Emotion Coaching: helping children to understand and manage powerful feelings

Children’s behaviour is often problematic because they are trying to solve a problem of their own. Learning to understand your emotions and identify your needs takes time and often a child’s solution is both impulsive and centered on their own needs.

A child is not trying to create a problem for others but often this is just what happens. To learn understand themselves and others better, children need sensitive guidance which helps them to look at every aspect of their behaviour to find a better solution. I call this Emotion Coaching, because it is designed to work from the outside in, teaching a child to recognize the thoughts and feelings which contribute to their behaviour. This is based on the groundbreaking work of John Gottman in his book The heart of Parenting.

Emotion Coaching may take longer than offering a quick solution of your own, but it is more effective in calming the situation. It also gradually teaches the child how to find their own solutions. Empathy is at the heart of this approach. When you acknowledge, and try to understand your child’s feelings, you will help them to make sense of their own emotions. It will then be easier to find solutions which work for them.

There are 5 stages to take you from acknowledging the problem to finding a solution. The Emotion Coaching process is the key to helping a child learn how to integrate the emotional brain with rational thought. Emotion Coaching is designed to identify and acknowledge the child’s feelings and how they impact on behaviour. Only when this has been successful will you be able to identify what new behaviours and skills need to be learnt and practiced.

Your empathy provides a close connection with the child, and improves communication so that you can explore together what has happened to them and why they are feeling this way. It helps the child to feel less stressed, and more supported, so that they can consider what has happened and plan what to do next. It is a vital principle of all coaching that the coach does not advise or direct. You may see a solution, but what you are aiming for is to help the child understand themselves better. Then they can make informed choices and plan genuine change.

When you talk to a child about their feelings you need to keep your views private, to avoid inhibiting the child from finding what works for them. While being given a solution may be a quick fix, it doesn’t teach the child how to think through and solve problems for themselves.

Monitor your own feelings: it is also important to be aware of how you feel about powerful emotions. Your empathy and connection with your child will be affected by your own values and beliefs about strong feelings. Do you avoid sadness or perhaps you fear anger? It is not unusual to “catch an emotion” when someone is upset so that you also feel something of the same strong emotions that the child is feeling. If you are uncomfortable with any of these feelings, you are more likely to try to resolve things quickly to restore your own peace of mind.

Equally, barriers to communication can be created when you are inclined to pile on the guilt or create shame in the hope this will prevent repeats of the behaviour. When over used, these strategies can create secondary emotions which make it hard for a child to be open and honest with you about what they are feeling.

For many people, their own upbringing may have been tough-minded, demanding that emotions were managed quickly and effectively as a sign of self discipline. While self discipline is the ultimate long term aim of behaviour coaching, the route to this goal has to be taken slowly. First the emotional brain needs to be calmed, not suppressed, to allow rational problem solving to take place.

If a child gets the message that strong feelings are unwelcome, they may try to hide them. This is rarely a successful strategy. It will lead the child to swing between the extremes of trying to keep feelings hidden and then swinging back into melt down when they can no longer manage the swirl of emotions. Often, it can be small things which cause the final melt down, which leaves the adult both surprised and vaguely irritated. “What a lot of fuss over nothing” Emotions are powerful and do not go away satisfactorily unless addressed.

The best way to help a child learn self discipline is this gradual process of sharing and guiding. Emotion Coaching works with the child’s level of understanding to help them resolve any strong feelings which are causing them distress. The process adapts as the child matures and strengthens their ability to make good choices.

Step 1 Tune into the child’s feelings. This is straight forward if the child’s feelings are acted out, as younger children often do, but can be harder when the signs are less direct like withdrawing or not joining in. You may need to observe what themes come out in a child’s imaginary play or their comments about stories or DVD’s

Step 2 Make it clear you can resolve this together. Creating closeness and a willingness to share the child’s feelings will establish the right environment to teach new skills. Unresolved emotions rarely dissipate and the child’s body chemistry is likely to remain in “flight or fight” mode so getting in early will also avoid the situation escalating.

Step 3 Listen and validate the child’s feelings.  Aim to enter the child’s world so you can reflect back their feelings and help the child accept and understand what they feel. This also allows the child a safe space to step back and see what you see. It breaks the powerful hold that emotion has over the child when it absorbs all their attention to focus on the object of distress. Encouraging the child to talk helps them to understand themselves, as well as be understood. “You are feeling angry” is a statement of fact necessary to begin unraveling what is going on.

Step 4 Label the feelings for young children especially, emotions are experienced as unpleasant but indefinable. Children gradually learn to identify what they are feeling through experience and through being given support and the vocabulary to describe what they feel. Children often use words like hate to cover aspects of anger shading from frustration, annoyance and irritability through to dislike and anger. I hate you can mean a variety of things. This can be uncomfortable to hear but by talking together gradually shades of meaning are identified.

Let’s listen in on an emotion coaching session between Tom and his father. Tom is 8 years old, and has a younger sister, Lara aged 4. She hero-worships her big brother but her following him around is unwelcome. Lara has just come into his room and has started playing with a Lego model he is very proud of. He shouts at her to leave it alone, which she ignores, leading to a scuffle as he tries to push her out of the room.

Here are the stages Tom’s father followed to help him decide how to get along better with his sister. Let’s assume dad has gone through steps 1 to 4 above to let Tom know he understands he is angry and that he wants to help him. They have got to the Step 5 where they are ready to problem solve.

Step 5 Problem solving this is a guided approach which begins by dealing with the immediate situation caused by Tom kicking his sister. The inappropriate behaviour has to be acknowledged before focusing on the future. It is important that Tom understands that his feelings are not the problem, it is his behaviour towards his sister which is unacceptable.

  •  Set limits for behaviour: Dad has to make it clear to Tom that although he understands why he felt frustrated with his sister it was not, and never would be, OK to push her or hurt her in any way.  Dad says: I know you are angry but it was not OK to push your sister” “it is never acceptable to hurt people when we are angry with them” We need to find a way for you to work things out with Lara when you disagree.
  • Identify goals: Now Dad and Tom will be looking for ways of expressing anger and managing disputes between the siblings. “How can you get along better with your sister”
  • Explore options: If Dad were to give Tom a set of rules it might work but it is likely to crack under pressure. It is better to help Tom come up with a range of options. Dad is aiming for win/win for both children but initially Tom only sees the solution only from his own perspective. “I think she should be banned from coming in my room or playing with my toys.” Dad knows this isn’t ideal but decides not to reject this option out of hand. Instead he asks further questions to explore how well it might work in practice. “When will Lara get to play with you? Is it fair for only you to decide? What else might help you to get on better?” This questioning helps Tom to think of things from his sister’s perspective and develop some empathy with her.
  • Weigh up their merits: they end up with 2 options: either asking Lara to knock to see if Tom is busy or agreeing that bedrooms are private spaces but offering to play together downstairs or in the garden instead.
  • Making the choice: Tom decides that he could make it work best if he asked Lara to knock to ask if he was available and if he was busy he could agree a time to come and play a game later. They decide that the next step is to say sorry to Lara and to ask her what she thinks of the plan. Fortunately she is happy with this and can see the advantage of not having her big brother come into her own room either unless she agrees.

It can work to use this approach with both children particularly when it is not clear what happened.

It may not always be possible to use emotion coaching close to an event. If the child is very unsettled, they might need to be offered some quiet time doing something distracting. “I realize you are feeling very angry and I do want to help you, but first I think you need some quiet time to help you settle”

Find something calming and repetitive to help them take their mind off what has happened. Young children are often willing to do a helping task but with an older child who remains volatile may need a planned strategy of activities which will engage them successfully until they are in a calmer and more receptive state to begin emotion coaching.

Once the child’s rate of breathing and heart rate has settled, you can begin the behaviour coaching cycle acknowledging how they are feeling and working towards a possible solution. You should also look for other signs that the stress response is diminishing like skin being less flushed.

There is a more in depth look at emotional wellbeing on pages 65 to 97 of my book What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful.

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Building Better Behaviour Through Positive Play

A child’s play can be something of a mystery to parents. What helps? Should I get involved or keep out of the way? What role does play have in my child’s progress and how can I help not hinder? If any of these questions have puzzled you read on.

How to help your child be happy and cooperative is also a matter of trial and error for many parents. When we are busy it is just so easy to carry on while your child is occupied and then jump in when things are going pear shaped.

  • Do you feel that that your child doesn’t listen when you ask them to do something?
  • Does it take ages sometimes to get anything done?
  • Do you feel your attempts to guide your child is taking all the fun out of being a parent?

Let’s explore how positive play can be a great way to connect and also result in a happier more cooperative child.

Guilt Warning: Promise yourself you won’t dwell on past disappointments.

Building better behaviour is a chance for a fresh start. You will discover how the 7 secrets of success are the opposite of what we do instinctively when things go pear shaped. Negativity creates stress and can accelerate conflict. Just the opposite of what we do naturally when things are going well. Your child’s behaviour will turn around when you “act as if” things are great. Start to get things back on track from today.

Building better behaviour through positive play is an approach which will make a huge difference to you and your child. Find out how to

  • Gain your child’s attention without raising your voice
  • Reduce the time spent trying to get things done
  • Know what motivates your child without using sticker charts
  • Have more fun and less fuss when you spend time together

Building better behaviour through positive play gives you 7 powerful parent strategies which will help your child become calmer and more open to your influence. You will learn effective ways to meet your child’s emotional needs and create a positive experience when spend time together which leads to better behaviour. Soon your child will become calmer, and more cooperative.

Seven Ways to be Powerful Parent

1)  Imagine yourself in your child’s shoes:  Find a time when you can fully focus your attention on your child. What are they doing and what must it feel like? Let your child know they have your attention by making a positive comment about what they are doing. What do you remember about your own childhood? Does your child like the same things that you did or are you very different?

2)  Be generous with praise: be specific, comment on what your child is doing. Aim to give praise 5 times more often than requests. This may take time to achieve but does work wonders if you persevere. Praise for effort and engagement rather than achievement so your child feels empowered to be active and curious about the world around them.

3) Have a few clear rules for positive behaviour: Let your child know the boundaries but don’t overload on detail. “Be kind to people”. “Take care of your toys”. Focus on showing your child how to have fun and how to handle frustration. “When you are sad Mummy will help you feel better”.

4) Give positive messages with smiling and relaxed body language: Children read body language very astutely, even before they can talk. Our tension is often read by them as disapproval. Positive body language works like a magnet to catch your child’s attention.

5) Keep your child’s attention by imitating words or actions to signal that you are tuned in to their activity and that you are interested in what they do.

Have you ever tried mirroring? This subtle copying of actions and posture helps people feel on the same wavelength. You may have read about it in magazine articles about dating or getting on better with your boss but it works with children too.

If your child is playing on the floor, sit down too and copy some of their posture or actions. Don’t do too much or it becomes noticeable. People often comment that successful mirroring makes them feel more in tune with the other person.

6) Ask to play: Most children love to have a playmate but young children especially can’t cope if adults take over. Why not ask “What game would you like me to play with you now? Or “what would you like me to do next?” Being available and following the child’s lead and interest is what is important.

7) Ignore minor naughtiness by turning away and becoming neutrally unavailable. This might seem like asking for trouble, but once your child has become more used to you having fun together they will respond differently. Behaviour will stop to regain your attention because being with you makes your child feel good.

 8) Positive touches are signs of closeness that can get lost when you are constantly battling to gain your child’s attention. Building on the warmth and affection between you will further strengthen your relationship. Positive touch releases oxytocin, a calming body chemical which makes us feel great. Cuddles will give you both a buzz, older children may prefer something lighter than a great big hug but the contact is still important. Displays of warmth and affection need to be attuned to your child’s mood and appropriate to their age/stage of development

Getting Started

Take a little time to imagine exactly what things will be like once you have put these 7 steps into practice. Read each of the seven steps again and visualise the best possible outcome for you and your child. It may take time to over ride the panic reaction of jumping in to sort out problems with a “no stop that” but it will soon become second nature to work with your child to encourage positive play.

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7 myths about the advantages of starting school at 4 years old

Children in the UK start school in the September of the year in which they turn 5. Most children, except those with a very early September birthdate, will be just 4 years old. The legal requirement is actually to begin education in the term after their 5th birthday so most children now start school a year early.

Getting a place at a school of your choice is a competitive business. It is a high risk not to take up a place even though your child could stay at nursery until they are 5. The DfE makes a distinction between Year R which is part of the Early Years Foundation Stage and Year 1 which is when the National Curriculum begins at Key Stage 1. You would hope that the transition to school from nursery would be smooth as the Reception Year is a continuation of the Early Years Foundation Stage. It is a change of place but should be offering a broadly similar experience.  However in practice this is not what is happening and the push to introduce literacy and maths through teacher led instruction rather than play based learning is gaining momentum in schools.

The Summerborn campaign articulates concern at this shift in emphasis for young learners. Summerborn campaigners are parents who know that school is not what their child needs now. Early years groups and nurseries have better staffing levels and more flexible play based learning that suits their child. They have also seen the evidence that not only are summerborn children 90% more likely to be designated as having SEN but this label tends to stick around and lower expectations rather than lead to effective support. I wholeheartedly support these parents in taking a stand but I think it is not only the youngest children who are disadvantaged by this early start in school. The problems in education go beyond this.

Here in the UK we make the assumption that starting school at 4 years old is a good thing and that children will benefit. How true is this? Here are some myths that need to be dispelled.

Myth 1: Starting school is the beginning of education.

Early Years provision is now widespread and all children have an entitlement to 15 hours free provision. The two largest political parties’ manifestos plan to increase entitlement to 25 and 30 hours. If this does happen, children can be in developmentally appropriate education up to the age of 5 without going into school early. It will be interesting to see how this turns out.  What they offer is a more generous staffing level and a curriculum that works with the child’s needs rather than setting unrealistic goals. School is not the only way to learn.

Myth 2: Education is what happens when teachers teach

Education has become synonymous with teaching but teaching doesn’t guarantee effective learning. Young children need a wide experience to build their skills and don’t work well in groups. Direct teaching of a whole class is rare with young children because the focused attention and self-regulation required is a challenge for the young learner. Carpet time is a challenge with lots of fidgeting and wriggling which indicates a child is struggling to remain focused. When teacher do introduce earlier formal teaching especially of literacy and maths there is a risk it will back fire creating frustration, anxiety and disruption. I’ve met so many little ones over the years where their teachers assumed a behaviour problem or learning need was behind their slow progress and were looking to Educational Psychology expertise to confirm their view. For many young children creating more flexibility and supporting the child to succeed was often the only change required. Not being able to sit quietly on the carpet should be a clue for the teacher to do things differently.

Myth 3: The UK’s early school start gives us an international advantage

Doing things earlier to get ahead is another widespread myth in education. Most countries do not have children start school before 6 or 7 years. Before they start school children attend kindergarten or nursery where the emphasis is on providing children with the right environment for healthy, happy development. When children get to school later with good communication and social skills they make rapid progress. So rather than British children heading international league tables in literacy and maths we lag well behind. The PISA results which explore the attainments of 15 year olds around the world put the UK at 23rd for literacy and 26th for maths. Something is not going well and starting formal learning before many children are developmentally ready is not the answer.

Myth 4: Children learn best when they work in teacher led groups.

The lag in attainment for British students has been explained by some commentators as due to a lack of rigorous focus on building children’s knowledge. They criticise allowing children too much time for discovery learning and play. The traditionalists call this child centred learning which they deride as a scourge of modern times. They assume that if academic rigour could start early it would raise the attainments of 3 and 4 year olds. Politicians keen to make childcare reforms seized on this to justify creating larger adult led groups which would cut staff ratios and reduce costs. Neither parents nor early year’s practitioners were impressed and this idea now seems to have been dropped.

Myth 5: Play is not essential

Play has made human beings the clever, adaptable and inventive people we are.  Education is the new kid on the block – universal education is less than 150 years old. The drive to play pre-dates education by a mile, it has an evolutionary purpose which ensures young children and animals engage productively in experiences which offer maximum potential for learning and growth. Just imagine if a child had to learn everything they need to know in the first 5 years of life by being directly taught. Think of the 1000s of hours adults would have to dedicate to bringing up their children. Instead children are primed to play and imitate what they see around them incorporating things into fun and games until they have had sufficient practice. It is so clever but so subtle we risk taking play for granted and seeing it as unimportant. It is a serious mistake to cut the time available for play short before children have finished developing all the skills they need to benefit from what is on offer in the classroom. As a result we have children in school too early to benefit from what is on offer.

Myth 6: Parents are to blame when children don’t succeed 

A child’s pace of development can be affected by many things including family environment and their own natural ability. However while some families may need support to offer their child the best start it can also be the timing of starting in school which is the issue. Last October I offered an on line advice day via NetMums for parents with concerns about their child’s start at school. We were kept busy all day by deeply worried parents. The greatest concern was anxiety, children who had thrived at Nursery but no longer felt confident and secure. Many were overwhelmed, worried about the skills required of them and lost without the additional support that had been available at better staffed nurseries. These articulate, concerned and capable parents were deeply unhappy that their child was having a hard time. There was no advanced warning as almost all said nursery had gone well. Despite this evidence that the partnership between nurseries and parents pays dividends schools are still too ready to blame parents.

Myth 7: Teachers don’t need training in child development

Early Years Practitioners who lead our nurseries and early year’s settings have a thorough understanding of child development. This knowledge allows them to see where the child is up to in acquiring skills and knowledge and to anticipate next steps which will support and enrich their learning. They know when to help a child accelerate their knowledge and when to slow down. They don’t make the mistake of jumping too far ahead and missing out a vital stage of development. Ironically they are paid less than a primary trained teacher. Teachers in primary schools are likely to meet children who have unfinished developmental business, either because they have SEND or because at 4 years old there is still lots to pull together and coordinate before the steep learning curve of early development begins to level off. If schools are to continue to take in 4 year olds they need to ensure that each teacher has the knowledge and skills they need to help children learn in the best way possible for them.

I am an optimist. I think things will improve but only when the message is widely shared that school is not always the best place for a 4 year old to spend their precious time.

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Let Child Development and Not Child Care Guide What We Offer Young Children

Childhood is amazing, so much miraculous growth and development over the first few years of a child’s life. It’s so important that we give children what they need for a happy, healthy childhood.

Children enter the world as helpless babies and in a matter of a few short years become walking, talking bundles of energy, full of questions and curiousity. The impetus to gain skills and knowledge comes from within the child who is not an empty vessel or blank slate to be filled by an adult blueprint. Nature has ensured that little humans have all the drive they need not just to survive, but to thrive. All children ask is to be given love and support and a stimulating environment. We do not teach child development step by step, it seems to happen miraculously when a child is ready. Of course the more attentive and attuned to a child we are the more able we are to create the opportunities for each skill to emerge when the time comes. There is a strong parallel with gardening where the knowledgeable gardener creates the right conditions and protects the plants in their care.  Personalised, child centred care is crucial in those formative years, there is no need for formal educational tuition, indeed it can be counterproductive. Small children value their independence: “me do it” is said with great determination.

In recent years more and more children in the UK are at the mercy of adults in a hurry. They want to steal a march on education, send children to school already able to read write and count. If we start early they say we will give children a head start. Politicians have taken up this rallying cry talking about the global educational race, though no self-respecting early year’s advisor or child psychologist would ever have recommended it to them. Politicians home in on parental anxiety about an uncertain future and assume they have a vote winner. Now we have the major parties upping the hours of free entitlement to the average length of a school day. It is likely the pressure to focus on literacy and maths and to reduce independent, creative play will accelerate.

There is no evidence that earlier introduction of academics is effective. There is substantial comparative evidence from other countries that a later start to formal education does no harm. The UK are part of a small group of nations which start school before 6 and in the UK most children entering a Reception Class are only 4 years old. The Summerborn Campaign gains its urgency from this early start which makes the youngest in the cohort even more vulnerable. What we risk by introducing formal academics too early is that children’s development is compromised by this ill-advised rush to get children sitting down and doing work at a table like the bigger children. At age 4 most children have not got the skills in place they need for formal learning so progress is likely to be frustratingly slow. More haste less speed as my grandmother used to say. Whereas when we let children develop the skills they need through independent play and practice then later on things will fall into place.

Most people including Primary School teachers have limited knowledge of the stages of child development. This is rather surprising given that we have small children starting school who have unfinished business in that department. If you are interested to know more there are links below to useful guides where you can explore the stages of skill development in detail.

So what do we mean by child development and what are the key skills which emerge gradually over the first 6 years? Before you look up the guides below you may find these short summaries useful. Each section starts with baby skills and overviews what most children can do by 5 or 6 years old. As you can see when 4 year olds start school they are unlikely to have all the skills in place which help with formal learning. They remain better suited to play based learning which draws on their preference to follow what satisfies their developmental priorities. By age 6 or 7 the corner stones of mental and physical development are established and this firm foundation enables a child to work more collaboratively with both peers and adults.  At 4 years old a child is still flexing their physical and mental developmental muscles and need a wide range of experiences to meet their physical and cognitive needs.

The Early Years Foundation Stage which finishes at the end of the Reception Year is designed to be holistic and developmentally appropriate to each child’s needs. It is designed to give children the support they need to be ready for statutory education at age 5.  Sadly the hurry towards formal schooling risks cutting this short.

The developmental milestones mentioned below are based on typical development (what is average for the majority) but do be aware that individuals will differ whether or not there is a special need.

Physical mobility

Babies can move their arms and legs but do not have the core strength to sit or roll over. By the age of 6 a child is likely to be able to hop, skip, jump, climb and catch a ball. These skills require fine-tuned movement which takes time to master. Most 4 year olds have mastered the gross motor skills like running and climbing but may find the more finely tuned movements challenging.

The early years require a lot of freedom for the child to use their body and test out what skills are now open to them as their physiology matures making finely coordinated movements more accessible. This is not a time for extended activities seated at a table. Children through their behaviour show us what they need and sitting still is not what they are after. Children who have had restricted opportunities for active play are also likely to be slower to achieve developmental milestones.

Hand control

A baby can grasp a finger but cannot pick up or put objects down voluntarily. By the age of 6 a child can make finely tuned movements to pick up small objects between the fingers and place them exactly as planned. The early years is a time when children need lots of opportunity to explore and handle materials, to gain sensory experience and test out what their maturing arms and hands are now capable of doing. I watched a child roll up and unrolling a poster repeatedly recently as he delighted in his ability to make this happen. When we have children in a formal classroom by the age of 4 many of them won’t have the dexterity needed to draw and write successfully and they will experience unnecessary frustration. This could be avoided if children were allowed to handle arts and crafts material in free play for longer before formal literacy is introduced.

Language and Listening 

The vital element for sparking language development is having a quality 1 to 1 relationship with an attuned and responsive adult. This is certainly the primary need in the first 3 years of life as communication skills emerge. The child’s ability to be part of a group listening and talking to each other comes later and emerges slowly. The pinnacle of achievement for the young child is the ability to restrain what you want to do and tune into an adult who is talking to the group. Most children are still learning to do this in their 6th year. Children’s language is a key skill needed for successful play with friends and shared play is rather fragile right through this whole period. From the age of 3 children play together more often and more complex and sustained play develops as 4 and then 5 year olds mature. It is tough work to manage your own enthusiasms and accommodate the needs of others and most children can only do this briefly at first. Play is a highly successful medium for using and developing language as children learn to listen, share and make themselves understood while having fun. There are considerable disadvantages in cutting the opportunities for imaginative play short just as children are getting up ahead of steam at the age of 4.

Thinking and reasoning

The ability to acquire knowledge (known as cognitive skills) develops in parallel with language. Children need the vocabulary to name objects and the reasoning skills to think about their characteristics. “What is this?” “What can it do?” The ability to question and be curious is an important aspect of the early years and a skilled adult works with what engages a child. Older children from around age 6 can shift their attention to something an adult introduces and sustain attention to a teacher’s agenda. Younger children may start by showing interest but can become distracted and loose attention. This is why a more instructional approach is traditionally not introduced until Junior School at age 7

Personal, social and emotional skills

The child’s understanding of the world and what is possible is a slow steady process of growth determined by experience. A baby lives mainly in the moment and any unmet need feels like a permanent loss. As the child’s memory develops so their ability to predict what will happen increases, assuming of course that they experience predictable and attentive care. By the age of 2 the increasingly physically capable child has a sense that they can make things happen but find the times when this isn’t possible devastating. They dissolve into overwhelming grief. We should never underestimate the real distress children experience as toddlers.

As language and thought matures then a child’s ability to manage their emotions also matures alongside. However because children have so little control over their world the frustrations continue. Sand timers are often used in nurseries to help develop turn taking and waiting. Children love the sense of both fairness and predictability and will often go to fetch a timer to help in negotiations over a toy. Handing over your control of what you do to a teacher within a large group of child has huge potential for frustration when children are still learning to self-regulate. I put the increase in challenging behaviour in 4 year olds in school down to this mismatch between development and what is expected of them.

Attention control and concentration

A baby’s focus is immediate and anything that drops out of sight is soon forgotten. The child’s ability to focus remains stronger for activities they have chosen throughout childhood and certainly under 6s struggle to stay with a task which has been set for them. Concentrating on what the teacher is saying is challenging for 4 year olds and anyone who has spent time in a Reception Class will know of the seemingly endless non- sequiturs as children pursue their own line of thought despite the adult’s best attempts to keep everyone on track. This is the danger of introducing formal teaching too early, visit a year 2 class of 6 and 7 year olds and you will see lively engagement between the children and their teacher which is a joy to see.  

So let’s treat childhood as the tender and precious time when children find out all about themselves and the world around them in a way which is determined by what they are ready and able to do. Too much too soon will only lead to frustration and disappointment

Further reading

 Development Matters – in the Early Years Foundation Stage

https://www.early-education.org.uk/development-matters-early-years-foundation-stage-eyfs-download

The role of toys and Play in Child Development by Jeni Hooper

http://www.btha.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/PlaysafeToysAndPlayUNSECURE-2010.pdf

What to expect when- a parent’s guide

http://www.foundationyears.org.uk/2015/03/what-to-expect-when-a-parents-guide/

 

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Happy holiday checklist

Let’s be positive, although it hasn’t been the greatest start to the Easter break weather-wise there is still something special about having a 2 week break. This is a time away from formal learning to let children relax and try something a bit different from their term time routine. It doesn’t have to cost anything or be exotic to make a positive difference to a child’s wellbeing. Here’s my happy holidays checklist for free activities which are not only fun but good for you. All are informed by research into wellbeing. So have not just a happy holiday but a flourishing one too.

file000370629124Laugh – life can get too serious at times and we all need to reconnect with the lighter side of life. Tell jokes, watch a comedy or have a silly walk competition. When we get too busy or absorbed in doing our own thing the chance to connect and share laughter can take a back seat.

Get physical – a walk in green space lifts the spirits but if you can’t get out today put on some music and dance. A kick about in some open space needn’t take up too much of the day but raising the heart rate is so good for you.

stained-glass-hand-prints (2)Use your hands – there’s something deeply satisfying about making things. It doesn’t have to be artsy or messy play (both of which are fun) but could be cooking or planting something to create something useful or beautiful.

Use your head – enter imaginary worlds with a book or a listen to an audio book. Building up pictures in your mind of characters and places is deeply satisfying but also a skill which needs to be nurtured. Schools rarely have time to let children settle into something and stay with it. Watching TV or a DVD or using video games doesn’t count here because the images are ready made.

Take turns to choose – children value their independence and having some responsibility. The fast paced adult world risks sweeping children along with a well-intentioned “it’s good for you to do this now don’t argue”. Holidays are a great time for choosing and learning from that decision.

Learn to manage boredom – the ability to manage yourself effectively, known as self-regulation, won’t develop adequately unless there is the time and space to make decisions. Sometimes when nothing immediately comes to mind boredom creeps into the gap. Don’t be tempted to jump in with suggestions, equally do expect your child to make a decision and act on it.

Ignore the weather get outside – there’s no such thing as bad weather only the wrong clothing. Not sure who said this but children don’t care as long as they are somewhere they can get busy. The National Trust’s 50 things to do before you are 11 3/4 is a good source of ideas.

Share chores – use the time saved by speedy completion of life’s necessities to do something together. Little ones probably need the reward of getting together straight after to play a game but older ones appreciate that working together all week can make more time for weekend fun.

Contact a friend – term time is very sociable but families can become a bit isolated in the holidays especially if you assume that everyone else is doing something out of the ordinary. Meet at the park or invite someone to play round at your home.

Give something to others– taking care of others outside the family can be linked to organised charities or be local support of an elderly neighbour. Children learn empathy, kindness and gratitude from regular small acts of kindness.

file0001179129151Boost your positivity ratio – we all need to experience life through a positive lens. A ratio of 3 things we value positively to 1 event which challenged us a little is the tipping point. More is better but 3 to 1 is a realistic goal. You may have noticed that I emphasised how we see life as the key, optimism or pessimism alters our interpretation of events. We all know someone whose glass is always half full and they are neither happy nor easy company. For more on positivity and building optimism this earlier post explores this in more detail

Try something new – holidays are about a break in routine and broadening horizons. It needn’t be a big event or cost money – walk a different way to the park, try a new food, play a new game or make one up. Novelty is stimulating and fun and encourages to think along different lines.

Revisit old memories – sometimes the new and the busy keep our eyes fixed forward to the horizon. Take time to share memories. Look through those family photos. What have we done that was fun? Where did we go that was special? Who did we meet? What made us laugh?

Savour what you do and take time to make new memories. Being mindful of experience makes it more likely we will appreciate what happens and that it will find a treasured space in our memory banks.

Happy holidays everyone

 

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Why I don’t believe that motivation is irrelevant to success

Research has been published recently which claims that motivation is irrelevant to results in schools. They even suggest that as motivation goes down in high performing countries like Korea then results go up. The danger here is the failure to look for the emotional fallout which may affect young people who are under high pressure and who work because of fear of failure. Shame is not a good substitute for engagement and motivation.  One young person writes here about his experience of high pressure schooling in the UK. We should beware of these single factor studies being over interpreted to explain a broader picture. developing life long learners is not driven by fear or peer pressure.

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Motivated people get results there’s no doubt about that.   Motivation counts for more than ability because persistence,  effort and problem solving are key skills to overcome challenge and stay focused on your goals.  Angela Duckworth’s research into grit and success shows us that this counts for more than school grades or IQ

So where does motivation come from and can you help children to become motivated?  The short answer is yes you can help children become self starters and here are 7 strategies to help  fire up your child’s enthusiasm.  While schools  are closed and children are on holiday is a great time to reflect on and review how you can help your child become self motivated.

1. Don’t rely on rewards if you want to encourage self motivated behaviour. Use rewards sparingly and only for dull tasks which have no intrinsic merit but which are essential to hone useful skills.  Multiplication tables, music scales that sort of thing.  If you can find a fun way to do something instead, then that will work better.  There is evidence that rewards can impair performance, where skill and creativity are required, because it makes the race to the finish more important than the process involved.  So although rewards seem a good idea and useful when strong enticement is needed they can be counter productive.

Message Stones2. Encourage free play. Not just for young children but for teenagers too. Playfulness is exploratory and experimental and encourages independent thinking. A lot is happening when children are playing spontaneously and creatively with no rules and no pressure.  Useful skills are developed and refined like planning, organisation, concentration, creativity and problem solving.  Play which is free of rules and has no imposed structure encourages self reliance and the opportunity to become totally immersed in the task.  This gives a child the experience of flow.  Flow is the result of being totally focused and in control with the knowledge that you have the skills you need to make something happen.  Power, competence and the experience of success is a heady mixture which makes self motivation an exciting experience. The child is learning and making things happen.  Free play develops a child’s confidence and their competence at the same time.  So play is a vital and powerful experience which really can’t be replaced by television or electronic games.  I recommend that children have at least an hour a day to call their own.

3. Praise effort not results.  If you want children to appreciate the importance of being focused and determined then don’t put the emphasis on results alone.  When something is a little bit difficult but acknowledged for effort then the chances are that it will hold a child’s attention while they search for a solution.

file91212832565174. Work with a child’s strengths.  Encouraging children to use skills which are naturally interesting to them helps children to learn about themselves and their unique strengths.  Young children learn a great deal about themselves through their creative strengths whether this is art, music, or dance.  A child who is musical will naturally find time and opportunities to listen, sing or play. The experience of learn to organise and manage an activity you are passionate about teaches skills which can then transfer to other areas.

5. Encourage a growth mindset when children believe that learning is like a muscle which strengthens with practice they are more likely to experiment and take risks with learning.  Mistakes are accepted as part of the process not feared as a sign that you have reached the limits of your ability.

file0008868110576. Plant golden seeds a motivated child needs to be free to explore and experiment,  some things will capture their imagination and attention while other experiences are no more than a passing phase.  Being a Helicopter or Tiger parent will over power your child and leave them little room to learn about themselves.  Of course you do want your child to know that you are interested and are appreciative of what they are doing.  The balance is to offer observations positively but not intrusively.  Think of yourself as holding a mirror up to your child so they gain self knowledge from your comments.

7. Be mindful and focus on the present.  Children change and grow and their interests come and go too.  It is tempting to let your mind wander about whether they will become a great scientist and what would help them do that so and before you know what has happened you are distracted from the present experience.  Self motivated people do not always have a grand design or a 5 year plan,  they do something because they love it and want to see where it takes them.  Let your child set out on that journey.

Self motivation is a delicate process which starts with using your strengths and can grow and expand as your sense of competence becomes broader. As the saying goes: “If you think you can do it you probably will”  Encourage positive thinking and nurture self belief in as many small ways as you can.

In my latest book What Children need to be Happy, Confident and Successful: Step by Step Positive Psychology to Help Children Flourish  you can find out more about how to help children become confident and self motivated.

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Let’s Stop the Race through Childhood: We Can’t Live their Lives for them.

“Too many parents try to live their child’s life for them” was a recent quote from Eton’s Head teacher Tony Little, this comment really resonated with me for many children not privileged to attend this well-known school. I suspect what parents do reflects what our society in general is doing, which is overthinking and controlling things in a desperate bid to manage uncertain times.  We see this in our schools, less from class teachers but more from Heads and those in government and Ofsted who are tasked with raising standards. This creates an image in my mind of lots of big and powerful people leaning on the less powerful people below them, down and down until you reach the child who is struggling to find the room to grow and be themselves.

file1331246481918Maybe this is fear, in times of austerity it is hard to hang onto hope and optimism.

As a Child Psychologist I have always been concerned with how we find a good balance between the nurturing and supportive adult who wants to protect and the child who needs space and freedom to grow and discover who they are. Children are not blank slates who will bear the imprint of whoever is involved in their upbringing. I do not subscribe to the belief

“Give me a child before they are 7 and I will give you the man”

Medieval religion was rather preoccupied with saving souls by controlling and constraining people into narrow paths in life. Having come from generations of people whose menfolk toiled on the land while the women were servants, I’m not a fan of the old order. Social mobility we call it today, freedom to choose is how I like to think of it.

So how can we pull back and start to let the inner child emerge so that we support and nurture a happy, confident and successful child. We want children to flourish which can be defined as

Flourish:  grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly congenial environment.

file000642981570Starting from the child is the way forward

Children naturally gravitate towards what they need. Childhood is the last area of human life where the people concerned often have little say in what happens to them. When we do too much for children and base our decisions on our own thoughts and beliefs we miss an opportunity. There is a danger we will miss important evidence that is right in front of us. When we follow any set of established rules, whether it is personal or based on a well-regarded parenting theory we risk missing that guidance which comes from being totally attuned to the individual child. Equally at school a fixed educational methodology may suit some children and not others.

Here are 10 steps you can take to give each child a voice and to help you create “the particularly congenial environment” needed to flourish.

Help a child discover things they enjoy. Be detectives together to discover what they find exciting and interesting. Notice the choices a child makes and help them to do more of what works for them. What a child finds interesting may be a sign of a personal strength which needs encouraging and nurturing.

Leave time free every day for independence which is entirely under the child’s control. Children who regularly plan and organise their time are more confident than children who depend on adult organised activities. They are more likely to discover and develop their interests which give them a range of possible future projects. Younger or less confident children may need to start small with 5 or 10 minutes and build the time up slowly from there.

Praise for effort and ingenuity rather than for results. Too much preoccupation with outcomes feeds anxiety and undermines confidence. “Will I succeed next time?” Doubt is toxic whereas optimism is energizing. “I can do it if I try hard” is a better basis for learning than worrying about whether you have the ability to succeed.

Tell a child what you think is great about them. Praise character, actions and values rather than achievements. Positive feedback about character is sustainable praise which is building a child’s self-knowledge and ability to continue to make good decisions. Young children learn about themselves slowly because it requires mature cognitive skills to analyse situations closely. Children are overly dependent on other people’s opinion which is why bullying has such an impact. Children who are regularly reminded about their personal strengths are likely to be both more confident and more resilient to negative experiences.

Use WWW- what went well– to discuss the highlights of the day, this reflects on the positives which can be informative and allows privacy for a child to mull over what was less successful without unasked for adult scrutiny. Make sure that someone is available should they wish to talk about the disappointments of the day but remove the pressure to offer them for forensic examination.

Develop a playlist of favourite things to do. Include quick and easy as well as big events to provide a menu for free half hours, sunny days out and rainy days at home. Children spend much more time than adults engaged in things they are learning and consequently struggling with, the effort required is draining and rebalancing is important. Having time to use the skills you have and to do things which are satisfying is enormously important. I meet families where the entire day is lost to travelling to and from school and extracurricular activities followed by homework and little else.

Capture the happy times to be revisited and enjoyed all over again. Make a scrapbook of pictures and drawings if you like to handle things or use photos on your computer. Make a treasure box with tickets, found objects and souvenirs to remind you of days out.

Focus on the present we don’t know what tomorrow will hold and this is particularly true of children whose development is not predictable. By staying mindful we can focus on what is needed now and appreciate life in its fullest detail. When we rush headlong into the future we are following a fantasy which can delude us and cause us to miss out on a real understanding of the child in front of us.

Keep the future in context there is a danger in over thinking about the future because it is often driven by fear. When we share those anxieties with children they are likely to assume we have prior knowledge and that this will happen. This is a ticking, mental health time bomb which creates the climate for anxiety and depression. We get things off our chests at the cost of passing on a heavy burden to the next generation. We need to gain a more realistic perspective.

Make gratitude part of your life.  A friend of mine spent a year working in orphanages in Zimbabwe. She met children and workers who were surviving in a very harsh political and economic climate but were grateful for what they had. They were focusing on the positives and that gave them the energy and optimism to work hard to improve life as far as they were able. Gratitude plays a major role in wellbeing and is a habit that has to a large extent been lost in recent years. It is confused with complacency and acceptance which it is not. You can be grateful for what you have while working flat out for a better world. The opposite is rarely true, those who ruminate on the negatives find their energy drains away and they are less able to make useful changes.

When a child is confident that things are going well; when they know that their family, friends and teachers support them then they are set on a path to flourish.

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Play has a purpose: why the focus on early academics is not what our children need.

A new baseline assessment is being introduced into schools to assess children’s early literacy and numeracy skills objectively. Teachers will also be asked to assess personal and social development from their initial observations. The broader and more detailed assessments which currently result from the EYFS profile has been ruled out as not focusing on the academics sufficiently to provide the baseline for comparison with Key Stage 1 SATS . We’ve had baseline assessments before, nearly 20 years ago now, which were dropped after a few years for being unworkable. The reason for this re- introduction is the government’s preoccupation with school’s accountability, they want to know whether each school doing enough to help children become literate and numerate.

file9701266530751Their assumption is that if you measure something it will be both accurate and useful. This may work if you are measuring a wall with a yardstick but children defy this simple process by being much more complex and variable from day to day especially when they are 4. Child Psychology is adamant that early assessment doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, either for its reliability (getting the same result each time ) or its validity (predicting future outcomes) So it won’t even do what they want it to but my concerns today are broader concerning what these demands will do to early education. There is a strong expectation that practitioners should move away from play based learning into structured activities which have a literacy or numeracy focus. This is not what the early year’s sector wants to do and most will resist this pressure but many parents may be confused by the mixed messages they receive.

We need to speak up for play and broaden our understanding away from the Oxford Dictionary definition:

Engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose.

“The children were playing by a pool”

synonyms: amuse oneself, entertain oneself, enjoy oneself, have fun, have a good time, be at leisure, occupy oneself, divert oneself, play games,

It is more accurate to understand play as purposeful and part of the child’s inner drive for knowledge and development. Children learn through play, but what is equally important: through play children learn how to learn. As 16th century French writer and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, said: “Children at play are not playing about. Their games should be seen as their most serious minded activity.”

file0001123027515Small children are not passive, inert receivers of adult wisdom, they have a mind of their own and the best parenting and early year’s education works with that natural curiousity and drive to build a child’s knowledge and experience of the world. Play has a purpose, each child wants to engage in the world around them and the more child friendly and stimulating the adults make it the more learning will result. Play is stifled when the adult is unresponsive or the environment is restrictive and unchanging.

Children are under increasing pressure to begin their formal education as early as possible. The emphasis on getting young children reading and learning maths is putting time for play under pressure. We need to be confident of the reasons why play is important for a child’s healthy, happy development if we are to protect the vital character of early year’s provision.

What does play contribute to a child’s development? Children have a powerful desire to play which ensures the child is avidly curious to learn about the world. Play helps children to notice their surroundings and make sense of what they experience.  Play is not just a way of passing time; it is special for 10 important reasons.

  1. Play feeds a child’s curiousity and ensures 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. file000602326563 (1)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 skilful 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. file9891266155042Play nurtures creativity which is using what is available in the room or in your head to make something new out of the familiar. 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 are engaged 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 with a special interest in positive psychology. She is the author of What Children Need to be Happy, Confident and Successful which offers parents and teachers a step by step guide to creating a happy childhood. Jeni works with schools, local authorities and the voluntary sector as a consultant,

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School holidays: how children learn even when they appear to be playing.

Will your children have a happy Easter break doing things they love and avoiding boredom?  Are you confident that things will go well or do you wonder what to do for the best? Is this a time for rest and recreation or can children have a valuable and fulfilling time while still having fun?

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Children have few opportunities in term time to choose how they spend their time and the danger is that they become used to adults setting the agenda and supervising them. Freedom is exciting but also a responsibility that children have to learn how to handle.  Older generations may tell you how in their day they went out after breakfast and only came home for meals. Times have changed and few children now have that freedom to roam and to learn how to use their time well.  How can you help your child learn to be busy and enjoy what they are doing?


One possibility is to explore The National Trust’s 50 things to do before 11 3/4 which offers a range of exciting outdoor activities. Children can enjoy searching out these activities and ticking them off their adventure list.  But for lasting impact children need to discover those skills and experiences they want to return to again and again. Those repeated experiences tend to tap into a child’s strengths and provide lasting satisfaction.

happy-stick-girlOne of positive psychology’s recent contributions to our understanding of wellbeing is Flow.  Flow defines a state in which a person is truly engaged in and fulfilled by what they are doing. They are completely absorbed and time just flies past. You are more likely to experience flow when you engage in an activity which has enough challenge to stretch you but where you also have the confidence in your skills to succeed.

One solution to making the school holidays fulfilling and avoiding boredom is to discover what your child can do which creates flow.   How can they spend their time with things that really engage them?

For many children that involves finding activities that use their chosen talents and interests.  When children already know what they enjoy they just need the opportunity to get involved with something that is meaningful to them. Younger children will need some help to discover what suits them.  Art, dance, sport and drama are strong contenders for creating flow.  As long as a child has some freedom to choose how they interpret the activity creatively there is a strong possibility they will enjoy it more and experience flow.

What do you look out for to show when flow might happen? Here are 7 signs that flow is likely

1) There are clear goals which give your child something to aim for

2) Your child has the skills needed to meet the demands of the activity.

3) Your child feels confident and in control regarding the situation and the outcome.

4) The activity requires concentration and focus.

5) The activity is intrinsically rewarding; that is, your child wants to do it for their own satisfaction rather than to please others. .

6) The activity is quietly absorbing, your feelings of self-consciousness, worry, or the frustrations of everyday life are pushed aside.

7) Sense of time is altered; hours may seem to pass by in minutes, or minutes can seem like hours.

Your child doesn’t have to be an athlete or an artist to experience flow. Flow experiences are attainable by most anyone.

Consider for yourself those activities that transport you to a place beyond your day-to-day concerns and feelings.  What absorbs your attention?  Is it cooking a new recipe?  Reading a book with your child?  Solving the Sunday morning crossword puzzle?  Going for a long cycle ride? Working in the garden? Some people experience flow at work but others don’t, it all depends on how well your job fits with your passions.

A happy and fulfilled life comes from within, knowing your personal strengths and how to use them, rather than from a hedonistic and pleasure seeking life.  Life satisfaction and wellbeing stem from a sense of purpose and meaning: what do I love to do, what matters to me?  This is deeper and more lasting than a pleasure seeking life.

Helping children to find that personal sense of meaning and purpose may sound like a tall order but getting started is really quite simple and a lot of fun.  We can’t control what life will bring but we can help young people to be ready to give their best.

So where will you start? Watching and talking to your child about what they love is a good start. Have fun and enjoy the journey.egg_blueTrad

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Creating a happy, secure and empowering childhood: 5 wishes for 2015

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 contributionIt 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

Jeni can be contacted at info@jenihooper.com or visit my website www.jenihooper.com

 

 

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