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23 May 2022

The Monday Briefing: Looking Through the Windows

The Monday Briefing: Looking Through the Windows

Last week, I discussed some valuable ideas which I was able to glean from the recent ISA Annual Conference. A broad and general theme of the convention was building student resilience, and the role of those beyond the school day who could help to do so. Whilst I am absolutely committed to transforming lives for the better within the College, I also recognise that my ability to do so is limited. I can encourage good habits, do my best to ensure that students know right from wrong and hold them to account on the errors they make whilst here, but when they set foot out of the College entrance, my influence grows weaker.

“It takes a village to raise a child'' is a proverb which was mentioned to me at the conference, and more emphasis, through the work of Tooled Up Education, among others, have been placed on supporting parents through advice and research-based approaches to solving issues which arise through the upbringing of children. It is true that an entire community of people must provide for and interact positively with children so that they can develop and grow in a safe and healthy environment. Having a young daughter, I’ve seen this for myself. My wife and I have done our best to ensure that her connections are many and varied, and that her experiences prepare her adequately to build confidence as well as an optimistic approach. Of course, we don’t see her through the day as she attends nursery or forest school, but we try to make the most of the time we spend with her before she leaves and when she gets home.

I detailed in my last blog the importance of small conversations held between colleagues, and the sharing of insights which can be reflected on and then applied in our own schools and colleges. The discussion I had last week with Geraldine Maidment featured an exploration of what really makes the difference in terms of home lives, and she recalled some research which stated that the frequency with which families ate dinner together gave some compelling results in terms of academic success for their sons or daughters.

Quite topically, the Tory MP Lee Anderson had just given a statement in the Houses of Parliament arguing that food banks are largely unnecessary because the main cause of food poverty is a lack of cooking and budgetary skills that morning, provoking outrage. Another, rather ignored, facet of mealtimes is how and why families should sit together to eat them. Not only does this place importance on the time a family spends together holding a conversation in review of their day, in turn strengthening the familial bonds, but it improves skills in holding eye contact and, though in a very small forum, public speaking. Where a child has their own place at the table, they feel that their voice is valued. 

One of the best investments my wife and I have made in our parenting journey is in buying a Stokke Tripp Trapp - an ergonomic high chair which has ensured that my daughter is comfortable during mealtimes. We have always seen this as money well spent, as the chair is high quality and adjustable to grow as the child does. Apportioning sufficient time to mealtimes is important to us as a family: it promotes healthy eating habits and encourages making the right choices; it sends the message to all involved that family meals are sacrosanct; it offers a chance to debrief from the day. 

There is a great deal of scientific research which supports this approach, and some of it is actually quite startling. It has only emboldened my resolve to embed such routines.

Researchers at Columbia University found a striking relationship between frequency of meal times and grades. A survey in 2005 found that students who eat dinner with their families are often more likely to be associated with better school performance, with teens 40 percent more likely to get A and B grades. Teens who have fewer than three family dinners in a typical week are more than twice as likely to do poorly in school. Twenty percent of teens who have infrequent family dinners (three or four per week) report receiving mostly Cs or below in school, whereas only nine percent of teens who have frequent family dinners (five to seven per week) report receiving mostly Cs or lower. 

Note that there is nothing here about the quality of food eaten or the amount of money spent on meals. It is merely in the occasion of eating together that the key habits are embedded.

According to the same Columbia University survey, it found teens having family dinners five or more times a week were 42 percent less likely to drink alcohol, 59 percent less likely to smoke cigarettes, and 66 percent less likely to try marijuana.

A complimentary study by Dr. Catherine Snow at Harvard’s Graduate School showed that mealtime conversations teach children more vocabulary, even than when parents read to them. She followed 65 families for 15 years looking at how mealtime conversations played a critical role in language acquisition leading to improved vocabularies and better readers. 

As well as ensuring that meals take place, it is also, of course, important to host them in the right manner. This means that phones and other distractions like the television should not have any involvement at all. It pains me when I see a small child staring intently at a screen as they eat their meal, or when the distraction of a game show or cartoon distracts those around the table from the importance of the dialogue which is taking place. My wife keeps me right if I ever absent-mindedly get my phone out at the table with a stern look, and I’m pleased to see that students have responded well to our stepping up on discipline regarding phones at the College. 

The vast majority seem to understand that every minute of lesson time is precious. 

As far as I’m concerned, a similar approach should be adopted to mealtimes at home. The benefits of such established routines are overwhelming.

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