Based on his new book for young people, Dare To Be You (Sept 2020), Matthew discusses the importance of being able to cope with change and provides 5 tips to help children thrive this term and beyond

As a child, I know that I always approached the September ‘back to school’ with slight trepidation. The holidays had been long, I hadn’t thought about a fraction or a comprehension in what seemed like forever, and there was always a nagging unease in my mind about rekindling friendships with classmates that I hadn’t seen in months.

For children this year, many returning to school after nearly 6 months absence, these feelings are likely to be further heightened by the ‘new normal’ they will have to embrace in school. Socially distant learning with temperature checks, one-way systems and as much focus on hand-gel as homework.

But with this phrase ‘new normal’, which has come to epitomise the last few months, I worry that we are missing a bigger, more fundamental point. And one which is pivotal for our children if they are going to thrive in the future. Because whilst the coronavirus pandemic has forced us to change the way we live in many ways, this won’t be the only ‘new normal’ that young people will have to face in the course of their lives as they leave home, change jobs and navigate the complexities that come with emotional relationships.

The world is changing fast. It was even before the pandemic, and it will continue to do so long after we (hopefully) find a vaccine for Covid 19. So today’s pupils will emerge as adults into a world which looks very different to the one that their parents have inhabited. A world that their parents may even struggle to comprehend, where technology has changed the jobs landscape forever, where we live much longer than ever before, where we communicate and interact with each other in radically different ways.

The ability to cope with change, to be flexible and resilient has never been more important. Not just for right now, but for the long future that stretches out ahead of the children of today. So let’s not dwell on this idea of a ‘new normal’. If we can accept that there is no such thing as normal, we’ll be much so much more ready for the challenges and changes we will undoubtedly face.

Dare To Be You (my new book for young people) is about building the confidence to thrive in our changing world. To be able to manage the anxiety and self-doubt that are increasingly cause for concern due to the pressures young people feel they face. To embrace the differences that make us unique. To allow us to be happy to follow our own path, one that is right for us.

Growing up as the son of a Pakistani immigrant father and Welsh mother, I was aware of what it was like to look different. To feel different. To feel like I didn’t fit in sometimes. Over time (and, as you’ll find out in the book, after I almost burnt down the local bakery and a had a fashion disaster with a tracksuit) I came to develop strategies that have helped me overcome my own doubts, question the world around me and make the choices that are right for me.

In the book I introduce Kid Doubt. He is the voice in your head that holds you back, that makes you anxious or worried about fitting in. Everyone has their own Kid Doubt, and everyone has their own issues and worries. Dare To Be You helps to find ways to silence this voice, to be confident in the person you are and resilient when things don’t quite go to plan.

Here are few tips based on what I found helpful as a child and that I use with my own family to help children build their confidence as they return to school. Consider discussing these with your children and using some examples of your own to reaffirm that what they are feeling isn’t uncommon nor to be afraid of:

1. Be flexible

The COVID 19 pandemic has forced us to change many aspects of our life. You may one day face other changes of a similar magnitude because life is uncertain but that shouldn’t be something that is worrying. Accepting that and remembering how adaptable you can be (look at the changes you coped with over the last 6 months) and some of the positive aspects of change (more family time, no school-run stress and traffic jams) will help you to be flexible and resilient when things don’t go exactly as we might have planned.

2. Ask for help

Kid Doubt can hold us back from asking the questions we would like to, especially in new and unfamiliar situations like a new school year. But be brave, not everyone learns in exactly the same way, so having the courage to ask the teacher to slow down or explain again in a different way can help you and others to learn. There will be lots of people (parents, teachers, friends) who are willing to give you the support you need.

3. Be your own action hero

Many years ago, when Richard Branson’s plane from Puerto Rico was cancelled, he was stranded. He might have had to wait several days for a rescheduled flight, and he wanted to get back to see his girlfriend (now his wife). Rather than waiting around, he picked up the phone to see how much it would cost to charter an aircraft to take him and the other passengers on their journey. Turns out it would only cost $39 each. So he took action, sold them all tickets and off they went. Back home. Much sooner than they would have otherwise.

And here is the thing. This year, there are likely to be lots of changes at school. From the way you walk around the school, to the way you sit in class, to the way you learn. And you might find some things difficult. So rather than waiting for someone else to do fix things, think about what you can do to make things work better for you. Unless you question whether something can be done differently, you may never find out if you could improve a situation. When I retired from table tennis, I took a job that just wasn’t right for me. But I questioned whether there was something better out there, and made a change.

4. Be kind

Research from the University of British Columbia shows that kindness can improve self-esteem and reduce anxiety. Not only does it make us and others feel much better, it helps build trust and create better friendships so that in times of change or difficulty, we have people to talk to and to help us out. Kindness can be like an avalanche; small acts of kindness create positivity which grows over time and encourages others to be kind, and so on. And before you know it you have helped build a great support system for you and others when needed.

5. Dare To Be You (this year and for the future)

I wasted so much time trying to fit in as a child. Then I realised that there was no such thing as normal. Start as you mean to go on this September. Follow your own path, make choices that are right for you, have the courage to do the things that matter to you. Don’t worry about fitting in, be proud of your differences. If everyone thinks exactly the same way, then coming up with new ideas will be seriously difficult. The fact that you’ve had different experiences, or may look or think differently, means you can contribute something that no one else can. And this is a strength.

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