Why do some children find school learning so difficult? Rosemary Roberts on the curious toddlers who seek approval with silence
Every passive or disaffected young pupil in the upper primary or secondary school was once an eager, curious toddler. What happened to that astonishing rate of learning?
Where is the exploring pre-school child who was engaged in the business of "finding out" every day, from the first waking moment to the last instant before sleep?
In a two-year study I found evidence that babies and young children urgently need approving attention; that they begin learning very early to behave in ways that will please their "important" people.
For a child, learning to be good means grown-ups will be pleased with you. But learning to be good also means you might not learn so much.
Nursery and reception teachers know that the need for approving attention is still in evidence when children enter school. Indeed, teachers tend to use it up to the hilt.
In another study, about the relationship between self-concept and learning skills in four year-olds, parents and nursery staff agreed that communication was the most important skill for becoming a successful learner. Staff also saw exploratory learning as crucial and although parents agreed, they thought that being "receptive" and "socially acceptable" were equally important.
The children in the study were read a story in which two children - one stereotypically exploratory, the other receptive - spend an exciting day with their mothers at the park. The two look so alike that their mothers give them badges (a round smiley face and a square smiley face) to distinguish one from the other.
At the end of the story, the children in the study were asked to choose a round or square badge for themselves, enabling them to identify with one of the two children. Most identified with the receptive Michael, in spite of the value their teachers had placed on exploration.
We wanted to explore why parents were asked what their children did to make them (the parents) feel approving and affectionate, and disapproving and rejecting. Then the children were asked what they did that made their parents feel pleased with them or cross.
All the children believed that you must do as you're told - at home and out - if you wanted a grown-up to be pleased with you. For the parents, there was an important difference: they were approving and affectionate for a variety of reasons, but almost all said they felt most disapproving and rejecting as a result of children's verbal protests (contradicting, complaining, whinging, crying), especially between siblings, and especially outside the home.
A consensus is developing about what makes for effective early learning, encapsulated in a series of national reports.
In the Royal Society of Arts' Start Right report, Professor Kathy Sylva examined evidence about the impact of early learning on later development. She described characteristics of "mastery" and "helpless" orientation and concluded that "the most important learning in pre-school concerns aspiration, task commitment, social skills and feelings of efficacy".
This increasingly accepted view of effective early learning seems to have little to do with the perceptions of the children I listened to. They knew that they must not argue or fuss, or say what they wanted. They knew that gaining the approval of parents and teachers (which they very much wanted) depended on "doing what they say". When Mum or Dad said "Be good!" every morning at the school gate, they took that to mean "don't question or argue, don't risk a failure, don't make your own plans, don't talk about your own successes and mistakes".
For those children, being good meant being "helpless" learners. Their teachers, who valued "mastery" orientation, might have wanted to change these ideas had they been aware of the children's perceptions, but they were not aware of them.
Well-known studies (for instance, Tizzard and Hughes 1984) have described the rich language of the home, and have attributed the difficulties experienced by many children when they enter school to the different nature of home and school interactions. Clearly there is much evidence to support this view; but is it the whole story? Perhaps entry into primary school produces a further mismatch.
Children strive for "goodness" as they have learned to understand it at home, while many of their teachers are more concerned with the very different characteristics of "mastery" orientation. Or are they? Perhaps too often as teachers we appreciate the child who absorbs what we say without hesitation, rather than the child who questions the reason for things.
Probably most teachers would agree that verbal protest is one of the hardest things to tolerate. But verbal protest is surely an essential aspect of communication, which parents and teachers value so highly. Unless we take steps to prevent it, children eventually learn to say only what we want to hear. Might this be a reason for the gulf between many children and their important adults? When their expressions of disagreement, pain or fear are likely to lead to disapproval or rejection, it is understandable that children and young people often choose silence.
Perhaps one way to help children to communicate well is by being prepared - especially in the early years - to listen more carefully to everything they want to ask and tell us, even if we don't like it.
But it is possible to accept and try to understand children's points of view without necessarily agreeing to what they want. Indeed, effectively saying "no" is at least partly dependent on the degree of sympathy and understanding which accompanies it.
Children gradually learn, from adults' expectations, how to behave at home. Most also learn another set of rules for when they are out, and these are likely to be more closely connected with obedience, and with not "showing up" their parents.
It would be fascinating and instructive to listen to children's perceptions about appropriate rules and attitudes for school behaviour that they have learned from home and on entry to school.
As teachers, we may discover a need to help children to see school not only as "out" but also as a safe place where being good includes learning from their own experiences by asking questions, exploring, expressing negative as well as positive feelings, learning how to negotiate, to share and to disagree, discussing ideas and events, learning from mistakes. They deserve a more coherent picture of our expectations.
Rosemary Roberts is author of Self-Esteem and Successful Early Learning and co-director of the Peers Early Education Project in Oxford