Students are like icebergs: Their attitudes are deep!

Michael E. Bernard, PhD
Emeritus Professor, California State University, Long Beach
Founder, You Can Do It! Education

iceberg model of student attitudes

Attitudes are significant to a young person’s wellbeing.

The Iceberg Model

The iceberg model shown illustrates the powerful influence attitudes have on how young people think, feel, and behave.

Much of my work with young people has focused on helping them to become aware of and restructure their negative attitudes into positive ones. Doing this does a lot to help eliminate or reduce their emotional and behavioural difficulties in frequency and intensity and promote the highest levels of wellbeing.

Attitudes determine student self-talk

Negative Attitudes are the main contributors to the following five social-emotional difficulties of young people: feeling worried, feeling down, feeling angry, procrastination (feeling demotivated), and not paying attention.

We know how vital self-talk is to student wellbeing but have you ever wondered what determines their thinking/self-talk and whether it is helpful or harmful? The answer lies at the core of the student mindset – their attitudes – at the bottom of their iceberg. These determine students’ self-talk.

An example of how attitudes impact emotions and behaviour

For example, bullying has the potential for significant emotional harm; but so too do individuals who have the potential to be less vulnerable and more resilient towards bullying and its effects. What is now abundantly clear is that a student’s attitude about bullying largely determines the impact of the bullying on their self-talk and resultant emotional and behavioural response. I illustrate this as follows:

Two girls receive the same cyber-message on several occasions, saying that each has been fooling around with a popular boy at a school party and that the boy’s girlfriend is on the warpath. Carmen is quite devastated, feeling extremely depressed about the impact of the message on her reputation. At the same time, Alex pays little attention to the message, reminds herself that she is a worthwhile person, and ignores the message.

Research and clinical work with children, adolescents, or adults bullied by others clearly shows that they tend to take bullying personally, which is at the root of their helplessness, despair, depression, and rage. These individuals have an attitude of self-depreciation: “Because I’m picked on, there must be something wrong with me. I must be a real loser. I can’t cope.”

In contrast, people of all ages who have not been wounded by bullying have a strong attitude of self-acceptance. Deriving from their underlying attitude of self-acceptance, they protect themselves emotionally by thinking, “While it is annoying to be bullied, I am still a worthwhile person. I can cope.”

My work in schools and as the founder of You Can Do It! Education has involved counselling students with social-emotional difficulties and writing social-emotional learning curricula for use with young people of all ages. In our online curricula programs, we have designed different YCDI! Lifesavers such as the Resilience Lifesaver to help students develop the self-talk (and coping skills) that assist them restructure negative attitudes and self-talk.

Implications for assessment and data use on student attitudes

Whether working with individual students, classes or schools, it is beneficial to gather data on student attitudes to sharpen the focus of a school’s SEL or wellbeing program onto those specific negative attitudes that are especially prevalent for the individual or group. Similarly, if data reveals a group of under-developed positive attitudes, teachers can choose school and classroom discussions and activities accordingly.

Over the past 15 years, we have collected data on SEL and attitudes of over 135,000 students Australia-wide employing the ACER Survey of Social-Emotional Wellbeing to understand common attitudes and changes in feeling better. For example, from 2003 to 2017, worrying too much about schoolwork or what others think has gone from 44% to 58%*. We need to understand and be responsive to these factors in our SEL work. This online student survey I helped develop is available to schools and enables you to pinpoint and highlight areas of concern in your students’ wellbeing profile to use bespoke solutions – and then evaluate progress.

Another way to collect data on attitudes is through surveys that students or teachers complete (e.g., we use the Survey of Student Attitudes). Another less formal way to collect data often used when conducting professional development with teachers is to present matched examples of positive and negative attitudes (e.g., Giving Effort vs. Giving Up). Determine which attitudes the group say are either under-developed or well-developed in their student population.

Two fundamental principles

Distinctive to our work overall and as reflected in this blog are two fundamental principles:

  • There is a need to have a student wellbeing program that focuses on strengthening positive SEL skills, being aware of social-emotional difficulties, and targeting prevention and intervention.
  • The role of negative attitudes in student wellbeing and how cognitive restructuring and explicit teaching of positive attitudes contribute to reductions in social-emotional difficulties and very high levels of wellbeing and flourishing.

How might these principles influence how you work with young people or help others do so?

*Bernard, M.E., & Stephanou, (2017). A. Ecological levels of the social and emotional wellbeing of young people. Child Indicators Research. DOI 10.1007/s12187-017-9466-7

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