Give Them a Break: The Pressure on Children Today

By School House

6 years ago

Dr David Whitebread, a developmental cognitive psychologist and early years specialist from Cambridge University, has some advice for our new minister for education

Childhood has changed dramatically over the last few decades, but doubts are voiced as to whether for the better. Children today spend significantly more time indoors than ever before, often interacting with technology rather than other family members or their peers. Increased traffic and safety concerns means that the area where they are allowed to range unsupervised outdoors has shrunk by 90 per cent since the 1970s. The increasingly challenging demands and assessment regimes in schools can lead to dramatically increased levels of stress. Significantly more young children than ever before suffer from obesity and a range of mental health problems.

Many parents today recognise the challenges faced by their children, are concerned about the increased pressure on them at school, and are understandably anxious to know how best to support them. During the same time period as these social and educational changes have occurred, modern research within developmental psychology, neuroscience and related areas has revealed a vast amount of new knowledge. This relates to how children develop and learn and how their experiences in the family, their school and the wider society impact upon them.

As we welcome a new minister for education, Damian Hinds, I want to set out key measures he could introduce that would enhance our children’s levels of achievement without threatening their mental health. It is also worth noting some of the evidence we have of what parents can do to insulate their children from the demands of a 21st-century childhood. 


There are significant and universally beneficial changes that could be introduced to our current education system. Economists have shown the huge economic benefits to society of investment in high quality, evidence-based early years provision yet policy in regard to the early years of education is woefully misinformed and underfunded and needs to be radically overhauled.

We now have overwhelming evidence, for example, that a later start to the formal teaching of literacy, including phonics and formal written maths, leads to higher overall levels of literacy and numeracy, and more positive, confident attitudes in children. A later start to formal schooling in European counties like Finland and Estonia, where children start school at seven, rather than at four, as in the UK, is associated with higher levels of achievement in these areas.

Comparitive studies of children starting formal schooling at different ages within the same country have shown enhanced achievement among later starters. Crucially, studies in the UK, the USA and Germany show that an extended period of high quality, play-based pre-school education leads to higher academic achievement and emotional well-being. 

Yet in the UK, successive governments over the last four decades have pushed for earlier and more formal instruction. While pre-school provision is a rag-bag of public and private settings, often staffed by poorly qualified individuals on very low wages, in stark contrast to the highly professional provision in many other European countries.

Secondly, despite decades of evidence showing the very poor returns on homework set for primary-aged children, I reference John Hattie’s meta-analysis of hundreds of studies in this area, hometime which could be far better used is still filled by increasing homework demands. Some schools have abandoned homework with no effects on levels of achievement, and clearly beneficial outcomes in relation to parent-child relationships. The new minister for education would be well advised to support this movement through guidance or legislation.


Parents, of course, are a powerful lobby and could encourage the minister to move in these directions. At home, overwhelmingly, the developmental evidence indicates the advantages for children who spend significant time in ‘episodes of joint attention’ with significant adults in their lives, or report having fun at home with their families. Such children are more advanced in oral language when they start school, cope more easily with the demands of early schooling and achieve at higher levels in the long-term. Children who have more ‘unstructured’ time also enter school more capable of ‘self-regulating’ their own mental processes and behaviour, both of which are associated with friendship skills, higher levels of academic achievement’and emotional wellbeing. This includes free play with peers and trips with parents to libraries, museums, the sea and the zoo.

Of course, we cannot turn back the clock to when life was simpler and less demanding. But there are changes we could make, in the school and the home which would greatly enhance our children’s enjoyment of their childhood, and their chances of living a productive and happy life. I imagine this is what every parent would want for their child.

This article originally appeared in the SS18 issue of School House. 

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