult situations. Just like adults, children have to deal with pressure, stress and challenges and still perform at school.

As children transition from kinder to prep, they need to start learning to listen to the teacher rather than just playing. They need to start focusing and commit to learning tasks and class rules. They also need to have the confidence to blend into groups and make friends.

During playtime, they have to challenge themselves to, for example, conquering the monkey bar. As they get older, it is not long before social comparisons begin and they have to keep up with sports, playing music or the latest schoolyard craze. They are expected to read, write and stand in front of the class during ‘Show and Tell’, which requires confidence. These are just some of the uncomfortable situations your child will face in the early primary school years.

Children who are mentally tough withstand these pressures and challenges more effectively. According to research undertaken by Dr Peter Clough, psychologist and a leading expert on mental toughness, mentally tough children perform up to 25% better in exams. They sleep better, show better attendance, are more engaged in the classroom and have higher aspirations. They transition better from junior to secondary education, perceive less bullying and are less likely to adopt anti-social behaviour.

So what is mental toughness?

Mental toughness is not about acting tough, being unkind or suppressing emotions. Mental toughness is about having the inner resilience, curiosity, confidence and drive to reach your full potential.

It’s about being comfortable in your own skin and having the courage and positive mindset to grow and thrive.

Mental toughness originates from elite sports psychology, where it has been used with success for over 30 years and is increasingly being recognised to apply to everyday life – both for adults and children.

The earlier we start exposing children to the concepts and techniques around mental toughness the better we can prepare them for the future.

How can I help my child become mentally tough?

Mental toughness is made up of four attributes, also called the 4 Cs. These are commitment, control, challenge and confidence.

Commitment – teach children how to set and achieve small goals

  • Work with your children to build commitment by setting them small goals, for example set them the task of helping to set and clean the breakfast table or help to make lunch or to packing their school bag.
  • To make it fun, use a starboard to keep track of their achievements and make sure progress is visible so you can have a conversation about it.
  • Help them break down big tasks in to smaller tasks.
  • Ask ‘what are you going to do tomorrow?’ to start a conversation about the tasks they might encounter the next day.
Challenge – help children understand how to respond to change and challenges
  • Stretch your children and help them see challenges as an opportunity to learn.
  • Encourage your child to ‘have a go’ at something new.
  • Tell them it’s OK to fail and remind them that with every failure, they’ve learned something.
  • Praise your child’s efforts rather than just compliment them on the outcomes.
  • Remind them that every skill requires practice and time.
  • Remind them of the power of YET! If they say they can’t do something. Tell them ‘you can’t just do it YET!’

Confidence – help build their self-belief in their interactions and abilities

  • Focus on the positives by asking ‘what went well today’ after school or ‘tell me your three favourite things of the day’.
  • Over time, keep track of their achievements like completing a book and celebrate those. Discuss what they like about themselves and consider writing the positive notes in a ‘buddy book’.
  • Tell them it is OK to be nervous in groups or to fear failure.
  • Don’t dwell on mistakes, there is always opportunity to give it another go and get better.
  • Openly practice gratitude and let them know what your grateful for.

Control – teach children about self-esteem and managing emotions

  • Draw a circle of control and make a list of what they can and cannot control. If your child comes home from school upset because of an external factor – like someone being mean – remind them this is out of their control.
  • Discuss with them that setbacks like disagreements, missing out, loosing or failing at something are normal occurrences.
  • Make a list of events they don’t like and discuss how they react to those. Find some positives and learnings in these events.
  • Remind your kids they have their own mind and thoughts and it is fine to stand for them in a group.

Using small exercises, like the ones outlined, regularly, will instill a positive mindset in your child and increase their self-belief and mental toughness over time. It may also be helpful to read books and stories that illustrate these concepts to your children in a fun and practical way that they can relate to.

You don’t need to wait until they are an elite sport person, the school year just has started, begin implementing mental toughness concepts and strategies with your children today, there is no time like now!

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