Rethinking School Readiness and Empowering Young Children To ‘Fail’ (by Belinda Blecher)

Daunted. Overwhelmed. Petrified. That’s how many children feel when faced with the prospect of trying something new where there is so much room to fail.

Whether it’s tasting a new food, diving into a pool or entering a classroom for the first time, they feel paralysed by the risk of not being the best.

And it’s no wonder. As parents, educators and caregivers, many of us were brought up with the mindset that mistakes were something to be avoided, and creativity was an afterthought to perfectionism.

Mistakes are where the magic happens.

But mistakes are an essential part of learning for everyone – they push adults and children alike out of our comfort zones and show us that ‘stuffing up’ is both inevitable and ok. In order to transform that message and navigate a healthy growth mindset for children, we need to invest in a more colourful emotional wardrobe – one that celebrates a day that has difficult moments.

Just like a healthy plate of food that contains many colours, a healthy day should be filled with a range of emotions and experiences.

As a new school year approaches, let’s think about this within the framework of ‘school readiness’. That term itself, ‘school readiness’, no longer seems accurate. What are children even supposed to be ‘ready’ for? As parents and educators, it feels more helpful to focus on the transition to school and the necessary emotional tools to thrive in this next stage. It is no longer about ‘pincer grip’ and being able to write your name in perfect print. Rather, an important part of school transitioning and how well a child will do, can be determined by how interested they are in what they don’t know rather than being scared by it.

The 3 key capacities to support holistic development.

As children transition to school, we are aiming for holistic development where emotional, social and cognitive development is level and integrated. There are three key capacities that we should focus on to support this state:

  1. The capacity to self-regulate.
  2. The capacity for ambivalence.
  3. The capacity to collaborate.
1. The capacity to self-regulate

A child’s ability to self-regulate is perhaps the most important tool for managing transitions and getting through the school day. This is the ability to have an internal modulator that knows how to land and settle. When children have this internal thermostat, they are able to use their energy to learn rather than using it to hold themselves together.

Internal modulation comes from incidental, ordinary transitions. Children develop this skill by feeling properly engaged with and enjoyed, in an ordered and thoughtful way, in ordinary moments throughout the day. It is not about doing new things. It is about making ordinary moments extraordinary and engaging with our children in a settled, focused manner.

Children pick up on our own restlessness. If we are perpetually doing 10 things at once, we can’t be surprised when they then struggle to settle and land. We need to have downloaded our own internal modulator for our kids to do the same. As we know, children need to feel connected with before they can be directed.

You can help children develop an internal thermostat by:

        • Turning off phones and screens during dinner and bath time. Sit down to eat as a family. The way we take in food and interact at the dinner table can model for children the ‘deliciousness’ of great learning in the classroom.
        • Practising the idea that the quickest way to do something is slowly. Having outside order – e.g. a regular routine of dinner, bath, story, cuddle, bed – facilitates inside order.
        • Creating moments for your children to feel properly enjoyed. This will equip them to enjoy the world and others, which is a very important part of starting school.
2. The capacity for ambivalence

Another predictor of a child’s ability to thrive at school is their capacity for ambivalence – this is the ability to manage things they don’t like as well as the things they do like. The school day will be filled with moments they enjoy and moments they won’t. And their ability to distinguish between needs and wants is imperative to being able to manage the ordinary mess of the classroom that won’t just include pinks and yellows, but also blues and browns and blacks.

To help them distinguish between needs and wants, we should focus on attending to children’s needs, but not their wants as readily. In this way, we can help children have a very clear idea that wants are not needs.

Other ways to help children develop a capacity for ambivalence include:

        • Sharing our own days and highlighting that our days too are multi-coloured and filled with new experiences and things we don’t like.
        • Supporting them in understanding that new experiences can be scary, and that’s ok.
        • Celebrate them for trying new things with interested eyes, rather than aiming for perfection with critical eyes.
3. The capacity to collaborate

Finally, the capacity to collaborate and ask for help without shame is imperative to the learning experience at school.

The new curriculum highlights the importance of group work over rote learning at individual desks. This is both reflective of, and compatible with, the changing world around us. Computers have taken the jobs of rote learners and it is estimated that 85% of the jobs of 2030 haven’t been invented yet. This means that the deeply ‘human’ qualities of collaboration and creativity are now central to the school experience.

We can support children in developing these skills by:

        • Allowing them to witness you asking for help and solving everyday problems as a team.
        • Using your family table as a practice classroom table by making it a place of collaboration, listening, reflection and having fun.
        • Modelling ordinary conflict moments, turn-taking skills and cooperation.

As we begin to prepare children for their transition to school and facilitate holistic development, our parting message should be that they will make glorious, magical and amazing mistakes – mistakes that nobody has ever made before.


To support children in building resilience and taking safe risks, Belinda has written a fabulous book, Magic Mistakes. As Belinda explains, ‘The idea for writing it came from the high levels of anxiety I have been seeing in children leading up to starting school, particularly around perfectionism. My aim was to take the provision of emotional support out of the clinical setting and create an accessible tool for parents, caregivers and educators to help children name and reframe their everyday, ordinary anxieties.’

About Belinda Blecher

Belinda Blecher trained as a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic, London. In London, Belinda worked at the Royal Free Teaching Hospital for 8 years in the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Department. After arriving in Sydney in 2004, Belinda worked both at Sydney Children’s Hospital and as the senior clinician at the Early Intervention Program of the Benevolent Society.

Belinda currently runs a preschool consultancy service for early years educators, as well as a private child and adolescent psychology practice.
Belinda has lectured at the Institute of Psychiatry in Sydney and has run seminars for mental health professionals​ in numerous cities around Australia on working clinically with children under 5 years old.

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Whenever the brain registers threat, it organises the body to fight the danger, flee from it, or hide from it. 

Here’s the rub. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. It also isn’t always obvious. For a strong, powerful, magnificent, protective brain, ‘threat’ might count as anything that comes with even the teeniest potential of making a mistake, failure, humiliation, judgement, shame, separation from important adults, exclusion, unfamiliarity, unpredictability. They’re the things that can make any of us feel vulnerable.

Once the brain registers threat the body will respond. This can drive all sorts of behaviour. Some will be obvious and some won’t be. The responses can be ones that make them bigger (aggression, tantrums) or ones that make them smaller (going quiet or still, shrinking, withdrawing). All are attempts to get the body to safety. None are about misbehaviour, misintent, or disrespect. 

One of the ways bodies stay safe is by hiding, or by getting small. When children are in distress, they might look calm, but unless there is a felt sense of safety, the body will be surging with neurochemicals that make it impossible for that young brain to learn or connect. 

We all have our things that can send us there. These things are different for all of us, and often below our awareness. The responses to these ‘things’ are automatic and instinctive, and we won’t always know what has sent us there. 

We just need to be mindful that sometimes it’s when children seem like no trouble at all that they need our help the most. The signs can include a wilted body, sad or distant eyes, making the body smaller, wriggly bodies, a heavy head. 

It can also look as though they are ignoring you or being quietly defiant. They aren’t - their bodies are trying to keep them safe. A  body in flight or flight can’t hear words as well as it can when it’s calm.

What they need (what all kids need) are big signs of safety from the adult in the room - loving, warm, voices and faces that are communicating clear intent: ‘I’m here, I see you and I’ve got you. You are safe, and you can do this. I’m with you.’♥️
I’d love to invite you to an online webinar:
‘Thriving in a Stressful World: Practical Ways to Help Ourselves and Our Children Feel Secure And Calm’

As we emerge from the pandemic, stressors are heightened, and anxiety is an ever more common experience. We know from research that the important adults in the life of a child or teen have enormous capacity to help their world feel again, and to bring a felt sense of calm and safety to those young ones. This felt sense of security is essential for learning, regulation, and general well-being. 

I’m thrilled to be joining @marc.brackett and Dr Farah Schroder to explore the role of emotion regulation and the function of anxiety in our lives. Participants will learn ways to help express and regulate their own, and their children’s, emotions, even when our world may feel a little scary and stressful. We will also share practical and holistic strategies that can be most effective in fostering well-being for both ourselves and children. 

In this webinar, hosted by @dalailamacenter you will have the opportunity to learn creative, evidence-informed takeaways to help you and the children in your care build resilience and foster a sense of security and calmness. Join us for this 1 ½ hour session, including a dynamic Q&A period.
 
Webinar Details:
Thursday, October 14, 2021
1:30 - 3:00 PM PST
 
Registrants will receive a Zoom link to attend the webinar live, as well as a private link to a recording of the webinar to watch if they cannot join in at the scheduled time.

Register here:
https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/thriving-in-a-stressful-world-a-heart-mind-live-webinar-tickets-170348045590

The link to register is in my story.♥️
So much of what our kids and teens are going through isn’t normal - online school, extended separation from their loved people, lockdowns, masks. Even if what they are going through isn’t ‘normal’, their response will be completely understandable. Not all children will respond the same way if course, but whatever they feel will be understandable, relatable, and ‘normal’. 

Whether they feel anxious, confused, frustrated, angry, or nothing at all, it’s important that their response is normalised. Research has found that children are more likely to struggle with traumatic events if they believe their response isn’t normal. This is because they tend to be more likely to interpret their response as a sign of breakage. 

Try, ‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

Any message you can give them that you can handle all their feelings and all their words will help them feel safer, and their world feel steadier.♥️
We need to change the way we think about discipline. It’s true that traditional ‘discipline’ (separation, shame, consequences/punishment that don’t make sense) might bring compliant children, but what happens when the fear of punishment or separation isn’t there? Or when they learn that the best way to avoid punishment is to keep you out of the loop?

Our greatest parenting ‘tool’ is our use of self - our wisdom, modelling, conversations, but for any of this to have influence we need access to their ‘thinking’ brain - the prefrontal cortex - the part that can learn, think through consequences, plan, make deliberate decisions. During stress this part switches off. It is this way for all of us. None of us are up for lectures or learning (or adorable behaviour) when we’re stressed.

The greatest stress for young brains is a felt sense of separation from their important people. It’s why time-outs, shame, calm down corners/chairs/spaces which insist on separation just don’t work. They create compliance, but a compliant child doesn’t mean a calm child. As long as a child doesn’t feel calm and safe, we have no access to the part of the brain that can learn and be influenced by us.

Behind all behaviour is a need - power,  influence, independence, attention (connection), to belong, sleep - to name a few). The need will be valid. Children are still figuring out the world (aren’t we all) and their way of meeting a need won’t always make sense. Sometimes it will make us furious. (And sometimes because of that we’ll also lose our thinking brains and say or do things that aren’t great.)

So what do we do when they get it wrong? The same thing we hope our people will do when we get things wrong. First, we recognise that the behaviour is not a sign of a bad child or a bad parent, but their best attempt to meet a need with limited available resources. Then we collect them - we calm ourselves so we can bring calm to them. Breathe, be with. Then we connect through validation. Finally, when their bodies are calm and their thinking brain is back, talk about what’s happened, what they can do differently next time, and how they can put things right. Collect, connect, redirect.
Our nervous systems are talking to each other every minute of every day. We will catch what our children are feeling and they will catch ours. We feel their distress, and this can feed their distress. Our capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

Children create their distress in us as a way to recruit support to help them carry the emotional load. It’s how it’s meant to be. Whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection what your children are feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you and in them is relevant. 

You don’t need to fix their feelings. Let their feelings come, so they can go. The healing is in the happening. 

In that moment of big feelings it’s more about who you are than what you do. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there. This will help calm them more than anything. We feel safest when we are ‘with’. Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with - and you don’t need to do more than that. 
There will be a time for teaching, learning, redirecting, but the middle of a storm is not that time.♥️

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