| Intellectual sparks: Good nursery education can make a lot of difference
The way a child performs at school is influenced by all kinds of factors. Some are beyond the control of parents'most obviously, the school itself and the child's personality. But increasingly, research suggests that we can influence our children's brain power, through the food we give them, the games we play, the lives we lead and the choices we make.
More and more research demonstrates the effect on our brains of what we eat. A recent study of 1,300 schoolchildren carried out for the Home-Grown Cereals Authority showed that those who ate breakfast were more accurate, faster and over 10 per cent better at memory tests. And a report published last year by the Soil Association and Business in the Community, based on interviews with local authority education chiefs, revealed that pupils who eat school meals made with fresh, unprocessed ingredients and who have access to drinking water show improved concentration and longer attention spans, and are calmer and more alert in class.
'Foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates cause the body to react quickly to bring the sugar level down, so you end up with low sugar levels, which induce fatigue and lack of concentration,' says Deborah Colson, a nutritional therapist at the Brain Bio Centre, which takes a nutritional approach to mental health and behavioural problems.
'That is why having a sugar bun for breakfast is almost as bad as having no breakfast at all. Much better to have a bowl of porridge or an egg on wholegrain toast, which releases sugar slowly into the bloodstream. Blood glucose is the main supply of energy to the brain and you need a steady trickle, not a sudden hit.'
Cut down on fizzy caffeinated drinks and food additives, which can affect sleep and concentration in children. Go for fresh fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, seeds, nuts and two portions of oily fish a week. 'A quarter of the dinner plate should contain protein, a quarter starch and a half vegetables,' advises Colson. Dehydration adversely affects mental performance, so make sure children drink plenty.
Supplements like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, found in oily fish, green leafy vegetables, some nuts and seeds and other foods, help in the production of phospholipids, complex fat molecules that can improve the brain's messaging system. If you are worried that your child is not getting adequate levels of these fatty acids from dietary sources, consider using supplements.
New research shows that children who have been to a nursery do better in school at the age of seven than those who have had no nursery education. The latest findings of the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) project, published in November, reveal that children who start nursery below the age of three show better intellectual development at seven than those who start later, but full-time attendance produces no better results than part-time. Although any nursery education makes a difference, children at higher quality establishments do better in school socially and inte- llectually.
Children cared for by staff who make warm, interactive relationships with them, and who view educational and social development as complementary and equally important, show more progress later on. The same study also demonstrated that what parents and carers do at home makes a real difference to young children's development.
According to the latest EPPE report, 'There are a range of activities that parents undertake with pre-school children which have a positive effect on their development. 'For example, reading with the child, teaching songs and nursery rhymes, painting and drawing, playing with letters and numbers, visiting the library, teaching the alphabet and numbers, taking children on visits and creating regular opportunities for them to play with their friends at home were all associated with higher intellectual and social/behavioural scores.'
The report found that the home learning environment made more difference to a child's intellectual and social development than parental education or occupation. 'In other words,' says the report, 'what parents do with their children is more important than who parents are.'
Parenting expert and author Elizabeth Hartley-Brewer says: 'When parents spend more time with their children and show interest in them, it can improve self-esteem. A child who has self-belief is more likely to be happy, and a happy child is more likely to perform well at school.' She suggests that parents should involve children in activities such as cooking, shopping and gardening, encourage them to take decisions about what they do and listen to them. 'Treat them as a source of authority about themselves,'she suggests.
The beneficial effect of parental support can be seen right through school. In her book Help your Child Succeed at School, Hilary Wilcess cites research conducted for the charity Campaign for Learning showing that parents who take an active interest in their children's education can help them do up to 25 per cent better than pupils whose parents show no interest. Involvement should always be positive, says Wilce. 'If we denigrate teachers, and put down what we think happens in the classroom, our children will do the same.'