How to help an anxious child in your class

In my last blog I discussed signs and symptoms of an anxious child, which may help you to spot children in your class who were struggling. 

Being able to identify the issue is only a small part of helping the child while they are at school though. In this blog I intend to show you how easy it is to make school a calm and supportive environment. This is important for all children, but especially those struggling with anxiety.

The most important thing you can do for an anxious child

The single most important thing you can do to help an anxious child is to be as consistent as you can. I appreciate that we all have bad days and teachers are only human (although that is a revelation to most of our students, isn’t it?). The more calm and consistent you can be, the calmer your students will feel. They need to know what to expect from you, and more importantly, what you expect from them.

Routine is also a huge help when tackling anxiety. When we know what is going to happen, how and where there is a deep, instinctive security associated with that.  

In schools there will always be changes to routine because there is a celebration, a visitor or something unexpected has occured. As much as possible though, keep to a routine, especially on a morning and around certain key events. That way the children know that when x happens you expect y. It allows them to feel in control and there is no doubt for them that if they follow that structure you will be happy and they will achieve the desired result.

Celebrate failures. This is a challenge for many of us. We all want to succeed. To be the best we can be. But if we only ever do things we know we will succeed at we limit our potential. There will always be times when we have to stretch our comfort zone and try something new. By showing the children that you don’t get everything right all the time, that you make mistakes and that’s ok. Better than ok, it’s great. It means you were brave, you tried something new and challenging and that is how we learn and grow. 

Sara Blakely, CEO and founder of SPANX, says her father used to ask her and her brother every week at the dinner table; “what did you fail at today?” and if they had something to share he would celebrate it.

If you haven’t watched it before this is a great video about the importance of failing. It is only 4 mins but is a real eye opener if you have always been worried about failing – as so many of us are. 

Unnecessary pressure

Unnecessary pressure can be a real issue in schools. I appreciate that we are all trying to get the best out of the children in our class. We want them to succeed, to be the best they can be. Putting pressure on an anxious child though is going to have the opposite effect. It may only be a throw away comment but it can impact a child for years. I heard recently about a child who had had a prolongued period off school with anxiety. They struggled to return but did, and not just that, did brilliantly in their mocks. They then fell ill and emailed their teachers to get the work they had missed. 90% of their teachers were great and either gave a small amout to catch up, or told them not to worry. One teacher though responded by saying “It’s good to see you are finally taking your studies seriously!”. This child was a high achiever and it was the pressure to succeed and to be the very best that was causing their anxiety. This one comment put them back several steps.

Yes, test results are important, exam results matter, but they are not the end of the world, and certainly not worth sacrificing the mental health of any of your students. Exams can always be retaken.

Be mindful of how much pressure you are placing on your class. Comments such as “last year’s class did brilliantly, but I know that you are going to do even better” may be motivating for some children, but paralysing For an anxious child.

If a child is struggling, the quickest way to calm them down is to ask them to do some breathing exercises (there are lots on my social media accounts and in my free downloads).

Time out 

Allow them to step away from the task, maybe go sit and read quietly for a few minutes. Give them a mental health break. Why not have a soft toy who is a special calming friend who they can talk to and cuddle when they are feeling anxious (You could add a few drops of lavender essential oil every week so that when they have a cuddle it helps calm them down even more?).

Many children will feel calmer if they move around. Why not have dance breaks during stressful times, such as the build up to tests? Giving the children 2-3 minutes to dance, and inevitably laugh too, will calm their physical body and provide a fun distraction. 

Children are unique

Most importantly remember that they are individuals. They may not respond the same way another child you have taught did, and that’s ok. Talk to them. They may not understand how they are feeling, depending on their age, but they might know exactly what will make them feel better.  Make sure you use positive language and nurture their self confidence and self esteem as much as possible. The more confident a child, the more able they feel to cope with stress. 

No two people are the same. We all react differently, we all respond to events differently. Some children love tests because they like a challenge. Others become a nervous wreck at the mention of the word. Some children will enjoy doing some exercise to calm down, but others will just want to sit quietly.  

Watch how they respond. If a child is really struggling, tailor the way you respond to suit them rather than the whole class. An estimated 1 in 8 children under 19 having a diagnosable mental health condition in the UK. This is not something we can ignore. You may have 4 or more children in your class who are really struggling with anxiety, depression or other mental health issues. Remember those are just the children who are severe enough to get a diagnosis. Many more will feel anxious before an exam or during a stressful period either at home or school. 

Mental health issues are no longer things which are rare and often dealt with outside school. All staff need to have a good understanding of the impact this can have on children in school. There must be consistency across the whole school environment.

 

For more help and advice on this subject:

Young Minds

Barnardos

NHS

 

 

Wellbeing and OFSTED

As we wait patiently for the new OFSTED Framework we have been given a few clues as to what changes might be afoot. One of the key focuses of the new guidelines seems to be wellbeing; that of staff as well as students. 

OFSTED has been a cause of stress for schools since its birth in 1992. At the time I was sitting my GCSEs but my Mum was a teacher and I can vividly remember her getting very anxious when they received “the call” the first time. 

As I then embarked on my own teaching career it was like a cloud hanging over you all the time. You knew roughly when an inspection was due and were waiting with sweaty palms and impeccable planning for that day when they arrived. 

Of course in those days you had much more notice and had time to prepare fairly thoroughly for their visit. My first OFSTED as a qualified teacher was just before May half term and I spent the whole weekend before re-writing my entire planning file, not to change anything, but in case they couldn’t read something!

 

I have not been the biggest fan of OFSTED over the years I have to confess, I don’t think many teachers are. Between their unrealistic targets and other enforced demands on schools have resulted in many schools feeling compelled to teach to test rather than looking at the children in their classrooms and helping them to achieve the best they can, whatever their strengths and give them a genuine love of learning along the way. 

 Despite the best efforts of teachers to do just that, they have been acutely aware that should their class not meet all the academic targets that have been set they will be scrutinised and criticised for not ticking that box. 

As a result, for reasons based in fear, many teachers have had to resort to teaching to test and have not been able to do the job they passionately wanted to do when they began their teaching career. It’s heart breaking. 

 

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

 

According to Amanda Spielman’s in October last year we have reason to be hopeful. 

During her speech she said that OFSTED should be a “force for improvement”, well, yes it should, is she implying in any way that it isn’t at the moment? We will never know. She also acknowledged that the current system is putting too much pressure on teachers and that there has been too much focus on testing and not enough on curriculum and learning.

There will be greater emphasis on the needs of the child and schools will be rewarded “for doing the right thing by their pupils”. After years of focus on results, this could indeed be the change we have been looking for. 

According to The Telegraph, on 22nd December 2018, OFSTED is also considering introducing wellbeing and mental health assessments for schools too. Whilst I am a little cynical about this, the fact that the focus is shifting to look at the impact of our education system on the whole child and the wellbeing of staff too is undoubtedly a positive. I am slightly concerned about how they intend to carry out this “assessment”, after all, mental health is incredibly difficult to measure. We all have mental health, some of us have good mental health, some of us are less mentally healthy.

Looking at the relationships within the school, teacher attitudes, teacher workload and absence for me would be a good place to start. I believe wholeheartedly that the atmosphere in a school is dictated by the staff, if the staff are happy, calm and content to be there, the children will feel secure and be happier while they are at school too. 

Mental health is a huge area

It is important to remember that there are many factors that contribute to our mental wellness. Our time in school and engaging in school work is undoubtedly one factor but other factors such as family, physical health, relationships, financial stresses and many more, all contribute. I wonder then if there will be increased funding for schools, since this is something which comes up time and time again when I talk to teachers about causes of stress. Perhaps there may even be a meaningful pay rise for staff so that they can afford to live and support their own children, as well as providing stability and good mental health for the children in their class.

I am trying hard to remain positive about this new framework and look forward to it being released to see what it actually contains. Of course at the moment, nothing is official, but it certainly seems that it could be a step in the right direction. A move towards empowering teachers to do the best for the children in their care, enabling them to use their professional judgement to educate the whole child rather than navigating them towards the next test or exam. A move towards a holistic education system which values the whole child. 

Of course, I am delighted that there is going to be a focus on wellbeing, in my opinion this has been the biggest shift in education over recent years. Schools have independently seen the need to care for the mental wellbeing of both staff and students, but it is wonderful that they will be rewarded for this. Staff and students will never perform as well when they are stressed and anxious as they do when they are calm and happy. By focusing on wellbeing we will naturally see an improvement in results and we will also be sending happy, well rounded, emotionally secure children out into the world. I hope this new framework will be a force for powerful and significant change in our education system, it is long over due. 

 

If you are expecting a visit from the inspectors check out my tips for surviving OFSTED.

 

 

Passion – why sharing our passion is so important in teaching

Passion is an interesting word. 

I believe it is too often associated with intimacy and sex when for me what it is really about is that drive, that burning desire to do something, whatever it is that sets your soul on fire.

Teachers are passionate about the well being and education of the children in their class. That is a magical and powerful thing.

People are passionate about all sorts of things. Anything can become a passion and I believe if we all really stop and think about it we all have a passion. It might be music, baking, a particular sport, reading, theatre, games, hiking, flying, travelling… the possibilities are endless but if we allow ourselves time to think about it there is at lease one thing that makes us happy, that might have always made us happy. 

I’m sure you can think of at least one passion you have if not several. I know I have many passions! 

Why is it important to share our passions with children?

Whether the children are in your class or your family, I believe that sharing our passions is so important. 

Why?

Well, there are several reasons:

  • If they don’t see that you have passions how will they know that adults still get really excited about things
  • You might introduce them to something which will then become one of their passions
  • Any imparting of knowledge is only ever a good thing

How often do we share our true passions with the children around us? 

Do your class know that you are a massive Harry Potter fan or that you love baking? I suspect they probably do. But do you understand the amazing impact that may be having on them?

I have been reminded of this phenomena so much recently.

We have been to my daughter’s parents evening this week. She is doing brilliantly. It made me smile because the subjects that she really shines at are the same subjects I always loved too; English literature, performing arts, history. She also shines in music and photography. She gets those from her Dad.

I watch my son playing football. I know that he loves it with a passion I will never understand. He gets that from his Dad and his older brother. The passion he gets from me is his social and emotional intelligence. He is incredibly caring and loves spending time with younger children and helping them, even though he isn’t 10yrs old yet. 

They both love music, which they get from both of us, but their amazing ear and natural ability to just pick up and instrument play it they definitely get from their Dad. The ability to remember song lyrics might be me though!

Last night we shared one of my husband’s passions for the first time with all three of our children, something we rarely get a chance to do given that our eldest is 24yrs old and our youngest is only 9yrs old. Usually there is a staggered introduction but for Christmas last year we all got tickets to go see the War of the Worlds Tour. My husband has loved this story and the music Jeff Wayne created since he was a little boy sitting in the dark in his parents dining room with his head phones on listening to his LP (that’s a big record for anyone under 35, a record is a big black disc that plays music for anyone under 30 😉 ).

We have been to see this amazing show several times over the years

Although I wasn’t really familiar with the music at first I am now a fan too (Ian shared his passion and I discovered a new passion too, see it works!). The children have listened to the music over the years and our daughter has even read the book now because she was so intrigued by the story, but none of them had ever been to see the show. It was such a lovely experience taking them all to see something so important to my husband together and seeing their reactions.

Over the years I have been fascinated to see our children collect our passions and add their own too.

Our daughter loves going to the theatre and in particular musicals, something I have always loved too. I love the old musicals. Oklahoma, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Calamity Jane… but also the musicals which were still relatively new when I was her age; Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera… She of course loves Hamilton and Dear Evan Hanson. We both love Wicked and Matilda and we’re always happy to accompany each other on a trip to see anything at the theatre. 

My son has had several passions; The Beatles, David Bowie, Lego, Star Wars, Spiderman, Harry Potter and of course football. All of these passions were introduced to him by someone he loves. He would never have known who The Beatles were when he was 6 years old had it not been for his Dad’s passion. He shared his passion and enriched our son’s life as a result.

When I was teaching I shared my love of music and dancing every chance I got with my classes and when I see ex-students now they often mention the fact that they still think of me when they hear certain tunes. 20 years on that’s quite an impact to have had!

What is your passion? 

How can you use it to enrich the lives of your children and those in your class?

Do you find time to pursue it even when you are busy?

Spending a few hours doing something you really love will light you up for days, sometimes weeks afterwards. It is NEVER time wasted. It is one of the highest forms of self care and yet so often it is seen as an indulgence. You wouldn’t want your children to grow up depriving themselves of something they really love, would you? If they don’t see you leading by example they will grow up thinking adults don’t have anything that lights them up. That as an adult you always have to sacrifice what you love doing. 

When was the last time you shared something you are passionate about with your students?

Try it. 

You might be surprised at the impact it has. 

Teaching: a calling not a job

I was 7 years old the first time I remember consciously thinking “I want to be a teacher”.

Mrs Duffy was my teacher and she was amazing. She had a calm, maternal approach to teaching and she made learning fun. Her favourite activity was asking us to write stories from the perspective of inanimate objects or animals with titles like: “My day as a toffee apple”.

I loved it.

You can argue it had no educational merit but I would argue very differently. It taught us empathy. Perspective. Our creative writing flourished that year.

She was also the first teacher I encountered who used a star chart as a reward system. I wanted to make star charts and give out sticky stars for good work. I wanted to inspire children.

I remember lining up my teddy bears (and my little sister if I could get away with it!) and having a school in our bedroom. I would sit at the front and “teach” them.

My mum was a teacher, although at this time she hadn’t returned to work so I didn’t see her as a teacher yet. One of my aunties was also a teacher, but she was busy having my cousins at the time, so again I didn’t really see her as a teacher. I think I could put together quite an argument in favour of there being a teaching gene. Out of my Mum’s siblings three of the five taught at some point in their career. My cousins who were born to those aunts and uncles, three out of five are teachers and one of the non-teachers married a teacher! Definitely a gene, some would say defective, I couldn’t possibly comment!

I’m joking of course. Teaching is a gift. I mean that whole heartedly. Not everyone can teach. Not everyone should teach.

As I grew up, I continued to work with children, helping with speaking exams, listening to readers at the local primary school and being a Brownie Leader among other things. I loved spending time with children, even though I was still fundamentally a child myself.

Then for around three years my head was turned.

My Mum had returned to teaching when I was in what is now Y5. Over the years I had seen how hard she worked. How tired she was. I had always loved singing and acting. I had been involved in school productions, choirs and orchestras throughout high school and now I was getting involved in Youth Theatre. For a few years I thought I would really like to work in theatre. Not necessarily on stage, but maybe in management or production.

A series of events broke that spell though and I eventually gave in and accepted my fate.

A teaching degree was always in my future.

I know I won’t be popular in saying this, and please remember it’s now history not under current conditions, but I found my teaching degree a doddle. Everything I learned I knew instinctively or because I had grown up around teachers. Some of it was frankly boring – did we need a three hour lecture on how to put up a display?

As our teaching practices grew in length and intensity I still loved every minute and always got great feedback from my host schools and mentors.

I loved spending time with the children and seeing those light bulb moments.

 

Looking back I was so young to be doing such an important job but that’s what we all do. As a secondary school teacher you may only be four or five years older than your students when you start teaching.

I graduated in the summer of 1999 and immediately started voluntary work experience at my auntie’s school for the last half term of the year to give me more experience – I told you, I LOVED it!

Then I started teaching…

 

Wow! What a shock!

I have been open about my first year as a teacher many times before so I won’t go into details, but let’s just say that it was not the job I imagined. Certainly not at first.

I had a very challenging class in an inner city, a ridiculously unsupportive Head and because I was in a portacabin at the top of the school it was just too easy to isolate myself. Thank goodness for my portacabin neighbour, Hazel. Hazel was an experienced teacher, but had been a middle school teacher, so she was on a steep learning curve in Y4 too. I was teaching Y5 despite focusing on EYFS and KS1 during my training, because I had applied for a Y2 job but they already had an internal candidate for that and I had impressed them so they offered me Y5.

It couldn’t be that different could it?

Well, it wasn’t easy.

Within 3 months I went from bouncing with excitement to clinically depressed.

I wasn’t prepared for the reality of the job. It wasn’t the children. It wasn’t teaching. It was the politics and the behind the scenes stuff that most people never see.

I should add that the sort of school environment I was in isn’t tolerated any more. With hindsight I should have reported the Head. Her behaviour was bullying, but I didn’t want to appear weak and look like I couldn’t cope. I had wanted to do this for too long to give up now.

As I say, that sort of behaviour isn’t tolerated any more, however, other pressures have increased over the last 20 years which make teaching more stressful than ever. We have also enticed people into teaching with financial incentives, who may not necessarily have considered teaching otherwise and while that might work short term, it is unlikely that they will stay in the profession for long without that passion for the job.

When I started teaching you couldn’t be sacked. Unless you physically hurt a child your job was safe. Now I’m not saying that ineffective, lazy teachers should have a job for life, of course they shouldn’t. However, I’ve never met a lazy teacher. I have met many exhausted teachers, but no lazy ones.

Now if the class you are teaching don’t achieve their expected grades your job might be on the line.

How is that fair?

Let’s translate this scenario into another profession.

If a dentist has a lot of patients with fillings do they lose their job?

No! Because it isn’t the dentist’s fault if they tell you to brush your teeth twice a day and not eat sweets and you ignore them is it? It isn’t their fault if you have naturally weak enamel. So why is it a teacher’s fault if their students don’t achieve? They can be doing everything right and the children ignore them. They can be the most inspirational teacher in the world but be in an area where many of their children don’t have any support at home and have large numbers of EAL (English as an Additional Language) or transient students. They can also of course not be doing their job properly, but that is one of a number of possibilities.

The level of testing in schools is reaching a critical level, we are teaching to test from day one now and that is not educating it is regurgitating if we’re not careful.

Children need time to explore. To learn independently. To discover their special spark, unearth the unique magic, that thing that makes them light up the same way teaching lights me up.

Teaching used to be a well respected and noble profession. Teachers were looked up to in society and paid accordingly.

Now they are judged and tested and scrutinised every step of the way and honestly it has to end.

As you all know I am no longer teaching. I had to leave for medical reasons, but honestly, having spent some time out of the system, I’m not sure I would want to return.

I will, however, always be a teacher in my heart. It is written through me like a stick of rock.

Seeing a child grasp a concept for the first time will always light me up inside in a way I can’t explain, and children’s laughter will always be my favourite sound.

Please, if you love teaching, if it is your calling, teach. Be the best teacher you know how to be. Stand up for the principles you believe in. Put the children first. Let’s make a change from the inside and make it that well respected, enjoyable, magical calling it always used to be.

 

Teacher Stress

Talking about teacher stress is a huge part of my work. I am passionate about raising awareness of this issue. The statistics around stress in education are well documented, yet for the most part this problem is accepted as “part of the job”.

I don’t think that statistics like “twice as likely to commit suicide” and “the highest divorce rates of any profession” are little things to be ignored though. These are huge problems. Those are just the big issues. How about the fact that 75% of teacher admit to feeling stressed. The fact that 11% of the profession are on antidepressants and 1/5th of teachers are aware that they have increased their caffeine or alcohol intake since starting teaching.

I say are “aware” that they have intentionally, because I believe that this statistic is much higher but most have slowly increased their consumption and now believe that the amount they are having is “normal”.

 

Why am I so passionate about teacher stress?

The simple answer is because I have been there.

I started teaching in September 1999. I was so excited. I spent all summer preparing resources, planning all the amazing lessons I was going to teach, making my classroom beautiful and getting as organised as I possibly could. I was fortunate that my Mum was a teacher, although she taught secondary school I had grown up understanding many fundamental aspects of teaching that may not be fully appreciated by those without that insight. I knew that it wasn’t a 9-3:30 job and that the holidays were a myth. My auntie was also a teacher and she did teach primary school so I had gone and done some extra classroom experience with her after I finished my degree and then she had spent a day helping me prepare for the first couple of weeks of September.

I had trained to teach the whole primary age range but had specialised in KS1 and Early Years (3-7 years) but my first job was in Y5 (9-10yr olds) so I was a little out of my comfort zone but ready for the challenge.

My first classroom was a brand new portacabin because the school system in Bradford changed that year from First and Middle Schools to Primary. So my Y5 class were first Y5 that the school had ever had. I had all new resources and a shiny new classroom.

In the adjoining classroom was another teacher who was new to the school. She had come down from the local middle school with the changes and she was my angel. Hazel was an experienced and truly wonderful teacher. She held my hand from day one and we became firm friends for life.

Despite her amazing love and support though I found myself lying in bed three days before the Christmas holidays crying. No, sobbing. I couldn’t move. There was absolutely nothing that could have got me into school that morning. I have never experienced anything like it in my life. I made an appointment with the doctor who prescribed antidepressants.

I sat, three months into my teaching career, a young and enthusiastic 23 yr old, with tablets in my hand. I hadn’t spotted the signs. I was so busy I hadn’t noticed that I had been struggling for weeks. I didn’t want to admit that I wasn’t coping.

Did I really need to be medicated to cope with my chosen career?

I had always been a happy, outgoing, conscientious young woman. Every task I was given I did, every form, every planning sheet was immaculate, and the paperwork was ridiculous and most of it never looked at by anyone. There were lots of factors that led to this point; an unsupportive Head, the pressures of teaching in a deprived inner city area, tensions in the community (it wasn’t long before the terrible Manningham Riots), disengaged muslim boys, the pressures of teaching in a Church of England schools with a 99.9% muslim intake…

All of these things would have been bearable with a little support from senior management. Unfortunately the opposite was true and I was made to feel like a total failure.

I only had three days off in the end, by the start of the new term the medication had kicked in and I felt able to return. I won the class round and we had a fabulous year, by the end of it. I didn’t want to leave them. I had already taken the decision to move to another school though due to the senior leadership team’s lack of support.

I managed to come off the antidepressants over the summer holidays and started work at a new school, in a similar area but with a very different team, the following September. It wasn’t easy, but having the support of more than just one colleague made it bearable and even fun!

 

Currently the average career length of a teacher is 8 years.

1/3 of teachers leave the state sector within 5 years.

83% of teachers polled by NASUWT said that teaching impacted in a negative way on their physical and mental health.

1/5 of all teachers are working 60hrs a week.

 

These statistics upset me.

I know how few of the people I qualified with almost 20 years ago are still teaching full time.

I see the average age of teachers getting younger and younger. There are some amazing young teachers, don’t get me wrong, but there are also benefits to having more mature teachers in an environment. They have seen the changes over the years, they have a perspective that younger teachers can’t have. They give their classes a very different experience too.

I also know that people who would be amazing teachers are being put off joining the profession in the first place because they have seen how challenging it can be.

What can we do to change the situation?

Well, being aware is the first thing.

Learning how to spot stress not just in others but also in yourself. Teachers are incredibly strong and will keep going and keep going, often without realising how difficult their situation is getting.

Check out these blogs if you want to know the signs:

Stress – Do you know the signs?

There isn’t just one sort of stress

The Ten Commandments of Stress and Depression

This week I have started some work at a local college. I have been asked to visit and teach the trainee teachers how to spot stress and how to handle the strains of the job. I am also helping their mentors to spot stress in themselves and in their mentees. I can’t tell you how excited I am to be able to talk to these young enthusiastic trainees and show them how to stay calm before they get to a point where they need my help.

Often when I visit schools to deliver training I see often tired looking teachers either in total denial about their own wellbeing, because they can’t remember a time they didn’t feel like this, so this is their new normal, or I see a lightbulb go on when they realise how challenging things have got.

Prevention is always better than cure.

Teaching is a stressful job. There is no denying it. But you can thrive not just survive if you learn to manage your own wellbeing. If you learn some simple stress relieving techniques, make sure you take time for yourself to do things that make you happy, and remember that while it is undoubtedly a vocation, it is ultimately a job. No job is worth your health and happiness.

There is a saying that you can’t pour from an empty cup. You have to make sure that you are rested and full of energy in order to teach.

Ensure that your cup is always overflowing so that you can ignite the passion for learning in your students without dulling your own sparkle.

Being present in a world of technology

For most of us technology isn’t a choice in the 21st Century, it is a necessity. Unless you go completely off grid, which more and more people are doing, we rely on technology for so much these days.

Without sounding like a luddite, it is because of this increase in the use of technology that we need to learn to be more mindful.

Previous generations didn’t need to learn to be mindful, that was their default state. If they were baking they were concentrating on baking. If they were building a table that was all they were thinking about.

Now we can’t watch television, which is itself a technological distraction, without checking social media, playing games or sending an email at the same time.

 

What impact is this having?

The impact is huge.

Attention spans are now non-existent in some people, especially children. When I visit schools the pace of lessons is now so fast so that the children don’t lose attention that very few things can be covered in the depth that they often need to be, particularly at secondary level.

It is also creating a generation who don’t know how to interact with others in person. They communicate brilliantly online but ask them to sit and chat and put their phones away and many will struggle to do so for more than a few minutes.

Our brains are changing because of these habits.

How much of it is choice and how much is by design?

The more attention we give to something the more our brain tunes in to that thing because it is designed to place more resources into things we deem to be important. So if we react immediately every time our phone pings our brain will learn that that is an important activity and will even begin to check our phones when we haven’t received an alert.

We are all guilty these days of worrying about someone because they haven’t responded immediately to a message because “they usually get straight back to me”. It could be that they are at the dentist or in a meeting but we immediately worry.

Games are even more addictive.

This week the World Health Organisation officially classified gaming addiction as a disorder (read more here) meaning that treatment will be available on the NHS for people addicted to games.

When we play games online they are designed to make us play more and keep playing longer. Things like Candy Crush and Angry Birds have become so much a part of modern life that adults are competitive in league tables.

I have never been a gamer. But I know many people who are, to varying degrees. I have done an experiment with gaming apps before but with Minion Rush, when my children became obsessed with it, to see what impact it was having. The results were terrifying. This time I decided to see what the big deal was with these online games. I found one that appealed to my sense of order and my packing skills where you had to place blocks in rows to make them disappear.

Describing it it sounds ridiculous. I downloaded it at the start of the World Cup last Thursday, it seemed like something harmless to do while the football was on.

I was wrong.

Within minutes I wanted to keep playing. I know some people find this sort of thing relaxing but my heart rate was raised while I was playing, my eyes felt dry and my concentration was awful. I decided to continue the experiment and see what happened. Sure enough the more I played, the more I wanted to play. I deleted the app and found myself downloading it again when the next football match started.

It was terrifying.

I pride myself on having self control, most of the time. I believe in treats but I am usually pretty disciplined. What was happening?

You’ll be pleased to hear that I have deleted the app and am now addiction free again, but I can only imagine how difficult it is for a child or someone who wants to escape the world to pull away from that state.

Time passes quickly when you are playing these mindless games. You are totally absorbed and as far from being present as I can possibly imagine without being unconscious. If you are unhappy they are the perfect escape – that is not a recommendation!

What can we do to reverse this worrying trend?

As adults we need to set an example to our children.

If they see us permanently attached to our phones this is what they will aspire to.

We need to put our phones down and communicate, face to face more with our children.

 

This trend towards technology isn’t just affecting our children’s brains and concentration, it is having a huge impact on speech development, vocabulary and physical fitness. They aren’t learning the wide vocabulary previous generations did because they don’t have conversations with older, more experienced people. Many very young children aren’t being spoken to apart from when it is essential. We have all seen pushchairs being pushed with children staring lovingly at their carer, who is staring at a screen or talking on the phone the whole time.

When we eat out children seem to be immediately given a screen to occupy them. I saw a baby who couldn’t yet sit up and was given a bottle of milk during the mealtime, propped up holding Dad’s phone while his parents chatted to their friends the other day.  Babies brains are so malleable. Those early years are so important in forming lifelong habits. To say nothing of the extensive research about child development in relation to screen time.

Don’t get me wrong, both my children have access to screens. But they didn’t use one at all until they were school age and the time they spend on them is limited. I am not an angel, and there are days when they are tired, or I am, that they get longer than the hour they are supposed to have, but my son’s time is monitored carefully and my daughter is learning to self regulate (she’s 14).

What are my top tips for staying present in this modern technological world then?

  • Limit the time you spend on a screen – particularly for children
  • Have a time that you put screens away and stick to it (at least an hour before bedtime so that your brain can rest before sleep)
  • Ban phones from mealtimes to encourage conversation
  • Get outside as much as possible – nature is a wonderful antidote to technology!
  • Try to have technology free days and see the impact it has on your family. Maybe make Sundays technology free
  • Learn to meditate. Meditation takes discipline and concentration and will naturally improve attention spans
  • Encourage self awareness

If I wasn’t so self aware I may not have noticed all the physical and psychological changes that happened when I played the game. Without that understanding I would have seen no harm in it and may have carried on playing until it became even more of a problem.

There is no doubt that playing computer games is addictive but it is yet another addiction that as a society we need to tackle and take the pressure off our already struggling NHS.

Simon Cowell recently revealed that he has stopped using his mobile phone altogether. This has lead many to follow suit and they are all reporting that they feel better as a result.

Children are surrounded by technology for so much of their waking life. With iPads and interactive white boards at school and games and phones and television at home. We need to make a conscious effort not to rely so heavily on these babysitting tools and to engage more, to move more and to switch off regularly.

You will feel so much better for it, I promise.

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