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Online “Learning Programs” – Do they work?

A mom from Arizona recently asked about a program she saw on the Internet to help her son be a better learner. He hates handwriting. It frustrates him. This program promises to retrain her son’s brain by using handwriting along with listening to music, so that his emotional systems are calmer and he can focus and write with less frustration.

On the surface, the program sounds good, and seems like it would deliver on its promise. BUT, the scientist in me isn’t buying it, for now.

Here’s what I do to be a better consumer of treatments and promises of better living that we are all barraged with daily. Be your own scientist. Think like a scientist. It’s empowering to be a critical thinker!

  1. Watch for labels like “Grounded In Science”. Grounded in science isn’t science. It’s maybe the  start of a scientific inquiry. All new treatments and ideas, no matter how good they sound, need to go the distance. They have to run their scientific course so to speak. That means they need to go through controlled, thoughtful, multiple studies. Researchers have a tough task. They set out to prove themselves wrong in hopes of showing that a pill or a clinical technique has some merit, up and beyond beyond all the other possible reasons it seems to work. Only then do they know it is worth using. This takes lots of time, years in fact.
  2. Watch for testimonials (instead of real studies). Testimonials are always positive. Those are hand-selected and intended to promote the product. They are designed to make you feel good and emotional. When emotional we’re thinking more with our hearts (emotional and irrational) and not our minds (logical).
  3. It’s worth a try… if a program is not very expensive or time-consuming, and you don’t consider it to the exclusion of all other known/tested programs. In the case of this mom from Arizona, she could sit with her son to do writing exercises (calligraphy is fun) while playing calming classical music in the background. New age music and instrumental is often better as lyrics tend to distract. If her son seems to enjoy it, if he gets calmer and seems to focus longer, that will likely help him at school (and homework) where he has to be more attentive and use handwriting.

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

Does Equal Opportunity apply to siblings?

A mom of two boys recently asked: “I have one son in private school and the other isn’t.  Should I explore private schools for the other son, even though, he’s doing great in public school I want to be fair and offer them equal opportunities for success.”

This question really gets at key issues:

  • When a child is doing well, thriving, has friends, grades are solid, and most important, seems happy… don’t change schools. Think of that old expression, If it ain’t broke don’t fix it. In medicine and diagnosing we say it more formally, First, do not harm Or if you are a fan of The Beatles, Let It Be. The more we intervene with good intention, the greater the risk of messing things up.
  • As your children get older, approaching middle school and beyond, you should wholeheartedly adopt the following definition of “fairness”: What’s fair isn’t given them all the same things, but what each of them needs when they need it. In other words, when kids are very young, it makes sense to break every cookie in two, measure each scoop of of ice-cream, buy everybody sneakers at same time. Once they’re older, their individual differences and individual needs branch out and move on different paths of growth… and that’s what should dictate your decisions for giving them what they need to assure them opportunities.

Go with your intuition more as your kids get older, treat them more as the individuals that they are.

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

Don’t over-think your parenting

High parenting expectations (while wonderful, and that’s how most of my clients are) can unintentionally and significantly sabotage best parenting practices. This is true especially in raising young high-energy, spirited boys. That’s because young boys by nature can be all over the map developmentally. Very attentive parents easily get pulled in a hundred directions. They end up chasing each challenge and worrying more and more. That only communicates anxiety back to their kids, which fuels more acting out. Parents need to build in the normal ups and downs of development so these messy moments can play out.

Better to take a low worry, it-will-all-work-out, big picture view. Stick to the basics behaviorally. Maybe add a visual simple chart with clear rewards that are frequent and reasonable. Ignore the tantrums and the inappropriate behaviors until kids calm down and then address what needs to improve. Keep a calm exterior. Don’t raise your voice. Know in your heart of hearts he will be fine, and he will.

Finally, look at what situations he does better in – shows his better self. From that, you can figure out best practices for each of your kids. Is it a calmer, less stressed, less crowded classroom or daycare setting? Is it a more experienced teacher and sitter that he does better with? Around sibs is he worse? If so, plan special 1-1 time to reward him for being patient. Make sure there is always lots of motor movement throughout the day – many breaks – especially before times when he might be expected to sit and attend.

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

Monitor, Monitor, Monitor – And Here’s Why

Have you heard about the latest app – The Blue Whale Challenge? If you haven’t, you need to read this.

The Internet and related tech, especially apps and gaming, are dangerous, and sometimes potentially lethal, for children when not fully monitored. I tell parents in my office, put this largely unknown, fast-moving world of the information age into context. Would you put your twelve year-old behind the wheel of a car and let them drive on the highway? A parent I know put it this way: It’s like an unchartered forrest. I wouldn’t let my child wander around in there unsupervised, let alone without a compass and the tools to survive should something bad happen! 

So, monitor screens at all times. Know what apps are on your child’s devices. Snoop at will on your young teen’s social media as a reasonable condition for them having the privilege of such powerful technology. Tell them up front, for a while until I know you can handle it, I’ll be needing full access to what you’re doing. I’ll back off in time, but only if you show you can manage this responsibly. If you comply, great, if not, the devices and data plan gets stopped.

When your kids complain that they are the only kids in the universe who don’t have a game, app, or device, just smile, never explain yourself or justify what you have to do to be the best parent you can be. They know deep down you have their back and are doing right by them. And when other parents suggest it’s the norm to have phones or a necessity to keep up a “normal” or “healthy” social, smile again, and politely ignore these ridiculous, follow-the-herd statements.

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

Tired Hearing Your Own Voice? Change Your Parenting Strategy

Sound like a broken record? Being ignored? It may be that you are using outdated techniques to raise your children.

Kids change. So should your parenting approach.

By seven or eight, switch from what I call an Outside-In Approach to an Inside-Out Approach. In other words, move from purely environmental management where parents/teachers impose external directions and behavior techniques (such as time-outs and sticker charts), to a more internal approach. This capitalizes on the amazing developmental changes emerging in the brains of kids around puberty. Built into your developing teen is the software to think for themselves. We need to seize that opportunity. And stop reminding, worrying, hovering.

Put it on them. Ask them to help you solve the problems you are seeing.

Step 1: Start with the setup.

“I need some help. You’re getting older and smarter. Don’t think of me as your mom or dad right now (or as your teacher or coach) but lets talk more as equals. It’s been a long time since I’ve been your age. I forget what it’s like. Tell me what it’s like for you – I promise I won’t lecture or disapprove or criticize. I need to hear what you think.”

Step 2: Ask them to think through hypotheticals.

“What would say if a friend needed and asked for your help to stay focused on their work, how could they get along better with their parents, learn to wait on screens until after things got done? How can you encourage other kids to try and think more for themselves and not follow the crowd?”

It may not work the first time, maybe not the second, but keep trying this Inside-Out Approach. Another trick is to move these discussions outdoors, take a walk, shoot hoops while talking, or get someplace that feels more neutral and where you’re less likely to fall into older parenting habits.

The goal is to promote more accurate self-awareness, independence, motivation to move oneself into better situations, and to start using one’s own decision-making skills effectively. These are the hallmarks off what we strive for as mature, independent adults. They are the higher cortical strengths that are available to all, but can’t fully develop unless nurtured through the teens and early twenties.


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