Matthew Syed on Returning to School and Coping with Change
Following his bestselling You Are Awesome, Matthew Syed's latest book Dare to Be You empowers young readers to follow their own path, embrace diversity and celebrate what makes them unique. In this exclusive piece, the author reflects on the added challenges of going back to school this year and the ways to thrive in our rapidly changing world.
As a child, I’d always approached the September ‘back to school’ period with a bit of trepidation. The holidays had been long, I hadn’t given a thought to fractions or English Comprehension in what seemed like forever, and there was always a nagging doubt in the back of my mind about whether I’d fit back in with the friends I hadn’t seen in months.
For children this year, many returning to school after nearly 6 months away, these feelings are likely to be further heightened by the ‘New Normal’ they will have to embrace in school. Socially distanced learning with frequent temperature checks, navigating one-way systems around the buildings, and as much focus on sanitising hand-gel as on homework.
But with this phrase the New Normal – which has become synonymous with 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, find and change jobs and navigate the complexities that come with social and 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. School students will now emerge into a world that looks very different to the one their parents 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, and 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-term future that stretches out ahead of our children today.
Dare to Be You (my latest book for young people) is about building the confidence to thrive in our changing world – and the ability to silence the anxiety and quell the self-doubt that are now so common in children. It’s about embracing the differences that make us unique, and encouraging 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 acutely 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 Dare to Be You, after near-disasters with the local bakery and with my fashion choices), I came to build strategies that have helped me overcome my own self-doubts, question the world around me and make the choices that are right for me.
In the book I introduce children to 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. One of my personal motivations for writing Dare To Be You is that it will help children to find ways to silence this voice, to be truly confident about the person they are and resilient when things don’t quite go to plan.
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 so much more ready for the challenges and changes we will undoubtedly face.
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