“Too often the issues that affect young people are explored in isolation, using data that focus on just one area of their lives. This research has shown that a multi-dimensional perspective is key to understanding the lives of young people, particularly the most vulnerable to disadvantage.” DFE Research Report DFE-RR118 “Understanding vulnerable young people” Executive Summary Page 6 – 26 May 2011
In recent years I’ve heard the phrase, ‘Vulnerable Young People’ a great deal and I feel it probably succinctly describes the group of people that I’ve have studied and tried to help most for over 40 years. The evidence from this research means we now understand what causes our children to remain vulnerable (they are at birth of course) and how it can be prevented.
I recall being very disappointed at DFE Research Report DFE-RR118 “Understanding vulnerable young people” since it focused entirely on the environment and lifestyle factors contributing to their vulnerability, with no mention on the development and learning that children need to have in order to avoid becoming vulnerable.
Like many others, I stumbled into teaching 40 years ago, largely by my passion for sport as a P.E. teacher, but being an analytical thinking scientist ( degree in chemistry) I almost immediately began researching the factors that caused these young people to become vulnerable. I was able to relate, motivate and help students who were struggling in a variety of areas, such as studying, exams, behaviour, relationships and life in general initiating my lifelong quest into ‘What we really need to learn to achieve a healthy, happy, successful life?’
When I began as a teacher in the early seventies, I was in my early twenties so I not only had access to a large number of teenage students but I was able to recall numerous struggling young people (and some successful) during my own adolescence. I was able to recall vividly how I struggled to cope when I went to my new school aged 11 and how my disruptive my behaviour at school became as a result. I was fortunate in that I was now teaching at the school with two of the teachers who showed some faith in me and provided some support, and I was determined to discover how these struggling vulnerable young people could be identified and helped as much as possible.
Being a naïve young teacher I had no experience (or fear) of obtaining feedback from staff and created a questionnaire for every teacher (almost 100) to try to discover their perceptions on the behaviours, concerns and difficulties being shown by the students, Since this was before the days of the photocopier, they were written (not typed) on “spirit (Banda) masters” and copies churned out by my own hand. Perhaps because the staff took pity on me or admired my substantial efforts, many were completed and returned (over half). Although this was a very poor survey (I had little idea of what I was doing) I did discover although most teachers observed and experienced a wide range students with behaviours and difficulties displayed by struggling students, very few teachers appeared to discover why they were occurring.
These were the variety of symptoms (behaviours or outcomes) my research discovered 40 years ago indicating that young people are struggling or vulnerable:
- Poor punctuality
- School absence
- School Underachievement
- Disruptive behaviour
- Anti-social behaviour
- Criminal behaviour
- Violent behaviour
- Bullying and victim of bullying
- Family disruption
- Eating disorders
- Smoking cigarettes
- Alcohol abuse
- Substance abuse
- High risk (extreme) activities
- Excessive spending (spendaholic)
- Stress, depression and anxiety
- Self –harm
- Suicide attempts
A year later I repeated the exercise focusing on symptoms of school underachievement and again I discovered that although underachievement was reported to be widespread, the reasons for the students to be struggling was invariably attributed to lack of effort or inability. Forty years ago, when I carried out these surveys there was relatively little research or staff development, so this ‘snapshot’ may have been quite typical and I suppose the lack of interest from the senior leadership in the school was typical also. However, for me, these surveys were very useful as I became even more determined to research and discover how these struggling vulnerable young people could be identified and helped as much as possible.
In May 2011 the “Understanding vulnerable young people” DFE Research Report identified the following (page2):
“However, the crux of our research was to identify groups of young people at age 16/17 who were characterised by the combination of disadvantages they experienced. We identified six distinct groups of young people:
- A group with no disadvantages, the non-vulnerable group (55 per cent of young people) and five groups of disadvantaged young people:
- Emotional health concerns group (16 per cent), who only had emotional health concerns
- Substance misuse group (8 per cent), who had substance misuse problems and a tendency to have low attainment and emotional health concerns
- Risky behaviours group (8 per cent), who took part in criminal activity and had a tendency for substance misuse, low attainment and emotional health concerns
- Low attainment only group (8 per cent), who tended to only have low attainment
- Socially excluded group (6 per cent), who were NEET and tended to have low attainment, emotional health concerns and substance misuse
Many may have been surprised that almost half of young people are considered to be vulnerable, but I think it is even larger than this. In 2017 the outstanding BBC in-depth longitudinal study of 25 children born in the year 2000-“Child of our Time” focused on them now aged 16 years.
Child of our Time (BBC series)
March 2017 – “Through intimate stories, compelling archive and experiments Child of Our Time brings you the inside story of today’s 16-year-olds. In this two-part series, BBC One finds out what it really means to be a 16-year-old in the 21st century. It’s an age where everything is changing – our teenagers may look grown up, but their brains are still being shaped as they step out into a world changing faster than at any time since the 1960s. So what is determining the adults they are becoming? To what extent are they influenced by their biology, their upbringing or the changing world around them? With surprising new research in neuroscience we reveal many aspects of teenage life can be explained by the latest understanding of the changing teenage brain. The brains of our 16-year-olds are wired to feel more self-conscious, to be more mentally creative, and to feel more intense pleasure, than at any other time in their lives.”
I was delighted that they focused on the huge impact of “Peer Pressure’ on these teenagers since my own research 35 years ago indicated that ‘peer pressure’ appeared to become the biggest factor in their learning and development in their teens.
Peer Pressure (Group Socialisation Theory)
In my twenties and team sports were a huge part of my life, I had seen repeatedly in team sport, on and off the field how powerful peer pressure was, in fact it on numerous occasions I’d witnessed a radical change in the behaviour of people (usually boys/men) when in teams, groups and gangs.
As a teacher/researcher I had access to so many teenagers for longitudinal studies was invaluable. In my own life, at the age of 11, being placed in a school with peers completely different from my home community had a huge effect on my self-awareness and motivation. I lived in an area to the east of London that would now be described as ‘deprived’, and I knew of no people (peers or adults) who put a high value on study or academia. However, my school as a teenager was full of people, staff and students, who considered study and academic achievement to be central to being a success. Consequently as a young teacher/researcher, I was able to investigate via interviews, class discussions and surveys how much peer pressure influenced the students motivation and behaviour. As part of this investigation I experimented with various seating plans, grouping and activities, in both science lessons and sports (P.E.) sessions, closely observing the responses.
By the early eighties my conclusion was similar to that of Judith Rich Harris in her 1998 book “The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do”, which is “Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More“.
She proposes a “Group Socialisation” theory stating that a child’s adult personality is determined by childhood and adolescent peer groups outside of the home environment and that parental behaviours have less effect on the psychological characteristics their children will have as adults.”, based on behavioural genetics, sociological views of group processes, context-specific learning, and evolutionary theory.
It appears that the book caused quite a lot of controversy because idea ‘that peers matter much more than parents–runs counter to nearly everything that a century of psychology and psychotherapy has told us about human development’ (Malcolm Gladwell, Do Parents Matter, The New Yorker August 1998).
Probably because I am a teacher/researcher focused on the science of learning, not a qualified psychologist, I was not aware of that there had been this long standing belief and I was surprised to discover it. I did not really begin reading articles and books until the late eighties and the conclusions from my own research was that peer pressure has a massive influence in human development.
In 1987, when I became Head of Year, responsible for the learning and well-being of 250 students from aged 11 to 16, I was confident enough to openly point out that the influence the parents would have on the development of their children would diminish greatly, whilst the influence of their peers would increase immensely. My first book, A Wonderful Life?, attempts to illustrate this point very clearly, reflecting Malcolm Gladwell’s comment in the New Yorker article,
“A child is better off, in other words, living in a troubled family in a good neighborhood than living in a good family in a troubled neighborhood. Peers trump parents.”
In the early eighties, I used many of my lessons in Personal, Social, and Health Education (PSHE) to carry out questionnaires and discussions into the factors causing young people to be identified as struggling and become vulnerable. These discussions were invaluable with my research and helped me identify common behaviours of struggling or vulnerable young people. This extremely useful insight into the perception of the teenagers provided by the surveys and discussions on them meant it became clear how many vulnerable (struggling) young people there were. At the time,35 years ago, I was surprised of how widespread self-harming, serious eating problems, depression and suicide attempts were, as there seemed to me to be no news articles, statistics or even organisations highlighting these concerns.
The seriousness and widespread nature of these concerns helped catalyse my research into vulnerable young people and prompted me to begin a post-graduate (part-time) course into Personal Social and Health Education.
Self-Esteem (Maslow’s Hierarchy)
The post-graduate (part-time) course into Personal Social and Health Education provided me with the opportunity and incentive to start studying textbooks on learning and education and I started to become aware and interested in the work of various psychologists. When studying for my degree in Chemistry at university at the start of the seventies, psychology and sociology were often not treated seriously and not considered to be ‘real science’, but psychology has now become ‘my favourite science’, with the extensive research and neuroscience supporting it. Discovering ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’ in the mid-eighties had a big impact on my research as it helped explain why ‘peer pressure’ had such a massive influence on my students and most teenagers. Furthermore, it introduced to me the term ‘self–esteem’, which I do not recall hearing before then, but in recent years has seems to be used by a large number of people especially in education and the media. I will try to briefly explain Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and then illustrate how it helped my research and evolve the 8 skills.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow first introduced his concept of a hierarchy of needs in 1943, in his paper “A Theory of Human Motivation” suggesting that people are motivated to attain basic needs before moving on to next more advanced need. He was interested in learning about what makes people happy and they achieve it. The hierarchy is most often displayed as a triangle or pyramid with lowest levels being the most basic needs, with the more complex at the top.
There are five different levels in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and until the need has been satisfied we do not move on to the next level (need).
These are the most basic needs the physical requirements for human survival, such as the need for water, air, food, and sleep. If these requirements are not met, the human body cannot function properly and will ultimately fail.
- Safety and Security
Being and feeling safe and secure are the next needs and include a desire for good health and well-being, safe environment, and protection from physical harm and the elements, personal (emotional) security, financial security.
- Social (Love and Belonging)
These include needs for belonging, love, and affection. Relationships such as friendships, romantic attachments, and families help fulfil this need for companionship and acceptance, but also involvement in social, community, or religious groups. Humans need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance among their social groups, such as clubs, co-workers, religious groups, professional organizations, sports teams, and gangs as well as families and intimate partners. Humans need to love and be loved, many people become susceptible to loneliness, social anxiety and clinical depression in the absence of this love or belonging element. This need is especially strong in childhood and can override the need for physiological and security needs, as witnessed in children who cling to abusive parents and in adolescence may overcome safety needs depending on the strength of the peer pressure.
Humans have a need to feel respected, accepted and valued by others. These include the need for things that reflect on self-esteem, self-respect, personal worth, social recognition, and accomplishment. Deprivation of these needs may lead to an inferiority complex, weakness, and helplessness.
This is the highest level and Maslow describes this level as the desire to accomplish everything that one can, to become the most that one can be. Individuals may perceive or focus on this need very specifically. Maslow (1970) estimated that only two percent of people will reach the state of self-actualization and identified 15 characteristics of a self-actualized person.
- They perceive reality efficiently and can tolerate uncertainty;
- Accept themselves and others for what they are;
- Spontaneous in thought and action;
- Problem-centred (not self-centred);
- Unusual sense of humour;
- Able to look at life objectively;
- Highly creative;
- Resistant to enculturation, but not purposely unconventional;
- Concerned for the welfare of humanity;
- Capable of deep appreciation of basic life-experience;
- Establish deep satisfying interpersonal relationships with a few people;
- Peak experiences;
- Need for privacy;
- Democratic attitudes;
- Strong moral/ethical standards.
I decided I needed to experiment and research much more into ‘What Motivates Us’ and ‘Self-Esteem’, attempting to understand them as much as possible and the factors influencing them.
One of the objectives in my first two books, A Wonderful Life? and Miraculous!, was to try to convey some of the work of some of the excellent psychologists I discovered:-
- Abraham Maslow – Hierarchy of Needs theory.
- Alfred Adler – Effect of environment on or development, especially family order.
- Carl Jung – Analytical psychology and Personality Types.
- Erik Erikson – Theory of 8 psychosocial stages of development.
- Jean Piaget – Cognitive developmental stages of children.
- Alfred Binet – Inventor of the first intelligence test.
- John Bowlby – Child development and Attachment Theory
- Aaron Beck – Introducing and development of cognitive therapy
- Carl Rogers – Development of client- centred therapy.
- Albert Ellis – the founder of cognitive behaviour therapy
- B.F. Skinner – Development of experimental research psychology and behaviourism.
By 1988, my research evidence (feedback) had identified some common characteristics in the young people who were vulnerable (some have become the focus for TED TALKS and books in recent years) they often seemed to struggle to:
- Organise and plan
- Be enthusiastic
- Be determined
- Be careful
- Be self-disciplined.
My Head of Year role in school in the late eighties meant that staff and parents wanted my support in helping them with the difficulties the young people may be exhibiting, so I used the results of this research to create simple reports (profiles) for the staff, parents and students to complete to help with identifying (measure or assess) their strengths and weaknesses.
These reports allowed me to refine my research because I now had lots more data to analyse and discuss with staff, parents and students, as well as having over a period of time (several years), some longitudinal research data on individual students. By the start of the nineties I felt I had sufficient evidence for me to confident that I had identified some of the key factors in determining the vulnerability of young people. At the time I was struggling to decide what to call these factors, were they characteristics, traits, qualities, attributes, but I preferred ‘skills’ as it seemed more suitable, emphasising that they can be learned, even though many people seemed uncomfortable with the word being used for them.
Vulnerable (struggling) young people are often weak in the following skills
- Organisation and planning – poor in this means life is chaotic, and difficult to be punctual or reliable.
- Concentration – this is needed, otherwise mistakes become common and learning is slow.
- Communication – poor listening and speaking usually results in both the young person and others (usually adults) becoming frustrated.
- Understanding – young people are very naïve and often confused when poor in this.
- Motivation – lacking in drive or enthusiasm invariably prevented learning and ‘being bored’ seemed to be linked with being vulnerable..
- Determination – lacking perseverance and giving up easily usually seemed to be present in vulnerable young people.
- Self-discipline – when young people relied upon others to teach or tell them what to do (manage) they invariably struggled.
- Self-esteem – when young people compared themselves with others using criteria that meant they felt weak (low self-esteem) they were usually very vulnerable.
Over 20 years later (2013) I discovered Paul Tough’s excellent book “How Children Succeed” that focuses upon similar skills, referring to a report card like this from a KIPP school, assessing Grit, Zest, Self-control, Optimism, Gratitude, Social Intelligence, and Curiosity.
At the same time I discovered some research from James Heckman and Tim Kautz, “Fostering and Measuring Skills”, referred to a similar list, which they called character skills’. Here is an extract from the summary (page88)
“Character skills predict later-life outcomes with the same, or greater, strength as measures of cognition. Character is a skill – not a trait.”
Probably because I was a scientist and teacher/researcher, I was actually excited in obtaining this list of skills, I began calling them, ‘the skills we need to succeed’, as I had something that I could practically apply in my role and use to support my students. To add to my excitement, within a few years I discovered some key research and a book that helped me immensely with my role and my own research. When doing my post-graduate part-time course, Master of Education In Educational Research and Evaluation in the early nineties I shared and discussed these skills regularly and I came across a key phrase, ‘Emotional Intelligence’, that seemed to relate very closely to what I had discovered.
‘We define emotional intelligence as the ability to reason with emotion. ‘John Mayer and Peter Salovey
U.S. psychologists, John Mayer and Peter Salovey published the first formal definition of emotional intelligence in 1990, claiming that it might be possible to assess and measure a person’s emotional intelligence. They believed it to be a “subset of social intelligence, involving the ability to monitor one’s own and others’ feelings and emotions, to discriminate among them and to use this information to guide one’s thinking and actions”
The Four Branches of Emotional Intelligence
- Perceiving Emotions: The first step in understanding emotions is to accurately perceive them. In many cases, this might involve understanding nonverbal signals such as body language and facial expressions.
- Reasoning With Emotions: The next step involves using emotions to promote thinking and cognitive activity. Emotions help prioritize what we pay attention and react to; we respond emotionally to things that garner our attention.
- Understanding Emotions: The emotions that we perceive can carry a wide variety of meanings. If someone is expressing angry emotions, the observer must interpret the cause of their anger and what it might mean. For example, if your boss is acting angry, it might mean that he is dissatisfied with your work; or it could be because he got a speeding ticket on his way to work that morning or that he’s been fighting with his wife.
- Managing Emotions: The ability to manage emotions effectively is a key part of emotional intelligence. Regulating emotions, responding appropriately and responding to the emotions of others are all important aspect of emotional management.
The scientific approach to emotions really appealed to me (obviously!) and I immediately thought that poor development in a person’s ‘emotional intelligence’ could contribute to having the poor outcomes, (characteristics, behaviours, symptoms etc.) in Organisation (planning), Concentration, Communication, Understanding, Motivation, Determination, Self-discipline, Self-esteem.
The term, ‘Emotional Intelligence’, became widely known with the publication of Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ”, and I hoped that its success would transform education. His book provided a very good overview of the research in this area, and an understanding how the development of this intelligence is crucial to our health, happiness and success. His model introduced 5 competencies or skills.
- Self-awareness – the ability to know one’s emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values and goals and recognize their impact on others while using gut feelings. to guide decisions.
- Self-regulation – involves controlling or redirecting one’s disruptive emotions and impulses and adapting to changing circumstances.
- Motivation – being driven to achieve for the sake of achievement.
- Empathy – considering other people’s feelings especially when making decision
- Social skill – managing relationships to move people in the desired direction
This book provided me with some clear support for my research and the analyses, profiles and reports I had been using. Unfortunately, apart from me, at that time (the nineties), I knew of no other people or schools that were carrying out assessments on young people of this type.
Measuring What Really Matters
It is clear that ‘measurement’ is a major concern for almost everyone, since it is integral to life in the 21st century (especially in regards to money) and finding ways to accurately measure anything has been central to human development and civilizations for thousands of years. Being a teacher of science, mathematics and sports for many decades, measurement and helping people to do it effectively has been central to my role. In the 21st century there is a requirement and an expectancy for almost everyone to be able to use numbers comfortably and evaluate accurately (numeracy and scientific thinking) and when I began teaching I soon realised that this was not only a problem for the students, but also many parents and staff.
Trying to identify ‘vulnerable young people’ requires an effective assessment (measurement) of them and this has not yet occurred. The assessments on children and young people for the last century have tended to be on things that can be measured relatively easily, such as weight, size, temperature etc. and the importance of academia in the 19th century lead to the creation of tests to measure reading (readability) and intelligence (I.Q.). Therefore the students I was teaching in the seventies had almost no quantifiable assessments (measurements) and little data I could use to identify their vulnerability or how they might struggle as teenagers. I began trying to research and analyse reports from staff but they provided no information I could use effectively to identify vulnerable children.
Few teachers, even now, probably have little experience of measuring skills and in the eighties, the term was rarely used by teachers so when I wanted to collate and compare the skills from the ‘Student Interim Reports’. I constructed a Likert scale, A-excellent to F-very weak. This Likert scale allowed me to research the criteria that could be used to identify the skills relating to vulnerable young people. I was able to use these reports in my discussions with staff, parents and students and I could see that many (most?) began to understand how these skills underpinned their difficulties (I often referred to them as symptoms, behaviours or outcomes).
I think it is important to point out that in being a coach in sport was invaluable for me, because a key role of a coach is to help analyse strength and weaknesses in the skills of a participant in a sport. If you consider a sport such as darts, then your skill in it will be measured by how frequently the darts you throw go where you want it to. Skills can be measured by the frequency it is performed when given an opportunity to perform it. Obviously your skill at darts can only be measured when you are trying to throw darts! Similarly with the skills in the student interim report, organisation, concentration, understanding, enthusiasm, determination, presentation, homework, self-discipline, the staff, parents and students had to consider
- When they had opportunities to display them
- How frequently they tried to display them
- How effectively they displayed them.
Possibly because I had lots of opportunities (lessons) in which to illustrate and discuss the development and measurement, these 3 parts, seemed to be more readily grasped by the students than the staff and parents. The feedback from these discussions helped my research a great deal, such that the measurement scale was modified to become
I have continued with this measurement scale for about 20 years, using it in a wide variety of areas, with it being particularly effective in coaching leaders and teachers.
The feedback from students, staff and parents raised the need for behaviours, outcomes, symptoms, characteristics etc. that can be observed to contribute to this measurement and the 8 skills to be modified, partly to adapt to the emotional intelligence approach. The new ‘8 skills we need to succeed’ attempted to measure
How well they –
- Learn and cope with new things? (Effective Learning)
- Concentrate and communicate? (Communication)
- Understand and solve problems? (Cognition)
- Know themself and what to improve? (Self-awareness)
- Manage their feelings and behaviour? (Self-regulation)
- Cope with difficulties and setbacks? (Motivation)
- Show respect and empathise with others? (Empathy)
- Relate and cooperate with others? (Social/Relationship)
Over the following years as the Leader of Learning in a school and then Learning Consultant I was able to experiment, expand and extend this aspect of research with a wide range of staff (in education, health, social and youth services) parents and young people. The development of the internet and search engines provided a great opportunity to study the international research focusing on the various symptoms (behaviours or outcomes) of vulnerable young people that can all be explained by applying these 8 skills, some of which will be outlined later in this section. Here are some examples of researchers and writers that I’ve found very useful contributors to the establishment of the 8 skills in this context.
- Carol Dweck (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success)
- Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers:The Story of Success)
- Paul Tough (How Children Succeed)
- James Heckman (Non-cognitive Skills)
- Angela Duckworth (Grit)
- Martin Seligman (Learned Optimism)
- Peterson and Seligman (Character strengths and virtues)
- Jen Lexmond and Richard Reeves (Building Character)
- Julia Margo & Mike Dixon (Freedom’s Orphan’s: Raising Youth in a Changing World)
- Judith Rich Harris (The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do)
- Sue Palmer (Toxic Childhood)
The evidence illustrating that these 8 skills are key to young people being vulnerable in the modern world has increased immensely since the start of this century. I wrote my first book (A Wonderful Life?-2008) to try to provide an understanding of how these 8 skills explain why the vulnerability of many young people and how they can be helped.
Clearly the solution is for societies to prioritise the development and measurement of the skills/abilities etc. that our children really need to succeed and prevent them from being so vulnerable as young people and adults