A homage to the ‘Tai Chi’ of academic education

I was in a twitter conversation recently about handwriting and thought I would do a little blogette about it.

Have you ever seen those video clips of elderly Chinese people doing Tai Chi and Qi Gong together in public parks? Isn’t it wonderful! I taught a Tai Chi extra-curricular club at my old school and it was amazing to see children who would normally struggle to concentrate learn to focus and synchronise both the mind and the body together – the movements (which you need to learn by rote) even require you to control where you are looking. Along the way, the children would make mistakes and struggle, but they would only master the sequences through overcoming their own internal rebellion and pushing through; I was there to teach, encourage and provide the very still and quiet space to practice, but ultimately they made that journey alone. I see handwriting lessons in a similar way – as a sort of ‘Tai Chi’ of children’s academic education where the outcomes are about so much more than neat, swift handwriting. I will return to this theme later in the post, after I have gone through the usual points in favour of teaching cursive handwriting, and daily handwriting lessons in general.

taichi

Old-fashioned penmanship fell out of favour a long time ago. Today, many struggle to see the worth of cursive handwriting; they may see it as restricting children’s right to express their individuality and a pointless exercise that has no effect on ‘the learning’ because we are supposed to be focusing on the content of the writing and not on the vanity of how it looks. The fact that handwriting is not measured or reported on per se, is also another reason why it has fallen by the wayside as other priorities take over. When I joined the profession, I found it a bit odd that there seemed to be an institutional disregard for something that was, to me, so fundamentally important, so liberating, an entitlement of all children surely? Like many aspects of primary education, to also say that you approve of something also risks a great clamouring of parents and teachers of children with various SEN who then extrapolate that you are discriminating against their child who cannot fully participate in whatever aspect of primary education you are advocating, as if we should get rid of those aspects of education lest someone feel left out. If we did that, we’d end up with no education at all and besides, if there’s one lesson that is pretty much 100% inclusive, it is the humble handwriting lesson…..

For 20 minutes, the whole class dwells on a small aspect of handwriting that is taught and then practised for a decent length of time under the ideal conditions of silence or very soothing music. Ideally, this practice is a peaceful, daily ritual that pays attention to only one aspect of handwriting that has been taught, rather than being obfuscated by additional cognitive demands such as being expected to create some kind of poem, or thinking about a spelling rule at the same time. All of that can come later on. For a moment, all of the children in the class are equals, united by this one purpose and experiencing the same struggle to synchronise their minds and bodies. Quite often, it is the ones who struggle in other lessons who experience the most success and praise and their sense of self-worth is boosted further because this may be the one time during the day when they work alone and are expected to work as hard as everyone else, without a TA helping them, so they get to feel like all the other children. This ‘being like everyone else’ is also really important because children do like to fit in and be like their peers, even from a very young age. This is also why I am not too fussed about calls for children to be allowed to express their ‘individuality’ through a more lax approach to handwriting. Frequently, the ‘individuals’ are not so much proud of their unique handwriting as incredibly embarrassed and frustrated. If you want proof, try visiting year 7s in a secondary school and see how they cover up their books when you go into their English lessons to look at their writing.

The good vibes that are generated through this simple little lesson can permeate through the rest of the morning’s menu of potentially frenetic and ever-changing activity, and the fact that it is a daily ritual is a key factor in helping many children to settle and feel less anxious. Unfortunately, just like old fashioned penmanship, the importance and joy of rituals in our lives has been supplanted by an assumption that younger children in particular benefit from and like most an ever changing smorgasbord of experiences. This runs counter to our own adult preferences for the efficiency and comfort of daily rituals and habits. Many of you might retort that you like to make your lives more interesting by frequently taking on, for example, new hobbies, but you forget that there are parts of your day that are exactly the same and that ground you and connect you to your family. Many children do not experience this, either because their parents are ideologically opposed to daily habits and rituals, or they simply haven’t got the capacity or willpower to provide that kind of upbringing for their children. The daily handwriting lesson could, potentially, be the one part of the day all children experience a peaceful ritual. This is particularly so for those children with SEN who frequently miss the ritual of assemblies or daily silent reading practice to attend groups with teachers and TAs for catch up/gap filling lessons.

Creating the peaceful space for daily handwriting lessons is very difficult. Even when you set it all up, there are so many ways the zen-like focus can be shattered into a million pieces. All it takes is for someone to come in to ask what so-and-so is having for lunch, or for a child to just call out that their pencil has spontaneously exploded under the pressure of forming the perfect fancy f. Sometimes it is the teacher who continuously shatters the silence with a reminder or a question, inadvertently destroying the one moment when a child has the opportunity to really learn to focus.

I’ve managed to write a 1000 words on handwriting and so far not talk about the writing itself! Cursive is ideal*. Why? It’s continuous and I’ve literally seen spelling problems melt away over time when children are required to attend to this style of handwriting in a more focused way. Handwriting styles that enforce compulsory breaks cause children to think about which letter they’re allowed to join or not, rather than the spelling, the choice of word or the coherence of the sentence. This is a simple case of cognitive overload and we’re supposed to be avoiding that, not enforcing it! Further, compulsory breaks stop children from ever reaching the kind of handwriting speed that indicates fluency and allows them to fully participate in more demanding writing sessions. This is odd because many say that attending to fully joined handwriting shouldn’t be prioritised because, apparently, attending to cursive handwriting slows children down. This is the most bizarre excuse ever because we all know that children are slow at everything at first and just because they’re slow at something, doesn’t mean that we give up and let them do whatever they like instead – if they’re slow, it’s because they need more (focused) practice, not less.

The other aspect of handwriting styles that enforce compulsory breaks in words is that unjoined tails of letters and part of other letters that are not joined add such variety to the look of many words that children do not see the patterns and rules of spellings. The absence of a lead-in also adds further variety in terms of which words are flying in the air as opposed to sat on the line. This kind of handwriting is also more likely to be messy. Now, many don’t see a problem with ‘messy’ if the writing is, generally, of good quality, but the fact is that children need to be able to read their own writing and so do the adults who mark it. Primary teachers who are with a group of children all through the week get used to the quirks of certain children’s handwriting whereas we need to remember that the variety of teachers who will teach the children at secondary school do not have hours and hours to get used to deciphering children’s ‘unique’ (ie, sloppy and messy) handwriting. I’m probably on my own here, but I really do think that neat, fast and fully joined handwriting is an entitlement of all children and that primary schools need to ensure that all children have the opportunity to learn, to automaticity, cursive handwriting, even though it doesn’t feature in progress measures.

Back to Tai Chi. The improvement in synchronicity of mind and body is not only amazing to experience, but it is also character forming, peaceful and generates happiness for both teacher and pupil (and onlookers!). The daily handwriting lesson is so similar in this way and I think we need to remember that before we relegate it to the starter, plenary or one-off weekly lesson.

Who’s with me?

 

 

 

 

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Do they really need karate and horse-riding?

This was a question that I asked (myself) at a recent meeting. We were discussing length of day and provision of clubs for children. Now, we’re all about Hirsch and want to provide a knowledge-rich curriculum; this is important since we work with the very children and families identified in this article, but when it comes to extra-curricular provision, the assumption is that the more we provide that is similar to the life experiences of better-off children, the more we can ‘close the gap’.

I’m not so sure.

Of course, all of the experiences such as karate, horse-riding, trips here, there and everywhere are beneficial in many, many ways, but I don’t think they’re the reason certain groups of children do so much better at school. I reckon the answer lies in looking at how advantaged children rock up to school at age 5 with a vast store of words and facts in their heads, as well as that advanced ability to concentrate and communicate: I don’t think they gained these advantages from trips to museums or karate class, I think they gained these advantages at the dinner table.

knife and fork

This is the hidden curriculum that no one seems to want to see or acknowledge. Maybe this is because the movers and shakers in education assume that a civilised dinner is more or less what everyone experiences, that such a thing doesn’t really matter, or perhaps they’re too scared to talk about this in public. What fool would dare speak up about this when they could so easily be accused of being a judgmental snob who doesn’t understand that all ‘this’ is down to ‘austerity measures’, Brexit and mental health issues? I guess that fool is me, and yet I still write this knowing full well I will be torn apart over it all.

Instead, we look at the glitz and glamour of activities that are all about entertainment, distraction and making a child feel happy, and then perhaps we assume that if we give as much of this as possible to disadvantaged children, then they will also achieve. I find it odd that given all we know about how children learn best, the fact that purposeful planning, teaching and testing needs to attend to and prioritise their thoughts and thus curate memories rather than seek to entertain, placate, distract or constantly flatter, we still don’t acknowledge the same processes that may or may not be taking place in the home.

When happiness becomes a goal rather than the by-product of hard work, then I think all sorts of people lose sight of what really needs to be looked at. We miss what is really happening and never get to analyse and find the real components of success, that instead of homing in on one thing, maybe we should take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Those advantaged children are receiving at the dinner table, at multiple points of the day, a steady drip, drip, drip of the following:

  • teaching and practice of sitting still and listening
  • teaching and practice of a script for civilised conversation (‘How was  your day? What did you learn?’)
  • teaching and practice of tier 1, 2 and 3 words as well as interesting facts

A simple, but by no means entirely accurate, calculation of 3 x 20 minutes of ‘dinner table curriculum’ a day gives us a child who has had almost 2000 hours of said instruction and practice by the time they start school. Perhaps this is also the reason why the children of immigrants do so much better: they’re getting an enhanced curriculum that also includes messages about doing well, working hard, achieving, looking after granny.

The sitting still and listening bit is really interesting because I have been to selective 6th form open evenings recently and it has really struck me how incredibly still the audience for the opening speeches were when compared to a typical gathering (from memory and recently) of parents at a secondary school meeting, or parents who gather at a primary school meeting. I was left wondering whether we pay enough attention to how just being able to sit still and concentrate is such a vital component to future academic success. And yet we still assume that what these disadvantaged children need, through the provision of ‘middle class experiences’, is the opposite of the bullet points above:

  • teaching and practice of constantly moving about and being heard
  • teaching and practice of a script for shouting matches (‘Who’s ready to have a great time whoooooo!’)
  • regurgitation of one’s own limited vocabulary, opinions and feelings

Maybe we need to somehow implement a ‘dinner table curriculum’ as a way of closing the gap. How exactly we go about that is another question entirely!

Who’s with me?

The wasted years

I suddenly realised that since ‘coming out’, I could be a little more open about my experiences so far. Obviously, I seek to maintain the privacy and protect the identity of those I teach or have taught, as well as those I work with. However, I do want to bring to your attention something that really opened my eyes last year.

If I go backwards in time to around this time last year I have half a class, in addition to my leadership role. The cohort is not in a good way, but we are changing that, dramatically. As you would expect with any group of children, there are those that stand out. Among those that stand out, a little boy springs to mind: he is the son of a couple from Eastern Europe, his father some kind of nuclear physicist who probably works in a role he is way too over-qualified for. This boy is my top mathematician, my top reader and his vocabulary, despite English being his second language, is truly vast. His peers who also have parents from Eastern Europe are also similarly inclined towards all things academic, but he really stands out the most. I watch this boy calculate and I can see him being at ease one day, when he is a man, with calculus – he is surely destined for great things. He does need quite a strong leader to ensure he behaves and concentrates, but it’s fine because I am happy to ensure high standards of behaviour and effort are maintained – even if he thinks I’m not being nice at the time. He will forget me and all that will remain is the knowledge I gave him and that excellent handwriting I insisted he had; that is the way it should be. However, it is when we have our science lessons, or our history lessons, for example, he stands out the most. The sheer amount of knowledge he has already acquired because he is already a fluent reader who reads, reads and reads, and all this knowledge bursts out of his head and he makes those connections effortlessly – he knows all about the moons and the stars and the wars and oh so much more. His questions cause you to dig deep to make sure that you can give him that knowledge his permanently switched-on mind is so desperate to assimilate.

This boy is 5 years old.

abandoned-olympic-venues-urban-decay-26
Abandoned pool from the 1936 Berlin Olympics – I find these sorts of photos fascinating. They represent wasted opportunities and how in the absence of purposeful use, they become dilapidated and sometimes dangerous. 

Compare this fine mind to the boy who sits next to him. Barely reading, barely talking – he knows diddly squat. The difference in knowledge already acquired and the subsequent ability to make connections with what is taught is truly staggering. Not only does he struggle to access what is being taught and is therefore more likely to default to being silly, he also struggles to communicate and interact with his peers which ultimately affects his ability to make and keep friends.

Is the difference innate? Nope, not really. Genetic differences are small. What is different is their upbringing. Our boy of wonder has simply had many more conversations with his parents and he has had the practice required to finally read fluently and then gain his reading wings, thus launching him into the world of independent learning. He also causes me to look back at the years when my own children were young and caused me to feel so much anguish about how those years were wasted because I was not enough of a purposeful parent for and with them. My sons were reading early, clearly intelligent, but I thought they would just sort of acquire what they needed naturally. I didn’t make as much effort as the parents of our wonder boy and I assumed their primary school would be giving them the same amount of interesting knowledge, as well as that excellent handwriting! Oh, how I was wrong. They did alright because it was a nice school with nice kids. Their SATs results were above average, but that didn’t mean much really.

It’s too late.

They’re doing really well, but I know they could be achieving so much more and more importantly, their minds could be more open, curious, if they had more knowledge with which to make insightful connections.

So, this brings me back to year 1. You know, we could go back even further. My point is that the longer children float along in their own world without that purposeful parenting, or that purposeful, knowledge-rich teaching, the more likely they will eventually end up with closed minds and fewer opportunities. Fundamentally, this is about happiness. Who would want to be mired in the day-to-day dross of life when they could be thinking about the moons and the stars? Why wait till KS2 for a knowledge-rich curriculum? Why not have the same approach, the nod to evidence-informed teaching and learning, even in those earlier years.

These children are capable of so much more.

Who’s with me?

The path to greatness for children is also paved with a thousand tiny rituals

As usual, I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while now. The whole silent corridor debate has given me that extra incentive because much of what has been written and said about the need for silent corridors in schools has been from the perspective of teaching good behaviour, safety and how said rules and procedures ensure calm starts to lessons. However, I’d like to make the case for more whole-school habits, rules and little rituals for children (especially young children!) as a way of freeing their minds in the same way that commitment of knowledge to long term memory frees the mind to problem solve and be creative. Most schools and teachers could point to a few key rituals that happen within the school day and describe how they help with organisation, logistics, efficiency of teaching and learning, but not much seems to be said about how habits and rituals in particular are incredibly important in developing the character of a child such that not only is his education enhanced, but his whole life. Why not start early?

path

When it comes to the education and everyday lives of little children, our culture behoves us to eschew the mundane ritual and general following of rules in favour of the novel, varied, fun/pleasurable activity and we assume that young children want and need plenty of choice and a variety of experiences in order to stimulate their little minds. The received wisdom is that the more the child experiences according to their desires (particularly when those experiences are exciting), the more their little hyper-stimulated brains will develop and grow. Perhaps we could consider that this received wisdom is wrong without summoning that classic, frightening image of the child who doesn’t have much in his life, is a bit neglected, needy and also plain bored.

I think there are two kinds of disadvantage: the first is to do with a child’s lack of knowledge and vocabulary compared to his peer who has educated and interested parents (we all know about this disadvantage now, hence the increased prevalence of knowledge-rich curricula), the second is to do with a child’s lack of concentration and resilience that would ordinarily be developed through habits and routines in the home. I reckon this second disadvantage is more prevalent than the first and affects children from all walks of life. We all know that lovely middle class family who exist in a state of permanent and delightful discombobulation, with chickens and children either roaming carefree in the garden, or participating in a whirl of activity as we dash from karate to kumon maths to drama class (the latter activities just for children, obviously). Bedtimes and morning routines? Although always filled with laughter and stories, they are somewhat organic and proceed according to no fixed schedule or hard and fast rules -who would do that kind of thing to an innocent child? As a result, these activities frequently bleed into other parts of the day. This family is always late and the children are notorious for leaving their PE bag on the bus.

The illustration above is actually quite similar to the experience of a child who is disadvantaged in the traditional sense of the word, only with more books, words, knowledge, organic asparagus and pet chickens. All of these children are being trained to exist in the here and now, to never quite get anything done and never experience the mind-freeing result of relegating life’s daily activities to a somewhat mundane and automatic routine; people just don’t do ‘boring’ routines like always doing the ironing on a Thursday at 6pm because that’s the sort of thing someone-with-no-life would do. No one’s making their bed any more, let alone expecting their children to do it automatically – most people think that ‘boring’ routines just don’t matter, so why bother with the effort? All you have to do is look at all the popular accounts on instagram and see that everyone’s nonchalantly lying about in (an unmade) bed, going for an impromptu coffee or taking a louche walk on a picturesque beach while thinking about their feelings. It’ll all end in tears though when someone forgets to pay the council tax. And so the children of this live-in-the-moment and do-what-you-want generation therefore never experience significant and regular moments of peace and quiet that would cause them to develop the habit of being able to still the mind and concentrate.

What can be done? Should we just accept that this is the way our culture is, and perhaps try to convince ourselves that not being boring by sticking to rules, routines and rituals helps us to be more creative? The fly-in-the-ointment here is that history shows us that the most creative minds in the world were notorious for sticking to self-imposed and really quite rigid rules, routines and rituals (examples here, although, obviously, I do not advocate no.5 for children).

For me, the most potent example of the power of rules, routines and rituals is the dramatic increase in learning seen in our year 1s when they transition from EYFS framework-mandated choice, continuous provision, expectations of independent learning to a formal, teacher-led classroom experience (we just go for it): for example, many had spent a whole year struggling to learn their number formation and within days of starting year 1 their number formation was pretty much perfect. What changed? It wasn’t just the style of teaching and learning, it was the imposition of somewhat more rigid rules, routines and rituals such that a) their ability to concentrate was uniformly enhanced and b) they were able to simply get more (practice) done (in silence). Are they all miserable now because a greater part of their waking day is now exactly the same and running like clockwork with their being expected to work much harder? Not a jot of it – you should see the beaming smiles of children, armed with their maths or writing books, who come to my office for a shiny gold star. You should see their happiness and pride when we give them praise for learning and then automatically using our Way of Walking in the corridors. You should ‘see’ the calm in their classrooms.

All this leads me to, well, just think really. To what extent could the parts of the day and the parts of the lessons run like clockwork, automatically? Also, do all teachers truly understand that in order for something to become automatic, it needs to be practised regularly until it becomes second nature – this applies just as much to lining up in a fixed order as well as learning those number bonds off by heart. ‘Well they should just know because I did a circle time on it last week’ doesn’t quite do the trick and our tendency to focus on aspects of learning that are formally measured risks neglecting whatever isn’t a focus of Ofsted visits or SATs, for example. Scripted lessons too: the routine familiarity of the language, expectations and lesson design seems to ensure that more is done and learned. To what extent could this approach be adopted in their science lessons, even in the younger years to ensure that more is learned, practised and retained? Could it be that instead of doing an SPG and handwriting lesson once a week, we need to have a fixed part of every English lesson that runs like clockwork through the same LOs for spelling, punctuation, grammar and handwriting until whatever is to be learned is learned to automaticity. Ah yes, who was it that said that 80% of a lesson should be rehearsal and 20% should be new content? Or did I just dream that?

So, that’s where I am really. Just thinking. Thinking about how the benefits of rules, routines and rituals that automate parts of our lives via the creation of habits and the development of concentration and resilience could be extended to as many parts of the day and lessons as possible. It could be that I am biased because I like all things clockwork and automatic. I was also like that as a child because I moved about a lot which caused a bit of anxiety – I do remember as a 7 year old creating my own daily routines in a list as a sort of way of being more efficient and getting more done! And I did indeed get a lot done. Certainly, the vision I have inside my head is not to every educator’s taste and many educators would balk at the idea of sacrificing their own autonomy and creativity at the alter of routines and rituals. However, I really think that many children and therefore the adults they become could achieve so much more (and be happier) if we took a more purposeful approach in terms of putting children on the path which is paved with a thousand tiny rituals.

Who’s with me?

 

‘….. and then there was a massive explosion and everyone died. THE END’

This is a blog post about how to nurture creative writers. It is a response to this article, which tells us that in order to help children become creative writers, schools should increase opportunities to do creative writing via the use of various kinds of stimuli, as well as the hook of a small amount of media fame, rather than dwelling on boring things like basic sentence construction, spelling, grammar and punctuation.

I think their approach is going to be great for the children who already love (and are therefore relatively good at) writing, but for many others, it will be frustrating and potentially disastrous in the long run. To me, this situation is analogous to the folly of trying to develop problem solving ability in maths through the medium of lots of fun lessons with group work, discovery and of course open-ended problem solving. We all know this ends in both literal and metaphorical tears.

What makes a creative writer? It seems to me that educators who advocate for the approach described in the TES article look at a truly creative writer in their class or school and see only the emotion of the writer rather than the words on the page. She is so inspired, so motivated, and the response is to try and artificially create that initial emotion in other children in the hope that they too will produce sumptuous writing just like our creative writer who sits with her pink sparkly pencil (with unicorn head rubber on the end) poised for action, waiting for the signal to fire up her fertile imagination.

This is not the case for a boy called Tommy who not only thinks he is a terrible writer, but is actually a terrible writer. Tommy couldn’t give a flying rat’s arse about a special creative writing project because he doesn’t want to look like a fool in front of the girls with their pink sparkly pencils. When pressed to take part, he has to deploy what limited writing knowledge he has and usually the story ends with everyone dying in an explosion, or waking up and realising it was a dream. His handwriting is atrocious and painfully slow, he can’t spell or automatically construct a sentence that makes sense, and he lacks knowledge of stories and general knowledge to draw upon as inspiration. If he does engage with the creative writing project, he’ll just be reinforcing, embedding and potentially making permanent, his poor writing technique. If he doesn’t, then it’ll be because he’s trying to avoid the rude truth of being exposed as a poor writer and the awful feeling of confusion that goes with it. Talk about making behaviour problems worse.

So what makes a creative writer? Here are the ingredients:

  • Knowing how to construct a decent sentence and being fluent in the use of this knowledge (basically, not even having to think about it)
  • Knowing spelling, punctuation and grammar rules and being fluent in the use of them (so, not even having to think about it)
  • Knowing a ton of stories (types of characters, storylines, settings) and being fluent in the use of them for inspiration
  • Knowing a ton of general knowledge about the world and being fluent in the use of this knowledge to add detail
  • Knowing a huge variety of words, phrases and sayings and being fluent in the use of them
  • Knowing how to join up handwriting so that it is neat, readable and being fluent in the use of this handwriting (so, quickly and not even having to think about it)
  • Fluent reading ability to check own work
  • Possession of the habit of being able to concentrate for a length of time without giving up
  • Possession of the habit of planning and proof-reading in a systematic way
  • Possession of the habit of thinking about the reader rather than yourself
  • Due to having all of the above, receiving genuine praise, recognition and admiration for producing a great story such that you are motivated to do even more

Many teachers are vehemently opposed to ensuring the features described above are taught and practised to the point of fluency. They see it as boring or too hard for children and would much prefer the easier option of creative writing projects where, at the surface level, everyone looks busy and happy, but in fact what is happening is that the writing can is being kicked down the road – Tommy will end up missing lessons in year 7 because despite his ‘story’ being ‘liked’ by 2000 non-experts around the world, he still can’t bloody write a sentence that can be read by someone else. Further, some leaders would even downgrade the teaching and practice of some of the ingredients because they do not form part of the data set that the school is judged by. Some even oppose the teaching of the above because they see it as interfering with a child’s right to be his ‘true self’ which in their view is a non-conformist individual who can go through life not having to worry about silly things like rules and regulations. These people, I think, are wrong.

How do we ensure that Tommy can also be a creative writer? We need to give him all of the above and ensure that he doesn’t have an opportunity to opt out along the way. We should do this not because it’ll help with the attainment and progress data, but because it is the right thing to do. The process takes years, not days or weeks at the last minute. This means explicit teaching and enough practice, hopefully in silence, of everything listed. Ideally, each component should be taught and practised discretely to the point of automacity before being added to the mix of creative writing in order to avoid cognitive overload. Then Tommy feels great and wants to do more. He may never become a truly creative writer in the sense that he becomes some kind of world famous author, but at least he can write.

Who’s with me?

 

 

A few reasons why children struggle with friendships

This is a new and improved version of a previous post. I’ve added something about playground knowledge of songs and games.

Reason #1: narrative of bullying vigilance causing a child to think of themselves as a victim as well as viewing friendship as being the responsibility of others

When a child starts school, it is an emotional time for both parent and child. Many primary educators would agree with me that often the parent will have more issues around letting go than the child in question and despite a lot of friendly advice from experienced early years professionals in the nursery years preceding school entry, said parents will continue to project a lot of emotion onto their child for as long as is feasibly possible, if we allow it. This is where diplomacy pays off as we gently remove the child from the emotional situation, quietly close the doors and then provide the child with something fun to think about, like phonics. In addition to the pain of disruption to the caregiver’s need to be needed, there will also be major worries about whether the child will be happy. The anxious parent will say goodbye to their crying child and then spend the rest of the day imagining a worst case scenario which is that their child cries all day long, on his own in a corner of the room, while other children are cruel to him or her and the teacher does nothing about it.

Later that day, the worried parent will return to pick up their child, hoping to see joy in his face, but when they are greeted by a little person who immediately bursts into tears, the great investigation into What Has Happened begins. The parent is informed that when young children see a parent’s face again, they tend to remember the previous emotional goodbye and that is one reason they start crying. Of course, we are also reminded that it is normal for children to be very, very tired at the end of their first days at school and an immediate interrogation as to the day’s activities can be too much for the child, causing them to lose it. However, the interrogation proceeds and the child ends up being badgered into giving a reason for his tears through certain leading questions until the parent is satisfied with the cause of their child’s distress. Usually, that reason is something along the lines of ‘bullying’. Over the years, the child is effectively trained to look for evidence of bullying from others, but in their immature state will conflate ‘no I will not give you this ball because we’re busy with it right now’ with ‘he’s not being a good friend’. This is actually quite a miserable situation for the child.

Solution: at the end of the day, try asking asking children what they have learned (rather than ‘What did you do’), as well as asking them who they played and shared games with (rather than ‘Who was nice to you’)

Reason #2: desensitization to cruelty through too much unsupervised screen time

Many parents are completely unaware as to what their child is doing or looking at on the iPad or phone. Eventually, these children migrate from apps and games and then will be hooked on youtube, watching various nonsense that insidiously desensitises them to all kinds of cruelty. While the school might be working hard in assemblies, circle times and PSHE lessons (as well as through rules and routines) to teach children to use ‘kind hands’ and ‘not make fun of people’, the internet is working hard to teach children to laugh at others’ misfortune, economic circumstance, race, sexuality, disability and religion. Children from all kinds of homes are being abandoned to the internet and I see addicts all around me who display all the classic symptoms when confronted: anger, denial, manipulation, self-pity. Further, the hallmark preference reversal means that these children will ignore their own hunger, tiredness or even the need to go to the toilet in pursuit of their fix and I have heard many times from both parents and children that their first port of call upon waking is not a cuddle with a parent, but picking up an iPad – am I the only one who thinks this situation looks too similar to that of an adult who lights a cigarette when they wake up? What happens during the day, when we’re supposed to be learning, is massively affected by this because these children are cranky as well as under the impression that casual cruelty is normal – this all gets transferred into the playground too.

Solution: take the tech away. Even better, don’t let them have it in the first place*.

Reason #3: rejection of human interaction, books and stories

Some parents genuinely think that the fact their very young child has been able to use the iPad since before they could walk is an indication of intelligence, so they encourage it. However, in addition to the problems of addiction outlined above, we also have the fact that screen time is much more exciting than everything else in the world for a child and this causes them to reject human interaction, books and storytimes, never acquiring the vital knowledge that fuels imagination and imaginative/social play. This social play is the first stepping stone to being part of society. The child who spends all his time on the iPad will not know how to join in with a group of children who are acting out a storyline which combines Little Red Riding hood, some random trolls under a bridge and that time when someone’s mummy asked daddy to hoover up a giant hairy spider the size of a dinner plate.

It doesn’t help that we seem to be telling parents that early language acquisition etc will develop naturally and without the need for any purposeful parenting. A young child has no hope of making friends if all he can do when he starts school is push, poke, shove, grunt, scream at and chase after other children because no-one bothered to have a conversation with him at the dinner table so that, gradually, he learned how to speak. As I have written before about reception year, certain habits born out of frustration quickly become embedded and I believe this is one of the reasons why we have a behaviour crisis (the rot sets in early). When it comes to making friends and keeping them, re-enacting Fortnite just doesn’t cut the mustard.

Solution: put the human interaction (talking with children), books and storytimes back into children’s lives so that they have the conversational knowledge (words, phrases and social rules such as taking turns to listen) as well as fertile imaginations (through knowing stories) to take part in social play. Daily storytime really needs to be daily.

Reason #4: not understanding what ‘no’ means

This is a big one and it’s to do with boundaries. What happens is that many children are getting their own way through tantrums and therefore learning that tantrums are the go-to option with pretty much everything in life. By the time they start school, they would’ve had about 3 years of empty threats, never sharing anything and generally getting their own way (because tantrums typically start around age 2). No one dare say any of this in public, but I reckon there are thousands of primary (and possibly secondary) teachers out there who are having their mojo drained because of children who greet every instruction with toddler-like behaviour. This also transfers into the playground where said children ask to join group of children who are playing together and are met with a resounding ‘no’ because of their reputation and they then simply recourse to flying off the handle and making sure everyone knows about it. Once you reach a critical mass of children who have that habit, it’s pretty miserable for everyone involved.

Solution: boundaries, saying ‘no’ and meaning it

Reason #5: traditional playground games and songs have disappeared

fmm-rose-cutter-garland

A couple of days ago, I happened upon a really interesting documentary which was made in 1959. I love peering at the past in this way, looking beyond material differences and instead at how people interacted and communicated with each other. The most striking feature for me was the children’s play times at school. Sure, the boys looked a bit rough, but you could see evidence of scripts handed down over the generations that ensured games were fair and rules were followed. The girls were all dancing to and singing songs that had been passed down the generations – the smiles on their faces and the size of the groups playing together. So inclusive! But where has it all gone? When was the last time you saw children singing Ring-a-ring-o-roses?

Solution: answers on a post card!

Who’s with me?

*I think my future uber-trad school might be a low-tech one!