September 18th, 2017

School success –how does age and temperament influence it?

Has your child just started school? Some kids will be sailing in and making a beeline for the ‘creative corner’ or heading off to play with other kids without a backward glance, while others will be hanging back tentatively or even having to be extricated, crying, from their parent’s leg. I hope the latter isn’t you but if it is you may be asking why can’t my child be in the first category, or even the second? Of course the answer is, to some extent, temperament, but the other factor that may have a bearing is age. If your child has a summer birthday they will of course be one of the youngest in the year and therefore less mature physically, socially and emotionally.

All my own children were born in the summer, Gemma having the latest birthday, in August. But after a briefly tearful start she got on the best while her May and June born brothers struggled more and their immaturity showed up more clearly. So what are the factors at play here? From my example you might conclude it was gender but as usual it is the convergence of many things. Gemma was, and is, an extrovert who is socially adept. She was also academically able. Her brothers are introverts and both dyslexic so found life in the classroom harder. Environment makes a great deal of difference as you’d expect. Christian’s struggles in the classroom and his avoidance strategies were mistaken for misbehaviour and he got in trouble a lot thus reducing his self-esteem and causing more poor behaviour. Whereas Sam’s difficulties were recognised and he got the help he needed. It doesn’t help if your young child is actually tall for their age, as mine were, as adults’ expectations are often pitched too high.

Research has shown that kids who are young in their year do less well academically and are less confident than their older peers. And the impact of month of birth persists into higher education https://www.ifs.org.uk/wps/wp1006.pdf 

Children who are less physically mature can also have a disadvantage in sport and may get disheartened while playing against their more coordinated, stronger peers. They will need encouragement to keep trying.

That is the lottery of the educational system as it is currently but since we know our younger kids are going to find it harder we can be prepared for that and help them.

  1. One of the things we need to be particularly aware of is their need for sleep. If your child started school last week he may be doing half days at the moment because the school recognises that they will be very tired. You may also have seen some fallout at home as a result of tiredness, some ratty or regressive behaviours. We can be compassionate towards our littlies while still guiding their behaviour and being clear about our values. They hate to be told they are tired (especially when they’re dropping) so be sure not to make early bedtimes sound like punishments for poor behaviour. Just be clear that while they are getting used to school it will take a lot of energy and they need sleep so they can be alert and enjoy school. Sleep is sacrosanct in the first few weeks, at the very least.
  2. We can also make sure that their energies are focused on settling in to school and reduce other stresses in their lives. Try to make sure there aren’t too many other activities going on. Keep playdates for the weekends and don’t start too many extra-curricular activities until they are well settled. Make sure that they are getting plenty of time when they can play, run around and burn off steam and just to chill.
  3. Keep family routines as consistent as possible. Put on hold any ideas about moving house or any other big changes like going back to work wherever you can.

And what about temperament?

If you have a child who is intense, sensitive, reactive, persistent, slow to adapt, high energy and can be a bit negative in outlook he is going to need a lot of support to manage school. If he is also an introvert he will need quiet time to restore his energies. Our temperaments are our default position for how we react to the world but they are not cast in stone. Parents can help children to appreciate their temperaments and learn to manage them. So for example, when your child says she wants cake at bedtime and she’s already brushed her teeth, you can say “You really, really want that cake don’t you? When you want something you’d like to keep going and going until you get it. That’s called persistence and that can be a wonderful quality. For instance if you wanted to get good at playing netball (insert whatever activity she’s keen on here) you’d practice and practice your ball skills until you mastered them. It’s really annoying for you that mummy has said you can’t have the cake. It’s my job to look after you and make sure that you stay healthy so sometimes I have to say you can’t eat something you’d like to or that you need to go to bed or to put a jumper on when it’s cold…. Do you remember we talked about how your brain works? This bit at the front tells you what’s sensible to do. But the bit in the middle tells you what you’d like to do. So your middle brain is yelling cake, cake, cake (ham it up here) and your front brain can hardly be heard saying ‘do what mummy says’. As you get older your front brain’s voice will get stronger and mummy and daddy will help you to listen to it…..This morning my middle brain was saying just ten minutes more sleep but my sensible front brain told me I needed to get up or we wouldn’t get to school and work on time.”

At four years old all children have immature ‘front brains’, that’s their pre-frontal cortex which regulates the emotions and impulses originating in the ‘middle brain’ or limbic system, and it really helps them to understand a little bit of how their brain works. It also helps us to stay calm when we realise that a poor behaviour is likely the result of an impulse or a feeling, not as a result of a character flaw. And when we stay calm our children do too. Less stress in their lives makes it more likely that they can handle school well.

Good luck with the next few weeks and we wish your child a very happy school life. Look out for our workshop on Raising Boys on October 3rd  Raising Girls on October 31st.

 

Posted in: Independent Schools , Schooling , Temperament

 

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