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What Do Children Really Want?

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.