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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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High Noon at the Library

Today started a lot like this:

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progressed through to this:

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and shortly before noon arrived at this:

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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.

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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.

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Conveyor-Belt Learning

Each year I grow increasingly concerned as both a mother and educationalist about what lies in store for our boys within the current education system. There is something quite depressing happening in our classrooms. Boys are becoming disengaged and unmotivated to participate in activities on offer, and as a result become the ‘behaviour problems’ that attention then focuses on. So as teachers we must start asking ourselves what’s happening for our boys in our classrooms?

Prior to the introduction of National Standards in New Zealand, new entrant teachers would generally have 5 year old boys arrive in their first day of school and recognise that these boys were not school-ready. Many were happy to be at school to eat their lunch and rip around the playground. Others fixated on the blocks, or marble-run game in the classroom. Some enjoyed the physical games, card games and maths activities. And a few cottoned on to the idea that they were in a place where they had to pick up a pencil and write, or began to feel their success in accessing stories and text. There did not seem to be the ‘rush’ that is apparent in today’s junior classrooms. Teachers now are expected to have children progress within their first year of school to meet the ‘standard’ after 1 year at school.

But what happens when these boys who arrive at school not developmentally ready for learning meet a teacher frantic to ensure progress happens? Frustration occurs on so many levels and for all parties involved. The first frustration is that of the teacher. A competent teacher will realise the mismatch between actual ability and expected achievement and feel frustrated, firstly, with a system that is so out-of-touch with the children realistically existing within it. A subsequent frustration is the lack of resource, of which is mostly time, for the teacher to begin to spend with children who need to meet the standard in one year.

Little consideration is given to the link between boys misbehaving and the impact the national standards have had in their behaviour. The first thought of teachers is that they have a boy or boys in the class not following the rules and being disruptive in class. But what if the behaviour displayed by the boys is a communication of their frustration around what is expected of them in their first year? While the teacher is focused on the pressure in pushing achievement, the boys are reacting to the pressure by not engaging in the activities expected of them.

Generally the activities expected of boys in the first year of school are to support the growth in writing, reading and maths knowledge. The inevitable is beginning to happen in that teachers are beginning to teach to the standard, rather than deliver the NZ Curriculum. For boys to be reading at Green Level at age 6, they need to get a fair move on when they arrive at school. For children that have been exposed to a rich variety of text and are interested in what text has to offer them pre-school, achieving to green level is fairly reasonable. But for those boys who are operating developmentally at age 2,3 or 4, the idea of spending time sitting reading or writing for anywhere between 20 to 40 minutes is unfathomable. In fact, it then becomes far more entertaining to wander around the classroom annoying and interfering with others than it is to complete a colouring activity or written task.

Teachers need to really reflect on what the true impact National Standards are having on their teaching and management of boys arriving at school developmentally not ready. Should teachers continue to battle, pressure and drag children towards an illusive level of achievement? Is this ensuring boys are going to school everyday with enthusiasm and excitement towards the day ahead? Is this tunnel vision (eg knowledge-based literacy and numeracy skills) really going to equip these boys with life-long skills such as problem-solving, self-management, curiosity and imagination? Are we teaching the whole-child, or are we adopting the conveyor-belt approach to churn out children who have knowledge but no passion or love of learning?

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Male Communication – A Female Perspective

I talk far too much. I talk too much because I am female and because I am genetically predisposed to over talk. Because of this I am very mindful about how I speak to my sons. All the research shows that men and boys interpret information aurally far differently than females. So when I give instructions to my sons I can almost hear myself talking far too much. With my teenage son, my husband is often left to deal with him so that I can avoid becoming the nagging mother. But at the same time I have one ear open and hear the interaction that occurs. It plays out something like this……’stop being an egg……’ ‘pick that up…..’ ‘hurry up’…. ‘leave it alone’. I’m sitting there listening, thinking this boy is going to be emotionally scarred for the rest of his life because of the way his father is talking to him. But it works. He responds. He does it. He loves his father no less than any other time. The jobs get done. If I were to ask him to do something for me, it would be ‘can you please put this away because……’ with usually a very long-winded reason for why I’m asking him to do the job for me. Invariably the request is forgotten, because he didn’t hear all the instructions. He just heard a barrage of words and quickly tuned out. I then get frustrated that I have had to repeat myself, and feel offended that he didn’t pay attention to me in the first place.

So over the past few weeks I have been undertaking some informal observations with my youngest son in the way I can have my instructions interpreted. As a 3 year old, he manages very well in 2 and 3 step instructions. This is unusual, as I would expect 3 year olds to be able to just manage simple 2 step instructions such as pick up teddy and put him on the table. I think the success of my son following more complex instructions is in the breakdown of language when delivering them. I have been trying hard to state the steps in one, two or three word phrases. For example teeth, pick up toys, bed. Then I hit ‘repeat’ to almost provide a rhythmical pattern to the instructions in order for them to be retained long enough to be completed. Teeth, pick up toys, bed….teeth, pick up toys, bed…….and I can often hear my son repeating this to himself as he works through the instructions.

The benefits of this approach are numerous. Firstly, the success felt in following someone’s instructions and receiving the feedback when completed. Secondly the ability to develop a way of remembering instructions, retaining information and processing it aurally. Thirdly, not being bamboozled by the ‘noise’ unnecessary words can create for our boys. Simply keeping things matter-of-fact.

So Mums, Aunties, Nanas, Grandmas and sisters. Keep it simple and stop talking quite so much! Choose your moments to engage with the boys in your life verbally. Of course, we must talk to our boys, model language they need, discuss emotions, problem solve and scaffold self-management. But learn to recognise the glazed look….the distracted stare….or the need to repeat several times. These are definite indicators of a male being ‘talked to’ far too much.