How can I help my child with phonics?


Letters-and-sounds-fishing-game-with-ping-pong-ballsIn a recent BBC news article, Save the Children’s chief executive, Justin Forsyth, said that children who are behind at 7-years-old are unlikely to catch up. He also pointed out that some children start school with the odds stacked against them because they lack the ability to follow instructions and have poor social skills. In my opinion, this is why preschools are so important for children especially, as some parents believe that children should not be taught letter sounds or numbers before they start school at all. Research suggests that children who enter school with a good knowledge of the alphabet and letter sounds become better readers and that it is beneficial to teach pre-schoolers phonics in a fun way (Phillips et al. 2008).

Most preschools teach letter sounds but a parent can help their child become more familiar with them at home. If you are not sure how to say the letter sounds, there are DVDs that go through letter sounds for children in a fun way. CBeebies also has a programme called ‘Alpha blocks’ which teaches letter sounds and how to blend sounds together to make word.

Children who become good readers at school often have good phonological and phonemic awareness. So what is phonological and phonemic awareness?

Children who have phonological awareness can: identify and make up rhymes; they can clap out the number of syllables in a word and they can recognize words with the same initial sounds like ‘money’ and ‘mother.’

Children with phonemic awareness can recognise individual sounds (phonemes) in words. For example, the word ‘mat’ has three phonemes m/a/t. Phonemic awareness is one of the best predictors of how well children will learn to read during the first two years of school instruction.

So how can parents develop their child’s phonological and phonemic awareness? Here are some ideas:

1) Show two cards with the word ‘mice’ on one and ‘ice’ on the other. Ask your child ‘if you take away ‘m’ from the word mice, what is left then?’ The cards could have pictures on to enhance the learning.
2) Say a single speech sound such as ‘t’ and show six pictured words. Your child then has to pick the picture that begins with ‘t’.
3) Present two pictures of similar sounding words to your child such as ‘cat’ and ‘hat’. You then say such just one of the words and your child has to pick the correct picture.
4) Change the letter ‘c’ in the word ‘cat’ to ‘m’, and ask the child what the word becomes.
5) Get your child to think of as many words as they can that rhyme with ‘fox’.
6) Get your child to clap out the syllables in a word so that they recognise how words are made up of different sounds e.g. you could clap the three syllables in ted-dy-bear.
7)Play ‘I spy’ to help your child focus on the letter sounds at the beginning of words.

Children often know when they are behind and this affects their self-esteem. So don’t get frustrated with your child if they don’t get how to blend letter sounds together even after a number of attempts. Go away and think of a way to make the learning fun. Remember that children (and adults) have different learning styles. Some children are visual learners and take things in by reading and looking at pictures, some children are auditory learners and learn through listening, and some children are kinaesthetic learners and learn through movement. Kinaesthetic learners may only get phonics, if they learn it in other ways than on paper.

Here are some ideas to make phonics learning creative and fun:

1) Chalk out letters on your garden patio. Get a children’s golf club and ball. Your child then has to hit the ball onto a letter, say the letter sound and think of a word beginning with it to score.

2) Chalk out words on your garden patio. When you say a word, your child has to kick a football onto the word/hop to it/throw a disc onto it/hit a tennis ball onto it/skip to it etc.

3) Chalk out letters on your garden patio. Show your child pictures of certain words, your child then has to think of the letter sound the word begins with and spray out the letter with a water gun.

4) Put lots of foam letter sounds or words in the bath and get your child to find them as you say them.

5) Put white stickers on Duplo with different letters on and put the Duplo together to make different words.

6) Make letters and words out of play dough.

7) Make biscuits in the shape of letters and form words with them.

8) Write letters on ping-pong balls and place them in a water play basin. Get your child to bat certain letters across the water or pick them up with a water jug.

Some of these ideas come from a blog ‘Train up a child’, which I really recommend.

So should parents be pushing their child to read as early as possible?

Research suggests that children who are taught to read early do not have an advantage (Sharp, 2002). Children in some countries do not start formal learning until 7-years-old but it does not seem to be a disadvantage. However, these children have been taught reading skills such as a good understanding of letter sounds and rhymes at kindergarten so they are ready to read when they start school. This research suggests that there is no need to push a child to read early. On the other hand, if your child is interested in letters and blending them together then don’t hold them back. Every child is different. All parents need to remember, is to keep learning fun. So don’t push your child to do anything they don’t want to do and make sure your child is in the right mood.

Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ is for sale as an e-book on Amazon,, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks, Sony ebookstore and Apple ibookstore.



Mindfulness at school session 1


Mindfulness in school-Session 1mindfulness meditation teenagers

Today I did my first lunchtime session on mindfulness with a group of teenagers at the school I teach at. I had 30 minutes so time was limited. I started with a test to measure perceived stress levels, which I found free to use on the internet at I wanted to get the students to do this test so that we can see if there have been any changes in their perceived levels of stress after the mindfulness sessions have finished.

I then gave the students a questionnaire to get them to think about what might be causing stress. This included a list of things that might be causing them stress such as parents, workload, examinations, friends, appearance etc. and they had to circle the things that were causing them stress.

To introduce the concept of mindfulness and its benefits, I did a PowerPoint presentation. The presentation included evidence from psychological studies to support mindfulness as I wanted to convince the students that it could work at reducing their anxiety and stress. I discussed how mindfulness helps us to focus our attention so that we can control our thoughts and emotions. Many of them said they had problems with reacting too much to what other people say and that the reason they had chosen to come to the mindfulness sessions was to deal with their anger better. I said that mindfulness should help them be less reactive to situations.

After the presentation, I decided to do a sitting meditation with the students. I followed the following script:

Sitting meditation: Students were asked to find a comfortable position to sit in, which encouraged alertness and relaxation. I told them that their backs should be straight but not rigid. I then asked them to close their eyes and read the following script:
‘When you take your position take a moment to settle into your body and become centered before you bring your attention to the sensations and movement of breath through your body. The mind may wander frequently during mindfulness meditation and you can gently redirect your attention back to your breathing. Focus on your breath for two minutes before moving on. Shift your attention to your bodily sensations. Take note of the contact your body has with the chair or floor and the sensations associated with this. Notice the sensations in your body without judgment, just accept them and reflect on them with curiosity and interest, even if it is unpleasant. Bring awareness to any urges you may have to relieve discomfort, such as moving your body or scratching an itch. Do not act on these urges right away, instead just observe the discomfort with acceptance. If you decide to move then do it mindfully, by observing the intention to move and the change in sensation as a result of moving. You may bring awareness to your environment and listen mindfully to the sounds around you. Notice the volume, tone and duration of the sounds without analyzing or judging them. Observe the periods of silence between the sounds also and then redirect your focus to your breathing.
It is okay if thoughts come into your awareness as this is normal activity for the mind. Observe the thought content briefly without becoming absorbed and then gently return to the breath. You may do this many times over, but what is important is that you observe and accept the thoughts and then return your attention to your breath.
Similarly, with emotions that come to the forefront, just observe the type of emotion you are experiencing (such as sadness, anger, boredom) and then redirect your focus to your breathing.
I then asked the students to continue bringing their attention back to their breath for two more minutes.

At the end of the session I encouraged the students to find a quiet spot where they wouldn’t be disturbed and do a 1 minute sitting meditation every day. I suggested they use a stop watch to time the minute. I reinforced the idea of bringing their attention back to their breath and said that with practice they would get better at it.

The students seemed very positive about the session at the end.

Psychology for parents: Birth to teens’ is for sale as an e-book on Amazon,, Barnes and Noble, Kobobooks, Sony ebookstore and Apple ibookstore.

How to do a star wars party


Teaching children self-control

Jedi Training Star Wars Party

My son wanted a Star Wars party for his 5th birthday. So I put together a 2 hour party plan based on the theme ‘Jedi training academy’ and held it at the local village hall. This party is not for the faint-hearted and requires a lot of planning but if you are a glutton for punishment here goes:

0.00-0.02 This party works better if you put children into teams from the beginning. Give each child a sticker so they know what team they are on. Give the teams names such as Yoda team, Skywalker team, Force team etc. Organise with family and friends before the party who is going to look after each team. If you have twenty children, divide them into four or five teams.

0:02-0.05 Each child made a light sabre with coloured tape and insulation foam. I got the insulation foam for the local DIY shop for 85p and cut the foam in two to make two light sabres. The children then wrapped coloured tape around the light sabre. Blue was the most popular colour but we had red, yellow and green tape too.

0.05-0.15 We told the children that in order to get a certificate at the end for completing their Jedi training they had to complete certain tasks including learning about the Star Wars planets and key characters.
The children then completed a Star Wars quiz on planets and characters in teams. You have to place around the room information and picture sheets on different planets and characters in Star Wars. The children go around in teams answering the quiz. The first team with all the answers gets Star Wars stickers/sweets.

0.15-0.25 Children learnt some Jedi moves. My husband got dressed up in a Jedi cloak (ordered on Amazon) and a Judo outfit borrowed from a friend and pretended to be Obi Wan Kenobi. I dressed up as Padme Amidala. We adapted musical statues for Star Wars. We had a CD player and used Star Wars music. When we stopped the music, we showed large pictures of different Star Wars character in different positions and the children had to get into position. After the children had done all the positions, we told them they had completed stage one of their Jedi training.

0.25-0.35 We constructed an obstacle course inside. You can do this using play tunnels covered with black material, a ball pit, hoop rings that the children have jump in and out of, cones that the children have to run in and out of, a large piece of old carpet/blanket covered with smaller pieces of material that they have to jump on to cross over.

0.35-0.50 We took the children outside for an extended obstacle course in the playground and field next to the village hall. They had to balance on wooden beams outside, run round play equipment and run up the field.

0.50-0.60 I copied pictures of angry birds storm troopers and Darth Vader some paper and stuck them to some old polystyrene foam that had been used for packaging a TV. In teams, the children had to line up in front of each polystyrene foam storm trooper/Darth Vader. The children had to use Nerf guns with only one foam bullet per team to shoot the polystyrene foam storm trooper/Darth Vader down. Each team of four children was supervised by an adult for safety.

2013-10-13 09.11.54

1.00-1.20 The children had to make a spaceship out of an old cardboard box. Each team had lots of coloured tape and lots of scrap craft materials. We gave them lots of old pieces of wrapping paper to bulk up the craft materials. They also had pipe cleaners, stickers and foil to decorate their spaceships. They did not need scissors as they just tore the bits of craft paper up and the adult supervising each team tore off bits of coloured tape for them. The tape we used was easy to tear-very much like masking tape. This activity could go on for up to 30 minutes as the children loved it.


2013-10-05 17.05.00


1.20-1.30 To finish we tied piñatas that looked like storm troopers and death stars on to some climbing bars in the playground and the children had to hit them with a stick to get the sweets out. While my husband did the piñata in the playground a group of us, tidied up all the craft materials for making the spaceships.

How to make piñatas: The piñatas were made from blown up balloons covered with papier-mâché. You use strips of newspaper with diluted white PVA glue (wipe off any excess glue) and cover the balloon once with strips of the newspaper and allow to dry. Once dry, add a second layer with newspaper strips. Then do a third layer with strips of white paper and allow to dry. Once you have covered your balloon with three layers, the outside should be strong enough for you just to pop the balloon inside. To make a storm trooper, draw a face on the white paper with a black permanent marker. To make a death star, spray with silver craft paint and use a black permanent marker pen to draw lines on. Use a small screwdriver to make two holes either side of the piñata so that you can thread some string through to tie the piñata up. Then fill with lots of wrapped sweets. An easier option is to buy a football piñata and spray with silver paint to make it into a death star. However, each piñata costs £10 without any sweets in and we had three. So to cut costs, I made them. My son also found it a fun craft activity.

1.30-1.32 Jedi Meditation. The children came back in and sat down. They had to close their eyes and imagine floating into the air using the force for 2 minutes.

1.32-1.35 The children received their Jedi training certificate (their names were written on the certificates in advance). After each child received it they went and sat down at the table for their birthday tea. They had Star Wars stickers to decorate their party box, which had their birthday tea inside.

1.35-1.55 When all the children were sat down, we sang Happy Birthday to my son. He blew out the candles on the cake and the children ate their birthday tea.

2013-10-05 16.48.36

Star Wars Birthday cake-Two tier madeira cake covered with marble swirly grey icing to make it look like space. To make the marble effect fondant icing, I used white fondant icing and added some black food dye in streaks. I then rolled the dye into the icing. I used royal icing and an icing pen with a small point to make little dot stars all over the cake. I also cut little stars and put them on the top of the cake in white and blue fondant icing. I used Lego Star Wars Figures to finish and black ribbon to tidy the edges of the cake.

1.55-2.00 The children were given a piece of birthday cake and their party bag.

We tidied up and went home to treat ourselves to our favourite takeaway and some wine! We needed it!

Why attachment parenting is over the top


baby-wearingAttachment parenting extremists believe that in order for a mother to form a strong bond with their child, they should co-sleep, breast feed exclusively, never use timeout as a method of discipline and carry their baby around with them all the time.
They cite psychological research as the basis for their beliefs but is this a distortion of the actual research?
Attachment research has found that for a secure attachment to form, mothers need to be responsive to their babies’ needs, provide social stimulation (talking to and playing with the infant) and express lots of affection. This is called sensitive responsiveness. Most mothers find it easy to communicate with their babies and fine tune their responses to the babies’ actions and expressions so secure attachments are formed relatively easily.
John Bowlby was the founder of attachment theory and he found that children who had experienced prolonged separation from their mothers in the early years had less capacity to empathise with others.
Chugani et al. (2001) used brain scans to study Romanian adoptees who had been left in their cots without love or stimulation for an average of 38 months before being adopted. He found that the adoptees showed significantly reduced brain activation compared to controls in the parts of the brain associated with emotion. This research highlights the importance of the mother-child bond but it does not mean that parents need to go to extremes to form a secure attachment with their child. Bowlby and Chugani were looking at children who had been deprived of their attachment figure.
Brazleton and colleagues (1979) found that it is instinctive and natural for mothers and babies to imitate each other’s movements and take turns to initiate new movements. In their study they asked mothers to ignore their babies’ signals for a short period of time. The babies quickly became concerned and some curled up and became motionless. This shows that it easy to see when there is a communication problem between a mother and baby.
What is not needed to form a secure attachment?
There is no evidence to suggest that for a baby to feel securely attached to their mother, they need to be held all the time or fall asleep on their mother. Although this is not to say a newborn infant does not need some help falling asleep. Babies also do not need to be played with all the time. In fact, babies will show clear signs when they want to just look around rather than be stimulated. Parents just need to be sensitive to their baby’s needs.
A mother has no reason to be unduly worried about forming an attachment with their baby as it is likely that their baby would be showing them distress signals if there was a problem. There are a number of studies, which show how distressed babies become when their needs are not met. Murray and Trevarthen (1985) set up interactions between mothers and their babies via a video link. They found that the babies became very distressed if the live link was replaced with a replay of the recording a few minutes later. This is because the mothers’ interactions were no longer synchronised with the babies’ actions.

Does breastfeeding affect attachment?
From a health point of view, breastfeeding has lots of benefits in terms of increased immunity for the infant and less likelihood of obesity later on. However, there is a question over whether breastfeeding affects a mother’s attachment to her child. Some breastfeeding advocates say that not breastfeeding your child may lead to a weakened emotional bond with your child but is this really true? Many mothers who give up breastfeeding early on or are unable to breastfeed from the start may feel guilty enough about it and this is compounded if they are told that it leads to worse bond with their child.
Britton et al. (2006) found no direct link between breastfeeding and the security of attachment (the strength of the emotional bond between a mother and child). However, they did find that the more responsive and sensitive a mother was to her infant, the more securely attached the infant was later on. Interestingly, although the study did not find the actual act of breastfeeding led to the secure attachment, it did find that mothers who chose to breastfeed were also more responsive to their infants.
This relates to an old study by Harlow (1959). He took baby monkeys and raised them in a lab, giving them a wire monkey to feed from and a cloth monkey to get comfort from/hold onto. The monkeys formed strong attachments to the cloth monkey, but not with the wire one. He concluded that the monkeys needed comfort more than food for a secure attachment.
One of my friend’s who was in real pain from breastfeeding persevered with the breastfeeding as long as she could bear it because she was worried that if she stopped it would weaken the bond between her and her baby. In the end she gave up after lots of tears and guilt. I don’t think that mothers should breastfeed under these circumstances. When I did move from breastfeeding to bottle-feeding at 5 months, I could actually see my son’s face while giving him his milk and it allowed more interaction not less. Therefore, I don’t believe that mothers need to punish themselves unnecessarily about giving up on breastfeeding despite their best attempts.

Does sleep-training psychologically damage your child?

Some people refer to crying down as just shutting the door and allowing your baby to fall asleep by itself. However, many people now use the term ‘crying down’ to refer to a sleep training method introduced by Dr. Ferber, where parents leave their child for increasing amounts of time e.g. 5 minutes, 10 minutes building up to 45 minutes on the seventh day, before going back to reassure them. This method is also referred to as graduated extinction and controlled crying and is controversial. Advocates of attachment parenting suggest that co-sleeping is a much better way to get your child to go to sleep and leads to lower levels of stress in both parents and child. However, it is important to look at the evidence when making a judgement and to understand why good sleep patterns are so important.
Touchette and colleagues (2005) found that many children, who did not sleep six consecutive hours at 5 months old, still had problems at 29-months-old sleeping six consecutive hours. They found that putting children to bed already asleep or staying with them until they were asleep rather than letting them fall asleep alone was a major factor in whether the children slept less than six hours in a row at 17- and 29-months-old. Rocking children or bringing them into the parent’s bed was also associated with less sleep as was co-sleeping. One example given in their report is that the risk of being a poor sleeper is 4.6 times greater at 17-months and 2.1 times greater at 29-months when children are lulled to sleep or had parental presence until asleep, compared with children who fell asleep on their own. They concluded that the ability to sleep through the night was learnt very early on and that parental behaviours could have a negative impact on a child’s ability to sleep. Parents should be concerned about this as research suggests that children who have problems sleeping early on are more likely to have behavioural difficulties later. Other studies show that sleep problems affect performance at school.
The way parents deal with their children’s night-time wakings is important. One study found that parents who comforted their toddlers out of bed at night-time or who gave their young children (not babies) food in the middle of the night were more likely to have children with sleep problems and behavioural difficulties later on. They also concluded that co-sleeping had a negative impact on the future sleep patterns of children (Simard et al, 2008).
Mindell and colleagues in a study for the National Sleep Foundation (2009) found that a late bedtime and a child falling asleep with their parent present had the most significant negative effects on sleep. A late bedtime led to children taking longer to fall asleep and sleeping for a shorter period of time. Parental presence led to children having more night-time wakings. Having a poor bedtime routine and having a television in the bedroom was also found to cause sleep problems.
Some of you may argue that good sleep patterns are all very well but not important relative to the possible psychological harm caused by leaving a baby to cry. Hiscock and colleagues (2008) looked at the long-term effects on both mother and child mental health of using Ferber’s graduated crying down method. They study recruited 328 mothers of 7-month-old babies who reported that their child had a sleep problem. Half of the mothers were taught a sleep training method (with more mothers choosing Ferber’s controlled crying method than other sleep training methods). The other half of the mothers were placed in a control group and not taught any method. The key findings were that the mothers who had been taught a sleep training method were less likely to have depressive symptoms and by the time their children were two years old, there were no differences in behaviour between the sleep-trained children and the non-sleep-trained children. This study suggests there are no long-term consequences of sleep-training your children. France (1992) studied the behaviour characteristics of babies who had been sleep-trained using Ferber’s extinction method. She found that the sleep-trained babies were just as secure as the control group babies at 24-months-old and their tension levels and likeability scores improved. However, even the proponents of sleep training recommend that a baby under 6-months-old should not be allowed to cry for long periods of time. Instead they suggest that parents need to look for cues suggesting their baby is ready for sleep and to let the baby settle themselves to sleep in their own cot or moses basket. Parents need to allow their baby to cry for brief periods whilst they are settling down as this develops the baby’s ability to self-soothe. Parents are also advised to establish a bedtime routine and when feeding in the middle of the night, to keep lights low and stimulation minimal. The experts advise parents not to over-stimulate their tired baby by rocking or holding them until they fall asleep as this can cause long-term sleep problems (France and Blampied, 1999).
More research still needs to be done on the subject of sleep-training and the long-term impacts. However, I would recommend looking at the ample research carried out by Mindell if you are sceptical about sleep-training. I am a strong advocate of being sensitive and responsive to you child but I also think it is important to teach your child to sleep well. Winnicott said that a good-enough mother is one that gives their child the attention they need but also allows their child to experience some frustrations. Sleep-training is hard to do as a parent and tugs at your heart-strings but I believe it has long-term benefits. Most sleep problems are a result of children being unable to self-soothe themselves to sleep and the need to have the parent present to sleep (Blunden, 2012). If parents find the graduated extinction method too difficult to implement, they may prefer the method of gradually moving further away from their child so that eventually they are outside the room when their child falls asleep. Initially, you can pat your child a few times every few minutes before sitting on chair nearby. This method is better if you think you are unable to deal with your child’s crying.

Does using discipline methods such as timeout destroy a child’s self-esteem?

Research suggests that parents should not dismiss or play down their children’s feelings or displays of anger and jealousy. If parents accept their children’s strong emotions, children feel validated. However, this does not mean that parents should not discipline their children for poor behaviour.

Authoritative parenting is considered to be the optimal parenting style for children. Authoritative parents set clear boundaries for their children and do not accept hitting or rudeness. They also give consequences such as timeout when their child does not follow the rules. However, they do not expect their children to accept all their values and goals without questioning and they listen to and consider their children’s views. Authoritative parents also encourage their children to do well at school whilst providing a warm and supportive home environment. Research suggests that children who have authoritative parents tend to be more socially secure, independent, achievement-orientated and adaptive (Baumrind, 1991).

If parents avoid giving consequences for poor behaviour as attachment parenting proponents suggest, the outcomes are worse for children. Parents who allow their children to make their own choices entirely and avoid confronting their children for lying, cheating or being rude are setting themselves up for trouble later. Children with permissive parents tend to perform and behave worse at school (Baumrind, 1991).

Attachment parenting is extremely hard work for parents and it plays on parents’ guilt. However, it is an extreme method of parenting and is not necessary to form a strong bond with your child. Children will become securely attached and empathic individuals as long as parents are loving and sensitive without the need for baby-wearing, co-sleeping, breastfeeding or avoidance of discipline methods.

Related articles:

The importance of family meals

How to deal with tantrums

Choosing a nursery