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By Philippa Cawthorne

As parents we willingly take on the responsibility of every aspect of our baby’s well-being from the moment they are born.  Their reliance on us is absolute.

Over many months to come, basic skills such as learning to hold and eat from a spoon are acquired through repeated effort (and a good deal of mess!). If we came to the rescue every time food failed to make it our baby’s mouth, we’d be spoon-feeding them forever more. 

A study of 400 children over eight years* revealed that toddlers with the most controlling mothers had poorer social skills and academic performance at the age of ten; and that excessive adult intervention can result in passive, unmotivated and anxious young people deprived of the long-term ability to make their own decisions.

There is a growing body of evidence that children need to be able to make their own choices, even if they aren’t always the ‘right’ ones.  For example, nagging children to do homework may be doing them more harm than good.  If you allow them to choose not to do their homework, they have to go to school and face the consequences: a lesson in itself. 

When Bassett House was founded in 1947, Sylvia Rentoul was a pioneer in using Montessori methods in the classroom, teaching children to think and behave independently from an early age.  We still use this teaching method in our nursery classes where you’ll find our three- and four-year-olds are expected to hang up their coats, wash up after activities and choose which learning opportunities they engage with.    

We believe children learn more effectively when they are encouraged to do things for themselves, to think creatively and form their own ideas.

A ‘can do’ attitude and growth mindset are in Bassett’s DNA. If you were to say ‘I can’t do that’ to one of our pupils they would inevitably bellow back ‘I can’t do that YET.’  This mantra, often repeated at assemblies, has become a shorthand for understanding that resilience and perseverance pay off. It is embedded in every aspect of school life from our curriculum, classroom, staffroom and sports fields to the playground and outside-school activities. 

Throughout the school you will see our Tree of Mastery. This features our school mascot Bassett Bear facing a challenge, engaging with it, persevering when the going gets tough then successfully climbing to the top of the tree having mastered the challenge. 

Our children are taught to recognise that learning can be a struggle, even for the brightest minds, but that this is a natural part of life. It means they can tackle new tasks without fear of failure, giving them the confidence to persevere.  Following in the footsteps of Bassett Bear they understand the need to be resilient and inventive to overcome difficulties. They know, without a doubt, that reaching the top of the Tree of Mastery rarely comes without sustained effort. 

Our children are encouraged to do their own research, argue their own points of view and problem-solve rather than learning by rote. They discover their opinion matters and feel free to step out of their comfort zone when faced with new challenges. 

They have the opportunity to attend homework club where they work independently.  We also encourage children to make a self-assessment of their learning, enabling them to take ownership of their learning process and personal achievements.

Outside the classroom, our wide range of clubs, enrichment activities and residential trips allow children to push their boundaries and let their imaginations soar beyond the confines of the familiar. 

The development of leadership and team-building skills are encouraged with a host of club activities such as sports, orienteering, martial arts and drama, whilst experiences such as rigging a boat, cooking on a campfire and building shelters in the wild are the character-building stuff our residential trips are made of. 

Of course our first priority is to keep children safe. We don’t condone complete freedom of choice and advocate common sense, non-negotiable boundaries. As you’d expect, they learn being disruptive in class or unkind to a classmate is unacceptable. 

Overall if you consider how many things your child has control over, you may be surprised how few real decisions they get to make.  We encourage you to ask your child if there are things they’d like to be in charge of. Young children could be allowed to choose which clothes to wear and older ones have more of a say in their after-school activities, or have input into their senior school choices.

We adults can help children to make the right decision by discussing the pros and cons of each choice.  We can point out it’s a good idea to have a Plan B if their decision turns out to be the wrong one.  

And, yes sometimes it’s good to let them go out without a coat, or turn up at school without the correct kit. Good decisions take practice. They need to experience the natural consequences of their decisions: from being chilly in the garden, to getting a bad mark for a test because they decided not to study.

Whilst it is understandable for us to want to smooth the path for a child and help them every step of the way, we need to remember they should be allowed to find out for themselves and learn by their mistakes. Much like we did.

*The Thriving Child by Dr William Stixrud and Ned Johnson is published by Penguin Life. 

Philippa Cawthorne’s top tips for helping your child to gain independence

  • Allow children to input on decisions that affect them where appropriate.
  • Give children responsibility and get them to do chores: review with them what you do for them currently that they could start doing for themselves (loading the dishwasher, getting their sports kit ready, cutting up vegetables for a breaktime snack). 
  • Accept they will probably do it badly when they start. Praise their effort.
  • Set firm boundaries but allow room for experimentation and mistakes.
  • Adopt a growth mindset: accept that they will sometimes make poor choices and seek to empathise when they do, so they feel empowered to learn from their mistakes.
  • However much they plead with you, resist the pressure to save them from the consequences of their mistakes: this is how they learn.

 

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