The turn of the year is traditionally a time for reflection and for considering self-improvement. Instead I have been thinking about what would make the biggest difference for children in our care. I wish you all a happy and fulfilling 2015.
1) Start from the child.
Each child has within them the adult they could become. This small flame at first glows and then catches fire with nurture and empathic support. No child can go it alone. Neither can their true self emerge and grow if the world about them doesn’t see who they are. Who is this young person? What are their strengths, their desires and their needs? What is their unique personality and what brings out the best in them?
In my ideal world every adult will take the time to stand back and observe the child in front of them whether they are part of your family, your school or your community. These observations and soul searching will inform what you do and make any parent manual or curriculum scheme merely a framework not a blueprint.
2) End the race through childhood
The tendency to assume that earlier is better is not new. The Hurried Child by David Elkind 2001 eloquently explored the psychological harm of wanting too much too soon. Too Much Too Soon is now a phrase often used to sum up concerns for both competitive parenting and accelerated early years and school curriculum schemes.
Childhood is not an inconvenient phase of life which needs to be rushed. The force feeding of accelerated programmes misses the essence of childhood, which is that the child needs time to immerse themselves in life’s experiences and assimilate and apply that knowledge. Psychologists from Piaget onward have been documenting the child’s key role in learning, when we rush on we risk leaving the child behind. Too much too soon doesn’t necessarily build lasting skills or knowledge and equally importantly it risks creating huge emotional insecurity with long term harm to mental health. Anxiety, sleeping difficulties, challenging behaviour all are signs that a child is not coping with what life expects from them.
3) 5 a day for wellbeing
We hear more about the importance of fruit and veg for our physical health than we do about the factors which protect our mental health and help create wellbeing.
5 a day for wellbeing was devised by The New Economics Foundation which researches a “new model of wealth creation, based on equality, diversity and economic stability”. How the economy impacts on wellbeing is core to their work.
Connect: first of all other people matter, children want to spend quality time with the people they care about with family, friends, and neighbours. These relationships are the cornerstones of a happy life and need time to develop and nurture. Building these connections will support and enrich a child’s life. In a busy world the time for love and friendships need to be protected from the intrusion of work/school, travel, shopping/cleaning, and homework.
Be active: an active life is good for both physical health and for emotional wellbeing as moderate exercise releases endorphins. Children need an hour a day of activity which makes them slightly breathless. Exercising makes you feel good so help children discover a range of physical activities they enjoy so they can do something every day.
Take notice: encourage children to notice, appreciate and be mindful of all experience. Encourage curiousity, asking questions and appreciating the world around them. “What is that?” “How does that work?” Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Reflecting on experiences will help a child appreciate what matters to them.
Value learning: for children learning can become a chore or something that is unending. When a child doesn’t get the chance to stop and appreciate what they have learnt so far it can undermine their confidence, all they see are the tasks ahead. It’s vital to celebrate achievements large and small. Focus on the CAN DO List rather than the TO DO list.
Give: children love to get involved with things and make a contribution. It is fundamental to being human to take care of others but sometimes we see children as not being capable and restrict the ways they can contribute. Giving teaches children about the world around them. Seeing yourself, and your happiness, linked to the wider community can be incredibly rewarding and creates connections with the people around you.
4) A new understanding of play
In recent years available time for independent play has been squeezed. Previous generations had more free time, less adult supervision and were allowed to be outside with friends in the local neighbourhood. Now safety concerns and parent work patterns increase the likelihood of children being in childcare after school or indoors. In tandem with this social shift the importance of play in child development has been side-lined to suit these patterns of adult led leisure time for children. We want to believe that this is good for children as well as convenient for adults but the evidence for the importance of play is powerful.
The early year’s profession have advocated the importance of play in child development but have been shouting into the winds of change led by those who want to make literacy and numeracy the priority. The chasms of misunderstanding are vast. Those who wish to see more time spent developing literacy assume it merely needs more teaching time. Those who value play point out that a child’s development emerges from formative experiences in self-managed play. I summarised the key points here
Playfulness and independence of mind is the engine house of creativity and the need to play doesn’t end when children start school. Not only do the arts derive from a vivid imagination but also STEM subjects require the ability to solve old problems by reframing the questions to research. Play is thinking outside the box, no set rules, no constraints. Children who miss out on this aspect of independence of mind can only ever be followers to someone else’s tune.
5) Working with strengths
Strengths are the activities, relationships and ways of learning that energize people. They are the inner qualities that make us feel most alive and because of that, they are the places where we have the potential to make our most meaningful contributions to life. Strengths are different to interests because strengths are innate and children will be drawn to them for their entire lives, while interests may be fleeting.
Working with a child’s strengths is often overlooked on the assumption that education is about teaching and developing what is as yet unknown. Strengths are seen as an incidental asset rather than a potential foundation for effective teaching. Encouraging children to approach a task with a personalised focus is likely to increase engagement. Working with strengths automatically shifts things up a gear to give the child more autonomy and investment in choosing how to apply their strengths to a task. Working with strengths brings freedom and autonomy and encourages self-knowledge and reflection on what matters to you. While not every task will tap into strengths the experience of being immersed in tasks which play to strengths is an important formative experience which aids subject choices and career decisions.
At the heart of these 5 wishes is the concept of trust. Trust that your intuition will recognise what a child needs and most of all a trust in the child’s ability to take that journey through childhood and learn best from it when adults are sympathetic supporters rather than dictatorial leaders.
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