Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tip 45 - Attention Please! Teen focus - the good, the bad and the brilliant

Did you know that sometimes it is the inability to focus attention that enables a youngster to see the world in a creative way? Dr. Alison Gopnik, a professor at University of California Berkeley in her book, “The Philosophical Baby” and more recently in a lecture for TED has emphasized the double-edged sword of attention. Young children display what Gopnik refers to as “open attention” – an inquisitive nature that allows one to be open to everything going on around us to find what might be relevant. As we age, all of us become more biased in our attention; we see what we expect to see. This bias allows us to focus, say on a book chapter instead of the bustle of activity outside our window. But focus comes at a price, the better we can focus the less we see.  On the other hand, with open attention we can observe the unexpected and be free to let our mind and our imagination wander.  Both attentional capacities are important to different aspects of our lives. It is the balance between the ability to focus our attention to get a job done and the ability to see the world through open eyes  that provides all of us with  a balance between being efficient at work while holding on the the ability appreciate the awe of art or the joy of an unexpected juxtaposition of sensory experiences.
The younger a child, the  more open attention they will display. By the teenage years, parents often see a real pull and tug between your child’s desire to let their minds wander and the need to get work completed quickly and efficiently.  The irony is that teens who can focus on one task at a time until completion will be the ones who end up with more time for creative activities after the work is done.
So how do we help our children build the ability to focus when necessary yet maintain the open attention that allows them to view the world in new ways and think creatively? It is most likely through the balance of work and play. School coursework and homework provide periods where concentration and focus are demanded and thereby build a teen’s capacity to focus in order to complete assignments quickly and efficiently. That may be one of the most valuable aspects of homework, namely it builds tolerance for somewhat boring repetitive tasks-- improved concentration leads to more free time. Ways you can help your child develop the ability to focus are:
BEAT THE CLOCK - Use a timer to build ability to stick with one task for longer periods – Pre-teen and early teenage years -   before beginning homework, ask your child to estimate how long it will take to complete each specific home assignment they have that day. Then set a timer for that time when the child begins each homework assignment. The goal will be to see if your child can beat the clock but still get the assignment completed correctly and accurately. For each homework assignment your child completes adequately within the estimated time provide an “entertainment award” of equal time watching a favorite TV show or doing social networking on the computer.
Designate a regular homework time each day – earlier is better than later -  ALL AGES -With so many scheduled after school activities, many children do not get to their homework until after dinner, when understandably they are exhausted and find concentration difficult.  Consider scheduling a slightly later dinner and building in a homework time, perhaps about an hour before dinner each night, where it will be to your teen’s advantage to get as much homework completed as possible to free up time after dinner for more entertaining activities like phone conversations with friends.  Not only will your teen be a little less tired when tackling homework, but there will be a built in incentive to do it efficiently. (But please do not let your teen sacrifice quality for speed.)
Now what can you do to also encourage creative thinking?
SCHEDULE DOWN TIMES –ALL AGES - It is important for you as a parent as well as your child to schedule a designated period of time where attention is allowed (expected) to run free.  You may think of your time as “down time” or relaxation time. Some adults actually make it a formal meditation time. For you it may be surfing on the web, listening to music (we do ‘play’ musical instruments after all) or just taking a long hot bath with nothing to think about at all but how relaxing it feels. For your teen, it may be talking on the phone or listening to their favorite music. If it is scheduled, the time can be limited and there is no guilt about the time spent. The only thing to avoid during this time is passive screen entertainment because that is neither relaxing nor conducive to creative thinking. The goal is to let the imagination run free.
Tip 45 - There are two sides of attention – one is the ability to focus the other is the ability to have open attention and allow the mind to wander and imagination run free. Neither one is better than the other - balancing the two is the key. Creative individuals are usually those with open attention so helping your teen find a balance between the two kinds of attention may ultimately enable your teen to focus when essential and think creatively as well.
View the link below to hear Dr. Alison Gopnik lecture on many spects of the emerging mind of babies, young children and adolescents. The very last section is where she discusses attention in teens.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Tip 44 - School pains? No gains!

How is school going for your child now the new school year is well underway? If you are concerned about your child's primary teacher (or any other teacher) this is the time to speak with the school principal to discuss your concerns. This is one area as a parent you do not want to have a “wait and see attidude.” There is no more important relationship your child will have than his classroom teacher. And according to educational journalist Peg Tyre who has just published a new book entitled The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve, all teachers are not good teachers and certainly not necessarily the best match for your child.  Tyre contends that the teacher-student relationship is one of the  most significant your child will have and can affect your child's self-concept for years to come. 

Teachers have a very hard job and I respect them for their dedication and tenacity, especially in this rough economic environment when educational programs are being cut drastically and class size is increasing. But teachers are human, and may have a child or two in their classroom they just have trouble warming up to or understanding. And, with the responsibility teachers now have to meet high stakes test requirements, they may feel the pressure to push their students more and be harder on students they feel are not achieving adequately. Some parents prefer demanding teachers, so ultimately the choice is yours. But if you feel uncomfortable about the relationship between your teacher and your child, speak up. The principal is a good person to speak with about your concerns. And, don't be afraid to consider moving your child to another school if you continue to feel the present school environment is not the best for your child. You know your child better than anyone else, so if your child seems depressed or anxious about school, that may be a sign to start exploring the option of changing to another teacher in the same school, or changing the school if necessary. All children would prefer to stay home from school, so just because your child complains on Monday morning is not necessarily a reason for concern. But signs of depression, anxiety, or declining grades should be viewed as a warning sign and a time to talk to your child, the teacher, or principal about issues that may be a concern.

Children under ten years of age do not yet have the ability to evaluate themselves very well. They rely heavily on the opinions of adults to form their own concept of their strengths and weaknesses. So a child is not likely to let you know if a teacher does not foster a feeling of self-worth. Rather, you may hear things like, "I am in the 'dumb' reading group."  Peg Tyre has stated, "you want to look at the relationship between teacher and student. What you want [for your child] is teachers who have a lot of respect for kids, who seem to know their strengths and weaknesses." 

When it comes to choosing a school for your child, there are many variables to consider:  from class size to curriculum; attitudes towards extracurricular activities and availability of art, music or athletics. It is not a good idea to choose a school because a friend recommends it, because your child may not have the same needs or fit that school well. And, it is also a good idea not to take a school’s description of their strengths for granted; when possible observe teachers teaching and watch carefully how the students respond to the classroom environment.

Tip 44 School is the most important choice you make for your child's future achievement so choose carefully and do not be afraid to change teachers or schools if your child does not seem to be thriving. School Pains? No academic gains!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Tip 43 - Well, It's About Time!

“Mom, are we there yet?” This standard plea is pretty typical of young children because they have no real concept of time. Time is a very important concept from the pre-school years all the way through adolescence.. From understanding past, present and future, telling time;  developing plans for everything from a birthday party, or budgeting time for homework and school assignments to planning for college – all of these activities require an understanding and appreciation of time.  Time is studied in such diverse scientific domains  as understanding the timing of brain activity to the way physicists explain distance in the universe.  Helping your child think about time, tell time, use words and word endings  that describe time, plan, budget and organize time will all serve your child well in school and social life. Below are some suggestions for helping your child understand and use time successfully.
Preschool – ages 3 to 5The Shoe-Box Game  - appreciating the language and grammar of time
Take three shoe boxes and ask your child to decorate them with crayons or markers. One will be the “We did it box”, one the "We are doing box" and one the "we are going to do box". Your and your child can draw pictures  about trips you took or are going to take, places you visited or want to visit, or photos of people who are visiting now, came to visit or will visit. Anything that happened before now can go in the "we did it box". When you put pictures or objects in the boxes stress the words and grammatical endings that describe what you “did," "are doing" or "plan to do." Examples of good past tense  and future tense words are below.

       ·         Remember when we went to the park, visited the zoo, had a picnic at the beach?
       ·         Last week (month) (year) we did ________, what should we do now
       ·         Yesterday, Once upon a time, awhile ago
  • Let's go ___________
  • Next week (month) (year) we will ________
  • Tomorrow, in awhile, soon, in the future

Late preschool and early school age – ages 5-7 Calendar activities – Days, months and years
Think about how important your Outlook calendar and “to-do” lists are in your life. You can start your child thinking about how time can be used to plan for the future, record a job well done, and anticipate a coming event by posting a large wall calendar in your child’s room where he can make pictures or write simple words to denote special events or accomplishments. Make the calendar a ritual part of each day (perhaps before bed each night) with a discussion of something important that happened or is going to happen. Count ahead to the number of days until the next holiday, or someone’s birthday, or a special occasion.
Elementary school – ages 7-11 Time Budgets
Ability to use our time efficiently is what distinguishes successful adults in the workforce. You can help your school-age child develop this executive function by using a date timer to plan everything from how long it might take to bake holiday cookies on a Saturday afternoon to how long each homework assignment will take. Practice making these plans together at first then see how your child begins to think about time planning in other activities. Some examples of non-school-related activities that you and your child can plan together are:
·         Invitations, shopping and decorating for a birthday party
·         Holiday shopping
·         Designing and making a Halloween costume
·         Building a tree house
·         Painting a bedroom

Middle and High School – ages 12 – 17 Timelines and Rewards

Teens are notorious for procrastination and having difficulty learning to respect schedules and deadlines.  This is due, in large part, to the waxing and waning of the development of the frontal lobe. By building in rewards for deadlines met, projects accomplished on time or stepwise progression toward goals, big projects do not seem so overwhelming to a teen.
·         If there is a science project due in a month, it is much easier to think about it in five or six parts, with each  part due in a few days. 
·         Breaking a major paper  or report down into time-based steps or sections is also helpful  -
o   Introduction -  Friday
o   Main section - Tuesday
o    Last section - Thursday
o   Final editing - Thursday night
·         Build in a reward for each deadline met – an hour of television or video-games; points toward a special event (a rock concert or a pizza party)
IT’S ABOUT TIME! Understanding and managing time effectively is one major way to assure your child’s success in school, sports, and social life. Start when your child is young and continue to emphasize as your child gets older. It will help your child with almost every aspect of life because you will be building dependability and goal setting

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Tip # 42 Want a leader? Give your kid a break!

This afternoon, during my usual Sunday game of golf  (where I did not play particularly well by the way), a member of my foursome and parent of a ten and seven year old, Ron Thurber, reminded me of the importance of unstructured play for children.
There is a great deal of research in the neuroscience community on the value of unstructured play. To get you started though, recall how you played after school when you were young. I remember a day after a first snow storm when a group of us in my neighborhood decided to build an igloo. We spent hours trying to figure out how to do it, with a few children alternately serving as the leaders, providing suggestions for how to proceed. I suggested we should make a big pile of snow and hollow it out. We tried that and of course our igloo collapsed. Another child thought he remembered from school that you have to make bricks out of snow. We then began that project by piling snow into shoe boxes and trying to pack them down. Once removed from the shoe boxes, our flimsy bricks did not hold together very well. One among us finally suggested we use water to turn the snow bricks into ice bricks. We discovered we were really onto something and spent the rest of that day, and two additional days after school, making our bricks and constructing our igloo. For those three afternoons, without an adult in sight,  we all worked cooperatively toward a single goal without any fighting or competition. In the end, we were so proud of our igloo we invited our parents in a for a visit.
In 2008, NPR interviewers asked three researchers for suggestions to guide parents with ideas for unstructured play that fosters executive function and leadership skills. The researchers they spoke with were Deborah Leong, professor of psychology at Metropolitan State College of Denver, Elena Bodrova, senior researcher with Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning, and Laura Berk, professor of psychology at Illinois State University.
Here were their suggestions for different age groups: 
Pre-Schoolers - Joint Storybook Reading: "Reading storybooks with preschoolers promotes self-regulation, not just because it fosters language development, but because children's stories are filled with characters who model effective self-regulatory strategies"  
Early School Age - Simon Says: "Simon Says is a game that requires children to inhibit themselves. You have to think and not do something, which helps to build self-regulation."
Complex Imaginative Play: "This is play where your child plans scenarios and enacts those scenarios for a fair amount of time, a half-hour at a minimum, though longer is better. Sustained play that last for hours is best. Realistic props are good for very young children, but otherwise encourage kids to use symbolic props that they create and make through their imaginations." For example, a stick becomes a sword or a can becomes a phone.
Pre-teen and Teen Activities That Require Planning: "Games with directions, patterns for construction, recipes for cooking, for instance." And remember, that group activities allow leaders to emerge and helps the others understand the value of cooperative effort, striving toward a single goal. 
Sending children off to play used to be a "break" — for everyone,  the kids and their parents. But now, parents feel compelled to organize every second of their children's play time, structuring a child's time through afterschool classes and activities or by purchasing  things like elaborate play objects, princess dresses and video games. Howard Chudacoff, a cultural historian at Brown University, says play has become stressful and expensive, focused, as never before, on things. In an NPR interview awhile back he said, "It's interesting to me that when we talk about play today, the first thing that comes to mind are toys. Whereas when I would think of play in the 19th century, I would think of activity rather than an object."  A few years ago, Chudacoff published a history of child's play  in which he argues that for most of human history what children did when they played was roam an area in large or small groups, with older children supervising the younger ones. The main activity they engaged in  was freewheeling imaginative play. "They were pirates and princesses, aristocrats and action heroes...Basically", says Chudacoff, "they spent most of their time doing what looked like nothing much at all."
Dr. Adele Diamond, whose research I have referred to often, stated in the same interview,  "I think a lot of kids get diagnosed with ADHD now, not all but many just because they never learned how to exercise self-control, self-regulation, the executive functions early," she says.  Dr, Diamond is a leading proponent of unstructured play to help children develop a range of probem-solving, self-regulation and leadership skills.
Tip #42  An excellent way to provide opportunities for your child to work well with others, develop both leadership and problem-solving skills as well as self discipline is to practice it through imaginative and unstructred play in groups where adults don't interfere. Thank You, Ron!