Wednesday Wisdom

November 24, 2021

‘What Works’ in Parenting?

By Dr Kathy Weston

‘What Works’ in Parenting?


Once in a while an email pops into your inbox that makes your heart leap. Last week, I was thrilled to receive an email from the Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry, Professor Alan Kazdin, who is based at Yale University in the United States.

Professor Kazdin is famous in the world of parenting and psychiatry, and we enjoyed a wonderful exchange that ended with him asking me to ‘tell all your parents’ about some great advice that he offers across a series of videos. Basically, anything written or narrated by him is evidence-based treasure that we should all pay heed to.

One of my favourites is a video about effective praise. In it, he reiterates the power of praise for both encouraging and motivating our children (no matter their age). To be effective, praise needs to be given sincerely and focus on something quite specific. Moreover, it is good to mix it up a bit and inject some novelty. If you are normally the parent who gives your child praise, ask someone else to give it a go. Perhaps another parent, or a grandparent, can be asked to notice and praise, complimenting the child for a particular behaviour or attitude that you wish to see more of. Be thoughtful about the praise you give and don’t deliver it so routinely that it loses impact. Take them aback.

Another joyous moment for me last week was interviewing the brain scientist, Dr Duncan Astle, who is based at Cambridge University, where he runs several labs, across multiple projects. Yes, turns out he DOES connect electrodes to teenage brains! And, he is an expert on memory, learning and barriers to learning in the classroom. We had a fantastic chat about effective revision, ‘what works’ and what doesn’t.

Interestingly, what might seem terribly intuitive when it comes to revision is actually backed up by research. For example, it is good to space out learning, make the revision process as fun and enjoyable as possible, and to test one’s knowledge in different contexts, over time.

As parents, we don’t need to be experts in any subject, but we can really accelerate learning by asking our children to teach us what they know ahead of a test, encouraging them to open up about ‘knots in learning’ and by considering family approaches to stress reduction. I enjoyed the fact that Duncan reiterated the power of sleep both to enrich learning and reduce anxiety. A focus on sleep quality and hygiene throughout key exam years is arguably one of the most undervalued approaches to aid academic resilience and attainment.


If you need further encouragement to focus your energies on teen sleep quality, Professor Michael Gradisar (one of the most eminent teen sleep researchers in the world) produced a recent blog urging parents to recognise the power of simply setting a bedtime for children.

After 20 years of conducting sleep science and treating sleep disorders across the lifespan, Professor Gradisar comments that the most sleep deprived age group are teenagers (Gradisar et al., 2011) and that we need to do more to address this ‘sleep epidemic’. In his blog, he argues that one of the best things we can do as parents is to set a bedtime, for as long as possible (yes even into the mid-teen years).

His research shows that teens who have a set bedtime get more sleep and have better daytime performance, something that was also backed up by one of our recent Researchers of the Month, Dr Serena Bauducco.

For young people who struggle to get to bed, his work has also shown that it isn’t necessarily tech that is preventing them from going to sleep. Actually, it’s often arguments with parents and carers about going to bed, just before bedtime. Having a blazing row is an incredibly emotionally arousing experience, and it can be hard to calm down. So, try as much as possible to have any ‘debates’ about bedtimes and screen use at more appropriate times.


Getting children to go to bed, stay in bed and to go to sleep is a tricky business, but I think the research evidence about the importance of sleep for our children’s mental health, learning and overall physical health should motivate us all to do more.

Children and teens will nearly always push back on sleep. After all, ‘switching off’ can feel boring. Don’t be afraid to share the powerful research evidence with your children. Younger children may appreciate the metaphor of ‘charging up’. Electronic brains need to be regularly charged and so do ours! Most young children want to be stronger, faster and taller; all of those processes are aided by sleep, so sleep is their friend!

Older children need to know that if they want to get ahead, feel better, work better and enjoy good mental health into early adulthood, sleep is key. At weekends, still try to set a bedtime even if it is a little later. As they grow, this bedtime can move to adapt to their age and changing biology.

Lastly, as with all things in parenting, we need to model good habits. By doing a family audit on attitudes to sleep, what works and what doesn’t, as well as articulating what we would like to change or improve, we are encouraging a reflective and proactive approach which boosts and supports their overall resilience. What’s not to like?

Are you a Tooled Up member?

Thanks to everyone who came along to our bonanza week of mental health webinars. For those of you who missed them live, but would like the chance to catch up, the recordings are now all to be found in the Tooled Up library, along with full notes.

Our expert webinars just keep on coming. This Thursday (25th), at 8pm, we’ll be joined by Claire Harvey to discuss how to promote excellent mental health in LGBTQ+ teens. We’ll be sharing the research evidence and will discuss what needs to happen at home and at school to ensure teens have positive self-esteem and a great support network. Book your free ticket now. And, on 13th December, we’ll be talking to educational audiologist Dr Joy Rosenburg, from Oxford Audiology Solutions, about how families with children who are deaf or hearing impaired can build resilience. Tickets are available now. We already have a fantastic video resource for school staff on the same subject.

Also, did you know that it is Eating Disorders Awareness Week in February, Neurodiversity month in March and the International Month of the Family in May? We are already planning webinars with top experts from around the world to coincide with these thematic weeks. Watch this space!

We know that university applications are of interest to many parents at the moment. Our interview with Susan Smith from All Things Careers provides really usable information on degree apprenticeships and a video on UCAS applications will be in the library soon. Also, don’t miss our GCSE tips video that you can share directly with teens.

Don’t forget to follow Tooled up on Instagram and Twitter, where we are running competitions for parents in Tooled Up schools and keeping you updated on new resources.