September 18th, 2018
School’s back and while many families are glad to be over the summer exams the 11+ are in fact just a few weeks away in January and for those children just starting year 6 the pressure will start to build over this term.
Parents need to get prepared for what their children will face and also realise that the Christmas holidays will inevitably include some revision time - just at the time when younger siblings and other members of the family are having fun! If you can get a head start on it then perhaps the holidays will be easier.
So if this is your first time doing the 11+ or any other exams that are conveniently set at the start of term here are some essential tips gathered from many a veteran of the process.
It’s too easy to say “make a revision schedule and stick to it” because we all know this will work in theory, but what we want to know is HOW we can do it in practice. What’s the right amount of revision? Too much, too little - how do we get the balance right? We all know we need to make revision motivational and rewarding, but we can’t keep handing out sweets or letting them use the i-Pad, so what can we say and do that will encourage a child to persevere and feel confident they can do what is required? We all know that on the day it’s going to pay off to be organised, and if the child is getting anxious, they will need to breathe. But what is the best way of preparing ourselves and our child so they go into the exam with the best chance of doing their best? For full details on how to motivate without pressurising and how to support children’s learning see our publications on 'Creating Happy Learners' and 'How to Handle Homework Horrors'. Below are three ideas that we know will help, but aren’t usually mentioned.
LET them do it their way (mostly!) and have a choice
And this doesn’t mean doing NO revision! Try, whenever possible, to let your child revise their way rather than insisting they do it your way. Most children find it very hard to sit still and simply regurgitate facts 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 and not distracting. They may find making up songs or poems, or using mnemonics helpful – it doesn’t matter if these are wacky and not very serious. They just need to be memorable to your child. Your child remembers things differently to the way you do now as an adult.
ALLOW them to be upset or worried – name it to tame it!
This is probably the biggest stress they’ve been under in their life, so it would be strange if there weren’t some tears and tantrums, but this doesn’t spell doom and disaster.
Our instinctive reaction is of course to reassure and try to push them through to feeling ‘better’ about revision and exams so we say “don’t worry, it will be absolutely fine soon, it will all work out” or “You poor thing, this is just awful and unfair” or “Come along, there’s no need for all this upset, it’s just a test, you need to toughen up and get your head down, 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. We have to connect first, before they can trust us to redirect them. For example: “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. Maybe you’re scared about what will happen after you’ve tried your best….”
This doesn’t make them feel worse, or feel anything they don’t already feel, but it does make them feel connected and understood. This in itself is calming. Take care not to add “but….” afterwards because this undoes everything you’ve said so far. It’s usually best to keep quiet and hear how they respond. Most children feel less resistant after they’ve been allowed to express their reluctance to do something.
And make sure that you don’t add to their stress by the way you’re talking about these exams. Scare tactics will never make children perform better.
UNDERSTAND their reluctance
We can understand how they feel about revising, and still require that they do revise. But we need to understand why they don’t want to do it. It’s not always what we assume. We often start with the assumption they are lazy, not taking it seriously, etc, and when we approach it this way, it ends up negative and confrontational. And ineffective!
Children in fact do 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 what we think about them, even when it may not seem that way!
The problems come when they start to believe they can’t do something well, and that we are not happy with them, so they pull back from trying. Some children will bluster this out and vigorously assert they don’t care or they may simply shrug and refuse to put much effort in. In their mind, they believe this will protect them from the failure they fear is coming – the price they have to pay on the way is to accept the negative reaction they get from us….
Our best approach is to face this head on – but not with a direct question, let alone an accusation! So, try “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, and not know whether you will achieve what you hope for. It may feel as if you’ve used up all of your brain power. In fact your brain grows the more you make it struggle with things.” Wait here; this isn’t the time to go on to lecture about how this is how life works, and they have to learn to knuckle down and get on with things….. Let them open up and talk to you about how they feel about the exams. It may be quite illuminating – they may have some crossed wires in their understanding, which you can help untangle. Or there may be some real issues that are concerning them that you can help them address. These things don’t come out with direction questions such as “what’s wrong, what’s the matter” etc. Most children duck these questions with ‘nothing’ because they sense a judgment in the question 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 working as they are.
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. Make sure you look after your own stress levels too.
September 11th, 2018
Did your child go back to school or start at a new school this week? If you’re wondering how to help him maximise his potential this year at school come along to our 3 part workshop series on this topic. If your mind is turning more to their friendships, read on.
Friendships can be lovely - affirming, supportive and nurturing. They can bring a child out of themselves and challenge them to try things they wouldn’t on their own such as climbing a tree, tricks on a skateboard, joining a choir or the Brownies. Friends can learn from one another in an academic context too. Being with friends teaches trust and intimacy and cooperation. Negotiating with peers teaches communication skills and compromise. Having friends of different backgrounds teaches respect and understanding. And learning how to break up and make up is also useful. Arguing helps a child to learn conflict resolution, including how to repair relationships.
Friends can help children through tough times, help them develop their own personality and help them transition toward independence. They are the forerunners for adult intimate relationships with a mate. Friendships can buffer a child from the negative effect of family conflict or break up, illness, poverty or lack of success at school.
Human beings have some basic primal needs –the first is to satisfy our physical needs and to be safe, and the second is to belong.
Friendships can also be troublesome sometimes – children fall out with each other; some kids find it hard to make friends, some are bullied. Children can be left out or have mean things said to or about them. They can be physically hurt themselves or their belongings hidden, stolen or broken. They can have hurtful words hurled at them, face to face or via social media. Children can be very cruel and fickle –they may be best buddies one day and off with someone else the next. Children may have immature responses to differences of opinion, feeling jealous, being unwilling to share possessions, wanting to dictate how the game goes etc etc.
Friendships are relationships chosen by the children themselves, nurtured, broken, repaired and perhaps discarded, and by and large it’s best if parents let kids navigate these relationships themselves. Child-child relationships are egalitarian in a way that adult-child relationships are not and that freedom should be protected. Kids will learn more from their own failures and successes in relationships than if parents muscle in.
“Friendships matter to children because they are relationships that are all their own – created and nurtured by them.” (Dr Eric Lindsey, Texas University
That doesn’t mean that parents can’t help their children at all to successfully manage peer relationships. Here are 8 ways we can help:
1. Provide play opportunities
Provide opportunities for children to play together- but don’t butt in too much. Children need both physical and emotional space to play! Research has found that how mothers behave when children have friends round can be a key to children’s popularity. Parents who micro-manage children’s playtimes tend to have offspring who are less well-liked. Hard as it is, try not to intervene in every spat. Children can often work it out for themselves.
2. Involve children in groups outside school
Involve them in after-school activities of their choosing; sporting or arts clubs or youth groups, active groups doing physical or creative things or community involvement. Encourage children to take part in extra-curricular groups to get them outside themselves and find out what they’re interested in and to provide a friendship pool other than at school.
3. Let them choose
As kids get older their friends will be those they choose to hang out with rather than the children of your friends. Friendships are generally transitory in the 5-8 age group – this is the time to try a lot of different friends. We shouldn’t direct or limit this as it is a learning time; the ‘wrong’ children are as important as the right ones because even a ‘bad’ friend can be a great learning experience. Don’t criticise their friends. When appropriate ask your child what they think about the friend’s behaviour, rather than criticising the individual.
4. Give lots of approval
Let your kids know how much you value them, both to build connection and self-esteem and so that they don’t become over-dependant on peer approval. Children who don’t get much approval at home can be vulnerable to peer pressure which may lead to poor behaviour that they mightn’t engage in otherwise. Provide them with regular positive family time so they feel connected there. All families need to spend time together, so that conversations can occur during non-crisis moments such as around the dinner table. Praise them descriptively for any good friendship qualities they show.
5. Model being with your own friends and being friendly with your partner.
Demonstrate loyalty, commitment, self-respect, constructive dispute resolution, and communicating and managing feelings.
6. Train children in social skills through play and practice tricky situations in role play.
Teach children to be aware of their own and others’ feelings by watching films or reading books with emotional content. Ask them what the characters are feeling. How do they know? Have they ever felt like that? If they’re feeling that way how are they likely to act? Use role plays to prepare for difficult conversations or conversation openers or retorts to teasing. Use games like ‘Simon Says’ and ‘Chinese Whispers’ to practice listening and collaboration and games of chance to practice following rules and winning and losing well.
7. Acknowledge how they feel when children are upset about friendships.
Don’t brush their feelings aside in an attempt to cheer them up and don’t rush in to advise them what to do. If you let them release their feelings it will free up their thinking brains to allow them to come up with solutions for themselves.
8. Help them to be thought detectives.
When your children assume that their friend’s behaviour has a malicious motive, listen to those feelings first, then gently challenge their thinking by asking questions. Encourage your child to be more accurate in their thinking by:
* Catching his thoughts (“No one at school likes me.”)(“Ed thinks he’s more important than me.”)
* Collecting evidence (“Sherry and I do homework together—she’s a friend of mine.”) (Ed pushed in front of me in the line at breaktime.)
* Challenging her thoughts (“Is it really true that no one at all likes me? Where is the evidence?”) (“Ed might have been in a hurry to get inside after break. Maybe he needed the bathroom.”)
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
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