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Summer reading: Toxic Childhood

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On my summer holiday last year, I read Toxic Childhood: how the modern world is damaging our children and what we can do about it by Sue Palmer

I’ve often wondered why so many more children seem to have mental health issues, behavioural or learning difficulties now than when I started teaching 30 years ago. Is this because diagnosis is better, or parents more lenient? Perhaps society is too fractured now? Maybe 21st-century culture is too instant? Or do teachers just have unrealistic expectations of modern children?

I was fed up with the blame culture – it’s the parents, the teachers, the computers – and I hoped this book would offer some alternative answers. I certainly gained valuable insights from reading it. As a result of wide-ranging research, educational consultant Sue Palmer concludes that the increase in children with these needs arises from a complex mix of factors related to the sheer speed of human development. Progress has accelerated so much in the past 30 years that we can’t keep up.

Our culture, she argues, has evolved faster than our biology. As a society, we are rearing children who have a limited diet, lack of sleep, less time with parents, electronic overload and little time to play imaginatively with others. This “toxic mix”, Palmer explains, is in danger of creating a generation of people who have a limited attention span, no self-restraint and little experience of how to balance their own needs against those of others.  

Children today may be growing up in a breathtakingly different world, but they still have the same needs as previous generations did – a secure group of loving carers, opportunities to experience the world first-hand, real friends and neighbours to socialise with, and adults who will model positive values such as self-control, kindness and strength of mind.

I highly recommend this book to other teachers because it puts so many of our daily challenges into context: the dispiriting effect of teaching children who are tired, who have a tantrum every time you say no or who come to life only when you use YouTube. I sometimes ask what time they go to bed and, if necessary, address the issue with parents.

They say that knowledge is power. Our challenge is to create a thirst for learning in even the most uninterested children, so the more we understand the complex cocktail of influences on their lives, the better placed we will be to make a difference.

This summer I plan to read:
Autism in the Primary Classroom: strategies and resources to support successful inclusion by Joy Beaney and Penny Kershaw

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