Back to school should mean back to basics, where more routine and fewer choices make happier and smarter children, writes JODIE O’SULLIVAN.
IT’s 9.30pm and little Johnny is sprawled on the couch, fast asleep in front of a gruesome television crime drama.
The bright green remains of the freezer’s last three icypoles stain his lips and cheeks.
A laptop lies open on the carpet next to an exercise book, its screen saver blinking almost in remonstration of homework not done.
Aah, but how’s the serenity?
The golden silence of a sleeping child after one of those insanely busy days at work and a mountain of washing, dishes and catch-up emails to tackle at home.
Parents, does any of this sound familiar?
Welcome to the juggling act that can be parenting in the modern world.
But according to education experts on the Border, these day-to-day pressures could be hampering a child’s ability to learn and thrive at school.
From too much technology and too many choices about what they can eat through to the absence of a set bedtime, educators and the people helping the kids who fall through the cracks of the education system are seeing common issues with children who struggle at school.
And it starts long before they take a seat in the classroom.
Rhonda McCormack has been a teacher for 45 years, retiring in December after 40 years as a much-loved fixture at St Patrick’s Primary School in Albury.
She says there could not be a better job in the world.
But Mrs McCormack says teaching is not what it used to be — there’s more paperwork and there’s a lot more parenting.
And while she doesn’t want to sound like “an old school marm”, the mother of five boys herself says a lack of structure and discipline at home is creating students who are less resilient and harder to teach.
“By discipline I mean things like a set meal, bath and bed routine,” she says.
“These days kids have so many choices — if they don’t like what there is to eat, they get something else.
“Children also tend to be built up to think they are brilliant at everything … they take criticism poorly and the word ‘no’ is often not in their vocabulary.
“These factors can make it hard to concentrate on a task and school can become very challenging.”
Mrs McCormack is not necessarily having a shot at parents; she says the challenges of modern society and high cost of living can make the parenting job a stressful and demanding one.
“Parents often work full-time and at the end of the day they can give in on things just for some peace and quiet,” she says.
“And children are experts at zoning in when you are at your most vulnerable. Before you know it, you’ve given them the last five ice-blocks out of the freezer.”
But she says at the end of the day parents have to decide which job is more important because “eventually you will make a rod for your own back”.
GETTING your priorities right as a parent is a sentiment with which behavioural optometrist Michael Smith wholeheartedly agrees.
As thousands of students poured back into classrooms across the Border in recent weeks, the odds are that some of them will come across the path of the Wodonga Vision and Learning Centre founder.
Mr Smith believes about 30 per cent of children start school before they are ready.
For the past 30 years he has helped children (and adults) with “visual processing problems” who may be struggling in a classroom or with reading.
His work is about much more than prescribing glasses.
Behavioural optometry examines how a person’s vision affects how they function in the world around them, according to Mr Smith.
“Vision is your pervasive means of dealing with the world around you and if you don’t do that well then you are going to be compromised — at school, in sport and even at work.
But it’s at school that the problem generally rears its head, according to Mr Smith.
“Often a child who has not developed their vision adequately will be written off as clumsy or just not good at sports for example,” he says.
“But when you hit school, you have a situation that forces the issue and many kids are just not ready.
“They have not developed the skills they need to be able to deal with the classroom and they are the ones who end up needing intervention.”
So what does this all mean?
It begins when we are babies, Mr Smith says.
“Visual curiosity first triggers a baby to move their hands to try and grasp something or to roll towards something.
“Eventually your movement becomes more and more complex as you learn to crawl and then eventually walk.
“Once you are on the move your visual curiosity can take you to places you can’t reach.”
Mr Smith says that as we get older we don’t always have to go to things and touch them.
“Your vision has had so many experiences, you can look at something and know what is is,” he explains.
But if your visual system does not develop beyond that point, for whatever reason, problems can arise, he says.
“If, for example, you start school and you still have to touch everything you are not going to function in a classroom because you can’t touch words or numbers,” Mr Smith says.
"It is parents who give them their language and they need to both watch and listen to you. That cannot be replaced by a computer screen."
To say Mr Smith is passionate about what he does would be an understatement.
Coming from a big family with “lots of brothers and sisters”, he was drawn to optometry and helping children.
“But once I started practising I started to realise what I had been taught was not the whole story,” he says.
Looking elsewhere he found a movement in the US with a gold mine of information that “made more sense”.
Two fellowships later — one with the Australasian College of Behavioural Optometrists and the other with the College of Optometrists and Vision Development in the US — and Mr Smith has not looked back.
Neither do his patients.
A big part of Mr Smith’s job is vision therapy and he works with about 30 children a week.
“The main thrust of our therapy is vision-related learning problems,” he says.
“Patients generally come in once a week for an hour of therapy and also do some home practice.
“In vision therapy there could be 150 to 200 procedures and each one builds in a skill.
“We have a lot of exercises that help children learn to focus on a task, help them to read and write, to learn and later study.”
Day to day Mr Smith sees a range of problems from preschoolers with a development delay, a toddler with a turned eye through to children with autism or Asperger spectrum.
He says once you have a vision problem it modifies the way your body works and the way you move.
It can also affect behaviour.
“It’s not always about prescribing glasses but for behavioural optometrists the lense is the most powerful tool they have,” Dr Smith says.
“It’s partly about seeing clearly but it is about far more than that.
“A lense can modify the way you use your vision to perceive and understand your world.”
Mr Smith says what he does is not a magic wand.
It’s not that easy but then again, he says, it’s not always that complicated.
He says there are a lot of things parents can do to help ensure their child’s visual system develops properly.
But it requires an investment of time.
It means reading to your child is more important than the washing.
It means less time in front of the television or Xbox and more time playing outside.
“Children need a lot of movement experience,” he explains.
“They need outside play so go to the park, ride a bike, dance, catch and throw a ball or play with a balloon when they are little.
“Give them something to make or create — whether it’s Lego or some paper towel tubes and stickytape.
“And you must read to your child. That is essential.”
Mr Smith says a lot of children come to him with poor vocabulary and don’t know how to construct a simple sentence.
“It is parents who give them their language and they need to both watch and listen to you,” he says.
“That cannot be replaced by a computer screen.”
But the investment of time can sometimes be the hardest thing to do, he concedes.
“It’s difficult because both parents generally have to work and our society is such that in order to support ourselves parents have to work,” Mr Smith says.
“The parent may only see their child for an hour in the morning and an hour at night and most of that time is spent pushing the kid to get ready for breakfast or dinner or out of bed or off to bed.
“It’s not quality time.
“It’s survival time.”
How to prepare your child for the ‘game of school’
- Talk with your child;
- Travel/drive/explore the world;
- Use a wide range of vocabulary;
- Play simple games with words and alphabetic sounds (make it fun);
- Read books daily — limit distractions and make the experience a special time; and
- If you are concerned about your child’s progress or development, do some research and get help as it is easier to rectify problems at an earlier age.
THE fallout is felt in the classroom.
Mrs McCormack knows all too well the validity of Mr Smith’s comments after four decades of teaching.
“Nothing can replace the experience of the smell and touch of a book, of sitting cuddled up on your parent’s knee while they read to you and hearing and seeing the expression in their voice,” she says.
And while she believes advances in technology have brought a wealth of stimulation to our world, at the same time it is robbing children of vital skills needed for school and life.
“It’s like we have thrown out everything that’s old to bring in everything that’s new,” she says.
“It may not happen in my lifetime but I can
see a point where the focus will return to the basics — the three Rs (Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic).
Mr Smith is adamant the over-use of electronic media before kids start school is affecting them socially, physically and mentally.
“Plonking children in front of a television for hours a day and then another two hours on the iPad or Xbox is depriving children of movement and of words,” he says.
“So many kids are starting school with a limited ability to be creative, to see in their mind.”
These are the children who end up at Mr Smith’s door.
He has countless stories of parents who come to him almost at their wit’s end about little Johnny mucking up, falling behind and generally struggling to grasp the basics of learning.
In a heart-felt letter, one mum wrote that she once had a son who hated school so much he would cry and lock himself in the toilet.
“Every day he would lay on my bed and say I hate myself, why can’t I learn and every day my heart would break (sic) for him,” she wrote.
“He was three years behind the other children in his grade and falling further and further behind.
“Now he’s a changed boy; he loves going to school, his handwriting has improved 100 per cent and he is now reading books, loves maths and is going well at sport.”
But it was the new-found confidence evident in her son’s own words that captured it best for Mr Smith.
“Thankyou for helping me. You have helped me in my school work so much,” the boy wrote in pencil.
“Now can you help me pick up a chick … ha ha.”
LITERACY specialist Jane Carrington likes to view school as a game.
Much like a board game, card game or sports game, the founder of Albury literacy centre The Literacy House believes learning how to successfully play the game of school is the key to getting the most out of your education.
Ms Carrington says most parents want their children to enjoy school, their friends and achieve at a level that helps secure their future.
“It’s a pretty simple equation really,” she says.
“So why is it that some experiences go terribly wrong?”
To be happy and successful at school requires a set of skills and attributes, according to Ms Carrington.
The more of those you can help your child develop, the greater the chance they will thrive, she says.
So how do you play the game of school?
Well, first you have to follow the rules.
“Some school rules are obvious — wear your uniform, be polite, be ready to learn and do as you are asked,” Ms Carrington says,’
Other rules are implied or more hidden; some are even controversial.
But, says Ms Carrington, there is no doubt students perform better and are happier at mainstream schools if they have parents who value education and support their children through all the years of schooling.
Things like sleep, diet and health routines also need to be consistent.
In addition to following the rules, students need to acquire skills for the game.
Like any game or sport, some individuals pick up skills more easily than others, Ms Carrington says.
“Some team members will win awards and some won’t,” she says.
Some of the skills required for school include the ability to share and get on well with others, to concentrate and to socialise effectively.
Children also need to be able to read and write at their appropriate age level, Ms Carrington says.
Good hearing and eyesight are also among the attributes needed for learning.
But children also need to learn how to develop and maintain relationships within a team environment.
“Relationships at school often dictate how positive or negative the day, week or year becomes,” Ms Carrington says.
So Ms Carrington believes it is useful for parents to think along the lines of helping their child to be a team player.
“They need to know how to help out, sit back, when to make their needs known, take their turn and work together,” she says.
“Show your child where to find help if they need it and when times get tough, show them how to dig deep.”
Ms Carrington cautions parents against expecting the school system to provide “everything for everyone”. At the end of the day, she says parents need to take responsibility for their child’s education.
“When the school system struggles to provide, the parent/s needs to step in,” she says.