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Can you create an inner drive in your child?

iStock_000018449898Small (2)Parents in my office are really concerned. This time of year, grades are dropping. Where’s the internal drive, many parents ask. It takes him hours – with so much push – to get through his homework. He doesn’t care. All we do is fight.

Internal motivation is key to long term success, and yet, you can’t stand above your child forever and nag them into taking charge of their work. In fact, internal motivation will come on it’s own – the question is when. It’s tied to maturity. It’s a developmental process. Good news is that, maybe, it might be accelerated.

Stop pushing and micromanaging. As many parents have discovered, it backfires. Parent reminders and long lectures on taking responsibility actually make kids dig their heals. There’s also a secret weapon many parents don’t use.

Match them up with a self-motivated peer.

Slightly older boys (or girls) your son looks up to are key… this will spark his competitive nature in a good way. We see this particularly in boys who love sports. The trick is getting a similar competitive drive in academics. Small homework groups with other boys (who are self-motivated) can also help. Find a math genius (a high schooler that the math department in your public school identifies as gifted) and have them peer tutor your son an hour here and there a week. That can vastly improve the situation. All too often we think of hiring professional tutors in expensive study-centers to organize and motivate boys. They can be valuable – but also think of hiring the older high school or college-aged guy just a few doors down. They are positive study role models.

Now the bad news… There is a saboteur working against you and your son. It’s called screens. Schools are co-conspirators. They like the convenience of assignments on computers. It gives the illusion that technology facilitates learning. Maybe it does sometimes, but many boys are getting pulled into distractions. iPads are really becoming the latest problem. Is there a way to completely block everything online, other than what he really needs for study? If so, do it.

For most boys, it’s a sobering fact that they won’t increase their internal motivation for schoolwork if they are doing a lot of their work on a screen. They cheat. They simply move a few fingers and call up hundreds of more exciting, fun, entertaining things to watch. The current situation isn’t going to improve until we adults control the stimuli. Most boys won’t control the stimuli on their own. The novelty factor is too high.

And if your son carries a diagnosis of ADHD, it’s even harder for him to turn off the screens…  ADHD people don’t have a deficit of attention, new research shows. They can focus like everyone else, but they seek things with high novelty. If YouTube, games, social media are a click away from math and science, expect homework to be dragged out for hours.

Truth be told, we adults aren’t immune to the distractions of screens. It’s getting harder and harder for us to be self-motivated. Perhaps, we should lead by example. Shut off the iPhone at home, no screens during dinner, don’t check for work emails… Show your kids how you are controlling stimuli.


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Getting Your Child Evaluated… When to Take that Step?

Question and Answers on speech bubblesA parent recently asked about her two year old son. Like many boys, his language is delayed. Family and friends have commented that it might be a sign of autism. That got her worried. Should she take him to get evaluated by a specialist? Is that overreacting?

I find the best course of action is not to get worried unnecessarily or jump to worst case scenarios. That never helps a parent figure out what’s the next best step. Development is complicated and messy, especially in boys, with many false starts and alarms. Keep a clear head. Seek information from the right people. Don’t rush. Stay calm.

If you’re concerned, the best course of action is to start with your pediatrician. He or she already knows your child and his history. Set up an appointment specifically to talk about these issues. Don’t try to fit it into a rushed 15 minute wellness visit. If your pediatrician is also concerned about language development – or any other developmental areas – then the next step would be finding someone (or some program) that can do a good, balanced evaluation. It should inquire about a range of developmental areas: language, fine motor, gross motor, various mental operations, basic social skills. It should be someone (or a team) that takes into consideration the whole child and his environment, including what’s going on at home. They should spend time 1:1 with him doing tasks, waiting for him to feel comfortable, and engaging him to show what he can and cannot do.

Keep in mind that the process of evaluating children is not an exact science. It is a clinical process. I get concerned about simple “screening” that some professionals use. Those are simple checklists or quick meetings that, while convenient and cost-effective, often only give the appearance of a solid clinical evaluation. They aren’t. A proper evaluation should be a clinical face-to-face process. It shouldn’t be wrapped up in one brief meeting.

As for the advice family members and friends give, don’t let other people’s worries distract you from your task at hand. Stay focused on seeking knowledgeable people who can be objective and who see many kids in their professional work. Such people are developmental pediatricians, pediatric neurologists, psychologists, and learning specialists such as speech and occupational therapists.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.

NO! NO! NO! Ending the power struggle

Angry Mother Scolding Son At HomeOne parent asked how to answer the “NO” response from her 7 year old son, and the power struggle that often ensues after, such as saying NO to doing his reading and losing favorite toys because of the behavior.

To start, let’s see this from a completely new angle. For parents, “NO” looks like non-compliance. From a boy’s perspective, it’s a power-grab. It’s a way to lure you in, keep your attention (even though it’s negative attention). You can view it as a healthy desire to be strong and in control that’s gone a bit too far. And realize that he’s conditioned you into these power brawls.

Now, the fix. Tell him he has a choice to do his reading (or whatever he needs to do at that moment), and it’s entirely his choice to follow the rules. If he follows, he gets praise… special time later on… maybe a treat that night after dinner. If not, you will ignore him 100% and walk off. Don’t look at him or allow him to engage you no matter what he does or say. He will try everything to pull you back in (maybe even try ignoring you). His goal is to make you angry. Don’t take the bait – remain calm and ignore. After he’s settled down, you can ask the request (calmly) again, and add something like “I hope you can make a better choice this time… I hope you can earn back your privileges… you’re smart and i think you’ll find a way.”  Don’t get caught up on getting 100% compliance right away, but rather work toward increasing compliance slowly via this method.


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The Mind-Plus-Body Approach to School

moving in classroomA mom of a five year old recently emailed to ask why her son complains about school. Why would he be frustrated and sometimes hate the experience? The problem wasn’t separation anxiety, even though, in my experience, that’s a common reason young kids complain about school. Many don’t like being away from their moms and dads. But that wasn’t the problem.

This mom also said that her son loved his summer camp program, where he did “acting, playing, painting, building, and yoga.” That was key. Look at all those active words ending in “ing.” Ask yourself… Does your youngster get those “ing” activities during his or her day at school? And yoga is controlled movement. What a healthy and fun way for youngsters to learn about and exercise their developing muscles.

These activities won’t frustrate kids. These fuse learning with changing position, moving, navigating in different spaces, and engaging larger motor (vs. fine/small motor) parts of the body. Why do we frustrate youngsters by mostly focusing on finger/hand movements (to draw and write) while the rest of their body is stuck in a chair and aching to join in? In fact, most parents – and many teachers – are surprised to learn that young brains are wired to learn better when there’s movement, not while being penned up and sedentary.

But over the years, I’ve witnessed the opposite trend.

Classrooms today, despite all the new technologies, are as traditional as ever. More sitting, listening, waiting turn, and having to attend to tasks that are delivered through lecture and language. This approach frustrates younger minds… and if your child is frustrated, he or she won’t process the information or want to participate fully. The young mind starts to drift. That’s when teachers and parents start thinking there’s a learning problem or ADHD, when in fact, it’s often a problem with lack of movement and a curriculum that isn’t weaving movement into learning opportunities.

While I typically don’t endorse specific programs and schools, check out the Drumlin Farms program. It’s a great model for how to teach youngsters (particularly boys) who need more action in their education day. In this program, kids are outdoors everyday, and not just for a few minutes. They’re hiking, collecting, touching, smelling, seeing and experiencing the world in three-dimensions. Very few schools are fortunate enough to be on the grounds of a working farm, but all schools can adopt better practices. They can get kids outside more to investigate and explore their surroundings. They can match lessons to objects and places that require the full body – and brain – to be engaged. At the very least, schools can insist on short breaks between lessons to stretch and move so students (boys in particular) don’t start feeling frustration building from prolonged sitting.

Follow this mind-plus-body approach to education and there will be fewer kids complaining they hate school.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.

Home Alone? Fostering a Child’s Independence Safely.

latchkey kidParents are working longer hours than ever before. Providing supervision for their kids after school is a juggling act at best. Often, parents ask me… Is it ok for my kids to walk themselves home from school? Should someone be at our house to meet them? Will they stay safe and out of trouble until I show up later that afternoon? Is it ok for older sibs to watch them until I get back?

There are as many possible arrangements as there are different types of families and situations. Safety is naturally the first concern. But even when it’s safe, parents aren’t always sure their kids are ready to take the major step of being home alone. Parents need to consider a child’s readiness. Here are some tips to help.

1.  Check in with families around the neighborhood. What are they doing? What do they think is realistic and appropriate for their kids, and what arrangements have they found work best? You’ll get useful advice and learn about potentially helpful resources in your area that give busy working parents support.

2.  Age alone can’t be the only way to decide. There are children at nine or ten able to handle being alone for short periods of time, but many older kids aren’t ready. Rather than age, think about the maturity level of your child. How do they handle tasks? Stress? Can they carry out chores? Do they show good judgment when alone in another parts of the house? Do teachers tell you they are responsible at school? These are things to look for when deciding if your child is ready.

3. Being able to stay home alone is a developmental step for children. It’s about independence – and independence can be taught. Start small and build. Train kids to be independent while the family is together. Kids can be encouraged to spend more and more time in other parts of the house by themselves while playing or reading. Also, encourage them to make decisions for themselves. Before you remind them or do things for them, you might first ask, “what would you do if you were alone at home and needed to figure this out?”

4. Meanwhile, if you can’t find a sitter until you get home, consider the library. Certainly for mid-elementary and middle school kids, these are safe places that have trusted adult supervision. Many have after-school programs to encourage youngsters to come in, do homework in supervised groups, read, and some even allow quiet socializing. If your local library doesn’t have such programs, ask to help start one. There are also homework and science clubs, sports and rec centers, town swimming programs, and many after school organizations like Four-H Club.

5. I’m often asked, What if my child walks home alone? Are they ready to be home alone too? Children are sometimes ready to walk home a few blocks, along a safe route and in the company of others, but might feel afraid once they enter an empty house. These can be two very different developmental challenges. The goal is to help kids feel more relaxed at home while you’re not there. Again, think of this in steps. Maybe your child needs someone there for an hour, then in a few weeks cut it down to one-half hour, and finally, someone only needs to greet your child at the door and get them settled. Reward kids for taking on more freedom and responsibility. You can tie in a special “big boy” or “big girl” privilege to their willingness to handle more time by themselves and carrying it out maturely.

6. Older sibs can supervise, right? While some can, many cannot. Ask yourself if an older sib is the nurturing type, mature, and able to follow your guidelines while away. Ask yourself, would I let them be a babysitter to another family? That’s essentially what you’re asking of them. Not every kid is cut out to be in charge of younger kids.

7. Finally, have reliable back-up plans. In case of emergency, instructing your kids to call you or dial 911 makes obvious sense, but you’ll also need trusted friends, extended family in the area, and close neighbors willing to be available on-call to help should your child need adult help while you aren’t there. Rehearsing what to do if scenarios with your kids will help keep them feeling confident and safe.

Please contact Dr. Rao about reproducing any material found on these pages.