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What Do Children Really Want?

Child success

Child success

 

I was working with a Year 5 class this week that consisted of quite a mixed bunch of children, many of whom were also very mixed-up emotionally: they had issues relating to each other, issues listening, issues managing themselves and issues taking pride in their learning – or just taking learning seriously.

All that many of them seemed to want to do was to score points over each other – and, yet, I’m pretty sure that’s not what they really wanted.

As it happens, being the end of half-term, the school had planned a celebration afternoon on the Friday, during which children would give presentations based on the topic they had just finished studying (in the context of this particular class: Space).

 

Choice and Responsibility

On Wednesday, I outlined the idea to the children and explained the process of planning, preparing and presenting. Space is a topic that children are naturally curious about and this class were no exception. Given the opportunity to choose what to focus their presentation on and choose who they could work with – and choose how to present their chosen theme – was highly motivating to the children. It presented a certain level of risk to me as I was conscious of the behavioural issues I was up against and uncertain about how well they would work together or of their standard of presentation. However, after what I felt was sufficient guidance, I handed the responsibility over to them – along with huge flipchart-sized sheets of paper to work on.

 

Motivation and Mess

The effect was astonishing: motivation went through the roof and behavioural issues all but disappeared. The children organised themselves into small groups, found laptops and tablets for their research and spent several hours over the next three days preparing their presentations. Throughout the sessions during which we worked on the presentations, children came up to me with their ideas, or with facts they had discovered, or with requests about how to solve a particular presentation challenge. Several children made a mess of their first attempts and resolved to start again, including a child with severe emotional and behavioural issues who has spent over an hour doing a picture of a space shuttle, messed it up and started it all over again.

One particular child – who had previously manifested a persistently immature attitude – spent hours diligently researching, assembling and presenting facts about the sun on the most stunningly decorated poster. It was vivid, eye-catching and the attention to detail (especially colour) was painstaking. What astonished me was his ability to sustain concentration over an extended period of time without distracting others or being distracted himself. He evidently took an enormous amount of pride in what he was doing and was visibly pleased with the end product – especially when I suggested he take it show the headteacher.

 

What did these children really want?

Having seen these children excel themselves in so many ways over a couple of days as they planned and prepared for their presentations, I reflected on what had made the difference to their behaviour and the lessons I learned about what motivates children.

To start with, children really want someone to believe in them – to expect them to do well – to give them responsibility.

Secondly, children want to get on with each other – and to do things together. Children don’t actually enjoy making each other miserable; more often than not, it’s a defence mechanism – it’s a sign of insecurity and an attempt to establish their own credence and credibility.

Thirdly, children really want to succeed: and when they see a chance for success, they will work for it. The motivation is palpable.

 

Curriculum, Community and Choice

A friend of mine who does a lot of work around the area of attachment theory referred to Alfie Kohn’s perspectives on this kind of thing in her own blog:

I’ve been reading a book by Alfie Kohn at the moment called ‘Punished by Rewards’. He says that if you have three components in the classroom working well, you will not need to bribe children to behave. The three components Kohn talks about are:

Curriculum (engaging content delivered in an engaging way)
Community (a caring class where students feel they belong)
and
Choice (some say in how they learn).

That seems like common sense to me, not rocket science, but I worry that our we are in danger of stifling children – not setting them free.

 

Do something good

I am reminded of something I once saw that has influenced my thinking ever since:

If you want children to do something good, give them something good to do.

Most children have an innate desire to do something good; it’s up to us – the people they look up to, mimic and learn from – to give them something good to do.

That’s what children really want.

 

 

 

When Teaching is a Daily Trek Into The Wild

Jungle

Jungle

 

Today, I taught Year 2.

It was like going into the wild.

What astonishes me – but, more importantly, concerns me – is that far too many children I meet lack the essential skills to manage themselves, to manage their responses to situations, to manage their relationships with each other, to manage their learning.

And here many of us are, in classrooms up and down the country, trying to teach children who don’t want to be taught.

It really is like going into the wild – every day.

As a deputy headteacher, I taught a Year 5 class who were, when I went in, out of control. About 75% of my time was taken up with behaviour management and behaviour modification – we just about managed to learn something in the other 25%.

Every day, I drove to school wondering what I was going to come up against that day: it wasn’t a pleasant feeling because, like most teachers, I like to have my day planned and to see outcomes. But, in this instance, planning was often an academic exercise: the job was more like running on one of those large exercise balls and hoping to stay upright – or running inside a hamster wheel and hoping not to get thrown off. Planning somehow seemed secondary to meeting the real needs of the kids.

It was like going into the wild – I really had no idea what to expect.

But what keeps teachers in places like this staying in places like this is the reason why they do it.

At the end of today, I met up with a small group of teachers congregating outside a classroom. It’s Friday and one of them is holding a bottle of wine. They are reflecting on their day and the challenges they have faced and what they are going to that evening and over the weekend to ‘recover’. We start to talk about the children and what challenges THEY face and why they need us to believe in them – because, for some of them, no one outside of school believes in them. Having the opportunity to change children’s lives for the better is why they do what they do. For some of them – many of them – home is chaotic, unpredictable and even unsafe.

It’s like going back into the wild after a day in school – a place of relative security – their only safe haven. Their harbour before they launch out into the stormy sea of home-life again.

I have often felt on the edge of losing control with children but I worry most that the children have already lost control – have been out of control for so long that to bring them back is going to take more than securing a Level 4 in SATs.

I told the children today that they had to make a choice – and, if they wanted to be proud of themselves, it had to be a good choice. We defined that ‘good choice’ but, for some of those children, making a good choice is so far from their normal experience, they don’t really have the wherewithal to make that choice. Like I said, they’re out of control.

So we have to help them make good choices. That takes time. It takes effort. It takes explaining in a multitude of different ways at different times and in different places. It means taking them out of the wild and into a clearing where they can sit in a place where there’s no fear.

Not many weeks after taking over the Year 5 class I mentioned earlier, I started doing Circle Time with them – straight after morning break every day. For three weeks, they couldn’t even sit quietly in a circle and listen so, after twenty minutes of trying, we would abandon Circle Time and get on with the rest of the day. Eventually, we managed to attempt some semblance of a Circle Time. They loved it. They became good at it. And, because they experienced little successes in Circle Time – and liked the feeling that came with that success – they wanted more of it.

I took the same class into Year 6 and we continued Circle Time. I’m not saying everything turned out honky dory for hose kids but, by believing in them and continuously telling them what I believed about them, they eventually started believing in themselves – and each other. This was transformational: and it had a massive impact on their learning and their achievement.

Needless to say, the end of Year 6 was very emotional: the class had come through a lot together and had come a long way – and they recognised the difference and liked it.

It was no longer a daily trek into the wild.

As those teachers reflected today, I, too, reflected on why we as teachers keep going ‘into the wild’: we can see what the children cannot see. We can see what they can be. And we cannot afford to lose the opportunity to make that happen.

Teachers see children not for what they are but for what they can be. Places like this need people like you.

But, oftentimes, it takes going into the wild to find out what that ‘can be’ looks like.

It takes going into the wild to find out what’s there and how to tame it.

You don’t try to make a wild child come to you – you go to where they are and carry them to safety.

 

 

It Takes a Whole Village to Raise a Child

Adult and child hands
Adult and child hands

Image: www.mtdeafblind.ruralinstitute.umt.edu

I sat in on a school leaving assembly yesterday and watched Year 6 children troop out for the last time before they left for the summer – ready to start secondary school in September.

I say ‘ready’, but I could name at least half a dozen boys and not a few girls from one class of thirty children who are far from ready to leave the security of primary school.

Transition from primary to secondary school seems to be one of our rites of passage in the UK. Children are hauled through Year 6, undergoing immense pressure to get that magical ‘Level 4’ in their SATs tests and then bundled out of the door to start Year 7. Sounds familiar?

 

Confident Individuals?

Part of the problem with our education system is the very narrow expectations we have of our children: like the Victorians, we imagine that out children have to develop a prescribed set of skills in order to become ’employable’, but the skills we are neglecting are the very ones that ensure the children are able to function as, in the words of Mick Waters, ‘confident individuals, successful learners and responsible citizens’. I’m not sure that our curriculum actually addresses any one of those aspects, although I have come across schools that are making a resolute effort to do so with the limited freedom they have.

A friend of mine runs a nurture unit in a primary school and I wish there was one in every primary school in the country: children who have missed out on some essential aspect of their upbringing as young children have the chance to do some ‘catching up’ over a period of weeks in a secure but relaxed and compassionate environment, where the emphasis is on emotional resilience rather than academic knowledge. I came across a similar unit in a school not far from where I live: three children and two staff occupied a space away from the main part of the school. each child was dong something different, with assistance or intervention from an adult where necessary or appropriate. One of the children I spoke to was drawing: line drawings in a style that would have made Whistler proud. I mentioned to the child that he should keep on with his drawing and suggested he look up James Whistler, who started drawing when he was five years old.

What is it that actually stimulates and inspires a child to ‘realise their potential’, to become the person they were meant to be, to aspire to make something of themselves?

 

Significant Adults

My blogging friend, Nicola Marshall, author of ‘The Teacher’s Introduction to Attachment’ recalls a youth leader’s words about adult-pupil ratios. We expect a group of children to refer to their significant adult in say, a school or extra-curricular context. This may be one adult to thirty children in a school, reducing to less than ten children to one adult in an environment such as a youth club. The youth leader in question asserted that we should be looking at a ratio of five adults to very child: that is, every child should have five significant adults in their lives, be they parents, grandparents, teachers, youth leaders or adults in other contexts.

This reminded me of the well-known African proverb:

It takes a whole village to raise a child.

These significant adults play a key role in a child’s life: they are essential role-models who are ‘witnesses’ to the child’s life. Nicola Marshall also refers to Richard Gere’s film, Shall We Dance, in which his screen-wife says,

We all need a witness to our lives, the ups and downs and comings and goings.

Who are the so-called significant adults in the lives of many of our children today? Celebrities? Media personalities? Inappropriate relatives? Certainly not the role-models we would recommend.

To quote Nicola one more time, where she talks of her own adopted children:

Whoever it is, those people will have an influence and impact on a child’s experience of life – they will be the witnesses to that child’s existence. I only wish the adults in my children’s lives understood what a huge help or hinderance they are to my children’s progress. It matters that we remember their names. It matters that we pay attention to their anxieties. It matters that we witness their very existence. How we respond to them is vitally important.

 

See Children for Who They Can Be

Anyone in the teaching profession has probably come across the words of Haim Ginott, author of ‘Between Teacher and Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers‘:

I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.

As a teacher who works with children all over the country, often meeting them for the first time, I make no assumptions: I try to see them not for what they are but for who they can be. I find that enormously empowering and, frankly, liberating.

As a child, my significant adults were my parents (being a bloke, my dad in particular), Rosie (one of my youth leaders), my grandpa and a middle-school teacher who, nearly forty years later, I am still in touch with.

Who were your significant adults? And who are you a ‘significant adult’ for?

When did you last astonish yourself?

Thomas Edison quote
Thomas Edison quote

Quote attributed to Thomas Edison

Sometimes, you just need to inspire yourself

You know what it’s like: you’re racking your brains but nothing comes. You’ve got writer’s block, the solution to a problem seems to defy you, ideas escape you, your creative juices have dried up – you have a mental block.

Where do you go for inspiration?

At a recent conference, I felt much the same: I had ideas but the obstacles to progress seemed to massively outweigh the creativity that I felt was within me. By chance, I happened to strike up a conversation with someone on the same table as me. It started off by talking about what we do. I talked about RAISER, an idea I’m trying to get off the ground that is designed to help people develop greater resilience. Fundamentally, it’s about making healthy choices:

 

R – healthy Relationships

A – healthy Aspirations

I – a healthy sense of Individuality

S – a healthy perspective on Success and how to achieve it

E – meeting and making healthy Expectations

R – accepting and giving a healthy level of recognition

 

The person I was talking to leapt at this idea and started talking about how I was going to make it work (I didn’t have a clear picture as yet). Suffice to say, her enthusiasm, her knowledge and her perspectives on my ideas excited me. We exchanged e-mail addresses then she left for an appointment and I left inspired.

Later on in the day, talking to someone completely different on a completely different subject, I was sharing my ideas about buying a small B&B / self-catering outfit in mid-Wales. He, being a business guru, asked me some very direct and challenging questions: Who was my specific target market? Why should they choose my place over another’s? What messages do they need to hear?

I didn’t have the answers there and then but I did go away and think about it. Less than half an hour later, I had what I felt were some compelling answers to go forward with: so compelling that my brain was buzzing: I was inspiring myself.

The point to all of this is not what I was being inspired by – it’s how I became inspired.

What inspires anyone is what they are passionate about. If you’re not passionate about a subject, even the world’s greatest expert on the subject is unlikely to inspire you. But, if you’re naturally interested in something, just a spark of interest from anyone else will inspire you: you don’t have to be told what to say or how to say it: your whole being is alive to the subject.

Yes, we need people around us to ignite our passion but the inspiration is there: you can inspire yourself.

As a teacher, I relish the challenge of igniting passion and inspiration in children but I am concerned about the increasing lack of opportunity to awaken passion in children. They all have it in them but we are in danger of quoshing their passion with the unrelenting drive for ‘standards’, as if what drives and inspires them is unimportant. How about using children’s natural passion and interest to inspire their learning? We are pretty good at this in Early Years but, with the pressure to get children through Phonics tests in Year 1, Level 2 thresholds in Year 2 and KS2 SATs in Year 6, are we killing the ability of children to inspire themselves?

Go on, what would you do differently if you didn’t  concern yourself with test results, standards, league tables and thresholds?

Inspire yourself…

Is happiness all it’s cracked up to be?

Happiness Books
Happiness Books

Image: www.performancemarks.com

Given the number of books, programs, websites, courses and other material that abound for the sole purpose of helping people find happiness, I figure there must be a lot of unhappy people about. It raises a lot of questions:

What is happiness?

Do we have a correct understanding of happiness?

Is it right to look for happiness?

Are we looking for happiness in the wrong place?

Should we be searching for it?

Do we have a right to happiness?

We seem to treat happiness as a commodity – as something one can possess – but it has conditions attached to it. So, when I have such and such, I’ll be happy. If only such and such, I’d be happy.

I suspect that unhappiness has a lot to do with false or unrealistic expectations or a degree of dissatisfaction or disappointment but I really believe that so-called unhappiness is down to something quite simple: lack of meaning or purpose in one’s life. This has nothing to do with money, possessions, relationships, health, status, power or anything else that we cling to but that has a habit of sifting through our hands faster than sand.

It’s about who we are and what drives us.

If we have meaning and purpose, we have a reason to get out of bed every morning; we have a reason to work hard, to take risks, to go the extra mile, to make sacrifices. We have hope, confidence, energy. We’re happy in spite of anything else that might be happening to us at the time.

Some of the unhappiest people on earth are also the richest.

Some of the happiest people on earth are the have nots, the infirm, the destitute, the oppressed.

What’s the difference? Well, those who are looking for happiness are not likely to find it, whereas those who have happiness have it simply because they gave it away.