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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.

 

 

 

The Behaviour Iceberg (ignore at your peril)

Smileys
Smileys

Smileys / via clker.com

JUST MANAGING IS NEVER ENOUGH

Having composed a previous post which focused on leadership, I mused on my classroom experiences with children exhibiting emotional and behavioural difficulties (sometimes abbreviated to EBD).

Typically, a child may exhibit irrational or anti-social behaviour in a classroom which is, it has to be said, sometimes intolerable. There will invariably be systems to manage such behaviour but managing it is never enough.

Dealing with what we observe at face value is rarely enough. The real problem is that what we see or hear is often not nearly as devastating as what lies beneath – like the proverbial iceberg, the problems beneath the surface are often massive compared to what we see on the surface.

 

LIFE-CHALLENGING

As a deputy head at an inner city school some time ago, I was called in to the Year 6 classroom to ‘deal with’ a non-complaint child who was disrupting the lesson. I managed to coax the child out of the classroom and sit him down in the corridor. He was clearly in an emotional state but, once he’d calmed down, he explained to me that his dad’s girlfriend had walked out that morning.

You know how sometimes you realize that what you thought was a problem for you is actually a far greater problem for someone else? Well, here was just such a case but that someone else was a child. Not someone with the emotional resilience to cope with a major life-changing – and life-challenging – event, and a traumatic one at that.

 

COMPASSION

How can we expect to deal with a problem when we look only at what is visible on the surface? I learnt pretty soon as a teacher that helping children who manifested emotional and behavioural difficulties required a lot more understanding, patience – and compassion. That’s not to say I excused or made allowances for the behaviour; I just looked beyond the behaviour to the person and to what they must be going through to behave in such a way. No one in their right mind chooses to get themselves into trouble – but we’re not dealing with children in their right mind in cases such as this.

 

FIGHT, FLIGHT, FREEZE OR FLOCK

Those familiar with brain theory will know that the primitive ‘survival’ brain can effectively shut down the ‘thinking brain’ so that the person experiencing emotional trauma is incapable of rational (thinking) thought. It’s the classic ‘fight, flight, freeze or flock’ response: a child in the midst of an emotional trauma will either:

– fight it  (hence the disruptive behaviour)

– fly from it (which could manifest in withdrawal, evasion, refusal to participate or literally running off)

– simply freeze (effectively no response) OR

– flock (which may or may not be helpful, depending on whom they ‘flock’ with).

For a ‘child-friendly’ exploration of this, browse the The Brainworks Project website, which I’ve found very useful.

In any case, those of us who have a ‘duty of care’ for children need to look way deeper than the surface to make sense of – and effectively manage – the behaviours we invariably come across.

 

IT’S (NEARLY) AS SIMPLE AS ABC

For me, I have learnt the ABC of managing behaviour:

First, I must exercise ACCEPTANCE of children for who they are.

I often walk into classrooms of children I have never met before. I make absolutely no assumptions about their behaviour based on the school’s locality, ethnic mix of its pupils or their social background – I couldn’t possibly. They’re children. Demonstrating acceptance is, for me, the first ans most important step in establishing a relationship with them as quickly with them as possible.

Secondly, I must exercise BELIEF in the children.

I have to work fast on this: I quickly find something to hook in to something positive that any child manifests – be it manners, quick thinking, consideration for others or just ‘getting it’. I verbally recognise  and reward such ‘behaviour’, which sets the standard of  expectation for other children but which also helps the children to see that I believe in them. I have to keep doing this throughout my time with the children – constantly demonstrating belief, even and especially when a child demonstrates non-compliant behaviour: as soon as I have dealt with the behaviour, I find something about the child to believe in – recognition of something positive to detract from the negative and which provides an alternative route for them.

Thirdly, I need to exercise CONFIDENCE in the children.

As soon as I can find something I can tell the children I am confident they can do, I do so. It starts with showing their best but it can be as simple as good listening, speaking up, talking in pairs or working on a task independently. I have to demonstrate confidence by telling them I know they can do it.

Know how that feels when someone does that to (or for) you…?

Fourthly, I have to exercise DISCIPLINE.

This is about setting and maintaining expectations. Right from the start, I make my expectations clear but I need to maintain consistency throughout the lesson so that the children feel secure about boundaries and consequences. If a child crosses a boundary, they know they will be disciplined. We all need that.

Fifthly, I absolutely must exercise EMPATHY.

Pretty much the rest is ineffective if I cannot meet the children where they are: understand their feelings, understand how I make them feel and manage the process. This is especially important when managing a non-compliant child. I have got over shouting for the most part – it rarely works. Reasoning, explaining and empathising is far more effective.

 

For the most part, I have found this to work but I would be delighted to hear from anyone else about what ‘works’ with them: please, by all and any means, leave a comment.

But by no means ignore the underlying causes of worrying behaviour – you do so at your peril…