Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Empowering The Inner Hero: Why Positive Role Models Are So Important By our Guest Authors Professor Paula Barrett and Jacqueline Bermingham

Learning is an ongoing, lifelong process through which teachers and educators have the power to shape and transform their students’ outlooks on life. By being open to new opportunities and challenges, from childhood through to our senior years, people will continue to acquire new skills throughout their entire life, which will quench the yearning that comes from within. And whatever skills people seek to learn and acquire, whether it be simple or complex, powerful role models enhance and facilitate this education by exerting great influence over what and how people learn. The anonymous quote, “Role models inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more”, sums this theory up eloquently.

Role models are commonly likened to mentors, heroes, leaders, and charismatic individuals, and put simply, are seen to possess a set of characteristics and personal attributes that make them stand out from the crowd. Such virtues include kindness, empathy towards all living creatures, persistence, courage, altruism, compassion, dedication and creativity. Role models typically possess three valuable attributes. Firstly, they have the ability to motivate and inspire others, secondly they are unique and positive characteristics who others can learn from, and thirdly, they possess values and beliefs that promote empathy and wellbeing in all living creatures.

While positive role modelling exists to further society, the power of self-destructive behavioural modelling cannot be ignored. Such negative role models exist within all sectors and societies independent of racial or socio-economic backgrounds. Research shows, for example, that chronic unemployment is an inter-generational trend. The same applies to other challenging patterns such as alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, interactions with the criminal justice system and unstable attachment patterns. There are many examples in history (modern and ancient) of the destructive power of negative role models, where wars were initiated, stereotypes entrenched and atrocities committed. Sadly, in modern society, the popular media often produces and perpetuates racist, sexist and ageist role models, and the implications of such negative role modelling can have an extremely adverse and long-term influence on people, which then marginalises those everyday individuals who are indeed worthy of our children’s praise and admiration.

Fortunately, we have the power to freely choose strong, powerful, and positive role models in our lives, and by doing so, encourage and teach students to follow suit. This article focusses on this power of choice, and stresses the importance of having various positive role models throughout the entirety of one’s life.

Some role models may teach us about specific skills (such as gardening, cooking, handy house work, cleaning, manners, social etiquette, sporting activities and so on) while other role models provide us with examples of positive attitudes and outlooks on life (such as empathy and caring for animals and the environment, caring for the wellbeing of children and the elderly, making positive contributions to our local community and responding to challenges in a resilient manner, just to name a few). It is important to remember that the power of positive role modelling extends from everyday skills to general life approaches and mindsets.

One of the most important parts of childhood and the lessons learnt throughout adulthood is the development and consolidation of an identity. As we shape our behaviours and values throughout life, it is role models who we look to for guidance because they display the certain skills or attributes that we wish to emulate. Sometimes we foresee certain possibilities in our own lives from the inspiration of our chosen role models: the possibility to make a difference, the possibility to change the status quo, or the possibility to pursue a challenging career.

More often than not, children learn from their family members, peers and teachers, who are identifiable due to their inspirational, knowledgeable and influential pull. We can all recall someone special who has had a powerful influence on our life choices, the way we think and behave, and the various skills we have acquired. Perhaps the most powerful role models in our society are those elders who exemplify the skills they have acquired over their lifetime, embodying the positive mindset of being able to face and overcome life’s many challenges and stressors.

In ancient societies, learning through elders was one of the most powerful forms of learning. Sadly, the western world has begun to undervalue the power of elders as deeply knowledgeable role models in family and community life, despite their years of accumulated knowledge, experiences and proven resilience. We must encourage children of all ages to interact with their elders on a regular basis by inviting them into the school environment as volunteers and mentors, which essentially forms a much more empathy-driven and stronger society that has supportive community networks across all age groups. By only interacting with the elderly in nursing homes and retirement villages, we are ostracising them and preventing the younger generation from learning from them and choosing them as their role models.

The media exerts a strong influence over the role models it promotes to both children and adults through music, movies and video games, but unfortunately these role models tend to be very stereotypical. Despite changes in social attitudes as to what is considered gender appropriate, it seems that social practices are changing at a much slower pace. This can be tested against your own anecdotal evidence by considering, for example, how many men (as opposed to women) you know who leave their careers to raise children, or how many men you know that are responsible for the cooking, cleaning and washing in their households. This is not to detract from the role of parenting or domestic duties (which extends well beyond regular office hours), it simply suggests that children learn from that which is around them and if we are to truly embrace a universal approach to gender equality, we must be the change we wish to see.

On a different but equally alarming note, the media’s promotion of certain cultural figures over and above (and in place of) other cultural role models perpetuates a degree of racism. Recent studies have found that Asian and Latino children commonly choose Caucasians as role models as opposed to those of their own cultural heritage. Interestingly, further research suggests that those children who name role models in their own family, from their own culture, and in varied occupations, such as artists, dancers, and academics, tend to have higher levels of self-esteem and self-efficacy. This means that those who have the courage of challenging the status quo, electing their role models based on attributes as opposed to notoriety, tend to grow into more confident and assured individuals. In addition, this promotes a strong sense of community within themselves, as well as a strong sense of identity and belonging to their cultural milieu.

This has important implications for educators who need to encourage their students to be proud of their culture and background, and to choose positive role models from their own families rather than the stereotypical, mass media imposed heros. Educators must capitalise on children’s need for guidance and expose them to a greater variety of role models. By doing so, you can validate children’s race and gender as worthy of representation and provide children with an appreciation of themselves and the diversity in others. Furthermore, we need to ensure that elderly people are represented in all forms of media as having their own intrinsic beauty, kindness and wisdom, of which society is proud to recognise and wants to be associated with.

Role modelling involves leading by example, adopting positive behaviours and encouraging others to believe in and stand up for what is right. Of course, great role models like Mother Theresa, Mary MacKillop, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi are extremely inspirational and worthy of being incorporated into everyone’s education as benefactors of humankind; the influence and direction these role models can have on the day-to-day lives of people is second to none. However, when people are in direct and frequent contact with their role models, such as family members, peers and teachers, the guidance provided is often much more holistic. Seeing firsthand how a given ‘hero’ feels, behaves and develops in light of a trying situation encourages individuals to renegotiate their responses when they find themselves in a similar position.

An interesting mentoring and role modelling project called Chance (UK, 1995) started as a crime prevention initiative for 11-year-olds identified by their schools as displaying severe behavioural difficulties. Under this scheme, over a hundred children every year are offered a positive peer mentor for a twelve-month period. This initiative has not only changed the behaviour of the individuals involved, but also transformed their lives, with multiple positive outcomes having been reported both at school and at home.

During 2003, the project broadened its scope to offer the parents of the children involved their own adult mentor - a positive parenting mentor (the Parent Plus project). Mentoring parents in their own homes has helped numerous families overcome life challenges and adopt realistic and effective parenting styles. Both projects have had enormous success, and they both continue to grow in the UK.

Friends also play a large role in the development and makeup of who we are. Friends, just like other role models, support and coach each other through difficult times and give each other honest and constructive feedback. In addition, positive friendships bring out the best in people; and when they keep learning new skills throughout their lives, it inspires their friends to do the same. We ought to all strive to establish positive, mutual and constructive friendships with those who challenge us to be all that we can be, and children should understand why for this reason strong and positive friendships are so important to their growth and development.

Children and adults alike can learn to become role models by modelling their skills (which might involve breaking down their skills into small steps), coaching and providing feedback, recognising and rewarding achievements, and growing as the skill sets improve to encourage independence.

Finally, there are several points identified for successful role modelling:
• Engage in self reflection
• Develop a clear view through discussion and agreement
• Encouraging a variety of role models in your family or organisation and remembering that different
  people have different skills
• Always communicate your expectations
• Walk the talk and always try to be positive, healthy and open to learning yourself
• Develop empathy, compassion and kindness towards all living creatures

It is critical that educators and teachers do not underestimate the power role models wield, and the many different reasons that individuals can be selected to influence those around them. One positive role model alone can touch the lives of so many others, and in that way, make a powerful long-term difference in society’s thinking, attitudes and behaviour.

Ideas for educators to help children connect with positive role models

• Ask children to make a ‘family scrapbook’, by interviewing their parents, grandparents and wider family members asking questions about fond childhood as well as adulthood memories, who they considered/consider their hero and who helped/helps them through challenging times.
Get the child to present the ‘findings’ in class, perhaps inviting the family member spoken of to join.
Make sure you encourage children to be open to both female and male family members from all generations.

• Ask children to research local heroes and young Queenslanders and Australians of the year, taking time to look through each award recipients’ profile.  Stress to the children that these individuals don’t seek instantaneous or personal gratification or acknowledgement, but rather genuinely seek to help others or the community in a certain way.  Schools ought to make it their business of contacting local heroes and inviting them to speak about their work at special assemblies to be held on a monthly basis. Heroes come from diverse fields of work, including animal and environment care, literature, science, art, photography, medicine, research, social justice and sport. Note that sports stars are not just those who compete in popular sports such as cricket and football but also rock-climbers, bike riders, kayakers and snowboarders, etc.  By inviting an array of individuals from these varied fields, schools actively promote individuality and allow students the opportunity to personally resonate with a particular hero.  Heroes should be invited to write a ‘tip’ sheet to be emailed/sent to parents, encouraging participation in their field of community work and details about how families can get involved.


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Professor Paula Barrett and Jacqueline Bermingham
Pathways Health and Research Centre

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