Learning Matters…

While I love the above quote by FDR, (and it has a particular resonance now) the use of the word ‘build’ is interesting, harkening back to a more mechanistic age, when the language of engineering and ‘making’ was widely used to make sense of the world. I think now we might have issues with that word, ‘build’ – can we really build people? Can we even build a future? Instead of ‘build’ we might use words such as ‘encourage’, ‘nurture’ or ‘grow’; words that reflect more the spirit of our age and our understanding of how we develop.

The sentiments behind the quote, however, will evoke a feeling of recognition by many and raise the question as to how do we help to develop the young of now so they are best placed to deal with the challenges of an uncertain future? One way, clearly, is through education, for it is through learning the appropriate knowledge and skills that students of all ages can best prepare themselves for the future, whatever it may bring. In what was a landmark piece of social research conducted in the 1970s, the ‘Marshmallow Test’ began to illustrate what had been suspected for a long time; that attitudes and dispositions (the so called ‘soft skills’) play at least as large a part in ‘future-proofing’ the young of today as do curriculum knowledge and skills. These ‘soft skills’ include attributes such as self-discipline, perseverance, self-belief, creativity, imagination, independence and determination. It is these attributes, allied to school learning, that are the engine for success in later life. There are many examples of people who stick at things and persevere and one, that comes to mind right now is, JK Rowling, who struggled for years before finding success with her Hogwarts series of books (by the way, she has given an excellent TED talk called “The Fringe Benefits of Failure”-do look it up if you have the chance).

Resilience, psychologists believe, is one of the key attributes for helping to develop the young so they are better above to cope with the uncertainties of the future. Resilience is defined as ‘bounce-back-ability’ and, with increasing levels of uncertainty and stress leading to increasing levels of anxiety and depression in young people, there has never been a greater need for us to support them as they develop this important attribute.

How do we develop resilience in the children we look after, love and care for? There are many answers to this, but one key message, coming out of practice and research is for parents/carers to not do too much for their children. Resilience is an attribute which grows in the mind and attitudes of a person who feels they ‘can do’( like in the story of ‘The Little Engine That Could’ who repeatedly said to itself; “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can”) and the best way to feel that one ‘can do’, is to take action and ‘do’. This may seem like a small idea; however small ideas are often very powerful so don’t overlook this one. It is so important that young people are encouraged to do things for themselves at every opportunity. Independence helps to build resilience, resilience builds success, and contributes towards happiness and fulfilment. The flip side of this is dependence- which undermines this spirit of ‘can-do-ism’ leading to learned helplessness, in which a person feels they ‘just can’t’ do things.

One way in which independence can be achieved is by getting the child in your life to do as many things as they can by themselves and for themselves. Children are always, in my experience, much more clued in and capable than we give them credit for and so a good starting point for this is the question; ‘what is it that I am doing for my child(ren), that he/she/they can do for themselves?’ and once you have thought about this, you will then then need to have a chat with them to agree on things they can do and will do going forward. These can include activities such as cooking meals, ironing, washing, planning and carrying out shopping-whatever is appropriate. We must encourage children to be as self-sufficient as possible; this doesn’t mean abandoning them to their fate but it does mean setting them up to fell competent and confident. Resilience is built up over 1000s of acts of mastery/success, 1000s experiences of failure (and of ‘getting up again’) and 1000s moments of feedback (both external and internal) that contribute to a feeling of ‘Yes…I can do stuff!” and the feeling of wanting to take on new challenges.

A (not exhaustive) list of things children could/should be able to do at various ages/ stages could include:

2-3 years old

  • Dress themselves
  • Put dirty clothes in the bin
  • Put toys away
  • Help lay the table
  • Help feed animals
  • Dust

4-5 years old

All of the above plus;

  • Help in the shops
  • Unpack shopping
  • Lay tables
  • Hoovering
  • Feed animals
  • Help with dishwasher
  • Make sandwiches

6-10 years old

All of the above plus;

  • Pack own lunch boxes
  • Get own breakfast ready
  • Load and empty dishwasher
  • Work a washing machine
  • Provide a basic meal
  • Organise their school things
  • Tidy and clean their rooms

10s and up

All of the above, plus;

  • Take control of homework (plan, organise)
  • Use public transport
  • Cross roads
  • Pack suitcase

By 15

All of the above plus;

  • Cook simple meals
  • Plan and shop
  • Iron clothes
  • Manage basic finances
  • Use a washing machine
  • Change a lightbulb
  • Make social arrangements
  • Pack own suitcases
  • Change sheets
  • Tidy own bedroom
  • Clean a bathroom
  • Do school work independently
  • Have kit and homework ready

I am sure you will have your own ideas to add!

The reason I am mentioning all of this is that now, while many of us are spending so much time with the family, is an ideal time to put these important building blocks in place. With schools inactive for so long, the learners of all ages are experiencing the totality of the most powerful learning environment they ever have; the home. So, use this time, and the forthcoming holidays to build the independence, resilience and ‘can-do’ spirit of the learners in your lives. It won’t be easy (and maybe my next piece should focus on conflict resolution strategies!), but it will be worthwhile.

We cannot know what the future will hold, but we can be ready for anything.

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