November 09, 2022
Easy Does It
By Dr Kathy Weston
Recently, I hosted a webinar with Liz Keable, an expert on ‘metacognition’, where she explained how learning happens and how ‘metacognitive thinking’ can enable learning. Indeed, it is something that can be promoted in our homes and our schools, but more on that later. Liz passionately believes, as do I, that all children are capable of thriving in learning, if we can just (as cheesy as it sounds) locate the right ‘key’ to unlock their potential.
This webinar really got me thinking about the fact that, whilst learning is complex, we can do much at home to provide conditions within which children can learn optimally. There is much to reflect on.
Children start off as natural learners who are curious about the world around them. They constantly ask ‘why?’, try new things and are unfazed by failure. Toddlers get stuck in and get on with it. They are generally given the freedom to explore, imagine and interact with the world in unstructured and liberating ways. Eventually, toddlers transition to ‘big school’; a change that requires learning to learn in a more structured environment, having to listen, sit down at prescribed times, play at breaktime and stop when it is time to come in.
A similar transition or step-change in how learning happens occurs when children migrate from primary to secondary school. It can feel daunting to suddenly have numerous teachers rather than one, to move between classrooms at every bell and to manage multiple homework tasks across different subjects. With formal learning comes assessment, tests and exams, all of which help determine whether our children are making age-appropriate progress, ensuring that they are ready to tackle much more formal exams in mid to late adolescence.
Sometimes, I reflect on how enjoyable those early years were; doing what we pleased all day, attuning and responding to my toddlers’ interests at a pace that suited them. In those days, learning wasn’t rushed. Toddlers are masters of mindful engagement. They know that it’s worth stopping to think about the world around them, that it’s a good idea to pick up things that capture their interest and to spend time looking, touching or interacting with them to learn more. Parenting a toddler might be the first time that you witness a learner engaged in a state of ‘flow’; so deeply focused and engaged in an activity that they barely respond if you talk to them.
Understandably, adults often interrupt these rich learning moments to ask children what they are doing or attempt to join in. It is something I used to do, rather than giving my child time to ‘just be’. But, in those moments a child is actually learning very deeply. In recent years, I’ve learned that an optimal ‘thing to do’ when watching a young child at play is actually to sit back and observe. Psychologist and expert on family life, Professor Claire Hughes, describes this as ‘autonomy support’. Adults should only step in to assist if they struggle or seek help. Sometimes, less is more.
In the early and primary years, it can be tempting to rush children through early reading. As parents, we might be keen to see tangible progress, wanting them to graduate quickly to the next level of the ‘reading band’. We’ve all done it. However, this approach actually risks affecting children’s enjoyment of reading. A large body of research shows that access to books and ‘reading for pleasure’ are significant benchmarks for children’s future academic achievement. Reading is the gateway to understanding, not only in a subject like English, but in other subjects too. In fact, The Education Endowment Foundation’s science literature review found that students’ reading capability was the best predictor of later science achievement.
Sadly, one of the only points in the day when parents can generally engage children in reading is the busiest and most stressful: bedtime. Understandably, we might want to race through bedtime stories; we are tired, busy and need to get on with our own evening. Remember though, less is more. Fifteen minutes of ‘high quality’ time together is worth more than a lengthy and frustrating ‘run through’ of a story. Rather than pushing our children to get to the end, if only we paused, stopped to reflect on the meaning of the words or how a character might be feeling. If only we gave our children the time to make connections between what’s on the page and their own thoughts and experiences.
Reading together isn’t just about developing literacy; it is about physical closeness, wonder, laughter, questions and endless digressions. The act of reading and the chatting that accompanies it has another magical effect; it develops children’s language and oracy skills. If they can say it, chances are they will eventually write it! Slow reading, like the slow eating movement, asks us to have the courage to take our time for maximum enjoyment.
The same emphasis on quality over quantity can apply to time spent generally with children. Most parents don’t have hours and hours in the evenings, or even across the week, to spend with children, and some children may only see one parent sporadically. Whatever time we do have, let’s aim for high quality interactions and the opportunity to renew our connection.
Some pivotal moments in a child’s day which necessitate time with a parent might be car journeys, homework time or getting ready for bed. You might have noticed that these are times when we are most likely tired, hungry and busy. Homework can end up as a ‘battle of wills’ and, in some homes, it can be a source of great frustration. Parents might feel upset because a child is struggling and they aren’t sure how to help them. Some might think that the child just isn’t willing to learn.
As a starting point, I think it is incredibly useful to reflect back on our own experiences of homework. As a child, whilst I found most subjects enjoyable, I really struggled with maths. On many evenings, I’d stare at the page of questions and tears would drip onto the clock that I couldn’t read, or the graph that seemed incomprehensible. The ink would begin to run and I’d have to start again, even though I really, really didn’t want to. I can recall positive homework experiences too; writing a great story and my parents listening to me reading it out with looks of admiration on their faces.
So, how have these reflections affected my own parenting? Well, I think I have a deep empathy for both the struggling learner and the parent. I understand the frustration of a parent, but I also know what the child feels like. They might feel angry, tearful, sad, hopeless even. They might just want to run away and hide in their room. They wish everyone would stop asking them to do something that feels impossible. When we struggle, and help doesn’t arrive in the right way, we can simply want to withdraw, give up or refuse to participate.
We also need to be aware that sometimes, just sometimes, children struggle for reasons that simply aren’t their fault. There may be underlying, undiagnosed conditions (which be genetic, biological or neurodevelopmental) that affect learning.
When it comes to children struggling with numbers, ‘maths anxiety’ or a condition called ‘dyscalculia’ (affecting 1 in 20 of the general population) are just two possibilities worthy of exploration. There is a high comorbidity rate between dyscalculia and other developmental conditions, such as dyslexia and ADHD, something which I learned in a webinar with UCL scientist, Dr Jo Van Herwegen earlier this week. She reiterated the fact, echoed by Liz Keable, that when we witness a child struggle, we really need to be curious. We need to pay attention to their emotions when they attempt a task, how they respond to our help, what works and what doesn’t. We need to listen to teachers’ observations and even consider an assessment, where appropriate.
It can be hard to puzzle out what is going on for a child who may be trying their best, so it requires patience, learning, observation and working in partnership with others. Happily, researchers continually provide wonderful, free, evidence-based resources that schools and families can lean into and use. Take ADD UP (An Awareness of Developmental Dyscalculia and Mathematical Difficulties Toolkit), co-created by scientists at University College London and teachers. It neatly highlights red flags for dyscalculia, screening options for pupils, and a two-day, online course for SENCOs.
As Liz Keable says, the most important factor in children’s education is ‘what they take with them each day in their heads’. As parents, we need to focus on the ‘controllables’. We can’t control the curriculum or what happens in the classroom, but we can influence other factors that contribute to effective learning.
A positive home learning environment, so important for children’s ability to thrive in school, isn’t just about reading, access to books or time with a parent. It is also about holding the line, being patient, curious and taking the time to figure out any struggles. Children all develop differently. Each child in your family is different and may require a differentiated approach.
Remaining calm and constructive, observing our children and liaising with teachers will truly benefit children of all ages. It is very easy to panic when things go a little awry with learning. It is easy to make assumptions about children not being particularly academic, or ‘just not motivated’. For some children, we might just have to dig deeper and keep an open mind. They may need more time, more understanding or even some specialist attention or support. If anything, my engagement with learning experts over the last week has only reinforced my belief that the answers are out there; we just need to ask the right questions and be as patient as possible.
We can gently tell our children that they haven’t got it ‘yet’ and infuse conversations at homework time with positivity and hope. We can remember that ‘success’ is something we define for ourselves within our own families and resist the temptation to compare our children to others. We can do everything we can to help our children feel valued for other traits or important characteristics that they possess and demonstrate: kindness, the ability to make others’ laugh, empathise or to think outside the box. These might not be ‘assessed’ formally, but they are equally critical to children’s ability to thrive.
Thinking metacognitively can aid children across many aspects of their lives and it is something we can model. It means turning our attention to what we are thinking, taking ownership of those thoughts and consciously changing how we think to get a different result. With our children, we can consider what is working well and where the knots are when it comes to school work, we can model a positive attitude to learning, recognising that we all make mistakes, model hope, self-compassion, a ‘can try’ attitude and respect for teachers and schools. It is ok to share with our children (as I have with mine) that we can all struggle with aspects of learning at some point. Sometimes, it can feel uncomfortable to not know the answers, and that is ok. What matters more is our approach to figuring them out.
If you’d like to find out more about Liz Keable’s online events designed to help parents engage with children’s learning, she’d love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are you a Tooled Up member?
If you’d like to learn more about metacognition, watch our recent webinar with Liz Keable or browse through our other metacognition resources. If you’d like to learn more about dyscalculia, check out our webinar with Dr Jo Van Herwegen, which is in the library now. If you’re interested in learning more about the state of flow, listen to our podcast interview with Cameron Norsworthy. If you have a primary-aged child who struggles with negative self-talk, take a look at our Managing Your Gremlin activity. Normalising mistakes is vital. Take a look at our article to find out why or use our list of book suggestions to help ensure that your child knows that mistakes are welcome in your home.
It’s also worth considering how we approach homework time. Our reflective sheet can nudge you to think about your own feelings about homework and the impact these might have on your children. If you need some affirming, positive statements to boost morale at homework time, check out our suggestions.