The Quiet Abuse of our Modern Children

In the grand scheme of things I have not been working in the education profession for long. I am not a ‘seasoned’ teacher with a significant number of years under my belt. In the time I have worked in education, however, I have worked primarily in an area where one would see the very worst in child behaviour and emotional well being. I have met children with lives outside of school filled with violence, neglect and poverty. Children who, as a direct result of their parents actions, have been traumatised to where their lives will never be the same again. This level of abuse against children has always captured the eye of the media, for its shock and stun factor with the general public. As a society, it is agreed without doubt that this is a completely unacceptable way in which children should experience their childhood years. And so the big sweeping statements from central government are made, the policies are created, the government agencies are sent out in troops and these offenders (where possible) are rounded up with children relocated…..often into equally unsuitable home settings.

But there is a quiet and subtle abuse that  appears to be significantly increasing yet to capture media (and therefore government) attention. Neglectful Parenting will also have life-long, and inter-generational impacts on society that we are yet to fully comprehend. But neglectful parenting does not seem to be understood in its entirety. Neglect comes to the attention of our government agency charged with child safety when children’s basic human needs are not being met. Primarily food, shelter and supervision from adults. What does not seem to be considered as neglectful within these categories is the inability of adults to love and give attention to the children they are responsible for. Yet, anecdotally, there would seem to be an ever increasing number of children walking through the school gates who are experiencing a level of neglect that is having a detrimental effect to their emotional and social well being. They come from a home where they have food, are clean, and have basic clothing requirements (mostly) met. But they do not have an emotional connection to a significant parent. As a teacher, this is by far the hardest level of neglect to address in a classroom.

20130630-093025.jpg

Children from these home environments typically struggle to manage themselves socially and emotionally on a daily basis. They are anxious, defensive, reactive and can display what seems to be an overreaction to minor issues. They do not have the resilience that a child from an emotionally-secure background would have. Simply, they are lost. Lost in a world in which adults are not there to provide calm and comfort, love and care. For some, they learn that when they demonstrate a need for comfort (such as crying, or raging) an adult is not there to respond to them and keep them emotionally safe. For others, they may have had this initially, but as they lose the ‘cute-factor’ of babyhood, they have to ‘toughen up’ and ‘harden up’ and so subsequently lose a model of appropriate emotional response to the trials and tribulations of life ahead. Some children are simply so tired because their lives outside of school are either rushed with parents juggling from one job/event/appointment to the next, or because parents are so unpredictable and have little routines at home to communicate a sense of order for their children. And there are a growing majority of children coping with the emotional burden of adult worries, particularly where relationships have broken down and separations have occurred. For these children, their childhood is not only impacted with the loss of their two-parent family structure, but they are then burdened with the care of their (usually) Mum and her emotional needs of company and companionship.

What is of most concern is that there would appear to be a generation of children growing up that simply do not have the skills to cope with the rigors of adult life. As a result of these types of neglectful parenting, they will enter adulthood without a secure emotional foundation on which to build positive and fulfilling relationships with others. They will have needs that will go unmet. And this will then begin to impact on their ability to appropriately parent the next generation. Thus the snow-ball effect will continue. Predictably there may be far reaching effects into areas such as adolescent and adult mental health, crime rates, rates of teenage pregnancy, divorce statistics and so on. If we do not meet the emotional needs of our young, the problem will become society’s as they reach adulthood.

20130630-093207.jpg

There does not appear to be an easy answer. It does appear that the snowball has already begun its alpine descent, and is quickly gathering momentum (and size). What would slow its pace somewhat would be a nationwide focus on preventative, rather than reactive care for parents and their families. Making it acceptable for parents to acknowledge that this job is horrendously complicated, complex and damn hard work. Allowing parents to share their struggles without judgment of their abilities. Having a government department not focused just on the bottom of the cliff, but getting in early and providing parents with education around the fundamental emotional needs of children in the first few years of their lives. Providing families in the midst of separation with education around how to not burden their children with the adult problems going on around them. In short, protecting children from adulthood and all that it comes with for just that little bit longer. Allowing children to experience a pure childhood……with a sense of emotional security that ultimately builds resilience and self-identity. All while modelling to children a pattern of responsive parenting that they can then adopt in adulthood as they become parents themselves.

It is time parents were given the opportunity to reflect on the quiet form of abuse that is neglectful parenting. Parenting is so much more than feeding, clothing and sheltering children. It is so much harder than that. It is about stepping outside of yourself and putting your children first. In every part of your day.

20130630-093341.jpg

Advertisements

The Last Noo Noo

Tonight my 3 year old son asked me to read a favourite of his before bedtime – The Last Noo Noo by Jill Murphy. Being that this book was his favourite, I am now in a position to read the book from memory, given the numerous requests for it each night. Despite having read this book to the point of exhaustion I had never considered the way in which I could use it as a teaching tool around emotional literacy.

Emotional literacy is the awareness and understanding of our emotions. When a child is emotionally connected, not only will they be able to explain how they feel, but also know what to be able to do with the emotions they have. This is a particularly difficult skill to master, even for many adults. There is an assumption that children just know how they are feeling and what it’s called. Unless parents consciously teach emotional literacy to their children, children will pick up parts of these skills by osmosis and observation, rather than in more conscious and meaningful ways. And more often than not it is their peers that they imitate rather than adults modelling appropriate skills and strategies.

20130618-220043.jpg

Many parents are unaware of those teachable moments in the day that serve to shape children’s emotional regulation. The way in which parents use their attention is a powerful tool in consciously teaching children about their emotions and how to regulate them. In reading The Last Noo Noo tonight, I was able to seize on one of these such moments. I was able to point to the illustration of the Monster and say ‘look at his face, he is looking really sad isn’t he?’ And that was it. A simple moment in which I highlighted to my son the look on his favourite characters face and gave it a name. That is what sad looks like. We then carried on with the story and he was not subjected to a barrage of formal teaching in the last few minutes of his day before sleep.

This is such a simple starting point for parents unsure as to how to go about helping their children to develop emotional literacy. Using those moments to point out the faces or behaviour of those around them and giving the underlying emotion a name. As children are exposed to more and more real-life moments of seeing what sad, happy, angry, frustrated, proud and jealous looks like, they will begin to be able to notice it more in themselves and in others. What is key at this point is for the parent to assist their children in identifying how those feelings feel in their own ‘insides’. Again, a simple way to do this is by parents noticing their own child’s feeling and specifically commenting on them as the observer. Almost as if their child were the character in the book and the parent pointing out ‘you are looking very happy’. I was conscious of this just last week when my daughter flew through the door with her first Principal’s certificate. The smile on her face reached from ear to ear and she looked as if she were to burst. After the initial congratulatory exchange, I commented ‘you must be so proud of yourself…..are you proud?’ to which she nodded (too proud to speak). Another teachable moment in which she connected her ‘insides’ to a label within a context that was relevant to her.

The struggle for many parents is in how to approach children when they are unable to manage their negative emotions, such as anger and frustration. There is no different an approach to the ‘noticing’ of the emotion discussed above. But in order for our children to learn how to manage these emotions, or what to do with them, they must be taught what is appropriate. Discussions need to happen with children when they are not consumed with these negative feelings about ways to manage and what to do. For example, ‘when I am mad, I need to go and stomp ten times outside before I can calm my body down’. Children need to know it is ok to be mad, sad, angry or frustrated. These are perfectly normal human reactions to events that occur. What children need are guidelines for what to do when they are feeling these negative emotions. They need to be coached in order to develop self-regulation and management of their behaviour in these moments. It is unrealistic to expect that children will know how to safely be angry, when they have not had anyone to teach them the relevant strategies. And yet, for many children, they are often scolded or punished when they use inappropriate strategies in moments of anger or sadness. By coupling the labelling of the emotion (you look angry) with a coping statement (but you are taking some deep breaths) children begin to understand what is expected of them when feeling these negative emotions.

Children are arriving at school today with an increasing inability to manage themselves and engage in appropriate pro social behaviour. By looking for teachable moments whereby parents can coach children to understand and build emotional literacy, they will be giving children opportunities to learn how to manage themselves and regulate their emotions. Children need the adults around them to model appropriate pro-social behaviour and coping strategies when things get tough. They will not learn these skills from their peers or siblings. Parents need to consciously notice, comment and support children’s emotional literacy. These moments can be brief and sporadic through the day, but they are moments of invaluable learning for our children. It can be as simple as just noticing a little monster and the sad look on his face on the page of a favourite book.

20130618-220248.jpg

To Any Child’s Parents

There are little eyes upon you
And they’re watching night and day;
There are little ears that quickly
Take in everything you say.

There are little hands all eager
To do everything you do;
And a little child who’s dreaming
Of the day they’ll be like you.

You’re the little tyke’s great idol;
You’re the wisest of the wise;
In that little mind, about you
No suspicions ever rise.

They believe in you devoutly
Hold all that you say and do
They will say and do it your way,
When they’ve grown up, just like you.

There’s a wide-eyed little angel
Who believes you’re always right;
And their ears are always open
And they’re watching day and night.

Source: Unknown

What is the Point?

Ask any junior school teacher what subject causes them the most grief when it comes to engaged students and they will invariably answer ‘writing’. Pair that with disengaged boys and teachers reply with a sigh and sometimes an eye roll as they recollect many incidents of trying to have boys write a daily story. The parallels between making young children write and pulling teeth are numerous. It is at writing time that teachers find the incidents of misbehaviour increase and the focus shifts from teaching the writing process to managing engagement of children in the room.

Writing 1

Why is this? Why has writing become such a chore for children and teachers alike? Why is it that teachers are having to resort to individual incentive systems or heavily scaffolded strategies in order to get a piece of writing from their students in their writing books on an almost daily basis? The answer perhaps is in the relevance of it to today’s children. Generation Z and now Generation Alpha children arriving in our schools have at their disposal a plethora of technology from which they can choose to communicate with others. And this is the key…..when they choose to communicate. As adults we use written text when we choose to connect with others. There would be a small percentage of the population who engage in writing for their own personal satisfaction. For the most part, the average human being will write when there is a purpose. If we, as adults, do not sit down daily to write a story about our weekend……why do we expect our students to?  It is well known as children progress through school they tend to deviate towards their interests and passions.  These strengths are often already noted in junior classrooms.  So why is it that teachers continue to pursue story-writing with students that communicate through their behaviour an absolute lack of interest in the activity?  Instead teachers should adopt a view of providing these students with the skills they need to use writing as a tool to communicate with others, while supporting the development of their strengths and interests.

Some would argue that, with the exponential growth of technology available to our children, learning to write is not as important as it once was. This is not the case. What is more important is the way in which we expose our children to the various audiences that they may engage with using the technology available. Now, more than ever, children have the potential to access a global audience. To have the power of their message communicated worldwide. To be heard. So, of course, they must be exposed to appropriate learning opportunities on which they can build a solid foundation  about written language.

But it is the purpose that is most relevant, rather than the argument about learning written language itself. Let’s face it, in general in junior classrooms, it is the boys at writing time who will become the most disruptive and disengaged in the lesson. Some will sit and stare at the ceiling, others will sharpen their pencil ten times over and many will annoy their neighbor. In the most extreme, these students will be prepared to upend a classroom in order to avoid the writing task. All because they do not see the relevance of the task to them. It is simply not important to them. Couple this with their experiences of teachers standing over them, or keeping them back until the writing is completed……and writing has become their most disliked subject at school.

Writing 2

So how can children engage and build on their writing knowledge without the unnecessary battle with their teacher? Perhaps consideration to the variety of writing tasks available to students in the classroom is the answer. Many teachers run a writing program that is whole-class, story writing or the traditional processed-writing model. Students do not have a choice in the task, other than what they might choose to write about. Why not provide students with a variety of writing tasks, mirroring those that adults use to communicate in reality? Letter writing, emails, shopping lists, birthday cards, journals and for those most adventurous…blogging! Students can learn that they write for an audience, rather than to write in a book for their teacher’s satisfaction. By using a variety of tasks, students may receive replies from those they engage with, either through email, letter or blogs and therefore take on an understanding of the point of writing.  Of course, the story writers in classrooms must also have their needs met. But these students are often writers anyway, without the need for teachers to creatively motivate them. By providing those less-likely to engage in the writing process with highly motivating activities, inevitably the teacher will be released to consider extending our future Shakespearean authors as well.  In short, all the students will see the point to the task required of them, because it will be relevant to their own interests and needs.

Writing 3

Another consideration as to why children don’t engage in prolonged writing activity is from a developmental perspective.  Children require a variety of skills in order to be able to think of, structure and recall ideas to begin a story.  When writing this in an exercise book or with pen and paper, add another layer of skills on top.  Holding a pen/pencil is one such challenge for our modern students.  It may be that the availability of pens and pencils has been scant at home and the child simply has not had sufficient practice in holding a pencil, let alone correctly.   For some children, holding a pencil during a prolonged writing task simply hurts.  On top of holding the pencil is then the recalling of ideas while forming letters into unknown words/spellings.  An enormous amount of thinking involved in what is often seen as a basic task by educators.  If teachers offer a varied menu of writing tasks, some of these skills can be addressed, while those with deficits in some areas can be supported to engage in the writing process.  It would be unrealistic to expect all children to happily and successfully engaged in a task of this magnitude on a daily basis without support.  And yet many teachers do have this expectation, and frustrate when it is not met.  By having a varied menu, some pen and paper activities, some technology activities, children will be able to write without realising it.  Because their learning focus will be to communicate with others, not in how to construct a story or recall an event.  After all, that’s the point of writing isn’t it?

Students, as all people do, need to see the point to their learning.  If they don’t, they simply will look for other activities that will be more interesting or relevant.  These might just be activities that teachers fear the most in their classroom environment.

My-ideas-usually-come