Only 1 in 4 girls call themselves ‘happy’ – so what are we doing wrong?

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Image credit: Pixabay

I don’t take a paper.

I mean, I barely have time to read my own name on an envelope, so working through all the many articles contained in a broadsheet is a luxury belonging – for the moment, at least – to another existence, one where I’m not permanently covered in PVA glue.

(Also – the Internet. Free news stories at your fingertips.)

But if I did get a paper, it would be The Guardian. (Ooh, I can feel you judging me already! Intellectual middle-class elite, as Stewart Lee would say – and I, of course, would howl with laughter whenever he did because there’s no point denying it – and anyway, as an Oxbridge-educated middle-class person, surely he’s pretty safely in this demographic too?)

ANYWAYS.

I had some glass to wrap, so thought I’d buy me a paper, and thought it should be The Guardian since if I found myself with any spare time I might prefer reading a few of its words over, say, The Yorkshire Herald. (Not knocking the latter – I’m sure it’s an excellent read. It’s just – you know – time.)

It was one of the front page stories, though, that sealed the deal:

“Sharp fall in number of girls who feel happy”(The Guardian, 19.09.18)

You can read the full story here – but, to summarise, a recent study has found that only one in four girls aged 7-21 describe themselves as ‘very happy’.

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I asked my daughter, barely two weeks into this age bracket, whether she felt happy. “What – now?” she replied.

“Now, yes – but more generally too. In life. Do you feel happy?”

“Yes.”

“Honestly?”

“Yes.”

“You’d tell me if you didn’t, right?”

“Look at my colour-change sequin armband, it’s so cool!”

It’s fair to say I don’t have a lot of ‘deep’ conversations with my daughter, whose idea of a disaster is forgetting to bring her unicorn squishy to bed.

Of course I was mildly relieved by her answer, but I’m not resting on my laurels and giving myself a parenting trophy just yet – she still has adolescence and young adulthood to come, and the wheels may yet come unstuck.

Is there anything I can do, as a mum, to prevent this?

To answer, I need to go back a few stages and ask why this story bothers me so much. Why do I care that lots of girls are unhappy?

Primarily because it feels like feminism is failing.

We are trying so hard to ensure girls are able to access what boys can in terms of opportunities, jobs and family life, and yet we’re failing to enable them to access lives which are happy, content, low in stress and enjoyable. Does this seem slightly off-balance to you?

The media thinks people like me, who choose to stay at home for their children’s preschool years, are a failure. The statistics say that I’m a bad example to my daughter, who is less likely to have a well-paid job, and more likely to make the same waywardly irresponsible decision I’ve done, if she ever has kids.

I disagree. Or maybe I agree, but I don’t think it matters. What’s the good in having a well-paid job if you’re not happy? What’s the good in a glittering career if your mental health is in a poor state?

I mean, you can do both, right? It is possible to be simultaneously successful and happy. And having a stay-at-home parent is by no means a guarantee of future happiness. But if such a high number of the 7-21 age group are describing themselves as ‘unhappy’, I’d wager that a decent proportion of the 21-35 age group are struggling too – and that means we need to rethink some of the identity information we’re feeding to our daughters.

I’d love my daughter to do well professionally – and, trust me, I’ll be her biggest cheerleader in this – but at the expense of her happiness? Not a chance. We need to hear more feminists validating girls simply for being who they are, not endlessly needing to achieve more than the generation before them.

The two major reasons girls cited for their unhappiness were exams and social media.

Let’s look at exams first. Please forgive me for the gender generalisations – I know this doesn’t apply to all girls, everywhere – but, on the whole, girls get more anxious, care more what others think, and take what others say more to heart than the boys around them.

As I said – not every girl is like this, but then we’re not talking every girl – we’re talking about 75%, so hear me out.

Teenage girls don’t need to be told how important their exams are – they’re already far too aware. Every time you mention a deadline or an exam, they take it on board and their stress goes up a notch.

Teenage boys, on the other hand, could be repeatedly told how much work they still needed to complete, and the short time frame they had in which to do it – and still they would choose video games over coursework. Every time. They’re just not that fussed – and, at this age at least, they don’t tend to have as much personal motivation as girls.

I’ll repeat my caveat: this is not all teenage boys. But, when I was teaching, this described a majority of the boys in my classes.

And there’s another aspect at play. I wonder whether girls are a little more conditioned to work hard at school, because we’ve grown up being told to believe in ourselves, yet aware of a history which has trodden us down, dismissed our views, and diminished our achievements?

Deep-down, we feel like the underlings (even though we know we’re not), and that gives us a drive – sometimes a desperation – to put our all into school exams.

Again, this isn’t true for every girl – but I think, with hindsight, that this might have been me at school.

Girls usually outperform boys in school exams – but it’s boys who end up with the higher-paid jobs in adulthood. So clearly school exam success is not an indicator of future life success. There are multiple factors, many circumstantial, that propel someone into a well-paid or high-level job.

Most girls won’t be told this, though. Our high level of personal motivation, as well as our ability to enjoy intrinsic rewards, mean that we want to do well for ourselves – not just for the glitzy job waiting for us in our 20s.

The other chief cause of girls’ increasing unhappiness is social media. As the report says, “Relationships are an essential element of contentment and it may be no coincidence that 10 years ago, girls of all ages were socialising more and comparing their lives online less”.

If you want a statistic to go with that, in 2009 69% of girls met up with their friends at each others’ homes, compared with just 21% in 2018.

It’s not rocket science, is it? If you replace real, deep, committed, do-anything-for-each-other friendships with shallow, image-based liaisons through Instagram and Facebook, who are you going to unwind with, offload onto, rant at? Pent-up feelings will just increase your anxiety and stress, and decrease your overall contentment and happiness.

So, the million dollar question – can we do anything about this?

I don’t speak as one experienced in the ways of hormonal daughters, but – never one to withhold my opinion when there’s an opportunity to inflict it upon others – here are some thoughts anyway. Please add yours in the comments.

Encourage a healthy attitude towards exams. Offer perspective. Speak of the future. Allow adult family members and friends to share their stories of school success and failure, and how their lives have turned out positively, especially if school wasn’t always a positive experience.

Encourage hobbies and interests from a young age. It’s no good trying to persuade your 15 year old to take up judo at the start of Year 11. Start young: let your girls (and boys) explore different hobbies, so that they learn how to relax without the requirement of a screen, and also so that they know where their strengths lie, if not in academia.

Have clear boundaries for phone use/screen time. You can find ‘contracts’ all over the Internet intended for parent and son/daughter to agree and sign, regarding phone use. It’s pretty much impossible to control everything your child sees or hears online, but you can at least help them to set healthy boundaries in terms of usage so that they don’t get burned.

Make it easy for your daughter to socialise. Build friendships from birth. Teach the importance of loyalty and kindness, and how we repair friendships after disagreements (particularly important for girls). Have an open home to her friends – let her know she is always welcome to invite them round for actual, meaningful interactions.

Don’t spend so much time instilling your own dreams in your daughter that you squash her ability to develop at her own pace. We need to stop pushing our daughters towards greatness, and start spotting where they shine, where they’re happiest, and encourage them in that. We can do this from birth, and it pays dividends in the long term.

Encourage healthy body image. Let her see your own flawed body. (Sorry, no offence. But it is. And so is mine.) Talk about ‘staying healthy’ rather than ‘losing weight’. Shield her from your own obsession with image, if this is a problem area for you (or talk together about battling it).

Do things as a family. If family habits are forged early on, such as eating together, taking Saturday day trips, or playing board games, this gives your daughter a solid base from which to explore the world. Our ability to relate to others come first from our relationship with our parents, so invest your time wisely. It’s not the occasional ‘deep chats’ which build a parent-child relationship, it’s the regular hanging-out, the silly and the absurd, the laughter and the not-doing-much.

Don’t blame yourself. Exams and social media might be the biggest two factors in unhappy girls – but they’re not the only ones. And you can’t protect your daughter from everything. Neurology, friendships, school environment and many other factors can play a part in a child’s mental well-being. If your daughter is struggling, don’t beat yourself up about it – but do try and get as much professional help as you can. Brushing issues under the carpet is no place to start.

Over to you – is there anything we can do to change this ‘unhappy’ generation?

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Five questions to ask a prospective school (when your child is adopted or fostered)

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Blink, and three years will pass in an instant.

I mean, while you know and I know that it’s only actually been three minutes since our gorgeous 14-month-old boys moved into our family, the calendar (damn that thing – is it even a trustworthy article?) suggests it’s actually been nearly three years.

Besides wanting to know whether the Google calendar app is capable of speeding up time, I guess I also need to be thinking about applying for some school places.

How did this happen?

One minute our boys are commando-crawling across the floor – and the next, they’re taking their lives into their hands at every opportunity, causing my heart to skip a beat every time they’re about to jump from something waaaaayyy too high.

One minute they’re babbling and cooing – the next, they’re articulately and precisely telling me Every.Single.Detail of something-or-other, the relevance of which I can’t quite work out.

Fortunately, the school we chose for our eldest two kids is pastorally brilliant, highly experienced with looked-after children, and goes above-and-beyond to meet the needs of the individuals within its care. The only hesitation in putting it as first choice for our boys will be due to impossible laundry piles or lengthy afternoons making slime (you know how it is with kids and slime. You don’t? Oh, err…forget I said anything) – and not because we’re unsure about the place.

I appreciate, though, that the situation isn’t always this easy.

Perhaps it’s your first child who’s preparing to go to school – or perhaps you have older children, but sense that the school they attend will not be the best choice for your adopted or fostered child.

In that case, here are five questions which will start a helpful discussion with any prospective schools. They are not exhaustive, nor might you feel it necessary to ask every single one – but they are a start.

(And, if you want to know, they’re inspired by an article I wrote a few years ago: Five questions to ask a Prospective School.)

1. Who is your designated lead for looked-after children?

a) It’s Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms So-and-So… (The best answer.)

b) Er…we haven’t quite sorted that one out yet. (Don’t write off the school just yet – they may be open to hearing more about it from you.)

c) Designated what? (Leave. Immediately.)

A new piece of legislation from the government this year requires all maintained schools to have a designated person who keeps an eye on the looked-after children (LAC) within their care (this includes children who are adopted and are no longer under Local Authority care).

The likelihood is that this responsibility will fall to someone who is already employed by the school in a pastoral capacity. This, in my opinion, is the ideal. It isn’t really appropriate for a class teacher to have this role, as they’re massively overstretched as it is, and need to be allowed to focus on the children in their class. An exception to this might be if the teacher in question was a member of the senior leadership team, who was given enough time away from their own class to effectively carry out this role.

A note here about academies. They are not maintained schools, and therefore are not obliged to follow government directives such as this one. However, any academy worth its weight is likely to want to implement a similar policy. Our school is an academy, and they’ve never played the “We’re not maintained” card to evade responsibility when it comes to raising the aspirations of all their children.

So, if you’re looking around an academy, make sure they’ve at least thought this one through!

2. How is your Pupil Premium money spent?

a) We put it towards extra staff in classrooms/use it for intervention groups/spend it on training specific to the needs of vulnerable children. (Great answer. No prizes for guessing what our school spend it on.)

b) We spend it on snazzy computers and equipment which will give your child more ways to engage within school. (Hmmm…resources could be a good spend, but you need to probe a little further.)

c) We give it straight back to the parents so that they can buy the correct uniform for their children. (Uh-oh.)

Newsflash: all LAC receive Pupil Premium (PP) – this essentially means that the school receives an extra wadge of cash each year to help qualifying children to overcome their disadvantages and have an excellent education.

Second newsflash: schools are not required to give this money to you, or to spend it directly on your child!

I’ve actually read some threads in online adoption forums which suggest that this is the case!

But if you were managing the budget of a small-medium company, and you received additional funding – would you spend it on things which would only last a year? Or things which would last a few years? Or on people who would have a greater long-term impact?

I realise that, as parents, a little extra cash towards uniform and equipment would be welcome, but hear me on this one: it will not improve your child’s education. UK parents all receive child benefit – and some of us receive tax credits and/or adoption allowance – which is supposed to go towards these items, so please allow your school to spend its PP on things which will have the greatest educational impact on your child.

I’m grateful that our school uses its PP, amongst other things, to pay a full-time pastoral member of staff, to ensure that each class has a teaching assistant (in addition to 1:1 support for kids with SEN), and that regular small group interventions take place for children who are struggling academically.

They also make sure they’re up-to-date with training, especially on issues of safeguarding, pastoral care, and attachment.

I know that these things will have a big impact on my boys – and other children like them in the school – and am delighted that they’re already in place.

One thing to be aware of, though: while schools are entitled to use PP money as they think best, they’re also required to produce data to prove that they’re raising the attainment of the kids who attract this funding. AND, what’s even better, is that they’re required to make this information available on their websites.

So even before you look round those schools, make sure you’ve found this information online! It’ll arm you with lots of useful info for when you visit.

3) Have your staff done any training on attachment and/or trauma?

a) Yes, we sent our deputy head and pastoral lead on some training a year ago. (Brilliant!)

b) Yes we did but I can’t remember when it was – four, five years ago? (Not necessarily a terrible school – remember just how much training teachers need in all sorts of different things – but definitely time for a booster!)

c) What’s attachment? (Invite them round when your adopted child is having a half-hour paddy, hitting and biting you because his favourite book doesn’t have enough pages. Then they’ll know.)

With all of these questions, I want to issue a word of caution: no school is perfect.

There is so much for teachers to do, so much for school leaders to do, so much for governors to do, that it is literally impossible to focus on all of the things, all of the time.

Please don’t write off a school just because their attachment training is out of date (or they haven’t done any). They haven’t been lazy, or uncaring – they’ve likely been getting training in other areas. The key thing is their attitude once you mention it. Do they seem keen? Are they taking you seriously?

This leads me nicely onto the next question…

4. What are the areas you’re trying to develop right now?

a) We’re looking at our behaviour policy, raising the profile of Science within school, and tightening up our SEN interventions. (I want this school!)

b) Er… we’re trying to raise the attainment of all our pupils. (GET ME SOME DETAILS! I’M ABOUT TO ENTRUST MY MOST PRECIOUS POSESSSION TO YOU!)

c) None. We’re doing pretty well. (Not when Ofsted turn up, you won’t be.)

Ofsted like to see that schools know where their weaknesses are, and are taking steps to improve them. You should be interested in this too.

You want to know that the school your child might attend has a great attitude to learning – and that’s not just pupil learning, but staff learning. If they’re not actively trying to improve specific areas (and able to tell you them at the drop of a hat), then what exactly are they doing?

Remember: the perfect school doesn’t exist! Instead, look for one which is ‘on the up’.

5. How do you deal with behaviour in the classroom?

a) We use a system of natural consequences, helping children to relate their action with its consequences, and utilise restorative practice techniques to encourage children to think through their actions. (WOW. Literally. Does a school like this actually exist??)

b) We use a traffic lights system of red, yellow and green to reward behaviour and help children to see when their behaviour is less than acceptable. (There are many benefits to this approach, but the visual/shaming nature of it won’t always be suitable for looked-after children who already carry around a heck of a lot of guilt.)

c) We stand the child in the corner of the classroom with a Dunce hat. (Obviously not. Soooo obviously not – but cut me a bit of slack here, OK? It’s number 5 and I’m running out of steam.)

Again, a school doesn’t need to be perfect, but what you’re after here is some kind of guarantee that they work with their children on improving behaviour. All children – but looked-after children especially – will get much more out of an approach which helps them to self-regulate their behaviour and make better decisions in the future.

***

These questions aren’t an exam! Please don’t disregard schools which don’t score highly on each question. All good schools are in a process of improving – you’re simply trying to find out which ones will be flexible to the needs of your child (and are aware that your child will have needs specific to his/her looked-after background).

Good luck as you look!

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End-of-term teacher gifts: are they compulsory?

End-of-term teacher gifts_.pngIt’s that point of the year when we’re all (figuratively, if not literally) crawling our kids to school, fingernails scraping the parched grass as we pant towards the finish line of next Friday.

Of course, we’re aware of just how much our children’s teachers have done for them this last year, and we are very grateful. In the back of our minds we vaguely wonder about getting some flowers or wine to say thank you, but in truth we’re totally exhausted and it seems like one more thing on the already bulging ‘to-do’ list.

So – what to do? Are gifts necessary at all? I mean, they get paid don’t they? And what if you’re just not convinced that your child’s teacher has done much for them this year? What if they’ve been off sick for 6 months? How do you respond then?

There are honestly no right answers to the question of whether to splash out on your kids’ teachers or not. If you don’t, you’re not stingy – and if you do, you’re not a sucker. But perhaps there are a few things we might think about before making our decision.

Our teachers get paid – but, often, go over and above.

Not knowing I was about to write on this subject, 6-year-old Missy informed me today that her teacher stays up late doing ‘all her school work’. I could have guessed this – she’s an excellent teacher, with creative ideas a-plenty, and a thorough diligence to each child’s progress – but the fact that my young child is already aware is worrying.

This is not an essay on teacher workload. But I think it’s worth considering that our children’s teachers regularly put in far more than what they’re paid to do. And I, for one, feel grateful for that. (I mean, I’d like them to work a little less hard and go to bed a little earlier, but I’m grateful for their commitment to my children.)

Presents are nice – but words mean more

Have you ever written a condolence card to a friend or family member, including all sorts of wonderful tributes to the deceased person – and then wondered why you didn’t tell them what you thought of them when they were alive?

I don’t think we’re generally very good at telling others how much we appreciate them. We kind of expect them just to know, don’t we? But who doesn’t like to be told?

Whether you go down the present route or not, a card with words from the heart means a hundred times more. When I was teaching, I used to keep any cards like this in a special folder, which would encourage me on hard days. Words of gratitude and encouragement really are a bolster to anyone, not least your child’s teacher as he/she prepares to take on a new class next year.

Please don’t worry about using perfect sentences, grammar or punctuation – you’re not being marked on any of this! Just tell your child’s teacher, in plain English, what you have appreciated about them this year.

A lot of it has to do with personality

I’m a gift person – I love to receive them and I love to give them. So I do teacher gifts at Christmas and in the Summer. They’re not expensive or extravagant, and usually they’re homemade and edible (at least in part), but I like to give something.

For one of my children, a few parents in the class have clubbed together to get vouchers for the staff. Many schools do this, as it means your contribution can be big or small, but still contributes to something worthwhile. If your school doesn’t do it, do what I did and just gather a few friends to chip in to something bigger. It’s nice to receive wine and chocolates, but also great to be able to buy something more substantial which might last a little longer and will remind the teacher of a particular class.

But it’s also OK if you’re not really that into gifts. Write a card or a letter. Make sure the teacher knows they’re appreciated. It doesn’t have to get pricey.

Who doesn’t get thanked?

I used to be a secondary teacher, and secondary teachers get naff all. Fair enough – each child maybe has 10-12 different teachers, so it’s just not practical to give to each one.

But the cards I did get were kept and treasured. As a Music teacher, I would inevitably receive cards from the parents of the kids who were really involved with Music. They were the ones who had more contact with me, and if your kid is good at Music, you’re likely going to be grateful for the teachers who are supporting and nurturing them as they develop.

And this makes me think: is there someone at your school who doesn’t get thanked? A specialist teacher? The Head? The receptionist? Who has really blessed you or your child this last year? Can you write them a card to show your appreciation?

What if my child’s teacher hasn’t done their duty this year?

This is a hard one. What do you do if you don’t feel gratitude this year? If your child hasn’t made progress, or there’s been a bullying issue which hasn’t been sorted, or you just haven’t ‘clicked’ with the teacher?

I think that in all but the very extreme cases, there is usually something you can find to thank your child’s teacher for. You may not have ‘clicked’, but that’s OK – we’re not going to be best buds with the teachers. Think objectively. Look at your child’s report. Where has he/she made progress? Don’t you think their teacher deserves a few words of thanks?

Has your child been happy in their class? Regardless of what you think of the teacher, if your child likes him/her, then that is reason enough to write a card.

And if there’s been an unresolved issue this year, try to be balanced. How much is actually down to teacher negligence – and how much is ‘just because’? Some things are just pretty impossible for a teacher to sort out, much as they might try. Bullies are very good at hiding their actions from teachers, so it can be very difficult to resolve a situation like this. Not that I’m saying you shouldn’t be concerned about it – just that it may not be entirely the teacher’s fault that it hasn’t been sorted out this year.

Over to you – do you do gifts? What do you get, and is there a class-organised present to contribute to? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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what i’m into – january 2017

This is a first for me.

At first, I thought this sort of post was incredibly self-centred – why would anyone be interested what I’ve been into each month? But having spent a couple of years reading other bloggers’ “What I’m into” posts, linking up with Leigh Kramer’s blog (give it a read here), I’ve realised that I’m just a little bit nosey. I love seeing what others are reading, watching, listening to. It gives me ideas for the future, things to look into or try out. So, here’s my offering, for any similarly-nosey Desertmum readers. Who knows? You may go away with a killer book recommendation or at least a laugh at how ridiculously geeky I am. And you get to check out other bloggers’ “What I’m into” posts, all linked at the bottom of Leigh’s, if you so wish.

Books

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I am hopeless at reading. There is precious little time to read, and when it does turn up, I read very slowly. Remember when I did that book-a-month thing, two years ago? It lasted till about April, when my friend Kirsty lent me a wonderful but long non-fiction book in tiny font. Guess she didn’t get the memo. I finally completed it around Christmas 2016, a mere 20 months after starting it. This momentous occasion opened up all sorts of delights in my ever-growing reading pile. I settled on Sarah Bessey’s Jesus Feminist which I’ve been enjoying more and more with each chapter. I love her gracious storyteller style, her acknowledgement of the full scope of feminism (rather than simply up-front leading), her love of Jesus, and her adherence to Scripture. I suspect her book is not meant for people like me, who have never questioned the role of women in Scripture or in modern day church life – but it’s tying various strands of theology together for me in a very helpful way.

Another thing I’m hopeless at is any sort of regular devotional time. Timothy Keller is kindly sorting me out on that one, with his excellent My Rock, My Refuge, which takes the reader through the Psalms in one year. My prayer/accountability triplet are going through this during 2017 and it’s been a blessing to all three of us. Short, encouraging, thought-provoking, and the Bible passage is written out on the page, so it couldn’t be easier. I’ll say that again: the Bible passage is written out on the page. It literally takes NO EFFORT to read this devotional guide, but the outcome makes me think, leads me to Jesus and propels me into prayer.

I’ve been getting more and more excited about the Suzuki method of learning music, and the twins’ Suzuki teacher kindly lent me Everything depends on how we raise them (by Shigeki Tanaka, trans. Kyoko Selden). I’m not too far into it just yet, but it’s proving an interesting foil to my years of secondary music education experience. I’m planning a blog post on Suzuki and adoption very soon – watch out, this is the year I’m being super-motivated on the blog (remember??) so it may actually happen.

Food

In 2016 I challenged myself to cook without recipes for an entire year. I managed it more-or-less, and taught myself how to bake cakes and brownies from scratch. (Sadly, I never mastered cookies. Sob.) This year, I’m much enjoying the stimulation of new ideas from recipe books (and although I haven’t yet baked any cookies, I’m looking forward to reconnecting with them anytime soon). So what have I been cooking?

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Simply Nigella was found in a charity shop just before Christmas, when I should have been shopping for others, but who can resist a one-year-old hardback recipe book for £3, eh? During my year of recipe books, I discovered that Nigella’s recipes just really work for us. They’re tasty, most likely to get eaten by the majority of our family, and not too fussy (or, where they are, they can be easily simplified). So it was a joy to properly delve into a new (to me) book. We enjoyed her Chicken Traybake with Bitter Orange and Fennel, and Chicken and Wild Rice. The adults, not the kids (unpredictably), enjoyed the Sweet Potato Macaroni Cheese, but I was the only one who enjoyed the Cauliflower and Cashew Nut Curry.

Martha Collison’s Twist has just been brilliant. A Christmas present from my Mum (technically ‘+ Dad’ but, come on, we all know who actually chose it), this has been wonderful in leading me on from last year’s recipe desert to a place where I can take a recipe as a starting point, then add my own flavours and ‘twists’. OK, so I haven’t done that yet, but that’s largely because Martha’s own flavours are so damn enticing – and, as well, there’s 7-5-2-2 to consider. I’ve made the Route 66 Rocky Road (think rocky road made with popcorn, cranberries, peanuts and marshmallows), Bollywood Bars (white chocolate rocky road with cardamom and chilli) and the rather scrummy Carrot, Orange and Blueberry layer cake.

If you were reading desertmum in 2015 you may remember how brilliant Jo Pratt’s Madhouse Cookbook was – well, it still is, and I spent January trying to find the few recipes I haven’t already tried: only Corned Beef and Sweetcorn Hash, and Vegetable and Beany Gonzales Chilli were attempted – but, predictably, the latter was eaten by ALL 6 of my family, with one (fussy) child demolishing it in seconds!

Mince was great in reminding me about meatloaf – essentially meatballs (which I cook often) but in a different shape. Genius.

Articles

Here are some online articles I found particularly wonderful this month:

How to strengthen your child’s emotional intelligence  was an interesting and challenging read, especially the bit about not using screens to pacify small children. Ouch. But good ouch.

Dear Women’s Ministry, Stop telling us we’re beautiful I’m very grateful that the women’s ministry I enjoy locally doesn’t patronise our intelligence or our theology, but this was still an interesting read, and a warning too.

How to live under an unqualified president Of all the things I’ve read on Trump, this was the best by far…I either see incredible Trump-bashing, or (less often) right-wing Christians being sympathetic to him. All American citizens should read this. Honestly? It’s a brutal condemnation of all the ungodly, un-Biblical behaviour of America’s new president BUT it’s written with so much love and grace, and an unshakeable faith in God to work above and beyond world leaders, that the whole thing filled me with hope and assurance.

Anger and injustice My wonderful friends moved to rural Ethiopia last year, and I just love their blog, when there is time or Internet connection to update. In particular, this article was thought-provoking – some reflections of our friend as he looks back on the first few months teaching in an African theological college.

Doing Well Another friend writes so articulately about life as a bereaved parent with MS that I feel my understanding rockets in the few short minutes I take to read her blog. Please read this, it’s important.

Screentime

Image result for la la land picture

January was the month I decided I was fed up of making excuses why I never made it to the cinema, so when a friend recommended La La Land, I immediately made plans to see it with a different friend. I really enjoyed it – she wasn’t so sure. I think enjoyment involves, to some extent, lifting off any expectations based on the Rodgers & Hammerstein golden era of musicals – and also more recent offerings like Moulin Rouge and the various Disney musicals. This is definitely a musical for the 2010s. I didn’t find any of the songs memorable or catchy, but the feel of the whole thing is so glorious that it almost didn’t matter. Bizarrely, whilst I couldn’t hum any of the tunes after the film had ended, I had the general musical tempo/instrumentation/rhythms in my head for some weeks afterwards. So it does get under your skin.

I always enjoy spending January catching up with things I taped over Christmas when I was too busy to watch. One was The lady in the van, Alan Bennett’s fantastic re-telling of a rather eccentric woman in his life. Maggie Smith is so good that I forgot she was Maggie Smith until half way through. AND this film made it into the small overlap of films that both I and Desert Dad enjoy. No small feat. Saving Mr Banks didn’t quite make it into the centre of this Venn diagram, so the hubster trundled off to bed – but I found it so engaging that I watched into the wee hours, not daring to switch off.

I couldn’t get into Northern Soul, though, despite trying for the best part of an hour. One of the few films I haven’t finished.

Games

We’re big fans of games in our household, particularly strategy ones for the adults. My Christmas present from DD was Splendour, which we’ve enjoyed countless times this month. Its advantages are: you can play with just two (but we have had a few games of four with friends, and it works equally well), the games are short for this genre (half an hour or less), it’s simple to pick up – but, like the best strategy games, has a vast number of different strategies you can use to win. Also – strategy game fans will know I’m not being shallow here – the game is made so nicely! Beautiful pictures, proper, weighty coins, and the box fits everything perfectly. Nice!

jacket, Dobble

With the kids, we’ve enjoyed much Dobble, and a new one for Christmas: Blink (readily available on eBay, once that link expires). If you have primary-aged children in your home, or you buy presents for some, I highly recommend both of these.

In other news…

I managed to keep the downstairs tidy (by my standards, i.e. a little lower than average) for an entire month! Woohoo!

I think I saw the bottom of a laundry basket at some point, but the memory quickly faded.

The kiddoes, as usual, went to more parties than I did.

We caught up with American friends we hadn’t seen in 3.5 years, a British friend we hadn’t seen in over a year, a cousin we see intermittently, and made a trip to the in-laws for a special birthday.

I enjoyed an afternoon’s training in Dalcroze Eurythmics, knowing this means nothing to about 99% of my readers, but throwing it in there anyway as a proud moment.

Oh…and our school which was in Special Measures? It got a GOOD from Ofsted! Just about our proudest moment for the month, and possibly the year!

…and that’s about it for January. What have you been into?

 

five questions to ask a prospective school

Black school shoes.

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This Autumn, many of you will be visiting primary schools, trying to fathom where to send your little person next September. Maybe you’ve already been. Maybe it’s an easy choice or maybe there are several options. Maybe there are factors which make it an incredibly hard decision.

I’m struggling to believe that it was three whole years ago that my husband and I did the school trail. For us, it was an easy decision, but the school we chose for our son was one which others were rejecting. I’ve rattled on enough times about why we chose this school, but today I thought it’d be helpful to provide some questions which you can ask when viewing schools.

Disclaimer: these are not the only questions you should ask, and I wouldn’t suggest asking all of them – unless you want to have the poor Headteacher reaching for her hip-flask once you’ve left – but picking a couple of them to raise during your visit will help you to see past the surface of how the school is presenting itself, and start to give you a feel for its actual identity. What’s at the core of this school? Hopefully these questions will help you scratch beneath the shiny veneer being presented to you (and yes, schools can be pretty good at masking the cracks).

School as the sun is setting.1. What’s your pastoral support like? You want to know whether there’s one or more members of staff whose job it is to support pupils – and families – with non-academic issues. Does the school have a well-thought-out system for dealing with pupils who are undergoing stress?

You may think your family life is pretty stable, but unemployment, bereavement or ill health could hit at any time, and you need to be as sure as you can that this school will support your child through any difficulties they might be facing out of school, thus reducing the negative impact on your child’s education. Contrary to what many people think, it’s just not possible to separate academic learning from pastoral well-being.

2. What’s your behaviour management strategy? Many schools will have a clear-cut strategy for the classroom, and will often speak to the children in terms of making ‘choices’, rather than behaving well or badly. (Are you making good choices? Are you thinking about your choices? Have you made a bad choice?)

But you want to know that there is a system like this which is consistent throughout the school. If every teacher has a different way of doing things, this will unsettle most children for the first few weeks of every academic year, disrupting learning as well as their own sense of security.

You also need to know what happens beyond the classroom – what are the sanctions for bad choices? What will happen when your child excels in behaviour or effort?

Is the school doing anything to preempt negative behaviour and respond to the stimuli before a child makes those bad choices? Is the school educating children on behaviour, or simply dealing with it when it happens? Prevention or cure? There should be both in evidence.

3. Where will the school be in five years’ time? Remember, you’re not signing up for this year alone (unless you have a planned relocation next summer, of course!). You want to know that this school will still be the right choice for your child in Year 2, Year 4, Year 6. Is there a clear vision for the future? Where is the school hoping to develop/improve?

There’s no shame in having weaknesses (whether that be a behaviour strategy, pastoral support, academic achievement, staff deployment, or outdoor facilities), as long as there’s a plan to improve them. Listen hard – is the head committed to the ongoing development of the school?

Wooden play figures at desks, listening attentively to teacher.4. How has the school changed in the last five years? Similar to the last question, but for those who like evidence. If the school hasn’t really developed that much in the last few years, it’s unlikely to develop in the next few – unless the school leadership has changed recently. Where has the school developed? What’s happening now which wasn’t five years ago?

I’ll never forget the very perceptive question my husband asked when we looked round the school our kids now go to. The school had recently changed leadership, and he asked “What changes have you noticed in the last half term, since the new head arrived?” The school secretary who was showing us round was enthusiastic in her response: “I’ve been working here for 20 years, and already it’s a much nicer place to work than it was before.”

It made such an impact on us that I can’t remember much else from the visit! This was the sort of school we wanted for our children.

5. How do you protect children from the changing expectations coming from the Department of Education? OK, so maybe don’t phrase it quite like that! But with this question we’re getting at whether the school are able to shield their children from unnecessary stress. Or do they see this as a priority at all?

The DofE loves to impose stress on Headteachers, and – if they’re not careful – this stress passes on through staff to children. Childhood depression and anxiety are on the increase, and one factor is increased academic pressure. Is the school actively trying to reduce stress for pupils?

SATs results may seem important, but in the grand scheme of things our children’s mental health is far more of a concern. SATs last only to predict GCSE grades – whereas poor mental health in childhood will likely last through adulthood also. Make sure your child’s future school has their priorities the right way round.

All the best as you look round schools this Autumn!

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why i’m (still) sending my kid to a school in special measures

A couple of years ago, I blogged about our reasons for sending our son, then 4, to a school which had been put in special measures. Two weeks ago, our daughter started at the same school, and I wanted to share with you why, two years on, we have no regrets about this decision.

For a start, Mister (6) has had nothing but positive experiences at the school. Academically, he is making good progress. Pastorally, he is being well looked-after. Socially, he has a wide and varied group of friends. I love the way the older kids look out for the younger ones too – older boys call ‘hello’ to my son in the street, they know his name, they’re not embarrassed to be seen with a younger boy. I’m sure this is not unique to our school, but it’s something I don’t take for granted, knowing that this wasn’t the case a few years ago, when poor leadership, little/no lunchtime activities and equipment, and a very weak behaviour strategy meant that, unfortunately, bullying was rife.

If it ain’t broke, why fix it? Mister has enjoyed his two years at school – why would there be any reason to suggest that Missy wouldn’t love it just as much?

Secondly, I’ve met some really wonderful families through the school – some are similar to me, some are very different. I won’t lie and say I have a close-knit group of besties – nor that I’m ever expecting to – but this is OK. I have several close friends outside the school, and I’m totally fine with that. Those I’ve met through the school are still great, still people who I would consider ‘friends’ and enjoy a playground chat with. My experience has been broadened, and I’ve learned so much through getting to know such a wide range of people.

I love the honesty and the lack of face-saving amongst my school community. As an example, here’s a conversation I had with another mum within a few weeks of joining the school. I embellish a lot on this blog but, believe me, I haven’t altered this.

“Hiya Lucy, you alright?”

“Yeah, good thanks – and you?”

“Not so good – I lost a baby last week at 6 months gestation.”

Gulp. This mum wasn’t sweeping her problem under the carpet – and she certainly felt the pain of this awful event as much as any mum I’ve known – she just didn’t see the point in not being honest. In reflecting on this, I realise that in my middle-class upbringing, life has always been about putting across my best side – whether on a UCAS form, in a job interview, or doing that all-important ‘networking’ in my profession. It means that I’m excellent at small-talk, at appearing interested in people when I’m not, at hiding those aspects of my life which I’m not proud of. Perhaps those who haven’t been through this system feel less need to present themselves any differently to how they are. It’s certainly taught me a lot about the value of being honest and open with others.

Thirdly, I never cease to be amazed by the professionalism and vision of the staff. As a governor, I get to see and hear about all sorts of initiatives throughout the school. The teaching is excellent – really excellent – but I love how the staff never seem to settle for any less than the best, as far as the kids are concerned. With many children coming from low-income backgrounds, the school is thinking outside the box in terms of raising their aspirations, giving them hope and opportunity for the future.

For example, a child who is not reaching Age Related Expectations (ARE) at the age of 4 is unlikely to achieve well at GCSE. (And by ARE, I don’t mean whether he can read or write, I mean whether he can have a conversation, sit and listen, share and take turns, and so on.) So a year ago, knowing that the key to future success lies in early intervention, our school opened its new 2-year-old nursery provision, aiming to give high-quality early education to those children whose parents were eligible for funding. Within weeks of its opening, staff and parents were seeing incredible leaps forward in their children’s development.

I could tell you about the innovative strategies being used to combat (and prevent) poor behaviour in the school. I could tell you about the cultural pledge that the school has devised, ensuring that all children access the museums and galleries in our historic city. I could talk about the support that the school gives to parents – the free courses and qualifications offered, the hand-outs of clothes and baby equipment when needed, the interest shown in their lives. I could – but I’m over my wordcount. Do you get it? This school is forward-thinking. It persists in trying to make life better for those on the edge, and I’m so proud to be part of it.

For those of you looking round schools this Autumn, perhaps for the first time, please don’t judge by what you see outside the school gate, what people say about the families who go there, or anything else – other than the school itself. Take the time to look round, listen, ask questions, get a feel for the quality of the teaching.

I’m glad we did this two years ago, or else we might have missed a gem. My son has been so happy at this school – and if I now have to lose my daughter for 30 hours a week too, I can think of no better place for her to be.

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