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Archive for the Category Activities, Sports and Well Being


Tips for Balancing Freedom and Safety

Allowing your child more freedom often feels linked to concerns for their safety. Younger kids want to ride their bike beyond their street. Preteens want to hang out with friends after school in the town center. Teens want to go to parties. Older teens ask to to borrow the car to drive with friends. Their job is to become more independent, push limits when appropriate, explore the world and gain knowledge through direct experiences. Your job is to encourage this process of growth and development, but safely and smartly.

But parents can easily freeze up when they face these parenting situations. They run the latest news headlines through their mind and feel fear. When you allow fear and worry, or even anger, to surface during your parenting, you aren’t your best. You’re leading your kids with your emotional brain centers – you are parenting via your primitive Limbic System. When emotional, you lose access to the most important parts of your thinking apparatus, your executive functions and decisions-making abilities. You want to parent with your frontal cortex!

Here are a few tips.

  • Don’t make parenting decisions while emotional. Decision-making should always be a logical task. Follow basic steps to slow the process down and follow procedures and rules. Never make important decisions on the fly. Always enlist other viewpoints, such as checking in with spouses, trusted relatives, friends, other parents, maybe even teachers and coaches.
  • Watch less cable news. Studies show watching news events on screens too long, particularly 24/7 cable news, can leave you with more traumatic feelings than people who were actually at those events. You aren’t getting the news or staying informed, as much as overstimulating your limbic system. You believe the world is far less safe than it actually is.
  • Stop over-communicating your fears to your children. Tell them “this is what I think, and sometimes feel this way, based on what I know…” vs. “It’s dangerous to do that… Kids get killed all the time doing… ” When you communicate what you are fearful of more calmly, it helps to keep your child or teen calm as well.
  • Devise a simple plan that rewards greater freedom for small steps of compliance. Keep moving your kids further out into the world in graded steps, tied to them showing small gains.

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

Tips from the Mom-in-Chief

Even The White House has its tough parenting rules. Here are some from Mom-in-Chief Michelle Obama that are great:

  • When the girls go on trips, they write reports on what they have seen, even if their school does not require it.
  • Technology is for weekends. Malia may use her cellphone only then, and she and her sister cannot watch television or use a computer for anything but homework during the week.
  • Malia and Sasha had to take up two sports: one they chose and one selected by their mother. “I want them to understand what it feels like to do something you don’t like and to improve,” the first lady has said.
  • Malia must learn to do laundry before she leaves for college.
  • The girls have to eat their vegetables, and if they say that they are not hungry, they cannot ask for cookies or chips later. “If you’re full, you’re full,” Mrs. Obama said in an interview with Ladies’ Home Journal. “I don’t want to see you in the kitchen after that.”

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

Magic Inside and Outside the Classroom: What Harry Potter Teaches Us

If only going to school was as exciting as attending Hogwarts, the mythical castle in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. There, young wizards and witches can’t wait to start learning about all things magical, like deadly curses and advanced potion making. Unfortunately, the experience for non-magical children (Muggles, Rowling calls them) continues to be quite different. Being at school often means sitting long hours, listening to lectures, and facing a pile of standardized tests.

Of course, real kids can’t spend their days practicing spells (rather than spelling lists), or stopping evil forces from overtaking their cherished school of magic. Yet Rowling’s series reminds us that children are natural born learners and nothing can stop them in their quest for knowledge once they’re allowed to experience the mysteries of the world directly.

I recently visited a school where very young Muggles have this experience. There’s a new preschool, Drumlin Farm Community Preschool, at Audubon’s Wildlife Sanctuary in Massachusetts. The children learn by doing, and their day is spent mostly outside. Even in winter, three to six year olds arrive bundled up. They begin each session outdoors, ready to explore snowy fields, and interact with a dynamic, living ecosystem. The children have purpose, are empowered to participate in chores, and help run a real farm.

Like Hogwarts, there’s magic and mystery that intrigues young developing minds. Consider learning about pollination and bees. Most children are taught to fear bees, but these kids seek out bee-covered plants, observe the busy activity of a hive, and get to see how pollen gets miraculously transformed into gooey sweet honey. They milk cows, collect eggs, churn butter, and then combine ingredients like potions to bake cakes and cookies. They observe tadpoles in a nearby pond and in the aquarium in their classroom, and watch them magically morph into frogs. Snakes and owls, animals that populate the pages of Rowling’s books, are also frequent visitors. In fact, there are a myriad of fascinating creatures from Wildlife visits that are tied in with a natural science curriculum.

The children read poems, write stories, and make art pertaining to all their amazing, but real experiences. Like Hogwarts, there’s also danger around every bend, poisonous plants like oak and ivy that the children identify and warn one other about. There are sad moments when animals die and miraculous moments to affirm life, like welcoming the recent births of lambs, kid goats, and a calf named Tilly.

These preschoolers are learning basic concepts of biology, chemistry, geography, and developing their math and language skills, but without the usual moans and foot dragging that we see in many American classrooms. These kids aren’t stuck indoors, required to sit and keep quiet all day, and they aren’t led through standard study guides or told to complete daily worksheets. During my visit, one boy brandished his collection of sticks at me, told me what trees they came from, and next to him was a girl who opened her hand to reveal seeds she was bringing back to their classroom. She told me she would plant them and they could watch the stages of how they grow. They collect rocks, twigs, feathers, pieces of fur, leafs, insects. One boy dragged an enormous branch from off the path. Wonderful! His teacher shouted. What leaves are those? Not the typical drop that – you might lose an eye.

Back inside their classroom, I see that the children have made a museum and laboratory of all the things they’ve collected from the great habitat around them. Lessons are designed around what these young explorers and scientists have discovered. I also watch them settle into lunch, have some reading time, play quietly, socialize, work on projects, but I’m equally struck with what I’m not seeing. Unlike most classrooms I’ve visited, there’s an absence of strong rules and discipline. A few boys are active and louder than most of the group, but they all seem focused, rested, and in good spirits having been outdoors.

I asked one teacher about this. “Sure,” she explained, “at the start of the year there are always a few challenges. But soon they settle in and really take to all the exciting activities. For whatever reason, we haven’t needed a time-out chair or behavior management charts.” What she told me fits with recent research. Children who get at least fifteen minutes of recess a day show fewer behavior problems. Further, in some cases, regular outdoor time reduces ADHD symptoms at levels similar to stimulant medication.

I drove away envying these young Harry Potters and the adventures in store for them in the days to come. The difference between fictional schools of magic and real-life learning needn’t be so great, I thought. The magic is all around us, right outside our doors and windows. Maybe classrooms need to get back to nature. There, they can recapture some of the enchantment that drives true learning.

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

Fighting Autism, One Punch At a Time

Parents are frightened. Recent headlines report “Study Increases Prevalence of Autism” and “Nearly 1 Percent of US Children Have Autism.” Parents of boys are particularly worried. The Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD’s) are diagnosed four times more in boys than girls.

In a health club outside Boston, I learned about one such seven year-old named Jake who struggles with significant developmental problems. He’s slow and awkward in his movements, misunderstands requests, and can’t pick up on the nuanced social signals the rest of us process without a second thought.

He’s also fighting back. He’s learning to move his small feet like a boxer. His little hands are wrapped in cotton strips and shoved inside swollen Everlast gloves. He stands upright and throws punches into the hand-held pads of his trainer, Carlos Hernandez. On the surface, a boy like Jake should fail at this. Boxing demands extreme energy output and intense focus. The movements required fall somewhere between a raging bull and an accomplished ballerina. The reaction times are swift, and full-body coordination is essential.

His trainer never hits back, and never allows kids to hit one another. It’s not about fighting. It’s about retraining neurons to work together and respond better to the immediate environment. In this case, the environment isn’t a classroom where Jake sits passively, listening to programmatic lessons. Here, he experiences a tough, powerful man moving around him, coaching him to stand, aim, twist, and hit moving targets. Hernandez isn’t impressed with bravado or loud sounding punches. He’s interested in getting basics right and improving coordination and strength.

It’s an unusual match – severe developmental disorders and a gritty contact sport. You won’t find this approach in any textbook or recommended by specialists in Autism. Jake’s trainer is a former professional boxer, martial arts expert, and has no training in working with special needs children. Yet, he’s making progress with Jake where most standard approaches to helping ASD kids fail or plod along without appreciable results.

There’s much to learn to from this unusual pair. Physical activity is learning-in-motion, and as important for boys as lessons on reading, writing and arithmetic. Standardized tests and lesson plans don’t fully meet the neurological needs of most boys, let alone boys with ASD who struggle in language and communication skills. Boys as a group require much vigorous daily exercise, free play, and real-world outdoor time. Research shows that hyperactivity, aggression, distraction, and impulsivity abate when boys get moving and outdoors.

Trends over the last twenty years have sequestered children indoors and loaded them with sedentary, one-size-fits-all learning. This has lead not only to a national epidemic in pediatric obesity, but to disproportionately diagnosing boys with developmental problems, including ASD. Where medical professionals are placing more boys with ASD onto powerful psychiatric drugs, leading to chronic obesity and diabetes, a few hours a week of intense, highly individualized physical activity needs to be considered as part of the approach.

At this point, it’s unknown if Jake’s condition will improve as a direct consequence of these lessons. Jake’s mother has told Hernandez that she’s amazed at what Jake is doing so far and wants her son to continue. Jake’s trainer also teaches surfing in the warmer months. He’s considering Jake might be a candidate and tells me it’s a different set of brain challenges for kids. He starts them in the pool, then they learn balance, how to read the water, and there’s much confidence building involved.

Hernandez smiles and adds, “Jake’s not a bad little boxer either. He’ll get one thing out of it. At least no one will mess with him.”

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