August 27th, 2018
Many schools go back in the UK next week. If your child is starting school for the first time there are some ideas in this blog which will help you to prepare. Even if it’s not your child’s first year at school you should probably be thinking now about how to transition from holiday mode to school routines. There are some useful tips here.
I was talking to a journalist, Anna Tyzack, during the holidays about perfectionism for a piece she was writing for the Telegraph. It got me thinking about the number of parents who worry about their child’s perfectionist tendencies at school. Do you have a child who won’t put up their hand to answer a question because they might get the answer wrong? Or maybe your child labours over a story or drawing for hours only to screw it up because they’re not happy with it.
As your child is embarking on a new academic year are concerned about perfectionism or do you think it will spur your child on to greater achievements? Are you a proud perfectionist yourself? If you are worried about it is there anything you can do?
Last week GCSE results came out and I was struck by the different ways different children I knew received their results. One boy at a highly academic school was quietly satisfied with exceptional results (but was very keen to know if his 8s were nearly 9s) whereas another girl was over the moon excited with ‘merely good’ grades. Perfectionism can be a problem if it means we’re never content with what we achieve. You may well know adults like that. They are driven to achieve ever greater things, get better grades, better qualifications, better positions, but are never satisfied. They never believe that they are good enough.
Research conducted by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill [the University of Bath and York St John University respectively (Study Personality and Social Psychology Review 2015)] found that perfectionism is associated with a wide range of mental illnesses, including depression, social anxiety, agoraphobia, anorexia, insomnia, and even self-harm and suicidal ideation. They also found that rates of perfectionism are increasing, especially among young people and children.
The modern world is geared towards perfectionism. Our society is a highly individualistic one which places heavy emphasis on social comparison and competition, whether we’re talking about accomplishments or looks. On a daily basis through advertising and social media (which provide platforms for us to put forward perfect versions of ourselves and our lifestyles) we are exposed to the idea that perfection is attainable and that our status and our value are judged by externally-set standards. Schools have of course become even more focused on comparative results with the introduction of league tables and many educators lament the resultant teaching to the test at the expense of a holistic education. Social media offers the possibility of comparisons and judgment about how we raise our children too. An innocent question often brings forth resounding judgment.
But perfection is an abstraction, an impossibility, and pursuing it is a route to unhappiness. Perfectionists, in their pursuit of success are often so focused on avoiding failure that it leads to procrastination. I know I delayed starting writing my book for years because of the notion that it had to be perfect. Perfectionists want to avoid mistakes and often find that they get less done because of their fears. They can become risk-averse. The ability to persevere even when things are going badly is a key element of success, and it's a quality that perfectionists often lack.
There is a difference between striving for excellence and demanding perfection and parents can either contribute to perfectionist anxieties or encourage children to do their best and be happy with that. Perfection is not within the grasp of ordinary human beings and good parents do not require perfection of their children in everyday behaviour or in their schoolwork, sporting endeavours or artistic activities.
So what can parents do to relieve their children of the burden of perfectionism?
What we model is very important so if our children see us beating ourselves up when we make a mistake they will learn that failure is unacceptable. If we give the appearance of perfection they will think they need to be perfect too. We need to consciously model the idea that making mistakes is normal, that it doesn’t diminish us as human beings and is often desirable if it means we learn from them. Point to famous people in sports, science, music and industry who have made many mistakes and not given up. Check out this video on You Tube.
You may be aware of Carol Dweck’s now famous work on growth vs fixed mindsets as a way of explaining attitudes toward intelligence and towards failure. Encourage a growth mindset by paying more attention to your child’s efforts, attitudes and strategies for learning as well as their improvements, rather than focusing on their results or grades. Pay attention to the intrinsic benefits and joys of whatever they’re learning, rather than an assessment of their performance. Do NOT call your child clever, or pretty. They need to know that we value them for much more than how they look, that they're courageous, that they're capable, that they are kind people, for so many other things than just the way they look.
When something goes wrong, whether in ordinary behaviour or some aspect of performance seek not to judge or blame but to understand and to guide. Do not deal with the matter until everyone is calm and then use the mistakes process:
Wishing you well for a non-perfect new school year.
July 11th, 2018
Well, Socrates, the Greek philosopher and educator who lived about 400BCE, was renowned for his love of questions. Perhaps Socrates’ main contribution to Western thought was the development of the Socratic method of enquiry, a process by which questions are asked to help a person examine ideas and find answers for themselves. It is used in teaching and in therapy and can be very usefully employed in parenting.
Socrates also said “To know, is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.” That is something that will ring true for many of us and is a great starting position for a parent to take! Instead of delivering pearls of wisdom to our children we can ask questions to help them think and discover for themselves.
We can use questions to
We can also use questions to:
Some questions to avoid:
How was your day?
What did you have for lunch?
Did you have football practice?
What did you learn today?
Open questions are ones that stimulate conversations and make kids think and explore possibilities. Examples are “If you had a day where you could do anything what would you do?” “I had a tough day at work. Tell me about your day at school.” Instead of “Why did you hit your brother?” say “I see your brother is crying. Tell me about it.”
There are lots of commercially available conversation starter cards such as table topics. I recommend that, if you haven’t already, you go out and get some and enjoy some great conversations and ask lot of questions these holidays. Above all, be curious.
July 03rd, 2018
I was meant to be interviewed on BBC Radio Suffolk this morning about gifts for teachers but that didn’t happen because the football got prioritised and they ran out of time! Imagine! But of course I had been thinking about gifts for teachers and thought some of you might be thinking of said purchases too so here are my thoughts on the subject.
Some of you may be the super-organised types who took care of this weeks ago. We hate you already. But assuming you haven’t (since you’re reading this) what are the problems with gifts for teachers?
• It can get really expensive, especially if you’ve got more than one child of primary school age.
• It’s a real effort to think of something novel and takes time to go trawling round gift shops or websites.
• Teachers end up with multiple mugs with ‘World’s best teacher’ on them or candles or chocolates or other things they don’t really need or want and we all have enough stuff.
• It ends up being the parent’s effort, not the child’s.
So what’s the solution?
Some parents will group together and pool resources of time and money to purchase something meaningful for a teacher. This is a nice idea but doesn’t really solve the problem of input from the children unless you brainstorm with them.
What does a teacher really want as a gift? Well s/he might really look forward to a nice bottle of something at the end of the year but most of all he or she really wants to be appreciated. We all like to be appreciated.
So how can your child show his or her appreciation? It has to be their effort and it has to be sincere. It might feel like a lot of your effort to get them to think about how to show their appreciation but you will be teaching them a lot about how to be thoughtful.
I would start by asking them what they like about their teacher. Maybe complete the sentence I like it when…. I like it when you read us a story at the end of the day and use lots of different voices. I like it when you give me stickers for good effort. I like the way you smile. The more detail the better. Your child may never have really thought about what he likes about his teacher.
I can hear some cynics asking what if my child doesn’t actually like their teacher all that much? Well why are you buying a gift? Is it just because that’s what everyone does? Has it become an exercise in hypocrisy or one of diplomacy? Do you genuinely think that your child should express gratitude to his teacher? Do you need to help your child see the positive sides to his teacher?
Asking questions will make it more of the child’s effort and will teach them valuable lessons about thinking deeply and practice at appreciating people –an essential social skill. The more perceptive amongst you may recognise Descriptive Praise here.
If for example your daughter says her teacher is boring don’t dismiss that but teach her to see another perspective by asking (without sarcasm) if her teacher is calm? Does she think carefully about things? If your son says his teacher is mean, ask him what makes him say that. Acknowledge any feelings of injustice that your child may have experienced first and then delve deeper to see if he can find any qualities to acknowledge his teacher for. This needs to be sincere. It’s no good mentioning kindness if your child thinks his teacher is cross and shouts all the time. You may need to ask lots of questions to draw this out.
When you’ve got a few positive characteristics decide how you’re going to record them. This may depend on the age of your child. Some ideas (in ascending order of effort, parental involvement and expense):
• Draw a picture of the teacher or of the teacher and child
• Make a word drawing using the qualities mentioned when brainstorming with them
• Make a card
• Get a kit to design your own mug with a drawing of the teacher or the qualities words on it. They come with appropriate indelible pens and sometimes need to be fired in the oven.
• Go to a pottery studio where you design your own plate, mug or bowl.
I was at the Festival of Education hosted by Wellington College the week before last and was really struck by how many of the talks and stands related to teacher burnout. Our teachers do a vital job and we need to support them to stay in the profession and maintain their enthusiasm to nurture our children’s thinking.
Teachers don’t go into teaching necessarily looking for appreciation. Most of them do it because they have a vocation to bring out the best in your children. I hope you had some really good teachers in your childhood. If you did you will remember. Everyone remembers a good teacher but we don’t always think to tell them that we appreciate them at the time.
When my middle son was in primary school I used to dread it when his teacher asked to speak to me because I always assumed (with some justification) that she would tell me something negative about him. But teachers often have the same experience of dreading talking to a parent as they expect to be criticised.
Let’s make sure we let teachers know that both parents and children value them, but it doesn’t need to be through expensive gifts.
June 04th, 2018
Many families across the country have children doing exams at the moment. Many children are frustrated because they’re inside revising while it’s sunny outside. Many parents are frustrated because their children aren’t inside revising… Some of you may be very glad that you’re not at that point in your children’s education yet. But you will be at some point. And you probably want them to do the best they’re capable of. You probably want them to get an education that sets up life-long learning, that teaches them to think, to solve problems and to be creative. Certainly that’s what their future employers are hoping for.
So what can parents do to help our kids get the best out of their schooling? If children are to do their best at school and in whatever path they choose thereafter, they will need:
• to be confident and self-motivated and believe they are capable
• to try things and take risks
• to work hard and persevere and have self-control
• to have drive and the courage to follow their own dreams
• to be curious and think creatively and solve problems for themselves
• to think of themselves as learners and problem-solvers
• to pick themselves up after failures, not be defeated by them but embrace them as opportunities for learning
• to have good communication skills and emotional intelligence
Parents can help children develop these characteristics and habits essential for maximising their potential at school. We prioritise behaviours and encourage particular traits by paying attention to them and we motivate our children by how we speak to them.
We can probably all list a number of actions taken by adults that don’t motivate kids ….and then find that we’re doing a few of the things on that list!
Imagine you are the child in the following scenario and see how motivated you feel:
Toby…Toby….TOBY! Will you come and do your homework please. I shouldn’t have to shout Toby. That’s naughty. You know it’s homework time. ….Yes, you do have to do it lazy boy. You know that….No you can’t do it after you’ve finished on Minecraft. You never finish on Minecraft. That silly game takes over your life… Come NOW!
Have you got your worksheet? Well where is it then? You didn’t leave it at school again! Oh Toby, you’d forget your head if it weren’t attached to your shoulders. You’re so disorganised. Well start on your spellings while I get it off the school intranet. And leave those rubbers and things alone. You don’t need them to learn your spellings. How are you supposed to learn anything hanging off your chair like a monkey? Emily sits still on her chair and concentrates which is why she gets through her homework so much faster than you. It’s a nightmare every evening Toby. Do you think I like having to nag you like this? Now get on with that homework or you won’t be going on Minecraft again at all this week.
You can probably see how un-motivating it is to be criticised, nagged and labelled, compared with a sibling, threatened, put down, belittled and made to feel a nuisance. This example may be a bit extreme to make a point but in our classes and workshops many parents admit that they inadvertently drop into these kind of tactics to try to get children to do what they don’t want to do.
So what does work?
Well it will help to consider why your child is unmotivated about school work. Is it too hard for her or would she rather just be doing something else? We all have to do things we don’t particularly want to do but nobody is very motivated when we feel that success isn’t possible. I can remember my son coming home with red marks all over his Spanish homework. He believed there was nothing good about his work, that he was hopeless at Spanish. He couldn’t see any reason to keep trying.
We need to help our children experience small successes and to believe that success is possible with greater effort. We can encourage this kind of growth mindset by the way we talk to our children.
Focus on the positives. “Thanks for looking at me when I asked you to turn off the computer. I know you’d like to keep playing and you know it’s time for homework. It takes self-control to stop doing something fun and do what you have to do. You did that last night when I said it was time to pack up the Lego and go brush your teeth. You hardly moaned at all!”
When we notice small steps in the right direction, including strategies which will help our children do well, we encourage them to keep trying. “It really works for you to move around the room when you’re learning your spelling words, doesn’t it? I can see that you’re looking at the word and then shutting your eyes. Are you imagining what the word looks like in your head? Good strategy!”
Notice improvements. “Each time you practice your times tables you get better at remembering them. Now you know your 4 and 6 times tables whereas at the beginning of term you were really only sure of your 2s, 3s and 5s. That’s progress!”
Focus on effort rather than results. If they get a good test result, comment on the effort behind it. “You’ve done so well because you really worked at your fractions until the techniques were really solid in your mind. Every time you did a challenging sum your brain grew a little.” Don’t say “You’re so clever”.
Create a culture in your family where mistakes are regarded as a normal part of learning. Demonstrate this by your attitude to your own mistakes. Explain that the brain only grows by being challenged.
Our words are very powerful but so are our actions. You can also enthuse your child about learning by:
• knowing their curriculum and speaking enthusiastically about the topics they’re covering, attending parent teacher evenings and school events and speaking positively about the school
• showing how different skills are relevant in everyday life, at home and in the workplace
• demonstrating that you continue to learn; let them see you read, attend lectures, listen to educational podcasts or watch videos
Maximising your child's potential at school is our new 3 part series of workshops launching in the Autumn 2018
May 14th, 2018
Shouting is like smoking in several ways. We know it’s a bad idea but we keep doing it. It doesn’t make any difference if people lecture us about it –we’ve heard it all before. We know, we know. We’ve got into the habit, ok, and it’s hard to break.
There was a good reason why we started in the first place. With smoking you may have felt daring, rebellious or grown up when you took your first puff at age 16…14…12. All your friends might have been doing it. It gave you something to do with your hands at parties. It helped you to not eat. Lung disease is what happens to other people, old people; and you were never going to be one of those. Now that you are older having a cigarette is one of the few quiet moments in the day when you can stop…and think…or just stop. And it’s the cool gang outside with the cigarettes.
When we shout at the kids we have good reasons too. I mean you should hear what they say to us! I would never have spoken to my mother the way they speak to me! We have to shout at them, don’t we, to get them to pay attention to us? One boy confirmed this when he responded to the question why didn’t he do what his mum asked with the answer, “She hasn’t shouted yet”. And we shout because our emotional cup/to-do list is overflowing. Because we started the day behind the eight ball by sleeping through the alarm, finding the uniforms in a great unwashed ball in the bedroom corner, by our 8 year old cheerily announcing that it didn’t matter because they didn’t need to wear uniform today because it was World book day and they had to go in costume. And this is the first you’ve heard of it and you should have left 10 minutes ago and nobody has had breakfast. And we shout because nobody, but nobody (except maybe the dog) listens to us. We shout because we’ve already asked nicely 515 times and nothing’s happened. And surely we deserve some respect? I mean we brought those children into the world; half of us laboured to give birth to them! They should be grateful. And they should do what we say. It’s because they don’t that we shout, isn’t it?
There’s a small difference between smoking and shouting. When we smoke we do most damage to ourselves and potentially some damage to others through passive smoking. When we shout we risk some damage to our children and we also damage ourselves. When we get ourselves into a position where shouting seems like the answer our blood pressure is elevated, our hearing is diminished and our sight is reduced to a very narrow focus. We are stressed and cortisol is flooding our brains. Our children know when we have lost it. The ‘it’ we have lost is self-control and with it we lose their respect.
If we get into habits of shouting children learn:
• not to pay attention when we speak normally
• to disrespect us
• that we don’t respect them
• that shouting is what you do in order to persuade someone of your point of view
• that their agenda, their opinions or feelings don’t matter.
When we shout connection is broken and with it the chance of cooperation is greatly reduced and children do not learn all the valuable lessons we could have taught them, including how to interact respectfully with others.
But we don’t always shout at our kids. For some it’s only certain behaviour that pushes our buttons and we’re calm the rest of the time. And our partner may not be bothered by that behaviour. My husband used to be quite relaxed when our great big galumphing boys came and wrestled with each other on our bed… when we were in it, quietly reading our books at the end of a long day. But I used to hate it and feel it was an invasion of our precious quiet time and I’d yell at them to get off and get out! Some of us can react calmly to exactly the same behaviours today that we shouted about yesterday. What’s going on? It can’t be the kids’ behaviour that determines whether we shout or not or we’d all shout about the same behaviour, all the time. It must be something to do with us.
Life doesn’t make us react in set ways –we have choices. But it often doesn’t feel that way. When the red mist descends it feels automatic to go into shouting mode. What is it that pushes our buttons? Well, what pushes my buttons may be different from what pushes yours. But we have this in common; we react because of how we’re feeling. When you feel disrespected or powerless you may respond with harsh, authoritarian behaviours to try to command some respect. Why do I feel disrespected when my husband doesn’t? That’s because I have a different set of thoughts about the behaviour than he does and it’s those thoughts that prompt my feelings out of which I react.
When I was growing up it was instilled in me to think of others; to be selfish was a Really Bad Thing. So when I saw behaviour in my teenagers that I interpreted as selfish (who’d have thought a teenager might be self-focused?) I thought of it as a character flaw rather than a stage of development. That made me anxious and I responded harshly. And when I did that I lost the connection that would have enabled me to teach my children without bruising their self-esteem, without judging them or making them feel my disappointment and disapproval. When you shout at a teenager their ears bang shut and they are convinced that you are unreasonable, mean and nasty.
But we can get our kids to listen without shouting.
We need to stay calm and that means:
• prioritising self-care
• pushing the pause button before you respond (you may need a calming strategy like taking deep breaths or going for a walk or repeating a mantra to yourself like ‘he’s having a problem, not being a problem’)
• reframing our negative thoughts about our children’s actions to see if there’s another more helpful explanation for what they’re doing
• scheduling time to spend with them doing fun stuff to build connection
• using lots of descriptive praise –nothing opens kids’ ears faster
• listening to them.
Of course we’re only human so we’ll slip up and shout from time to time but, as they say with smoking, don’t give up giving up, and join me in taking the ‘vow of yellibacy’.
May 07th, 2018
While many of us are enjoying some warmer weather at last, many families will be trying to combine having some outdoor time with preparing for exams. What can we do to support our children in the lead-up to these important days, without adding to their stress?
Hopefully your child is moving into the countdown to the exam period with some preparation under his belt. Maybe not as much as you’d like. There’s no doubt more to be done but we need to encourage our children rather than lecture, nag or (whisper the word) bribe. This may not be one of those times where you’re prepared to let your child experience the natural consequence of his actions, or inactions. Our attempts to motivate them so easily slip into bribes which will feel manipulative. When children feel controlled they often rebel or they can become so withdrawn that they lose the ability to make decisions for themselves. Not great if we’re trying to encourage problem-solving. It’s also possible that they may seek to control things in turn and become very demanding and negotiate about everything.
So what can we say and do that will encourage our children to persevere, feel confident they can do what is required and manage anxiety? Giving lots of encouragement through Descriptive Praise will be very important but below are three other ideas that will help.
LET them do it their way
Your child may not be able to say no to revision but he can revise his way. Don’t insist he does it your (better) way. Many children find it very hard to sit still and in fact being forced to be still may impede their learning. Many learn better by moving, maybe hitting or bouncing a ball, or simply walking around the room. Others are more visual and need pictures – get drawing with shapes and flow-diagrams on a white board, or blank postcards. Other children are more auditory and they may find background music helpful, not distracting. They may find making up songs or poems, or using mnemonics helpful – all the better if these are weird and wacky. They need to be memorable to your child.
Brainstorm with children for solutions to problems –don’t just tell them what to do. This fosters creative thinking and problem solving abilities and helps them feel capable. When your child is stick on a problem, before jumping in with your ideas ask her what her suggestions are, descriptively praise her for using her brain/thinking creatively/problem-solving and then ask questions to help her evaluate her solutions.
EMPATHISE –give their big feelings a name to control them
This is probably the biggest stress they’ve been under in their life, so it would be strange if there weren’t some anxiety, and maybe poor behaviour. In fact exam nerves can be beneficial as they push us to perform at a higher level. Studies comparing amateur competitors with professionals show that both experience anxiety before an event but the professionals viewed it as a positive force, whereas amateurs thought it was detrimental to their performance. The same ‘reframing’ works for children taking exams. Teach them to harness the adrenaline to improve their performance.
Most parents want to take away worries and try to push them through to feeling better about revision and exams so we say “don’t worry, it will be fine soon, it will all work out” or “Come along, there’s no need for all this upset, you need to get your head down and stop wasting time; getting cross doesn’t help any of us….”
Instead we need to really listen to how they feel and then help them work their way towards a solution. “I sense this is really getting you down right now. I wonder if it feels like this is all you get to do, and maybe you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.….”
This won’t make them feel worse, or put ideas into their heads, but it does make them feel connected and understood, which in itself is calming.
And make sure that you don’t add to their stress by the way you’re talking about these exams. Scare tactics don’t make children perform better.
LOOK BEHIND words or behaviour
Children want to do well – it’s in their nature. And they do care about the result and their future (to the extent that they can imagine their future), and they really don’t want to disappoint us.
If they start to believe they can’t succeed or that we are not happy with them, they may pull back from trying. Some children will bluster and vigorously assert they don’t care or they may simply shrug and refuse to put in much effort. After all failing when you’ve held something in reserve is better than bombing when you’ve given it your all, isn’t it?
Our best approach is to face this head on. “I wonder if you’re worried about trying hard, and still not getting a good mark. It’s scary to push yourself to the full. What happens if it doesn’t work out? It may feel as if you’ve used up all of your brain power. In fact your brain grows more when you make it struggle with things.”
They can’t really answer direction questions such as “what’s wrong, what’s the matter” etc. Most children duck these questions with ‘nothing’ because they sense a judgment that they are wrong to be worried etc.
Empathise also with the fact that they’d just rather be playing and that other children (and adults) don’t have to be revising. Make sure they do have some down time.
Remember that this stressful time will pass and think of it as an opportunity for your child to learn how to handle the stress that they will inevitably encounter in life. Encourage them to employ some anti-stress measures such as physical play and having a good laugh –maybe get them a joke book. Make sure you look after your own stress levels too…. 2 joke books.
We hope whichever exams your child is facing go really well and that they learn something about coping with stress in the process. Do let us know if you come up with any great ways of counteracting stress in your family. Good luck!
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