The Self-Control Paradox : the foundations for building better behaviour in schools

Self control and character are frequently discussed as solutions to the complex process of helping a young person thrive at school. This individual responsibility to be compliant, co operative and school ready is talked about as if it is a simple expectation.

Some schools are hitting the headlines for their tough approach. They make it sound a reasonable proposition which only unreasonable families would challenge. Their   formula is this: your child comes to school willing to learn and follow the rules and we keep order by being tough on any disruption which may take teachers away from the curriculum. Like any simple formula it may be too good to be true. However many of these schools are skilful self publicists and repeating the formula gives it a credibility it does not deserve.

Let’s look first at the expectation that character and self control are easily achievable. The self-control paradox suggests that being able to exert your will power depends on the flight or fight response not being switched on. For children in homes where neither poverty or illness is creating stress this may not be too difficult. Indeed the calm atmosphere at school may be a major selling point to families who know their child will thrive in this environment. Probably this child is confident, self reliant and has no special needs.

In families where life is tough, switching off the stress response is more difficult. If you the arrive in school concerned you may break a rule or struggle to keep up with a lesson then the stress rises. A stressed child is more likely to experience the flight or fight reaction once stress reaches a certain level. Once this happens the emotional brain takes over and the cool self talk needed to persuade yourself to make a good decision will elude you. This is tough enough for adults faced with any environment that feels hostile and threatening. For children there is the added complication of the specific biological process of attachment which sensitises children to react strongly to threat and seek sanctuary and support with trusted adults. Trust and strong nurturing relationships are essential to build a sense of safety and reduce threat. However a  top down approach in a school where the system is inflexible seems more likely to create a sense of threat.

These “tough love, no second chances” schools are operating the Matthew Effect in education:
“For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away” This cumulative effect of deprivation is well known and deliberately setting out to do this is inexcusable.

We are told clear rules and routines are transformational in turning previously unruly classes into safe havens for learning. We are not told about the families who leave or are encouraged to move on because they no longer feel welcome. The blame is shifted onto their shoulders and the school remains confident that they are in the right.

There is an assumption that environment change alone is sufficient to switch on children’s ability to choose to conform and to consciously control their behaviour. However this compliance seems most likely to come about when individuals feel wanted, accepted and made stronger by what the school offers. A sense of belonging, acceptance and confidence that achievement will result are essential. Alienation is the opposite, an experience of exclusion, failure and rejection where students feel powerless and manipulated.

It is not a simple formula to create a thriving school. Schools have a tough job in creating thriving groups. Schools exist to teach, but they are also responsible for the welfare and wellbeing of every child who is a member of the school. Every child needs to feel positive and hopeful about their learning.

What these system changes alone fail to achieve is the internal dynamic of a thriving group. Thriving groups recognise and explicitly show appreciation of each individual’s  contribution. Those who feel unrecognised, excluded or rejected find the system oppressive. This can switch on the stress response of flight and fight creating emotional turmoil which is likely to lead to challenging behaviour. Calling on self-control or more recently “grit” misses a few steps in the process of developing resilience.

Schools who are unable or unwilling to offer a safe haven to those who loose control will continue the cycle of failure and meltdown. In contrast successful schools are willing to explore what it takes to help someone think positively both about themselves and being part of the school. When someone’s sense of self feels diminished by discussion following an incident then change is unlikely. Criticism is often heard as rejection by those who feel outsiders.

For young people who are emotionally vulnerable through adverse life circumstances this ability to switch on self control will be much more difficult. They will need support which makes them feel valued and aware that adults are there to help not condemn them. The self-control paradox is that without the sense of acceptance and belonging it is hard to regain the calm that allows us to access the rational thought process which manages self control.





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Children thrive on challenge and freedom to explore

During this half term happy families visit the seaside town where I live. Children explore the beach and run and skip along the prom. At the skate park older children show off their moves, while younger ones watch and dream of being able to perform such tricks. Everyone is free to decide how to follow their inclinations and they learn through their experience.

This shouldn’t be confined to holiday times. We need to ensure that young people have the space to perfect their skills and find their strengths. Play is important and not just as a way to relax and have fun. Play is the mind at work, a first hand effort to conquer the world we find ourselves in.

While being taught established knowledge is vital, without the bedrock of self- development through play this 2nd hand knowledge sits on shifting sands rather than a firm foundation. The busy 24/7 world that adults have created has often meant that a child’s world of ambling, playful exploration gets short-circuited to meet adult expectations of life in the fast lane. Independence is sacrificed for speed and convenience reducing play to occasional gap and pre planned holiday times.

This is not enough and children show their discontent in being derailed from their developmental imperative of play and exploration by low mood, inattention, non – compliance and behaviour problems. Children who are not flourishing because of play starvation don’t mean to be difficult any more than a food hungry child is unreasonable in wanting food. We need to make space for play if we want our children to grow up capable, resilient and determined. file0001524259676

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Understanding and Nurturing Emotional Competence

Children need to learn to recognise and understand their emotions so they can gain control over what the emotional brain is telling them. Emotional competence is the ability to be aware of feelings but also to take account of what you think before you decide on a course of action. The emotional brain is powerful and learning to manage it is a major life achievement. Learning to coordinate the emotional and the rational brain has been compared with learning to ride an elephant[i]. The human may try to think and plan where he wishes to go but the animal beneath him is hugely strong and powerful and not totally predictable.

There are 5 skills which children need to manage their emotional wellbeing.

Recognizing your emotions: being able to monitor your feelings from moment to moment allows you to decide what to do.

Managing your emotions: being able to self-regulate strong feelings avoids you being at the mercy of powerful emotions which can undermine what you set out to do

Self- motivation: is managing the conflict between seems attractive in the short term and working towards longer term goals. Resisting the power of our emotional impulses requires considerable self- discipline and restraint.

Recognizing emotions in others: empathy allows us to recognize what others may be feeling and theory of mind allows us to separate their feelings and needs from our own.

Developing and maintaining relationships: the art of relationships depends upon sensitivity to the needs of others and fluent social skills to build rapport and trust.

These 5 skill areas develop gradually over the course of a lifetime. Some people learn to ride the elephant while others have only limited control. Developing emotional competence is rarely achieved without sensitive adult support. .

Recognising emotions

Children are particularly at the mercy of powerful emotions, their vulnerability and need for protection is acknowledged by nature which provides them with super-strength emotional reactions, which alert the child to potential danger and also makes sure that any adult in a 500 yard radius can’t ignore the fact either. This reaction is called attachment behaviour, designed to protect the child and keep adults tuned in to ensure children are safe. Attachment behaviour persists throughout childhood but becomes more muted as young people gain confidence in their ability to handle situations by themselves or with the help of friends.

Babies first become aware of their feelings when they are reflected back to them. A smiling child who is smiled at in return and who senses matched body language and tone of voice begins to recognize enjoyment. An anxious baby becomes soothed by the reassurance shown to them which recognizes their anxiety and holds them safe from it. The synchrony between child and parent mirrors and matches the child’s feelings and allows the child to recognize what is happening. Later the words being used add meaning and the language of emotion is shared.

Managing emotions

When a child is engulfed by their emotions they cannot stand back from them and need an adult to provide reassurance and practical support to:

  •  help them feel safe and protected from harm even if objectively there is no threat
  • build trust that the adult will be consistent and reliable in helping them manage strong feelings
  • reduce the over-aroused physiological state which accelerates the flight or fight response
  • teach the child the language to recognize and label this pattern of feeling


This is based on a section on emotional wellbeing in What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful by Jeni Hooper, Child Psychologist. Published by Jessica Kingsley ©



[i] Jonathan Haidt uses this metaphor in his book  The Happiness Hypothesis. Arrow Books 2006

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10 ways to support a Flourishing Childhood.

Source: 10 ways to support a Flourishing Childhood.

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Every little bit helps.

I’ve always believed that how we look after the vulnerable is the essence of a civilised society, hence my career in psychology and my interest in promoting wellbeing. I’m not comfortable with any narrative that assumes individual responsibility alone will be sufficient. I’m a striver but that’s not the only reason for my successful transition from a council house to a professional career. There are many reasons why it is more difficult for some to be self-sufficient and it’s not all about personal qualities, a hostile environment is an equally a tough barrier to the good life. Here’s a little story of a couple of recent incidents that brought this home to me in a very emotional way.

I recently moved to a small coastal town in Norfolk. It’s a brilliant place to live, so close to nature and fabulous bird life. One odd thing though, is that Mallard ducks have moved out of the countryside and into town. Natural ponds are getting rarer and food is harder to find so they have become dependent on living in the streets and people’s gardens. Many of my neighbours complain about them, without realising we are partly responsible for their plight. The mantra here is don’t feed the ducks then they won’t come into town, let them look out for themselves. I’ve been watching the 2 ducks which have settled in our street, the courtship phase was very cute and they found our block of flats a good place to come begging. Twice a day they would hop over our low wall and strut up and down until someone saw them and put out some food. At this point I was following the mainstream and wasn’t one of the feeders. Then a few weeks ago we saw the female duck with 9 ducklings but within days there were only 4 and with a sad heart we went away for a few days. On our return she had just the one and I saw her one morning desperately trying to get her precious last duckling to climb onto the wall so they could get food from my neighbours. It broke my heart and for the last few days I have been down twice a day to refill a water tray on the pavement near the wall and to provide food. Perhaps too little too late but I couldn’t stand by. Yes the adult ducks made a bad choice in choosing our street; the large detached houses opposite have mostly gravelled or paved front gardens with highly manicured flower beds. Many have dogs. I have no idea where these ducks sleep but I have done what I can.

Poverty is a hostile environment which stunts development of both children and families. The relentless struggle for basics is stressful and the risks of depression are high. Striving and more striving, with little to show for it can lead to a feeling of helplessness which drains you of all energy. Escaping poverty without support is a tough call and I have no idea why some people delude themselves into thinking that anyone can do anything if they only put their mind to it. We can all do a little something to make a difference to those who need help, we just have to decide what we are going to do and stick with it.

Since moving here and semi retiring I’ve had the time to volunteer to support reading in a local school. Those with significant needs are intensively supported by the school but we volunteers focus on building fluency for those who need practice and a strong sense of self belief. Being a fluent reader is central to everything that happens in school and is a predictor of achievement. Several of the children rarely read at home, their reading logs get lost and parents work long hours. When we started each child was self-conscious about their reading ability and how their reading logs exposed family life. I decided this was an opportunity for Growth Mindset in action but to be honest when I started at the beginning of the year I did wonder whether it could possibly have impact. Well each and every child has made good progress and at the heart of this is the self-confidence they have gained as they see themselves as having some control of the learning process. At the end of every seession I discussed with each child how they could find a time and place to read independently as well as with adults. This blossoming self-efficacy “I can do this” has paid off. On my last visit one 7 year old told me as she got up to go back to class. “I love reading now, and writing. The more you can do the more interesting everything is” and then she skipped off back to class. How’s that for an unsolicited testimonial about the truth that every little bit helps.

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5 a day for play

 Play has a Purpose

Play is important and has a pivotal role in a child’s learning and development. Children want to play because it is fun and fascinating and their motivation to play is similar to hunger, thirst or tiredness in ensuring their bodies and brains get what they need. Human beings are clever, resourceful and creative. These amazing capacities of the human mind start early in life and depend on our being curious to learn and explore through play. It is as important that children play as it is for them to receive a high quality education. Education builds on the natural capacity to seek knowledge which is refined through experimental and exploratory play. So play is important, it has a primary role in creating the foundations for learning. However quality and variety of play is vital and a balanced menu of play can be compared to a balanced diet in creating a healthy body and mind. Just as we try to avoid a junk food diet, despite its attractions, so we should also ensure that our children are not relying on a narrow, restricted range of play or even falling into the trap of over reliance on electronic games.

file000266980809Here’s my selection of a top 5 requirements to create a happy, healthy play experience.

5 a day for play

  • Be active –get your body moving throughout its whole range both indoors and outside.
  • Be generous with playtime – it’s a core activity for childhood so play needs to move up the priority list to have impact on a child’s development and progress.
  • Think variety – physical play, social play, constructive play, creative play, fantasy play and games with rules are the varieties of play and each contributes to the capacity to learn.
  • Think ages and stages – as children change over time so does their need for different types of play. Avoid trying to race ahead, the brain is like a strong building and needs firm foundations.
  • Encourage independence and self-reliance – play puts children in charge of what they do and teaches them to explore, to experiment and to plan activities as part of the quest to learn about themselves and the world around them.

Types of play

Physical play – essential for developing mobility, strength and flexibility this is your child’s equivalent to your sports or exercise regime. The drive to move is highly motivating to children and consequently nature gives children high energy levels so they can accomplish this important aspect of their developing body and brain. Climbing on, over and under things, crawling through confined spaces and twisting and twirling around stationary objects is all part of the daily testing out of what my body is capable of doing now. As growth and development brings increased capacity with it then the need to test and extend what is possible is always there. Many parks and children’s play spaces have great adventure equipment but equally a natural environment of woodland or open space is fun to visit.  

Social play – the ability to communicate and get along with others gets plenty of practice through social play. Parents are the young child’s first social play partner but as children get older they also look to their siblings and their peers to have fun together. Social play usually incorporates at least one of the other forms of play as children decide what they want to do together. Younger children struggle to play together and share but this begins to come together from around the age of four and improves over the course of early childhood. The give and take of relationships is a complex life skill which challenges us throughout life so as much early practice as is possible is definitely an advantage

Constructive play –working out how things go together and creating structures is a fun part of childhood whether or not you plan to be an architect, builder or engineer. From wooden bricks though ready-made construction kits or re using things around the home – all children love to make things.

Creative play – painting, drawing, modelling with play dough are early forms of art which sharpen observation skills, develop manual dexterity and exercise the imagination. Later on some children will enjoy writing stories or making up plays and mini dramas to act out.

Fantasy play – going beyond your immediate world and experience is not only absorbing for children but allows them to explore other possible ways of doing things or imagine what it is like to be someone else. Fantasy play gives a child control, whereas in the adult world they have limited say in how things are done. Fantasy play is also a great way to deal with scary or difficult feelings by imagining what you could do if the problem went away or if you were powerful enough to decide what should happen. It’s no coincidence that superheroes are important to children, superheroes can do all the things children wish they could do but can’t.   

Games with rules – most of life has rules and codes of conduct which for the most part we work out for ourselves by observation rather than through formal instruction. Games with rules build that capacity to learn a set of expectations and to practice abiding by them even when it isn’t what you would choose to do. Games with rules teaches children self-discipline and to share with others.

Play is as important as a healthy diet so what would you choose as your 5 a day essentials?

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It was a lovely surprise to be nominated by @kim_benham for  #TwitteratiChallenge . Kim is an inspiring and dedicated early years professional who writes at  When I read Kim’s blog in full I realised that I too could now nominate five colleagues. How to choose? There are so many brilliant people to choose from. Here are the five people who I consider offer something unique and special on Twitter to inform and inspire both parents and professionals to help children get a great start in life.

My passion is to share with people what we know about children’s wellbeing so that every child gets the chance to flourish at home, in school and with their friends. There are so many people here in Twitter Land that I will never get the chance to meet in real life and maybe others who I’ll now look out for at conferences and workshops. I look to folk on Twitter not just to share similar interests but also to shake up my views and add something new. I hope to never stop learning, so many thanks to all those folk on twitter who come into my view, not just those I have nominated below.

  1. @Elsa_support Debbie Palphfryman is an emotional support assistant, ELSA, who is brilliant at developing and sharing resources to help schools nurture children’s emotional wellbeing. She regularly tweets links to ingenious resources which might be just what you are looking for. If you haven’t come across her yet do look her up.
  2. @Mr_PaintPots aka David Wright. I look forward to finding his inspirational tweets and quotes which always get to the heart of what is important in the lives of little people – offering a great environment for play. He is also involved with the Southampton area #MenInChildCare – children need great male role models – as well as all the wonderful women who share a passion for early years. I used to work in Southampton and did meet some brilliant guys working in child care in the city although I never met David.
  3. @talk4meaning Twitter is all about communicating and Michael Jones who is a Speech and Language Therapist and now a consultant and trainer has real expertise in what works to help children become confident communicators. Previously a consultant to Every Child a Talker there are some great resources on his website too.
  4. @inspiredtree Inspired treehouse is run by 2 mums who are also occupational and physical therapists. They offer a wealth of ideas on physical and sensory play which is not just fun but also nurtures healthy development.
  5. @sb_campaign The Summerborn Campaign folk are fearless champions for parents who want their summer born children to start school when they are legally entitled to and not to have to take up a place at just 4 years old. I admire their determination to find what is right for their child rather than follow the slow creep of the schoolification of early years. In my view what all 4 year olds need (not just those with summer birthdays) is a play-based learning experience with great staffing ratios and a brilliant indoor and outdoor play environment which few if any schools can offer. So I back these feisty parents in their efforts to be heard.

Thanks to @TeacherToolkit  for starting #TwitteratiChallenge. Now Debbie, David, Michael, InspiredTreehouse and Pauline at Summer born your challenge is to find five colleagues and share! Have fun!


The 3 @teachertoolkit rules are: 

  •  You cannot knowingly include someone you work with in real life.
  • You cannot list somebody that has already been named if you are already aware of them being listed on #TwitteratiChallenge.
  • You will need to copy and paste the title of this blogpost and (the rules and what to do) information into your own blog post.

What to do?

  • Within seven days of being nominated by somebody else, you need to identify colleagues that you rely regularly on and go to for support and challenge. They have now been challenged and must act as participants of the #TwitteratiChallenge.
  • If you’ve been nominated, please write your own #TwitteratiChallenge blog post within seven days. If you do not have your own blog, try @staffrm.
  • The educator that is now (newly) nominated, has seven days to compose their own #TwitteratiChallenge blog post and identify who their top five go-to educators are.






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Why children are highly sensitive to stress and here’s how you can help.

Summer is on its way but so are the exams and tests which can be such a source of stress. SATs and GCSEs will be starting shortly and most schools annual reports now give far more assessment information than previously. Children are exposed to increasingly high expectations of what they should be able to do at each stage in their lives and the scrutiny of their achievements can be unrelenting. Although many adults thrive on this adrenaline-high lifestyle it takes its toll on our children who are far more vulnerable to stress.

Have you noticed how many children are far from happy?  A happy, healthy child is busy, energetic, and carefree.  In contrast many children now have intense episodes of panic, prolonged bouts of tearfulness, frequent nightmares, fears of being left alone and extreme temper tantrums. They can be grumpy, non-compliant and generally out of sorts. This is not normal for childhood and assuming it is immaturity or a sign of a child’s prickly personality can lead us to ignore tell-tale signs. Frequent signs of stress are a warning sign that all is not well. Some may say that modern kids are spoilt, have too many material goods and have become self-centred.  But there is another explanation: modern life is too stressful for children.  The reason why is linked to their hyper- sensitive reactions to stress.

Children have the most brilliant biological survival systems to protect them from danger. Their stress response is more sensitive to potential threat and more finely tuned than an adults.  This makes evolutionary sense because children are more vulnerable.  Nature protects children by making them ultra-aware of any potential threats or dangers.  The child’s body and brain are more designed to automatically detect possible dangers.  Immediately there is a surge of adrenaline and cortisol which is needed to create the flight or fight reaction.

However children cannot protect themselves, so they have to react powerfully to attract adult attention to get the protection they need. These automatic alarm systems are rather primitive, and can’t distinguish real danger from false.  They are designed to be fast rather than accurate.  They work by detecting either external signs of danger or by reading increased internal signs of stress from raised heart rate and breathing which has not been caused by exertion.  If your heart rate and breathing increase, so the brain reasons, there must be something going on.

For the 21st century child these internal stress reactions are triggered by being bombarded by noise, having too much to do or being rushed from place to place by an adult in hurry.  Raised expectations at school, too much homework and not enough time to play all raise stress levels.  All contribute to a speeded up life which increases heart rate and speeds up breathing which eventually results in meltdown. So what can we do?  Not everyone can, or wants to slow adult life down but children can’t take the pace so need your help. If the world keeps adding pressure to your life here are some of your options.

1) Build up the pleasure to pain ratio: Barbara Frederickson’s research from positive psychology has found a ratio of 3: 1 positive experiences is the tipping point for wellbeing.  It’s unrealistic to expect to sit back and let life give you 3 times the pleasure to pain but you can increase your ratio by creating good memories to draw on and by slowly and deliberately anticipating and savouring something special that is still in the future.  So when the present world is dull and routine you can revisit the past or imagine the future with equally good results for your wellbeing.  At the end of each day find 3 things you are grateful for and encourage children to do the same.


2) Find time to slow down: Children can benefit from as little as 5 minutes a day slowing down their breathing and heart rate to create a calm but alert state of mind.  More is better, but learning the skill will allow a child to repeat this for themselves when needed.  Yoga or other slow exercise which concentrates the mind works well as does slow breathing techniques (breathing in and out to a slow count of 4 from 5 to 10 times is also effective).  Some schools are experimenting with child-friendly forms of meditation which not only calm emotions but also improve concentration and learning.  A stressed child does not learn effectively as both concentration and memory are adversely affected by stress.

On the home front, a slow, warm bath and a bedtime story are also very calming and help promote deep sleep which is restorative.

3) Turn taking and sharing: Family occasions like shared mealtimes or playing board games encourages children to wait and listen to others. This is not only slows things down and creates calm, (with practice) but also helps our bodies to entrain to each other.  Entrainment is a biological process where we become in tune with others who we support and depend on. Heart rate and breathing tends to become similar allowing the adult to help he child become soothed and calmer more quickly and easily. Being in tune is less likely when we all do our own thing, and only meet up occasionally, despite being in the same house.  Being a part of a strong social group helps children feel safe and protected.


4) Create a Treasure Chest: Building memories to draw upon creates precious moments that can be savoured again and again.  Give your child a special box to collect photos, drawings, tickets from days out, postcards, small objects and anything else which will trigger intense pleasure when recalling a past event.  Look at these treasures together to recall happy times when your child needs their spirits lifted.


5) Plant Golden Seeds

Being under pressure and being judged for your achievements is a commonplace of modern childhood.  Childhood is no longer a time of innocence and freedom to explore and grow at your own pace.  Many children are now on a fast track timetable to accelerate achievement.  Sadly this often backfires.

Instead offer your child the gift of appreciation, to acknowledge who they are now, and to signal your belief in their potential.  Your observations and comments will show your appreciation which will fortify them through tough times.   A golden seed is true recognition from others which creates faith and optimism for the future.  Tell them what you see rather than what you wish for.

Lastly be alert to your child’s expression of the uncomfortable emotions of fear, anger and distress, they exist as a warning that all is not well.  These emotions can be triggered by a lifestyle which is not threatening or dangerous but is stressful or too fast and too busy.  Children run on slow time.  You don’t have to totally change your life but do try small steady changes.  Decide what the smallest thing is that you can start doing atoday that will create the biggest difference to your life.



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How to support your child’s learning, no the answer isn’t supervising homework.

Do you want to spend your time standing over your child to check homework or would you rather help your child develop the values, skills and knowledge to be independent and self reliant. Some children are born with powerful drive and determination but many more learn how to learn through everyday experiences which shape their thinking and behaviour. Children need key skills to settle well into school and to flourish. These skills can be developed through play and everyday life. Once you know what you are aiming to do it becomes a natural part of life. You don’t need expensive equipment, just a few minutes every day will be enough to create real results. Here are some practical ways to guide your child to do their best at school, without turning your home into a classroom.

Encourage creative and imaginary play: 
Make sure your child has some time every day to do their own thing. Encourage your child to choose what to do. The ability to concentrate is strongest when children choose something that interests and excites them, where they lead the game rather than follow passively. Watching T.V or playing on games consoles may be absorbing but it isn’t developing an active mind. Play allows children to become totally absorbed, this is called ‘flow’. When a child is in flow they lose track of time and can carry on with what they are doing without adult help. Children need to develop this ability to manage their own time and be independent. This also helps at school because they will have learnt how to settle to work and focus their concentration. Successful learning is self managed, and although teachers can inspire and inform, they cannot not supervise each learning step. Play is therefore important as the foundation for work. It’s also fun and it does you good.

Work to your child’s strengths and abilities: Every child has a unique combination of abilities and it is rare to be good at everything.  Notice what your child enjoys doing.

  • Do they love numbers?
  • Are they good at putting things together?
  • Maybe conversation and stories excites them
  • Perhaps movement and sport.
  • Do they love music?
  • Or maybe nature fascinates them.
  • Perhaps they are good at sensing other people’s feelings
  • Or at managing to keep themselves calm in a crisis.

It is useful to look at learning ability not as a single intelligence or IQ but as multiple abilities  These may be:

  • linguistic-verbal (spoken and written words)
  • logical-mathematical (reasoning and problem solving)
  • visual/spatial (seeing and imagining)
  • bodily-kinesthetic (body awareness and movement)
  • musical-rhythmic (sound and patterning
  • interpersonal (interaction with others)
  • intrapersonal (feeling, values and attitudes)
  • naturalistic (classifications, categories, and hierarchies)

Children enjoy having the time to use their strengths regularly. Don’t be tempted to spend more time improving skills that are weaker than is spent on using and enjoying achievements. Your child will gain energy and excitement from using their natural capabilities. Motivation and persistence grow from those experiences of doing the things we love.

Be confident that ability grows from learning and practice: Don’t think about learning ability as being fixed.  Children who believe talent is fixed, “you have either got it or haven’t” tend to see challenges and mistakes as threats to their self image.  This sets off a stress reaction making them angry, anxious or likely to freeze in panic.

The secret of success is to see learning as a form of growth.  The more you do the better you get.  Celebrate each step on the road to success.  This is an optimistic view which creates confidence.

Choose realistic goals: Learning is more like a series of small stepping stones to cross a river than a steep hill to climb.  Be realistic about what your child can do, based on their age and interests. Think stretch not strain.

Let your child’s skills and interests set the pace: Notice what they do and what excites them and use that as a launch pad into other interesting experiences. If you take too much control, your child may become stressed or switched off from learning. Use the 3W’s: wait, watch and wonder which will help you become attuned to your child’s natural skills and interests.

See mistakes as challenges not problems: Errors show us how we are doing so far. Seeing mistakes as short term setbacks can be helpful.  Mistakes provide information on where to go next.  They are sign posts for learning not roadblocks.  Children with a growth mindset can learn to welcome them as challenges.  Children with a fixed ability mindset see them as proof that they have reached their limits. One view creates energy, the other is draining.

Praise effort not achievements: The driving force for success is effort and persistence.  Praise your child for their commitment and for the approach they have taken.  Notice how they go about a task.

  •  Have they planned it?
  • Are they well organized?
  • Do they find ways around a problem?

This can be useful everyday, when doing ordinary tasks at home, like tidying the bedroom or packing a school bag. Praise your child for getting involved and trying to do things for themselves.

Turn negatives into positives: Sooner or later all children get discouraged and need help to get re-started. If for example, your child says ‘it’s no good I can’t remember’ you could take time together to find out what will improve their memory.  You can have fun experimenting with different approaches.

  • Do pictures and mind maps create connections to help them remember.
  • Maybe they learn through listening and talking – rhythm can help, try putting something to music or into a rhyme.
  • Are they practical and do they like to experience something first hand to help them learn? Could they make a model or imagine walking through a house with different parts of what they want to remember in each room?

The biggest secret of all is discovering that learning can be fun.  Once your child believes that they can be successful, they will continue to try, whatever the setback. They will enjoy exploring and using interesting ways to learn and practice. They will want to learn and will appreciate encouragement from teachers, friends and family.  They will feel confident about themselves and the future.

Yes you have guessed it; the real secret of successful learning is finding a positive attitude which helps you to keep going and not to give up.





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The Power of Play: 10 reasons why children play to learn

Children at play are not playing about. Their games should be seen as their most serious minded activity” Michel de Montaigne 16th century writer

Children learn through play, but equally importantly, play teaches children how to learn. Psychologists from the early days of infant watching have been in no doubt that play drives development in the early years. The inner life of small children is considered fascinating by most of us, nature’s natural parents, but sadly there are others who are impatient with child logic and flights of imaginative fantasy. These adults in a hurry prefer the fast pace of modern life and see value in finding short cuts to speed up everything they do. They are easily convinced that childhood is a candidate for a makeover to ensure more happens in less time. Recent government reviews of child care have taken this stance encouraging structured, adult-led groups to start teaching maths and literacy early. This appeals to those who believe play is a poor use of a child’s time.

We need to speak up for small children who can’t speak out for themselves. When we look at the early years carefully we see that children make an amazing journey from helpless baby to capable and confident young child. The combination of play and high quality relationships at home and in pre-school creates this transformation. It is a miracle but it is also one we can understand and explain.

What does play contribute to a child’s development? How does playing help a child to build their skills, step by tiny step? Why does play act as such a powerful motivator to ensure the child is avidly curious to learn about the world? Play is not just a way of passing time; it is the engine and power house of child development which is special for 10 important reasons.

  1. The brain thrives on gaining knowledge. A child has a mind of their own from the beginning and sets out to learn more about themselves and the world around them. Play is what happens when a child follows their own line of reasoning to see where it takes them.  Small children are mini scientists exploring and testing out what they find. They ask questions and make judgments. “What is this?” “What can it do?|” “How is it like other objects I know about?” “How is it different?” If we look at the lives of scientists, inventors, and artists we see that playful experimentation is what “creates” their major breakthroughs.
  2. Play develops language and communication. Children learn the language they need. A busy child at play will share what they are doing with an adult by commenting and asking questions which have a powerful relevance to what they are doing. The concept of sustained shared thinking acknowledges the importance of starting from the child and allowing their needs and their world view to shape the dialogue between adult and child. This builds the child’s confidence as well as developing knowledge. When adults ask questions or attempt to teach new concepts a child soon loses interest if it doesn’t resonate with what they are doing. When you observe this you can see the child’s unease and anxiety at being taken out of their comfort zone.  
  3. Play is fun and makes us happy: when you think back to your early childhood what are your treasured memories?  Maybe you remember a special toy fondly or the time you went on an adventure in the woods or built a den.  Children value their achievements. What makes a child feel competent is what they learn to do for themselves.  That’s why children want to keep models they’ve made or have their art displayed at home.
  4. Play reduces stress by helping children feel comfortable and in control.  “I can do what I want and need to do” Children typically have much less freedom than a generation ago which makes them tense.  I believe that some of the rise in behaviour problems is linked to this limited opportunity to gain satisfaction and achievement through play.
  5. Play helps children discover their strengths: children are attracted to activities they can soon learn to do successfully. Once one level is mastered they move onto the next challenge. Play gives a child the freedom to experiment and discover what works well for them, what skills they have and what they can make happen. Playing to your strengths not only builds a child’s competence but creates confidence and excitement at the prospect of learning something new.
  6. Play makes practice fun: if you have something to learn you need to rehearse it and repeat important steps many, many times for the skill to develop.  Play is the perfect system for practicing developing skills whether it is learning to climb or becoming a more skillful communicator. Watch how happy children are to repeat things which interest them.  This experience of playful practice helps children to recognise and accept the importance of practice in other areas of learning once they get to school.
  7. Play builds a child’s ability to concentrate. Play is exciting and absorbing and results in deep concentration for the young child. Learning to concentrate emerges from play as a pleasant side effect. Young children are designed to concentrate on what interests them and find it more difficult to concentrate on something led by an adult. A child’s concentration span increases the more experience they have of deeply absorbing play. Learning to shut out distractions is an important part of this. When a child has restricted opportunities for uninterrupted play this has a direct effect on their ability to control their attention.
  8. Play teaches organisation skills. Play may start with a spontaneous idea, but it quickly becomes planned and self-managing.  “What shall I do now?”  “Where shall I take this next?”  Psychologists call this ability to plan and oversee a work in progress Executive Function. As a child’s brain develops, this skill becomes more established. This vital cognitive skill is the foundation for effective learning. Children who have well developed executive function will be successful in education. The Plan, Do, Review process is designed to reinforce this developing skill.
  9. Play helps a child become self-motivated which is vitally important as children make their way through school. Teachers can’t oversee every detail of a child’s work. Children who have experience of successful learning through play will become more active learners who are not passively dependent on adults overseeing every learning moment. This belief in their competence to learn will transfer to classroom learning.
  10. Play nurtures creativity – the ability to use what is available in the room or in your head to make something new out of the familiar requires a powerful imagination. The imagination is not just a pleasant place to visit; it is where all discoveries, inventions and new ideas are incubated. Creativity is seeing the world in a new and different way.  Play is the ideal apprenticeship for creativity. The danger for children who are over scheduled with little free time is that it saps creativity. The areas of the brain which manages reflection and imagination are switched off when we areengaged with a demanding task.  The imagination needs space to work its magic.  That’s why our best ideas pop into our heads on a walk or in the bath.  If we over schedule children they don’t have time to dream.


Jeni Hooper is an Educational and Child Psychologist. She is the author of What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful.



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