Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tip 6 - Quick Thinking --play the Speed Talking Game

Try this fun “speed talking game” the next time you have a long car or plane ride with your child.  [Be careful not to play this game when you need to concentrate on driving.] Ask your child to say a word, any word…like “house”. You have to come up with a word that can build on that like “boat” – for “houseboat” or “hold” for “household”. Then it is your turn, say any word…like ”shoe” and your child has to build on that with a word like “store” for “shoe store”. Make it a “timed” game by seeing how many word pairs you can come up with in fifteen minutes and keep a chart to see if you can beat your own record next time. Of course two or three children can join in as well. The Speed Talking Game not only builds vocabulary and concepts like compound words-- but also helps build “quick thinking”.

Do you know someone you consider "quick on their feet?" Athletes talk about the importance of "quickness" and teachers describe students as "fast learners". There is a reason for all of this talk about speed -- what underlies quickness in sports, school and picking up new skills is processing speed. In the brain, processing speed is a measure of the efficiency of the brain's connection pathways -- I referred to this in an earlier post as the “super highways” of the brain. The super highways are long fiber tracts that are "paved" with myelin, a fatty substance that acts like an insulator for efficient transmission of brain signals. New research indicates that the more we practice a skill that requires some concentration, especially when the emphasis is on accuracy and speed, the thicker the myelin becomes. That is probably why athletic coaches include speed drills as part of all their practice sessions and arithmetic teachers include timed tests for math facts. Helping your preschooler become a quick thinker is a great way to prepare for school; and, if you have a school-aged child you can keep building processing speed through “speed taking” games – like the one at the end of this post.

How can you help your child become a "quick thinker"? You use the brain's strategy.

Brain research over the past few decades indicates that speech and language skills are a primary avenue (pun intended) that the brain uses to begin the process of paving important super highways for symbol use -- the left brain architecture that your child will need for school subjects like reading, math, science and geography. You see, spoken (or signed) words are the first symbols a child learns. Take the word "dog" for example. The words puppy, doggie, woff-woff  are very different words - but they stand for the same object -- a furry four legged pet that barks. It might seem very simple to hear a word and then use it as a symbol for something in the world around us. But in the brain the super highways needed for talking are quite complex. When a child hears the word "dog" he has to perceive the individual speech sounds d-o-g, sequence them in the correct order (if he gets the sequence wrong he might think the word is "God") and then transfer that information to the "doing" part of the brain, the frontal lobe, to say them. Young children are pretty inefficient at that - a young child might say "gog" or "dah" for dog - not because he cannot say the sounds correctly but because the super highways are not yet very efficient and the signal gets mixed up along the way. The brain highways become efficient by talking - talking a lot. And talking paves the "interstate highway system" that will be used later in school for learning to read, write, and use symbols in math, science and geography.

The more opportunities your child has to talk, the better paved the highways will become - the "quicker" your child will be able to produce coherent sentences, say words with correct pronunciation, as well as formulate and express ideas. Quick thinking starts with talking.

Step 6 - play the speed talking game for quick thinking

Monday, December 27, 2010

Step 5 - Smart Talk -- Brain-Building Opportunities

I hope you are discovering that Parent Smart does not mean "parent hard". In fact, new brain research suggests that a stress-free environment is conducive to positive brain growth. Also when you enjoy being with your children it leads to talk and play, both of which are necessary for maturation of the left and right hemisphere. So smart parenting should easily fit into what you are already doing with your child every day.  Below I have added some suggestions for brain building opportunities that can become part of your everyday routines -- I call them Brain-Opps

v  Dressing in the morning and undressing before bed or bath with infants and toddlers
Ø  name the clothes items, their colors, and function –
§  e.g., "your red shirt with the big black zipper - it zips up to keep you warm"
Ø   name the body part as the child dresses as well as the left and right side
§  e.g., “Your left sleeve goes on your left arm”
v  Mealtime provides a wonderful time for Brain-Opp conversations of all sorts:
Ø  While setting the table together name the utensils and work on left and right of the plate
Ø  Foods can be described by their color, their texture, their type of food etc.
§  e.g. “The red beets are vegetables but the red cherries are sweet fruit – can you think of another food that you like that is red?”
Ø  For older children, evening meals are perfect for discussing events of the day or planning for the next day
§  e.g. “Tomorrow is Friday – do you have a spelling test tomorrow as usual? Should we practice the words one more time before you go to bed tonight?”
v  House work  provides great language and Human Mirror System Brain-Opps:
Ø  Toddlers love to imitate dusting, vacuuming (with a push toy), and helping to put clean dishes away (especially pots and pans in lower cupboards they can reach)
Ø  Washing dishes can be great fun for a preschooler who likes to get their hands wet and work on concepts like float and sink, wash and rinse, whirling water as it rushes down the drain as well as naming shapes and sizes of plates, bowls, cups and glasses
Ø  Cleaning drawers  and sorting laundry provide a great opportunities to demonstrate sorting
Ø  While you work on email in the evening your school-age child can practice cursive writing, or typing on a computer
Ø  During meal preparation, especially before dinner – your child can imitate your work-habits and schedule by sitting with you in the kitchen and do homework
v  Bath time provides an opportunity for water play and singing bath songs
Ø  Children love bath toys that float – boats, rubber duckies, etc. – children enjoy blowing them like “wind”, seeing what happens when they fill with water and “sink”, and of course, splashing.
Ø  Bath songs like “Rubber Duckie” and “Rub-a-dub-dub three men in a tub” were made for bath time
v  And, of course one of the best Brain-Opp times is when you are settling your child down for bed:
Ø  Reading nursery rhymes or stories in a quiet bedroom helps a child settle down and prepare to sleep – but these stories also allow the brain of a young child to build finely tuned maps in the’ speech sound box’ because the lack of background noise provides a nice clear signal for brain organization.
Ø  Reading or talking quietly with your child before bed, especially if it is a consistent routine, provides a sense of security for your child and anticipation of a regular bedtime reduces arguments about going to bed.
Ø  When you sit next to a child on a bed with your arm around the child’s shoulder and a book held in front of both of you,  the child is getting the clearest speech signal possible – your mouth to the child’s ear, arm length away. This provides an optimal speech signal for building attention and memory skills that will help your child throughout school

 Step 5 - Use Brain Opps to turn everyday routines into brain building activities

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Step 4 - Limit TV, movies and videos

Up to this point I have focused on the positive-- and I do try to avoid "don't do" suggestions because as parents we get so many. But, this post provides a caution because there is so much research now that points to the negative consequences of too much T.V., video and movie time. The American Academy of Pediatrics has been publishing research for several years on the effects of television and other forms of "screen" exposure on psychological welfare, attention skills and school success. Generally the Academy recommends no screen time (including computers, movies, TV and video games) in children younger than 2 years of age and after two years of age the recommendation is to limit screen time to two hours a day. They also recommend that parents supervise screen exposure and totally avoid violent or other inappropriate movies, television shows and video games.
There are many reasons to limit screen time. First, children who watch a great deal of TV or get lost in video games are not getting adequate physical exercise and are more likely to be obese. Second, ADHD is more prevalent among children who watch more than three hours a day of television. Third, children who are in front of TV screens are not interacting with friends or families. Finally, children who experience more than two hours a day screen time are more likely to exhibit psychological problems. I have included a summary of one of the more recent studies on psychological outcomes below. 

"Children's Screen Viewing Related to Psychological Difficulties Irrespective of Physical Activity and Sedentary Time," is a research article that was published in the November issue of Pediatrics the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.  Researchers in the UK assessed time spent on use of media for entertainment in 1,000 children ages 10 to 11 years.   Their results indicated that television and computer viewing were associated with increased psychological difficulty scores, regardless of how physically active the children were.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has a Parent Corner website that is a wonderful resource for parents of infants all the way through adolescents - I have included the link to a video explaining the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations in the links section below.

Step 4 – Limit television and other forms of screen time to two hours a day for children older than two years of age

Monday, December 20, 2010

Step 3 - "Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall"

Encouraging your child to imitate you (exercising what is called the mirror system), can build a brain that is better equipped for socialization, school, music and athletics, not to mention speech and language. So, every time you play an interactive imitative game like “Patty-cake, Patty-cake” you are helping your child to exercise the human mirror system. Parents have been doing these action/nursery sequences for years, and there are many similar routines in many cultures. Examples of “mirror neuron” routines that have been around and passed on for generations in Western cultures include – “So Big!” where a parent asks the child something like , “How big are you?” and the child and parent respond together holding up their arms in like fashion, “SO BIG!”  For preschoolers, songs with gestures serve the same purpose. Songs like “Ensie Weensie Spider” allow the parent and child imitate each other by alternately touching the thumb of one hand to the forefinger of the other hand to emulate the spider climbing up a water spout or “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” where children act pointing to a star in the sky. The wonderful thing about these types of routines is that they illustrate how intuitive parents have been for centuries, at identifying and exploiting the natural directions and priorities of brain development. Once children get into school they will use the Human Mirror System to do everything from refining speech pronunciation to learning dances and refining athletic routines.
"Mommy and Daddy, look at this!" "Watch me now!!"

Sound familiar? Children of all ages love to perform for their parents. And it is not just our children. Parents have been instructing their children to "watch me....listen to me," probably for centuries. Humans seem to have a natural tendency to use imitation to teach then refine our skills by showing what we have learned. There is an explanation for this drive to watch and listen to learn from others.  The explanation is reasonably new; scientists call it the Human Mirror System or HMS for short.

In 1999 Marco Iacoboni and his colleagues at UCLA school of medicine began publishing research on how people learn by observing others – watch others dance, throw or hit balls, use tools…the list of motor plans we can learn from others is endless. Other neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio have noted that the same phenomenon occurs with listening – how many of us enjoy singing along with the radio? And it turns out that there is a specific area in the frontal lobe – ‘the doing part of the brain’ - that begins to wire itself very early in development through imitation of the movements and sounds made by others. This area at the bottom of the frontal lobe lights up whenever a child or adult imitates movements, speech or even facial expressions.  

Because this area is very close, and may even overlap, with the part of the brain in the left hemisphere that we use to talk, researchers have speculated that it might have been an evolutionary starting point for development of human language. But, because it is also active in the right hemisphere, it seems to play an important role in social, and perhaps athletic, interaction as well.

Step  3- frequently play interactive and imitative games to develop the Human Mirror System

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Step 2 -The Nursery Rhyme effect - Build the brain's "Speech Sound Box"

Developing your child's “speech sound box” is critical for learning to read because learning to read depends on mapping written letters to speech sounds. Speaking to your child often, in quiet environments where there is not a great deal of noise, helps this area become finely tuned.  Nursery rhymes and nursery songs, which can be repeated over and over, are especially good for building the speech sound box.  That is probably why they  have been around for so many years and are spoken to babies around the world.  Rhymes like “Peas Porridge Hot”  and "Hickory, DIckory, Dock" are still with us, not because of the meaning they convey, but because children naturally love to hear  the repetition of words that rhyme, contain many similar sounding syllables and have repetitive starting sounds.

The way a baby’s brain begins to learn the sounds of her native language is to develop a sound map in the top part of left temporal lobe – I will call it the “speech-sound box.” Imagine that the geography of the human brain is like the map of the United States – with large cities, suburbs around those cities, and small towns, all connected by an intricate highway system. The speech sound box of a baby starts out as the hub of a central region, kind of like I imagine a major city like Atlanta might have appeared in the 1800’s.  It begins as a town near some major travel routes, with lots of  available space good for building houses, stores and churches.  Then the town grows into a city with more clearly defined streets and more closely packed buildings and larger highways that link it to other towns and cities.

Well, the child’s brain gets started in a very similar way. The right and left hemisphere of the brain have several large travel routes that have started to build before the child is born. Strategically located near travel routes are brain regions where the neurons (brain cells) will map themselves for specific jobs like perceiving color, or faces in the visual parts of the brain and distinguishing speech sounds in the listening parts of the brain.  As we learned yesterday, the baby’s brain is set up to figure out the speech sounds of the language spoken around him. That ability starts with a capacity called “categorical perception” - the capacity that underlies deveopment of the speech sound box.

Categorical perception is a skill a newborn uses to sort sounds into speech and non-speech, then to distinguish one speech sound from another. The actual physical characteristics of speech sounds are not consistent  from word to word or speaker to speaker.  The English /b/sound for example, that is in the middle of the word “baby” is slightly different from the /b/ sound that starts the word “bottle” and those, in turn, will be slightly different when produced by different speakers. But the infant’s brain is designed to figure out how those sounds are alike – what we could call /b-ness/ even though the physical properties of the sound are different, and at the same time how the /b/ sound differs from a /p/ or a /t/ sound.
Categorical perception is essential for learning speech in the first place, but it is also what then interferes with learning the sound system of another language.  That is why a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese, for example, might have trouble with the categories that distinguish an /r/ from an /l/ in English. (To the Chinese speaker they sound like the same sound.) Their speech sound box develops different categories, a slighly different map,  than an English speaker.

We know from research in infant language learning by experts like Dr. Kuhl, that new born infants are born able to distinguish the differences between speech sounds in any human language spoken in the world - so they can essentially form a speech sound box for any langauge they might end up hearing. For this reason, Dr. Kuhl has referred to very young infants as “citizens of the world.” But, by as early as eleven months of age, once the baby’s brain gets mapped for the sounds of the language spoken to them, the sound map of the brain serves as a filter that enables the baby to perceive only the sounds of the language or languages spoken in his home. At the same time the child is learning to ignore all the distinctions in sounds that might be relevant in other languages. 

Step 2 - Build the “speech sound box” through frequent repetition of nursery rhymes in quiet settings

Friday, December 17, 2010

Parent Smart Step 1 - Talk, Talk, Talk

One of the best ways to get your baby prepared for school, starts the day he is born. It is very simple – just talk. And you don’t have to find a special time – talk about anything and everything that comes to mind when you dress your baby, feed your baby, and hold your baby. Just by talking you will be building the brain capacities your child will need to do well in school because the left side of our brain is all about symbols, whether it is math class, or science, or cooking class.  .

Your baby’s brain is a “learning machine” set from the first day of birth to absorb and adapt to the world around it. Your job as a parent is a reasonably simple one, to provide an environment that fosters the development of skills that will be helpful in later life.  And it turns out it is really not very difficult to get the baby’s brain building the right way because the infant brain has a built-in strategy – “watch others around you move and listen to them talk.”

Why would a baby who cannot speak or understand any words be interested when people talk? Scientists have learned that a primary job of the infant brain is to figure out language because speech and language appear to get the left side of the brain “set up” for the kinds of learning that will be important later. In the 1950’s a famous linguist, Noam Chomsky, first introduced the idea that the human baby’s brain has a built-in design to acquire the natural language relatively effortlessly.  Chomsky referred to the baby’s in-born inclination to learn language as an innate “language acquisition device.”  Although Chomsky’s original concept has been revised over the years, neuroscientists like Dr. Patricia Kuhl at University of Washington and Helen Neville at the University of Oregon, have demonstrated repeatedly that the human infant brain is ready from day one to listen to and learn the language spoken around them.

But to do well in school, a child needs more than talk – a child needs to be able to handle all sorts of symbol systems. For the most of us it is the left hemisphere machinery that enables us to use and handle symbols.  You may know that the right hemisphere of our brain is very important for understanding other people and developing social skills.  But recent brain research indicates that there is a hub in the left hemisphere that starts building when a child begins to sort out his first symbol system – the speech sounds that when strung together stand for words that stand for objects and action. Having this symbol software up and running, seems to provide the architecture that the brain will use to develop other symbol systems so important in school:
·         written letters that represent the spoken words,
·         numerals and other mathematical symbols like + and =,
·         algebraic symbols like x + y,
·         scientific symbols,
·         geographic maps that symbolize space,
·         numerals that represent time,
·         musical symbols
·         symbols used for cooking, or designing buildings, and so forth

One of the best ways to get your baby prepared for school, starts the day he is born. It is very simple – just talk. And you don’t have to find a special time – talk about anything and everything that comes to mind when you dress your baby, feed your baby, and hold your baby. Just by talking you will be building the brain capacities your child will need to do well in school because the left side of our brain is all about symbols, whether it is math class, or science, or cooking class.  . 

So, Step One of Parent Smart is talk, talk, talk.

Welcome to Parent Smart - a brain science resource for raising bright children

This blog is for and about you and your children. It is designed to help you raise successful children without hovering or creating pressure on yourself or your children to "do well".   I will be explaining how you can easily apply new research on how the brain learns to your daily routines with your children. But, to get started, the most important fact for you to understand is that children are not "born" smart. The brain of your child is building itself every time your child moves, plays with toys, or listens to people talk. A child's brain is a learning machine from the second the baby is born.

Of course there are many different kinds of success and intelligence. Some of you may hope your child is successful in school, others may hope for a great athlete, still others an accomplished musician  a business leader or a great parent. What brain scientists have learned is that most children have the innate capacity to excel in many areas. Your genes get the process of brain development started but actual experiences create the building blocks necessary to master any skill.

The key to understanding how to help your child develop skills and specific intelligences is to recognize that the brain gets good at what it does. Simply put, that means that children who watch several hours of television a day are developing brains that are good for T.V. watching while those who are playing with friends are developing social and physical skills. Since most of us want children who are good at reading, or math, social skills, or athletics for example, we need to help our children spend more time in activities that foster that kind of brain-building.

The exciting thing about the new brain science is that it means all of us can raise children who are talented in several areas. And, children who feel they are good at something often have more self-confidence, become more independent, and require less hovering.

As this blog progresses I will be providing daily posts with specific information on how to prepare your toddler for school; how to help  your school-age children gain social skills, excel in music or art, and of course, do well in specific school subject areas. All the advice will be based on authoritative research with the research studies listed so that you can go read the actual studies yourself if you would like. I will provide links to other websites that also provide authoritative information to guide you. But, above all, I want you to find the pleasure of parenting without the pressure. You are already a great parent – I know because you obviously have been searching the web for helpful advice. That is how you found this blog. My job will be to help you harness your natural parenting ability so that you raise your child intelligently – help you to become parent smart.