Clare Stead has developed an app that aims to build parental self-efficacy, something she says is crucial for children and parents’ wellbeing and for parents’ confidence at work.
Clare Stead is on a mission. Having created an app that helps parents to build the vital initial foundations of learning, she says the confidence it engenders has huge social implications when it comes to parents’ mental health, to their confidence at work and to the success of the future workforce.
Clare’s background is in teaching. Indeed she wanted to be a teacher from the age of five and says teaching is her passion. “Children have always been my daily challenge, my wonder and my puzzle,” she says. Her main interest as her teaching career progressed became what makes the difference between the brightest children in class and those at the bottom of the middle group. “I wanted to understand how we can make everyone find a passion and hunger for knowledge and learning that we know most toddlers have,” says Clare, adding that that passion motivates them to become active learners. “That is the job of a teacher – to ignite children’s passion.”
Clare was a year four teacher before going on maternity leave. She returned part time and was moved to special needs education. She wanted to spend as much time with her children as she could, but felt she could only be a good mum if she could be her own person too. However, Clare soon discovered that special needs was not for her and took up a secondment as an education researcher at the International Learning and Research Centre in South Gloucestershire.
Moving to an office environment was a major culture shock and Clare loved it. Her job involved highlighting best practice in ICT education for gifted and talented children and advising the Government about it. “It was really exciting,” she says. It was the early days of e-learning and she worked on an award-winning project under the mentorship of the Centre’s head Mary Rose. Mary Rose encouraged her to strive for excellence and gave her tremendous support as a parent of young children – a pivotal time in her career – and when she was considering resigning after having her second child. She also allowed her to work freelance when the family later moved to Zambia. “She has been my champion,” says Clare simply.
Clare noted that everything she did as a researcher seemed to help the lower achievers more because, as soon as their confidence started to blossom, they did much better. She talks about a project called ‘a sense of place’ where students worked with an artist to create a physical representation of a place of their choosing, such as a black hole, and had to make a presentation about the soft skills they had learned in doing so. She found that the children who excelled were the so-called lower ability children. That set Clare on a quest to discover why.
On a plane journey back to Zambia from an education conference, Clare sat next to the owner of the biggest ISP provider in Zambia who had plans to change education in the country. The two got talking and the man invited Clare to work with him. She spent the next 10 years creating an app for African children so that they could receive a standard education in their own language. The app offered lessons in nine languages, including one which had never been formally written down and required the team to create a dictionary for it. Clare says she could see it working in the classroom, but she still noted the division between higher achievers and others. By 2016, Clare was back in the UK, still working for the app company.
Then she was shown some research about the impact of the first 1,000 days of life on the brain’s ability to learn. It is a period when the brain is beginning to make important connections. Clare realised she was working with the wrong age group and that she wanted to work with parents, children’s first teachers, to help children achieve their potential. She cites research showing the long-lasting difference between those who are able to build strong initial foundations and their achievements at school and beyond. “Everything we learn is built on previous bits of learning. If children have strong foundations it makes a huge difference,” says Clare, adding that it is possible to predict at 22 months a child’s outcomes when they are 26 in terms of their health, wealth, academic achievement and positive relationships. She says the gap between children widens throughout school life as a result of the lack of initial building blocks.
Clare says everyday activities can make a big difference. She cites, for instance, how holding a rattle helps with pencil control later by building hand muscles and coordination skills. She thinks that if parents understand better that tiny, everyday activities are vital to future learning they will be more motivated to do them. “It’s not about the big milestones. It’s about each tiny step,” she says.
She started to build Oliiki, her parenting app, with Professor Rose Luckin at UCL’s Institute of Education, embedding the latest research into her ed tech project. “My app has research in every part of it,” she says. Clare got feedback from parents who said the app instantly helped them feel more confident. “They said ‘you have given me logic’; ‘you have made me feel I am doing the right thing’; ‘I could breathe’; ‘you have given me sunshine every day’,” she says. That made her realise the importance of parental self-efficacy – a parent’s belief in themselves as a parent – in helping their children to learn. Not only that, but parental self-efficacy is also good for the parents’ own self confidence and wellbeing. “Success breeds success,” said Clare. “It’s a spiral upwards.”
She comments that parenthood is a huge life transition, that many people base their parenting on how they were parented and that people are given little guidance or preparation. She adds that parental self-efficacy has been associated with lower levels of post-natal depression, lower infant mental health problems and lower rates of late onset post-natal depression.
Clare says the app has wider implications than just for individual children, given children are the workforce of the future. “If parents are given support we can make such a difference to people’s wellbeing and future outcomes,” she states.
A new version of Oliiki is coming out later in the year. Part of its success, says Clare [pictured right], is due to the simplicity of the activities on it. She says parents often want to go too fast to reach certain milestones. Children need to build their synapse connections. “Through using these neural pathways they get strong and sharp,” says Clare. She gives the example of singing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star regularly to your child. That builds language, an appreciation of rhythm, understanding words in context and so forth. If you add fairy lights when you sing it, that builds contextual understanding and visual stimulation and doing it together as part of a bonding session helps children to learn better. “Simple activities can do mind-blowing developmental things,” says Clare. “And understanding that you can change a baby’s brain through these activities makes you do it more. It’s a self-growing bond of loveliness, a cycle of happiness from tiny steps.”
She adds that the steps towards parental self-efficacy begin from conception. “Becoming a parent is such a big transition for a couple. You have to learn how to make that transition,” she says.
She wants eventually to be able to measure parental self-efficacy and to offer her app through employers. She says it can help parents return to work more confidently. “Covid has changed how we view employees and made employers understand that they have to support people’s whole selves,” she says. “I believe that the app can make a massive difference towards helping people make the transition to feeling like they are parenting successfully. And that is good for their overall sense of confidence. If you get into a cycle of failure, everything in your life is affected.”