Welcome to Your Child’s Brain

IMG_4199Sandra Aamodt & Sam Wang

While Welcome to Your Child’s Brain is part of the self-help genre, it is written by two neuroscientists who bring their own research and that of others to the key questions of child development. For those who are interested in which areas of the brain are involved in different behaviors, the current research on this is presented, but effectively raising children has similarities to effectively using a computer. You need to know how the programs work. You do not need to know the inner workings of the computer. In the case of children (and other humans) we don’t need to know the areas of the brain which are involved, most of which is still poorly understood. This book, like others which I have reviewed, is a response to some of the misleading information, toys, and educational programs which are being presented to parents and it is this information which has the potential to be most beneficial. To make this as concise as possible, I will present bullets in the form of excerpts and will include page numbers if you would like to read more on any of these statements or conclusions.

The “best gift” you can give your children is self-control. Self-control and other executive functions of the brain (like working memory, flexible thinking, and resisting the temptation to go on automatic) contribute to the development of [children’s] most important basic brain function: the ability to control their own behavior in order to reach a goal.” P. xii

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It probably doesn’t matter exactly what excites your children; as long as they are intensely engaged by an activity and concentrate on it, they will be improving their ability to self-regulate and thus their prospects for the future.” P. xii

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Babies start to follow an adult’s gaze as early as four months of age. P. 7

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Being effective in the world is enormously rewarding for children and adults alike. P. 25

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One reason that people get so worked up over the nature vs. nurture debate is the widespread assumption that genetic contributions to development are deterministic, while environmental contributions are flexible… Nearly all genes that influence behavior act by changing the odds of a particular developmental outcome, not by specifying it exactly – so your child’s heredity is not destiny… Indeed, from an individual neuron’s perspective, it would be hard to distinguish between “genetic” and “environmental” influences. Signals that enter your brain through your eyes or ears (that is, via experience) influence development by causing chemical signals to modify genes or proteins – just as genetic influences do. Some of these changes are reversible, and some are not, but whether they originated inside or outside the body is not the determining factor. Pp. 32 – 33

Epigenetics is a new field which is not easy to understand. Environmental influences can determine if and when genes are expressed and some of these can even be passed on to future generations. The following excerpts relate to epigenetics.

When epigenetic modifications occur in sperm or eggs, they can affect future generations. This process is best understood in laboratory animals. For example, female mice that spent a particular two weeks of their youth in an “enriched environment” (with many toys) learned more easily as adults. And so did their pups – even when those pups were raised by a foster mother and did not receive any enrichment themselves. The pups instead benefited from their mother’s experiences passed down through epigenetic modifications to her DNA. P. 34

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To start with a basic principle, your child’s genes can influence his environment – and vice versa. His personal characteristics lead him to seek out certain experiences in life and his tendencies to react to other people in certain ways affect how they behave toward him…. Because the influences run in both directions, many developmental processes are feedback loops, in which our genes influence our environment, which then influence our genes (or at least the way they are expressed), and so on…. With all of this interaction, it is nearly impossible to figure out how much of a particular behavior is caused by genes and how much by environment. P. 35

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Sleep debt has serious consequences, including reduced mental performance, depressed mood, impaired health, and weight gain. P. 78

 

Perception of large-scale motion patterns, like raindrops seen through the windshield of a moving car, improves rapidly between three and five months and then continues to develop slowly through middle childhood. This aspect of motion processing, the most vulnerable to disruption, is impaired in some developmental disorders, including dyslexia and autism. P. 83

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Young children’s play contributes to the development of their most important basic brain function: the ability to control their own behavior in order to reach a goal. P. 112

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Preschool children’s ability to resist temptation is a much better predictor of eventual academic success than their IQ scores. P. 112

Succeeding at challenging self-control tasks builds more success, but repeated failure may instead teach the child that there’s no point in trying. P. 120

 

Active children have higher self-esteem than inactive children. P. 131

 

All of us have experienced emotions that seemed overwhelming and out of control. Imagine feeling that way much of the time, and you have a picture of your child’s daily experience. One reason that life with toddlers is such a wild ride is that the parts of the nervous system that produce raw emotions mature earlier than the brain regions that interpret and manage them. P. 155

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Until their own regulatory capacity is fully developed, your children rely on you to moderate their emotions, by soothing and distracting them, and to help them learn how it’s done. Parents who are more sensitive to their infant’s needs and respond quickly to emotional cues tend to raise children who are better at regulating their own emotions. Pp. 161 – 162

 

If your child believes that intelligence is a fixed characteristic, that belief will make her act less smart. Children who think a test measures their innate competence do not try as hard or perform as well as those who think that the effort is the major determinant of success or failure. P. 188

 

Word-form recognition is learned through experience. This capacity seems to be an example of a more general ability of the inferior temporal cortex to visually recognize objects. P. 212

 

Stress profoundly affects the developing brain. P. 224

You may not think of nagging as a way of rewarding your child for misbehaving, but even yelling can actually encourage the behavior you’re trying to stop, especially if that’s the best way for your child to get your attention. Completely ignoring the problem behavior is usually the most effective way to get it to stop – if you can stick with it long enough.

It’s common for parents to turn to yelling or spanking as their first response to problem behaviors, but a large body of research shows that this negative approach to behavior modification is not very effective in the long run. The effects of punishment are fleeting and tend not to generalize to other situations. P. 248

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So many of the things we do instinctively and many of the things promoted in our culture are correct, but many are not. Concepts of child-rearing tend to change, but children remain mostly the same as the environment changes. Due to many pressures, some of what is being done in education at this time is not in the child’s best interest nor will it produce the desired changes in a significant percent of the population. We have many new distractions with which to cope and we can’t pretend that they don’t exist. I hope that this information is helpful.

What if Everybody Understood Child Development? Part 1

Let Them Eat Dirt

Growing Up with Sensory Issues:Insider Tips from a Woman with Autism

Reclaiming Childhood:Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement Oriented Society

Book Review: Nuture Shock: New Thinking about Children

How We Read

How We Read

Despite the continuing controversy over the best way to teach reading and over the best time to teach a child to read, a great deal is known and agreed upon about the hidden intricacies of accomplished reading. Reading may seem simple once it has been mastered, but it is amazingly complex. It is dependent on the interaction of many mechanisms which must be coordinated with precise timing. This coordination involves multiple areas of the brain. The evolutionary forces which selected for these mechanisms had their effects long before reading was invented. Areas of the brain which evolved for other purposes must be retrained and coordinated to make reading possible. While one of the functions of vision therapy is to help people develop visual skills whose visual problems make it difficult for them to read, most people learn to read without this intervention. I am more amazed that most people learn to read well than I am that some people have difficulty mastering reading. Complex systems such as reading and sending a rocket into space have multiple vulnerabilities. Prior suggestions that all reading problems have the same cause are as misguided as the assumption that all rocket failures are due to defective O-rings and that only one system can fail at a time.

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The visual process of reading is not as it seems. Our eyes do not move smoothly across the page. As with most of what we do, the process of efficient reading is controlled subconsciously and is not available for our conscious inspection. Our eyes make stops (fixations) and jumps (saccades) 4 times a second as we read. We do not take in visual information during saccades although our brain continues to process information. This phenomenon also happens every time we blink and whenever we look from one object to another. Although our visual input is discontinuous, our perception is continuous.

Frequent eye movements are necessary to gather information because we only see a very small area clearly at a time. (see Active Vision) Our eyes move from one area of interest to another area of interest as our brains construct the illusion that we are seeing everything clearly simultaneously. The clarity of our vision decreases sharply as objects are farther from the point of fixation. Only the central 5 degrees has clarity equivalent to 20/20. This correlates with 5 letter spaces. During each fixation which lasts 1/5 of a second, input takes place, new information is processed and combined with what has been read before, our attention shifts to where our eyes will move next, and we predict what the next word will be.

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When we think of vision, we think of our focal visual system; the primarily conscious component of our vision which enables us to see clearly, identify what we are seeing, localize it, and to see it in color. The ambient visual system, which works in parallel with the focal system, is primarily subconscious and outside of our voluntary control. It contributes to our balance, helps guide our eye movements, keeps our vision from smearing when our eyes move, and stabilizes our world even when we are moving or objects are moving around us. When this system is poorly developed or poorly integrated, people tend to be unaware that their perception of the world or of the printed page is different from that of others. Dysfunctions of this system become recognizable when the changes are sudden as is caused by head injuries, by excessive movement like spinning in circles, or by the ingestion too much alcohol.

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To process what we see efficiently, our eyes must be focused clearly and aligned precisely at each fixation, 4 times a second, and sustained over extended periods of time. If this alignment is off even hundredths of a degree, the information being sent to the brain will have increased ambiguity.

The connection between our eyes and our brain is different than the connections between the rest of our body and our brain. Each eye sends half of its information to each side of the brain. Everything seen to our left is sent to the right cerebral hemisphere by each eye and everything seen to our right is sent to the left cerebral hemisphere by each eye. Efficient readers land 1/3 of the way into a word so more attention is focused on the beginning of the word to facilitate word recognition. It is now recognized that this causes information from the beginning of a word to go to the right hemisphere first while information from the end of the word goes directly to the left hemisphere. The left hemisphere has the primary responsibility for interpreting language. It is not yet understood how this information is recombined in less than 1/5 of a second with information from the end of the word reaching the left hemisphere prior to information from the beginning of the word.

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When children start to read, they look at every letter and put the letters together to recognize the word. Not looking at the letters in the proper spatial sequence will make identifying the word more difficult. As the system becomes more efficient, words begin to be processed as single units. Accomplished readers process longer words at almost the same speed that they process shorter words which is known as the word length effect. But if the letters or words are too close together, neighboring letters and words start to interfere as would happen when fine black and white lines are too close together. School books and worksheets are often too crowded which creates more problems for some students than for others. Adults are not immune to this effect. (see Visual Crowding)

The average reading speed for high school students is 250 words per minute which is about 4 words per second or one word per fixation. A reasonable adult reading speed is 350 words per minute which means that we are reading 6 words a second or 6 words for each 4 fixations. We do not read faster by moving our eyes faster. We read faster by taking in more information with each fixation and by reducing the number of errors which are recorded by eye tracking instruments as retrograde saccades. Children start by reading orally and then progress to subvocalizing words as they read. Proficient readers stop subvocalizing most words and recognize the word and the word’s meaning without activating the speech areas of the brain. Persistent subvocalization constrains reading speed.

Over time we develop a sight vocabulary of thousands of words. Words are stored in what is known as the word-form area which develops in the same area of the brain that we use to store information about faces and names. The ability to visualize words enables the development of our sight vocabulary and is essential for successful spelling. When we recognize the shape of the face of someone that we know, a name should be associated with it. Likewise, when we recognize a shape in the form of a word that we know, a name should be associated with it.

What we read is primarily retained in visual images and accessed by recalling those images. As important as language is to our thinking, visual processing and recall develops before language. Visual thinking continues to be important although we may be less aware of when we are using visual processing that we are aware of using language.

When we think of reading and reading problems, we don’t tend to think of these low-level skills, but like many things that we do, it is difficult for our high-level skills to shine if we haven’t developed mastery and automaticity of the prerequisite low-level skills. This is as true of musicians, surgeons, athletes and artists as it is of readers. It should be mentioned that there are also low-level auditory processing skills that have a role in learning to read. As the visual system is sensitive to crowding in space, the auditory system is sensitive to crowding in time. Some people do not process streams of sounds as quickly as do others and coordinating what is seen and what is heard is important in the process of learning to read.

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All of this is not to disregard the importance of high-level processing.  Working memory is necessary to assimilate current input with what has just been read.  Comprehension is dependent on an adequate vocabulary and an information and experience base which enables the reader to relate what we are currently reading to our stored knowledge.  Strong language abilities form a rich foundation for reading.

A lot has been said about 10,000 hours being necessary to develop expertise in a complex skill. If a child has been reading daily from the time that they are able to read until they graduate from high school, they will have read over 10,000 hours. Barring complications, a child is expected to be a competent reader long before that time as long as they have been engaged in what they are reading and have not been reading only because they have been forced to read. (see The Talent Code)03282012Casa_hogar_niñas_tlahuac30

For more information see:

Reading in the Brain

Reading in the Brain, Part Two

What if Everybody Understood Child Development? Part 1

Visual word form area in visual cortex remembers words as pictures

What if Everybody Understood Child Development? Part 3

Rae Pica

 

Explicit learning may get the facts across more quickly than learning through exploration and discovery, but the latter has far more meaning to children and stays with them longer.

Adult personality is built on the child’s play. Among the social skills learned are the ability to share, cooperate, negotiate, compromise, make and revise rules, and to take the perspective of others. Play provides opportunities for children to meet and solve problems – the number-one ability they will most assuredly require in this rapidly changing world. It helps children express their thoughts and feelings and to deal with stress. To cope with fears they can’t yet understand or articulate. Through play, children acquire literacy, mathematical, and creative skills. Make-believe play, in particular, has been linked to self-regulations skills, which in turn have been linked to greater academic success than IQ has. How is social development supposed to be fostered? Do we imagine that one grows up and suddenly knows how to effectively communicate and collaborate and to be part of a community?

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Everyone benefits from a break. As far back as 1885 and 1901, the research is quite clear on this: both children and adults learn better and more quickly when their efforts are distributed (breaks are included) than when concentrated (work is conducted in longer periods).

Outdoors, children can engage in behaviors (loud, messy, and boisterous) considered unacceptable and annoying indoors. And because recess is a break from structure and expectations, children have an opportunity to take control of their world, which is a rarity in their lives and which offers more preparation for adulthood than does memorizing the state capitals.

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Research has demonstrated that children learn better when they learn on their own or from each other.

Nowhere else in the world do standardized tests play such a large role in education. Standardized tests promote the myth of “one right answer”. There is a real danger to our children if they grow up believing there is only one right answer to every question.

Alina Tugend, author of Better by Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong, said that as a result of all the pressure placed on them to be perfect, today’s children lack resiliency, a key characteristic in happy, successful adults. The first time they make a big mistake, they fall apart. Additionally, she said, we’re raising a generation of kids afraid to take risks and to try creative things. They just want to “stick to what they know, pass that test, get that A, and move, on.”

Just because the things in children’s lives have changed, it doesn’t mean the children themselves have.

The homework debate has a long history, dating back to the 1920s and the 1930s. But one has to wonder why there’s any debate at all, when the research clearly shows no correlation between academic achievement and homework in elementary school.

      There’s also the value of relaxation, which is both a learned skill and a necessary one. Acquiring the ability to relax enables children to find a quiet place inside themselves that allows them to cope – to maintain control over their bodies and minds. The child who learns to relax will have the ability to manage stress and therefore lead a healthier – and more serene – life. But it will also ensure a more energetic life, as stress is most certainly an energy robber. There’s no debate over whether learning is important for kids. The thing is, they’re learning all the time; it’s just unfortunate that learning about such things as oneself, nature, and stress management are not considered as worthy today as are math equations and spelling words.

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People tend to misunderstand what positive reinforcement is. Ellen Ava Sigler said, “They believe that positive reinforcement is sweets, treats, and empty praise, when positive reinforcement is positive attention. Simply acknowledging a child’s work or talking to a child about what they’re doing is positive reinforcement. The child who has come to expect an intrinsic reward – who has become convinced that everything she does is worthy of praise or prizes – will be the adolescent or adult who can’t handle life’s realities.

I just read a review of a soon to be released book entitled, Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life. It struck me what a small percentage of self-help books are on improving your math skills, reading sills, or note-taking abilities and how many are on themes like emotional agility. There is a disconnect between how we are pressuring children in the educational race with narrow goals with the assumption that this will help them later in life and the problems that they are most likely to have as adults – those without a single correct answer. The goal of education should be to prepare the whole child for both ethical and pragmatic reasons. School has many opportunities and should have the expertise to help children develop skills other than math and reading which have been determined to be more important to their ultimate happiness and success in life.

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Reclaiming Childhood:Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement Oriented Society

The Other Side of the Report Card: Assessing Students’ Social, Emotional, and Character Development

The End of Average

What if Everybody Understood Child Development? Part 2

Rae Pica

 

According to Marcy Guddemi, executive director of the Gesell Institute of Child Development, children are not reaching their developmental milestones any sooner than they did in 1925 when Arnold Gesell first did his research. “One of our misguided expectations right now in the education field is that every child should leave kindergarten reading. Well, not every child is going to leave kindergarten reading.” A child’s development absolutely cannot be accelerated or hurried in any way.

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Politicians pander to the ridiculous notion that education is a race. And teachers – from preschool to the primary grades – are being forced to abandon their understanding of what is developmentally appropriate and teach content they know to be wrong for kids.

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Demanding that children perform skills for which they’re not yet ready creates fear and frustration in them.

Childhood is not a dress rehearsal for adulthood. It is a separate, unique, and very special phase of life. And we’re essentially wiping it out of existence in a misguided effort to ensure children get ahead.

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We do have a great deal of research detailing the impact of stress on the learning process. Dr. William Stixrud sums it up quite nicely when he writes, “stress hormones actually turn off the parts of the brain that allow us to focus attention, understand ideas, commit information to memory and reason critically.”

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The experts insist that today’s children are no less safe than children of my generation. Stranger danger, which tends to top the list of parents’ fears, truly is a myth. According to the U. S. Department of Justice statistics on violent crimes, between 1973 and 2002, out of every thousand children kidnapped, just one of two of them were abducted by strangers. In fact, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, children are four times more likely to die of heart disease than to be kidnapped by a stranger.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA stranger

The pressure for students to spend more time on academics and to pass test after test – to win the race that education has become – is so great that basic human needs are being ignored and unmet.

  • Numerous studies have demonstrated that physically active students perform better in, and have better attitudes toward, school.
  • Movement is the young child’s preferred – and most effective – mode of learning, but we make them sit still regardless. Why do we insist on teaching children in any way other than via their preferred – and most effective – method?

When children move over, under, around, through, beside, and near objects and others, they better grasp the meaning of these prepositions and geometry concepts. When they perform a “slow walk” or skip “lightly”, adjectives and adverbs become much more than abstract ideas. When they’re given the opportunity to physically demonstrate such action words as stomp, pounce, stalk, or slither – or descriptive words such as smooth, strong, gentle, or enormous – word comprehension is immediate and long-lasting. The words are in context, as opposed to being a mere collection of letters.

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The Mislabled Child

Thinking Goes to School:Piaget’s Theory in Practice

Reading Instruction in Kindergarten

The Mislabled Child

Assessing and Helping Children with Learning Challenges

The Mislabled Child is one of the first books I would recommend for concerned parents and educators. The authors, Brock and Fernette Eide, are neurologists who were invited to address the College of Optometrists in Vision Development in 2006, due to their enlightened understanding of children with learning difficulties. They recognize that learning problems have neither a single cause nor a single treatment. They explain why children with learning problems require a thorough, multi-disciplinary evaluation based on their signs and symptoms. They also explain who should do the evaluations and how diagnosed problems should be treated. Continue reading

Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember The Stroke that Changed My Life

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Christine Hyung-Oak Lee

This is the story of a young woman’s troubled life told by her now much less-troubled self. I recommend the book due to the quality of Christine Hyung-Oak Lee’s writing and how she is able to share the experiences of her stroke at age thirty-three. While the effects of all brain injuries and diseases are not the same, the mental, psychological, and physical experiences she lived through are similar to those of others. She also addresses the life-changes and challenges of those who are caregivers to this population of people who are changed in invisible ways. Continue reading