Starting school tips with Sarah Ockwell-Smith, gentle parenting expert

Today, I am delighted to chat with Sarah Ockwell-Smith who is well-known as the Gentle Parenting expert here in the UK.

Years ago, when I had my second child, I was determined to feel more confident in my parenting choices. I coslept and breastfed long-term my first but I suffered from not being supported by my family and I couldn't find anyone who was parenting like me. I was constantly going back and forth, trying the cot, wondering if it was time to wean her as the mainstream voices were louder. 

I read a lot about Attachment parenting, Breastfeeding and cosleeping and by the time I had my second, I was more determined than ever to parent in an "evidence-based" way and to respect my children's needs.

It's how I came across Sarah Ockwell-Smith who, at the time, was running the BabyCalm and ToddlerCalm classes. I took a BabyCalm workshop with a local consultant and I was hooked. I read the two books (BabyCalm and Toddler Calm) written by Sarah. Then I went onto training with her.

Sarah's knowledge and confidence in what she shares about parenting gives me the boost I needed to trust my babies. I totally credit her for how I parent my children. 

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So, it's an honour to chat with Sarah about her last book "Starting School".

Can you tell us more about yourself, your family, your background?

I have four teenagers, a husband, a dog, 2 cats and lots of chickens. We all live in an old cottage close to Cambridge, England. I’ve been working with parents for over fifteen years now. Initially I worked as a homeopath, antenatal teacher, Doula and infant massage teacher, then in 2007 I started to run parenting classes, focusing on the baby and toddler years and at the same point started to write a parenting blog (before most people even knew what blogging was!). I still work on a one-to-one basis with parents and also run parenting workshops and webinars with a few thousand parents every year. In 2010 I wrote my first book and now, ten years later, I’m working on my 11th book

You are well known as a Gentle Parenting expert; how would you define the Gentle Parenting “style”?

Treating your children in the way you’d like to be treated yourself. Basically, treating them with empathy and respect and having realistic expectations of their behaviour. That’s all really. A lot of people mistakenly think gentle parenting means you have to do certain things and tick off a list in order to earn the label, but it really is just a mindset shift. It doesn’t matter how you feed your baby, where you give birth, where your children are educated, where they sleep, or what other lifestyle choices you make.

Today, we are focusing on your new book “Starting school”.   What would be your best tips to prepare a child to start school?

Preparing them practically is super important. If you get that sorted, then everything will be easier. Here I’m talking about things like making sure they can spot their lunchbox, recognise their name on a label, undo their water bottle, put on and take off their coat and hang it on a peg, lock and unlock a toilet cubicle door, hold a pencil and so on. I’m not saying emotionally preparing them isn’t important, but a lot of people focus on this to the exclusion of the practical preparation, which actually goes a long way to making them emotionally ready. I would also focus on your own emotions as a parent. Children look to us to know how to behave. If you are highly stressed and anxious about the transition, then your children will pick up on this. So I always advise parents to work through their own emotions and try to reduce their anxiety levels – especially on the first few days of term.

I love how informative and reassuring all your books are. In this one, I love how you emphasise that children still spend most of their time with their parents. How can parents keep the connection once their child is full-time in school?

I think parents need to understand that their children are still going to spend the majority of their time with them once they start school. Even though that time is reduced, on an average working week (here I’m presuming parents work full time and that the child is having an average amount of sleep for their age, this figure will obviously be higher if parents don’t work full time) children will still spend almost 60 waking hours with their parent(s). That’s a huge amount of time, compared to the 30 waking hours children spend at school. Parents are always the major influence! I do think you need to be a little more aware of how you spend your time and build in some special connection time (half an hour’s play before bed and half an hour at bedtime reading stories and chatting about the day is great), but also don’t dismiss time spend doing everyday things together. Preparing vegetables together is still connection time. Visiting the supermarket together is still connection time. It doesn’t always have to be about visiting the park, or constructing a complex play activity!

You explained that is common for children to have a melt-down after-school.  Why is that and What are your tips to help our children transitioning from their school day to being back at home?

It’s very common for children to behave ‘badly’ at home after starting school. This is something known as ‘restraint collapse’. It’s easiest to explain by imagining your child’s brain is a bottle of soda (coke, lemonade etc..). Throughout the day this bottle has been shaken around and your child has done such a good job of holding their lid on tight, through any anxiety or stress or anger (because they know they need to ‘be good’ at school). Then, they get home – where they feel safe enough to let go and be their authentic selves with you. In essence they are metaphorically ‘undoing their lid’ (that lid that has stayed so tight shut all day through all the bottle shaking). Now, if you take the lid off a bottle of soda that has been shaken up, it explodes everywhere. The same often happens with children at home. The huge release of taking off the lid means all of those emotions come flooding out. Parents often ask “what have I done wrong? s/he is an angel at school, but a devil at home for me!” – but actually, restraint collapse is a sign of great parenting, it means these parents have raised their children to feel safe to express all of their emotions at home in their presence. The best thing parents can do here is to remind themselves of why it’s happening and stay calm and supportive. If parents have their own tantrums it just makes everything worse, similarly, punishing children for these meltdowns ultimately means they’re going to have to hold these big feelings inside, which often means for an even worse explosion in the future, or the child learns that it’s not safe for them to share their feelings with you, which can cause horrible issues in the teen years and beyond.

With the current covid-19 situations, many parents are even more anxious about their children starting school. What could you say to reassure them?

I think this is about working on our own anxieties and worries. Children are incredibly resilient. I don’t think we give them enough credit for how well they adapt to new situations. Often, as adults, we will worry about them when they would actually have been fine, but we project our fears onto them and they pick up on our anxiety. Too many people are talking about how to prepare children, I think it’s the parents we need to work with more!

I wanted also to discuss with you about children and socialisation, in the current climate of covid-19. Many parents of young children, especially the under 4 and parents of only child, are worried that they children are missing out on social skills. Is there anything we can do at home to keep up with the social skills while we are socially distancing?

Socialisation occurs primarily in the home. Children learn how to be social creatures and pick on up social cues and customs from their everyday interactions with us. We need to give ourselves more credit for how much we matter! We do these things organically, without being conscious. I don’t think we need to do anything extra, just keep doing what we do naturally! In fact, I’d argue, that rather than missing out on socialisation a lot of children have benefited hugely from lock-down and all the extra time they’ve spent at home with their parent(s).

In your book, you also touch on the issues with the current school system. How do you think the school system should evolve to meet the children’s needs?

I think it needs to change on a governmental level. Sadly, I think there is little that can be done on a teacher level. The problem is the (under)funding of our education system and the ridiculous expectations placed upon it by government, e.g: OFSTED, standardised assessments and ever-changing curriculums. Until change is made at this level, I don’t think it’s realistic to expect change enough to meet the needs of all children (or teachers!).

What can parents do if they do not agree with the school’s discipline? How do we reconcile the Gentle parenting principles with the more carrots and sticks system at school?

Obviously I’d always start with a chat with the child’s teacher, head of year of head teacher and if needed the SENCO (special educational needs coordinator), but I think this is more about choosing the school that is best for your child in the first place. Make sure you’ve seen and discussed discipline policies before applying. It’s much easier to consider these things before your child starts! I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom however, this comes back to my earlier point about spending the majority of time with you, not school. Parents are always the major influence discipline wise and I think, by school age, children are resilient enough to understand things are done differently at school. In other words, unless something was a major problem, I would let it slide a little.

As it is a Montessori blog, do you have any opinion about the Montessori education? (totally ok if you are not a fan 😉)

I think the main principles definitely overlap with gentle parenting (especially when it comes to ‘respect’), however I would also add, just like with gentle parenting, that just because somebody uses the Montessori name – don’t automatically expect them to be gentle, or in line with all of your beliefs. I know my local Montessori school is a huge fan of authoritarian discipline (time out, lots of reward charts etc..) and am often contacted by parents who say they are surprised to see these things in a Montessori (or Steiner, or democratic etc..) education setting. Also, going back to what I was saying about not having to tick a list of things to be a gentle parent, I would say the same with any other style of parenting or education, don’t be afraid to do something that feels right for you, even if it isn’t strictly Montessori (or gentle) ‘approved’.

Note from me: time out and reward charts were not recommended by Maria Montessori herself. Quite the contrary, like the teachers in her time, she first rewarded children when they were good then isolated them when they were not doing what was expected. She quickly realised that it was having no effect whatsoever.

She said "No one who has ever done anything really great or successful has ever done it simply because he was attracted by what we call a ‘reward’ or by the fear of what we call a ‘punishment." and "Rewards and punishments, to speak frankly, are the desk of the soul, that is, a means of enslaving a child's spirit, and better suited to provoke than to prevent deformities". So please do your research when you visit a Montessori school. If you notice reward charts or that they use time-out, question them!

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You are the authors of 11 Parenting books. How do you choose what to write about next? And what can we expect from your future books?

I pretty much just write books that 1. I have personal experience of (for instance, I’m often asked to write a twins/multiples book, which I won’t ever do, as I don’t have lived experience of this) and 2. I wish I could have read as a mother at that particular stage. I’m currently writing a book for parents of tweenagers (8-13 year olds), all about brain development, puberty and common issues parents face at that age. After that I’d like to write one about teenagers (13-20). My eldest is 18, so I feel I need just a year’s more experience (the leaving home/starting uni part, which he does in September) to be able to do that one justice!

Thanks you so much for agreeing to this interview! And check out her last book "Starting school". 

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About the Author Carine Robin

Carine Robin has a Master’s Degree in Psychology, specialising in child psychology. She worked for various social services in her home country of Belgium, before moving to Ireland in 2006. It was there that she started working in a nursery and discovered Montessori education. After having her first child, her passion for the philosophy grew and she qualified as a Montessori teacher and managed a preschool. Carine has been running a Montessori based parents and toddler group and coaching families for 9 years. She now also runs an online group for over 14000 parents, sharing her knowledge and passion with people from around the world. In 2018, Carine realised families needed more support and launched her popular online parenting courses and monthly subscription boxes, full of personally designed Montessori materials.