This one student skill is more important than IQ for good mental health


Since 2014 STEER has tracked the social-emotional development of 150,000 students across more than 250 schools in the UK, from the age of 8 to 18. This data has enabled STEER to understand and explain to schools how to provide effective personal development for today’s students.


New research which shows that one single student skill is more important than IQ for mental health.


When Alfred Binet in 1904 developed the very first standardised intelligence test, he almost certainly didn’t expect it to become the defining concept of the mind for over 100 years. What came to be known as general intelligence, or IQ,  was a means of quantifying human reasoning and problem-solving abilities, utilising a standardised test to assign individuals with a single number.

One of the best ways to think about IQ is a measure of power of a data engine. IQ measures, roughly speaking, how fast and accurately a brain can perform complex, abstract computations. Students with big IQs can proceed fast down a straight data road; give them a road of difficult equations, or tough textual analysis, or language learning and they will race along it faster than someone with a smaller IQ who may take longer and struggle to perform the more complex tasks accurately.

Teachers have always been sceptical about the comprehensiveness of IQ

Schools have found themselves strongly influenced by this concept of IQ. One of it’s appeals to schools is that it is measurable and comparable. Another is that it does, in fact, account for a good proportion of a student’s academic outcomes (70-80% for subjects like Maths but rather less- 50%- for arts subjects). So there is, broadly speaking, often a correlation between students in the top academic sets and their IQ scores.

But teachers have also been sceptical about the comprehensiveness of IQ. How much of a student’s cognition does it actually explain? What about other very important aspects, such as creativity, lateral thinking, and curiosity? And what about related social learning skills- such as collaboration, self-reflection and experimentation?

There is also strong evidence that IQ is a very poor indicator of mental health; qualities such as resilience and resourcefulness have little to do with IQ but a lot to do with learning.

As a result, for many years, teachers have been searching for an additional component to describe these ‘missing factors’ from the model of IQ. Concepts such as EQ, VAK and multiple intelligences have all been proposed to try and describe that missing element of the mind.


The mind must learn to self-regulate to avoid being ‘blind’

Now researchers believe they may have found that missing element of the mind.  Over the past 20 years, focus has been paid to the role of what scientists call attentional biasing. Attentional biasing describes how the brain is, in fact, always selective about what information it pays attention to at any one time.

Take, for example, the information your brain is paying attention to right now as you read this. Just notice what your hands are doing right now; what they are resting on or holding. Now, the interesting thing is that before you read that last sentence, you weren’t aware of your hands at all. You were, if you like, blind to them. That’s a trick of your brain to save yourself cognitive energy; to ensure you put your cognitive efforts into what you need to focus on (i.e. right now, reading this).

However, this means that our brains have to learn what to pay attention to, and when.

Psychologists call this ‘self-regulation’ and it’s been shown to be a crucial skill for good mental health, social competencies and access to learning.

Self-regulation gives us that ability to look ahead, anticipate and then modify our behaviour and response to the situation we are in.  Students who are good at activating, directing and then transferring their attention to the right tasks are more successful and effective learners than those who aren’t.

This skill will be immediately recognised by teachers. Teachers recognise that a student who cannot self-regulate, for example, when to ask a question, when raise their hand or when make their voice heard (missing crucial information, not self-reflecting, relying on others, frustrating the teacher and peers, being disruptive etc…) will disrupt their own, and others’ learning.

Or, equally, another student who never asks a question, raises their hand or makes their voice heard (not asking for help, finding things too easy, pursuing faulty pathways, not collaborating etc…).


Progressive schools can equip students with better long term health, academic and employment outcomes

Now that we know that self-regulation, due to the brain’s tendency toward attentional biasing, is central to educational outcomes, this allows us to put greater resources into measuring, training and improving it.

STEER is one of first the organisations to have developed a robust, systematic way for schools to track the progress of their students’ self-regulation. We are now helping many hundreds of schools, including all of the AET academies, to safeguard the mental health of their students through our technology.

There are three immediate benefits for a school that embeds self-regulation as part of it’s progress measures:


1.  Progressive, inclusive outcomes

It allows the school to focus on and value the self-regulation skills of students who may be less academically successful but develop better skills at emotional self-management. This more inclusive and progressive model is better suited to a world in which mental health is an increasingly precious capacity.

2. Academic outcomes

The EEF has identified strong evidence that improving self-regulation drives better educational outcomes. Schools do not need to choose between mental health and academic focus; they can achieve both by improving self-regulation.

3. Workplace ready soft skills.

According to the CBI, 44% of employers feel that graduates lack workplace ready soft skills. Developing student self-regulation can prepare young people for a future workplace where, increasingly such soft skills are the most highly prized attributes.


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