Stop Stealing Childhood

Are we setting our children up to fail?

In short, there is no evidence that pressuring children to read at five improves their later reading, and much concern that it is damaging. There is now a call for more rigorous education for young children. This implies additional hours of didactic instruction and testing. What we really need is a more vigorous education that meets young children’s needs and prepares them for the 21st century, which is often described as a century of imagination and creativity. The children are ready. Are we?
— Joan Almon (Co-founder, Alliance for Childhood), Reading at five: Why?, 2013.

My work gives me the great privilege to travel widely and connect with thousands of children, parents and educators in remote and rural communities as well as major cities.

In recent years, though, I have found more and more people coming to me telling me tales of children who are struggling. They are struggling with anxiety, serious behavioural concerns, mental health issues including depression in children as young as four, aggressive or violent behaviour, frustration and anger (particularly after school), exhaustion and stress.

I am seeing a deep sadness as our children have been unable to have a childhood with freedom, with moments of joy and delight, in the company of passionate experienced educators. Quite frankly, it is heartbreaking for me.

In Australia, our previous government’s ‘education revolution’ saw the introduction of standardised tests, benchmarking and rankings, as well as a national curriculum that is at odds with the very sound, play-based Early Years Learning Framework. I read that in NZ there has been similar controversy with ranking children according to their ‘national standards rating’ and schools grappling with an online progress and consistency tool (PaCT), designed to help teachers be accountable in knowing whether their students are meeting yearly educational targets.

The result, in Australia at least, is that there has been a ‘push-down’ of formalised learning into the early years and while the decision makers might think that they are doing what is best to improve the educational outcomes of children, they are sadly misguided.

According to the Australian Early Development Index, 23.7% of Australian children are turning up to year one with a significant developmental delay. Almost 20 years ago that statistic was 5 to 10%. Boys and our Indigenous children are featuring very highly in this 25% and the current push down to have four-year-olds doing hours of formal learning at a desk, then having homework on top, and endlessly filling in black line workbooks, is going to create even more children who are going to struggle their entire lives in Australian schools.

Australia comes fifth in a new OECD ranking of basic literacy, but 13th in a ranking for basic numeracy, with UK 19th and US 20th. The UK and US have been doing benchmark testing vigorously for more years than Australia. We have only been doing it for 6 years – will Australia drop to the same levels as the UK and US? The top ranked country, Finland where formal learning starts at 7 and there is no benchmark testing, ensures a strong play based early years emphasis until ALL children are 7. Their approach leads the world on the OECD scales.

Children are not brains on seats

As teachers, we need to ensure that children are not seen as brains on a seat to become test monkeys to serve politicians or educational bureaucrats. Our children, especially our young children, are developing on all levels in their early years. The emotional, social, psychological, physical and cognitive development are all impeded negatively for the vast majority of children by this push down in the early years.

Cambridge researcher David Whitebread, who is one of the signatories of the UK campaign “Too much Too soon” against early formalised learning in the UK, writes about the value and importance of play in young children’s development, especially the value of extended periods of playful learning before the start of formal schooling:

Perhaps most worrying, a number of studies have documented the loss of play opportunities to children over the second half of the 20th century and demonstrated a clear link with increased indicators of stress and mental health problems.

The stealing and demonising of play for children aged 4 to 6 is having a disastrous effect on their emotional and social wellbeing. Essentially play and other important child-friendly activities are being pushed out of early years’ curriculum and programming because, as US-based Alfie Kohn writes in Standardized Testing and Its Victims (2000):

The time, energy and money being devoted to preparing students for standardised tests have to come from somewhere. Schools across the country are cutting back or eliminating programs in the arts, recess for young children … the use of literature in the early grades, entire subject areas such as science.

Teaching against the tide

Another thing that worries me greatly is the number of teachers who write to me or connect via social networking to say that this focus on benchmarks and results rather than the whole child has caused them to quit teaching. They have given up trying to be exceptional teachers in a system that wants to give everything a simplistic ranking.

This is a great shame. However, I understand where these teachers are coming from. Change influences people differently depending on many factors. Resilient people adapt better, quicker and make better choices when they meet a challenge. Mandatory change that is forced on people can often disempower and invalidate people.

Continuous change increases the chances of distress, which is heightened stress. Everyone functions best in a state of “unconscious competency” and this has not been happening in the last 10 years of education. Many teachers struggle with low levels of energy or enthusiasm, and some at a state of “mild malaise.” This is a dangerous state to remain in, as the mind influences the body and illness or depression often follow.

If you are feeling this way, the first thing you must do is look at stress in your life and address all of the factors that contribute to stress, which you can control: poor diet, smoking, alcohol consumption, poor sleep, lack of exercise.

The next thing that you do however is to bear in mind that one four-letter word will turn it all around. That word is HOPE.

Hope can be defined as “believing you have both the will and the way to accomplish your goals, whatever they may be”.

Modern researchers are finding that hope does more than offer a bit of solace amid affliction—it plays a surprisingly potent role in life.

For example, Daniel Goleman writes about research that showed students with a high level of hope recover quicker from poor school grades than those who felt hopeless.

He says people with high levels of hope share the following traits:

  1. Able to motivate themselves.
  2. Feeling resourceful enough to find different ways to accomplish their objectives
  3. Reassuring themselves when in a tight spot that things will get better
  4. Being flexible enough to find different ways to get to their goals or to switch
  5. goals if one becomes impossible
  6. Having the sense to break down a formidable task into smaller, manageable


Having hope helps people from overwhelming anxiety, a defeatist attitude or depression. Optimism works like hope—it can lift performance in life. While it may sound easier said than done, hope and optimism can be learned just like helplessness and despair.

It is as simple (and difficult) as developing the ‘mindsight’, as Daniel Siegel calls it to know when your stories, thoughts and the tricks of your mind are getting you down.

(That is a whole other article really but if you’re interested, read or even look up YouTube talks from the likes of Daniel Goleman, Eric Jensen, Daniel Siegel, Norman Doidge and Bruce Lipton).

Fake it til you make it

Emotions are contagious. Most emotional contagion are subtle. People who are able to help others soothe their feelings have an especially valued social commodity; they are the souls we turn to when in greatest emotional need.

If you go into your classroom every day and imagine that every child is wearing a sign around their neck that reads “Make me feel, I matter” – and you operate from this default position – then no amount of paperwork or benchmark testing will get you down.

The results that matter (and which may not even be visible to others) are the connections you make with your students, the belief you have that they matter.

Recently, via the wonders of Facebook, I came across a letter (written by a presumably American principal) that was apparently sent to all students along with their state standardised test results. It read:

“We are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you– the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do. They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school. They do not know that you have traveled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends. They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best… the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart.”

To me, this letter is a supreme example of a school leader demonstrating to parents and students that, while s/he is required to go along with the system, they will not define their students by it.

Every teacher has the opportunity to let their students know this, to reframe standardised testing for students and parents, and to hold fast to their own beliefs about educating the whole child.


Maggie wrote this article for Teachers Matter magazine.

Download: Teachers Matter_Stop Stealing Childhood


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