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May 23rd, 2017

The Antidote to Meanness

A parent in our Thursday morning class in Barnes raised this issue recently and we wondered what issues others were experiencing around friendships. We know parents want to know about solutions to friendship issues as our Friendship workshop keeps selling out!

Our client had said that her daughter Holly* (aged 7) had a friend, Emma*, over to play and Emma told their neighbour’s little girl Laila* that Holly didn’t like her. Our mum said this wasn’t true but Holly had said that Laila sometimes made quite a lot of noise in the flat above them which could be annoying.  Laila was upset and so were her parents. Initially the mum wanted Holly to apologise but she didn’t want to force an insincere apology and Holly thought that was unfair as she hadn’t done anything wrong. The mum said she thought about it from her 7 year old’s perspective and realised that it was a big ask for her to understand the unintended impact of her words. She acknowledged that Holly felt betrayed by her friend Emma’s breach of confidence and she decided to tell her friend (gently) about the effect of her words. Holly could see that sometimes words have unintended hurtful consequences. Her mum wisely said that saying sorry in this case was not an admission of wrongdoing but an acknowledgment of hurt caused. Apparently they compromised with Holly spending the afternoon happily with Laila keeping her entertained. Our mum said “Parents soothed, children happy, something learnt. Result!”

This was quite a complicated scenario in a little girl’s life but it’s not all unusual for a girl to tell another girl that someone else doesn’t like her. It’s one of the forms of verbal meanness that girls go in for (and girls are pretty adept with words). Boys can be mean too but at this age they are generally more physical.

At the age of 7 girls are often playing in friendship clusters or they may be beginning to make best friends. These friendships are often quite transitory as girls try on different kinds of friends and this kind of experience, while painful, teaches them a lot about what to look for in a friend. If your daughter has had this kind of experience it’s a great opportunity to talk to her about what it means to be a good friend. We usually recommend that parents do an exercise with their girls like creating an advertisement which lists all the attributes wanted in the prospective friend. It’s a fun thing to do but it also gets your child thinking about what they expect of their friends but also what they know they should be doing as a good friend themselves. If you write down a list of good friend qualities you can keep the list somewhere prominent to remind you to notice and comment any time you see your own daughter displaying any of them.

Chief amongst the qualities of a good friend is kindness. Kindness is not something which is simply innate in children –it is a teachable skill. We can and should teach our children to be kind. This is essential in a world where bullying is so prevalent. Kindness is the antidote to bullying. Empathy is when children know and care about what another person is feeling and when you feel someone else’s pain kindness follows.

We can teach our children empathy in these ways;

  • As usual we start with modelling. What are we doing to demonstrate kindness and empathy? Do they see us opening doors for others, helping someone with heavy packages, smiling at or talking to someone who might be a bit lonely, thinking about what needs others might have that we can help with? “Auntie Jo and Uncle Matt are moving house on the weekend. Let’s see if we can give them a hand.” Be explicit about what you’re doing. “You may have noticed me chatting with that lady on the bus wearing a headscarf. She’s a Muslim woman and I think it’s important to make Muslim people feel welcome in our community at the moment when there’s a lot of fear and hatred being directed at people of their faith.”
  • Parents who use emotion coaching are giving their children an empathy head start. When we acknowledge feelings we help our kids to recognise and name their own feelings and the feelings of others. This is the first step toward empathy. “Harry’s feeling really out of sorts tonight. I think he didn’t have a good day at school today. What can we do to make him feel happier?” Encourage your children to see things from the other’s point of view. They won’t be able to do this until any feelings of their own have been heard.
  • Descriptively praise any small acts of kindness and point out the positive consequences of your child’s acts of kindness, including the benefit to the child. “When you asked Grandma about her weekend I could tell she felt cared for. Did you see the way she smiled? I bet that made you feel good.”
  • State your expectations and your values. “In our family we treat each other with kindness. I’m guessing you were feeling really cross when Mariam stepped on your dinosaur and it’s unkind to call someone a ‘retard’. That hurt her feelings. When you feel calmer I will help you think of a way to make amends.”

It’s possible Emma didn’t mean to be unkind to Holly. She may have wanted Holly to be her friend exclusively and to keep Laila out of the picture. She may not have been thinking about the consequences for Laila as she was focused on Holly. When we think about the reasons for an apparently unkind behaviour, rather than just punishing it, we can be more effective in changing behaviour. Maybe Emma needs to feel more confident in her ability to make and maintain friendships. She may need help understanding that having a third friend in a group doesn’t devalue the friendship between two. Then she wouldn’t need to undermine others. Emma can be taught good friendship skills.

 

*Names have been changed

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March 06th, 2017

What do you want to say to your daughter?

On Wednesday March 8th it will be International Women’s Day. This is a day that marks the huge advancements made by women and also is an opportunity to pause and look at where change still needs to be made. In the developing world of course there is much work still to be done in lifting women out of poverty, in healthcare, education and in improving the rights and status of women. But in the developed world also there is still a way to go before gender parity will be achieved.

I feel that those of us who are bringing up young women have a responsibility to educate our daughters to regard themselves and others with respect and to fight for equality for all, whether on the basis of gender or any other difference.

My daughter is my first born child. Before she was born my mother had warned me that boys were straightforward and that girls were much more complicated. To be honest that was not my experience. My boys taxed my parenting resources much more than my daughter. Perhaps I understood her better? Perhaps it was just personality differences? She is now, I hesitate to admit, old enough to be getting married. And as she is poised on that threshold I pause to reflect on what I want to say to her as she enters the next phase of her adult life.

As if that doesn’t make me feel old enough my son and his wife are expecting their first child in a few weeks, a daughter. As we wait to welcome her into the world I’m thinking about what I’d say to her too about being a girl.

What do you want to say to your daughters? What messages do you want to give them about being women? If you are their mother what does it mean to you to be a woman in the 21st century? If you are their father what do you hope for on behalf of your little girl?

Mums, being a girl today is not the same as when you were growing up. Some things have improved. Attitudes toward women are generally different and there are many more legal protections against gender-based harassment and discrimination. Domestic violence is now being talked about whereas it used to be a ‘dirty’ secret. But your daughters are also subject to different and more intense challenges and pressures than the previous generation. From about the age of 10 a girl’s self-esteem often goes into decline as she becomes more focused on herself, who she is and who she’s becoming; the pressure to achieve in the academic, sporting and arts arenas today is enormous. While you will also have gone through the process of recalibrating your identity and working out friendships, what you believed in and how you fit into the world, you will have been able to do it in the privacy of your own home without the full glare of the spotlight that is social media to hinder the process. Young girls are sometimes behaving in a way they feel they ‘should’, rather than in a way they would like. Peer pressure has taken on new meaning.

The stresses in a tween and teen girl’s life are so great now that eating disorders, self-harm and depression are more prevalent than ever before. Girls are growing up much faster. They are exposed to far more media and with it relentless messages about how they should look and behave. For girls how they look has become a constant obsession.

Girls tend to suffer much more from perfectionism than boys. Many believe that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. They can think that if they are not perfect they are unacceptable. We, as parents, may think that aiming high is a good thing but not if it turns into nothing is good enough. Perfectionism is a real problem when it prevents your daughter from taking risks, when she plays it safe, won’t put up her hand, won’t risk trying anything unless she’s sure she can excel at it. It stifles ambition, wastes her potential and causes anxiety and loss of performance.

Nowhere is perfectionism more obvious than in relation to body image. This reaches a peak in the teens but starts much earlier. Studies show that 3 year olds are very aware of their bodies and talk about being fat-some kids insult each other by calling others ‘fat’. We know that body dissatisfaction significantly affects feeling of self-worth and engagement with life. We also know that mums, as the same gender parent, can unwittingly pass on attitudes of dissatisfaction with their bodies to their daughters.

So what can parents of girls say to their daughters on International Women’s Day? Well this is what I want to say to my daughter (and my granddaughter):

  • You are loved for who you are, not for what you might achieve, and certainly not for what you look like. There is more to being a woman than how she looks and beauty comes in all shapes, sizes and colours. I need to model this attitude and not talk about my body in terms of appearance but only functionality and I need to express gratitude for what my amazing body does for me.
  • Your successes will be measured by your efforts, not by your results. It is part of being human to make mistakes, to fail. That is ok. Struggle is what makes your brain grow. I need to model this attitude to failure when I make my own mistakes as well as how I respond to my daughter’s slip-ups. I need to respond calmly (and if I can’t then I should take some cool-down time) and connect with her before trying to teach her anything.
  • You deserve respect because you are a human being. And so does every other human being, no matter what their gender, what they look like, where they are from, who they worship or who they fancy.
  • And I would say it’s great being a girl.

You may have many other things you’d say to your girls. Let us know what you think they need to hear.

If you’re interested in exploring issues relating to girls come along to our Raising Girls Workshops.

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February 20th, 2017

Why aren't Girls Brave?

Does that headline make you cross? Is the feminist in you outraged? Are you saying of course girls are brave! My girls are brave. Boys don’t have a monopoly on courage.

Well, think about it in the context of school and work. Are girls as willing to put their hand up in class to answer a question where they are not certain they know the answer? Will girls choose to study subjects unless they think there’s a chance they’ll get top grades? Will they choose careers that they think they might not excel in? Will they put themselves forward for jobs if they think they are don’t have all the necessary qualifications?

Boys will.

It’s arguable that boys pay less attention than girls to what other people think for one thing, but even if they only reference their own evaluation boys will put themselves forward where girls will not.

It is well known that women are under-represented in board rooms and parliaments across the world and various theories have been put forward about women’s self-confidence. You may have heard of the Hewlett Packard report of 2014 which stated that men will put themselves forward for positions when they have 60% of the necessary qualifications while women won’t apply unless they have 100% of the qualifications.

Reshma Saujani suggests in her fascinating TED talk Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fC9da6eqaqg, that we are teaching our girls not to take risks. That women have been socialised to aspire to perfection.

Perfectionism means that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. Girls tend to suffer from it more than boys. Many believe that being perfect, whether in relation to school work, sports or extra-curricular activities or their appearance or behaviour, is not only possible but their duty. They can think that if they are not perfect they are unacceptable.

Does your daughter like to do things right or not do them at all? Does she screw up a drawing or piece of work that looked perfectly ok to you? Does she not take risks for fear of making mistakes/looking silly? Will she put up her hand in class? Does she suffer from learned helplessness, i.e. ask for help a lot so that if there is a failure it won’t be her fault? Does she give up easily? Does she attribute success not to her own efforts but to luck? Does she berate herself for making mistakes whether in school work or relationships? Are you afraid to tell her off because she takes it so badly?

Typically girls suffering from perfectionism engage in black and white thinking, critical self-talk, avoiding things as a means of coping, and generally negative thinking and reasoning. Perfectionism can actually lead to a drop in grades, anxiety and lack of sleep in the short term and missing out on opportunities over the long term. Not to mention the great loss to society of what that girl might have contributed.

Think about this in terms of body image. We know that girls and women often have quite unrealistic views about how they should look due in part to the preponderance of airbrushed and photo shopped images and exaltations to ‘look after ourselves’ in the media. Body image is very important to girls (and dominates their engagement with social media). Their obsession with it reaches a peak in the teens but starts much earlier (studies show 3 year olds are very aware of their bodies and talk about being fat-some kids insult each other by calling others ‘fat’).

Saujani claims that we are raising our girls to be perfect and raising our boys to be brave. She says we teach our daughters to play it safe and avoid failure while boys are encouraged to aim high, no matter the risks. Boys are habituated to take risks and are rewarded for it.

Saujani really caught my attention when she referred to the Mindset research of Professor Carol Dweck of which I’d been a huge fan for many years. She referred to an aspect of it I hadn’t come across before when she claimed that there was a difference between boys’ and girls’ mindsets, that girls(especially bright girls), when faced with a problem that was challenging were more likely than boys to give up. Boys found the tasks energising and were more likely to redouble their efforts. Dweck’s research included presenting children with tasks that were beyond their abilities and observing how they responded to those challenges. She found a difference between the children according to what words of encouragement the researchers used. The children who more likely to rise to the challenge of the beyond reach task were those who had been praised in an earlier task with words which addresses the effort they’d applied rather than any innate ability they might have. Eg they were told “Oh you did really well, you must have tried really hard” as opposed to the other group who were told “Oh you did really well, you must be really good at these.”

Interestingly the boys in the study appear to have embraced the challenge more and Dweck explains this by reference to their earlier school experience. She says that in early schooling boys usually get told off quite a lot! They get used to criticism and are often told to apply more effort. Girls, who are working hard already, are not being given the effort message.

So herein lies the solution for parents of girls:

  • build self-esteem through giving LOTS of descriptive praise and providing opportunities to establish competencies (in other words let them try things, and fail)
  • make your praise focus on effort rather than on achievements,
  • encourage risk-taking,
  • talk to your daughters about the risks of perfectionism and the advantages of being brave,
  • model healthy attitudes toward mistakes. When you make a mistake don’t beat yourself up about it but acknowledge the mistake and if possible why it was a mistake. Then, where appropriate, take steps to remedy it. Articulate what you are learning from your mistake and show that you are not diminished by your mistakes but can profit from them.

Healthy self-esteem is a direct result of the child seeing that she can make mistakes, solve problems, struggle and come out triumphant, and that her value as a human being is not contingent upon her results.

Messages to encourage a healthy mindset:

  • Great, that tough sum will make your brain grow!
  • Did you challenge yourself today?
  • I love that when that first strategy you tried didn’t work you tired a different tactic.
  • I’m doing this crossword to make my brain do something different.
  • You didn’t give up when it was tricky learning to ride your bike. You persevered and you found ways to help you
  • balance.

The Parent Practice runs regular courses on Raising Boys and Raising Girls.

Click here to see when the next ones are running

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October 30th, 2015

7 Skills for Raising a Good friend

“I have NO friends” are words that no parent ever wants to hear from their child.  A few years ago I remember having to pop into my child’s school during playtime.  I saw my daughter out in the playground, alone, while the other girls were all running around after one another.  I jumped to the most dire conclusion … that she really didn’t have anyone to play with.  I felt a combination of fear and sadness along with my own memories of being a young child, not being quite sure where I fit in.  Friendships are so important - to girls and boys - and as parents, we have a tremendous influence on the kind of friend our child is, as well as the kind of friends our children choose.  How can we raise children who are kind, considerate friends?  Here are 7 key skills with which parents can help their children to be a good friend, and deal positively with friendship issues that might arise. 

7 skills needed for friendships: 

  1. Enjoy the company of others and know how to connect and communicate with others.

Spending positive time with our own friends, without malicious gossiping or complaining about others, is wonderful modelling.

It’s also important to be considerate of your child’s temperament so they can connect and communicate positively.  My daughter is a bit of an introvert and while she can spend hours playing outside with the neighbours, she eventually needs to come inside and go up to her room for ten minutes of quiet time.  She loves to be with her friends but needs to re-energise by being alone.  

  1. Learn to take turns and share

We start to teach our children to take turns and share from toddlerhood.  Knowing a playdate for her three boys (each bringing a friend over) could have potential blowups and meltdowns, one mum sat down with her sons and together they decided on a rota for sharing the Wii and for making sure that the plans for football were equitable.  They set up teams ahead of time, and made sure to have a blend of strong and weaker players on each team. 

  1. Be able to read emotions

Children today are busy and often focused on their own needs.  Sometimes, though, their friends will be having a rough day.  We want to be raising children who can check in with their friends and lend a kind ear and help out if necessary.  When you’re out and about, pay attention to other people.  Say things like, ‘That lady looks so happy’ or ‘He looks like he’s having a rough day’. … which segues perfectly into … 

  1. Be able to empathise

When our children can take the time to imagine how they would feel in their friend’s shoes, they are empathising.  They are not trying to fix their friend’s problems, or feel sorry for them.  They are simply providing a safe ear that doesn’t invalidate what their friend has to say.  “I can’t believe she said that to you.  That must have really hurt your feelings.” 

  1. Regulate aggression

With girls, aggression tends to be in the form of words and exclusion; with boys, it can be more physical.  We can teach our children that it is perfectly acceptable to have big feelings like anger, hurt or jealousy, but that they need to have safe and acceptable outlets for dealing with these feelings.  By empathising with them and teaching them feeling-releasing strategies, they learn to use words or acceptable outlets for aggression.  Another useful strategy is teach our children to withdraw from potentially fractious situations.  

  1. Apologise when you are wrong and have hurt a friends feelings

We have all done or said something that has not landed well with another person and has caused a rift in a friendship. Making mistakes is a big part of life and learning and parents can teach children so much by the way we handle our own mistakes.  Do we complain and blame, or do we get on the phone, take responsibility for what we did, and apologise?  And when our kids make mistakes do we get angry and punish them, or do we support them in fixing their mistakes and making amends? 

  1. Learn when to trust!

As adults, we know that most people are genuine and can be trusted.  We also know that there are some people who can be deceptive for different reasons.  We need to be honest with our children, and teach them that they can walk away when they feel that the trust is no longer there, or the friendship is no longer contributing to their wellbeing. 

By instilling these seven skills in our children, we will support them in being confident, kind, respectful friends who will be able to stand up for, and be a strong voice, when their own friendships call for it.

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September 13th, 2015

Don’t Pick Your Battles

As the children go back to school you may be thinking of all the areas associated with school where you end up battling with your kids. Often we're told to pick our battles but I say don't pick battles with your children. Battles are between enemies and result in a win/lose situation. If you win, your child loses. We often forget this when we talk about not letting our children ‘get away with things’ and not letting them win.

Parents do need to provide discipline for children because their frontal lobes are not yet fully developed (and won’t be until their 20s). So we have to lend them our higher brains with their greater capacity for rational thought and impulse control. We are not our children’s enemy –we are their teacher. The purpose of discipline is not to win, or to get revenge, but to teach. Effective discipline comes from influence over time rather than the exercise of power in the moment.

We need to make sure we avoid the terminology of battles even in our own minds because language shapes our experience and the more we talk or even think about battling with our kids the more that will happen. That’s how our brains work.

What makes you want to go into battle with your child? Is it when you’ve asked them nicely to do something several times and they ignore you? And then you calmly and reasonably give them a gentle warning that they won’t get their TV time or stories… and they ignore you. And then you shout… but they still ignore you. And then you take away the TV or story… and then they react. They act as if that came straight out of the blue and is the most unreasonable thing ever and you are the meanest mummy/daddy in the world.

Generally when people suggest picking your battles it means choosing which things you’re going to get into a lather about and ignoring the rest. At The Parent Practice we say don’t ignore behaviours that you’re not happy about and don’t battle over them. Don’t ignore but take small actions before the behaviour escalates too far and while you’re still calm enough to deal with it.

Take action sooner with take 2s –Get your child to do it again correctly. This works well for little things like saying please and thank you or speaking in a polite tone of voice or asking to get down from the table.

Here’s how you can teach rather than engaging in battles:

  • Understand your child. Is what you’re asking them to do reasonable given his temperament and stage of development? Does he need time to transition from what he’s doing to what you’re asking him to do? As soon as parents start thinking about why kids aren’t cooperating and what their needs are then they can be more compassionate and more effective.
  • Don’t give too many instructions. Young children are likely to forget parts of what you’ve asked them to do and they may feel nagged and tune you out. Reduce the number of instructions you give by having some written rules and routines and by asking the children what they need to do. They usually know.
  • Children have their own set of priorities and their agenda is just as important to them as ours is to us. They will give up on what they’re doing and submit to your control when there is the greater priority of pleasing you. That means they have to know that they can earn your approval.
  • Give lots of approval with descriptive praise. This means that kids want to cooperate. And spend time with them doing fun things.
  • Connect with your child. Acknowledge that he doesn’t want to do his homework, have a bath or stop playing and come to dinner. When we recognise how they feel about the situation children feel understood and are more likely to comply. Once feelings are heard much resistance disappears. 

If something has gone wrong and you’re heading into battle mode:

  1. Take time to cool down - essential to avoid saying or doing something you’ll later regret.
  2. Connect –acknowledge the feelings driving the behaviour.
  3. Take constructive steps –have a problem-solving conversation without anger, blame or judgment (hence the need for the cool down) to help your child see why their actions were a mistake and what they can do about it. Use natural consequences (if they don’t get out of the bath promptly there’s no time for the story) or fixing consequences (clean up a mess or mend someone’s hurt feelings). Teach your child what to do differently next time –practice it.

Kids will get things wrong because they’re learning but the way we teach them how to behave will have long term ramifications for how they deal with disagreements in their lives. Instead of teaching them to get into battles don’t we want to teach them to try to understand, use words to negotiate and compromise?

For more on Positive discipline techniques see www.theparentpractice.com

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March 20th, 2015

Can boys play with dolls?

I think parents these days are often mindful about stereotyping on the basis of gender and try to avoid it by not dressing their children in ‘gendered’ colours (but did you know that up until the early 20th century pink was thought of as a strong boys’ colour?), providing them with opportunities to play with toys and to take part in sports or activities generally associated with the opposite sex, exposing them to different role models (in literature and in reality) and speaking to them in gender neutral terms. 

But it’s actually really easy to get caught out by little gendered remarks that slip out unnoticed. For instance have you told either your sons or daughters to ‘man up’? What does that mean? If it means to toughen up and be strong is that an attribute just for men? If it means don’t give in to your feelings or don’t talk about your feelings or, worse, don’t have those feelings, what are we saying about men and emotions? The answer to that last question was made abundantly clear to me once when I was giving a workshop on Raising Boys. I was talking about encouraging boys to identify and manage their feelings when one father said “I would question my son’s masculinity if he was talking about his feelings”! 

Sometimes with the best of intentions we’ll say things like “big boys don’t cry.” In hundreds of little ways we give our sons the message that it is weak and unmanly to express emotion and to be a man is to cope on your own. Statistics show what terrible repercussions this has for adult men not seeking help when they need it –men don’t even go to the doctor let alone ask directions! More seriously the suicide rate is much higher in men than women. 

It’s just as problematic if we’re giving limiting messages to our daughters. Have we fallen into the trap of calling our daughters ‘bossy’ for behaviour that we would find acceptably assertive in our sons? I hope you’ve seen the wonderful you tube video ‘Run like a girl’ by Proctor & Gamble which aims to celebrate the phrase rather than allowing it to be derisory. 

And of course there is still much stereotyping in music, the media, video games and in film through images and the behaviours portrayed by men and women despite recent efforts by children’s programme makers. Certain ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ qualities are ascribed to men and women. And children will be exposed to a lot of gendered stereotypes in shops with pink and blue aisles and packaging as well as boy toys and girl toys. 

There is much that parents can do to avoid these stereotypes and to offer contrary images and messages to those absorbed through the media etc. But what if, in spite of your best efforts, your child is the one coming up with stereotypes for boys’ and girls’ behaviour? 

One parent told us that her three and a half year old son had been making comments like "only boys can play with this…" to which the mum responded that "Actually boys AND girls can play with the same toys!" she was curious as to where this fixed attitude came from as neither she or her husband had ever consciously stereotyped boys vs girls. She said she always tried to use gender-neutral words such as ‘firefighter’ instead of ‘fireman’ etc. 

It is perfectly normal and developmentally appropriate behaviour for a young child to explore his or her identity including gender roles. Research has shown that children may be born with gendered tastes in toys, in that girls prefer dolls over cars and nothing we do or say can change this! However up until the age of 12 months boys are equally interested in dolls. It is only after this age that boys show a preference for toys with wheels, whereas girls continue to prefer dolls. This suggests that this is attributable to social factors rather than genetics. By the age of 3 or 4 children have surprisingly definite ideas about what behaviour and dress is appropriate for boys and girls. By this age most children when interviewed give stereotypical answers about behaviours appropriate for male and female dolls -100% of the children interviewed in one study said the female doll liked to clean the house and took care of the babies while the male doll went out to work! 

These perceptions of ‘boys’ toys’ or ‘girls’ toys’ and dress and behaviour show a normal, healthy development of gender identity and a natural inclination to want to fit in with their sex. This adapting to belong is a sign of good social skills but parents are wise to offer contrary messages as well. The strongest message we can give our children is through what we model so if boys see their dad sewing on a button or cooking a meal they will think that is an appropriate activity for a male. Likewise if mum mends the fuses or changes a tyre then obviously women can do those things. Children will model themselves on the same gender parent so dads please let your sons know its ok to talk about your feelings.

Children this age are very black and white –its only as they get older that they can understand the grey areas of life, including the idea that boys and girls can do things beyond the stereotypes.

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October 17th, 2014

Understanding the Independent Girls Schools 11+ Process: What you need to know and how to protect your daughter’s sanity and self-esteem.

The process of applying for independent secondary schools for girls at eleven can be a nightmare for many reasons. Parents and girls are subject to extreme pressures so to take some of the stress out of it we set out here in simple terms how it all works, including insider tips. 

The 11+ process starts to pick up steam from Year 3.  Many preparatory schools commence Christmas and summer exams and girls and parents start to get a sense of how the girls are performing academically.  The subjects of particular importance are English comprehension, English composition, Mathematics and Science. 

In Yr 4 parents start to think about and schedule preliminary visits to potential schools.  Exams become more formal with revision being expected. 

Yr 5 is the year of heavy lifting when most of the 11+ syllabuses are covered.  Depending on how their child is fairing academically, this is the point that many parents start to get their children tutored.  This is particularly true in London where there is intense competition for London day school places and many parents fear taking a too softly, softly approach.  School visits happen in earnest in Yr 5.  For parents considering boarding schools this is particularly important.

Boarding schools

The boarding school process is quite different from the London day school process. With boarding schools you register approximately 18 months in advance.  When enough people have registered they close their lists.  Even for the most academic boarding schools there is likely to be no more than four girls registered for each place.  As soon as you start Yr 6, in the September or October, your daughter gets invited to spend a day at the school.  There may be some computerized aptitude tests (normally some combination of verbal, non-verbal, mathematical reasoning questions), an interview, a chance to do some sport and a general seeing if you will fit in.  The Head Teacher’s report from your existing school is particularly important and there will be an emphasis on your Yr 5 academic performance. 

Just a few weeks after your school assessment you are told whether you are being offered a place.  You can apply to lots of boarding schools but once they have sent out their offers, you can only accept one to sit the 11+ Common Entrance exam for.  The Independent Schools Examinations Board organizes this exam. In mid January of Yr 6 you sit the 11+ exam – this normally takes place at your own school and is then sent off to your chosen boarding school to mark.  The results are normally sent out two weeks after taking the exam. Each school has it’s own mark scheme and pass threshold.  If you reach the necessary pass mark you are then automatically accepted.  For boarding schools you sit papers in English, Maths and Science. There are a few boarding schools that have their own exams so these can be sat for in addition to the 11+ exam. 

In general the boarding school route is much less pressured and there are quite a few good girls boarding schools in easy reach of London including Wycombe Abbey (High Wycombe), St. Mary’s Ascot (Ascot), Downe House (near Oxford), Benenden (Kent), St Mary's Calne (Wiltshire), St. Swithuns (Winchester) to name just a few.   

London day schools

For the London day school process parents generally have to register their daughters to sit the exams by November of Yr 6. There is no limit to the number of exams you can sit.  Some of the London girls’ schools have formed a consortium for purposes of the 11+ exams. The North London Independent Girls’ Schools Consortium comprises two groups of schools that have their entrance examinations on the same day. Schools in the same group set common papers using the same mark scheme.


Group1:
Francis Holland (Clarence Gate), Francis Holland (Graham Terrace), Heathfield School, Notting Hill and Ealing High School, Queen’s College, St. Albans High School, St. Helen’s High School, South Hampstead High School, The Royal School, Hampstead

Group 2:
Channing School, City of London School for Girls, More House, Northwood College, Queen’s Gate School, St. James Independent School, The Godolphin and Latymer School.


By sitting the exams for these two groups you are covering a lot of schools in one go but many London girls schools are not part of these consortia.  For instance, St Paul's Girls School (for which you need to pass a computerized pre-test in November before being eligible to sit the exam), North London Collegiate School, Putney High School, Lady Eleanor Holles School, Latymer Upper, Wimbledon High School.
This means that many girls sit exams for 5 -7 different schools/consortia over a two-week period in early January.  The exams are generally English and Maths (no Science).  Some schools also test for Verbal and Non-Verbal reasoning.  This can be very exhausting for the child. 

If you score highly enough in these exams, you are invited in for an interview.  The head teacher’s report will also be taken into consideration at this point. Many of the day schools are highly competitive – in some cases there will be up to 10 applicants for every place.

Around the middle of February the day school places are awarded. The deadline for acceptances for the day school places is early March. 

What do I need to think about as a parent? 

From Year 3 you need to start thinking about what type of school – boarding or day – will suit your daughter and your family. 

From Year 4 start to narrow the list and get as much information as possible, talk to other parents who have children at these schools.  Where possible do preliminary visits. 

From Year 5 do follow up visits.  Visit as many times as needed so you really understand a school’s values, culture and how it will fit with your daughter.  This is the year to decide if you do want to go down the boarding school route (many parents who feel it is too early to make this decision apply to a limited number of boarding schools and then to day schools as well). 

Your daughter’s wellbeing

Consider carefully how hard your daughter is working, particularly if you decide to go down the tutoring route. With girls you have to be very careful about their mental health.  There is some evidence that girls’ brains have a higher blood flow through the area of the brain that handles emotions, thereby making them more susceptible to depression and anxiety and also the pervasive feeling that they are never good enough and they should be striving for perfection.   

Whilst for many parents an academic education is important - it is only one part of a bigger picture.  Confidence, curiosity, resilience, emotional intelligence, good social skills are key to a fulfilling life, so it is important not to focus exclusively on academics.  Girls need to keep a balance in their lives so make sure they keep up the extra curricular activities they enjoy and that there is still plenty of fun and family time at the weekends.  

In Year 6 the boarding school process will start immediately and there is only a term until the 11+ exams.  Try to de stress their lives as much as possible.  Make sure they understand your love and acceptance is not dependent on how well they perform in their 11+ and that the world is much wider than this process!   You can do this by focusing not on exam and test results but on the effort they put in, strategies they use for learning, attitudes they show, improvements made and when they don’t do so well what they can learn from that. Give them lots of descriptive praise and empathise when things are tough. And make sure they get some play time! 

If you want to know more see our publication on Creating Happy Learners. http://www.theparentpractice.com/shop/publications 

Wishing you a stress-free approach to secondary school preparations.

Do you find the school system stressful? What are your tips for counteracting those pressures? 

If this information has been useful to you share it on your favourite social media platform. 

Jenny, Melissa and Elaine

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