Is school preparing kids for a world that doesn’t exist?

John Doran, a Guidance Counsellor in the Patrician Secondary School, Co. Kildare, and author of a book promoting resilience and positive mental health for students, wonders if the education system needs a shake-up
Is school preparing kids for a world that doesn’t exist?
Stock picture of school children.

MEET Michelle, currently studying for the leaving certificate. Unlike her parents, she does not want to own a piece of the world — she merely wants to visit it. A passport, a mobile phone and a change of clothes and she is good to go.

The future is not what it was — the future is here. Is school preparing her for a world that no longer exists?

She has a number of questions for us. When will vital life skills like stress management and resilience be taught rather than caught in school? Are we about an education of the head or of the heart? Are we preparing her for a life of tests or the tests of life? When will we recognise that education is the only weapon she has to face the future — when will we make it real and relevant for her?

Managing our stress and building up our capacity to cope with tough times are vital skills to both survive and thrive in school and in life.

Stress is a feeling we get when struggling to cope with the demands being placed upon us. Short-term stress can serve the purpose of fuelling us. It is important to learn how to have stress, rather than stress having us. The key is not letting stress tip over into distress, activating what’s commonly called a ‘fight or flight’ response. When this happens on a brain level, we have difficulty moving the spotlight of our attention away from the thing stressing us out, so that it becomes amplified and looms ever larger in our mind, occupying all of our attention at the expense of perspective.

Molehills can become mountains in the mind’s eye and the body reacts like our very life is on the line — literally.

This stress response was only intended for rare and life- threatening moments. Three million years ago, there was a real danger of a sabre-toothed tiger eating Fred Flintstone. There are not too many wandering the streets these days... but your brain did not get that memo! There’s a big difference between a sabre-toothed tiger trying to eat you in your mind — and an actual tiger actually trying to eat you. The problem is — your brain doesn’t realise that.

No matter what happens — if exam results don’t go your way, or that conversation, or that relationship, or you fail to get that assignment in on time — remember what Robert Frost said were the three words experience had taught him about life.

It goes on...

In other words, very few episodes in life merit a full ‘flight or fight’ response. There can be a huge toll to pay for living our lives in this zone in terms of our health, both mental and physical, and in terms of our performance.

I hope to share with you some insights into how to enter an exam without fear, perform without anxiety and leave without regret. First, we must delve into fear. It will help to change how we see and experience that word as False Expectations Appearing Real.

When fear is writing the script of our lives, the working title is usually ‘I’m not good enough’. That feeling of not being enough nags away at us and never seems to stop eroding our self-confidence. A crucial mindset to adapt when we meet a setback is to be more compassionate and kinder to ourselves. Withholding self-criticism and engaging in a more positive and constructive relationship with ourselves can greatly enhance our chances of a successful outcome. Amp up the voice in your head that’s positive — your inner coach. Dial down the negative voice in your head that’s your inner critic.

That voice in your head is the only one you can be guaranteed will be with you all your life — ME FM, your internal radio station. Make it a good news channel. This is 100% in your control.

“If I said the things to my friends that I say to myself — I would have no friends.”

Princess Diana

Have you ever noticed that we tend to talk least about the things we think about the most? We can be very hard on ourselves — that includes your parents and teachers (whisper it... they are human too!). Please remember you are already enough — no brilliant exam result, status in life, or approval from others will make you more enough than you already are. You were born enough. We sometimes have a real fear that we aren’t — and have a real fear that failure will confirm that. That we don’t measure up to our own or others expectations.

When we realise that we are already enough, we let go of that fear of failure and are free to have a go. To let our energy and application flow. To get of our own way and do our best. The smallest thing we can do to make the biggest difference is to see the word ‘fail’ as First Attempt In Learning and see mistakes as VILE — Very Interesting Learning Experiences. Do all that you can with all that you have, in the time that you have, in the space that you are in — and that will be good enough.

This article was first published on - A Lust for Life is a national wellbeing movement to transform how we talk about and treat mental health.

John Doran is a Guidance Counsellor in the Patrician Secondary School, Co. Kildare, and author of Ways to Wellbeing, a programme promoting resilience and positive mental health for students nationwide and internationally.

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