What Really Matters
When a teacher becomes a parent a shift in priorities can sometimes occur. Phoebe Doyle discusses how having children has made her reflect on her own practise and looks in detail at what really matters.
My youngest child Charles is now 3. He’ll be starting school nursery (“big boy’s nursery”) in September, and then full-time school the following year. Gulp. How can time fly so fast? How can my youngest, my baby, be anywhere remotely near this stage already?
When I worked as a Reception teacher full-time, prior to having my children, I didn’t really give this major landmark that much thought in terms of how it might feel for the parents; I just needed to know how many I had, who they were… indeed before I met them the children were names and numbers on the register. Now as the parent of one of these numbers I’ve so many concerns and questions; ones that seem complex, impossible to answer and drenched in emotion. Will he cope at the busy (but wonderful and, as it happens, ‘Out-standing’) school nursery? Will he be OK at fulltime school? How can ensure he won’t struggle? How will he manage? How will I manage?
In my first teaching role, fresh and driven, straight from my PGCE I thought I’d got it all worked out. Have targets strewn around the wall. Have some tricky words to focus on. Have a phoneme of the week. Move them on, on, on. Teach great lessons and they’ll learn – a simple equation.
Now I’ve got one child in school and another about to embark on the journey I’m not so concerned about the great lessons, the ‘Out-standing’ report or what phoneme they’re learning that week as I am about if they’re OK, happy, safe. It sounds so soft and like I’ve gone off education – I haven’t, I think education is all important. I know though, through simply knowing a child as well as you do your own, that if there not in the right place for them, if they aren’t being cared for fully as individuals, if they’re not wrapped in warmth, fun, happiness – there could be wonderful, creative teaching without an ounce of learning taking place. And frankly, what’s the point of that?
Anxiety and Learning
Teachers and others working in nurseries or schools with children of any age should be concerned with the issue of anxiety, and not least because of the impact it has on a child’s ability to learn. To grasp this, first some basic neuroscience; surprisingly we don’t have one brain, but three. There’s the neocortex, which is the area where we think, the limbic system where we relate past experience and finally, the oldest part of the brain, the basal ganglia - sometimes called the reptilian brain, as birds and other non-mammals are primarily driven by this structure. The reptilian brain is responsible for fight, flight and freeze. In the anxious state the reptilian brain goes into overdrive and the brain is fighting for survival and therefore in no fit state to learn. The reptilian brain works quickly and simply and takes care of the basics. Crucially though, when things get tricky, in times of stress and anxiety, it takes over from the other brains to ensure survival.
Building Self-Esteem through Positive Communication
Anxiety issues and low self-esteem can sometimes go hand in hand. Children who feel that they aren’t good at something, be it football, Lego or reading, can feel particularly anxious about involvement in that activity. In the early years of the primary range it’s vital that children are given constant experiences of success and achievement. In addition to continuous praise modelling can be a powerful tool to employ; always ensure the adults in the environment are positive and encouraging, “make sure that children have good models of interaction and know what is expected of them”, says Eva March, experienced SEN teacher and Business Lead Adviser at children’s communication charity I CAN (www.ican.org.uk). Eva explains how it’s also important to observe children who appear not to participate in play; “look out for quiet children that stand at the edges of play. They may be feeling stressed or they may just be more comfortable to watch rather than join in for the time being”, she suggests letting them know you are there for them; “if you sense they are stressed make sure you appear to be welcoming and warm towards them, offering to help them. If they do not want help make sure they know you are available”. Likewise Eva believes teachers should be supportive of children when they do play, but that this doesn’t mean bombarding them with questions; “it is much better to provide a commentary on the child’s play than to ask too many questions, e.g. to a child playing with cars on a road mat, “you’ve got a big red car” rather than being tempted to assess the child’s learning by asking size, number or colour questions.”
Consider the Environment
Large corporate organisations spend enormous amounts of money hiring psychologists to help design their shops, airports, restaurants and offices in order to manipulate clients into feeling the desired emotion. From the music that is played, to the colour of the walls, the entire surroundings have an impact on human behaviour and emotion. The school environment is one which should be considered with the greatest seriousness as quite often it becomes the second most significant place in a young child’s life. “Sometimes in our efforts to make the environment attractive to the child we can actually make it too stimulating resulting in heightened stress levels”, suggests Eva.
The highly influential Reggio Approach is one which recognises the power of the environment; in fact they refer to it as ‘the third educator’ (after the parent and the teacher). Reggio schools are open-plan with doors to the outside world from every classroom. Reggio teachers organise areas for small groups, for individuals and for much larger numbers to work and play together. This enables the child to choose whether or not to be joined by others. Whilst we may be limited by architecture and design, simply re-arranging furniture slightly can offer a more open-pan feel.
Eva advises practitioners to make sure the environment isn’t over crowded; “there is often a temptation to cover every inch with toys and examples of the children’s work. Do be mindful of the fact though that a clutter free environment can be much more calming and less stressful”. She also encourages reflection on the effectiveness of certain areas; “it can be helpful to make observations of the areas of the environment to see if any areas appear to make children more stressed or more calm. If you find an area appears to promote stressful situations look at it carefully to see what you change, e.g. large unstructured spaces can sometimes provoke “charging about” but if there is a bean bag and some books in the middle of this area it will give the message that quiet activities happen here.”
Parents as Partners
Practitioners are fully aware that the child’s expert, guide, and principle influence is his or her parents. Involving parents in strategies and discussing issues is therefore key. Eva says, “There are many things that teachers can advise parents to do so children feel safe, calm and confident in school”. Prior to entering the setting, Eva advises that parent and child get as familiar with the school environment as possible; “parents should ensure children are prepared to start in advance by talking about what it will be like and showing children pictures of and visiting the school”. Teachers and practitioners can encourage this by providing a booklet with pictures for the parent and child to look through together at home.
Once at school there are many aspects that parents can actively help in; “it helps to make sure parents and staff have a shared vocabulary”, Eva suggests, “sometimes families have family words for something, e.g. going to the toilet. It’s important that the parent knows the words that the school/teacher uses, so parents can help children learn those words. By creating communication-friendly environments, parents and practitioners ultimately help children’s language development. To help this happen have an open dialogue with parents, ensuring they feel comfortable enough to ask for advice regarding this.” Eva suggests that although it may seem trivial or even unimportant, mis-conceptions around language can lead to confusion and stress.
Parents can also be encouraged to discuss with their child strategies for asking for help, as Eva explains; “Often children need reassurance to know it’s ok to ask for help with everything from dressing skills to working out how to join in another child’s game”. Children who find asking an adult particularly difficult may need specific props, such as a card that they can pass to an adult to indicate they need the toilet.
Becoming a parent has changed my priorities when it comes to what my view of good early primary education consists of. That’s not to say that there’s not many sensitive, intuitive practitioners that don’t have children – far from it; I’ve worked with several who oozed the anxiety-reducing warmth I’m searching for when it comes to placing my child. For me though it took having children to truly understand that we need to focus more on teaching the child than the curriculum; we need to know them, respect them and make them feel safe and content – that’s when learning can occur and where children will flourish.
Time to reflect…
As a team ask yourselves:
Do we listen fully and sensitively to parental concerns about their child?
How do we boost self-esteem? (Circle times, praise etc.)
Do we have strategies for managing separation anxiety?
How do we let children know that they can ask us anything? Do we provide props for those who find this particularly difficult?
How do we ensure our learning environment is calming?
This was for Primary Teacher Update