All children and young people need access to significance – but each will have different routes towards it. ‘Significance’ here is more than general wellbeing or some sense of being involved in society. It goes to the core of how each person thinks and feels about themselves, their core identity, and the extent to which this is seen as being of value (to themselves; and in the perception of others) – to what extent any person has significance in a world that is complex and uncertain.
It is tied closely to emotional health, to feelings of hope and of value, and to a constructed sense of self. Hopefully such a sense of significance will be built around positive, productive facets – developed through nurtured opportunities. If this is not the case then the person may grow a sense of absolute insignificance – feeling of being worthless – or will create their own significance through antisocial routes.
One strong strand of my own professional training was based on a belief that a key purpose of doing teaching, or youth work, or adult learning, was to enable each individual worked with to develop and strengthen their own significance. Whilst most education and social activity nods towards a need to foster personal development, this now seems to come well below concerns around skills development. It is true that developing robust literacy, language, numeracy or other skills provides a strong base for developing significance, but it also feels as if current education and training practices are in danger of focusing on routine skills at the expense of developing positive feelings of significance.
The current concerns around levels of emotional health, anxiety and self-harm throughout society would suggest that significance, and how it gets actively fostered, is worth more attention than it currently appears to have. Steps on the way to fostering stronger, positive significance for individuals can form some sort of development curriculum for life. What follows is an attempt to set out the wide range of things that might be built into everyday activities – at home; in the community; at school, college or university; or in the workplace – such that there can be a stronger focus on enabling the development of significance.
It is not proposed that these form distinct taught topics or sessions but are signposts to opportunities that can be taken at every relevant opportunity, in many various contexts.
All activities, all conversations, all environments can be thought of as having some potential for people (especially children) to:
Gain an increasing appreciation of the real world, real places, real events, real people; how the world works, how people feel
Begin to see Exploration as a good thing – with some awareness of risks and consequences; able to Experiment – knowing boundaries and what is likely to produce reactions of various kinds
Relate the whole picture and the bits – seeing the relationships/interactions between things
Build on the past and present to develop a sense of the future (as a sense of hope and anticipation)
Feel able to express self; describe self; talk about self – see self as liked, worthwhile, a good person
Believe in self; feeling more secure about more things (compared to feeling useless with low self-esteem) with reasonable levels of self-doubt; without it being ‘all self’ or continuing with unrealistic beliefs in own abilities
Learn to manage anxieties. Worry less about anticipated or imagined differences from how things might be/ could be/ should be. Rework underlying sources of anxieties, through therapeutic talking at an appropriate level
Let go of security-holders (people, places, objects) in more contexts as trust and confidence develops
See things less in terms of ‘bad people’ and more in terms of ‘behaviours that aren’t liked’; Trust more people; developing belief that most people can be trusted, knowing that there are some (very few) tricky people out there
Hold emotions in some sort of normal range ie not unemotional but not over-emotional; Manage mood changes before these get too strong; able to channel emotions into something productive
Have more balanced views of things, rather than over-generalising into extremes of ‘always’, ‘every time’, ‘everyone’. Frustrations not always seen/experienced as catastrophic; Not blaming self/others for things that might not be their fault
Get self out of cycles of negativities (through breathing, relaxing, self-talk, reframing etc)
Start to Give; appreciate how much Gets from others
Feel able to contribute. Have a voice; believe that has some say in things – without wanting to demand or dictate everything
Make decisions about events, people, things (even if only restricted choices); Know what generally counts as ‘good’ choices
Show determination (in settings where default might normally be ‘I can’t’ and passively gives up). Show persistence on task; longer attention span
Get enjoyment from structured activities as well as free play; developing understanding of and respect for rules/frameworks
Work at meaningful tasks, doing things more than just for self-satisfaction
See self as part of group/ network/ community (rather than feeling isolated from everything and everyone).
Work and play with others as well as on own. Be considerate of others (rather than manipulative, exploitative). Expect quite a lot from people without being overbearing. Avoid negatively targeting specific person/people
Socially interact on other people’s terms. Accept direction by others where appropriate or useful. Recognise adult authority. Know they live in a world that is not fully in their control, without collapsing into feelings of total powerlessness.
Act out roles, but also operate as Self; Communicate directly as well as through props/toys
Devise projects/activities and try these out without a paralysing fear of failure
Do things spontaneously (rather than compulsively)
Pursue realistic plans (rather than being randomly chaotic, or being fantastical about everything).
Deal with novelty and routine; A number of routines start to become automatic
Use tools such as maps, lists, inventories, diagrams, software
Have a sense that basic learning and social skills are being developed
Want to do well, knowing that not everything has to be perfect; OK to be as good as possible
Manage degrees of uncertainty; work well with limited choices to reduce uncertainties; Appreciate that life can sometimes be a bit unfair
When things seem to be wrong, show some understanding that it is sometimes not about an actual event but about how that event gets perceived/described
Recount/admit what has been done
Respond to suggestive language (Let’s see if … ; I wonder if … : Maybe we might … ) rather than directives (Time to … ; You must … ; Need to … ) but increasingly, in context, responds to reasonable instructions
Recognise that, on occasions, needs extra time to process things and has strategies towards these (with understanding/support from others)
As a reminder: The above are not formally-taught elements. Nor are they intended to be assessment criteria. They are simply signposts to potential opportunities for people to be enabled to have stronger, more positive, significance in their life.