Finding Your Voice

Finding Your Voice – Attain Cover Story

Quieter children often feel more comfortable allowing others to hog the limelight. Mark Lascelles, Headmaster of Dauntsey's, argues that schools must do more to enable quieter children to shine.

A SEA OF EAGER FACES greets me at the first assembly of each new academic year. Behind every one a mix of hopes and aspirations but anxieties too. Girls and boys who have been happy and settled in their previous schools now need to find a new place and create new friendships in a new setting. It’s fascinating to observe.

Children instinctively create their own social dynamics, much of it stemming from their level of self-confidence and their ability to express themselves. Within the first week of term they will start to form social groups, often based on first-impressions. As the terms pass, these social groups ebb and flow and it is vital that school plays an active role to help every child find a happy and comfortable place within the school. It is the age old question of whether we develop as a result of nature or nurture. Are we all born with a pre-determined desire and ability to connect and communicate with others, and an inherent confidence, or does this desire and ability develop as the result of the environments in which we find ourselves?

Certainly, we know that as we grow, a number of factors influence the development of our personality and self confidence; genes, gender, parental input, school and society as a whole. At school, a trend can develop where the more confident children grow in stature at the expense of the quieter ones. More confident children volunteer readily, are enthusiastic to tackle the bigger roles in school shows, to present in assemblies, to show visitors around school. The quieter children can feel more comfortable in allowing others to go before them.

While these pupils can go unnoticed ironically they may well have the most to contribute. Ideas and insights will certainly be running through their minds but without the confidence to articulate these thoughts, the pupil, and the rest of the class, loses out. On the sports field, these pupils may not be readily selected for the top teams. On the school stage they may not be picked for a leading role even though there may be real talent beneath the surface. In social situations, some may find themselves on the edge needing only a little encouragement or advice to help them get involved. As the years pass they develop coping strategies and often these pupils will form a group with others of a similar temperament. However, individually or collectively, they may have lost their voice.

If this goes unchecked, there is a real risk that these pupils will not realise their full potential. School is not just about gaining the best possible academic results, emotional intelligence and connecting with other people is just as important. Regardless of impressive exam grades, interviewers often make up their mind about a candidate within minutes of meeting them. And a good school will not only help the less confident pupils develop, it will also manage the drive and enthusiasm of the more confident. Unchecked, these pupils can develop the wrong attitude and dominate a classroom and their social groups. Confidence is important, but there should be no trace of arrogance.

Staff, both academic and pastoral, should work together to develop a strategy to ensure the involvement of these quieter pupils. Should they be selected to show the next visitor around or represent the school in the next competition? With the right support, they will gain a huge amount in confidence and self-esteem as well as profile within the class. Building their confidence in a public arena will encourage these pupils to find their voice.

Good schools ensure that every pupil gets opportunities to develop and to shine. The very best ones ensure that this happens in an environment where encouragement is the ‘norm’, where pupils recognise talent and derive as much satisfaction from the success of others as they do from their own. Staff can help by seeking out all achievements, both inside and outside school, and ensuring that these are celebrated immediately and publicly. The focus should not only be the school assembly but through all communication channels available; website, e-bulletins, and newsletters ensure that achievements reach the wider school community.

Not all the answers can be found in the classroom and extra-curricular activities play a vital role. Parents can make a real difference here. By taking an interest in what your children enjoy and looking for ways to encourage them, you can help broaden their life experience and gain confidence. There are countless clubs and societies outside school which represent interests from karate to chess. They offer children a chance to mix with people from different backgrounds and develop a wider social group. The greater the variety of social situations to which you expose children, the stronger their social skills will be. A word of caution here however – extracurricular activities are not all about winning or being the best. If you apply pressure in every aspect of a child’s life, you will soon switch them off completely!

All good schools offer a wide range of extra-curricular activities. At my own school, one programme with a far reaching impact on pupils is ‘Moonrakers’. All our Third Form (Year 9) take part, spending an afternoon a week on outdoor activities throughout the school year. They might be kayaking, learning self-defence or orienteering, mountain biking, cooking outdoors, crossing a river, rock climbing or dinghy sailing. Whatever activity is involved, they are developing teamwork and leadership skills whilst stretching themselves mentally as well as physically.

The activities themselves are only part of the picture. The pupils are deliberately put into new groups. Everyone has to work with people who are not in their normal social circle, and thus develop new relationships, gain an understanding of how others operate and work together to form a functioning team. Group dynamics are changed and the results can be surprising to both pupils and teachers. After a few sessions, vital life skills such as communication, co-operation, listening to others, sensitivity and tolerance of different ideas are learnt – and friends with different interests have been made.

One pupil springs to mind. Bright, but lacking in confidence within her peer group, this pupil would rarely push herself forward but, if prompted, would perform well. Given the opportunity to have a go at rock climbing through the Moonrakers programme, she was initially very nervous. Half way up, something clicked, she knew what to do and where to move for the next part of the ascent. By the end of the day she was helping others climb. This new found confidence translated immediately back into the classroom where her peers viewed her in a new light. Her more confident attitude and readiness to contribute was a delight to see.

Another pupil had made up his mind that sport certainly, and outdoor activity in general, was just not his thing. During the Moonrakers programme it became clear that he was an excellent map reader. By the time of the overnight expedition he had fellow classmates queuing to be in this team. They knew he would navigate the best and fastest route to camp. Success for him was not on a rugby pitch but he and his peers realised that, out in the open, with nothing but a map and compass that he grew an inch or two that week.

By being encouraged to move outside of their comfort zone and to test personal boundaries, pupils can be amazed by what they can achieve. Working with others towards a common goal teaches them how a team operates, how to lead and how to follow. I have seen at first hand that learning outside the classroom can have a profound effect on the development of a pupil’s character and entire future.

Further up the school, a Sixth Form pupil was offered a chance to join the crew of our tall ship, the Jolie Brise. Despite his anxieties and misgivings he chose to challenge himself by taking part in the Fastnet Race. He told me that the experience showed him that he could do more than he had ever imagined. He discovered that something he had feared could be hugely rewarding. He became more sensitive to others, learnt when it’s best to put your point across and when it’s best to let things drop. He believes that his communication skills improved significantly during that voyage and he now feels comfortable working in a random group of people – vital for his future career in medicine.

Every day, I tell my pupils to have a sense of adventure and try something new. Every day I see the results – both in our community and in classrooms – where boys and girls have a deeper understanding of how they function, greater self-esteem and a renewed energy and confidence in their abilities.

There is nothing wrong with having a quieter temperament, and parents should not be disappointed in a child who is not always the most vocal and eager to contribute. There is so much that they can do to help encourage them and enable them to grow in confidence. High performing pupils are easy to identify and nurture but quieter pupils often need close attention. Having a quieter temperament should not be allowed to limit a pupil’s development and confidence. We must all remember that the quieter pupils can have much to contribute and enrich the school – and teach to others. We – teachers and parents working together – must help them find their voice and enable them to reach their full potential.

Mark Lascelles is the Headmaster of Dauntsey's School in Wiltshire.