Sunday, June 26, 2016

Schools, Stickers and Shame

I was recently left a comment on a previous post about home educating my son which contained such an excellent question that I felt it deserved a whole post of its own in response!

I have a question, if that's ok. My daughter is about to start school and they have a typical system for behaviour - your name tag is in this place if your behaviour is ok, up here if your behaviour has been good, and down here if it's not acceptable. In Sally Donovan's book she talks about hating this system and how it shames children. Our children are not adopted, but I relate to what Sally says...although I don't fully understand it. Why doesn't Sally like this system? And what alternative system would you suggest for helping children understand what behaviour is acceptable (or not)? Many thanks.

I did reply in the comments, but I think the use of behaviour charts in all their variations is so widespread and such an accepted part of behaviour management both in homes and in schools, that the issue merits a more detailed response (although I must make it clear that I am not claiming to speak for Sally Donovan!!).

Let me start by saying that I personally don't believe sticker chart systems to be wrong or bad in all circumstances or for all children all of the time. I have friends who use them in effective and imaginative ways in their homes, and when I was teaching I used a system where each child kept their own log of reward marks which was private and designed to recognise positive achievements in work or behaviour - these achievements were according to each child's own personal goals. Were I to go back to teaching now, though, I'm not sure if I would use that system again without many revisions.

My own issues with behaviour charts are twofold:

1. They assume that the child is able to perform the required behaviour but requires external motivation to do so. I'll say more about this in a moment.

2. In a classroom, they are often displayed in a public place, shaming the child who is always under the raincloud or in the red zone or whatever in front of their peers. Imagine if your workplace posted your performance indicators on the wall for everybody to see? As an adult, finding your name at the bottom of the achievement list may motivate you to some extent. If you are a strong and confident person you might take bold steps to make sure that never happened again.  But it might also cause you embarrassment or shame. How would you deal with that embarrassment? Would you hide away? Become defensive? Make light of it by joking around? Become angry and feel resentful? What if your work suffered that quarter because of circumstances beyond your control? Would you feel unfairly singled out? For a child who is already struggling, public humiliation is unlikely to achieve the desired improvement in attitude.

Let's return to the problem of motivation versus ability. In the home, potty training is often accompanied by sticker charts. These can be fun for some children and are designed to reinforce the desired behaviour in a gentle and positive way. We wouldn't use a green zone / yellow zone / red zone or sunshine / raincloud approach to potty training because we know that our little ones are only just learning how to understand their body's urges and accidents will happen. It would be cruel and arbitrary to punish them or humiliate them for that.

Birdy is just about 18 months old. She is not ready for potty training. She shows no signs of readiness. So obviously it wouldn't be fair to suddenly remove her nappies and expect her to use the potty or toilet. There would be a lot of weeing on the floor and the promise of a shiny sticker would not help. It isn't her motivation that's the problem, it's her ability. She is not developmentally ready.

Before we attempt to motivate a child, we must first assess their ability to do what we are expecting of them. If they are unable, then our best efforts to motivate them will have the opposite effect. Whether by lack of understanding or lack of ability, they will fail to achieve the reward over and over again. And it's even worse if we then assign them a place of shame on the behaviour chart, under the raincloud for all to see their failure.

In my experience, most young children are not lacking in internal motivation to connect, to fit in, to 'please'. For those who succeed, the external motivating reward is simply icing on the cake, confirming their positive view of themselves. For those who fail, the reinforcement of their failure damages their positive view of themselves, creates doubt about their worth and quenches their internal motivation. What's the point of trying? I'm useless and everyone knows it.

For some children, "I'm useless" is already their internal story, woven into their worldviews very early on by trauma, neglect, abuse, abandonment, rejection and loss. We need to be very careful about how we handle these children so as not to compound their already very negative view of themselves.

Always, the answer to the question about how we teach children what is acceptable behaviour is to focus on the individual children, not general ideas about behaviour. The same behaviour might be exhibited by different children for completely different reasons, and the solutions will be different depending on the 'why'.

Let's take a child who is always distracted, not focusing on the teacher, looking around the room, disrupting others and not getting on with their own work. Tasks are always unfinished or rushed and betray a lack of attention and focus. Does this child need moving to the front of the class away from distractions? Maybe this child has ADHD and needs the work broken down into more manageable chunks to account for a shorter attention span. Or maybe this child is hyper-vigilant as a result of early abuse or neglect. They can't focus on their work because they are always concerned about preserving their own safety and so must check out every sound, every movement around them, craning their necks to see the potential threat. Moving such a child to the front of the class to avoid distractions simply moves all the potential threats to the worst possible place - behind them where they can't see! Better to move that child to the back of the room in full view of the classroom door so they can quickly assess any threat with a glance, reassure themselves of their own safety and return to the task more quickly.

What will not help either of these children is to put their name under a raincloud. It's not their motivation that is lacking, but their capacity to produce the desired behaviour. Understanding the 'why' helps us to make changes to create an environment in which they can show us what they can do instead of highlighting what they can't.

Do we stop teaching children positive behaviour and reinforcing that? No. Do we remove all consequences? In my view, no. In life, there are consequences and our children do need to know that. But before we teach we need to make sure that the child is in a position to learn, and that what we are teaching them and expecting of them is in line with their development and ability. And when we decide to apply consequences they need to be proportionate, natural (i.e. you drew on the desk so you need to help me clean the desk), appropriately timed, privately administered and non-shaming.

In the classroom, with 30 children, this is a tall order, but a good start would be to ensure that expectations in are clearly-framed and positive, i.e. a list of what we DO rather than focus on what we do not do. We do respect others, we do act kindly, we do value learning. This can be accompanied by ongoing classroom discussion about what these mean to everyone day to day. Dealing with problem behaviour can then be moved quickly to talking about positive changes that can be made with the classroom expectations as a guide. Fifteen years ago I would have thought of these approaches as namby pamby touchy feely. After five years of parenting a child affected by influences outside his control, I've completely changed my views.

(Disclaimer: I am not a world expert on this subject or a child psychologist, just an ex-teacher with my own views based on my experiences of parenting a child who has experienced trauma. If you really want to know more about this topic and get a proper professional's word on it then I encourage you to read anything by Nicola Marshall, founder of Braveheart Education, or Dr Louise Bomber who has written extensively on the subject.)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

OT: Before I Vote in the EU Referendum...

Before I go out to vote in the EU Referendum, I want to get a few things off my chest. This is very off-topic for my blog and I'll understand if you don't want to read any further, but here goes anyway.

I'll get it out there: I've been unhappy with the EU for a long time. I'm a big fan of Europe - I've lived in eastern Europe, my family all live in France, my nephews are French - but the EU itself, as an institution, well, I have deep reservations. And yet, on the day of voting, I still find myself conflicted about which way I'm going to vote.

You see, it all seems to have boiled down to immigration. The least of my personal concerns. And an insular, Britain-centric set of issues about our trade, our economy, our future. I think our decision, especially in light of the way Spain and Greece have been treated recently, and are still suffering, could be based on wider issues than that. Our decision will have an effect on all of Europe. The continent awaits our proclamation.

This, in my view, is the fault of the way the campaigns have been run, and the issues they have chosen to focus on. I don't read newspapers (except sometimes the social care part of The Guardian), I haven't followed or subscribed to any social media accounts on either side, and I've avoided all the TV debates but one, preferring to try to get a neutral view. But there's no getting away from it.

Both sides have been accused of whipping up fear - about immigration on the Leave side, and about Britain's economic future, on the Remain side. Both accusations have merit, I think. But worse than that is the insidious attitude, so common in contemporary politics, that's there's only one, right, moral way to think on this issue, and anybody who thinks differently must have some moral deficiency.

Think I'm exaggerating? Only last night, a Guardian article was circulating on my (overwhelmingly Remain) Twitter feed, with a headline that stated that voting Remain was the "only moral option". The Remain camp are quick to point out the unpleasant and dangerous messages on immigration spewed by Farage et al (and I share Remain's view on that), while believing their campaign to have been wholly upright.

Really. Let's just look at one of the Remain messages that have I have seen tweeted recently.

Voting Leave means voting for Farage, Gove, Johnson. You wouldn't want to be associated with these people would you?

Well, no I probably wouldn't. But then this is not a presidential election. Every time I vote I find I have to compromise - I rarely agree with everything in a particular manifesto. If I'm going to vote I often find I have to choose the candidate who has the least issues I violently disagree with. Others make different compromises, and I respect that. Plus, this meme implies that because these people are 'nasty', voting Leave makes you nasty, like them. As if there are no nasty people voting Remain. People who are only too happy to rage about Cameron under usual circumstances now conveniently ignoring that they're on the same side as him. Whenever one side of a political debate espouses the view that their views mean they are better, nicer people, then I get nervous.

Other Remain campaign slogans have warned me of the terrible consequences of leaving - how we will be all alone, nobody will want to deal with us. The tone from Europe seems to be that they will not look kindly on us. World leaders are queuing up to tell us we'll be global pariahs. If we vote leave, we will suffer for it. Stay in the EU . . . or else! My main concern about the EU is that it is a bit of a bully. This is not helping me to think differently.

And finally, immigration. How can I ignore it when it has been such a divisive and bitter theme of the whole campaign? My own personal view on this is that we are a wealthy country and we can probably afford to do more, especially with regard to refugees. The area where I live is already incredibly diverse, and the recent proliferation of Polish Shops is evidence of increasing diversity. I've lived in eastern Europe, so I quite like buying the pickled peppers for the sake of nostalgia. When I go to the park and many of the other parents there are speaking other languages, I amuse myself by trying to work out if any are speaking Romanian, hoping to find someone I can reminisce with. I don't think our country is 'full'. Immigration is a non-issue for me as far as this referendum goes, although I do think we need a better plan with regards to housing, school places, health care provision etc.

But it doesn't matter what I say, or how liberal I am on this topic because, for some, there is no other reason to vote leave. On the day the referendum date was announced someone tweeted, "Now we'll get to see how xenophobic this country really is." Before a shot was fired in the campaign battle, it was clear that a Leave vote was all about immigration in some people's minds. The other day I saw a tweet that said, "It would be nice to think the Brexiters had a reason other than immigration for voting leave. But. They. Don't." I do, but who cares?

Fair enough, in some ways. Nigel Farage is a Brexiter and it's been clear for years that immigration is his thing. Why would people not make that connection?

But more than that, I am concerned that the response to comments about immigration seems to be to bring out the 'racism' accusation. I'm not trying to say that there are no racists on the leave side - it's quite evident that there are. Probably quite a lot. But it's just too convenient to dismiss so many people's concerns as stemming from their own moral deficiencies as racists. It reminds me of Gordon Brown rushing back into the cocooned safety of his ministerial car when confronted by 'that awful bigot', Gillian Duffy talking about 'all these Eastern Europeans' (which, by the way, took place before we even had a Tory government - so much for immigration concerns being all about austerity). If immigration is the all-encompassing focus of this debate, as so many seem to think, then we need to find a better way of dealing with it than simply calling people racists, and accusing them of being stupid enough to be brainwashed by reading the wrong sort of newspaper. You do not win people over to your way of thinking by calling them bigoted and stupid. Even if they are.

I am worried because immigration and, yes, racism, have been open topics where I live for decades, since long before the referendum, austerity, or this Tory government. My fear is that the end result of this referendum will be disastrous for our country either way; that the divide between those who feel they have the intellectual and moral high ground, and those who feel they have been ignored, mocked and sneered at, will simply be too wide to heal; that the losing side will blame the winning side for everything that goes wrong for years ahead; that those whose views were previously moderate will become more and more extreme.

My region has seen enough racial tension, enough riots, enough Britain First marches, enough social exclusion, enough poverty. The time for debating and campaigning is over. We need to talk.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Plaiting Fog

Today I have made a concerted effort to get on top of the toys that are creeping into every crevice in the house. I'm aware it's a "painting the Forth Bridge" operation, but I have friends coming over tomorrow and I'd like them to be able to make it to the sofa without having to wade across a floor ankle-deep in plastic detritus.

I started in our living/dining room. It's one of two rooms that the children have pretty much free rein in - I'm thankful to have a separate 'adults-only' lounge which I've recently totally banned the children from after an extensive, unauthorised, felt-tip mural appeared on the wallpaper. The children were playing in the conservatory/playroom so I made good time and was soon standing back, surveying the results of my efforts and mentally congratulating myself.

Birdy came fluttering in to see what I was doing, bumbled about being cute for a moment and then emptied an entire toybox over the floor. Patiently, I returned most of the toys to the box and laid out a manageable few on the rug, hoping she'd occupy herself with those for a while.

Then I turned to the conservatory. This was a much bigger task, mainly because of my bad habit of just closing the door on it every evening and ignoring the carnage in there. Still, I was diligently working my way through it all when I heard ominous sounds from the living room. Birdy had emptied every single book off the bookcase.

'Never mind', I thought brightly to myself, 'I can do that when I've finished in here.' (That's not really what I thought obviously, but this is a family show!) Progress resumed and eventually the conservatory floor was clear enough to actually run the hoover over it. A great moment indeed!

I went to put the books back on the shelf, even resisting the urge to just shove them on haphazardly. About half way through I heard an almighty crash from the conservatory. Birdy had climbed on a stool, then onto a table, reached the Lego box and pulled it down, emptying the entire contents over the floor. Half way through scraping up the Lego I heard the unmistakable sound of the toybox being emptied again.

At this point I decided it was probably everyone's bedtime.

I often use the phrase, "It's like plaiting fog." It relates to many parenting moments - all those times when you just think you're getting somewhere and then it all dissolves right before your eyes. We've had a week of it since we returned from our camping holiday. I won't relate all the details here because OB is a sweet boy and I love him and he doesn't need his dirty laundry washing in public, but this week he has seemed intent on leading us from crisis to crisis and, just when I think I have a handle on one thing, something else comes tumbling down. It tires us both out, and it keeps me perpetually on the back foot, responding, reacting, fire-fighting.

But, there is a bedtime at the end of every day, and each new morning is a chance to start again, try again. That was this week. Next week might be completely different. We keep on keeping on.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Field Trip

We're just back from a week's holiday. So why, you may ask, am I slumped on the sofa, exhaustion seeping into my bones, while the car sits on the drive still packed to the rafters?


We went camping.

I always swore that camping was not for me. I'm just not a camping sort of person. To me, camping means doing everything you have to do at home but made a million times more inconvenient. I like comfort. I like beds you can sit on. I like massive comfy chairs. I like night-time toilet visits that don't involve a walk with a torch across a load of wet grass. I like holiday packing to consist of throwing a few summer garments and a passport hapharzardly into a suitcase.

However, I also like to go on holiday, I'm not made of money, and sharing hotel rooms with tiny children doesn't do it for me. So it is that, with eternal gratitude to the inventor of the airbeam tent (pumps up on its own in a few minutes while I sit there on a chair like Lady Muck), I have fully embraced the world of camping.

On our first tentative foray into the world of the campers, I noticed that I was considerably down on gadgets compared to everybody else. I have been rectifying this ever since, adding some new camping luxury item to my arsenal with every trip. I have a carpet for my tent. Oh yes, the very latest in cosy-toes luxury. There's an LED strip light that could confuse passing light aircraft into making a surprise landing in my awning. I love the natty camp cooking equipment and am especially pleased with my little non-stick pan set. Of course they are tiny enough to make actual cooking nigh-on impossible, but they do come in a little drawstring bag, so I'm a happy camper. This year I added a marvellous fold-out kitchen stand to my equipment list. Admittedly the tiny one-ring gas burner I plonked on top of it (and only used for heating beans and making the odd brew) seemed rather under-sized, but the whole thing looked the business.

My folding chair is super comfy, my airbed is fully flocked, my sleeping bag is generously-sized. The weather was good, the campsite delightful, I had good friends for company, and generous amounts of cake, Crabbies and fish suppers were consumed. The memories of long, lazy days on the beach, and pleasant evenings sitting around an LED lantern (camp fires not allowed on site) will no doubt override the fact that the lead up to the trip was marked by a lot of dismantling and one major unauthorised wall mural, our return has already involved a 2-hour stint by OB's bedside, and I still have literally all the unpacking and washing to do.

Ask me in a couple of days and I'll almost certainly say we'll be going again.