For the Love of Boys (In Our Classrooms)

My 3 year old son is a source of daily entertainment. So much so that he continually provides me with an array of inspiration for the Cheeky Kids blog. And yesterday was certainly no different.

Donning his bike helmet, he informed me to ‘watch out’ as he was about to ‘do something dangerous’. Initially I didn’t understand what he meant by ‘dangerous’ being that the word is actually quite difficult to decipher when exiting the mouth of a 3 year old. So I carried about my business, not too concerned. It was when his head (helmet still attached) appeared at the kitchen window, asking for the ladder, that I then worked out what he had meant by ‘dangerous’.

As I inquired further, he explained to me that he really wanted to use the ladder to climb up into the window on the second floor. When I looked alarmed, he reassured me that it was ‘ok Mum, I can do it, I will be brave’. As I managed to convince him that was a little ahead of his time, he then moved focus to requesting the ladder be placed next to his brother’s sleep out, again in a bid to reach the roof.

Imagine the image of this little boy, bike helmet firmly clipped on, looking up at me promising me he would be ‘brave’ insisting on following through with the plan he had to be ‘dangerous’ that afternoon. The teacher in me flashes forward to considering how on earth any future teachers would contain him within the four walls of a classroom. 18 months away from turning 5, I find it terribly difficult, and somewhat heartbreaking to think that he will be required to enter into a classroom to sit still on a mat, listen to instructions by a teacher, be required to read books and write stories about things that barely interest him. Moreover he will then be measured against his peers, and against a scale that determines what is expected of him in relation to one day attaining NCEA qualifications.

Generally speaking the school starting age of 5 years does not suit boys. Of course, there are always exceptions to any broad statement, and in making this assertion I don’t wish to deny those boys ready at 5 their unique start to formal education. But from my experience and observation of new entrant/reception/kindergarten classes, it is the boys that teachers are finding the most difficult to engage in the ‘formal stuff’. These boys find it difficult to sit still, engage in any written activities and at times socially interact with their peers appropriately. From observation, the boys I see in these rooms, given toy cars, cardboard boxes, blocks, play dough, or toy dinosaurs (the list is infinite), will choose to engage for far longer periods of time than in anything structured. In short, they want to explore, create, imagine, play (and blow things up) with their mates all day.

There is growing evidence supporting the claims that boys are making up the numbers of students underachieving and disengaging from school. There are a variety of reasons the evidence points to as to the reasons for this disengagement. Kathleen Palmer Cleveland in her book Teaching Boys Who Struggle At School explores these reasons, and offers some solutions. One area she outlines are the four ‘styles’ of learning and their correlating risks associated with academic underachievement. These styles are:

1. The Practical Doer:
Motivated through mastery, by getting it right and the joy of collecting and sorting information
2. Thinker-Knower:
Motivated by mastering knowledge and the joy of intellectual challenge
3. Interpersonal:
Motivated by connecting, interacting with others, providing practical service and using resources to be helpful
4. Self-Expressive:
Motivated by imagining, making a difference in people’s lives and the joy of growth through empowerment and artistic self-expression

Each of these styles has been attributed with a percentage of risk associated with underachievement at school. A boy with an interpersonal style of learning has a 63% risk of underachieving, those who are self-expressive 24% and the practical-doers have a 12% risk of underachievement. Thinker-knower boys have a 1% risk of failing in school (Cleveland, 2011).

So what are the implications of this evidence for the classroom teacher our boys encounter when beginning school? Perhaps the first task is simply observation. Providing activities for the boys to engage with of a transition-to-school-nature in order to allow the teacher to simply sit and watch. To get to know the boy as an individual learner and person rather than another child to ‘get started’ at school. Observing their developmental readiness and the way in which they engage with activities. In other words, what lights their fire?. For then, teachers can be most responsive to their boys needs in the classroom. And if, through observation, it is clear teachers have boys with an interpersonal style of learning in their group, then activities that encourage this must be available. If we as teachers expect quiet, ordered, compliant and studious classroom environments we may be in fact limiting the potential of boys with these interpersonal learning styles. Self-expressive and practical-doers also need avenues to explore new learning. Imagining and creativity should not be squeezed out of our classrooms because of the need to fit within a set of standards. Opportunities to ‘do’ and ‘practice’ practical activities should also be available to our boys in order to satisfy those who learn through experience and inventing, rather than simply reading or writing.

In summary, boys are arriving at school simply not ready for the way in which our current education system works. They need a considerable amount of time exploring, playing, creating, inventing, breaking, making, shouting, yelling, running and jumping before any of the sit-down, read-and-write stuff. The key for teachers is in their understanding of the boys they have before them and how best to mitigate these implications within the first year (or sometimes more) of a boy’s schooling. By understanding the way in which boys engage may help determine the sorts of activities, and therefore expectations we have of our boys in the junior school classrooms. I would hope that when my 3 year old begins his school journey, he will still be allowed plenty of opportunity to be the interpersonal, self-expressive, practical-doer learner that he is! I can hear junior-school teachers battening down the hatches around the country as I write! But never fear, bike-helmet compulsory!

20130601-080723.jpg

Teacher Philosophy: Falling for Anything?

It would seem that the powers that be in central government have a firm focus as to the current direction of educational policy. In fact this focus is so firm that very little discussion can be entered into, particularly when endeavouring to debate issues with the current Minister. The philosophy they have adopted (that 5/5 students will leave school with NCEA Level 1) has been modelled from similar policies in the States (No Child Left Behind) and United Kingdom. This philosophy is now having a top-down impact on teachers in our classrooms, through the imposition of the National Standards policy and the imminent threat of performance pay. As Sir Ken Robinson states in his most recent TED Talk, centralised government is imposing its ideals and philosophies directly into each and every individual classroom in the country. Instead of teachers deciding on the direction in the classroom, it is a group of officials devoid of experience at the chalk face that are having the most impact on the future learning of the children.

So can teachers have their own philosophy? Why is it that a government can push forward with their own agenda, and yet teachers at the coal face who may have differing or opposing philosophies are not awarded the professional courtesy to teach to these philosophies within their classroom environment. While teachers certainly have policy and curriculum boundaries within which to operate, the profession allows a certain level of flexibility of which a teacher can put their own stamp on their classroom and the sort of learning that can occur. A example of this could be the way in which two teachers, working in neighbouring classrooms could deliver to their students an inquiry focus on ‘mammals in the sea’. A teacher who has the philosophy that students are empty vessels, needing to be filled with knowledge will provide the information in a vastly different way to a teacher with a philosophy that students are active inquirers, needing assistance in learning how to think, inquire and access information relevant to their study.

In my recent experiences it appears that even the most steadfast teachers are beginning to crumble under the weight of centralised government and the philosophies they are imposing on classroom teachers. It is almost as if teachers are simply too scared to have any sort of philosophy about their teaching practice, how children learn, and how these two correlate. I have no doubt that as undergraduates, teachers choose to join the profession with the very intention to be the most effective teacher they can be. They are encouraged in their training to develop a philosophy of their own, researching the very extremes of every corner of education theory. These include learning about the history of education, policy information, alternative theories including Rudolf Steiner and Montessori as well as understanding the enormous depth of child development theory. All this information is intended to form the basis of sound teaching practice as a result of having a belief in what you are doing as the teacher of children. As teachers begin their professional journey post-training college they are exposed to colleagues and school systems that may serve to challenge or confirm what they, as individuals, truly believe about the way children learn best. Their philosophy evolves over the course of the years and should allow a teacher to refine their craft resulting in students receiving education from confident, experienced and knowledgeable teaching staff.

And yet in the current education climate, teachers are struggling to stay true to their own philosophies, or to develop them in the first place. With never ending expectations placed on schools to deliver to standards set by central government, teacher philosophies appear to be lost in translation. There does not seem to be time for teachers to simply reflect on ‘why are we doing this’ and ‘what is the point of this for our children’ and ‘does this sit well with what I believe about children and their learning’? As a result, teachers are being swept up with the latest fads and practices, some of which have no correlation with their underlying philosophies.

Perhaps if teachers return to their beliefs around what is important for them in their classrooms, and conversations in staff rooms centre around philosophy, that teachers will begin to grow that confidence in having some autonomy in their teaching practice. If there is an ever increasing number of teachers knowing what is is they will stand for, the impact of central government may not be quite as far reaching as it would like to become.

20130529-225745.jpg

Piggy-In-The-Middle

As a mother, I am most likely not alone in feeling there are never enough hours in the day to give my children the individual attention they need. In having three children, I find the juggling act at times can be a little uneven. Furthermore having the types of personalities innate in my children makes it inevitable that I spend my days and weeks constantly feeling guilty that I am not doing the perfect job of connecting with my children as individuals in every moment that they ask of me. I have recently struggled in particular with my daughter and my ability to spend time and connect with her the most for all of these reasons.

My daughter is my middle child. She, in many ways is a lot like me. And in as just as many ways (as I am learning) she is the opposite of me. In trying to connect with her and understand her individual needs I often make the mistake of applying my experiences as the sister in the family to her own experiences. I see her world through my eyes and what I saw growing up. However I was the first born, of only two children. I was the more dominant personality and was not necessarily comfortable with my own company. In attributing my childhood experience of being the eldest sister I am assuming this is a childhood she is also experiencing. An ongoing error that I am forever correcting, as she quickly teaches me that she is absolutely her own person in her own right and that she is so very different to me. But because of her nature, and because she has on either side of her two boys who have their own set of needs, she is often misred and misunderstood.

She has inherited her creative flair from her father, an artist by occupation. She enjoys sitting quietly, drawing and coloring and entering into her own world of fantasy and imagination. She withdraws to her room and unless we go looking we often will not engage with her for a length of time. Given the rather loud and boisterous nature of her younger brother, her withdrawal can be met with some relief as we are freed up to get other things done as a result of having one-child entertaining herself. But this is perhaps our biggest mistake. Reading her withdrawal, or happiness in her own company as her not having a need for our attention. While she is happy in her own company, she still very much needs our attention, cuddles, laughter and care in those quiet moments. Where her brother is literally all over us demanding our undivided attention, his sister requests our time through sitting alongside her, drawing or coloring, dressing her dolls or painting her toe nails.

Because of her differing personality, my husband and I have had to become much more conscious of the time we spend with her. We have also had to be very reflective around how we manage any rivalry or conflict between her and her brothers. It is too easy to jump to the defense of the youngest child when body language tells us our daughter has wound him up or has been ignoring his incessant badgering to get her attention. At other times, we are drawn into reprimand when her words get too loud out of sheer frustration with her brother’s actions. It has taken a great deal of reflection and distance at times in order for us to look for other ways to connect with our daughter in order to give her the attention she truly deserves. ‘Dates’ with Mum and Dad are a regular fixture now. Toe-nail painting sessions are booked with Mum in the bedroom behind a closed door and away from little brothers. Holding hands in the front seat when out and about in the car. Sitting down alongside a coloring activity and accepting the invitation to join in. Most importantly, erring on the side of caution when it comes to addressing conflict between siblings. Looking to empower her, rather than reprimand, in turn elevating her status in the eyes of her brother. Complimenting her for her maturity, responsibility and specific skills in those moments when we are caught up with managing her younger brother. Telling her every night before the lights go out how much she is loved, how proud we are to be her parents and most importantly how just wonderful we think she is.

Its difficult being a middle child. My husband attests to this having been one himself. It is yet another challenge for parents to reflect upon when being responsive to the individual needs of each of their children. There is a number of schools of research around the impact family placement has on personality and temperament development. Whatever this development is, parents owe it to all their children to recognise their unique qualities and do their very best to connect with their children on an individual level. But, perhaps for those parents who have ‘middle’ children in their families – consider how this placement impacts on a parent’s ability to be able to connect in these ways with their middle child. It may require more considerate and careful planning in order to have that special and important time so as to mitigate the ongoing and life-long side-effects of being ‘Piggy-In-The-Middle’.

20130524-172049.jpg

Growing Great Readers

Please take a look at my latest article published today on Parenting Informer “Growing Great Readers”. A must read for teachers and parents of young children.

http://www.parentinginformer.com/growing-great-readers-early-childhood-literacy.html

20130523-063444.jpg

High Noon at the Library

Today started a lot like this:

20130518-183117.jpg

progressed through to this:

20130518-182230.jpg

and shortly before noon arrived at this:

20130518-182336.jpg

Much of my day revolved around a battle of wills with my youngest, yet most fiery and independent of all three of my children. They say that the twos and threes are a time in child development where the will exerts itself and the child learns to understand what they have control over in their world, and what others are responsible for. Unfortunately for us, my son began his road to independence at age 6 months, when he flatly refused to take any food from a spoon that we were holding. If he was in control of the spoon, then the food was consumed at lightening speed.

20130518-161633.jpg

Whens he going to get it – I don’t need the help!

Of course we were not to know that this was a precursor to the following years in which our mantra became “pick your battles”. Over the next 3 years we would be faced with moments when we let his will exert itself, other times when we negotiated and finally moments when there was no choice but to tow the party line of “Mum is the boss”. On those occasions, we went in (mostly) prepared, usually with full body armor, ear plugs and a suitable exit plan should we find ourselves in a public place.

Today was one of those days when I moved quickly through all stages of ‘will-negotiation’. It was a 10% day so we started from 4.30am having some inclination of what was ahead of us. It was not necessarily the early start that gave it away…..more so my constant need to repeat such phrases as ‘shooting clothes hangers is an outside game’ and ‘throwing is for outside, not inside’. In those out-of-body moments my warning light goes on and I prepare for imminent battle.

20130518-182633.jpgThe question is – who has the laser?

So this morning, with warning light engaged, we piled into the car to head off for a brief trip to the local public library. Initially lulled into a false sense of security due to the unusually high level of cooperation demonstrated on our trip into town, I actually began to relax my guard as I perused the library shelves……even briefly considering the option of heading to the adult shelves in search of my own reading material. That was perhaps my biggest mistake.

Just when my arms were full of books, my daughter was lined up with books ready for renewal, and my teenage son (having also dumped books at my feet) nowhere to be seen, that my youngest informed me that he needed to go to the toilet. And then he literally ran off. I vaguely heard in his departure “but I know where to go, I can do it by myself”. As I saw him head for the entrance to the library I realised that he thought he knew where to go, but in fact we were not in our usual library. We had headed to a different, much larger one that he was unfamiliar with. Dropping the books in a pile with instructions to my daughter to stay put I raced after him as he came back in through the library entrance. Upon sight of me, he quickly reiterated his initial statement that he had this covered. I did see mild panic cross his face when I pointed out he didn’t know where the toilet was as this was an entirely different library……but it quickly disappeared when he stated that didn’t matter as he could find the toilet by himself.

At this point I had visions of a large puddle appearing on the library floor and seemed to have a far greater sense of urgency in locating the toilet than that of my son. I could not stress enough that this was not the time for negotiations, that if he followed me he would be met with relief. But his will kicked in and he stood ground. So I feigned defeat (another tactic with a previously high success rate). I suddenly took a great deal of interest in the stack of large-print books to my left. In doing so I noticed he had managed to navigate his way to a point where the toilet signs were obvious. My next manoeuvre was to get him to the ladies and not the mens so that I could still monitor the entire event. “That’s it….this door here, you found it by yourself awesome!” But it would seem my mere presence implied war, so any suggestion of mine was met with extreme opposition.

Somehow, (still not entirely sure how) I won the round of ‘what’s behind this door’ and we negotiated our way into the ladies. Before I could remind him not to lock the cubicle door, he was in (by himself) and door locked. I was told to ‘leave me’ as he attended to business. I reminded him I was not going to leave him in the toilets, but that I was outside waiting for him. Further protests ensued, but at this stage I was just grateful we had made it there without any major incident in public view.

It was not over by any means. As time ticked by and it was clear the original purpose in being there was accomplished, my attention turned to exactly what he was doing in a locked cubicle. I reminded him I was outside waiting for him. Again, he protested his independence. I then issued my bottom line statement ‘I will be here until I see that lock turn and the door open’. A little head appeared from under the cubicle door. His reconnaissance was met with an image that clearly confirmed the battle lines were drawn.

20130518-182714.jpgI was not to be messed with.

The lock turned and before he knew it, the door was open and he was in custody, frog marching out of the bathroom and protesting his objection to the intervention that had occurred.

It must’ve been the combination of audible protests and their mother’s face that indicated to my other two children that our time at the library had come to an end. Our ‘exit plan’ kicked into gear without a hitch and we all were able to leave the area in one piece, with no one harmed and, as a bonus, full book bags. Walking pace quickened as we reached the car, buckled in and began the long and rather loud drive home.

20130518-182807.jpgWe didn’t look back

The Cause of a Mothers Heart Attack

My three year old causes me mild heart attacks several times a day. Not necessarily due to his risk taking, and not always due to his loud and boisterous nature. The latest cause to my coronary health is his urge to ‘boom’ everything in site. I will come out of the bedroom in the morning and he appears around the corner with either a stick, Lego, piece of cut off pipe, or if none of the above are available, his fingers in the shape of a gun. Then follows a loud BOOM with ‘I got you Mum’, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM.

Not content just with obliterating me, his sister, father, cat or passing chickens in the driveway…….he will often then elaborate on the military attack with cannons, bombs and when all else fails ‘ninja moves’. He will explain in great detail how when he points his cannon, (or boomer) over ‘there’, it will then shoot out and fire to over ‘there’ and explode ‘getting you Mum’. Naturally cannons shoot things out of them, so this demonstration is usually accompanied with some object in trajectory across the room.

I am a peaceful person. I do not advocate the use of guns or support those who feel the need to arm themselves. I initially banned guns from our home when our eldest boy was young, reneging on the ban when it became clear I was fighting a losing battle. We carefully monitor the use of TV with our little ones, and in the most part (apart from some cartoons) they are not exposed to violent TV programmes. Nor have they been exposed to any video games. So it is somewhat perplexing to understand where my sons urge is for throwing things across the room in the context of his game. There have been several moments where he has looked most disappointed when I have, in a fit of frustration (and increased heart rate), suggested bluntly that he stop throwing things around the room. I decided to step back and notice other moments through the day where the theme of throwing things has recurred. Such as throwing clumps of dirt over the fence to watch them roll down the paddock. Throwing (without notice) clothes at me, rather than passing them to me as request. Stones firing over the back fence (despite the livestock in the paddock). And of course the ever present bomb presence lurking around the corners in our home.

It was clear upon reflection that my son had an urge to throw things. And it was also clear to me that no amount of me telling him to simply stop was going to actually gethim to stop. It was an innate urge that most of the time appeared to be impulsive and beyond his rational thought. He just did it. And by me telling him to stop it was only going to help in creating frustrations that would be hard to manage.

Pennie Brownlee and Kimberley Crisp provide a useful explanation for the urges children demonstrate, particularly in the early years. These urges include collecting, distributing, transporting, enclosing, rotation, circular, trajectory, ordering, grouping, construction and deconstruction, posting and family-making. When adults take the time to stop and observe a child’s behaviour it will be these urges they will see in their children’s repeated play-behaviours. Sometimes it is these very urges that we find ourselves saying are causing tests to our adult sanity. Like my 6 year old daughters apparent need to transport her many toys in handbags around our house, or to and from her grandparents home. Not a problem until she has included in one of her many bags her asthma medication which then cannot be located when needed! A common frustration of parents occurs when toddlers insist of posting items down the toilet. And how many adults have located toys in the microwave? Who hasn’t in their childhood made huts with old sheets, blankets the couch and chairs? All these reflect innate urges for transportation, posting and enclosure. And some of these can be so easily misread by adults. Kimberley and Pennie also acknowledge that these urges don’t miraculously cease when we are all grown-up. As adults we continue to have our own urges that filter into our daily behaviours. If my teenager hangs the clothes out on the line, I often have to go and re-peg for my own self-satisfaction. It may be the subconscious need to draw circles on a pad of paper while talking on the telephone. Or the gut reaction to finding a flat stone at the edge of the lake or ocean……determined it is the perfect stone for skimming. Only to find you weren’t successful initially and needing to skim many more times before finishing, happy you there the perfect ‘skimming stone’.

How then, does it feel to the person who has the urge to re-peg the clothesline if they were not permitted or even restricted from doing it? What about if, when in the telephone, you were prevented from doodling and drawing in spirals on the scrap piece of paper? Would you then be able to focus on the content of the telephone conversation? Or would your thoughts become consumed with the desire to doodle and the frustration that you were not permitted? Would it be easy for you to walk away having not successfully skimmed the perfect stone on the water?

So why, then, are children often told they can’t do things that are stemming from these innate urges? Rather than banning throwing in our house, I have had to define some expectations around when and where the throwing can occur. Last weekend we set up a pyramid of cans under the clothesline and he was able to ‘smash’ them with his throws to his hearts content (all roaming livestock was redirected from the area). He was given a pile of stones to throw over the fence into the paddock behind our house with his sister and I becoming his cheering team depending on the length of his throw. At the point where it is apparent he is about to shoot his cannon inside our house, he is redirected outside to take up a more tactical vantage point rather than not have the advantage within the confines of the house.

Adults need to take the time to see and to learn about the urges children have in their play. Perhaps by first considering the urges we have as adults, we can then put ourselves in the hearts of our children…….empathising with what they must really feel when told they can’t do what their urge is telling them they must. It is when we, the adults, can truly see what drives our children’s behaviour, that we can then begin to be responsive to our children’s needs.

20130510-062044.jpg

Cheeky Kids on Parenting Informer

Cheeky Kids have begun contributing articles to The Parenting Informer website. This is a fantastic website for parents, covering a wide range of tips and advice for all sorts of parenting dilemmas. Have a look at the latest submission by Cheeky Kids. An insight into the roller coaster ride of being a Step Mum.

http://www.parentinginformer.com/wicked-step-mother-or-privileged-position.html