'End this cotton-wool culture'

29th February 2008 at 00:00
Children with special educational needs can be damaged by well-meaning attempts to boost their self-esteem

Carol Craig, chief executive of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing, warned this week that children should not be mollycoddled or "wrapped in cotton wool" and must be allowed to experience failure.

"If you go out of your way to protect children from challenges, it's like not being exposed to germs," she says. And she believes this is just as true for special needs children - if not more so.

Dr Craig, who was giving the keynote speech at the annual conference of Enquire, the Scottish advice service for additional learning support, said that, in a previous job as a consultant, she was aware of education staff who were anxious about using inappropriate terms for special needs children.

Speaking to The TESS in advance, she said: "It's really not helpful if people are very inhibited about communicating, in case they say the wrong thing. It's all predicated on the idea that somebody will feel bad if you say the wrong thing."

Dr Craig pointed to the American education system, which she described as a "national disgrace", as an example of how dangerous it can be to over-protect children. She linked its emphasis on children's feelings to high levels of mental ill-health among young Americans.

"If you start saying it really matters how people feel about themselves in the moment, what tends to happen is that people go out of their way to protect how young people feel about themselves," Dr Craig said.

"If you don't let children fail, it can very quickly undermine their skills and education and resilience, because you end up being far too protective and not challenging enough.

"The more you can help children to acquire skills and a sense of mastery and satisfaction, the more that will help them."

She hopes that A Curriculum for Excellence will prevent Scotland going down a similar road to the United States. While she finds the aim of developing "confident individuals" laudable, she fears an emphasis on self-evaluation and social awareness benefits could result in "huge dangers".

Dr Craig believes some teachers are reacting to the new curriculum the wrong way by encouraging children to view themselves as confident people, rather than actively creating confidence by setting up challenges to be overcome. She has even heard of pupils being encouraged to trot out the curriculum's jargon and describe themselves as "confident individuals".

Martyn Rouse, director of Aberdeen University's Inclusive Practice Project, believes that adults' aversion to risk - because of a "consumerist, litigious, complaining culture" - has been to the detriment of young people, including special needs children.

"Sometimes, helping children can hinder them, because they become dependent rather than independent," he said.

That can have a damaging impact on children deemed to have special needs, "particularly those who have high levels of energy, which are often described as 'behaviour problems'. If they haven't been allowed to charge around the playground for 15 minutes, they bring that energy into the classroom".

But Professor Rouse stressed that allowing children to fail should not mean an acceptance of failure and the "sorting and sifting" of children into rigid groups of high and low achievers.

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