June 14, 2023
Here Comes the Sun
By Dr Cassie Rhodes
Here in the UK, summer has certainly arrived. Temperatures are rising, reminders are arriving from school about hats and sun cream, water bottles are being well and truly emptied and seasonal sports events are underway. Many of our children are currently spending significant amounts of time in potentially sweaty exam halls (whether for ‘big’, high stakes exams or annual end of year tests). But there’s a feeling in the air that summer fun is just around the corner and lots of older teens will be planning what they’ll do to celebrate when exams are finally over.
Partying might be their first request, but it’s certainly not the only way to mark the occasion and it’s worth reminding them that there are many more options for unwinding and rewarding their hard work. Day trips to new places, cooking for friends, trying out a new hobby or exciting sport, reading a book that has nothing whatsoever to do with school, or going to see a favourite band, are all good tips – and ones which might cause you less concern!
Talking of bands, last week at Tooled Up, we interviewed Beatriz Ilari, Associate Professor of Music Teaching and Learning at the University of Southern California. She chatted to us all about her latest research project, which examines the impact of music on teens’ development and wellbeing. Professor Ilari got me thinking anew about the huge importance of music in young people’s lives.
Did you know that adolescents are bigger consumers of music than any other age group? For teens, music is often a badge of identity for themselves and they tend to draw conclusions about others from their musical preferences. Today, unlike my youth where we queued up for hours at HMV to buy the latest album and were often quite tribal about our music choices, teens are exposed to a vast library of music online and research shows that they tend to have very eclectic tastes. The young people in Professor Ilari’s study enjoyed a wide range of genres and styles including K-pop (perhaps this betrays my age, but I think I’ll need to ask one of the kids what this one is), rap, heavy metal, pop, indie, classical music and older pre 90s music. Most considered music to be an important aspect of their lives and identity. In fact, the music of our youth often maintains significance throughout our entire lives. So-called musical‘reminiscence bumps’ have been widely explored in research and it’s known that many adults (me included) seek the comfort of their teen musical favourites during times of uncertainty, such as the pandemic.
Whilst we probably all play and listen to music on our own at times, engaging with music is an inherently social activity, particularly for young people. It is used in social situations, increases contact between individuals, can ease interpersonal interactions and creates cohesion in a group of people. Music has been described as a ‘technology of the self’. We use it to help regulate our emotions, connect with people and learn about both ourselves and others. I learned that whilst research is evolving, it seems to support the notion that engagement with music (whether as an active listener or performer) correlates with more prosocial behaviours and higher levels of kindness and empathy.
If your teen is keen to immerse themselves in music this summer at a festival and you’d like to tag along with them, there are numerous family friendly options out there (many of which are perfect for younger children too). A personal recommendation from us at Tooled Up is the Bluedot Festival, which was a summer highlight last year for one member of our team and her children. Held at the end of July in the grounds of UNESCO world heritage site, Jodrell Bank observatory, it’s a fusion of music and science with enough interactive and immersive experiences to entertain the whole family.
For any older teens wanting to fly solo at a festival this summer, my ongoing collaboration with drugs education charity, the DSM Foundation, has reiterated the importance of strong family values, open, supportive communication and regular preemptive conversations about risk and decision-making, no matter how tricky this might seem. I’ve mentioned this recently, but it bears repeating; data from NHS Digital shows that parents are the number one source of information for young people on both drugs and alcohol, with teachers not far behind.
Young people cite many motivations for trying drugs or alcohol and it’s important not to dismiss the fact that these substances might hold some appeal. However, it is a good idea to emphasise social norms and challenge teens’ perceptions of what their friends might be getting up to. We know from numerous research studies that teens tend to overestimate their peers’ propensity to engage in risky behaviours, including smoking, drinking, sex and drugs, and that the belief that ‘everyone’ is doing these things is linked to stronger intentions of engaging in these behaviours themselves. It’s our job to reinforce the point that these activities aren’t as common as they think. The chances are, if they feel uncomfortable in a situation this summer and aren’t sure what to do, their friends might too!
If you’d like more information, The DSM Foundation, a drugs education charity, has a number of resources to support parents and carers in their conversations with young people about alcohol including practical strategies to help them stay safe. The organisation has also published a blog on spiking, which is definitely something to bear in mind. The Guardian newspaper also has a feature called Teenage parties – a parents’ guide, in which the author describes her first hand experiences in this area.
As we approach the home run before the holidays, many schools will be inviting parents in for sports day events over the coming couple of weeks.
I remember that the last time I wrote about this annual event, I compared it to Marmite. Speaking anecdotally, parents (and often children) either love it or loathe it. If your child is generally quite sporty, or is used to competing, they will likely relish the opportunity to bust out a personal best, break a school record or even beat a peer. For others, being part of a team with their friends or ‘house’ can provide a great opportunity to build camaraderie and simply have fun. But for some, pre-race nerves, the anticipation of potential disappointment, coping with the pressure of expectation or the roller coaster of emotions felt throughout the day (from both children and anxious parents) can turn sports day sour.
Psychologically preparing children for sports day is a worthwhile exercise. Nudge them to set realistic goals, to compete against their own previous performances (rather than those of others) and to give things a go, even if they aren’t confident in their abilities. Notice their effort and praise this over their performance. If you see them congratulating a friend or losing gracefully, give them a pat on the back. If they trip up, false start, come last or simply don’t perform their best, try hard not to display any visible disappointment – this can make them feel even more demoralised. More thoughts on this can be found in one of our Parenting Question of the Week articles on the Tooled Up website.
One thing that we can all do to help kick sports day off the right way is to provide our children with a good breakfast and nutritious snacks for refuelling throughout the day. We asked performance nutritionist Dan Richardson for advice and his golden rule for preparing student athletes is to keep food simple and familiar. Never try anything new that may affect their general routine, stick to known foods and don’t overthink things. He suggests that a breakfast high in carbohydrates would be optimal (such as a bowl of oats with milk, honey and frozen fruit).
If children are reluctant to eat much first thing in the morning, the metaphor of a sports car might help. Encourage them to imagine themselves as a formula one supercar that needs petrol to run effectively. If their tank isn’t full before the race, they won’t be able to perform at their best. Eating breakfast and snacking between events will keep their petrol topped up and ensure they are energised for their big moments. Fruit, rice cakes, bagels and Soreen (Dan’s personal favourite) all make great snacks. Hydration is just as important, especially in the current high temperatures. Sipping drinks regularly will help to ward off fatigue. Dan also stresses the importance of helping muscles into recovery mode by nudging children to eat some protein rich snacks (milk, yoghurt or chicken bites work well) within an hour of finishing their events.
Love it or loathe it, sports day provides a rare and important opportunity to witness the hard work and devotion that school staff put into giving our children varied, interesting and challenging experiences. Where we are able to go and watch, sports day can help to cultivate the kind of healthy parent-school partnership which is so vital to our children’s outcomes.
In a conversation that I had with teacher and educational consultant, Barry Cooper, he used the relevant metaphor of an Olympic team to describe how school and parents can work together optimally. Whilst it is the student who will get the medal (whether that’s for being the best sprinter, achieving a personal best, or simply taking part in the day), their support team is made up of both parents and school staff, working together behind the scenes to challenge, praise, encourage and champion children and young people as they progress through their educational journey.
We know that the relationship between teachers and pupils is of significant importance. It is a protective asset when it comes to children’s resilience and can be an enormously important lever for their self-esteem, their ability to cope with stress and pressure and their desire to aim high. We also need to remember that our own influence, family values and attitudes all feed into school culture and ethos, so playing our part is crucial too.
Summer is also a time of new beginnings for our children, whether that’s moving from one year group to the next, or going on to an entirely different setting. At transition points like these, it’s particularly vital for parents and educational settings to work in effective partnership.
This week, our Head of Research, Dr Hope Christie, gave a keynote speech at an educational conference about the importance of schools supporting leavers as they transition into the big wide world of university, college, apprenticeship or employment. Whilst transitioning to university, making new friends, learning new subjects and probably living in a new place, is likely to be an exciting time, it is not without challenges. About 80% of full-time students relocate for university. For most, it is the first time they have lived away from home.
The Higher Education Policy Institute states that the transition to university is a ‘critical period’ for young adults and that most students experience increased levels of stress as a result of feeling ill-prepared for the adjustments required. Let’s not forget that these teens are still going through the substantial neurological changes of adolescence and are often at a crossroads in terms of self-identity. The work of Dr Amy Orben highlights that the age of 19 is a critical time for all young adults as they navigate new social environments and form new social networks and is a window of great developmental sensitivity to detrimental use of social media. It is perhaps unsurprising that the number of mental health conditions reported by university students isseven times higher than figures from a decade ago. Sadly, rising rates of poor mental health among student cohorts can also lead to more young people taking their own lives.
There is of course no way of ensuring that all students have an entirely positive or stress-free transition experience. However, both at home and at school, we can focus on strengthening the ‘protective assets’ that we’ve been dutifully cultivating throughout their childhoods. These include positive relationships, social connectedness, a sense of belonging and a safe and supportive school climate (something which expert Dr Praveetha Patalay told me accounts for 30-50% of students’ mental health outcomes).
To ease the transition, schools might consider running preparation workshops for leavers which offer support and advice on challenges they may face as they start higher education. Topics could include moving into halls and personalising their room to help it feel homely, finance management tips, the different styles of learning that they might encounter and familiarisation with university support networks, so that they know who to speak to should they need support.
To help students feel prepared to tackle inevitable challenges, schools should also nudge them to consider active coping strategies. Encourage them to self-advocate and feel confident and empowered to approach personal tutors or lecturers if they are finding things difficult. Creating an alumni mentoring network by inviting former students to speak to leavers about their experiences can be highly effective. They can also act as a ‘friendly face’ for new students if they are attending the same university.
And don’t forget, reflection breeds resilience. Encourage your school leavers to look back on previous transition points (new school, class, sport or social group) and what worked for them, to focus on the things that they can control and to remember all of the things that remain familiar (their anchors). Why not get them to consider a mantra for those times when they feel like a bit of an imposter? “I am a university student, I deserve to be here, and I belong here. How can I find agency and purpose?”
We know that the transition to university can be even tougher for autistic students. More and more autistic young people are going to university, but they are less likely to complete their studies compared their non-autistic peers. Dr Kathryn Bates, an expert in this area, told me that a “focus on supporting the transition, rather than only intervening when new autistic students are struggling is imperative. Neglecting the importance of encouraging self-advocacy, developing independent living skills, and preparing autistic young people for the transition to university could be detrimental to their success.”
For autistic students, it’s vital to put support in place in advance by encouraging them to contact the disability support service at their university before they arrive. In England, university students living in England with a diagnosis of autism are entitled to apply for Disabled Student’s Allowance which can help to fund extra support costs. Some universities, such as the University of Bath and the University of Warwick, offer summer schools specifically for autistic individuals, which are often open to students from Year 11 onwards. These generally include an overnight stay at the university to get an idea of how things work on campus, talks from the disability support teams and guidance on how to support academic skills and wellbeing at university. It’s also often possible to sit in on some seminars or lectures before starting university to enable prospective students to familiarise themselves with the environment and structure.
At home, supporting the development of time management, planning and independent living skills before the transition is vital. Burnout is something that autistic students are particularly vulnerable to. This is a state of exhaustion which can lead to increased mental health issues, executive function problems and social withdrawal. Teaching young people how to recognise and address burnout is important. We spoke with autistic student and writer, Kerrie Portman, and she advised that strategies which helped her to avoid becoming overwhelmed whilst studying included using a colour-coded diary and planner, time blocking, setting timers, creating to-do lists with deadlines, and reward herself for doing tasks that she didn’t feel motivated to complete. There are some more tips on the National Autistic Society website.
I’m really excited to announce that we’ll be creating a ‘Preparing for University: Student Resource Pack’ over the summer, which all of our schools will be welcome to use with their sixth formers. Watch this space…
Are you a Tooled Up member?
The end of exams will be welcomed by many families within the next week or so. Partying isn’t the only way to mark the occasion and it’s good to remind teens that there are many more options for unwinding and rewarding their hard work. If you need some inspiration, check out our list of 20 fun and varied activities. Whilst assessments are still ongoing, don’t forget that we’ve got various resources in the library which focus on staying calm, engaging with nature, mindfulness, being creative and taking care of ourselves. For more advice on sports day nutrition, take a look at Dan’s top tips.
If you’re feeling inspired to plan your summer, we can offer plenty of help. Our summer packing lists for children and teens are a great way to cultivate useful life skills and build their confidence, and we also have a packing checklist ideal for any teen planning their first festival experience. Our ‘holiday’ section is packed full of everything from water safety advice and holiday planners to beach science ideas for both children and teens. We’ve just published our top tips for fun and quirky days out this summer, a guide to this year’s best family friendly festivals and our useful list of holiday camps and activities. If you have any other great suggestions, do let us know.
We’re continuing to work with the DSM Foundation and will be publishing a ‘quick guide’ to alcohol and another to drinking in social situations very soon, so keep your eyes peeled. These will join our other quick guides to vaping, cannabis and nitrous oxide. If your teen is heading off to a festival this summer, our recent webinar with Fiona Spargo-Mabbs OBE and Asha Fowells from the DSM Foundation contains lots of advice on preemptive conversations and harm reduction information that they should be made aware of.
If your teen is moving on to university in September, make sure that you check out our transition resources. They include further tips, a Starting University Checklist and specific guidance for supporting autistic young people. If you have teens considering their next steps, I advise you to watch our webinars about the fantastic opportunities provided by degree apprenticeships and US universities.
Lastly, please note the ‘transition talks’ on offer on our events page and register for any that take your fancy! Whatever change is on the horizon, Dr Weston has some ‘Tooled Up Tips’ for you to try and apply in your parenting for optimal impact.