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Archive for December 2014


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.

What’s the best way to promote healthy emotional regulation in children?

Question and Answers on speech bubblesAchieving better emotional regulation is a goal for all people (adults and kids). We have to work at this everyday. The basics of emotional regulation start very young in childhood. Emotional regulation should be something that’s woven into daily life… woven into the fabric of home and classroom. Controlling strong emotions and knowing where best to express emotions should be practiced throughout daily routines and lessons and organized sports.

What does this entail? What’s the best way to help promote emotional regulation in kids?

Children (and adults) must have moments to pause when overstimulated and when they show signs of high emotion. They need moments to breathe, opportunities to move and shift one’s view, and always given a few minutes to digest newly learned things. It’s important that the brain have brief spaces of time (I call these “mind breaks”) before going onto the next thing. Avoid multi-tasking. It doesn’t foster emotional regulation. It does the opposite. Juggling taxes the mind. Have you noticed you’re most likely to snap at people, lose your temper, get more easily frustrated when you’re trying to do too much at once?

Finally, if you want kids to have better emotional regulation, let them move about. Especially for boys, using their hands and touching objects while exploring the physical space around them plays to their neurological strengths (visual-motor systems and higher activity needs). Boys (and many men) are more likely to learn and be engaged in tasks not by sitting in front of screens or behind desks, but also by doing things and moving about. The prolonged sitting we ask kids (and many adults) to do isn’t helping them learn or do a task better, as much as it’s a way for teachers and bosses to try to squeeze out work more efficiently. But if you want creativity, intelligent problem-solving, better motivation in tasks… don’t keep kids and adults stuck in chairs or one spot too long.

Until we make changes, we will continue to see more and more kids (mostly boys) diagnosed and labeled with emotional disregulation – and along with that – more unnecessary diagnoses of ADHD. Those are labels. Those assign the problem to the child. That’s easier than admitting we may need to change the environment – and acknowledge what we have set up isn’t working.

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

Need or Want? Teaching the Difference to Your Kids

Big stack of colorful Christmas presentsOn this Cyber Monday,we hear news of the billions of dollars spent during the holiday season. It’s all the more important to help children appreciate the difference between what they want and what they need. The two easily get blurred.

I recommend parents try a three-pile process. Before bringing any new clothes or toys into the house, take inventory of what you already have. Make three piles with the help of your children. Pile one: the toys and clothes used most frequently, most enjoyed, and certainly keep clothes that are needed. Pile two: what kids sometimes use or need, but may not be 100% essential. Pile three: what they haven’t touched or seen for a few months (seasonal clothing excluded of course).

Seeing piles helps kids visually appreciate the abundance of their good fortune. It often shocks parents to realize how much money is spent on things not appreciated. Box up pile three and put it aside. If you or your child doesn’t go into the box for several weeks, chances are you can part with those items. Giving unwanted and unused items to friends, neighbors, relatives, or donating them to the millions of people suffering in these tough times, teaches children to think of others and be thankful for what they have. Surprisingly, with less objects and possessions around them, children seem to like what they have more. The value of things goes up if we have less of them.

The value also goes up when kids split the cost. As the saying goes, they have more skin in the game! One teenager I know loves the newest and often most expensive Nikes that come out every year. He’s a terrific athlete and great student. He wants to feel proud wearing them. All great reasons to own them, but he doesn’t “need” them. His parents have a simple rule. Split the costs 50-50. He does special errands, baby-sits, saves birthday money, and pays half. His mother tells me this results in him taking better care of his sneakers. He keeps them clean and doesn’t leave them around the house.

Also, ask yourself who’s doing most of the buying? Parents today are very busy, working long hours, and often try to compensate by buying more things for their kids. We tend to make more out of holidays and birthdays than ever. It feels good to give and make kids feel happy, but its only temporary, and it sends the wrong message. We should be linking new toys, fun clothes, and electronic games to maintaining healthy behaviors, better school effort, and compliance at home.

Finally, watch out for begging. Kids who push and push to get something they want only learn to push harder should you cave in. I recommend that parents have a strict rule on begging. If begging gets out of control, then the whole discussion is put aside for a week. I know too many adults who push, plead, won’t take no for an answer… and we all find such people very challenging to deal with. We see how they make others around them uncomfortable and angry. I wonder what they were like as kids? Maybe their parents didn’t help teach the difference between want and need.

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