What I’ve learned from my guests over the last 100 episodes
This is the 100th episode of The School Success Formula. I couldn't decide what to share in this episode so I asked members of The Extraordinaries Club and they asked me to talk about the things that I've learned from my guests over the last 100 episodes. I've learned huge amounts from them as they are so knowledgeable – and we all have more to learn every day.
So, here we go! I'm going to distil some of the most valuable things I've learned in this article for you today.
What I've learned from my guests over the last 100 episodes
1. “A stressed brain can't learn.”
In episode 15 I talked to Joanna Grace who is a sensory engagement and inclusion specialist who works with students with learning difficulties such as Austism Spectrum Disorder which affect the way they process sensory inputs.
The people that Joanna works with are quite different to the ones that I work with in The Extraordinaries Club, but the thing that she said that stood out for me is that, “A stressed brain can't learn.”
I've read about this in various other places e.g. The Chimp Paradox talks about how when you're stressed you don't use the logical, intellectual part of your brain. However, the way Joanna phrased it so concisely really stuck with me.
What does this mean for you?
It means that to learn successfully you have to move yourself out of a stressed state into a calm state. I know that for many this is easier said than done. However, there are some simple things we can all do to help us feel calmer.
- Deep breathing – breathe in for 4 and out for 4, breathing from your tummy, letting it expand outwards rather than raising your shoulders as you breathe in. I practised this, and some other breathing exercises, with members of The Extraordinaries Club the other week and they all said how calm they made them feel.
- Limiting your sensory inputs and information. For example, just focusing on one thing at a time by turning off notifications and limiting distractions
As a parent, if you can see that your child is stressed, you need to be aware that they need to be brought down into a calmer state before they will be able to learn effectively.
2. Resilience comes from your relationships
In August 2020, I talked to Lisa Cherry who works with schools to create a deeper understanding of attachment, adversity and trauma and the impact of these three things on students. This helps teachers better understand challenging behaviour in their students and, from there, help their students in a more impactful way. Many of the students Lisa seeks to help are at risk of exclusion from school.
One of the most striking things Lisa shared with me was that our personal resilience in the face of adversity comes from the strength and reliability of our relationships – particularly our family relationships, the people to whom we form an attachment as babies.
This really struck me as resilience is a bit of a buzz-word in education that gets bandied around, everyone saying we need to increase resilience in our young people, without really saying how. Lisa's focus on relationships really struck me as it's something that is often out of the control of young people, and really down to their parents and how steadfast and rock-solid they are in being there for their children through thick and thin.
What does this mean for you?
As a parent, the most important thing is to be there for your child. Love them how they need to be loved – sometimes that will be tough love, setting boundaries that they will kick back against, sometimes it will be nurturing and sometimes you will indulge them. But, at all times, you will need to be patient, kind and calm to model resilience and demonstrate your abiding love and dedication to them.
Both Joanna and Lisa work with students who are often on the fringes, or forced out of, mainstream education – however, these pearls of wisdom are universally true to all humans.
3. You can improve your focus and concentration
In episode 59, I interviewed psychiatrist Dr Thomas Dannhauser about how students can improve their focus and concentration. Dr Dannhauser explained how a student's concentration ability is the main determinant of academic success, the likelihood of going to university, the difficulty of the course they study at university, their seniority in their career and, for men at the age of 47 there is £380,000 lifetime earnings gap between the top 20% and bottom 20% for concentration.
The three key things Dr Dannhauser highlighted for improving your child's concentration when they're studying were:
- Creating a good environment – minimising background noise and activity and reducing visual cues e.g. family photographs, which engage your brain in an emotional response
- Reducing screen time – between the ages of 14 and 16 you can lose two grades if you spend two hours per day on a screen. For each hour you give to racing you go up two grades
- Using the Pomodoro method so that your brain doesn't get tired – this also helps to keep motivation high.
The other thing that Dr Dannhauser shared that is really important is that parents teach children what they say to themselves in their ‘self-talk' – when they're talking to themselves inside their heads. This links back to what Lisa Cherry said about relationships being the source of resilience. Basically, if you catastrophise and over-react to things then your children will learn that this is the correct way to react to events and have negative, and sometimes catatrophising, self-talk.
However, if you're calm and rational in how you deal with events your child will have more positive self-talk that sets them up to cope better with the challenges of life.
What does this mean for you?
- Set a neutral study environment with minimal disruptions and few emotional triggers to promote concentration
- Encourage reading over screen time (I'm fully ware that this is easier said than done)
- Use the Pomodoro technique to maintain focus and stamina for studying
- Don't over-dramatise challenges or obstacles along the way
4. Helping students with learning differences boils down to one key thing
Find out how you learn best
I've interviewed experts about many different learning differences:
The thing that all these experts had in common is that they said students with these learning differences need to discover how they learn best.
The great thing about this is that this is what I teach to all students whether they have a learning difference or not. The vast majority of students don't really understand how to learn effectively and haven't spent any time reflecting on the best types of learning techniques for them. In the Plan Your Revision module in The Extraordinaries Club I encourage students to reflect on which learning experiences worked for them and which didn't – and focus on the ones that work. In the following module, Optimise Your Revision Techniques, I explain how learning works and give detailed tutorials on how to use some of the most effective revision techniques so that they're really effective.
This can help all students – whether they have a learning difference or not.
There was another thing that many of these experts said as well. This was…
The other thing many of these experts suggested was using technology to help students with the challenges they face. Smartphones are particularly useful e.g. setting alarms or reminders to help you remember what you need to do and when, using online calendars to stay organised and revision apps like Quizlet and Seneca.
These things can be used by all students to help with organisational and learning challenges – they're not reserved for people with learning differences. I use timers, alarms and online calendars to help myself keep on track through the day and so does my husband.
5. Perfectionism doesn't have to cause you pain
My guest in episode 46, Lisa van Gemert, describes perfectionism as:
“Unreasonably high standards combined with lack of self-love.”
This episode really resonated with me as someone who has always held themselves to very high standards.
The most helpful thing that Lisa shared in our conversation was that certain areas of life demand perfection, while others don't. The example she gave was a child with diabetes needing to be rigorous about checking their blood sugar in comparison with a teenager who likes to journal – skipping a day of journaling will have no great impact in the general scheme of things.
Therefore, if you find that you or your child is prone to beating yourself up with your perfectionism, take a step back and assess, for everything you do, how important perfection actually is.
Lisa also said that your children need to see you struggling and failing because they will have the resilience of not succeeding being modelled to them, and know that they aren't always expected to be perfect or achieve perfection and how to cope with life when they don't reach these dizzying heights.
What does this mean for you?
- Help your child understand which tasks have to be perfect and which ones don't e.g. is it life and death that this is done to the letter, is it a nice to do perfectly, or will done be good enough.
- Be a rookie at something, and show your child what failure looks like as you grapple with something new.
What will you learn from The School Success Formula?
I hope these insights that I've gained from 100 episodes will help you as much as they've helped me.
If you'd like to learn more from The School Success Formula podcast, look back over the last 100 episodes (there's a list of the ten most downloaded ones here) and subscribe so that you never miss another one.