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Archive for December 2009


Helping Young Boys Get Through School

This time of year brings many great things, but also seasonal stress. I’m not referring only to the holidays. After the first month or two of fall, many families contact me seeking advice on how to handle school stress. For young boys in particular, there is much frustration. A lot of what I talk about though helps all kids handle longer days and higher demands.

Is the honeymoon over? Across the country, young boys are becoming more frustrated at school. They’re tuning out and acting up. Teachers are suggesting evaluations for learning and behavior problems in record numbers, and parents are understandably worried. By the fall’s end, boys will be referred for psychiatric disorders and learning problems significantly more than at any other time of the year. Boys are also expelled from preschool more than any other group of children, four and one half times more than girls.

Despite these concerns, I urge moms and dads to hold tight and wait. I strongly recommend against rushing into a diagnosis or doing extensive evaluations. At very young ages, extensive evaluations aren’t very useful unless there are clear delays in a child’s developing language and communication skills. I also tell parents to avoid the big labels being bantered about, like ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome. They don’t mean much over the long-term for such young kids. It’s better to investigate short-term speech and language therapies, occupational therapies, and behavioral parent training. These help guide and move development forward, positively.

Josh, The Outdoorsman
Recently, I met with a mom from Boston. She’d been repeatedly told that her five year-old was a serious problem at school. Josh wasn’t sitting still, asked too many questions, bumped into other kids, and played rough outside. When I concluded that Josh wasn’t the problem, she let out a long breath. Instead, I told her, the problem is a national one – fitting active boys into a narrow definition of education that goes against the grain of their normal development. Like the many parents I advise across the country, I told her to buy Josh time to grow and develop. She needed to stop seeing him through the eyes of everyone else, and start protecting what precious time he had left to be a little boy.

As we spoke, Josh was proving the point in my office. He was exploring, touching, moving freely about, laughing and engaging every one of his senses. He soon piled up a few toys and started in on imaginative play that involved loud dinosaur sounds and pushing objects one at a time off the side of my desk. He was experimenting with motion, repeating his play to find patterns, and fueling the experience with a pretend war between prehistoric creatures. This is how many young boys learn.

I could see how frustrating it would be for a bright and active guy like Josh to be subjected to standardized lesson plans and told what to do and how to learn for several hours a day. Josh was also built strong and fast. He needed to be outdoors and to get as much vigorous physical activity as he could handle. Josh came into the world with all the right stuff to learn on his own. Reading and writing and math would come later. For now, I told his mom, to have faith in the biological brain process that has served kids perfectly well for thousands of years. Don’t rush his development. It’s the foundation of his later learning.

Josh’s mom decided to change schools and enroll him into a program where kids spend most of their time outdoors learning through real-life experiences. These programs are more common in Europe and are gaining traction in some pockets of the US. This program is similar to the one described recently in a New York Times article (Forest Kindergarten at Waldorf School in Saratoga Springs). There’s also a terrific book I recommend to parents by Richard Louv, Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder that explains the benefits of a nature approach to early learning. This isn’t a passing fad. Recent studies do in fact show symptoms of ADHD in boys are eliminated by spending time outdoors, and that the positive effects on their behavior are as good for some kids as stimulant medication.

Steven, Stuck Inside

There’s another boy named Steven, who also has been described by his teachers as being a problem at school. He’s in Kindergarten. His mom, a grade school teacher herself, approached me at a recent book signing in Southwest Florida. She lowered her voice as if someone might overhear our conversation.

“Its crazy,” she told me, “The administration actually dictates that every 15 minutes the kids have to move from one area of the classroom to the other, like they’re on a lazy-Susan. They have three lessons going on at once in the same room. Every 15 minutes they shift. It’s down to the minute without breaks in between. They’re not learning, I can tell you that! Steven comes home everyday bored and tuned out. He’s getting aggressive.”

I was shocked to learn of this approach. I’m an advocate of taking breaks. The Japanese model is a good example of this (see Class Breaks in Tokyo More Suited for Children). Grade school kids learn intensely, but are always give a solid break between lessons. It helps to digest the material. It helps adults too. When we separate from our work even for a few minutes, it gives our brains time to process and retain the new material. Any type of break is helpful. Listen to music, shoot a few baskets, take a brisk walk, read a few pages of your favorite book or magazine, or better yet, run around outside. Its what’s called distributed practice and cognitive scientists have long known it’s how good learning works. Cramming is never good for anything longer than a day or so.

I asked Steven’s mom, “There must be down time for them to play, at some point, right?”

“No,” she explained, “They took away recess to make more lesson time available. And they also took all the toys out of the classroom, the kitchen play area, all of it, to make room for these rotating groups.”

In my opinion, this is early education at its worst. In the interest of teaching equivocally and speeding up learning, we’re giving every kid the exact same experience like its fast food. It looks good but doesn’t leave you with much. Worse, we’re eliminating the very thing youngsters need in order to become better learners down the road – when the real academics arrive – free imaginative play and lots of hands-on exploration.

Contrast this with the outdoor preschool experience that Josh is now getting. It’s not for everyone, and not everyone can afford it, but I believe it’s the right model for preschool and kindergarten age boys, maybe for girls too. I wonder how young girls suffer silently in these classrooms. They’re more compliant and less physically active so they may not be tripping any switches. Girls also deserve to have a learning environment that plays to their strengths and builds upon their natural development.

Steven’s mom felt stuck. I told her that short of finding another school, there are a few things that would help. Recess and daily indoor breaks are a must. She should band together with other parents to demand this immediately. Also, bring the toys back into the classroom and encourage more free play. Other helpful changes would be smaller class size, hiring more male teachers (who encourage active physical learning), and most important, spending more time outdoors and giving breaks between lessons.

It’s disconcerting that Florida is following the national trend of moving children indoors and having kids become more sedentary. “It’s ironic,” Steven’s mom said, “We moved here because it’s where my husband grew up. He wanted Steven to have the great outdoor childhood he had when he was a boy.”

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