What do children want?

In our educational system and in our homes rewarding (or bribing) children to behave the way we want to is rife. We dangle prizes, stickers, certificates, house points, happy points, golden time and even money (in some high schools) in front of children expecting them to dig deep within themselves and find the motivation to do what we want, as if they were just waiting for that house point to set them on the right path.

Sorry I may sound a bit sarcastic today but the more I witness what we are doing in our schools and homes particularly with vulnerable children the more this subject confronts me. For a child whose internal working model of themselves is that they are worthless and won’t amount to anything, how can our carrots pull them out of their sense of shame to make them miraculously behave in ways that may be alien to them?

This week I went into a school to observe a looked after child who is struggling in his class. Like most other Primary schools in the country they had the usual rewards systems in action – the happy and sad faces on the board, the happy points when students did well, staying in break time to finish work not completed and losing playtime when misbehaving. Whilst I understand just how difficult it is to manage the challenging behaviour of a number of difficult students in a large, busy classroom, I can also see the impact these systems have on vulnerable children – they do not work in the long term. I do believe it is unlikely to change behaviour, particularly if the behaviour is born out of mistrust, control issues, fear and shame.

So what do we do? The question I hear on every course I run and in every school I’ve been into. What do we do instead? Well our question with my blog buddies this week is what do children want?, and actually I think that is a better question our schools should be asking – what do children really, actually want and more so need?

I’ve been reading a book by Alfie Kohn at the moment called Punished by rewards. He says that if you have three components in the classroom working well you will not need to bribe children to behave, and I saw this beautifully demonstrated this week whilst I was observing this child.

The three components Kohn talks about are – Curriculum (engaging content delivered in an engaging way), Community (a caring class where students feel they belong) and Choice (some say in how they learn).

So here’s my real life scenario of how this works and I really believe if this were the case in our schools we would see less children needing to use our very shame filled behaviour policies.

The teacher first provided a very engaging delivery of a fun subject in the literacy lesson around singular and plurals. As the children all sat on the mat – the child I was observing was fidgeting and rocking but was never the less listening and participating in answers, the teacher proceeded to explain the difference by picking children to come out with objects either holding one pen or a number of pens, one shoe or both of their shoes, one water bottle or two bottles. The children all took part and the lightness and fun of the teachers voice, as well as her expression that matched her voice, I’m sure left the children feeling happy to learn.

Then the real nurturing began. The children were split into their tables to do an exercise around this subject. The child I was observing was with a number of other vulnerable children and the teacher sat with them. She led them through the exercise of finding pictures on a card, cutting out the word that went with it and sticking them next to that word. So cup, cups, car, cars etc.

Now here comes the second point – the community. These children worked well together at times connecting and chatting or passing scissors and glue between them, all the time the teacher was with them and made them feel that they belong in the group.

Finally the choice part. The child I was watching when asked to find the cup word he cut out cups and instead of making him wrong and telling him off saying “no I said cup not cups” she went with it and said “ok which picture shows cups”. Another child decided to write the words instead of cutting them out – again not made wrong but she let him continue. Then another child started to talk about football and the teacher used this as an opportunity to teach some more “ok so if you had one football its a ……..and if you had two you’d say ……..” – absolutely brilliant. The children had choice in how they learnt and they all did learn just not the way the teacher intended.

I wish more of our teachers would take this approach to teaching. We need to create a place where children feel engaged in the curriculum – that they belong in that community and that they have choice in how they learn – that is what children want! If we did this more then maybe we could put the stickers and certificates away and focus on the development of the whole child – the mind, body and emotions.

Nicola Marshall
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Nicola Marshall

With over 13 years working in personal development Nicola Marshall has attained numerous skills and a genuine care for others. She is a fully trained coach, adoptive parent as well as the founder of Brave Heart Education.
Nicola Marshall
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