How we can really help parents

This is a blog post about how I believe mistaken benevolence for parents inadvertently weakens their resolve – instead, we need to empower them with knowledge and aspiration for their children.

One of my own little mantras, conjured up over a few years of seeing how life pans out, is the more you help someone, the less they help themselves. When I see this in a school setting, I end up in a quandary over wanting to help because it is the right thing to do, yet at the same time knowing that a person or group of people is at risk of learned helplessness and dependency if they allow themselves to get used to said help. To some extent, you can see how possessing strength or expertise in any area of life would then be reinforced and augmented through practice because we all seek the happiness of helping others and then in tiny little ways we are all connecting and becoming more than the mere sum of individuals. It also makes more sense and increases our chances of survival if individuals specialise and become more efficient, therefore we have evolved to be this way: during groupwork, this is why some children end up doing all the writing, some do all the thinking/working out and others do all the colouring in! However, it seems some of us find it too easy to receive help and are not the most willing to help ourselves or others; children are no exception to this rule because they are fallible human beings in need of guidance. In fact, children probably are more at risk of this, aren’t they?

A classic example of this phenomenon occurs when the TA or the teacher works with children who are lower attaining and in need of a boost, re-telling what has just been taught and what they have to do and then providing the starts of sentences/scaffolds. It is good practice for the teacher or TA to base themselves with a group of children while the rest of the class is busy getting on with their independent work, yet the unintended result of all this good practice is that a core group of children could end up…

  • learning that they don’t have to listen during the input (because Miss will just give me a private tutorial after)
  • zoning out while the teacher gives instructions (because Miss will remember the order of everything)
  • not developing much needed focus and effort to remember key words, algorithms, procedures (because the hard part of starting anything will be provided by the adult)

Over the years, these thought processes could become habitual, their ‘dao’ so to speak. This is very difficult to change and I believe it is one of the reasons why, despite average or high KS2 SATs results, many children struggle when they start secondary school and are suddenly expected to work on their own. Nobody wants to be accused of being cruel and uncaring, so they do their utmost to care and help others despite the risk of learned helplessness. Deep down, we all know that the best thing is to struggle a bit, maybe make a mistake or two along the way.

It’s different for parents, right? One would assume that they are not at risk of learned helplessness because they are not children. Therefore, the best way to to help them cope with parenting and to be better parents is to, er, help them as much as possible? We’ve got all this austerity and Brexit going on, plus the mental health crisis and parents are really struggling. No wonder some children are coming to school tired, hungry, depressed and anxious! I wonder if some parents end up struggling because they’ve also developed some dependency due to receiving and then expecting so much help. Have you ever had the same thoughts? OK, you probably haven’t. In fact, you’ve mostly heard the opposite. ‘Parents need less help!’ is not exactly a message you would read in The Guardian.

Anyway (says she who still pursues this challenge to the status quo), society expects the educator to extend the caring and helping role to parents and wider family because, well, that’s one of the reasons we all pay tax. Politicians win votes over it and yet in a similar way to that child arriving in year 7 unable to start a paragraph, I think this contributes to a phenomenon whereby many parents inadvertently arrive at the front door of the primary school thinking that….

  1. many/most aspects of child development happen naturally and ‘when they’re ready’
  2. professionals will be able to step in to help when their child doesn’t develop x, y or z naturally
  3. children must be given voice and choice on everything right from the start
  4. children must only experience happiness and happy thoughts because that’s how happy adults are created

The above are mantras/rules of parenting showered upon the newly pregnant woman by professionals until all the wisdom and tradition of her ancestors is overwritten and she knows not to listen to granny who is advising her that little Tommy needs to learn that he can’t get his own way and that she really ought to get that bedtime routine going for the sake of everyone’s sanity, not least the health of the child.

For the new parent who has not been parented well herself, this is an unmitigated disaster. She needed to be empowered by the truth that it is only the survival instincts which come naturally and that everything else must be purposefully taught, modeled and then practised to the point of automaticity. That’s how we learn; it’s the same magic that happens in the classroom. Sleep hygiene is a great example of something that must be learned. Many parents are told by a kindly health worker that at some point their baby will automatically regulate his own sleeping ‘when he’s ready’ (rule 1 above) and to really drive the message home we have the added guilt trip of being made to worry that in ‘forcing’ a child to go to sleep at a certain time by saying ‘No!’ instead of using the modern wisdom of offering choices, they might cry a bit which of course breaks rules 3 and 4. Years later, they find themselves embroiled in increasingly lengthy and elaborate rituals that only they can do in order to get their child to go to sleep and stay asleep. Some give up along the way by either accepting a potentially marriage-wrecking solution of allowing the child to sleep in the adults’ bed for years while others just let the child be on an iPad till the wee hours. Years later, the parents are still knackered and never have time to really love and care for each other.

I think there is also a chance that many developmental problems 5 year olds arrive with at reception year could be attributed to one, some or all of the four modern parenting rules listed above. And then of course the state provides an enormous amount of help with all sorts of labels and diagnoses for the child thus facilitating a conveyor belt of state provided professionals and help into their lives. The EYFS framework is interesting in that it kind of cements this process: if you look at the modern parenting rules I have listed above, you can see them weaved into the narrative of the framework for early years practitioners to follow. Another great example: speech and language. Children need to hear the crisp enunciation of English language from an adult and then be expected to use it lots and purposeful parenting is basically the same as good quality teaching in this regard. Civilised conversation at the dinner table that includes the giving of knowledge and its associated vocabulary from the parent (rather than allowing the child to dominate) and sharing bedtime stories is a key factor in this process and yet parents are led to believe that their role in all of this is merely to wait for a miracle while their child plays on an iPad or tears around the playgroup screaming at the top of his voice. If you put 20 toddlers who can’t talk into a room together, the English language will not magically flourish (I disagree with Geary, as you know), but it’s OK because we have lots of speech and language therapists working with young children now. An official-sounding diagnosis of speech and language delay would surely reinforce any learned helplessness of parents, partly because it abdicates responsibility from the adult, who would impart the much needed knowledge, to the child with his mysteriously ‘unready’ brain. Further, in schools in areas of high deprivation where precious resources are being hoovered up in order to tackle speech and language delay, that means less time/resources for the teaching of phonics, which means whole cohorts are delayed in reading, which means fewer years to start to accumulate knowledge and vocabulary which means…….you get the picture. And how are all these children coping with the fact that they cannot use their words to communicate and play with friends? What might they use instead to communicate? Perhaps the root cause of the behaviour crisis in schools goes back further than we think……and there are of course plenty of professionals to help parents with that.

So, how could we really help parents? Many argue for more money for parents or for those Sure Start centres to be re-opened, but I think that the absence of Sure Start, even though we all agree it was pretty good, highlights just how much of the parenting role has been gradually transferred to the state and to front line public sector workers in general, necessitating the proliferation of all kinds of therapists and general help into families’ lives.

Instead of more help, I would argue that perhaps parents need to be empowered to help themselves. All that it would take is for them to turn to the wisdom and tradition of their parent ancestors rather than automatically follow the narrative described above. Parents need to know that:

  1. Parenting is something you can do, purposefully. Whatever it is you want your child to do or know, you need to teach (or model it to) them and expect lots of practice because pretty much nothing comes naturally*
  2. You are worth listening to, so please do not accept the soul-crushing reality of being routinely ignored. Make the decisions for your child and do not let them take over all the conversations. Learn to say no and mean it.
  3. Your child will never be truly happy if he grows up expecting you and the world to provide constant fun and entertainment as well as thinking he has a right to to act out (sometimes violently) whenever he doesn’t want to do something. True happiness comes from working hard and helping others and you can be pivotal in helping your child to learn that.

I’m not sure how exactly those messages could be conveyed or by whom, but anyway…..

Who’s with me?

*I just had to put something here about the ability to sit still and focus because I saw a comment on twitter about it. Many seem to believe that being able to sit still and focus is something that comes naturally and if a child cannot do that, then they need to be allowed to run around and do lots of different things until they’re ‘ready’ to learn to sit still and focus. Everyone seems surprised when these children become natural runners and flitters instead. I believe that just like everything else in life, in order to learn to sit still and focus, you need to be taught and then expected to practise sitting still and focusing lots in order to then become ‘good’ at it – just like we would need to practise sitting still and focusing in order to meditate. Those children who are miraculously and naturally ‘good’ at this are usually being taught and then regularly expected to sit still and focus at the dinner table and for their bedtime story by parents – I think we need to remember that, otherwise we risk disadvantaging disadvantaged children even more by attributing the ability to sit still and focus to some kind of natural force/ability/genetics or, dare I say it, God himself.



The Most Magical School

This is a blog post about a school’s inspirational USP. I’ve been thinking a lot about school culture and have come to the conclusion that through the latest developments in school networks such as multi academy trusts, there is the risk that a certain je ne sais quois of individual schools would be lost in the process. When a school’s USP is allowed to shrink away, we risk losing the hearts and minds of parents and the wider community.

The most ‘magical’ school I went to visit and work in was a Montessori primary school. Now, you know I’m not the biggest fan of the Montessori philosophy, however, the headteacher sought accreditation, developed the Montessori philosophy all the way through the school and then of course this became the school’s USP. The Montessori thing was like a beacon that attracted a certain kind of family who wanted a Montessori approach and therefore were invested in the success of their children and the school before they stepped onto the premises. These parents had aspirations for their children and in due course the good behaviour and academic standards also became part of the school’s USP.

The magic of this school extended into the family home: the kinds of conversations happening at the dinner tables would reinforce the high status of teachers in the children’s minds so that when they went into school they would listen and work that little bit harder as well as be more likely to follow the rules and routines. And those that lived next door who were a bit more ‘meh’ about the whole thing would be hearing ‘this school is great’ down the shops or at the pub. Due to the great reputation and USP of this school, the parents had been co-opted to provide extra energy and enthusiasm for this organisation and the subsequent ratcheting up of effort of every single pupil and parent also had a positive effect on the teachers.

So, the teachers could actually teach and because they weren’t exhausted, they could invest a little more of their mojo in building those relationships and giving their enthusiasm to the subject matter being taught, rather than having to placate, cajole or entertain. Most of the staff, including the headteacher, were then able to volunteer their time to run an interesting after school club. Teachers hardly ever took a day off sick and since all the children were working hard from the start, there was no need for teachers to have to bust a gut over constant interventions. I have never met an entire staff that was happier, friendlier or more willing to go the extra mile than the staff at that school – they were a great team and supported each other so well. The USP of the school attracted the best teachers and those that couldn’t get a job there seemed to volunteer until a position became available. All the TAs seemed to be volunteers too, eager to work at this friendly and happy place.

Due to the general positive vibes and extra energy everyone seemed to have, there was extra capacity to give to children with special educational needs. The school then developed a reputation for being very inclusive for children with severe disabilities – everyone was trained in lifting children in and out of wheelchairs for example. If a teacher was struggling with a child who had high needs on a particular day, another teacher would volunteer her TA to help.

All this developed from a very clever approach to USP requiring an initial investment of time and resources which then ended up co-opting the hearts and minds of whole families and the wider community. The magic didn’t happen by accident: it was a leader’s planned, purposeful and proactive approach to PR and the school’s USP that generated all this (people in the street would talk about how it was like a private school).  She had real vision and it was nothing to do with quick fixes or firefighting approaches. Don’t get me wrong, there were also those efficient systems in place that ensured the school ran like clockwork and I think it’s probably no coincidence that she had a background in business/financial services. A leader cannot do all this alone and credit also goes to the teachers who bought into the vision and invested more of themselves as a result. They were appreciated and trusted and you could see how that made them feel good.

I put this picture here for no other reason than the family Corvidae, my favourite animals, are great planners*

You’ve probably gathered that I’m not trying to persuade anyone other than myself here about how I would go about running a school. Here are my conclusions:

  1. A USP needs to be positive and really quite unique. For me, it would be all about tradition, a knowledge rich curriculum and the development of scholarly dispositions/habits. Further, I would say that ‘tradition’ also includes helping our next generation to participate in social discourse and this means giving them scripts for positive and caring communication because so much of that has been lost in our local communities. This, ultimately, would lead to happier children, especially if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  2. Leaders need to create those efficient systems so that their teachers aren’t exhausted! I would work towards an ideal situation whereby most aspects of the school are running like clockwork. I do love a system anyway.

The other magical aspect of a school having a great USP is that it also creates a powerful alternative ‘identity’ for children to step into when they enter the school gates. So, instead of a child thinking about how their parents are getting divorced or the fact they live in cramped, cold and damp flat, they would leave their troubles behind and instead think about being successful in class and experiencing happier playtimes with their friends. Surely this is the best way to give children a proper childhood?

Who’s with me?


*Odin had two pet ravens: Huginn (from Old Norse “thought”) and Muninn (Old Norse “memory” or “mind”). Someday, I don’t know how, I’m going to get myself a pet raven or two!



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 how even little children could learn to focus and synchronise both the mind and the body together – the movements (which you had 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 practise. 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.


Old-fashioned penmanship fell out of favour a long time ago. Today, many struggle to see the worth of cursive handwriting; they think it restricts children’s rights to express their individuality and creativity as well as detracting from ‘the learning’ which should be about the content of the writing rather than 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 management 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, inclusive, liberating, an entitlement of all children, surely?

For a mere 20 minutes, the whole class dwells on their handwriting 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 and there should be no additional cognitive demands such as simultaneously being expected to create some kind of poem, or think about a spelling rule, for 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 receive that all important praise. Their sense of self-worth is boosted further because this may be the one time during the day when they work alone, without a TA helping them, so they get to feel like all the other children. This ‘being like everyone else’ is 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 keen on the modern wisdom that calls for children to be allowed to express their ‘individuality’ through a more lax approach to handwriting. Frequently, these individuals are not so much proud of their unique handwriting as ending up incredibly embarrassed and frustrated.

The good vibes that are generated through this simple little lesson can permeate through the rest of the morning’s activities, and the fact that it is a daily ritual is a key factor in helping many children to settle and feel less anxious. However, just like old fashioned penmanship, the tradition and joy of daily rituals has been supplanted by an assumption that younger children benefit from and prefer an ever changing smorgasbord of experiences. This runs counter to our own adult preferences which is to have parts of your day that are exactly the same and that ground us and connect us to our family. Many children do not experience this, either because their parents are ideologically opposed to daily habits and rituals, or they 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 moment.

Creating the 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 inadvertently shatters the silence with a reminder or a question, destroying the child’s opportunity to really learn to focus.

I’ve managed to write a 1000 words on how handwriting helps with character formation and have yet to 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. More modern 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 required in KS3. Many would argue that attending to fully joined handwriting shouldn’t be prioritised because, apparently, this slows children down. However, 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 modern 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, causing additional cognitive demands for children who are trying to write a story, for example. Again, many don’t see a problem with ‘messy’ if the writing is, generally, of good quality and there are always those teachers and highly successful adults who boast about their messy handwriting (and how it hasn’t held them back) but the fact is that children do need to be able to read their own writing and so do the adults who mark it. Maybe I’m 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 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 one-off weekly lesson.

Who’s with me?





Do they really need karate and horse-riding?

This was a question that I asked (myself) during a recent discussion about the length of school day and the provision of clubs for children. We’re all about Hirsch and want to provide a knowledge-rich curriculum, 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’. However, I think we look at the wrong ‘bit’ of the advantaged child’s life. I don’t think it’s karate and horse-riding that gives an advantaged child the edge in class, even though these activities are pretty fun, I think it’s the fact that they’re more likely to be experiencing dinner table conversation, homework supervision, music practice, bedtime rituals which include reading and being read to every single day. This is surely the real reason advantaged children enter reception year with a vast store of words and facts in their heads, as well as that advanced ability to concentrate, communicate and appreciate which ultimately leads to success and happiness.

knife and fork

There is this other curriculum that no one seems to see or acknowledge. Maybe this is because many teachers (teaching is a middle class profession) assume that a civilised dinner conversation is more or less what everyone experiences, that it doesn’t really matter, or perhaps they’re too scared to talk about this in public lest they be accused of being to ‘judgy’.

Instead, we look at the glamour of fun, entertaining and distracting activities and assume that if we give as much of these as possible to disadvantaged children, they will also achieve in the same way. The modern view that happiness for children should be a goal rather than the by-product of hard work could cause us all to lose sight of what really needs to be looked at. In this case I think it is what happens at the dinner table, at multiple points of the day, a steady drip, drip, drip of the following that makes the difference:

  • teaching, modelling and practice of sitting still and waiting
  • teaching, modelling and practice of a script for civilised conversation (‘How was  your day? What did you learn?’), including the inculcation of the habit of listening
  • teaching, modelling and practice of sharing
  • teaching, modelling and practice of tier 1, 2 and 3 words as well as interesting facts that they can refer and make links to in class

A simple 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. I’ve often thought that the real difference in ‘ability’ and attainment that we see open up in reception year is really a manifestation of whether a child has received the curriculum above (or not) which would then affect that child’s ability to receive the teacher’s instruction when they start school.

Reverting to the provision of middle class experiences as a way of closing the gap provides the following:

  • 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!’)
  • recycling of a child’s own limited vocabulary, opinions and feelings
  • an expectation of constant entertainment that ultimately leads to endless disappointment and ingratitude

My conclusion: maybe we need to somehow implement a ‘dinner table curriculum’ as a way of closing the gap instead. They don’t need yet more fun activities, they need our time, attention and high expectations.

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 am teaching a class for 3 days a week, in addition to my leadership role. The cohort is not exactly high flying, but we are changing that, dramatically. As you would expect with any group of children, there are those that stand out. Among those special children, a 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 and has great conversation with his parents – all this knowledge bursts out of his head and he makes those connections effortlessly. This is a boy who knows all about the universe, the wars, ancient kings and queens 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 just 5 years old.

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.

Compare this fine mind to the boy who sits next to him, barely reading, barely talking. 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

A recent debate about silent corridors has given me that extra incentive because much of what has been written and said about this aspect of schooling 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?


When it comes to the education and everyday lives of little children, our culture behoves us to eschew the tradition of mundane rituals 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 and grow their little minds. The modern wisdom is that the more the child experiences according to their desires (particularly when those experiences are exciting), the more their brains will develop. I’m going to be radical and throw this out there: I think the modern view is wrong. Of course, children’s brains will develop, just as our adult brains are constantly developing, albeit a bit more slowly, just not necessarily the way we, er, want them to.

Let us consider 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 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 horseriding to kumon maths via the museum. 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? Yep, 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 be still, concentrate and free the mind for a higher purpose.

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’ 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. 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?