Category — Schooling

Exam results –responding to disappointment

Disappointed Boy

In the UK educational system children could be doing exams for entry to their next educational establishment – and getting the results – at any time of year. They sit for 11+ in March, Common entrance (CE) generally in June but possibly January or November also and A levels results come out in August. And sometimes there are disappointing results.

So maybe some time this year your child sat an exam and got results he or she wasn’t happy with or that you weren’t happy with! If the outcome was not as hoped for read on to find out how best to respond. Of course if your child has been accepted at the school/university of your choice congratulations –but you don’t need help from me. Although possibly a word of caution about giving extra rewards for doing well in exams. Achieving the coveted entrée to the school you think is right for your child is the result and the reward for all the work they put in. If you dangle the promise of a trip to Disneyland or a new ipad in the hope of encouraging harder work from your child it may well backfire as your child feels manipulated and such an approach does not encourage self-discipline.

I recently heard about one boy who had undergone multiple exams – Y6 assessment exams for various schools which give conditional offers for Y9 subject to CE, and he’d also done the 11+ for the London day schools. He didn’t get a place. Not surprisingly he felt pretty down. The London day school situation is getting crazy. I hear the numbers are about 10-12 applicants for each place. The pass rates are going up towards 65-70% and the interview which used to be a token check is now considered crucial. The system creates an enormous amount of pressure for children and many educationalists worry that it is destroying their childhoods.

Some children will take failure to get into schools as a massive knock back and really take it to heart. Some will make it mean that they are not up to scratch. It’s not uncommon for kids to give up at that point so parents need to respond carefully.

This particular boy then didn’t do all that well in his end of year exams; not badly, just not quite as well as he or his teachers might have expected. And other kids picked up on it –he was subjected to some tough teasing. On top of his ‘failure’ to get into the schools earlier in the year it hit hard. He retreated into himself and became moody and angry. He found it hard to concentrate in class, and was unwilling to put his hand up or volunteer to take part in activities.

Luckily this boy’s mum was doing a course with us and got a lot of support at a time that is tough for parents. It is so easy to get sucked into the pressurising vortex and add to our children’s anxieties in our efforts to support them. Year 6 is a tough year for these boys, they are still so young, and yet they are expected to produce results and perform well. His mum started thinking ahead and preparing for the two years to come before he faces exams again. She wanted to build his self-confidence and increase his resilience and help him to prepare for his exams to the best of his ability while getting a whole education and without burning out with worry.

Over time his mum can help him by:
•    encouraging and motivating him by descriptively praising him extensively, not just in the academic arena, but generally.
•    avoiding evaluative praise so as to encourage a growth mind set (where he seems himself as someone who can grow through his own efforts) rather than a fixed mindset (where he sees his skills and intelligence as limited)
•    developing resilience and a healthy attitude to failure –partly through using descriptive praise and partly by emotion coaching him (see below) and also by modelling a positive attitude to set backs and failures. What his parents pay most attention to is crucial –is it his results or his effort, the attitude he shows or strategies he employs? What they model around failure will count for a lot too.
•    encouraging independence in thought and action. Give him chores to do which require skill and responsibility. Validate his opinions.  This demonstrates to the boy his own competence and builds confidence. He will learn to trust his abilities, to take risks and give things a go.

For more on this see our publication Creating Happy Learners: How to reduce pressure and increase creativity.

In the short term his mum can respond with emotion coaching:

If this boy is struggling with what the other boys are saying about his results, it will be helpful for him to have a response.  Rather than telling him not to worry what the other boys think, that it doesn’t matter what they say, or that he just needs to ignore them, or suggest he should tell a teacher, which is what we feel compelled to say, his mum can empathise with him. “That’s tough, having them talking about your results. It must make you feel very uncomfortable, even angry. You wish they didn’t know, or if they did know, that they would keep it to themselves.”

Having connected with how he feels about it, she can turn to solutions. The aim is that he comes up with the solution, but he may need a little guidance from her to start. “I imagine you just don’t know what to say when they talk about your results. You probably want to shout at them to leave you alone, that it’s none of your business. I am glad you’ve not been rude. Not saying anything doesn’t feel right either, does it? I wonder what you could say?”

Obviously it depends what they are saying – my experience was some boys taunting one of my sons “we beat you, we beat you, we’re better than you” and his response was “I’m glad you did well”. He wasn’t completely glad, but apart from that it was relatively honest! The point was there was nothing they could say back. We had to practice it a few times at home first but then it was a response he could use.

If you are worried that your child is negative and pessimistic, and this will be particularly hard if you are a positive and optimistic person, accept his concerns in the same way rather than trying to change him straight off. This only has the effect of making him feel wrong.  “I see your point about this – and it’s clearly worrying you. You’ve thought about all the pitfalls and possible dangers. That’s clear thinking. This is what keeps us safe and helps us put things right.” The trick then is to flesh out his worries and then put them into perspective. Are there any possible upsides? Is there any chance things may go well? How likely is each scenario? He will be more willing to do this with you when you have heard and accepted his point of view first.

Life is tough, and part of our job as parents is, not to shield our children from the rubbish bits of life, which we can’t do, but to build strong children who as adults can cope with whatever life throws at them.

07/07/2014   No Comments

Confessions of a parent who uses tutors

Child being tutored

The recent announcement that one of England’s top performing grammar schools is to scrap its entrance exam amid fears the 11 plus is being undermined by an ‘endemic’ culture of tutoring has once again put the spotlight on the private tutoring industry and after the Sutton Trust released figures last year that showed 43% of children nationally had received private tuition, this decision may be celebrated by many parents.
Is it parental fear that if a good place at a selective school is not secured for their children they stand no chance in the overly competitive job market or is tutoring a way for parents to compensate for choosing state education and fearing they may not be doing the best for their children? Whatever the reason it is clear that tutoring is now so commonplace for many parents it is assumed to be a requirement of any child’s education. Of course tutoring is very widespread in the private sector as well where parents are already paying high fees. My 9 year old niece recently moved on from one of London’s top day schools to a gentle boarding school in the country. She was the only child in her year of 60 students at her old school not being tutored. This endemic has to stop.
I confess that today my teenage son, who has specific learning difficulties, is currently accessing a tutor to help him with basic numeracy and to re-sit a Maths GCSE. The one-to-one environment of learning some basic arithmetic skills that were overlooked early in his education is one he is thriving on. His self -esteem has increased as a result. He can ask unlimited questions without the fear of sounding silly and it is okay to make mistakes and learn from them. After watching as a family this week some reality TV in the form of The Apprentice and witnessing some sensationalist cringe-making TV in the form of a group of bright young things unable to do basic  measurements and percentages, he appreciates and values the input he is having so that he has the essential life skills to cope with numbers! Clearly there is room for tutoring to help fill a specific gap where a child has missed out on some essential skills which are necessary pre-skills for the next level and which are difficult to address in the classroom.
This is very different from the tutoring that is done to coach children for 11 plus and other exams. And when tutoring is done so routinely that the majority of children in a year are receiving tutoring that is a very anxious environment in which to be (not) learning. The high pressure, high stakes culture that permeates schools and children’s lives, and so worries educationalists, often is as a result of anxious and pushy parents, the tiger mums and turbo charged Dads with very, very high expectations for their children. Let’s not rob our children of their childhood and let Chelmsford High school lead the way on the ‘tutor proof’ test enabling schools to distinguish between the naturally bright and able child and the one who has been tutored to within an inch of their lives.
As a parent coach I see the results and outcomes of a pressured child later in their teenage years feeling not quite good enough; parents feeling disappointed in their children;  parents maybe complaining of the overly pressurised environment. Some educational environments described as overly pressurised may just be the wrong environment for that child. The child may not have developed the skills or the best work habits and having been placed in an environment not best suited to their learning style and profile. The effect on self-esteem and how children view themselves can often be a high price to pay.
Let parenting not be a competitive sport and our children be one of our own ‘achievements’. It’s a real challenge for us as parents but we must strive to achieve some kind of balance between equipping our children with skills for adult life and allowing them to have a happy, unstressed childhood without the years of tutoring. We want them to develop a good work ethic and to enjoy learning rather than just passing exams.
In the words of Madeline Levine from The Price of Privilege:
“Children need to see that we value their character first, their effort second, and then their grades.” Dr Madeline Levine

10/05/2013   No Comments

A dinosaur ate my trousers

According to this week’s Daily Mail, £187 million worth of school kit will be lost before the school year is out. Although the excuses that our children come up with may make us chuckle, lost kit drives parents mad, as well as adding another pressure on the household budget. So, is there anything we can do? Of course there is. And it’s not just naming everything that can move.

Getting everyone ready for the morning school run is a challenge in many homes. It’s tempting, and often quicker and easier, to do it all ourselves. This works in the moment, but creates another problem in the longer-term because it doesn’t help children learn how to look after their things, or even be aware of what they have with them at any given time.

Involve the children in the process of collating what they need for the day ahead and packing it into their bag. When we position this to them as a powerful and positive thing to be trusted to do, rather than an awful chore that will drag them down, they will be more inspired to try. There are some great practical tips that parents have come up with – including checklists (written by the children!) that can be stuck to the inside of the locker, or sewn into the school bag, as well as having another copy at home in the kitchen or by the front door.

It’s all very well to be told “this is how you need to do it” but actually we all learn best by doing, rather than just listening.

So spend a little time one weekend, with lots of humour and empathy, practicing getting changed into your games kit and putting everything back in your bag. Or talk through a few ideas about safe places to put your jumper when you get too hot. Any idea they come up with is a good one – it shows they’re taking it seriously, thinking about it, trying hard, wanting to be responsible etc. And it’s probably a good enough idea to try. Our children are much more likely to commit to their own ideas. If there seems to be a flaw in the idea, gently point it out and ask them what else they think they can do.

With a little up-front planning and preparation – which does take time, energy and a little patience, but considerably less than the time, energy and patience it takes to go out and buy another blazer- we should find that more items are kept safe. But realistically, school is a fast-moving, busy, crowded environment and it’s almost inevitable that some things will go missing. What can we do now?

First, it helps to remember the £187 million figure! It means they’re all at it – with over 9 million school children in the UK, that’s about £20 worth of lost kit each year. It’s not just your kid!

At this point, we want to avoid throwing our hands up in the air, and saying “well, this is so typical, you would lose your head if it wasn’t attached to your body” because we don’t want our children to start to believe the label that says they’re just the sort of person who loses stuff.  If we believe it about them, they’ll believe it about themselves. And guess what the sort of person who loses stuff does? They lose stuff…..

Instead, we want our children to believe they’re the sort of person who tries hard to be responsible and is a solution-seeker. We don’t want them to be discouraged by problems, we want them to be up for the challenge of sorting things out – and that means finding that missing trainer.

Rather than cutting their pocket-money til they’ve ‘paid’ for the new trainers, which will probably only make them angry with us (it’s so unfair, you’re so mean), we want to give them the benefit of the doubt, that they didn’t mean or plan to lose the trainer, and then brainstorm ideas of how to find it. (I’ve taken my sons to school a few minutes early quite a few times over the years to trawl through an empty cloakroom – and it’s been pretty successful, and a great way to start the day with a ‘phew, I got it’ moment. Once, after two finger-tip searches, we were still down a tracksuit and my son decided to offer a reward. He went into school the next day with copies of a “Wanted: One Tracksuit. Reward: One Toblerone” flyer. The next morning, the tracksuit appeared, and the reward was duly handed over to the ‘finder’.)

So, in essence, we need to be realistic that it’s not easy to keep safe all the items they need, given their relative immaturity, and taking into account the environment they’re in.  It will not be surprising – or a dire omen on their future ability to look after themselves – if they do lose something. However, there are lots of things we can help them to do – before and after – that will help keep their stuff safe, and at the same time build their independence, resilience, and foster good a approach to life.

 

 

 

 

28/09/2012   No Comments

Focus, Focus, Focus

The kids are back at school now and some of you ultra-organised ones may have turned your minds to Christmas already. Don’t worry if you haven’t –there will be more on that in our next newsletter. Others may be focused on your child just having started a new school or a new year with a new teacher and will be wondering how to support your child to do the best they can do.

In a recent article in the Telegraph (7th August 2012) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9458290/Teaching-toddlers-to-pay-attention-is-the-key-to-academic-success.html# reference was made to recent research by child development experts which concludes that it is not tutoring in academic subjects that will help your child to succeed but supporting them to pay attention and to perservere. This particular research by Dr Megan McClelland from Oregon State University, published in the online journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly, reflects what the Gottman Institute had noticed as part of their research on developing emotional intelligence. Drs John and Julie Gottman found that children whose parents are emotion coaches for them, that is they recognise, respect and respond to their child’s emotions:

  • Are better able to manage their feelings
  • Have better academic achievements
    - They are able to sustain attention for longer and
    - Able to shift attention from one subject to another more easily
  • They get along with their peers better

Author (and champion table tennis player) Matthew Syed, in his best-selling book Bounce, explores the idea that innate talent (whether in academic, musical, business or sporting fields) is a myth and that all the best performers in their various areas of endeavour have got to the top of their fields by a combination of opportunity, application and focus. (He does concede that it helps to be a tall if you’re a basketballer).

Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University’s research into mindsets is particularly interesting for parents. She developed the thesis that people can have different attitudes to learning which either promote or inhibit their development. With a fixed mindset one believes that one has a fixed amount of innate intelligence and that if you can’t do something it means that you have exhausted your store of intelligence. A person who has this attitude will not want to challenge the status associated with his cleverness and will not take risks that will show him to be less intelligent. Her research showed that children would not tackle harder tasks when in this fixed mindset. By contrast people with a growth mindset believe that they can with effort get better at anything and therefore are willing to try new and harder things.

A child’s mindset is affected by how adults talk to them. When we praise a child for cleverness or talent and when we focus on their results we promote a fixed mindset. However when adults praise kids for the effort they make, the attitudes they show, the strategies they employ; when we focus more on the process than the outcome we encourage in them a growth mindset. So don’t praise your child for being clever and don’t let your first question after a football game be did you win?

Parents often ask us, in classes or consultations, how to help children to focus more. Here is what we say:

  • Don’t pay too much attention when your child’s attention wanders and particularly don’t criticise it. Instead notice when they bring their attention back to the task in hand and mention that. You’re looking at your page. You brought your focus back to your work without me saying anything to you.
  • Praise in a descriptive way whenever you see signs of persistence. Wow, you really stuck with trying to learn to balance on your bike. You didn’t give up until you mastered the wobbles!  One mum told us how she’d been praising her daughter for persevering with tying her shoe laces, thinking it was big word to be using for a little girl. Then when she’d just finished manoeuvring her big car into a tight parking space a little voice from the back seat piped up with “Gee mum, you really persevere.”
  • Our children need to think of themselves as people who can pay attention and persist if they are to do well in life so we need to notice and point out to them whenever there is behaviour which shows up these qualities. Children are natural learners; just look at a toddler learning to walk. They don’t give up despite numerous set backs. We can train ourselves to notice their efforts and point them out to the child. Some families put the words on their fridge so that they remember to notice them. Others use a jar in which they collect tokens for examples of focus.
  • Give lots of descriptive praise, not just for paying attention and persistence but more generally. A child who feels generally capable will be better able to handle set backs and try again.
  • Be an emotion coach for your child. Help them understand their emotions by talking about them so that they can manage them and move on to the next task. This is surprisingly one of the most helpful things we can do in encouraging focus.
  • Some families have found that it helps to use an idea from Neuro Linguistic Programming to help children focus. It might work to use an ‘anchor’ or a talisman which is an object imbued with certain qualities, in this case focus, which the child can look at or hold (or listen to). Choose your object and invest it with its magical properties by recalling a time with your child where they were very focused (something about which they were very enthusiastic). Relive that moment by focusing on all the details of the event; what could you see and hear, what could you feel? While bringing that moment to life have your child hold or look at his object and describe what was happening to him –“you were really concentrating hard, you were so focused.” Then when focus is needed pull out the magic focus object. Refer to it as the focus object.
  • Enthuse about the tasks they are doing. If your child is learning to read try to read with them at a time when you’re not exhausted so that you can be interested. Get into the story they are reading. If decoding the words becomes too consuming that the story gets lost share the reading with them. Look at the pictures and guess what is going to happen next. Talk about how the characters feel.
  • When children are motivated and interested it’s easier to focus but there are many things they need to do where they may not be so interested or motivated. Parents can do a lot to build motivation, mainly through descriptive praise. But even if children remain unmotivated about the intrinsic nature of the task we can motivate through praise for doing what they have to do even when they’re not interested! I know that brushing your teeth isn’t interesting and it gets to be a bit of a drag day in, day out. I know you’d rather just skip it and get on with your game so I really admire you for doing it anyway because you know that’s the only way to have healthy teeth and gums. Not only are you doing it but you’re doing it thoroughly so you now have a really sparkly smile and beautiful fresh breath!
  • Of course it helps if we can provide our children with an environment where it is easy for them to focus so when they’re doing homework or tackling some other kind of task try to eliminate noise and visual clutter.
  • Limit the amount of fast moving TV and computer and other electronic activities your children do where they are not required to focus for more than a few seconds. Instead encourage activities which involve their own creativity and sustained thought to work out a problem or develop a story line, such as fantasy play, building a den or board or card games.

So be focused on developing good habits of focus and perseverance in your child to help them do well in life.

17/09/2012   No Comments

Homework: Reduce your child’s stress levels without compromising their grades

By The Study Gurus.

The Race To Nowhere film showed us that an increasingly significant number of high school students are feeling an unhealthy amount of pressure when it comes to school and their future. In some cases it’s so extreme that it’s not unheard of for 16 year olds to be popping pills to sacrifice sleep for more study.

Clearly, something’s out of kilter.

Perhaps you’re concerned your child is feeling a lot of pressure to get into the right university? Perhaps they’re at risk of burning out before they even get there?

Well here’s the question; what is it you want your child to value?
Success for the sake of success? Or happiness and career satisfaction?
If your answer is the former, then by all means do everything necessary to get your child into the ‘best’ school possible. But if it’s the latter, then what are you so worried about? To achieve career satisfaction and happiness your child needs to have confidence in themselves and the right attitude, not necessarily an Oxford education.
The children who enjoy learning, have a good work ethic and a likeable personality are guaranteed to go far. And YOU can instil these characteristics into your child quite easily all on your own.

What are you talking about at the dinner table?
Do you spend more time over dinner obsessing over what school or university your child is going to get into, or more time having erudite conversation about current events? More time discussing what grades your child needs to get in their exams, or what they learnt today at school?
No wonder our kids are crumbling under pressure… all we talk about is grades, grades, grades!
But grades are important right? Of course – they can have a huge influence on a child’s life after school. But we are saying that we need to emphasise both grades and the importance of learning and actually enjoying it.
The reason being, a student who enjoys learning will do well at school for all the right reasons – because they want to, because they’re curious, because they’re motivated.

Where should you start?
A technique we like to use to spark an interest in learning in our students is to steer conversation away from solely facts and equations, and more towards the real world context behind their subjects wherever appropriate.
For example, if they’re reading a book for their English class, instead of just talking about what’s going to be in the exam, we ask questions like, what’s it about? What do you think the author was trying to say with the story? Are they enjoying it? Yes? No? Why not? What would they rather read?
Or with their maths and science subjects, we try and talk about how these are applied in real life. What does E = mc2 actually mean? Who figured it out? How did it change what we know about the world?
Open and topical questions like these that spark an interesting conversation will make your child appreciate their school subjects in a way that isn’t necessarily attached to school. They’ll be more interested in the content of their subjects, rather than totally consumed by grades.

Help your child find their magic study formula
Every student will have their own unique way of studying most effectively. This is why your child needs to figure out their study formula. This is their personal formula for academic success. It’s the academic equivalent of a personally designed training regime for a top athlete.
Once your child knows what their study formula is, they will understand exactly what they need to do to get the most out of any study session. They won’t have the stress of not knowing how to approach study, and they’ll save time by avoiding study techniques that don’t work for them.
There are a number of facets involved in understanding what your study formula is. Questions you and your child need to start thinking about might be:
• What sorts of techniques help them remember stuff well?
• What’s their predominant Learning Style?
• Do they like writing long notes, or bullet-pointed short lines?
• Do they like drawing diagrams?
• Do they like watching videos?
• Do they learn best by actually doing things?
• Do they study best in the morning or at night?
• Do they study best with long periods or short bursts of study?
The list goes on…
Figuring out your study formula is a game of trial and error. It should be thought of as a constant work in progress. But very quickly it will enable your child to study efficiently and effectively, and will be something that will serve them well all throughout their life.

If you have a child who’s motivated and who wants to succeed, you should be celebrating – not stressing.
Sure they’re going to be nervous when it comes to exams and university acceptance letters – that’s not a bad thing. But if your child has a good work ethic and enjoys learning they are 100% guaranteed to make a success of themselves.
It would be impossible not to.

The Study Gurus are Clare McIlwraith and Chris Whittington. Their aim is to show parents how they can help their children reach their academic potential. They’re sharing their years of studying and tutoring experience at www.thestudygurus.com.

31/03/2011   No Comments

The Race to Nowhere or the Path to Somewhere?

The Path to Somewhere

The Parent Practice is delighted with the response of our two screenings of “Race to Nowhere” earlier this month. If you attended a screening, we hope you enjoyed it.  If you weren’t there, we thought you might like to hear how the screenings went!

If you’re unfamiliar with “Race to Nowhere”, it is an American documentary that explores the pressures today’s children are under to succeed.  While the film is American in content, the themes are absolutely universal, and as we saw from the speed with which the tickets sold, it seems the concerns are shared by many parents in the UK.

While some children are able to thrive with pressure placed upon them by schools and extracurricular activities, there are also many that aren’t able to deal as well.  This film tells their stories.  It raises so many questions: the benefits of standardised testing and early years’ homework, getting into the ‘best’ school versus a school where that particular child may be better able to flourish, and redefining success.

We had initially planned on holding only one screening at Channel 4, and were bowled over by the overwhelming response which had that screening sell out within hours – and almost crash our website!  The waitlist quickly grew, so we decided to host a second screening at the Clapham Picture House.  Overall, the film screened to over 150 people. Both screenings were followed by a 30 minutes panel discussion which was led by Elaine Halligan of The Parent Practice, and included Bonnie Harris M.S. Ed, the author of the series of parenting books including What To Do When Kids Push Your Buttons; Heather Hanbury, Headteacher at Wimbledon High School; Charles Bonas, Educational Consultant & Commentator; Sue Kumleben, Facilitator with the Parent Practice, Holli Rubin (Psychotherapist), and Philippa Jackson (Headteacher of Hollymount School).

From the panel discussion, and conversations afterwards, it was apparent that all the parents attending have a clear awareness of the challenges and pressures their children face within today’s education system. There is a collective sense of helplessness – many parents feel they are on a treadmill, and that if they decide to step off, they have in some way failed their children, despite knowing instinctively it may be the best thing for them!

Although our audience was just a small sample of parents, it was clear to us that that there is a considerable increase in parents’ concerns about how their children are coping at school. At the same time, many parents don’t believe they possess the appropriate knowledge, confidence or courage to support their children through school, and make the most appropriate choices for them.

If anyone is interested in hosting their own screening of the film we are happy to support you in doing so.  It looks like there will be 2 or 3 more screenings in the London area this spring/summer.

We feel really thrilled to have brought this film to London and look forward to seeing what impact it will have for parents and educators alike.   Some changes have already started to happen!  A few days after the first screening, Wimbledon High School’s Headteacher blogged that:

We should beware of ‘over-scheduling’ children’s lives: students need time just to ‘be’, to play, to ‘hang out’ – it’s something we believe in strongly at WHS. Within our new timetable, which I am announcing soon as part of the outcome of the curriculum review, there will be more time at lunchtime to do just that. I want our students to enjoy extra-curricular clubs for their own sake, not in order, as they get older, to tick boxes on a UCAS (university entrance) form. I do think that busy teenagers are often the happiest. Those with interests and hobbies will gain confidence which will help them academically as much as socially. But those interests have to come from the girls themselves – we can’t and shouldn’t push them.    

True to our Parent Practice ethos, we have decided to be part of the solution as well, and to focus our minds and resources on creating a response for parents. We are in the process of developing a workshop, which has a working title of ‘The Path To Somewhere’. This workshop will look at how we can re-define success, and how we can empower our children with appropriate life-skills so they can thrive within whichever school environment best suits them.

So, stay tuned … it looks like something exciting may be starting to happen, and we’re proud to be part of it!  And in the meantime, we’ll let you know when ‘Path to Somewhere’ is ready to launch!

If you’re curious to know more about the film, please take a look at www.racetonowhere.com.

22/03/2011   No Comments

Don’t call your child clever!

What kind of so-called parenting experts say don’t call your child clever? Since the sixties haven’t we been exhorted to extol the virtues of our children ad nauseam in the hope of building self esteem and encouraging desirable behaviours? When we want them to feel good about themselves we say well done darling, good girl. And if we think they’re not buying it or we really want to big them up we say ‘fantastic, marvellous, brilliant –you are so clever.’ What’s wrong with that?

Well, usually we say to parents that if they want their kids to have good self esteem and all the positive outcomes that go with that then we need to focus on what children do right more often than what they get wrong. Every parent knows this even though we sometimes have difficulty doing it –like when you’re trying to get them all out of the house and one is on a ‘go slow’ and the other two are complaining that they have to breathe the same air and you can’t find your car keys and NOBODY has got their shoes on!

But even when things are a little calmer we still feel an overwhelming urge to point out what’s wrong with what they’re doing. We’re not bad people but we’ve had decades of conditioning so forgive us if we mistakenly believe we need to highlight what they’ve done wrong in order to help them learn. In fact when we do that the children are apt to tune us out and lose their natural motivation to improve and to learn. So yes we do need to focus on the positives and praise our children. In fact  the ratio of positive to ‘improving’ should be about 9:1. John Gottman is a researcher who did a lot of work in the area of couples’ relationships. He found that there are a number of criticisms compared to praises beyond which a marriage crumbles, and that number is one (1) criticism to five (5) praises. That’s right. The minimum to keep a marriage off the rocks is 1 bad:5 good. While you’re trying to remember when you last said something positive to your partner I would add that in the case of children parents should be praising even more frequently because we are actively trying to shape our children’s behaviour and form their characters. I would assert therefore that we parents should give 9 praises for every criticism/improving comment/correction / just pointing out what could be done differently.

So I’m clearly in favour of praise. But why can’t I tell my child he’s clever? Because he is you know –or at least I want him to do well. How can it hurt? In the past I would have said that any praise was better than none. But even then I would have admitted that there’s a good chance your child is not going to believe you when you say he’s clever so your words lose impact. We have always advocated using praise which is specific and descriptive to make it more credible and give the child enough information to allow them to repeat the positive behaviour on which you’re focusing. We would have said ‘clever girl’ isn’t a very effective form of praise but not actually harmful. And then I discovered some research by a psychologist in the US, Carol Dweck, that has made me even more careful about my choice of words when acknowledging children. Her research has shown that evaluative praise of this kind can actually be detrimental.

Professor Dweck’s findings show that the way adults praise children can determine whether they develop what she calls a ‘growth mindset’ or a ‘fixed mindset’. Her research was looking at motivation and perseverance in the face of set backs. Why do some people give up in the face of failure and others try again –it has to do, not surprisingly, with their beliefs about why they had failed. If you believe you failed because of lack of ability you are more inclined to give up than if you think the failure was down to lack of effort. Surely that’s an argument for telling kids they are able in order to motivate them?

Over the years Dweck developed a theory that learners could be classified as helpless vs mastery oriented. The former believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. “I call this a ‘fixed mind-set’. Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so….The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else.… Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort.”

So how does praise affect this belief system? Contrary to adults’ good intentions when they praise, telling someone they are smart or clever actually contributes to the ‘fixed mindset’ whereas praising a child for trying hard or persevering focuses on the effort they’re making and allows them to develop a ‘growth mindset’. Dweck’s work with children in schools showed that confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material. The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little real regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.

So how do we encourage a ‘growth mindset’ in our children? Show them examples of effort producing good results in your own modelling, in stories about other people but above all in their own endeavours. Praise them for not giving up, for trying a different strategy in the face of defeat, for working hard and practising, for improving and don’t focus so much on the outcome or achievement. If they do well in a test say “You must be really pleased -that’s a reflection of all the hard work you put in”. Above all never ever praise your child for being clever.

Melissa Hood

23/11/2010   No Comments

Do you allow your children to make mistakes?

By Ann Magalhaes

I remember growing up, when school reports were handed out and I received grades around the 80% mark. I would then call my Dad and tell him the results, feeling pretty good about myself.  His response was inevitably something like: “what happened to the other 20%”.  Now, to my teenage ears, what I heard was “you didn’t do well enough, or you could have done better, or you were lazy and didn’t study enough.”  My enthusiasm, and motivation to try harder deflated faster than a popped balloon!

Years later, I mentioned this to him and he was really surprised that his words had had such an impact on me.  He told that his intention was always about getting me to think about the other 20%, and that in his eyes, I was so capable of achieving 100%.  He only wanted me to look at the gap and to understand what I could have done differently. 

Fast forward 25 years, and I now have my own child, and one of my greatest concerns is that she will also not put in that extra effort.  What I hope for her is that she works hard to do the best that she can, and that she has the confidence to go for things – whether it be academically or extra curricular. 

A few months ago I was reading Mindset, the Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck.  I bought the book after seeing her interviewed by the comedian David Baddiel, who had filmed a documentary about education.  In the show he asked for her opinion about the worst things we can tell our children.  Her response surprised him – and me! She told him that the worst three words we can say to our children are “You’re. So. Clever.”  And don’t we all do it?  ‘Good job, great game, clever girl, atta boy’ Curious, I had Amazon mailing the book to me by the end of the week!   Dweck writes about instilling in our children (and ourselves!) what she calls a growth mindset – believing that intelligence is not innate, but can be developed.  As parents, we need to ensure we’re doing this is by praising the effort and attitude that our kids are putting into their work, sports, musical instrument practices.  It’s about having the curiosity to learn rather than the desire to feel smart; it’s about being able to perceive feedback as contribution rather than criticism; it’s about seeing others as potential collaborators rather than threats.  It makes so much sense! The aspect of growth mindset that I love the most is the focus on trial and error – allowing ourselves the freedom to make mistakes and to learn from them. 

While writing this blog, I was watching some Carol Dweck interviews on Youtube, and spotted a Nike commercial featuring Michael Jordan – quite possibly the best basketball player ever.  He says “I have missed over 9000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games; been trusted with the game-winning shot 26 times – and missed.  I failed over and over and over and that is why I succeed”.  One of the most challenging things we face as parents is the ability to let our kids make mistakes.  Perhaps by allowing them the privilege of making mistakes, we also allow them the privilege of figuring things out for themselves, and allowing them to shine!

04/10/2010   No Comments

Are our schools overly competitive?

By Elaine Halligan

From the moment your child is born, the conversation from coffee mornings to dinner parties can become unhealthily preoccupied with the topic of schools, and for many parents this can almost leave them bordering on an obsessive, compulsive disorder!

 “Overly pressurised” and “far too much competition“ are the phrases that come to mind. Competition is healthy if it means we are teaching our children to do their best and strive to improve, and in this process we need to teach them how to handle failure and to regard it as an impetus for improvement. Competition is good as long as you don’t devalue yourself or others in the process -i.e. what are they prepared to do in order to get ahead? The recent “Blood Gate” scandal last year with the Harlequins rugby team gave our family much fodder for discussion as we analysed the nature of competition in sport. We are highly competitive on the sporting front and winning is important but not at any cost if it means we end up devaluing ourselves by cheating.

 We can have a huge impact as parents on the way our children view themselves. This is built over time -you can’t ‘quick-fix’ it. If you only focus on and praise achievements the child will come to feel that something is wrong if they don’t come top/win the race/ get voted as class captain/ get a leading role in the play. The child who gets 7/10 in a spelling test and can’t report back to his parents the result through fear of disappointing them, will in time view themselves negatively and this will impact on their self esteem.

 What does this all mean for you if you are in the process of choosing schools for the first time or at secondary level? Always match your child’s needs to an individual environment suited to them – this is the hardest part as many of us may not understand or accept our child’s temperament; character; strengths and weaknesses –both social and academic.

Be careful of labelling an educational environment as overly pressurised. There is only too much pressure if indeed your child is struggling and not sufficiently supported in that environment. If your child is academi­cally able, is in good work habits and has the ability to be organised the environment will be right for him.

Be aware of the impact on children of prizes and comparative grades. In reality prizes often go to the same children every year and many know they are never going to get a prize so forms no kind of incentive, and can lead to feelings of hopelessness. Comparative grades are the kind where your child is ranked in class as opposed to their own performance being looked at on its own and against the last effort. There are many high performing schools that have no prizes for academic achievement . Instead they recognise the achievements of the pupils whether sporting; in the arts, or the school community or in contribution to the liberal work the school has been involved with

How well rounded will those pupils be when they move into the adult world, knowing from the exam grades obtained how well they have done and also being commended for their activities outside the classroom!

 Do your research; follow your beliefs and value system and stay calm in the face of other’s rising hysteria!

By Elaine Halligan

26/09/2010   2 Comments