Reading is for life, not just for rewards

December 2, 2015

As a parent I’ve always been aware of various schemes knocking around with the admirable intention of encouraging children to read. The Summer Reading Challenge is one example. I’ve never paid any attention to these schemes nor had my child participate in any of them. He likes reading anyway, loves going to the library to choose new books, so I’ve never felt the need to consider them.

a-kid-readingThis term my child’s school announced the new Bug Club scheme. This scheme, it seems, encourages children to read books online where they can then answer questions about them and gain rewards to go on to play games online. On the surface this might seem OK – today’s children are used to doing things online right? And anything that encourages them to read has to be good?

Well, possibly. But having this time been forced to give the matter some thought I find I am very uncomfortable with the whole thing. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I don’t like it.

Firstly, is it really a good thing to encourage children to see reading as something they do online? Don’t they spend enough time online already? And let’s not move to replace books with computers. There’ll always be something special about books, especially books that become a child’s favourite, with worn edges from being read again and again. Children can take books to bed, take them on long journeys, to sleepovers, and can snuggle down with mum or dad to read them together. Or are we now supposed to be snuggling down together with a tablet?

Secondly, the questions the children have to answer about the book they’ve just read seem to turn reading into a task and take away the joy. Presumably they’re in line with the national curriculum expectations as to what a child should be able to glean from reading a book, recognising alliteration, that sort of thing. But it seems to me to suck all the pleasure out of reading. It becomes another test, almost a box ticking exercise.

But my biggest bugbear by far is the rewards the children get when they’ve finished a book and answered all the questions. This is where I believe these schemes are the most flawed. Quite simply, rewarding children for something sends them the message that that something is a chore, and they deserve a reward for having trudged through it. It sends a message about what is or is not desirable or fun. In this case, we’re telling our children that it’s the computer games, and not the books, that are fun. Kids, well done for having completed this chore. As a reward you can now play computer games, because God forbid that you would actually want to spend your time reading another book.

Surely the reward should come from the pleasure of reading, the enjoyment of the story? That’s intrinsic motivation, and that’s what we want to foster in our children’s attitude to reading. Reading needs to be something children want to do for its own sake, not to answer a set of mundane government approved questions in order to gain some screen time, something I struggle enough to limit in our household already, thank you very much. We want our children to continue to read long after they’ve left school and the rewards have stopped coming.

Rewards provide extrinsic motivation which studies, for years, have repeatedly shown actually decreases intrinsic motivation. Alfie Kohn has written a great deal on the subject:

Scores of studies have found that offering people a reward for doing something (such as reading or helping) tends to reduce their interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward. One reason for this effect, though not the only one, is that anything presented as a prerequisite for something else — a means to another end — comes to be seen as less desirable. The recipient of the reward figures, “If they have to bribe me to do this, it must be something I wouldn’t want to do.”” – from the article Do This and You’ll Get That. A Bad Way to Defend Good Programs.

“You may succeed in getting students to read a book by dangling a reward in front of them for doing so, but their interest in reading, per se, is likely to evaporate – or, in the case of kids who have little interest to begin with, is unlikely to take root — because you’ve sent the message that reading is something one wouldn’t want to do.” – from the article How to Create Nonreaders. Reflections on Motivation, Leaning and Sharing Power

I could go on.

My child’s school recently invited parents to an information evening about this new reading scheme. Looking at the presentation slides on their website, I notice a quote used on the last slide;

“Researchers have shown that, once social and economic factors are removed parental engagement is a more significant impact on attainment than almost everything else”.

I’m sure this is true, but this doesn’t mean I’m going to blindly engage with any crap the school throw at us, so I’m very sorry, but they won’t have my parental engagement with this scheme. I would like my child to continue reading what he likes, when he likes, and just because he likes. That’s what I believe will lead him to enjoy reading for life, not just for the sake of rewards.


Positive reinforcement? Gotcha!

August 4, 2014

There are many silly and misguided things in place at my child’s school in the quest to encourage desirable behaviour. There’s the enduringly popular classroom happy/sad face chart; public shaming made pretty for the teachers. And whenever I’m invited to attend an assembly I come out feeling distinctly nauseated. It’s just one reward after another. It’s all about rewards. Everything. They’re really working hard on raising the next generation of ‘What’s in it for me?’s. 

For example, each class gets points for ‘lining up nicely’ at playtime. Each week the points are totted up and a winner announced in assembly. An extra 5 minutes playtime is awarded to the winning class. Groan. I could write a separate post just on this, but the message going out about what’s desirable and what, by default, isn’t, is the first point that springs to mind. 

Then there’s the Star of the Week awards and Golden Book awards. Not sure of the difference between these awards, but in any case, whenever my child receives one he rarely knows what it was for, so how exactly does it encourage him? Encourage what

congratulationsWhich brings me to one of my favourites; the Gotcha Card. If a teacher notices a child behaving particularly well in the corridor they make a note of their name (secretly), and lo and behold, at some date in the future, the child receives, by surprise, a Gotcha Card in assembly. 

What a load of tosh. 

First, if we want to reinforce a particular behaviour with children we need to do so at the time. A child doesn’t have the capacity to reflect on or even remember what their behaviour was in the corridor at some unknown time in the past. Just as unrelated consequences (aka punishments) given out or enforced days after the offence are ineffective in stopping undesirable behaviour, so rewards given out after the fact are ineffective in promoting desirable behaviour. I’d have thought this was fairly obvious.

And no need for me to cover the bit about how extrinsic motivation decreases intrinsic motivation and actually makes the child less likely to repeat a particular behaviour, since in this case the child doesn’t even know what behaviour they’re supposed to be repeating.

Why not just comment on the child’s behaviour at the time, for Christ’s sake? Oh, of course, just as the happy/sad face chart has to be on public display, so do the Gotcha Cards. Presumably it’s supposed to encourage the other children to try harder, although they’re probably all left feeling as confused as the recipient as to what exactly needs to be done to earn this particular reward.

Just a nice little reward for the child? Yeah, I’m sure it gives them a brief feeling of gratification….but at the expense of all the other kids.

My child complained to me that he has never received a Gotcha Card, expressing feelings of injustice, since, he says, he always behaves well in the corridor.

“I know you do”, I replied. “Perhaps a teacher just hasn’t been there at the time to see that. You’ve just been unlucky.”

He didn’t buy this. “Lots of teachers have seen me” he says.

Of more concern to me are his evident feelings of futility, that whatever he does isn’t good enough, that he’s not a ‘good’ child, like the others getting those Gotcha Cards. He’s a failure.

Might as well give up and start running about screaming and doing cartwheels in the corridor. Sod it. 

So to whoever came up with this idea at my child’s school – Gotcha!

Gotcha coming up with yet another idiotic, misguided, poorly thought out scheme that will do more harm than good, will gratify the minority at the expense of the majority, and will achieve precisely nothing.

 

See my other posts for more about my views on rewards.


Ban homework in primary schools

October 25, 2013

???????????????????????????????Last year Michael Gove scrapped guidelines that laid out how much homework schools should be setting. Let’s ask him to go a step further and scrap homework in primary schools altogether.

Schools continue to operate under the false assumption that homework is necessary for children to gain a satisfactory level of academic achievement, and to pander to the pressure from parents who also operate under this misconception.

The fact is that there is not a single piece of evidence that can show any real correlation between homework and academic achievement at this stage, nor that shows any improvement in study habits.

Yet many recent studies and reports have raised serious concerns about the well-being of children, their lack of physical activity, excessive time spent in front of screens, increasingly limited time for free play, and lack of time spent outdoors.

Homework is an intrusion on family time, on children’s free time, and can be a regular source of conflict in the home. It creates unnecessary anxiety and pressure for children.

Young children already spend enough time engaged in formal school work. To expect them; to bring more of this home risks overloading them and turning them off learning altogether. They learn and develop in so many other ways. Time for free play, outdoor play, pursuing their own interests, and quality family time is essential for their development and well-being.

This is why I’ve started a petition to ban homework in primary schools. Although, truth be told, I don’t think for a second Michael Gove would ever make such a move. After all, this is the man who wants to increase the length of the school day and the school year. I really don’t think he could entertain the notion that children might actually have other things to do with their time than sit at desks cramming as much formal learning into their precious young years as possible. And he’s not really one for looking at evidence – something made abundantly clear in his response to last month’s letter to the Telegraph from several leading experts calling for a rethink in early years policy.

But hey, Gove won’t be Education Secretary forever (God forbid), and raising awareness is always worthwhile. Since Gove’s already scrapped the homework guidelines, perhaps a change of attitude for parents and teachers is all that’s needed to break the current trend.

So don’t despair – sign and share the petition today!


Homework Clubs: Taking the home out of homework, dropping the pretence.

July 9, 2013

I was highly amused when I recently discovered the existence of a ‘Homework Club’ at my child’s school. The club, which is offered to children in years 4 – 6 (ages 8 – 11), involves children staying behind together at school once a week to complete all their week’s homework. The benefits, I was told, is that this allows children to get all their homework out of the way in one go and not have it ‘hanging over them all week’, and reduces family conflict at home caused by parents having to nag children to do their homework. 

Why did I think this was so funny? Well, for me, it basically shoots itself in the foot. 

Young Boy LearningI thought one of the main arguments put forward by homework advocates is that homework helps to create links between home and school, and encourages parents to support and take an interest in their child’s learning. So how exactly does the Homework Club achieve this, I wonder, when homework’s not even being completed at home? 

The answer is, it doesn’t. Instead, it drops the guise and reveals homework for what it really is – nothing more than extra indoor, desk-based schoolwork for kids to do in addition to the hours they’ve already put in as part of the normal school day. 

The Homework Club basically admits that there is no such link sought between home and school via homework assignments, that homework puts pressure on children, and that homework creates family conflict. Great. 

This doesn’t seem to me to leave much to be said in favour of homework other than that perhaps it is necessary for children’s learning and achievement. But this doesn’t stand up either. There is no evidence that homework at this stage improves academic performance. Studies have repeatedly failed to show any correlation between homework and academic achievement. 

When I looked into this further I found that these clubs seem to be all the rage, used at many schools, and advocated by many, even those seemingly against the notion of homework. 

French president, Francois Hollande, banned homework last year, not because he felt children needed more free time, but because he felt it created inequalities between pupils with a supportive home environment and pupils without this advantage. His answer; homework clubs, and lengthening the school week. This in a nation where children already spend longer hours in school than those in many other countries. Not surprising, I think, that France’s education system and student achievement doesn’t come up looking too rosy in international comparisons. 

Work should be done at school, rather than at home” says Hollande. Yup. Tend to agree with that one. But I’m not in favour of extending the school day either, which is effectively what homework clubs do. 

Professor Susan Hallam of the Institute of Education at the University of London published a book back in 2004 entitled “Homework: The evidence”, which highlights how studies have repeatedly failed to show any conclusive link between primary school homework and student attainment levels. 

“Homework can also create anxiety, boredom, fatigue and emotional exhaustion in children, who resent the encroachment on their free time,” she says. 

Yet she too is in favour of homework clubs. Erm, homework club is an encroachment on free time, is it not? 

What bugs me throughout all of this is the underlying assumption that the more formal learning we can cram into children’s lives the better, and that this is the only form of learning, the only ‘worthwhile’ activity for children to be doing. 

Yet too much too soon does not create a lifelong love of learning. What’s more, children, particularly at primary school age, benefit from learning in so many different ways, and that includes spending time outdoors, free play, family time, and pursuing other interests and activities of their own choosing. Having time to just be children. 

David Blunkett, when he introduced homework guidelines back in 1998, was right to bemoan the fact that 50% of children were spending more than 3 hours a day in front of the television. But recommending more homework in answer to this showed a sadly narrow view and understanding of what constitutes worthwhile activity for children, how they learn, and what is important for their development and well-being.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers voted at their conference in 2009 in favour of the abolition of homework in primary schools. 

But this, along with Gove’s scrapping of Blunkett’s homework guidelines last year, seems to have made no difference. The homework tradition is already too embedded in our culture. Schools continue to operate under the false assumption that homework is necessary for maintaining standards, and to pander to the misguided expectations of pushy parents who mistakenly judge the quality of a school or a teacher by the amount of homework that is set. 

Yet pandering to the needs of children should take priority over this. And more time spent engaged in formal learning, whether at home or at school, is not one of those needs.

Sign the petition against homework in primary schools.


The latest brainwave from Liz Truss.

June 17, 2013

light bulbA nation of parents let out a collective cheer of relief last week at the welcome announcement that the government proposals to increase child to staff ratios in childcare settings had been scrapped. Liz Truss, the woman behind the deeply unpopular idea seemed to lie low for a while. But now she’s back with another so-poorly-thought-out-it’s-actually-quite-funny idea; this time for parents to run after school clubs to make life easier for, er, parents.

?!

“Many parents want to work longer than 9-3” she says. OK, so if all parents are working full time, a vision this government seems hell-bent on making a reality, who are these parents that are available to run after school clubs??

Oh, of course, that would be the part-time working or stay-at-home parents who no longer receive child benefit, and can’t claim help with childcare costs under the new scheme that discriminates against them. Sure, they’ll be willing to give up the time they want to spend with their own children in order to care for the children of full-time working parents. I don’t think so Liz.

And let me just clarify something; Liz Truss’ title is ‘Children’s Minister’ right? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m guessing that means her job is to represent the interests of children. So where do they figure in all this? Have their needs even been considered while the government all fall over themselves in an effort to accommodate full-time working parents and sideline the rest?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; schools are supposed to be about education, not childcare. They’re 9-3 because that’s long enough for the children. Anything longer is too long, especially with the ridiculously young age our children have to start school in the UK.

So how about  you do your job, Ms Truss, and start thinking about what’s best for children? Surely they’re the group of people here that are most in need of someone to look after their interests? They’re the ones whose own small voices are not heard and who need someone to speak and advocate for them and for their needs.

I await with interest Liz Truss’ next idea.


Whose needs are schools there to serve?

April 23, 2013

Student WritingMr Gove really has out-done himself this time. Longer school hours and shorter school holidays? Oh please. 

Where’s the evidence Mr Gove? Where? Show me a single piece of evidence or research that suggests that such a measure would improve academic performance. Vague references to East Asian countries have already been proven to be nonsense

I’ve already read several articles attacking Gove and his crazy notions in no uncertain terms. But, as I feared, there had to be some short-sighted and self-centred people who’d agree with him, because, well, quite simply, it would mean a reduction in their childcare costs and be nice and convenient. Forget that school’s purpose is supposed to be to provide education, not free childcare. 

In a lame attempt to think of someone other than herself, The Observer’s Stephanie Merritt concedes,

“…any serious attempt to align school hours with working hours would need to be carefully negotiated so that the burden of longer days does not fall exclusively on teachers.”

Gosh, that’s big of you, but don’t worry, the burden will not fall exclusively on teachers; it will also fall rather heavily on children. Yes, children. You know, those small, developing beings that make up 20% of the population. Maybe we need to stop for just a minute to think about their needs. 

But if you want to talk about changing things that were put in place a long time ago, that exist for historical reasons which are no longer relevant, let’s look at the school starting age in the UK. Put in place in 1870 (!), such an early starting age was based not on children’s educational or developmental needs, but on the needs of employers who wanted a correspondingly early leaving age. But I’m guessing Mr Gove has no plans to ‘update’ this one. I’m guessing Ms Merritt wouldn’t welcome such a move either. 

So 143 years on, we’re still basing decisions that profoundly affect our children’s lives, solely on the convenience to our workforce and economy. Even if there were any evidence regarding the impact of such a move on academic achievement, this, whilst important, is not the only thing to consider. What about social and emotional development? What about the long term impact of such a childhood as Gove envisages? Ms Merritt talks about how children are no longer playing out over the holidays and are spending their time in front of screens instead. So they might as well be in school, she argues. Perhaps we need to be doing something about this, instead of simply accepting that this is how things are now. Because is this really the world we want for our children? 

Let’s talk about making changes that take steps to give our children back their freedom, not further deprive them of their childhoods.


My manifesto for parent governor

February 14, 2013

The position of parent governor seems to be quite sought after at my child’s school. We were recently invited to vote to elect two new governors – I think we had a choice of about eight people who had put themselves forward. Each had written a paragraph about themselves. Personally I didn’t think any of them gave much away about what their opinions were – where they stood, what they would like to see improved at the school, what ideas they had. But I’m probably being naïve. How much opportunity do parent governors really have to change anything? Still, it would have been nice to know a little more about the views of the people we were being asked to vote for.

A letter has just come home telling us there are a further two positions to fill, and inviting parents to put themselves forward, with a “personal statement”, anticipating that another election will be necessary.

So, just for fun, here’s my manifesto. Here’s what I would stand up for if I was parent governor.

speaker2An end to all shame-based punishments in school.

Punitive ‘behaviour modification techniques’ such as placing children’s names on a ‘sad chart’, or announcing children’s names in assembly are practices that shame children and hark back to methods used in Victorian classrooms. Practices like this make children feel ashamed and bad about themselves, causing emotional harm, and ultimately making behaviour worse. They fail to address any underlying issues, and can be particularly destructive for children with individual needs or problems. Plenty of teachers have managed, and continue to manage classroom behaviour perfectly well without resorting to these methods. There’s no excuse for it and no need for it. Our children deserve better!

And while we’re on the subject of punishment, collective punishment is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, and generally considered a violation of human rights and justice, but it’s OK for school children? Really?

More outdoor learning.

Studies have shown that outdoor learning can be extremely beneficial to children, with evidence of improvement in both learning and behaviour. A recent report by the National Trust raises serious concerns about the amount of time today’s children are now spending indoors, and advocates children being taken outdoors for lessons as much as possible. Regular daily outdoor learning appears to be something only our nursery and reception children benefit from, so ceases when children are still only age 5! Looking for more opportunities to take learning outside, such as making links and working with local forest school practitioners and trainers would be a good way forward.

An improved, revamped playground.

Children’s play is important to them, but is limited and stifled by a bland environment. Less concrete and more natural features are needed. Oh, and that rule about not going on the grass – get over it!!

An end to age segregation in the playground

Our children already spend enough time segregated into age groups. Playing in mixed age groups is natural and has many developmental benefits for children. Play becomes more creative and less competitive. Is it really necessary to separate KS1 and KS2 in the playground? Surely, with a little effort and thought we can find ways to facilitate and encourage mixed age groups at playtime.

The encouragement and promotion of part-time attendance for reception children.

Our children are the amongst the youngest school starters in Europe. Many may not be ready emotionally or socially for full-time school life. In the UK, parents have the right to request part-time attendance until their child reaches legal school age – the term after they turn five. Yet few parents are aware of this, and even if they are, they are hesitant to do something ‘different’ for fear of going against the norm or making their child stand out. A school that is more open and forthcoming about this option would have the potential to make it the norm, and so to better support children as they make the transition into school life. Too much too soon is counter-productive for children, both emotionally and academically.

An end to homework

There is no evidence to show that homework in primary schools improves academic performance. There’s a lot of assumption, but there’s no evidence. No research has shown a correlation between homework and improved grades.

Family time is important, and families should decide how to spend it. Kids spend enough time engaged in formal learning in school. Give them a break. There is plenty to be learned and gained from other activities, from free play, from being outdoors, from pursuing individual interests, from spending quality time connecting as a family. Children’s lives today are already over-scheduled. This isn’t helping.

Sign the petition against homework in primary schools.

ballot box

So, if I can get all this down to 200 words I could submit it and nominate myself to stand for parent governor. Would you vote for me? What would you add to this list?


Home education: what, how and why? – a guest post by Jane Levicki

December 6, 2012

Although I’m not a home educator myself, I am very interested in the subject of home education, in dispelling myths, and in raising awareness of home education as an option. So I was very pleased when Jane Levicki agreed to write a guest post for me.

Jane has four children and has been home educating for eleven years. She is the Co-Editor of Education Outside School Magazine,  and blogs at www.manydifferentdrums.blogspot.co.uk

Just over eleven years ago I took my children out of school to home educate them. My son, then aged 8, had never been happy. While he was fine with the social aspect, he often found school boring and frustrating; he had no desire to read, fill in worksheets, or sit still for more than 30 seconds! We struggled through, because I knew no different, but when his sister started showing signs of stress in Year 1 (free play and the dressing up corner is left behind in Reception – Year 1 is serious school!) I knew I had to do something.

I had growing reservations about the school system anyway. I always expected to have to cope with stress in the GCSE years, but I was astounded and disappointed to find I had to do that when they were five! From baseline testing through to SATS it really did seem to be all about box ticking and conforming to the mould.

So I took them out of school and we entered the wonderful world of home education. And I found a new community of people who agreed with me and didn’t think I was mad!

I discovered that disillusion with the education system and unhappy children are a common reason for people to turn to home education and I met former teachers who had come out of the system along with their children! Some had coped with years of bullying. Others had realised that their child’s needs were just not being met, maybe they had Special Educational Needs, ADD, were Gifted, or simply needed to learn differently. The occasional family were home educating for religious reasons. One thing we all had in common was the desire to give back to our children the love of learning they were born with.

I imagine that most people think either that I stand over my children from 9 to 3 each weekday as they sit obediently at the kitchen table filling in workbooks, or that I let them run feral, rolling in the mud, or watching TV all day, while literacy is ignored and career prospects disappear.

Neither of those is true. People do ask me how I get my children to ‘sit down and do their lessons’, but home education doesn’t really work like that. Although some people do create a sort of ‘school at home’ environment if it suits them, that’s not very typical.

Much of their learning has been autonomous. This is an approach where the child directs his own learning, following his own interests while you support him. They learn what they need to when they need to. Some families are totally autonomous and never introduce any structure at all, unless their child asks for it. Many families opt for a blend of autonomy and some direction. This approach works well for us – I encourage as much autonomy as possible, but I also initiate projects and suggest activities.

boy with magnifying glassAnd even when I do, I am able to tailor those to the children. Learning can happen in all kinds of ways. Instead of getting the biology books out, you can go to the zoo or keep animals yourself, take walks and observe nature. Instead of printing out worksheets about money, you can pay your children a weekly allowance, take them shopping and help them open a bank account. Instead of boring reading schemes, you can just enjoy books together. Home education works best when you tap into your children’s aptitudes. I remember great fun pacing out the relative size of the solar system, cooking typical World War II dishes and trying out hieroglyphics!

Even as they enter teenage years, the choice is still there. They can do GCSEs or equivalents or focus more on their practical skills. They can enter sixth form or college or university. But they are not sitting on a conveyor belt, churned out at the end.

The Big Question – Socialisation!

Unless you’re going to keep your child locked in the house forever, they will socialise! Home education is a bit of a misnomer really because usually not much of the education happens at home. They are out and about in the real world – in libraries, shops, cafés, on public transport, in museums, the park; socialising all the time with children, adults and the elderly, shopkeepers, policemen, bus drivers. Sounds a lot more like good preparation for life than years spent with 30 children your own age, plus one adult who must always be obeyed, doesn’t it?

And as for making friends, well of course they do. They make friends with the children in their street and with the guys in their football team, drama club or Scout group. Plus there is a network of home educating communities all across the country organising group trips, activities and social events. In fact, some weeks you’ll have trouble finding them at home at all!

Perhaps best of all, they get to socialise in the way that suits them. My eldest son, now 19, has always been very much a social person. During the summer I would barely see him, he’d be out all day playing football with the other boys in the village. He made friends at his football team, basketball club and Scout group. When he went to college at 18, socialising was never going to be an issue! These days it can take us ages to get around the shops because he keeps bumping into people he knows!

My youngest child is also a social animal. She requires lots of contact with people and sleepovers when possible! My two middle children are much shyer but they have the opportunity to develop their social skills at their own pace. It hasn’t stopped them making friends, communicating with shop keepers, their drama teacher and football manager, or being offered babysitting jobs. In fact, being home educated has enabled them to develop their self-confidence and self-esteem from a secure base, which will see them very well for the future.

You sometimes hear the argument that children need to experience the harshness of life and learn to deal with bullies. Ridiculous! Anyone that has been even slightly bullied will tell you that it doesn’t make you stronger – it grinds you down. In addition, just because a child doesn’t go to school, that doesn’t mean he isn’t facing the ordinary disappointments and difficulties of life. I’ve seen my son cope with spending the entire match on the subs bench at the age of 12, my daughter not win the poetry competition. I’ve witnessed them not get the part they wanted in the play but take it like a professional and give it their best anyway.

I’m not saying that home educating has been a walk in the park. There have been difficult times, as with any aspect of parenting, but even through those I have not regretted it for a minute!

In the UK, education is compulsory, school isn’t. You don’t have to be a teacher or follow the National Curriculum. You don’t need to observe school terms, days or hours. You are not required to be monitored and your children aren’t tested. For more information on the legalities see www.education-otherwise.net

There are many great books about home education, but the one I would recommend as a great introduction is ‘Learning Without School’ by Ross Mountney.


Why classroom behaviour modification methods are on my sad list

September 27, 2012

There are a number of aspects of mainstream education in the UK that I’m not comfortable with. The starting age, the lack of play based learning for under 7s, the lack of outdoor learning, homework for primary school children, reward systems, class sizes, age segregation, the one size fits all approach and if you can’t do it now we’ll just push harder instead of backing off and coming back later. OK, that’s quite a few already.

But what has really got under my skin this week are the reports brought to me by my child, who talks very sparingly about what happens in school, of the happy/sad face chart in his new classroom.

The teacher, I’m told, has a chart on the classroom wall with a happy face on one side and a sad face on the other. When a child ‘misbehaves’ she writes their name under the sad face. If they misbehave again they get a tick next to their name. For each tick received they miss five minutes of their playtime. If they are especially ‘good’ they get their name written under the happy face, or moved from the sad face to the happy face.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this type of method of course. There are several variations – traffic lights, sun and cloud, they’re all basically the same thing. So what’s my problem with them?

Well, where do I start?

I get that a classroom teacher needs to keep order in the classroom. I do. But is this really the best they can come up with? How exactly is this going to be helpful to a child who is having difficulty meeting the many expectations school heaps upon them?

How is it helpful to be effectively told you are a bad person, and that, furthermore, the fact that you are a bad person is going to be publicly announced to the entire class – to all other children and staff in the classroom or anyone who might enter the classroom during your time of shame. Why not just give out a dunce’s cap?

What effect is this shaming going to have on your self-esteem? And what effect is low self-esteem going to have on your behaviour? Bingo. It’s going to make it worse. It’s quite possibly one of the causes of the ‘bad’ behaviour in the first place.

How is missing some or all of your playtime – a precious opportunity to do what you desperately need to be doing; getting outside and playing and letting off some steam – going to help your future behaviour? And how might you feel during that missed playtime? Positive, ready to make a real effort, feeling able to fit in, school’s a good place? Or resentful, bad, ashamed, school sucks?

My child highlighted another problem with all this when he told me, “Jimmy’s always on the sad face, he’s really naughty.”

Great. Jimmy is labelled, categorised. How is this going to help Jimmy? Will it make him more or less likely to make some solid peer connections that will have a positive effect on his behaviour? Or will he become ostracised? Will it improve his behaviour? Or will he just give up. After all, he’s always on the sad face, clearly he just can’t do anything right, he’s naughty.

When a child is given a label, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish talk about this in their book, “How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk”;

“If you labelled a child as a slow learner, he could begin to see himself as a slow learner. If you saw a child as mischievous, chances are he’d start showing you just how mischievous he could be…..the child who has been given the name begins to play the game. After all, if everyone calls Mary bossy, then that’s what she must be.”

Children behave well when they feel good about themselves and their environment, not when they have a dark cloud hanging over their heads all day long. And the very children that most need help, are the ones likely to end up under that dark cloud every day, giving them just what they don’t need.

Just because so far my child is not the one under the sad face every day, doesn’t mean I’m going to be OK with what’s going on in his classroom, the place he spends a significant part of his time. I chose to put him in a mainstream school so I shouldn’t complain? Actually, other than home education, there was no choice, no alternative school. Yet my child has a right to go to school, and he also, I believe, has a right to be treated better than this. Our children deserve more respect and understanding. And by understanding, as with the title of my blog, I don’t just mean understanding of their behaviour and the underlying needs behind it, but understanding of the negative effects of these superficial behaviour modification techniques. They may ‘work’ for some children (but at what cost?), but they are failing many. Teachers should know better, be better informed.

Oh, and perhaps if we didn’t stuff 30 five-year-olds into a classroom for six hours a day five days a week we wouldn’t need to resort to these methods in the first place.


Starting school without any tears

September 3, 2012

One of the most harrowing experiences known to parents is that of having their screaming child physically torn from them by a stranger, then having to walk away to the sounds of their child crying and begging them not to leave. Just a necessary part of letting go? Teaching your child independence? Or an unnecessary, cruel and detrimental way of managing a delicate situation? I think the latter.

I made the mistake of allowing this to happen once, when my child was two and a half. I vowed I would never allow this to happen again, and have successfully avoided such a situation all but once, when I was taken by surprise one morning at school.

It first happened at a playgroup that clearly didn’t believe in settling in arrangements. They fully bought into the ‘just let them cry it out and they’ll be fine’ philosophy. There were hysterical children and parents everywhere. It was carnage. I subsequently withdrew my child from the playgroup’s register, returning several months later on the pre-agreed condition that I remain with him for as long as I felt he needed me to, even if this meant I never actually left and became a sort of volunteer parent helper with cutting out and sorting coloured pens.  As it happened, I remained with my child for his two mornings a week for about a month. When I finally left there were no tears, nor were there any on any subsequent occasions. He thoroughly enjoyed his time there, being a lively and sociable child who loves being around other children in this type of environment. He just needed time to feel comfortable and safe enough to be there without me. Trying to rush this was counterproductive.

Before making the decision to move him to the pre-school attached to the school he would eventually be attending, I was careful to speak to the staff there about their settling in arrangements. They were happy for me to do whatever I judged best. I planned to stay with him for at least a week, but 3 mornings proved sufficient. There were no tears throughout the year there.

In the summer prior to my child starting school he showed considerable anxiety about the impending change. It was a great comfort to him that I could repeatedly assure him that I would be staying with him for the whole time on his first day. Feeling safe and reassured by the knowledge that I would be there with him considerably lessened the anxiety and stress of the first day. There was no dread of a separation, no need to fear. He knew I would be right there with him. It worked perfectly. I sat in a corner of the classroom with a book. My child joined in with the other children, engaged with the teacher, in short, did everything the other children did and that he was expected to do, just ‘checking in’ with me occasionally.

On the second day I explained to him exactly what would happen when we arrived; “The bell will ring then you’ll all get in line. That’s when we’ll kiss goodbye, then you’ll go into school with the other children, and I’ll be back at lunchtime, just like at nursery”.

This way there were no surprises, he knew what to expect. From his behaviour and reaction on the first day I had made the decision that he was ready for me to leave. As with all the settings he had been to, once the decision was made and I had told him what would happen, it was important that I stuck to it, not letting him feel like there was any choice, any room for negotiation. So making the decision was the tricky part – I needed to be sure he was ready.

This is how it worked for me. It won’t work like this for everyone. Every child is different and will react differently. But I firmly believe that time invested at the beginning saves a lot of tears in the long run, and makes for a much more happy and settled experience for a child, helping develop a positive attitude towards school. The conventional wisdom is to leave quickly, even if your child appears distressed. But as with many aspects of parenting, the conventional wisdom is not something I go along with!

Attachment theory and neuroscience already inform us in no uncertain terms of the detrimental effects of leaving a child aged under three without an attachment figure. But with our early school starting age pushing children into school when they’ve just turned four, and consequently pre-school at three, we need to consider if it’s reasonable to expect a child, at such an age, to be comfortable being left in an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar adults and unfamiliar rules and routines. Yes, it’s often simply fear of the unknown. So why not simply stay until the unknown is known?

I get tired of hearing the old story, “They stop crying as soon as you’ve left”. For me, this doesn’t mean they’re OK. It just means they’ve stopped crying. Children can have a myriad of feelings, fears, misgivings, and anxieties without expressing them through crying. What’s the point of expressing them if no-one’s going to listen?

Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., & William J. Pieper, M.D. put this nicely in “The Smart Love Parent”:

“When parents come to pick up their child, they may well be told that the child stopped crying almost immediately and was “fine” the rest of the morning. The flaw in this reasoning is that the child’s behaviour, rather than her feelings, is being used to measure success at separating.”

As with any parenting decision that goes against the traditional majority, we shouldn’t be afraid to stick to our guns, to stick to what we know is best for our children, to trust our instincts. Speak to the staff and explain your position beforehand. Make your child’s school experience start as you want it to go on – happy and stress-free.