April 21st, 2015
Does the fruit of your loins whom you love to death sometimes seem to have the attention span of a gnat? Does your darling child forget what you’ve asked him to do on the way to do it? Are you worried about their future at school?
My boys used to fidget, get up and down, need the loo, stare out the window or chase imaginary rubbers (erasures) around the floor rather than focus on homework.
Instead of concluding that lack of focus is hereditary (as you get distracted by incoming emails and Face book messages) consider first what is realistic to expect for your child’s age (and gender). Under 8s generally fidget and wriggle around a lot and it isn’t always an indicator that they’re not paying attention. Boys generally move around a lot more than girls do. They are impulsive and they forget things. All of this is normal. Research gives us a rough rule of thumb for how long children should be able to focus on a learning task.
Attention span for learning = chronological age + 1
This means that a 6 year old should be able to focus for about 7 minutes on a task that is a learning activity. He can focus for a lot longer on a game that he’s engaged in. So motivation is a key factor. This is a clue for adults trying to get kids to focus –try to make the task interesting or fun!
Other things that will help expand on your child’s ability to focus that you might like to try in the holidays:
Most children’s games and TV are designed to be very fast-moving –they flick from one image and idea to the next very quickly, discouraging sustained thought and puzzling out solutions. Several US studies have found that too much time in front of a screen can affect development of the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for planning, attention and self-control.
Get children interested in construction toys, craft and jigsaw puzzles and give them mysteries to solve such as on http://kids.mysterynet.com/ Play games that involve careful listening like Simple Simon.
Kids need down time to just think and be creative. Make sure they have some non-scheduled time where they can just gaze out the window and come up with some brilliant scheme.
When we praise our children descriptively and specifically it really focuses their attention on what they’re doing in a much more effective way than by pointing out what they get wrong. Comment when they’re focused on a task and they’ll do it more.
Research shows that parents can influence the development of the pre-frontal cortex and encourage emotional intelligence in their children by recognising and validating their children’s feelings. When they do this children can process their feelings and move on. This greatly assists focus. Kids can’t pay attention to learning tasks when they’re consumed by emotions.
Children under 8 can’t retain more than 2-3 pieces of information at one time.
If you use these 7 fun, easy ideas your child’s ability to focus will definitely improve.
September 19th, 2014
At the start of the school year parents are usually very focused on how to help their children do well but sometimes this can backfire. Sometimes our attempts to help can create pressure that puts children off and nowhere is this more so than with reading.
Reading is the gateway to the world of information and creativity and is of course a necessary first step in school-based learning so it’s not surprising we feel under pressure to help our children succeed at mastering this important tool.
What doesn’t work:
What does work:
There are many ways we can help our children develop a love of reading right from the beginning, and to keep their interest as they progress. There are also many things we can do to encourage and motivate children who have started reading, but are struggling to improve or enjoy it. Most research on reading agrees that the most important part is how the child FEELS about reading, and positive reinforcement and association really helps.
Start any reading session with positive comments and enthusiasm. Talk about the story read last time and ask the child what they enjoyed about it. When you praise your child’s efforts don’t say “well done” or “clever boy” but praise something in the way she read last time. Perhaps how she persevered with difficult words, and tried hard to sound out each word clearly, or how she observed the punctuation marks, or used expression . You could also praise how promptly they came to do their reading, or how consistently they have been remembering to bring their story home, or simply how much you love spending time with them.
When it’s getting tough, try to keep positive. Empathise with your child just how hard it can be to read in the beginning, particularly if everyone else seems to be finding it easy. Take a break, get a glass of water, run around the garden, jump up and down, and come back again a little later. You may find it easier to keep calm and be patient if you have something to do with your hands, like knitting….
It can also help a struggling reader to have some privacy, particularly from annoying or smug siblings. And even if they are finding reading hard, there is always something they are doing right. Look for small things that they are succeeding at, and point them out to the child.
Here are a few practical ideas that you may find helpful.
What do you do that makes reading fun?
If you’ve found these ideas useful share them! And get more great ideas by subscribing to our newsletter here. You may also be interested in a workshop by Ampersand Learning, Easy to Read: Encourage a love of reading in your child on Thurs 2nd Oct 2014, 10am-12:30pm, Clapham
Melissa and Elaine
September 04th, 2014
I recently listened to Alfie Kohn being interviewed on the Great Parenting Show. He commented that homework is akin to children being asked to do a second shift after a full day at school and that “no research has found any benefit for primary school children” which got me thinking again about this key topic. Homework can, for many families, be the single most stressful issue at home. Few children like it and not many of us parents enjoy homework either.
Is it right that children who have already been at school for up to 8 hours take on a second night shift to do more essays, test papers or worksheets? Does homework improve learning? Or help them gain study skills? Does it teach them responsibility or self-discipline ?
I do believe it’s important to question the value of homework rather than just accept it; that we talk to other parents to compare experiences, and share our concerns with the schools. However, in the meantime, if your children are in conventional education and need to cope with the here and now, here are our thoughts on to make homework easier and less stressful and less likely to extinguish a love of learning.
(1) Don’t make homework be the first thing you mention when you see them after school– give them a chance to mention it first and take responsibility for it.
They may remember and mention it themselves, which is a great opportunity for Descriptive Praise, or they may not. Rather than believe the worst (they’ve forgotten it, they don’t take this seriously, they’ll never achieve anything in life unless I make sure it gets done….) instead, take a breath and consider why they may not have mentioned it. Chances are they’re used to you taking responsibility for it, or they’d simply rather tell you about something else about their day first. Or, of course, they’re not looking forward to it…
If you need to mention homework, try a gentle reminder (“Do you think we’ll get some time to play that game after homework?” or verbalise their reluctance (“Guess the last thing you want to think about right now after a busy day is your homework….”)
(2) Rather than impose the homework schedule that you believe is best, involve them in creating it.
Sit together and discuss the where’s and when’s and how’s –you will help set the parameters but make sure you get input from them.
(3) During homework find many things to descriptively praise
Focus on attitudes, focus and improvements rather than results. If they do something well relate it back to strategies or effort employed –don’t say it’s because they’re clever.
“You’re sitting still and really concentrating.” “I like the way you’re using your ruler to make sure that line is straight.” “All that tables’ work you’ve done is paying off –it looks like you’re finding these sums easier now.”
(4) When homework is complete, first find several things to descriptively praise and then encourage them to look through their work and find improvements.
Don’t point out errors– this is de-motivating and it doesn’t help them get into the habit of checking their own work and spotting improvements. This way they get used to the idea that mistakes will happen, but they can identify them, put them right and move on.
“You’ve managed to get lots of capital letters and full stops in here. They make your sentences easy to understand. Can you find any places where a full stop or capital letter would make it even clearer?” “You’ve been working hard on your spelling, and it shows in this piece of work. Are there any words you’re unsure about and would like to check?”
(5) Discuss their homework with them in a positive way– not is it finished or where have you put it, but ask their opinion about the content, share ideas and thoughts.
This is particularly true for reading. Of course, repeated practice helps children become proficient readers. But reading for enjoyment’s sake can be one of the first casualties of homework. Once a child has to read a certain amount, or read for a set amount of time, it becomes a chore and the love is lost.
“The best way to make students hate reading is to make them prove to you that they have read.” Alfie Kohn in ‘The Homework Myth’
(6) When they moan and complain about homework, listen.
When we listen to their complaints we may worry that we are agreeing with them. We worry that validating the negative things they say will encourage negativity. None of this is true.
“I hate this homework, why do I have to do it?” If you say “I hate it too, and I don’t understand why they keep giving it” –this is agreeing – as opposed to “It’s tough having to sit down and do more maths, when all you probably want to do is curl up, or run outside, …” This is empathising.
(7) Go out – and take school learning into other areas, and make it fun!
We can visit museums, galleries, exhibitions, theatres, as well as watch films and TV programmes about the topics they’re studying. Or simply go for a walk and talk or let them go out in the dark to see the stars. Or let the children take the lead on how to pursue an idea as they do in Finland, a country at the forefront of academic excellence and one that eschews the idea of homework.
(8) Stay in – and make science and maths real!
It’s not as hard as it might seem – watch a bath run and see how things sink and float, or how much water is displaced, or ripples move; make a cake, weigh ingredients and divide into slices, or make salad dressing and see how the elements mix together or not. Try http://www.sciencekids.co.nz/experiments.html
(9) Model an interest in learning –enthuse!
Each and every time we sit down to read a book for fun, or pick up a dictionary or search the web to research something, or visit a museum or art gallery or go to a talk or do some form of training we set our children a great example that learning takes place throughout our lives and that we enjoy ideas.
Help us to promote a debate around the value of homework for primary school children.
Do you agree with the amount of homework your children get? What do you hope your children will gain from doing homework ?
Hope everyone settles back into their new terms well and let us know your thoughts on homework.
Melissa and Elaine
July 07th, 2014
In the UK educational system children could be doing exams for entry to their next educational establishment – and getting the results – at any time of year. They sit for 11+ in March, Common entrance (CE) generally in June but possibly January or November also and A levels results come out in August. And sometimes there are disappointing results.
So maybe some time this year your child sat an exam and got results he or she wasn’t happy with or that you weren’t happy with! If the outcome was not as hoped for read on to find out how best to respond. Of course if your child has been accepted at the school/university of your choice congratulations –but you don’t need help from me. Although possibly a word of caution about giving extra rewards for doing well in exams. Achieving the coveted entrée to the school you think is right for your child is the result and the reward for all the work they put in. If you dangle the promise of a trip to Disneyland or a new ipad in the hope of encouraging harder work from your child it may well backfire as your child feels manipulated and such an approach does not encourage self-discipline.
I recently heard about one boy who had undergone multiple exams – Y6 assessment exams for various schools which give conditional offers for Y9 subject to CE, and he’d also done the 11+ for the London day schools. He didn’t get a place. Not surprisingly he felt pretty down. The London day school situation is getting crazy. I hear the numbers are about 10-12 applicants for each place. The pass rates are going up towards 65-70% and the interview which used to be a token check is now considered crucial. The system creates an enormous amount of pressure for children and many educationalists worry that it is destroying their childhoods.
Some children will take failure to get into schools as a massive knock back and really take it to heart. Some will make it mean that they are not up to scratch. It’s not uncommon for kids to give up at that point so parents need to respond carefully.
This particular boy then didn’t do all that well in his end of year exams; not badly, just not quite as well as he or his teachers might have expected. And other kids picked up on it –he was subjected to some tough teasing. On top of his ‘failure’ to get into the schools earlier in the year it hit hard. He retreated into himself and became moody and angry. He found it hard to concentrate in class, and was unwilling to put his hand up or volunteer to take part in activities.
Luckily this boy’s mum was doing a course with us and got a lot of support at a time that is tough for parents. It is so easy to get sucked into the pressurising vortex and add to our children’s anxieties in our efforts to support them. Year 6 is a tough year for these boys, they are still so young, and yet they are expected to produce results and perform well. His mum started thinking ahead and preparing for the two years to come before he faces exams again. She wanted to build his self-confidence and increase his resilience and help him to prepare for his exams to the best of his ability while getting a whole education and without burning out with worry.
Over time his mum can help him by:
• encouraging and motivating him by descriptively praising him extensively, not just in the academic arena, but generally.
• avoiding evaluative praise so as to encourage a growth mind set (where he seems himself as someone who can grow through his own efforts) rather than a fixed mindset (where he sees his skills and intelligence as limited)
• developing resilience and a healthy attitude to failure –partly through using descriptive praise and partly by emotion coaching him (see below) and also by modelling a positive attitude to set backs and failures. What his parents pay most attention to is crucial –is it his results or his effort, the attitude he shows or strategies he employs? What they model around failure will count for a lot too.
• encouraging independence in thought and action. Give him chores to do which require skill and responsibility. Validate his opinions. This demonstrates to the boy his own competence and builds confidence. He will learn to trust his abilities, to take risks and give things a go.
For more on this see our publication Creating Happy Learners: How to reduce pressure and increase creativity.
In the short term his mum can respond with emotion coaching:
If this boy is struggling with what the other boys are saying about his results, it will be helpful for him to have a response. Rather than telling him not to worry what the other boys think, that it doesn’t matter what they say, or that he just needs to ignore them, or suggest he should tell a teacher, which is what we feel compelled to say, his mum can empathise with him. “That’s tough, having them talking about your results. It must make you feel very uncomfortable, even angry. You wish they didn’t know, or if they did know, that they would keep it to themselves.”
Having connected with how he feels about it, she can turn to solutions. The aim is that he comes up with the solution, but he may need a little guidance from her to start. “I imagine you just don’t know what to say when they talk about your results. You probably want to shout at them to leave you alone, that it’s none of your business. I am glad you’ve not been rude. Not saying anything doesn’t feel right either, does it? I wonder what you could say?”
Obviously it depends what they are saying – my experience was some boys taunting one of my sons “we beat you, we beat you, we’re better than you” and his response was “I’m glad you did well”. He wasn’t completely glad, but apart from that it was relatively honest! The point was there was nothing they could say back. We had to practice it a few times at home first but then it was a response he could use.
If you are worried that your child is negative and pessimistic, and this will be particularly hard if you are a positive and optimistic person, accept his concerns in the same way rather than trying to change him straight off. This only has the effect of making him feel wrong. “I see your point about this – and it’s clearly worrying you. You’ve thought about all the pitfalls and possible dangers. That’s clear thinking. This is what keeps us safe and helps us put things right.” The trick then is to flesh out his worries and then put them into perspective. Are there any possible upsides? Is there any chance things may go well? How likely is each scenario? He will be more willing to do this with you when you have heard and accepted his point of view first.
Life is tough, and part of our job as parents is, not to shield our children from the rubbish bits of life, which we can’t do, but to build strong children who as adults can cope with whatever life throws at them.
May 10th, 2013
The recent announcement that one of England’s top performing grammar schools is to scrap its entrance exam amid fears the 11 plus is being undermined by an ‘endemic’ culture of tutoring has once again put the spotlight on the private tutoring industry and after the Sutton Trust released figures last year that showed 43% of children nationally had received private tuition, this decision may be celebrated by many parents.
Is it parental fear that if a good place at a selective school is not secured for their children they stand no chance in the overly competitive job market or is tutoring a way for parents to compensate for choosing state education and fearing they may not be doing the best for their children? Whatever the reason it is clear that tutoring is now so commonplace for many parents it is assumed to be a requirement of any child’s education. Of course tutoring is very widespread in the private sector as well where parents are already paying high fees. My 9 year old niece recently moved on from one of London’s top day schools to a gentle boarding school in the country. She was the only child in her year of 60 students at her old school not being tutored. This endemic has to stop.
I confess that today my teenage son, who has specific learning difficulties, is currently accessing a tutor to help him with basic numeracy and to re-sit a Maths GCSE. The one-to-one environment of learning some basic arithmetic skills that were overlooked early in his education is one he is thriving on. His self -esteem has increased as a result. He can ask unlimited questions without the fear of sounding silly and it is okay to make mistakes and learn from them. After watching as a family this week some reality TV in the form of The Apprentice and witnessing some sensationalist cringe-making TV in the form of a group of bright young things unable to do basic measurements and percentages, he appreciates and values the input he is having so that he has the essential life skills to cope with numbers! Clearly there is room for tutoring to help fill a specific gap where a child has missed out on some essential skills which are necessary pre-skills for the next level and which are difficult to address in the classroom.
This is very different from the tutoring that is done to coach children for 11 plus and other exams. And when tutoring is done so routinely that the majority of children in a year are receiving tutoring that is a very anxious environment in which to be (not) learning. The high pressure, high stakes culture that permeates schools and children’s lives, and so worries educationalists, often is as a result of anxious and pushy parents, the tiger mums and turbo charged Dads with very, very high expectations for their children. Let’s not rob our children of their childhood and let Chelmsford High school lead the way on the ‘tutor proof’ test enabling schools to distinguish between the naturally bright and able child and the one who has been tutored to within an inch of their lives.
As a parent coach I see the results and outcomes of a pressured child later in their teenage years feeling not quite good enough; parents feeling disappointed in their children; parents maybe complaining of the overly pressurised environment. Some educational environments described as overly pressurised may just be the wrong environment for that child. The child may not have developed the skills or the best work habits and having been placed in an environment not best suited to their learning style and profile. The effect on self-esteem and how children view themselves can often be a high price to pay.
Let parenting not be a competitive sport and our children be one of our own ‘achievements’. It’s a real challenge for us as parents but we must strive to achieve some kind of balance between equipping our children with skills for adult life and allowing them to have a happy, unstressed childhood without the years of tutoring. We want them to develop a good work ethic and to enjoy learning rather than just passing exams.
In the words of Madeline Levine from The Price of Privilege:
“Children need to see that we value their character first, their effort second, and then their grades.” Dr Madeline Levine
September 17th, 2012
The kids are back at school now and some of you ultra-organised ones may have turned your minds to Christmas already. Don’t worry if you haven’t –there will be more on that in our next newsletter. Others may be focused on your child just having started a new school or a new year with a new teacher and will be wondering how to support your child to do the best they can do.
In a recent article in the Telegraph (7th August 2012)http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9458290/Teaching-toddlers-to-pay-attention-is-the-key-to-academic-success.html# reference was made to recent research by child development experts which concludes that it is not tutoring in academic subjects that will help your child to succeed but supporting them to pay attention and to perservere. This particular research by Dr Megan McClelland from Oregon State University, published in the online journal Early Childhood Research Quarterly, reflects what the Gottman Institute had noticed as part of their research on developing emotional intelligence. Drs John and Julie Gottman found that children whose parents are emotion coaches for them, that is they recognise, respect and respond to their child’s emotions:
Author (and champion table tennis player) Matthew Syed, in his best-selling book Bounce, explores the idea that innate talent (whether in academic, musical, business or sporting fields) is a myth and that all the best performers in their various areas of endeavour have got to the top of their fields by a combination of opportunity, application and focus. (He does concede that it helps to be a tall if you’re a basketballer).
Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University’s research into mindsets is particularly interesting for parents. She developed the thesis that people can have different attitudes to learning which either promote or inhibit their development. With a fixed mindset one believes that one has a fixed amount of innate intelligence and that if you can’t do something it means that you have exhausted your store of intelligence. A person who has this attitude will not want to challenge the status associated with his cleverness and will not take risks that will show him to be less intelligent. Her research showed that children would not tackle harder tasks when in this fixed mindset. By contrast people with a growth mindset believe that they can with effort get better at anything and therefore are willing to try new and harder things.
A child’s mindset is affected by how adults talk to them. When we praise a child for cleverness or talent and when we focus on their results we promote a fixed mindset. However when adults praise kids for the effort they make, the attitudes they show, the strategies they employ; when we focus more on the process than the outcome we encourage in them a growth mindset. So don’t praise your child for being clever and don’t let your first question after a football game be did you win?
Parents often ask us, in classes or consultations, how to help children to focus more. Here is what we say:
So be focused on developing good habits of focus and perseverance in your child to help them do well in life.
May 03rd, 2012
Although many 7-year olds (and their parents) are celebrating the scrapping of government guidelines saying they had to complete an hour of homework each week, the rest are still labouring away. And while a few voices, getting increasingly louder, are asking “what are we doing this for?” the reality is that in the UK children start homework in Year 1, and by Year 10-11 are completing up to 2½ hours a night.
And few of them like it. And not many of us enjoy it either
Homework can be the single most stressful issue in a home (at least 50% of parents report having serious rows with their children over homework that involve yelling and crying – the reality is probably higher given a natural reluctance to admit that these things happen) and homework can come to dominate our schedules, and our conversations with our children.
In addition to our parenting role, which can be stressful enough in its own right, in the evening we have to don our teaching hat, and support our children who have already been at school for maybe 8 hours already to do more work sheets, essays, test papers etc.
The ‘quality’ moments where we build and boost our relationship with our children are usually the first casualties of the ever-increasing levels of homework. It also reduces their time for unstructured play or thinking and processing time. However, we all want our children to do well at school, and while the debate will continue to rage about whether children need homework, how much should be set, what type, when it should start, and the rest, back at home the parental role is to help our children cope with whatever homework they bring back.
So, what is homework for?
It may seem like a simple question, but the answer may not be that straightforward and until we understand what we are hoping our children will gain from homework , we can’t be sure HOW to help them.
Is homework to improve their learning? Or for them to gain study skills? Does homework teach children about responsibility and self-discipline? Or as Alfie Kohn suggests in ‘The Homework Myth’ is homework simply something they need to get used to, because that in itself is a life-skill they need to learn?
There’s a lot of research about homework – although most of it starts from the premise that homework should exist and then aims to demonstrate that it benefits students. In ‘The Homework Myth’ Alfie Kohn lays out the case against homework. The evidence he presents is compelling, if a little overwhelming.
And the central problem is that we’re just not asking the right questions – we ask how we can strengthen our children’s back muscles so they can carry increasingly heavy back-packs, and we don’t ask why they’re carrying so many books, and whether it is doing them any good. We ask how much is the perfect amount of homework in order to increase test scores, and we don’t ask whether tests are a good way to improve learning. We accept homework, and we content ourselves with asking questions about the detail, rather than challenging the concept.
These are good questions for parents and schools to ask and we need to educate ourselves about this. I do believe it is important that we question rather than simply accept, that we talk to each other, and share our concerns with our schools; that we don’t meekly accept without question something that we don’t always believe is right for our children. For now we have homework and so I want to focus on how we can help our children not just cope with it and not lose their natural love of learning but to be motivated to do it, to develop creative thinking and to get into independent habits of study.
Many schools officially encourage parents to let them know if a child is struggling with homework. But it’s not easy to do this – there are many credible reasons why we feel uncomfortable about it. We may accept that homework should be difficult, that children will dislike doing it, and we don’t want to be seen to be indulgent to our child, or cause a fuss…. It’s a long list. (My 11-year old son didn’t want me to discuss a recent comprehension with his English teacher because he didn’t want his mates to see that his mother had come into the classroom – it’s my world, he said, and it’s not cool for your mum to come in….).
So, as well as considering taking an active role in the homework debate for future children, what shall we do for OUR children in the here and now?
First, let’s go back to the question of what we hope our children will gain from doing homework.
In our classes we ask parents what characteristics they want their children to develop. No parent has ever said they want their children to buckle down and accept things without question, instead they say they want their children to be curious, self-motivated, to know themselves, to be confident to share their opinions, and much more.
Let’s look at a few of the qualities that we strive to bring out in our children, and see how they relate to homework.
In theory, homework COULD teach our children to take responsibility for their own learning, but, in real life, we don’t often give them the chance to take any responsibility for it. The school decides it must be done, the teacher decides what it shall be about, and, in most families, the parents decide the where, when and even how. (“Use this pen, sit here, no you can’t have music on, underline this, rub that out…..”) In fact, we usually don’t even let our children have the responsibility of remembering to do homework – a Californian study found that parents raise the topic of homework within 5 minutes of meeting their children after school!
What shall we do?
(1) Hold back asking them about their homework – give them a chance to mention it first, and take ownership of their homework.
They may remember and mention it themselves, which is a great opportunity for Descriptive Praise, or they may not. Rather than believe the worst (they’ve forgotten it, they don’t take this seriously, they’ll never achieve anything in life unless I make sure it gets done….) instead, take a breath and consider why they may not have mentioned it. Chances are they’re used to you bringing it up, or they’d simply rather tell you about something else about their day first. Or, of course, they’re not looking forward to it…
If you really can’t wait to raise the topic, try a gentle reminder (“Do you think we’ll get some time after tea to play that game?” or verbalise their reluctance (“Guess the last thing you want to think about right now after a busy day is your homework….”)
(2) Rather than impose the homework schedule that you believe is best, involve them in creating it.
Sit together and discuss the where’s and when’s and how’s – it’s perfectly reasonable that you set the parameters (they need to be where you can hear/see them,) and it’s effective and fair when they take some ownership of the details (have a snack first).
I have, in the past, dictated the chair my sons sat on, and the direction they faced. I insisted homework was attended to before anything else, including a meal. Then I realised I was using the food as a lure, and I wasn’t comfortable with this. As growing boys with growing appetites, they needed food before they could concentrate for another nano-second, and as normal boys with huge energy levels, they often need to blow off steam first before settling down for another session of study. So, the routine in our home has changed recently – their favourite option is eat, play, study, which (rather unsurprisingly) is my least favourite option! However, it’s working so far.
Start small, and let them make small choices about their homework NOW so they can make big choices about their homework IN THE FUTURE. (We don’t get better at making decisions by having them made for us!) Much resentment is avoided when they feel they have a measure of control.
(3) When the homework is completed, encourage them to look through their work and suggest improvements to you.
This replaces us pointing out the errors they have made– not only is this de-motivating, it doesn’t help them get into the habit of checking their own work, and spotting improvements. When we encourage them to look for themselves, it helps them get used to the idea that they will make mistakes, but they can identify them, and put them right and move on.
“You’ve managed to get lots of capital letters and full stops in here. They make your sentences easy to understand. Can you find any places where a full stop or capital letter would make it even clearer?” “You’ve been working hard on your spelling, and it shows in this piece of work. Are there any words you’re unsure about and would like to check?”
Creativity, motivation and the love of learning
The majority of homework is repetitive – and while some repetition is necessary for transferring to our long term memories things like times tables, spelling words and French verbs (and even then there are more creative/fun ways of doing this) doing the same thing over and over again is boring for those who can already do it, and depressing and stressful for those who can’t. Not only that, it can limit our ability to search for alternative ways to answer problems, and research shows us over and over again that doing something because you HAVE to do it decreases motivation.
“Homework may be the single most reliable extinguisher of the flame of curiosity.” Deborah Meier, quoted in ‘The Homework Myth’
Of course we want to teach our children – let’s allow the teachers to focus on the front-end academic side, and let’s focus on teaching our children about real-life. And there’s an awful lots of maths, English, Science, Geography and History in our every day world – there’s even a fair amount of Latin!
What can we do?
(1) Go out – and take school learning into other areas, and make it fun!
We can visit museums, galleries, exhibitions, theatres, as well as watch films and TV programmes, about the topics they’re studying. Or simply go for a walk and talk…. Or let them go out in the dark to see the stars or let the children take the lead on how to pursue an idea as they do in some schools in Finland, a country at the forefront of academic excellence and one that eschews the ideas of homework and testing.
(2) Stay in – and make fractions and ratios real
It’s not as hard as it might seem – watch a bath run and see how things sink and float, or how much water is displaced, or ripples move; make a cake or salad dressing, and weigh ingredients and see how they mix together or not; have a Victorian evening, with candles and playing cards; plot holidays on a globe or atlas, dress up like an Egyptian, make an ant-factory, have a scrapbook or project about anything that interests them.
3) Model an interest in learning
Each and every time we sit down to read a book for fun, or pick up a dictionary or search the web to find something out we don’t know, or visit a museum or art gallery or go to a talk or do some form of training we set our children a great example that learning takes place throughout our lives.
Independence and involvement
Children are encouraged to do their homework on their own. However, research is showing that working with others, brainstorming and collaborative work, is more productive than working alone.
So that brings up the contentious issue of parental involvement. We know we’re not supposed to actually do their homework. (In my experience, my ability to do their homework didn’t last as long as I expected or hoped it might…. but then I ‘learned’ a lot by rote, and out of fear, perhaps it’s not surprising most of it has evaporated.)
Research shows that when parents get involved, the level of stress rises. When parents are told that the homework is for a test, they tend to interfere with the homework more, and the child tends to do less well on the test. When parents are not aware there is to be a test, they tend to stand back more, and the child tends to do better in the test.
What can we do?
(1) Discuss their homework with them in a positive way– not is it finished or where have you put it, but ask their opinion, share ideas and thoughts.
This is particularly true for reading. Of course, repeated practice helps children become proficient readers. But reading for enjoyment’s sake is one of the first casualties of homework. Once a child has to read a certain amount of their book, or read for a set amount of time, it becomes a chore and the love is lost.
“The best way to make students hate reading is to make them prove to you that they have read.”Alfie Kohn in ‘The Homework Myth’
After your child has read, either with you or on their own, rather than sign the reading book, talk for a few moments about what they’ve read. If appropriate, perhaps your child can fill in the reading book – putting the date and number of pages read – and give it to you to sign-off. It’s these tiny acts that help them feel involved – that homework is something they do, not something that is done to them. Don’t reward kids for reading other than to praise them for their progress – it should be enjoyable for itself and if we dangle a carrot then we are undermining that message.
(2) When they moan and complain about homework, hear them.
When we listen to their complaints we may worry that we are agreeing with them. We worry that if we validate the negative things they say they will become negative about other things whereas we want them to be positive. None of this is true. (“I hate this homework, why do I have to do it?” “I hate it too, and I don’t understand why they keep giving it” –this is agreeing – as opposed to “It’s tough having to sit down and do more maths, when all you probably want to do is curl up, or run outside, etc.”-this is empathising)
We’re allowing them to tell us how they feel. How children feel about homework is very important as it affects their whole relationship with school, studying, and learning. When we empathise with them, we can actually lower their reluctance or resistance to doing it and let go of their negative feelings. When we try to explain or cajole them to do it, or make them feel wrong for complaining, we give them the message that their instincts and emotions are wrong, and they need to learn to over-ride them and get on with doing as they’re told. Not only that, they can’t talk about it with us because we’re not going to hear it. Not really the life lesson we want our children to learn, nor the relationship we hope to have with them. When they feel heard they have the experience of someone validating their perspective. When we acknowledge their point of view we can help them be calm and move on.
March 31st, 2011
By The Study Gurus.
The Race To Nowhere film showed us that an increasingly significant number of high school students are feeling an unhealthy amount of pressure when it comes to school and their future. In some cases it’s so extreme that it’s not unheard of for 16 year olds to be popping pills to sacrifice sleep for more study.
Clearly, something’s out of kilter.
Perhaps you’re concerned your child is feeling a lot of pressure to get into the right university? Perhaps they’re at risk of burning out before they even get there?
Well here’s the question; what is it you want your child to value?
Success for the sake of success? Or happiness and career satisfaction?
If your answer is the former, then by all means do everything necessary to get your child into the ‘best’ school possible. But if it’s the latter, then what are you so worried about? To achieve career satisfaction and happiness your child needs to have confidence in themselves and the right attitude, not necessarily an Oxford education.
The children who enjoy learning, have a good work ethic and a likeable personality are guaranteed to go far. And YOU can instil these characteristics into your child quite easily all on your own.
What are you talking about at the dinner table?
Do you spend more time over dinner obsessing over what school or university your child is going to get into, or more time having erudite conversation about current events? More time discussing what grades your child needs to get in their exams, or what they learnt today at school?
No wonder our kids are crumbling under pressure… all we talk about is grades, grades, grades!
But grades are important right? Of course – they can have a huge influence on a child’s life after school. But we are saying that we need to emphasise both grades and the importance of learning and actually enjoying it.
The reason being, a student who enjoys learning will do well at school for all the right reasons – because they want to, because they’re curious, because they’re motivated.
Where should you start?
A technique we like to use to spark an interest in learning in our students is to steer conversation away from solely facts and equations, and more towards the real world context behind their subjects wherever appropriate.
For example, if they’re reading a book for their English class, instead of just talking about what’s going to be in the exam, we ask questions like, what’s it about? What do you think the author was trying to say with the story? Are they enjoying it? Yes? No? Why not? What would they rather read?
Or with their maths and science subjects, we try and talk about how these are applied in real life. What does E = mc2 actually mean? Who figured it out? How did it change what we know about the world?
Open and topical questions like these that spark an interesting conversation will make your child appreciate their school subjects in a way that isn’t necessarily attached to school. They’ll be more interested in the content of their subjects, rather than totally consumed by grades.
Help your child find their magic study formula
Every student will have their own unique way of studying most effectively. This is why your child needs to figure out their study formula. This is their personal formula for academic success. It’s the academic equivalent of a personally designed training regime for a top athlete.
Once your child knows what their study formula is, they will understand exactly what they need to do to get the most out of any study session. They won’t have the stress of not knowing how to approach study, and they’ll save time by avoiding study techniques that don’t work for them.
There are a number of facets involved in understanding what your study formula is. Questions you and your child need to start thinking about might be:
• What sorts of techniques help them remember stuff well?
• What’s their predominant Learning Style?
• Do they like writing long notes, or bullet-pointed short lines?
• Do they like drawing diagrams?
• Do they like watching videos?
• Do they learn best by actually doing things?
• Do they study best in the morning or at night?
• Do they study best with long periods or short bursts of study?
The list goes on…
Figuring out your study formula is a game of trial and error. It should be thought of as a constant work in progress. But very quickly it will enable your child to study efficiently and effectively, and will be something that will serve them well all throughout their life.
If you have a child who’s motivated and who wants to succeed, you should be celebrating – not stressing.
Sure they’re going to be nervous when it comes to exams and university acceptance letters – that’s not a bad thing. But if your child has a good work ethic and enjoys learning they are 100% guaranteed to make a success of themselves.
It would be impossible not to.
The Study Gurus are Clare McIlwraith and Chris Whittington. Their aim is to show parents how they can help their children reach their academic potential. They’re sharing their years of studying and tutoring experience at www.thestudygurus.com.
March 22nd, 2011
The Path to Somewhere
The Parent Practice is delighted with the response of our two screenings of “Race to Nowhere” earlier this month. If you attended a screening, we hope you enjoyed it. If you weren’t there, we thought you might like to hear how the screenings went!
If you’re unfamiliar with “Race to Nowhere”, it is an American documentary that explores the pressures today’s children are under to succeed. While the film is American in content, the themes are absolutely universal, and as we saw from the speed with which the tickets sold, it seems the concerns are shared by many parents in the UK.
While some children are able to thrive with pressure placed upon them by schools and extracurricular activities, there are also many that aren’t able to deal as well. This film tells their stories. It raises so many questions: the benefits of standardised testing and early years’ homework, getting into the ‘best’ school versus a school where that particular child may be better able to flourish, and redefining success.
We had initially planned on holding only one screening at Channel 4, and were bowled over by the overwhelming response which had that screening sell out within hours – and almost crash our website! The waitlist quickly grew, so we decided to host a second screening at the Clapham Picture House. Overall, the film screened to over 150 people. Both screenings were followed by a 30 minutes panel discussion which was led by Elaine Halligan of The Parent Practice, and included Bonnie Harris M.S. Ed, the author of the series of parenting books including What To Do When Kids Push Your Buttons; Heather Hanbury, Headteacher at Wimbledon High School; Charles Bonas, Educational Consultant & Commentator; Sue Kumleben, Facilitator with the Parent Practice, Holli Rubin (Psychotherapist), and Philippa Jackson (Headteacher of Hollymount School).
From the panel discussion, and conversations afterwards, it was apparent that all the parents attending have a clear awareness of the challenges and pressures their children face within today’s education system. There is a collective sense of helplessness – many parents feel they are on a treadmill, and that if they decide to step off, they have in some way failed their children, despite knowing instinctively it may be the best thing for them!
Although our audience was just a small sample of parents, it was clear to us that that there is a considerable increase in parents’ concerns about how their children are coping at school. At the same time, many parents don’t believe they possess the appropriate knowledge, confidence or courage to support their children through school, and make the most appropriate choices for them.
If anyone is interested in hosting their own screening of the film we are happy to support you in doing so. It looks like there will be 2 or 3 more screenings in the London area this spring/summer.
We feel really thrilled to have brought this film to London and look forward to seeing what impact it will have for parents and educators alike. Some changes have already started to happen! A few days after the first screening, Wimbledon High School’s Headteacher blogged that:
“We should beware of ‘over-scheduling’ children’s lives: students need time just to ‘be’, to play, to ‘hang out’ – it’s something we believe in strongly at WHS. Within our new timetable, which I am announcing soon as part of the outcome of the curriculum review, there will be more time at lunchtime to do just that. I want our students to enjoy extra-curricular clubs for their own sake, not in order, as they get older, to tick boxes on a UCAS (university entrance) form. I do think that busy teenagers are often the happiest. Those with interests and hobbies will gain confidence which will help them academically as much as socially. But those interests have to come from the girls themselves – we can’t and shouldn’t push them.
True to our Parent Practice ethos, we have decided to be part of the solution as well, and to focus our minds and resources on creating a response for parents. We are in the process of developing a workshop, which has a working title of ‘The Path To Somewhere’. This workshop will look at how we can re-define success, and how we can empower our children with appropriate life-skills so they can thrive within whichever school environment best suits them.
So, stay tuned … it looks like something exciting may be starting to happen, and we’re proud to be part of it! And in the meantime, we’ll let you know when ‘Path to Somewhere’ is ready to launch!
If you’re curious to know more about the film, please take a look at www.racetonowhere.com.
November 23rd, 2010
What kind of so-called parenting experts say don’t call your child clever? Since the sixties haven’t we been exhorted to extol the virtues of our children ad nauseam in the hope of building self esteem and encouraging desirable behaviours? When we want them to feel good about themselves we say well done darling, good girl. And if we think they’re not buying it or we really want to big them up we say ‘fantastic, marvellous, brilliant –you are so clever.’ What’s wrong with that?
Well, usually we say to parents that if they want their kids to have good self esteem and all the positive outcomes that go with that then we need to focus on what children do right more often than what they get wrong. Every parent knows this even though we sometimes have difficulty doing it –like when you’re trying to get them all out of the house and one is on a ‘go slow’ and the other two are complaining that they have to breathe the same air and you can’t find your car keys and NOBODY has got their shoes on!
But even when things are a little calmer we still feel an overwhelming urge to point out what’s wrong with what they’re doing. We’re not bad people but we’ve had decades of conditioning so forgive us if we mistakenly believe we need to highlight what they’ve done wrong in order to help them learn. In fact when we do that the children are apt to tune us out and lose their naturalmotivation to improve and to learn. So yes we do need to focus on the positives and praise our children. In fact the ratio of positive to ‘improving’ should be about 9:1. John Gottman is a researcher who did a lot of work in the area of couples’ relationships. He found that there are a number of criticisms compared to praises beyond which a marriage crumbles, and that number is one (1) criticism to five (5) praises. That’s right. The minimum to keep a marriage off the rocks is 1 bad:5 good. While you’re trying to remember when you last said something positive to your partner I would add that in the case of children parents should be praising even more frequently because we are actively trying to shape our children’s behaviour and form their characters. I would assert therefore that we parents should give 9 praises for every criticism/improving comment/correction / just pointing out what could be done differently.
So I’m clearly in favour of praise. But why can’t I tell my child he’s clever? Because he is you know –or at least I want him to do well. How can it hurt? In the past I would have said that any praise was better than none. But even then I would have admitted that there’s a good chance your child is not going to believe you when you say he’s clever so your words lose impact. We have always advocated using praise which is specific and descriptive to make it more credible and give the child enough information to allow them to repeat the positive behaviour on which you’re focusing. We would have said ‘clever girl’ isn’t a very effective form of praise but not actually harmful. And then I discovered some research by a psychologist in the US, Carol Dweck, that has made me even more careful about my choice of words when acknowledging children. Her research has shown that evaluative praise of this kind can actually be detrimental.
Professor Dweck’s findings show that the way adults praise children can determine whether they develop what she calls a ‘growth mindset’ or a ‘fixed mindset’. Her research was looking at motivation and perseverance in the face of set backs. Why do some people give up in the face of failure and others try again –it has to do, not surprisingly, with their beliefs about why they had failed. If you believe you failed because of lack of ability you are more inclined to give up than if you think the failure was down to lack of effort. Surely that’s an argument for telling kids they are able in order to motivate them?
Over the years Dweck developed a theory that learners could be classified as helpless vs mastery oriented. The former believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. “I call this a ‘fixed mind-set’. Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so….The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else.… Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort.”
So how does praise affect this belief system? Contrary to adults’ good intentions when they praise, telling someone they are smart or clever actually contributes to the ‘fixed mindset’ whereas praising a child for trying hard or persevering focuses on the effort they’re making and allows them to develop a ‘growth mindset’. Dweck’s work with children in schools showed that confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material. The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little real regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.
So how do we encourage a ‘growth mindset’ in our children? Show them examples of effort producing good results in your own modelling, in stories about other people but above all in their own endeavours. Praise them for not giving up, for trying a different strategy in the face of defeat, for working hard and practising, for improving and don’t focus so much on the outcome or achievement. If they do well in a test say “You must be really pleased -that’s a reflection of all the hard work you put in”. Above all never ever praise your child for being clever.
October 04th, 2010
By Ann Magalhaes
I remember growing up, when school reports were handed out and I received grades around the 80% mark. I would then call my Dad and tell him the results, feeling pretty good about myself. His response was inevitably something like: “what happened to the other 20%”. Now, to my teenage ears, what I heard was “you didn’t do well enough, or you could have done better, or you were lazy and didn’t study enough.” My enthusiasm, and motivation to try harder deflated faster than a popped balloon!
Years later, I mentioned this to him and he was really surprised that his words had had such an impact on me. He told that his intention was always about getting me to think about the other 20%, and that in his eyes, I was so capable of achieving 100%. He only wanted me to look at the gap and to understand what I could have done differently.
Fast forward 25 years, and I now have my own child, and one of my greatest concerns is that she will also not put in that extra effort. What I hope for her is that she works hard to do the best that she can, and that she has the confidence to go for things – whether it be academically or extra curricular.
A few months ago I was reading Mindset, the Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. I bought the book after seeing her interviewed by the comedian David Baddiel, who had filmed a documentary about education. In the show he asked for her opinion about the worst things we can tell our children. Her response surprised him – and me! She told him that the worst three words we can say to our children are “You’re. So. Clever.” And don’t we all do it? ‘Good job, great game, clever girl, atta boy’ Curious, I had Amazon mailing the book to me by the end of the week! Dweck writes about instilling in our children (and ourselves!) what she calls a growth mindset – believing that intelligence is not innate, but can be developed. As parents, we need to ensure we’re doing this is by praising the effort and attitude that our kids are putting into their work, sports, musical instrument practices. It’s about having the curiosity to learn rather than the desire to feel smart; it’s about being able to perceive feedback as contribution rather than criticism; it’s about seeing others as potential collaborators rather than threats. It makes so much sense! The aspect of growth mindset that I love the most is the focus on trial and error – allowing ourselves the freedom to make mistakes and to learn from them.
While writing this blog, I was watching some Carol Dweck interviews on Youtube, and spotted a Nike commercial featuring Michael Jordan – quite possibly the best basketball player ever. He says “I have missed over 9000 shots in my career, I’ve lost almost 300 games; been trusted with the game-winning shot 26 times – and missed. I failed over and over and over and that is why I succeed”. One of the most challenging things we face as parents is the ability to let our kids make mistakes. Perhaps by allowing them the privilege of making mistakes, we also allow them the privilege of figuring things out for themselves, and allowing them to shine!
September 15th, 2010
By Ann Magalhaes
My 7 year old is a Suzuker! Since she was 4 ½ she has been learning the violin using the Suzuki Method, a method I chose because I have a few friends who themselves learned the Suzuki way, and highly recommended it. Her school had a very inspired teacher who was introducing a new programme and I thought it would be great for her to start to learn such a beautiful instrument. For those unfamiliar with Suzuki, the method requires a good deal of involvement from a parent. I attend a weekly private lesson, and a weekly group lesson, with the occasional music camp thrown in for good purpose! At home, my role is to be the teacher/coach — avidly looking out for a beautiful bow-hold, or listening for just a bit more smoothness in a piece.
I really love the idea of Suzuki! The teaching ethos is about focusing on the positive before adding what needs to be improved. It’s a very motivating way to learn a musical instrument, and books have been written to support parents in being great coaches. But, the reality of it is that it can often be challenging. I often wonder if parents with kids who learn by a non-Suzuki system have an easier time of it, and perhaps they do. I have an amazing daughter! Most of the time she is cooperative, kind, hard-working, creative … all great things. When she wants to practice, she plays beautifully, but when she doesn’t want to, she has an incredible ability to go from angel to tyrant in 0.6 seconds – way faster than an F1 car.
About a year ago I realized that the problem wasn’t her motivation, but quite possibly, the problem was me, and how I was being with her during her practices. About the same time I was reading The Price of Privilege, an amazing book about raising children who have been raised with every luxury, to have self-esteem, confidence, ambition, and healthy relationships.
Only twelve pages in, I read “Intrusion and support are two different processes. Support is about the needs of the child, and intrusion is about the needs of the parent.” I instantly related this to violin, and saw that I was being an intrusive mother. Her violin practices weren’t about her! They were about her looking good to the teacher, showing that she had practiced, and that she had learned something new. There was nothing about the joy of playing a beautiful piece of music, the fun of making new sounds, or simply screeching away at the bow to sound like a cat! No, practice was about ticking boxes, and being able to say that 5/7 days, she had practiced! Little shock, then, that practices quickly spiraled into hellish arguments!
I had to think pretty quickly about how I could switch from being a nagging intrusive mother to being a helpful and supportive parent! Now, instead of saying something like “OK, play Go Tell Aunt Rhodie”, I say to her, “which piece would YOU like to start with?”. I now sit down with her before each practice to ask her about which pieces she will play – along with the piece she is learning. I remind her that I am going to sit down, and listen, and offer support when she needs it. Rather than constantly jumping in with nagging and criticism, I can now sit and listen to her play, and this has helped her to in turn listen to the coaching that I am required to offer!
Another quote from the same book reads:
“It’s odd that my mom is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
Being everywhere is about intrusion; being nowhere is about lack of connection.”
I realized that I had been everywhere during her practices, helping to make it a ritual that was not fun at all!! The actual process of developing good habits around lessons and practicing has taught me so much more than how to play Twinkle Twinkle! I have learned a lot about how to be a better parent, and in doing so, the space for connection has opened up, and practicing is becoming a real joy