Trying to read a child’s mind can be a headache

19th February 2016 at 00:00

My daughter came out of school with a sticker on her cardigan. It said: “I bumped my head today.”

“How did you bump your head?” I asked her. She handed me a note from her book bag, which stated that she “collided with another child”.

“Oh dear,” I said. “Weren’t you looking where you were going?”

“I bumped heads with Maisie,” she explained. “She said if we ran at each other’s heads, they’d give us both a sticker. Jonny and Liam did it too.”

And therein lay the flaw in the system. In its attempt to ensure that the all-important head-bumping message made it home, the school had overlooked the fact that sticker addiction is so rampant in your average 4-year-old they will happily resort to self-harming to get one.

You often see this in education. New initiatives that spring from the best of motives fail to take into the account the mystical pathways of childhood logic. In my previous school, they decided to improve the playground. After consultations, a team was brought in to create grassy banks on which children could sit in summer.

Unfortunately, the first heavy rain turned them into mudslides: perfect for downhill racing. Within weeks, the queue at the first aid station had tripled and children wearing PE shorts while their muddy trousers dried out became a common sight. Eventually, the slopes were removed.

The adults making the decisions had simply forgotten how a child sees the world; how thought processes that seem so logical to us can bend in an entirely different direction in children. I once marked RE books for 7-year-olds who had been asked, “Who wasn’t happy that the Prodigal Son had returned home?” Four had written “The fatted calf”. I only had myself to blame. I wrote the question.

The truth is, even for experienced teachers, it is not always easy to predict how pupils will respond to new things; the further removed you are from the classroom, the harder it gets.

If you have never been a teacher, yet you are still tasked with creating policy on all aspects of education, this must be even harder still.

Maybe we should just accept that, as adults (with the exception of the creators of Teletubbies and In the Night Garden), we no longer have a direct line to the inside of children’s heads, which means we’re going to get it wrong sometimes.

And when that happens: when you create a policy that penalises 5-year-olds for correcting nonsense words to real ones; when 11-year-olds have to attain a standard in writing not always demonstrated by published authors; when you follow up a promise not to introduce any last-minute assessment changes by introducing a load of last-minute assessment changes; maybe then it’s time to take a step back and rethink some stuff.

Maybe even seek the advice of a teacher or two – if only to stop us from feeling like we’re banging our heads against a brick wall.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

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