What makes a real impact on children’s lives: at home or at school, at play with friends or when doing their own thing? How can we set the scene to give children the best experiences to have both a happy childhood and to become mature and fulfilled adults? I have gathered together some insights from my work as a child psychologist on the evidence to date.
What we are talking about here is encouraging children to build their imagination, be creative and get absorbed in something which delights, for however short a time. Passionately wanting something is a joyful experience, to move towards it is even better. This can be a passing phase of wanting to be a spaceman where you dress up and love stories about adventures in space or it can be discovering your love of music which changes but stays with you. The point is what happens now: the energy, enthusiasm, exploring new worlds and seeing possibilities beyond who you are in this moment. It is about imagining other possibilities in the future. It is also about choice and knowing when something doesn’t fit or has been outgrown.
Progress comes from wanting things to change and to be different. We may assume little people aren’t best placed to do this but it would be a serious mistake to be too hands on. Helping children find their passions and to enjoy what they can do now is vital. They are on a journey of self-discovery where all sorts of possibilities are tried out.
This is not something where adults can find short cuts and take control. While tiger mothers and helicopter parents are both openly reviled and secretly admired for their determination, the evidence is stacked up against them. The evidence on hothousing is that any early promise is rarely sustained. The key element is who is in charge. Those stories about famous people who started young rarely say my mother made me do it. Motivation comes from within and they alone decided to put in those arduous 10, 000 hours, missing out on being with their pals. For most of us it is not an early flash of enlightenment but a long slow haul trying on various possibilities for size.
In childhood play is nature’s way of sharpening young minds, developing imagination and exploring possibilities creatively. There is evidence that children who do not play have both poor social skills and are at high risk of underachievement. Maybe that imaginative journey isn’t just pointless daydreaming after all.
3 good things to support aspirations
- Ensure there is free time every day to enter other worlds through play, stories or just day dreaming
- Don’t ask but do listen. Children believe questions are often statements in disguise.
- Feed the imagination with stories, films and visits to introduce children to other people and possibilities
Politicians and the media would have us believe that childhood’s purpose is getting knowledge. Some even believe a longer school day is necessary and justified because of something they call the global race. I take a softer view on attainment, one that is informed by children’s wellbeing rather than their contribution to data sets. Children want and need to feel confident that they have the skills they need for daily life. When too much is expected, so that they fall short, then this is unsettling and conversely when the school or family has low expectations the child is likely to look elsewhere for a sense of achievement.
What children want is to feel competent. “I can do this; I have some control over my world”. Matching teaching and learning to a child’s age and pace of learning is vital. Balance is the key word. Children who feel confident and competent are more likely to be effective learners. Psychologists call it self-efficacy where you believe you have the skills and attitudes for the required task. Children who have been able to work at a pace which maximizes their success are most likely to have self-efficacy.
Ability is not a predictor of self-efficacy, indeed many gifted adults who experience high expectations from home or school report anxiety and fears of failure. Professor Tanya Byron has recently reported on a rise in anxiety disorders in adolescents. Children who have special needs are also vulnerable because they are conscious that they can’t do what other children are doing. In our quest to give children the best start in life we need to watch the impact of our actions carefully. Is a child buzzing with the excitement of what they are learning, from either home or school, or do they look drained, anxious, sullen or just plain bored.
3 good things to support attainment
- Share stories: reading together is strongly linked to children becoming competent readers
- Watch, wait and wonder: take time to observe and reflect. If you are concerned ask what is going well and read between the lines. Share your concerns with other adults and be discreet. Children hate it when we worry about them openly.
- Use descriptive praise, which focuses on the effort put into the task, rather than the outcome. “I can see you did that very carefully. Well done for being so thoughtful”.
Jeni Hooper is a Child and Educational Psychologist specialising in helping children to find their best selves and to flourish. Her book What Children need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and can be viewed here http://www.amazon.co.uk/What-Children-Happy-Confident-Successful/dp/1849052395/ref=tmm_pap_title_0