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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)
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 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…


Garden painting
Garden painting

Garden – artist unknown

My dad inspires me.

He has the knack of making a garden come alive and look like a place you want to be in. Even as an octogenarian, he spends hours outdoors tending to nature. And that’s not just in his own garden – he’s often to be found in other people’s gardens as well.

My favourite place in his Cornish garden is the raised patio: it is crazy-paved with a decent-sized pond populated with fish, lilies, frogs (in season) and duckweed. Irregular steps lead down to the lawn and alpines fill the crevices amongst the rockery that borders the patio. Elsewhere in the garden, fruit bushes and ornamental shrubs and  trees adorn the borders.

My dad’s garden thrives.

The same cannot be said about every garden – or, for that matter, every human being.



Having worked in the education sector for a couple of decades, I have come across countless children who are living a life in which they are barely surviving, let alone thriving. Unfortunately, statistics seem to indicate that large numbers of teachers are also just surviving.

A recent and perhaps deliberately provocative article in The Guardian highlighted a report by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) and highlighted the plight of the ‘ghost child’ – ‘the institutionalised infant.., wandering from playground to desk to after-school club without real purpose, nodding off through boredom and fatigue.’ It adds, ‘the ghost child is increasingly likely to be taught by the ghost adult – a teacher grey with fatigue and stress, stuck at school for 10 hours or more a day, wandering from duty to duty in playground, classroom or after-school club.’

Why have we come to this?



Returning to the plants in my dad’s garden, they thrive on sunshine, air and water, which Cornwall has in reasonably generous amounts, especially the latter. All of these are externally provided – drawn from natural resources. What does this look like in the life of a human being? Consider this:

a) Roots draw water up from the ground in which a plant is anchored in and deliver it to the rest of the plant. As human beings, we need  a source of continual refreshment that ‘hydrates our soul’ – and I’m not talking about the alcoholic liquid variety here! For most of us, companionship within our family and close family circles sustains us and provides the emotional resources we need to thrive in or relationships. However, for many adults and, unfortunately, children, acute loneliness due to lack of close family or friendship bonds causes a crippling lack of ‘hydration’, resulting in wilting human beings.

b) Plants respire through tiny holes in their leaves so that they can draw in air. Without air, a plant will simply languish and die. Human beings are designed to thrive but, for many, the opposite experience is true: they languish because they do not have meaning and purpose. This is the ‘air’ that keeps us from languishing. It starts almost from birth as we explore the world and discover our ability to influence outcomes but, if our sphere of influence dies and our sense of worth and dignity goes with it, so does our capacity to thrive.

c) Plants need light – sunshine in particular – and, as you are aware, they turn their leaves to face the the sunshine in order to absorb light energy. Apart from the obvious energy we derive from ingestion of food, we as humans need energising. We need stimulus. We need to be creative. We need to be problem-solvers. Much of this naturally develops through our play experiences as children but we all know that play has changed considerably in recent decades. Educators bewail the fact that children now spend much of their free time indoors – not outdoors with other children exploring, taking risks and developing essential social skills. However, as educators, we can help to correct this through the experiences we give children in school settings – and many nurseries in particular are very good at just that: creating vibrant play spaces for children to develop essential life long skills that energise their creativity.



There is plenty of truth in the old maxim attributed to one of my favourite thinkers, Albert Einstein:

Play is the highest form of learning.

He is also recorded as saying,

Imagination is more important than knowledge.

How are we facilitating children’s play effectively in order to develop their imagination –  in order to bring them sunshine?



Margaret Moore from The International Coach Federation writes in her blog post,

A sense of a higher purpose is a potent source of life fuel, especially when times are tough.

She also writes,

One of the most popular songs today (with more than 300 million YouTube visits), Katy Perry’s “Roar” speaks to the power of the human life force to make the world a better place. Katy sings from her jungle perch, “I am a champion and you’re going to hear me roar.”

But she also adds,

The vast majority of us are just surviving or even languishing—far from thriving, certainly not roaring.


So, to summarise,

A. Ensure you have a trusted circle of friends and family around you and, if you work with children, ensure they have the same.

B. Explore and discover meaning and purpose in your life and help others do the same.

C. Be creative in your problem-solving – and, above all, play. Then teach others to do the same.



I’ll finish with a quote from another of my favourite thinkers, Maya Angelou:

My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.

I’ll drink to that…

Fair is not everyone getting the same but everyone getting what they need

Equality is not always justice
Equality is not always justice

Equality is not always justice

When I started my teaching career, I was working in an inner city school populated by an eclectic mix of children from ethnically and socially diverse backgrounds. Most of them were from the lower end of the economic spectrum and, with all the enthusiasm and energy of a new teacher, I attempted to provide them with the richest experience of education I could muster. To be honest, I probably tried too hard but it was both gratifying and rewarding to see the appreciation they expressed at even the littlest attempts to enhance their school days – such as taking turns to take a puppet home for the weekend.

My next school was of a totally different demographic: largely upwardly mobile, middle-income families with high aspirations for their children. Their response to some of the tricks I had tried at my previous school surprised me: they weren’t bothered or they’d seen it before. To use a terrible cliché, they had ‘been there, done that and bought the T-shirt’.

A few years later, I moved schools again – this time back into the inner city and into a very challenging environment. It was a deliberate choice because (and this is going to sound like a worn and over-used phrase) I wanted to make a difference. I particularly wanted to make a difference to what I saw as a gross inequality between the schooling opportunities available to children from deprived backgrounds and those experiencing considerably greater social advantage.



When I read the title of this post (suggested to me by a friend and blogging compatriot, Nicola Marshall), I immediately thought of the above image, which I came across some time ago. I had never really considered the stark difference between equality and justice until I came across this striking image.

The two images could very well also reflect the stark differences between the education accessed by different groups in society. Although I am loath to generalise, schools in challenging circumstances – those with a higher proportion of disadvantaged pupils – seem often unable to provide the rich experiences offered by schools populated by less disadvantaged children, often because they are having to cater for the extraordinary needs of their children, be they academic, behavioural or emotional. This is not to say that pupils from socially advantaged backgrounds do not experience academic, behavioural or emotional challenges but they are likely to be less predominant and the proportion of pupils exhibiting or manifesting such is likely to be significantly fewer.

It seems unfair, then, that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to have access to the same educational experiences of their less disadvantaged peers – for who could argue that they don’t have the same potential? One could reason that disadvantaged pupils have more cash thrown in their direction in order to address these issues of inequality (such as Pupil Premium in English schools) but the reality is that it takes more than cash to solve these inequalities.



Children in our most disadvantaged schools need so much more if they are to compete on an equal footing with socially advantaged learners. ‘Fair’ is not giving all children the same education but everyone getting the education they need and, in this case, it is quite clear that one size most certainly does not fit all.

There are some schools in disadvantaged areas that are working miracles but they are few and far between. Most struggle and strive to do their very best for their children but often feel that they are battling against an insurmountable odds: it is all they can do to keep their ship afloat, let alone steaming ahead. What seems to work best is collaboration between schools but this is not widespread enough to be causing an essential mindshift in the education sector.

So we are left with a picture of schooling that looks more like the ‘equality’ image above: we try to give all children the same, but this does not result in justice. Justice is enabling all children to see what is possible in their lives and being given the opportunity to aspire towards that – rather than the apparently inevitable, which is what far too many see.



This post is inconclusive in that it does not offer answers – it just raises a lot of questions. However, I hope it is pithy enough to make you want to chew it over – and spit the bits out. By all means comment: I am just offering a perspective.

Meanwhile, consider the following quotes, which are all variations on a theme which pack a punch, whichever way you look at it:


You can judge a nation by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens. (Author unknown)


The measure of a civilization is how it treats its weakest members. (Author unknown)


A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members. ~ Mohandas Gandhi


Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members – the last, the least, the littlest. ~ Cardinal Roger Mahony


What are we doing to ensure that everyone is getting what they need…?



This blog post is written as part of a ‘blog buddies’ group, the idea being that we each write a weekly blog post on a chosen theme. To read the other posts on this theme, please visit:

Luke’s blog

Wendy’s blog

Nicola’s blog

If you would like to join our ‘blog buddies’ group and share in this writing adventure (no obligation to write, just join in when you are able), please e-mail

Better that you come from nothing than nothing comes from you

Value Key
Value Key

Image: Stuart Miles /

Validity is a curious thing.

As human beings we crave validity – whether we want to call it worth, value, acceptance or recognition. We desperately want to  belong, to be wanted, to be valued for who we are and what we have to offer.

Most of us have probably experienced what it is not to feel accepted – to be rejected, even. It can be a crushing experience. Acceptance is what we really need in order to become who we truly are. However, have you ever thought that accepting ourselves as we are and accepting others as they are is likely to help us feel accepted?  Note I did not say ‘acceptable’. Show me someone who truly feels acceptable – that person is unlikely to exist.

But what are we accepted for? For what we can do? For what we look like? For what we have? For where we came from?

Hardly, because that would institute different levels of acceptance across the spectrum of human privilege. We all start with nothing and that is where acceptance begins – with our fundamental selves – the part of us that possesses nothing but is everything.

Acceptance and validity is at the very core of who we are. As babies and young children, we need acceptance in order to thrive and build relationships. As growing children and young adults, we need acceptance in order to help us establish our identity within our peer group. As adults, we need acceptance in order to maintain dignity and poise. As human beings, who we are is what we want others to accept us for.

And who we are is what we should give to others in the way we relate to them, interact with them, communicate with them and give them recognition. Who we are is what others need to perceive and receive. Who we are is what we need to reveal. It is the real us, the genuine article, that needs to come from us and that people will accept.

Better that you come from nothing than nothing comes from you.

So goes the song released by The Feeling in 2008. Not that this post is defined by the song lyric – it’s just a string of words within the lyric that have a particular resonance and deliver a punch.

We’ve all come from nothing – granted. Some of us think we are something. Some of us may even think we give something. But what people really want is for us to give ourselves. If we can’t do that, we’re giving nothing. Our validity is in who we are and in what we give out of who we are.

Nothing comes from the person who is not able to give himself.



This blog post is written as part of a ‘blog buddies’ group, the idea being that we each write a weekly blog on a chosen theme.

So far, there are three of us, the other two being Nicola Marshall and Wendy Sims. To read the other posts on this theme, please visit:

If you would like to join our blog buddies group and share in this writing adventure (no obligation to write, just join in when you are able), please e-mail me at

Our next theme is based on a quote from Douglas Adams:

I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be.

Feel free to write a post and let me know when it’s written and I’ll plug it in my own blog. Meanwhile, I need to get writing on the theme myself…