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Is Your Child Superhuman?

Head teacher Nicola Dick-Cleland on the ever-increasing pressures on children and the gnarly subject of extra-curricular activities.


Nicola Dick-Cleland (above), Head of The Junior School at the prestigious Abbey School  outside of Warwickshire, over in Reading is a trained psychotherapist, so who better to ask about the ever-increasing pressures on children and the gnarly subject of extra-curricular activities?

  1. Extra curricular shouldn’t be extra


Adults tend to think about school life in two parts – academic and extra-curricular – but if you think about it in terms of developing a child’s breadth of character they’re not separate at all. You can’t teach a child about how to lead, interact with others, grapple with a tricky problem and try again, all in a classroom. Like many schools, at The Abbey we try to engage children on as many levels as possible – if they find fractions tricky, they’ll still feel OK because they’ve just scored in netball or relaxed in the Doodle Club with their friends. So the first thing I’d say is that the extracurricular stuff shouldn’t be ‘extra’, it’s just as important –  and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.


2. Tiger parents, back in your cage


The impulse to fill every moment of a child’s day – either as a parent or teacher – is because we think we ought to for some strange reason, that not to be busy is some sort of failure. But having a mind in neutral, taking time to reflect and process, even being – god forbid –  a bit bored from time to time, is the perfect condition for creativity in children and adults alike.

With the children I look after, I make sure that whole year group theatrical and singing groups, School Council and Food Forum meetings and most sports activities are all held in our core time – I’m proud of that because it means every child has a chance to take part, be involved and engaged in something bigger than themselves and then it frees up ‘spare time’ at lunch. We do of course run lots of clubs in which children can take part if they like, including choirs, Archaeology, Nature Detectives, Club Latina etc, but we’ve also introduced some very low key ‘brain neutral’ clubs like Doodle Club, Chill Skills, Yoga Club, Mindfulness Colouring Club, board games (often not played at home any more) that aren’t about competition, just relaxing and letting the children unwind. These clubs are just as important to me as all the others and they’re really popular.

3. Listen to your child


At the beginning of term at The Abbey Junior School, the children take home a list of club choices (they’re changed termly) and we actively ask the parents to discuss what the children want to do – it’s all too easy to insist your child does Mandarin when all they want to do is Ultimate Frisbee Club (yes, we do offer it)! I understand the impulse but it’s also important to listen to your children. Let them lead you, they’ll be happier, better rounded children for it….and it’s them who are expected to attend the club, not you!

4. Is it really just about the taking part?

Like many schools we tussle with the desire to be excellent and win trophies (which we love doing!) and being inclusive and giving all children the opportunity to join in. We are committed to ‘Sport for All’ and choose many teams based on whether they attend the practices rather than simply raw ability, and we run choirs and drama groups that are open for all. At times it’s also necessary to choose on skill level – music ensembles being a good example: you can’t really contribute to the Harp Ensemble unless you play the harp! Participation in sports fixtures and musical festivals and competitions gives children the opportunity to experience preparing for a competitive event – and learning how to lose, and win, graciously, and to learn from the experience.  We encourage all our students to embrace challenge as a means to life-long growth – ‘if it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you’.

5. Is your child mega-gifted?

Most children will not end up being world class tennis players, actors and violinists (sorry about that!) so it’s worth bearing that in mind when you’re signing your children up for X, Y and Z.  For children at this age, I’d argue it’s very much about giving them lots of opportunity to experience the wealth of opportunities the world offers, to begin to find the things they love to do, and encouraging them positively. Achievements matter, but generally only as a means to an end – it’s not the end in itself. To come out of school with brilliant GSCEs and A-levels is great, it offers choices and clearly it’s very high on my list of priorities in the children moving onward to Senior School, but we all know that no-one asks you at 30 what you got in your exams. Employers want to know what makes you resilient, where you developed your leadership skills, how easy you are to get along with, do you bring creativity and an open mind? We spend too much time valuing what can be measured, rather than measuring what can be valued.

6. Don’t cram, make choices

In the adult world we spend a lot of time talking about the elusive ‘better work-life balance’ – we want to simplify, to work out what’s important to us and gives us a balance of purpose and pleasure, we want to find breathing space and carve out some free time. Why don’t we do the same for our children? We don’t need to cram their lives with stuff every single minute of every single day. Allow them to make choices, experiment with different activities, decide what they like. And also, this is important, allow them not to be brilliant at everything (because are we brilliant at everything we do?!)  Young people these days can feel a pressure to be the best at everything; the anxiety that can result is not what any of us would wish for our children and one of the easiest routes out of it is to allow them to stop, breathe, play, be confident in their choices and accept who they are.

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