27 August 2014

What is best for the children? Part two: Developing resilience

Edrys Barkham
Continuing on from her blog last week on the pressures of parenting, Edrys Barkham looks this week at how we can all help our children develop the life skills and resilience for a happy and successful adult life.

This week I look at how, in our aspirations to bring up our children safely and educate them for the future, we may be losing valuable opportunities for them to develop some of those important, but less easily measured, life skills, such as creativity, sociability and emotional resilience. If every hour of a child’s life is structured, that child might be busily engaged and learn a wide range of facts, but they may be missing out on their emotional development. Watching the recent Channel 4 series Child Genius suggests that minutely managing their learning doesn’t actually make them happier children.

In addition, stories in the media can make parents increasingly fearful about leaving their children unsupervised to play. Children pick up on these concerns and they can become afraid of challenge and develop a risk adverse approach to life as a result. Whilst it is essential to ensure that children are not put at unnecessary risk, it is important that they get the opportunities to develop a sense of freedom and responsible risk-taking. When toddlers learn to walk we make their environment as safe as possible but don’t stop them walking to avoid them falling over. When they inevitably do, we pick them up, rub their knees and set them off again. They learn through trial and error and rapidly gain confidence in taking steps towards their independence.

Around puberty another developmental milestone happens: the brain undergoes changes in preparation for adulthood. The changes disrupt executive function, so a teenager’s ability to plan, organise and prioritise is disturbed and they tend to take more risks, whilst lacking the ability to predict the outcomes of their actions. To acquire the executive function skills required for adult life they need to learn how to judge risk and to have the chance to put things right when they have gone wrong. These are important life skills that lead to the development of resilience and emotional robustness. It is important to provide opportunities that allow teenagers to explore their own limits and venture outside their comfort zone safely. At Bryanston these opportunities include the sports facilities, the outdoor education programme, Duke of Edinburgh Award and the wide range of extra-curricular activities, among other things. These activities are closely monitored and houseparents, tutors, teachers, matrons and other staff are around to step in and offer guidance and advice to get things back on track when pupils start to struggle. These timely interventions help to show pupils how to correct a situation and move on and, in so doing, develop the emotional resilience that will help them on their way to a successful and happy adult life.

Judith Carlisle, Head at Oxford High School for Girls, recently said that children learn more when they don’t get it right and that it is important to teach pupils to manage failure. By contrast, the recent government obsession with international PISA results is leading to policies of measuring children’s academic performance in a way that makes it appear the only value of a child is their academic grades. There is a danger that children, from an early age, learn to be fearful of making a mistake and there are children who prefer to say or write nothing for fear of getting an answer wrong.

Psychological research suggests learning through trial and error helps children realise they can improve. They understand that a wrong answer is not a failure, it is a step in the right direction. Reflecting on what went wrong with a teacher or peer can help a child learn more effectively than they can by just being indoctrinated with a series of correct answers. Through conversations with teachers, like the tutorials and correction periods we have at Bryanston, pupils can understand that they learn a great deal from having the courage to have a go, even if the outcome is not wholly correct. By discussing what went well and what didn’t, they learn how to put things right and how to avoid making the same mistake in the future, in both the academic and the pastoral areas of school life.

We believe our educational approach of encouraging curricular and extra-curricular breadth allows children to discover their whole range of talents; recognising their hard work and effort in all areas of the school helps children understand that they are valued for who they are rather than what they can achieve. We acknowledge that children realising their academic potential with us is important, but the education of the whole child is more valuable still, so that well rounded, confident and resilient young adults leave us at the end of their school days to become successful, well motivated and productive members of society.

20 August 2014

What is best for the children? Part one: Emotional development

Edrys Barkham
We welcome Bryanston’s Director of Admissions and biology teacher, Edrys Barkham, as a guest blogger over the summer holidays. This week Edrys takes a look at the pressures parents face today.

As intelligent members of the primate family, humans are genetically pre-programmed to be obsessive about our offspring, as highlighted in the delightful BBC programme Monkey Planet. Like most parents, I really wanted to do my best for my boys when they were children and to get my parenting ‘right’. However, it can be difficult to know what is best for our children when we are bombarded with advice on how to bring them up, much of it conflicting. If you put ‘parenting books’ into Amazon you get over 69,000 hits. There are guides for new parents, guides for parents of toddlers and guides for parents of teenagers. There is advice on using reward and punishment, advice on how to develop the ‘whole brain child’, how to have well-behaved toddlers, how to develop your child’s intelligence and how to be happier parents. One book will tell you children should have the opportunity to make their own decisions and another will give instructions on how to be a ‘Tiger Mum’, directing you to structure every moment of your child’s time with learning experiences. It’s a minefield for parents to know which is the best way forward and what is the best they can do for their children.

A further pressure on parents, which often manifests itself when meeting other families on holiday, is that slightly competitive edge in the voice when discussing which school the children go to and its perceived academic standard, as well as the grades their children have, or are expected to have, achieved. As a result, some schools have become increasingly aware of parents’ perceptions of their academic status and, in order to maintain these, they only select the children they think will get the grades that reflect their academic position; this means that education becomes a process of maintaining the reputation of the school and this in turn puts pressure on children to achieve the top grades.

This level of pressure is not making children happy and there is a growing national concern about the mental health of our country’s teenagers. Self-harm, high levels of anxiety, depression and other mental disorders are all on the increase across the country and, whilst more children are achieving top grades than when I was at school, I have to wonder at what cost. At Bryanston we do encourage our pupils to aspire to the best grades they can get, but within an atmosphere that also encourages creativity, breadth and problem solving. This approach has benefitted my own three boys as they embark on life after university; I am grateful to the school for the balanced and creative approach all three now take to deal with the difficulties they encounter in their adult lives.

I am not proposing that we shouldn’t make our children academically competitive – I know I did as a mother and I do as a tutor and teacher – but I don’t believe that every experience in a child’s life has to be a structured learning one. Childhoods are increasingly dominated by a packed programme of clubs, societies, music lessons and journals. Extra tuition after school, at weekends or during the holidays is becoming the norm for some children. Activities are becoming prioritised by what a child will learn and if there is no academic outcome, it is often not valued.

There is a pressure for parents to order their child’s life and micromanage every moment in order to show they are a loving parent doing the best for their child. However, there is evidence that suggests children also need space to be themselves, to think about things independently and to discover and explore in their own way and at their own pace. Children should be encouraged to pursue activities in which they have curiosity, even if their passion is not the area you would have chosen: trust your child’s natural instincts. Old Bryanstonian Nigel Barker (H ’90) developed his enthusiasm for photography whilst at school. He was on course for a medical career but had the courage to follow his passion with global success. It was refreshing to read in the Telegraph recently the ‘Heads’ Holiday Hot List’ of recommendations for the summer holidays, which included building dens, visiting the zoo and getting sandy on the beach.

If a child doesn’t express any particular interest, then it really is fine to let them get bored. Boredom develops imagination and encourages a child to become content with themselves. Bored children start to explore in an open-minded way and it gives them the opportunity to challenge themselves and build their resilience to life’s frustrations. At Bryanston the pupils have a wide range of extra-curricular opportunities to tempt them to try new things and take responsibility for their own entertainment and, in doing so, develop really important life skills. So, when your child returns to school in September, know that with encouragement and the odd nudge when necessary he or she will develop new skills, build their self-esteem, and grow up happy and more likely to succeed in the adult world.

Look out for part two of Edrys Barkham’s blog next week.