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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.

 

 

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.

Look How Far You’ve Come

Journey
Journey

Journey image courtesy of Martin / clkr.com

I swim most weeks. Well, to call it swim is probably stretching the point – it’s me thrashing through the water at a pace that is barely above that of a snail and nothing like the seemingly effortless performances of those who race past me at frequent intervals. However, I call it swimming and it does me good: it helps me think I’m doing something physically active and it helps me think – just think.

For example, as I’m coursing the length of the pool (yes, I’ve got beyond the doing-a-width-with-floats stage), I mull over the ‘stuff’ in my life. Being in a horizontal position buoyed up by a few million gallons of water helps that process. It’s remarkable how, firstly, things come into perspective (especially challenges) and, secondly, solutions come into focus.

Not only that, it’s a powerful time for reflection, too. This post is such an example.

I often wonder about whether I am actually getting better in the water and, musing on this one day, I realised I was swimming faster, swimming further and swimming for longer without breaks. OK, I’m still not up there with the Olympiads but, hey, LOOK HOW FAR I’VE COME. I used to be terrified of water, unable to float effectively – let alone swim – and dive? Ha!

Now, I regularly complete around twenty lengths, I enjoy the sensation of floating motionlessly, I dive without fear and I can surface dive to the bottom – more than three metres down. Look how far I’ve come…

A fellow blogger quoted these words from a song by Newton Faulkner:

Look how far we’ve come

Look what we’ve made

Started from nothing, building

Brick by brick by brick by brick by brick by brick by brick.

Looking back over my life, my career, my mistakes, the lessons I’ve learned and put into practice, I realise how far I’ve come. I may not have travelled my preferred route or even arrived at my preferred destination, but look how far I’ve come

We all need to look over our shoulders from time to time – just to remind ourselves how far we’ve come. How easy it is to look at our present circumstances and bewail our lot. How easy it is to bemoan our struggles and to wish for something better. But, perhaps our struggles are simply an indicator of how far we’ve come. Wouldn’t life be a whole lot easier if I wasn’t in this position? Probably but, hopefully, most of us are somewhere near where we think we ought to be.

I have used this Douglas Adams quote before but it bears repeating:

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be.

Look how far you’ve come – and ask a trusted friend or colleague to tell you how far you’ve come. Especially when it gets tough.

And, while you’re at it, be the one who reminds someone else how far they’ve come – we could all do with a little more encouragement and affirmation when things are looking bleak and you’re not even sure if you can see where you’re going, let alone where you’ve come from…

 

The way you do anything is the way you do everything

Image: nuttakit / www.FreeDigital Photos.net

Image: nuttakit / www.FreeDigital Photos.net

I was supposed to write this post weeks ago. When I mentioned this to an acquaintance (read: ‘friend’) with a pithy sense of humour, he quipped, ‘Is that because that’s the way you do everything?’ A wry grin and his tongue firmly in cheek.

I often include aspects of leadership in my posts and I can’t get away from it here, either. Because it’s true: the way you do anything as a leader is the way you do everything. And the reason for this, I believe, is deep down within us. It’s about what we believe about ourselves, about our relationships with others and what we believe about their perception of us.

All of us have a values system that we live by. We have deeply-held beliefs about life, about rights and responsibilities, community, fairness and justice, education (my own pet subject) and religion. We also have beliefs about our value – our value as human beings, our value to others and the value of what we have to offer. The fact is that each of us has immense and immeasurable value and what we have to offer to the world is priceless (even though publicists try to put a price on an individual’s worth).

A friend and I were discussing what drives people and why some appear more successful than others at promoting whatever ideology or principle they happen to believe in (and, let’s face it, there are a lot of us at it). We talked about the fact that many of us have a passionate belief in something but that we are often overwhelmed by the fear that others might not ‘buy in’ to that belief. We therefore do not push ourselves forward, even though what we have to offer is clearly of value. Our fear of rejection or failure is greater than our faith in ourselves. What turns the tables is the point at which we see that our message is greater than our fear of how it will be received.

In her book, A Return to Love, Marianne Wilkinson writes these oft-quoted words:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world (emboldening mine). There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

© Marianne Williamson, 1992

Returning to the opening theme, we all must recognise that our identity is what drives our behaviour before we can start changing the way we think – and it is about changing thinking. In an education context, we need to embed this discipline in the minds of our children: their behaviour, whether good, bad or indifferent, is undoubtedly a manifestation of what they think about themselves, which, in turn, is a product of their early experiences of nurturing – or lack of.

I often start my workshops with children by engaging them in a simple game: we stand in a circle and, altogether, recite each other’s name in turn round the circle, finishing with the words, ‘Everyone matters in our class.’ I remind the children that, even if we don’t feel that we matter, we must still believe it: it’s a simple case of ‘mind over matter’.

What we keep repeating often becomes a habit.

The way we do anything is the way we do everything, but it must reflect what we believe – not what we fear.