Our Constant Attention Is Ruining Our Children

17/03/2017 14:02 GMT | Updated 18/03/2018 09:12 GMT

In spite of working in some fantastic schools: Independent, State and International, I am aware of a steady and worrying decline in many of the skills that school children have. In 22 years of teaching children in British Schools I can honesty say that the cohorts coming through now are, despite the best intentions from parents, generally, a lot less able than the ones I worked with years ago- who are now becoming parents themselves.

What are we noticing in schools?

This decline in skills manifests itself in a some obvious ways. The children we work with today will find it harder to do most of the following tasks:

  • Draw a straight line, even with a ruler
  • Measure anything - guessing a weight...almost impossible.
  • Sharpen a pencil
  • Tie shoe laces
  • Fold paper accurately
  • Follow more than one instruction at a time
  • Sit fairly still and enjoy listening to a story
  • Remember lines for a play
  • Think through a problem and apply a strategy  BEFORE asking for help
  • Keep kit / musical instruments / equipment in a safe place
  • Follow basic dining conventions
  • Accept a harder challenge voluntarily
  • Amuse themselves without electronic assistance of any sort
  • What does this mean in schools?

    We have had to adapt over the years to this change in the 'assumed' skill set of the children. On one hand they are infinitely more adept at responding to electronic devices and at grasping new crazes, however fleeting and bizarre - the kids need little explanation and are instantly able to decipher the required meaning and reaction, leaving us floundering, open-mouthed asking "Why? What for?" when we consider bottle-flipping or dabbing. But they are losing the older 'concrete' skills we once took for granted and this has meant that we reduce the demand on them to fold their own worksheet, to cut out a grid, to glue in a drawing - OFSTED might scrutinize your class books and you can't have them looking crappy, so you'd better remove the chance that they will. We note the decline in scissor skill and we adjust expectation, increasing the decline in scissor skill.

    We have to remain ambitious for the children but with the knowledge that we will frequently have to guide them through every single detail of a task in order to end up with the desired outcome. The parents still have high expectations and want the best outcomes (click to see previous post on A*s being the Only Acceptable Grade) but the children are less able to manage this alone and immediately lean on those around them to provide the exact tools to ensure they meet the success criteria. Teachers find themselves taking all the responsibility for the attainment of the class. If they are not succeeding in tests then we are the ones feeling stressed, often feeling the 'failure' more keenly than the students. We are organising catch up sessions and revision boosters, we are meeting to get course work done. We are seeing the Head to explain. It's become a test of us; a lot of the responsibility has been taken away from the child.

    Why is This Happening?

    In my opinion there are two main factors here. 1) Parents are trying their absolute best to be the best. This means doing everything they can for their child and it is backfiring.  2) Technology is lessening children's attention and focus, is damaging sleep and is changing the skills they grow up with.

    As parents (I am included in this) we do our best. That means that we want the best for the children and we are prepared to 'push' for it. We want them to feel every bit as loved as we were, and then some. We want them to like us. And we want them to be successful. That's a hard call. If you think back at the teachers you liked best in your school days, they were most likely the ones who were firm, fair and then fun. It can only be fun when you have established clear boundaries, routines and order. Otherwise it's chaos and children do not like chaos. They quickly feel stressed and push out to try to find those boundaries. Unless you can deal with being unpopular at least a few times a day (teeth brushing, early enough bed routine, eating decent food before treats) you are not going to find things easy in the long run. As your grandma will tell you, you are making a rod for your own back and you will feel the pain of the short term gain.

    We all need (I include myself here) to be slightly tougher, not softer when it comes to allowing the children to stand on their own. The term 'helicopter parenting' is what I'm talking about; the micro-management of every facet of their lives, every school issue, friendship issue, bedroom clean up, the filling of every waking moment with swimming, Japanese, ballet, horse-riding, basket weaving, sea scouts, piano, Kumon, ice-skating. What we see as a result of this frantic schedule is an exhausted child who has had no time to ever be bored. Some of the best games, plans and adventures of childhood were born from the temporary seeds of boredom. It's an underrated gift. And, with the greatest degree of understanding from a woman who knows the trap too well -  you should not be trying to be their friend. They need a parent. They have friends.

    Technology is required. It is not going away. It is going to be part of our children's lives and there is little point in refusing to accept that. We have to approach its place in their childhoods with some consideration though. There is undeniable evidence that the effects of technology on the developing brain are detrimental and powerful - even providing the user with the physiological equivalent of a heavy drug addiction: the white matter in the brain has been found to show signs of damage akin to addiction in MRI scans of teenagers who have had years of screen interaction (Read Dr A. Sigman). On a less radical level, the fine motor skills of young people are adapting to enable them the speed of swiping, holding, flicking, deleting etc that they need to keep up with the platforms they exist within, but it's so far all very two dimensional and they are just moving fingertips across glass. Nothing is an actual material with different textures and reactions, different states and feedback. All the feedback they are getting through their fingers is a flat glass sheet. They are losing an understanding of materials through a lack of exposure and the effects of this are already visible, within a generation, in our schools.

    What Can We Do?

    This very much depends on whether you see this as a problem. There is an intelligent argument that for millions of years we have evolved and adapted in order to meet the technological progress that we have created. This is an essential phase in the reprogramming of humans to exist in the modern world and that middle aged teachers mourning the loss of ruler skills is hardly a reason to slam any brakes on. I agree - everything is changing, always. The reason I think we need to take this very seriously though is that while we: 1) try to be the best parents we can be by constantly entertaining and stimulating the children - my poor first born - and 2) Allow them to depend so heavily on screens to provide all solutions, what we are also seeing is the monumental rise in anxiety and dissatisfaction from our children.

    To work hard and to try hard and to put your own effort into something leaves a result so different from an accidental or incidental gaining, children are not stupid. They feel the difference in pride when it's their work. Humans are actually much happier and more resilient beings when they are challenged.

    We need to allow them the space to do their own jobs, to make their own stuff and to get bored sometimes. I believe that a small lean backwards towards concrete and physical skills will help our children to cope with the huge surge forwards that they are facing in their lifetimes.

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