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LIKE Aunt Annie on Facebook

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Computers- educational friend or foe?

Ah, computers. Where would we be without them? How would we manage in this century, when everyone is assumed (by everyone from the banks to our employers) to have access to the internet, if we didn't have that technology at our fingertips?

Of course children must learn to use computers. They'll be crippled without that skill. Time has marched on, and you'd better keep pace or you'll be left behind.

And yet there's this groundswell of opinion, in the blogosphere and in the scientific community, against technology in the home, against technology in the classroom. What are these people on, you might wonder? Why are they dragging their feet? Technology is now a fact of life, you cry. Get with the program. Our children must be allowed to use computers as much as possible! As much as we do, in fact! Quick, hand them an iPad or an iPhone, or they'll be left behind!

But yet again, it's all about balance, folks. Sorry to repeat myself.

Friday, February 24, 2012

7 ways to recognise a good teacher

Today both Janet Lansbury and Teacher Tom have posted about how not to teach. Well, that's the message I took away from their posts, anyway! Have a look, and see if you agree with me.

Anyway, I thought perhaps I'd take the opposite tack and tell you about some things to look for in a good teacher. You should be able to use these guidelines whether you're looking for a coach or tutor, assessing whether your child needs to move to a different class, or choosing a preschool.

Be warned: at no point will I mention test scores. The reason for this? Test scores don't measure how far a child has come from their personal starting point. A good teacher value-adds to every child's original potential, and that can't be measured in a comparative-result test.

How I wish our governments would use this list, instead of the statistical claptrap they insist on relying on. Teacher Tom will tell you what's wrong with that approach.

So here we go:

1. A good teacher sees the child at once. Look for acknowledgement of and interaction with your child as soon as the teacher meets them for the first time.

This is really important, it's my number 1, because a good teacher always looks on children as worthy of respect and is genuinely interested in meeting your child.

A good teacher introduces him/herself to the child as well as to the parent, and includes the child in any conversation. The age of that child doesn't matter! Even a baby is not an inanimate object, and so a good carer will address the baby, with respect.

2. How does the teacher speak to your child? A good teacher uses adult language when addressing a child, with word choice appropriate to the child's age, and adjusts the level of language appropriately depending on the child's response.

A good teacher never patronises or talks down to a child, and realises quickly if the child's communication skills are not age-typical (in either direction)- then compensates. Your child will understand what a good teacher is saying to them, or if they don't, the teacher will get down on their level and keep trying until they succeed.

3. How does the teacher interact with your child? A good teacher asks open-ended questions, and listens to the responses with an open mind. A good teacher invites the child to initiate conversations with him, and really listens, and responds.

If you read the Janet Lansbury post, you'll see in my comment there that my blood pressure rose considerably when I read about the teacher who told a preschooler that a disc shape was called 'round', not 'circle'. That's dreadful teaching. It's not respectful, and it's not fair. That teacher had made up her mind what the answer was, and she wasn't listening to the children any more.

(That's the sort of teacher who, in high school, marks correct alternative answers wrong in the exam, because it wasn't what she had in her head when she set the question. Maddening. Unfair. Makes the child withdraw and stop trying. And I see red!!)

Teachers like that stifle creativity as well as skewing factual learning. Run a mile from teachers like that, as Janet did.

Speaking of fair,

4. A good teacher is fair.

Remember, my definition of 'fair' isn't 'giving everyone the same thing'. My definition of 'fair' is 'giving everyone what they need'. So if there's a dispute between two children, a good teacher will recognise that both children need her loving intervention, not just the perceived 'victim'. So she won't, for example, vilify anyone in her class. Not even the 'problem' children- or what you might see as the 'problem' children.

Listen to your child's feedback, because unfair behaviour is the first thing they'll complain about; you might need to speak to the teacher about your child's needs, or you might need to explain to your child that other children have different needs which the teacher is trying to meet. (Keep an open mind till you know the facts, and remember that teachers are bound to keep information about other students confidential.)

And by the way, speaking of confidentiality and professionalism- if you complain about another child's behaviour to the teacher and she vilifies that child in any way in response, you can bet your bottom dollar that your own child's private information isn't safe with her.

5. Does your child seem interested, or bored? A good teacher uses the children's interests to motivate them and keeps the learning relevant to the child's world as far as possible.

That means he finds out what the children are interested in, and teaches around that. (Yes, even a maths teacher can do that to some extent- or at the very least explain the relevance of the material.) I'm doing it myself at the moment with a reading student; amazing how much better he performs when I give him reading material he's interested in!

You see, good teachers know their students, and I don't just mean their name. Good teachers are holistic- they see the child as more than just a receptacle for their own certain type of knowledge.

A good teacher sees children as capable; a great teacher will set the bar slightly high, then adjust downwards only if necessary- because that ensures the interest of the children. Doing stuff they can already do over and over is boring. Children are surprising creatures sometimes. We could all learn something about children's capabilities from good teachers, because good teachers will provoke you to say "I never knew he could do that!"

And good teachers love red herrings thrown in by the kids, because it helps them to know their students- and it shows them what the children might be interested in learning about.

Control-freak authoritarians are rarely good teachers.

6. Good teachers set little or no homework.

(waits for the explosion from Tiger Mum Central!!)

Good teachers don't need to set homework, because they made the information stick by teaching it engagingly in the first place. They also don't set homework because they recognise that the children who really don't get it won't be motivated to do it because it'll be all wrong, and the children who already get it and don't need more practice will probably sit down and do the homework when they'd be better off playing outside, and half the homework that's set will be done by the parents anyway.

Then the teacher will have to sit down and mark work that didn't even need to be done by kids who've already mastered the skill, instead of spending that time working out a new and creative way to help those who don't understand.

Good teachers might set the odd assignment to see if a child can utilise their learning in a different context, but a great teacher will give the children lots of time to work on that project at school- because they recognise that free social play and outdoor play are both extremely important to children's development.

(NB: Music and sporting practice are the exceptions here. Something that demands increasing muscle memory and strength does need home practice nearly every day. But please don't let that be to the exclusion of free, social and outdoor play!)

7. For good teachers, teaching is a vocation, not a job- and so good teachers aren't defensive about their practice. Because they're professionals, they'll keep up to date with current thinking because they want to, and they'll be interested in new approaches. They'll welcome your input about your child (as long as you're respectful with their time). They'll sound enthusiastic about teaching when they talk to you. They'll be masters of critical reflection, and they'll listen respectfully if you feel a need to question something or complain.

They may not agree with you. But they'll speak to you respectfully, because they're professionals and they recognise that teaching and parenting have common goals- to help your child to blossom.

Now... how am I going to get this list out there to be used by the government? :D

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The importance of time out

Okay, I admit it. That title is a con job. It suggests that I'm a fan of using 'time out' as a disciplinary strategy for children. I'm not- though in the interests of full disclosure I admit I used it myself 25 years or so ago, when it first became popular and I was a stressed-out working mum looking for answers.

'Time out' is what the experts used to tell us to use when kids pushed us past the point of no return, when they didn't respond to discipline, when we'd lost our rag with them, when we wanted to force them to stop and think and cool off. I suspect that those experts were subtly trying to tell us that there was an alternative to spanking.

And truly, time out is better than hitting your child. It's way, way better than losing the plot and shaking a baby. It's a million miles better than escalating physical punishment to the point where a child ends up in hospital. Or dead.

Let's not forget that.

Though perhaps we've been sending the wrong person to time out all these years. We're the adults; we have a hope of sorting out our feelings if we give ourselves a time out. A child who's sent to time out- well, they just don't have the experience yet to do that.

In the punitive days, we maybe called it the Naughty Step or the Naughty Corner; I'm not a big fan of that word 'naughty', either. It's awfully easy to label children's reactions to their inconvenient feelings as naughtiness. (Inconvenient feelings for us, that is. For the children themselves, they're probably inevitable feelings.)

That's really a power play. It's a cheap shot, getting your power kick by controlling a child with labels. If you need to feel powerful over a child, if you can't respect their humanity, you're reading the wrong blog. This blog is about respecting the children in our care.

(No, I'm not saying you have to strike the word 'naughty' from your vocabulary. Just be careful to label the behaviour, not the child, if you must use it.)

Perhaps we tried to sweeten 'time out' by labelling it the Quiet Space, or the Thinking Chair- but whatever we named that 'time out' strategy, we were making a point of letting that child know that right now, we didn't want their company. There was something wrong with them. They were Too Hard.

Time out was, essentially, the barbed wire fence at the edge of our unconditional love. Behave like that, and I put you outside the fence.

It's a bit of a dinosaur now, 'time out'. These days many of us recognise that there's something a little dodgy about isolating a child in a moment of anger (ours or theirs). These days many of us realise that it's more constructive to interact with an out-of-control child and acknowledge their emotions, if we want the solution to be more than a momentary Band-Aid. (You can read about some of my own strategies with out-of-control children here, and here. Or you can just go to my behaviour management page for all the relevant links.)

These days, I'd much rather put myself in 'time out' than a child. It's one thing to put yourself outside the barbed wire fence when your emotions are out of control; that's a considered decision by an adult, and often a wise decision. It's another thing entirely to put a child out in no-man's land with their big emotions, when they don't have the knowledge and experience to analyse what's going on. That teaches children one of two things- to stuff their big emotions away, or to lose trust in unconditional love.

I'll whack a label on my own forehead any day- angry, out of control, unacceptable, inappropriate- and go away till I've calmed down. But what can a child do with a label like that, whacked on their forehead by an adult?

They can accept it, I guess. I'm unacceptable. I'm inconvenient. 

What, you expect them to distinguish between themselves, and the emotion, and the behaviour that came out of the emotion? How are they going to make those sophisticated distinctions out there on the other side of the fence all by themselves? That's what leads to the stuffing-down of feelings. And stuffed-down feelings are either going to explode one day- inconveniently, inappropriately- or they're going to make that child ill.

Or they can reject the label. You don't understand. You don't care how I feel. Instead of calming down, that child will be angrier, sadder, more frustrated. You'll see that a lot in older children, when you punish them and put them outside the barbed wire. That child will hesitate to share feelings next time. That child withdraws, ceases to trust, self-medicates.

No, I'm not a fan of time out, unless it's the adult taking the break. When we start talking about adults and time out, it does become important.

It's easy for me sitting here blogging, with my own child all grown up now and the children in my care handed back at the end of the day. It's easy for me to get a perspective on things- parenting, teaching, caregiving- to weigh and balance approaches, to analyse what might work best in a situation.

It's NOT easy for you.

You're in a whirlwind out there. You've got a million things competing for your attention, a million stresses on your shoulders. Maybe you're bearing the feelings and problems of a whole household as well as your own, and trying to keep your career or job flourishing as well. There's that mortgage hanging over your head, or the rent... How on earth do you do it? How do you stay rational?

You can't, unless you're giving yourself time out.

Yes, time out for the adults is terribly important when you lose your temper, but that's the Band-Aid solution. That's not the 'time out' I mean.

Real solutions come from calm reflection. Real solutions come from considering your problems without a two-year-old tugging your skirt and a 14-year-old walking out the door with her breasts hanging out of her halter top and a partner loading you with their work concerns while you're trying to cook dinner and then the twins start screaming over who gets first go on the PlayStation and when on earth are you going to finish that presentation for work?

Real solutions come from planned time out for adults.

Prioritise it.

And then use it wisely. Sibling rivalry will not be solved by a fourth glass of wine, or a weekend away where you don't give the kids a second thought because this is your time.

I'm not saying you shouldn't have your own down time- not at all!- but the 'time out' I'm talking about is perspective time. Time where you think about the way you can manage problems with your children, without any other pressure.

That sort of time out is important. How can you manage your priorities, so that you get some time out for reflection?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A letter to my teenage self- and a challenge

There's a challenge going on in my town to write the things you wish you'd known when you were a teenager on a postcard. The postcards will go on display for young people to read. 

But garrulous Aunt Annie couldn't imagine fitting all that sensitive information onto a postcard! So here's my letter-sized 'postcard' to the teenage Annie. It feels like a bit of reparenting, actually; it feels like forgiving myself for what I didn't know back then. 

Why not try it yourself? The more we resolve our own issues, the more resourceful and resilient we become for our children. And who knows- when your children hit those teenage years, your letter to yourself might be a great way to bring up some tricky issues.

Note that this is a letter to myself! This isn't the way I'd talk to a teenager who wasn't me- not at all. I can be much more blunt to myself. :)

Dear Annie,

There are some things I want you to know, because I love you. I'm really sorry I wasn't around when you were growing up. Maybe one day time travel will make that possible, but for now I'll just have to give you this loving advice with the benefit of hindsight.

First of all, it's about this dieting thing. Annie, my dearest, diets don't work; diets make you crazy. Look at you. Every minute of the day, you're either thinking about what you're going to eat next or what you can't have. You need to just stop it, because you're not going to get thinner by starving yourself. It's not sustainable. Food- cooking it, making up recipes, serving it to others as well as enjoying it yourself- is going to become one of your greatest pleasures, when you get over this diet thing and just learn to make what you want and stop eating when you've had enough. But the more you diet, the harder it's going to be to find your natural body signals again.

You take after your Polynesian great-grandmother; you're curvy. You simply are never going to be that size 8 clotheshorse shape- or rather, the only way you'll acquire that shape is when you're unable to eat at all. Your hair will start to fall out. Your arms will look like skeleton arms. Sure, you'll fit into a bikini for once, but bald skeletons don't look good in bikinis. You'll be embarrassed when you see the photos.

And do you know what? Lots of men actually like curvy girls. Girl-shaped girls. You are girl-shaped. You will not cut the poor chaps in half with your hip bones when you make love. This is a good thing. Part of your style will be not looking the same as other people; you'll learn to dress to suit yourself. Start now.

And another thing- do you remember how much time you used to spend outside? Somehow you've got to find your love of the great outdoors again, because all this sitting around moping about your body size is robbing you of your energy and one of your greatest pleasures. Crazy, isn't it? The dieting steals the energy you need to be active, yet what you need to feel happy about your shape is the energy to move around and enjoy what your body can do.

And hey, don't wait till your late twenties to join that tap dancing class. You're going to love it. You're going to be good at it. You don't really hate exercise- you hate being told to exercise, and you hate competitive sport because you don't actually think beating people is fun. But that's okay. Dancing is exercise, and you love dancing.

But enough about your body. Bodies aren't nearly as important as you think they are, though health is. What about your mind and your heart?

I can see now that you've always let your heart rule your head. It would be better if you didn't have to hear that from your solicitor, after someone who said they loved you stole a lot of money from you and aged you five years in six months with mischievous legal action. Don't confuse passion with love. Hormones have a lot to answer for. Trust your instincts, and if your instincts say run for your life, don't worry about how it looks to other people. It's your life. It's not a dress rehearsal. Be brave.

I mean, you're your own worst enemy. I've got to say, Annie, I really love the way you give your loving support to others. You're a really generous person. But honey, there comes a point where you're letting people walk all over you, and then you disappear. It's like you fold yourself up and squeeze into a little box so you won't upset anyone. And then, where did you go? You can't even see yourself any more. A little self-preservation, Annie!

If someone really loves you, they won't ask you to squeeze into a box and disappear. They'll love you for who you are and they'll want you to shine out like the sun, not disappear into their shadow. I promise you you'll find someone who loves you like that, but you'll save yourself a lot of trouble if you can draw some lines in the sand. The sky won't fall if you insist on some room for your own personality and your own needs.

Oh, and one more thing about that- don't think you can change people. You can only change yourself. You always will have choices in your relationships, but those choices never include fixing people or changing people. If you want people to love you as you are, then you need to love them as they are too- and if you can't, make the choice to walk away.

You'll know when it's Mr Right. He'll see who you are and let you go on being who you are. He won't try to compete with you. He'll be too busy being himself and doing his own thing, and you'll love that. You won't recognise how wonderful it is to be with someone who does their own thing till you've spent some time on your own. Don't be scared of being alone. Being alone is wonderful. Being alone will give you some of the best times of your life. You don't have to have a partner hanging off your arm like a handbag to have a full life.

It's the same with your career; you let other people influence you too much. You already know what you love to do. You love music, but you love to write even more. Yet you're going to just drop the writing after school, because someone told you an arts degree wouldn't help you make money. That's a stupid reason to drop something you love so much. Stand up for yourself, Annie! Stop trying to please everyone else but yourself! Open the doors to doing what you love best.

I'm proud of you, Annie. You're not a drinker, you don't do drugs, you don't smoke. You're very strong and responsible. You deal with your problems by talking about them, or by reflecting on them. I want to warn you that some people hide their problems behind substance abuse. I want you to know that if someone says or does something awful to you while they're under the influence of alcohol, that is probably what they really think; that is probably what they're really like. Alcohol is a disinhibitor. Don't just forgive them for those things and make the excuse that they didn't know what they were saying. Take them as warnings, and act on them.

You're a good person, Annie. Take good care of yourself. Make sure you don't have so many people leaning on you that you become crushed yourself. Nurture your relationships with your girlfriends. There will be times when you need their support. Don't think you always have to be the strong one. Don't hesitate to get professional help when you're overwhelmed. It will be the best choice you ever make and it will teach you so much about yourself. Asking for help doesn't mean you're weak; it means you're human.

And the last thing I want to say to you is, don't be scared of aging. Wisdom does actually make up for starting to lose your looks. It's a wonderful feeling to have so much of your sh*t together after all this time on earth.

The frustrating part is not being able to share it with you when you need it.

Your ever loving

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Sometimes I despair: changing people's minds about child care

Caring for children is such an emotive subject. Every day as I read others' blog posts and websites and news articles- and yes, I do a LOT of reading every day- I see parents and educators struggling as they try to be rational and honest about a subject which is so loaded with feelings that the slightest slip of vocabulary or expression can send people into a complete flip.

There's an old wisdom that states that if you want social mayhem, just bring up sex, religion or politics. I'd like to add 'child rearing' to that. People feel so passionate about the way they've chosen to care for their children. It's almost become a sort of religion, with people from different philosophies desperately trying to convert others to their point of view. Sometimes a discussion thread turns into the verbal equivalent of a holy war. People get hurt. People get angry. Ego overpowers good sense. The 'holiness' of parenthood turns to 'holier than thou', and what started as a desire to enable valuable change gets compromised by people being downright nasty to each other.

So today I feel inspired to look at the mistakes we make when we're trying to change people's minds.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Obedience does not equal respect

There's been a lot of talk about obedience lately, hasn't there?

At one end of the spectrum, we have the ratbag fringe advocating whipping your baby with whipper-snipper cord to teach him to obey you- excuse me while I throw up, and then cry bitter tears for that sad and deluded segment of the human race. (I'm betting that all the people reading this think that's totally appalling, so I won't go on and on about it, because it makes us all sick to the stomach.)

At the other end- well, I guess you could say there's me. I actually worry when children are too obedient, and I worry even more when adults expect and want children to be unquestioningly obedient.

I think a lot of people confuse 'obedience' with 'respect'. When their children don't do as they're told, the parent or carer feels hurt, insulted or not respected. And of course, there are times when we need our children to obey us immediately- when there's serious imminent danger, you need the power of "STOP"- but let's not confuse that with a child who doesn't pick up their toys, or won't practise the piano or do their homework, or still hasn't taken the garbage out, or breaks curfew. (To give "STOP" power, you need a respectful relationship with your child and you need not to overuse that word.)

So first, let's explore the difference between obedience and respect, shall we?