O brothersister, where art thou?

28th March 2014 at 00:00
Why younger siblings' affections are likely to be rebuffed at school

Being able to play with their siblings at break time is a big source of excitement for younger children preparing to start primary school. Their older brothers and sisters, however, prefer to maintain an air of aloofness, new research claims.

Academics from Charles Sturt University, in the Australian state of New South Wales, worked with four schools and 10 preschool services to find out how siblings, older and younger, felt about being at school with one another.

Preschool children were asked to imagine what life at school would be like. Across all the settings, the children mentioned the fact that they would be able to spend time with their older siblings once they started school. Overall, one in 10 of the predictions made about school involved siblings in some way.

"You will play in the playground. Do maths. Get to see my sisters," one preschooler told a teacher. Another, with split loyalties, drew a picture of "Eating food. My sister. Me eating."

Several were keen to show off their knowledge about school: they could talk about uniforms, routines and rules. And when preschoolers were taken on a taster trip to a primary school, a number wanted it to be known that they had already visited the school on multiple occasions, thanks to family connections.

There was also an element of hero worship of older siblings. "There was an expectation that having siblings at school would be helpful, and that there would be opportunities to play with them," the researchers write in a paper published in the latest edition of the International Journal of Early Years Education.

But despite this, the academics discovered that not all older siblings were equally keen on the idea of having their school lives impinged upon by younger brothers and sisters, and many were not particularly forthcoming about what actually went on at school. Youngest sibling Ellie drew a picture of herself and her older brother, Tom, at school, but told researchers: "I don't know what I will do. My sister and brother never told me."

In one school, where older children were invited to spend some time in the Reception classroom with their younger siblings, one child commented dismissively: "Now I'm going back to baby stuff, because my little sister is here."

And seven-year-old John, whose younger brother Terry had behaviour problems, was nervous about what would happen when Terry started school. At home, he would frown at Terry's behaviour and say: "You know you can't do that at school."

By contrast, older children enjoyed being asked to act as mentors to unrelated younger children, as part of an official school buddy scheme. They liked explaining "the right things to do" and outlining the unspoken rules of the playground to new students. One mentor remarked that "little kids.aren't pests like a little brother".

Asked about the buddy scheme, the younger children did not mention their siblings. Instead, they said they preferred mentors only a few years older than them: those in the final year of school were "too big - they might not fit in the room", one said.

According to Kate Fallon, general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists, status is very important to primary children: teachers are forever emphasising the importance of moving on to the next stage of schooling. Looking after a younger sibling, therefore, can feel like a regression.

"Once you're feeling secure at school, you begin to develop a better sense of yourself," she said. "You've not got your parents there; you've not got your siblings there. You can start to develop who you are, completely unconstrained by someone who knows what you're really like.

"When a younger sibling comes in, they won't necessarily show you respect in the way that someone else's sibling might. They've fought with you and they've seen you cry.

"Looking after siblings has to be promoted as becoming much more grown up. You're being a role model, rather than just looking after a nuisance little brother or sister."

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