If weekday mornings in your house are a bit of a nightmare and the school “run” another stress, you probably sigh with relief at getting your offspring safely through the school gates.
But making sure they are physically present in the classroom is only part of what’s needed from parents for a good education. Is your child ready to learn as well?
Indeed, as parents have a primary responsibility for educating their child under the Constitution, a small minority of families cut out the “middle man” and opt for home-schooling. However, while most parents entrust their children to outside teachers for their education, it should still be regarded as a home-school partnership.
What parents can do at home to make this collaboration as fruitful as possible is something that the National Parents’ Council (NPC) – Primary is looking at for its annual conference, entitled “Ready . . . Steady . . . Learn!”, in Dublin on Saturday, May 28th. Speakers will offer advice on how parents can support their children’s mental and emotional, physical and creative health to try to ensure they are receptive as possible in the classroom.
Getting children ready to learn goes across a lot of different areas, says the chief executive of the NPC, Áine Lynch. This includes the physical, such as a good night’s sleep and good nutrition to the emotional and mental; if children are experiencing anxiety, they are not able to learn.
“The other piece that is really important is the home-learning environment,” she stresses. “If the home-learning environment isn’t positive, promoting education and giving attention to education, then children aren’t going to value it.”
Here, in a sneak preview, are just some of the suggestions that parents will hear at the conference:
For mental and emotional wellbeing
Parenting styles and practices have a tremendous effect on children’s emotional outlook on life, explains psychologist
, who encourages parents to take a “positive” approach. “I am passionate about the psychology of health and happiness; that is all we crave for our own children,” he says as a father of two.
He believes that a few simple things, if highlighted by parents when their children are young, can make a “huge difference” later on, particularly through the stormy years of adolescence and beyond.
The skills that Martin recommends trying to cultivate in your children for emotional wellbeing include:
Rational thinking: Many children tend to worry about things they don't need to worry about, or stay angry about things too long, or keep fights going that perhaps should never have started.
Parents should engage their children in rational conversations about what they are going through, says Martin, and use the “powerful tool” of questions. This helps children to stand back and take a more objective and fair-minded view of situations, which makes them less vulnerable to stress. “It is important to validate feelings of children and talk through with them the story of the day,” he adds. “But I think parents sometimes join the dots for them – that’s not a good thing.”
Compassion: Children sometimes don't see beyond their own problems, says Martin, who acknowledges that he was blessed with a father who brought him around on the Meals on Wheels service every Saturday in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan.
“I definitely thought poverty was only in Africa until about 12 or 13 years,” he recalls, before seeing there were people with no food in his home town. His father would tell him “it is nice to be nice”.
“If he were here now I would have said it is also clinically good for you. When you reach out in kindness to other human beings, you secrete your own anti-depressants – oxytocin levels are elevated and you feel better.” However, you can’t tell a child “please be kind”, he says, “you have to witness kindness”.
Avoid helplessness: The mistake that parents sometimes make, particularly when children start school, is that they affirm only success, which breeds a fear of failure.
“When a child enters secondary school, success sometimes is A and B but you could have a student who goes from 22 per cent to 58 per cent – that is a miracle and should be celebrated,” Martin stresses. “If a child’s efforts are not affirmed, as opposed to their success and rewards, it is very easy to develop hopelessness and give up.”
Children need to know failure is an inevitable experience in life, he adds. "If parents are obsessed with success, a child as they grow older can collapse into a den of helplessness later on when they face obstacles." Social connectivity: Like all parents, Martin has seen a dramatic change from the socialising he did as a child to that of his 16-year-old son today, due to the impact of technology. When he grew up there was one television in the house and little on it for him to watch.
“If I wanted to play football, I had to walk a mile and ring a door bell.” Now his son, if he wants, can play virtual football at home for hours every day with somebody online who he doesn’t know and will never meet.
“Houses are closer to each other and people maybe further apart,” Martin says. He believes it is important for children to mix outside their immediate social groups, be it with younger or older pupils at school, or with children from other schools.
Martin is also a great believer in families reconnecting around the dinner table every evening, instead of children consuming their own dinner in front of their own screen, which happens in many households.
When eating out, Martin is in a habit of looking around to see how many families have a fork in one hand and a phone in another. He recalls being in a restaurant in Sligo where, out of 11 in a family group, nine were on devices.“I said to my wife ‘that is an absolute record – am I being set up here?’”
The greatest friend of depression is solitude, he says, “and you don’t have to live on your own to experience solitude”. If you detach yourself from the people you are living with and don’t tell them what you are thinking, it can be a very lonely existence.
Achieving "flow": It's the term Martin gives to being so engrossed in doing something you love, that you temporarily forget everything else.
“Flow is a bit like reading a novel and all of a sudden it’s dark – an hour and a half’s gone – but your whole system has rested.”
So he sees a hobby as a great gift “because it will be a lifelong friend that will see you through crises”.
For him the seed of a lifelong love of music was sown when he got the present of a piano accordion one Christmas. Although, at the time he despaired of Santa’s stupidity because he had asked for another instrument with keys, a typewriter. However, with lessons, he was an all-Ireland piano accordion champion by 12.
“When I was a teenager I discovered that rock bands didn’t have piano accordions in them but I moved onto acoustic guitar and by my 20s I busked for the summer.” To this day at home he likes to retreat to the room with the piano in and lose himself in making music.
He knows there are pale-faced, stressed children walking school corridors whose parents are giving them grinds and pushing them even further. He hopes these parents are keeping their children’s hobbies going with the same passion.
Before Martin studied psychology he was a teacher and, he says, “one of the most humbling things was meeting past pupils as a psychologist. There are a lot of students who achieve over 500 points in the Leaving Certificate and who are very unhappy and unwell after it. They crumble at the first crisis.”
For physical health
It’s not difficult for parents to inform themselves on what constitutes a nutritious diet for children but putting that theory into practice is sometimes easier said than done. As we succumb to “pester power”, we are quick to blame advertisers, food manufacturers, other parents and the mother-in-law for giving our children bad eating habits.
But dietitian Paula Mee stresses the importance of parents as role models when it comes to healthy eating.
“You are responsible for what is in the press, what is in the fridge, what is in the freezer, the child isn’t,” she says. To save yourself and the child arguments over what they can and can’t eat, just don’t buy it.
Remember the example you are setting, she says. If you are the dad ordering in chips and sitting watching football at night, and you are not the type of dad who eats a healthy breakfast, and kicks a football around, it is completely unfair and not feasible to insist your child does something different, she says.
Some parents are battling with their own weight, she acknowledges, but this shouldn’t make them feel they can’t do anything about the family diet.
“You can have health at every size and you can also role-model good eating patterns no matter where you are in terms of your own weight,” she points out.
If you have a faddy child, the first thing she says to parents is that it is perfectly normal.
“Relax around that a little and focus on the good behaviour and catch them eating something good, that you want to see more of.”
Breakfast is “a critical part of the morning nutrition”, she says, and fortified breakfast cereals can help make up for a lack of iron-rich foods at other meals. However, we have to be careful about cereals with a high sugar content and she encourages parents to start “pushing back”.
“Companies will not produce products that are not being bought so, if we have a problem with the sugar in breakfast cereals, we have to vote with our pockets and walk away from the ones that are sugary.”
If your child says they’re not hungry first thing in the morning, it’s a matter of changing habits. “You can reverse that by introducing something as small as a half a Weetabix with blueberry or half a banana on top, or half a slice of brown bread as a starter to get them eating something.”
Mee feels strongly about how rushed the eating time at primary school can be and she encourages teachers to remind children of the importance of food, as fuel for play as well as learning.
“Parents can do a lot as well by making things accessible for kids. Small apples, easy-peeler oranges, have them peeled already; things that are very simple, easy to hold and soft, not a big doorstep of bread that they can’t their mouths around.”
Getting the child involved in preparing a lunch box also encourages them to eat what’s in it.
Reading to children is of utmost important and it’s no surprise that it is number one on writer and illustrator Oisín McGann’s list for promoting learning at home.
Referring to research he read recently that suggested having books in the home was more important to a child’s development than a parent’s career or education, he says it is never too early to give a child a book. “Put a cloth book into the cot so they can look at it. We have brilliant books that are now printed with a baby’s perception in mind – black and white and bold shapes and this has been really well thought about.”
By having books in the home and kids seeing parents reading books promotes reading, and stimulates imagination and development of visual and oral literacy.
Encouraging curiosity is also really important. “I think if there is one thing I am really grateful for it is that I was made curious early on,” says McGann, who is raising three children, aged 15, seven and five. “It can get you into trouble too . . . you never know when to stop,” he says.
But an inquiring mind leads to so much later on, so try to deal patiently with a child’s incessant questioning. “If they are asking questions, they are looking for answers and those answers will enrich their lives,” he says. As children become fluent readers on their own around the age of eight to 12, let them go with their passions is his advice and don’t worry if they are reading “one series to death”.
Finally, he would encourage spells of quietness in the home. He and his wife are keen radio listeners but they don’t put it on in the morning. “It is just one more noise to shout over.” Without it, their family mornings are “less frantic, a bit more ordered . . . and we talk to each other”.
For more information on the "Ready, Steady, Learn" conference on May 28th, 11am-4pm in the National College of Ireland, Mayor Street, Dublin 1, see npc.ie. firstname.lastname@example.org