‘Playborhoods’ Can Improve Kids’ Health, Happiness, and Social Skills

soccer girlChildren need neighbourhoods, and neighbourhoods need children. When communities come together to make child-friendly places for play and gathering, everyone benefits. Read more

Let’s Play Outside! Kids Who Play Outside Are Healthier, Happier, and Smarter

summertime_babyHere’s another article on the importance of outdoor play, this one by Laura Markham. She starts off by outlining the benefits to kids’ health, intelligence, and happiness: kids are calmer, more optimistic, healthier, more creative, and more successful at school when they spend lots of time outdoors. Read more

Outdoor Play: 20 Ways it Contributes to Raising Smarter Kids

rsz_1rsz_kids_outside_runningUnstructured playtime is an essential part of developing many dimensions of intelligence and creativity. And if that playtime happens outdoors—preferably in a natural setting, even if it’s a small urban park—that’s even better. Outdoor playtime opens up a world of possibilities for kids that can expand their imagination, stimulate all their senses, and free their spirits in ways that structured indoor activities and screentime can never do. Read more

Free to Learn by Peter Gray

child at play signFree play should be bumped up in priority—ahead of organized sports, lessons, and other extracurricular activities designed to assist in kids’ résumé-building. In a new book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, Peter Gray makes the point that free play is vital to children’s healthy development. Read more

Why are some poor kids resilient? Parenting makes the difference

There’s fascinating new research showing us something about where ‘grit’ comes from. ‘Why do some children who grow up in poverty do well, while others struggle?’ Alix Spiegel asks in this article. She answers the question with some fascinating new research showing how the quality of an infant’s attachment to her mother makes an enormous difference to sensitive kids, and that this difference grows over time.

Some infants are a lot more sensitive to the environment than others. These sensitive babies are the kids at highest risk of behavioural problems as they get older. Sensitive babies in this research who showed an insecure attachment to their mothers in infancy (i.e., not soothed by the mother’s presence, not happy to see mother after a separation) are the ones who grew into troubled children with the most severe behavioural problems.

Fascinatingly, though, the sensitive babies who showed secure attachments to their mothers in infancy were the ones who grew into the best kids, with the lowest number of problem behaviours.

(The children with low set points [an indicator of less sensitivity to the environment] were not as good as the best or as bad as the worst, no matter their parenting.)

And perhaps most interestingly, Spiegel writes that ‘The behavior of the children with high set points and secure attachments to their mothers compared favorably with the behavior of children whose environments were often much easier.’ The kids who were growing up in high-risk poverty who were sensitive to the environment (‘high set points’) and who experienced secure attachment to their mothers, actually did better than kids growing up with a lot more advantages.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/02/25/172880140/to-spot-kids-who-will-overcome-poverty-look-at-babies

Thank you to Ben Peterson at Newsana–http://www.newsana.com/— for bringing this to my attention!

For those interested in following this farther and deeper, you can go to the source:

Poverty, Problem Behavior, and Promise: Differential Susceptibility Among Infants Reared in Poverty, by Elisabeth Conradt, Jeffrey Measelle, and Jennifer C. Ablow  http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/01/29/0956797612457381

You might also be interested in Dan Keating’s work– http://books.google.com/books/about/Nature_and_Nurture_in_Early_Child_Develo.html?id=0hdB63OT_RYC

or Stephen Suomi’s fascinating studies with cross-fostering monkeys, discussed by Dan Keating in The Nature and Nurture of Early Child Development, and elsewhere–

e.g., http://books.google.com/books?id=R8-HitN5Jp0C&pg=PA254&dq=stephen+suomi&hl=en&sa=X&ei=rCAuUcbnFIba9ASqvYDYDw&ved=0CEwQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=stephen%20suomi&f=false

All Kids Can Thrive: A Call to Action

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York; October, 2012.

 

There’s a good reason that everyone is talking about this book. It’s an unflinchingly honest look at the failings of a society where too many children are growing up without the tools they need to create meaningful and fulfilling lives for themselves. As Tough writes, ‘The biggest obstacles to academic success that poor children, especially very poor children, often face [are] a home and a community that create high levels of stress, and the absence of a secure relationship with a caregiver that would allow a child to manage that stress.’ (p. 195)

And it’s not just poor kids who have problems due to high levels of stress and insecure relationships with their parents. Tough also reviews research on kids who grow up in affluent families and communities, and offers some startling conclusions. Simply put, rich kids have many of the same problems as those experienced by poor kids. Both groups are more likely than middle class kids to experience low levels of maternal attachment, high levels of parental criticism, and minimal afterschool supervision. Furthermore, wealthy kids have higher levels of anxiety and depression, especially in adolescence. Reviewing the findings, Tough writes, ‘The emotional disconnection that existed between many affluent parents and their children often meant that the parents were unusually indulgent of their children’s bad behavior.’ (p. 83)

In spite of Tough’s dire analyses of how bad things are for far too many children in far too many communities, How Children Succeed is one of the most encouraging books I have read on this topic. He weaves thoughtful stories of real children, teenagers, and adults into current research findings on child development and resiliency, coming up with recommendations that promise to transform society if we pay attention to them.

He describes research on executive function—emotional and cognitive self-regulation, which affects attention, impulsivity, self-soothing, anger management and other skills involved in coping with stress and challenge. These are skills that children growing up in poverty are a lot less likely to have. ‘The reason researchers who care about the gap between rich and poor are so excited about executive function,’ he writes, ‘is that these skills are not only highly predictive of success; they are also quite malleable, much more so than other cognitive skills…If we can improve a child’s environment in the specific ways that lead to better executive functioning, we can increase his prospects for success in a particularly efficient way.’ (p. 21)

Environmental risks like family turmoil, chaos, and crowding have a big impact on measures of children’s stress, but only when mothers are inattentive or unresponsive: ‘High quality mothering, in other words, can act as a powerful buffer against the damage that adversity inflicts on a child’s stress-response system…Good parenting—being helpful and attentive in a game of Jenga—can make a profound difference for a child’s future prospects.’ (p. 32) Tough concludes that parents’ responding sensitively to infants’ cues has a long-lasting effect on children’s prospects, leading them to be more curious, self-reliant, self-confident, calm, and better able to deal with obstacles.

Although ‘character’ means different things to different people, there are several qualities that can be thought of collectively as ‘character’ that have been shown both to be important to success and well-being, and also teachable: bravery, fairness, integrity, humour, zest, appreciation of beauty, social intelligence, kindness, and gratitude. Tough reviews successful attempts to teach these qualities—not as ways to impose middle class ideas of morality, but rather as ways for all kids to experience personal growth, achievement, and fulfillment.

Parental warmth and nurturance are the most important factors leading to infants and young children thriving. Later on, as children enter adolescence, one person who takes them seriously, believes in their abilities, and challenges them consistently to improve themselves, can make all the difference.

Tough concludes that ‘The most reliable way to produce an adult who is brave and curious and kind and prudent is to ensure that when he is an infant, his hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis functions well… First, as much as possible, you protect him from serious trauma and chronic stress; then, even more important, you provide him with a secure, nurturing relationship with at least one parent and ideally two.’ (p. 182)

As a child gets older, Tough continues, he needs ‘more than love and hugs. He also need[s] discipline, rules, limits, someone to say no. And what he need[s] more than anything is some child-size adversity, a chance to fall down and get back up on his own, without help.’ (p. 183) Children need support in learning how to manage failure, and in order to do that, they need to experience failures they can cope with. This is what Carol Dweck writes about in Mindset: kids need to learn how to see failures and setbacks as opportunities to learn.

It’s also, in some ways, what Amy Chua writes about in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. An important difference between Tough’s recommendations and Chua’s description of her own parenting is that Tough emphasizes the importance of support, warmth, security, and nurturing. I think their goals are probably similar, though, that kids build their self-confidence on a solid foundation of achievement rather than the shifting sands of other people’s opinions or attention.

Tough’s recommendations for going forward are radical, but doable. He says we need a coordinated system that might start with comprehensive pediatric wellness centers like Nadine Burke Harris has established in Bayview-Hunters Point, in San Francisco. We might continue with parenting interventions that help parents establish secure connections with their infants. We might implement early childhood education  programs that have shown dramatic positive results. We also need to provide supports at school and outside of school for kids as they move into adolescence, as well as the adults in their lives. Science demonstrates that society can make a difference to kids’ outcomes. This book provides a call to action for thinking about how to do that.

 

Links

http://www.paultough.com/the-books/how-children-succeed/

http://nadineburke.com/users/dr-nadine-burke-harris

 

 

 

5 ways to increase happiness

There are a lot of reasons people are feeling more stressed right now than usual–Hurricane Sandy, economic worries, political uncertainty, and also (in the northern half of the northern hemisphere) the fact that it’s November and the light is decreasing every day.

If you’re a parent–specially of a small child–it becomes even more important to manage that stress well. Little ones absorb our feelings and worry when we worry. Here are five great ideas for coping, and reducing the likelihood of the added stress burden leading to further problems:

5 ways to increase happiness.

via 5 ways to increase happiness.

Victims, Bullies, & Bullying: Not always what you think

A post from Online Education Data Base, reviewing the research findings on bullies, victims, and bullying, with important implications for parents and teachers–

http://oedb.org/library/beginning-online-learning/10-telling-psychology-studies-on-the-nature-of-bullying

For me, the take-home messages are that (1) bullying is way more complicated than most people realize; (2) bullies need as much compassion, support, and attention as their (apparent) victims; and (3) zero-tolerance programs and punishments hardly ever do more than make the enforcers feel good about doing something

R&R for the Brain: It’s Good to Do Nothing Sometimes

July 3, 2012

New research is showing the importance to our brain’s best work of making sure we build time into our busy lives for reflection, introspection, and imagination—with electronic devices and access to social media turned off. This is as true for children as it is for adults.

In an article entitled “Rest Is Not Idleness” in the July issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang and her colleagues consider what’s happening when our brains are wakefully resting. According to these authors, fMRI data shows that when there’s little by way of external stimulation or intellectual effort required, our minds wander, engaging in a default mode of restful neural processing that is usually suppressed when our attention is focused on the outside world.

In their survey of the literature from neuroscience and psychological science, they conclude that brain systems activated during rest are important for certain kinds of social and emotional processing. These systems are important for our intellectual and psychological functioning, and are associated both with mental health and with cognitive abilities like reading comprehension and divergent thinking. Learning, memory, and well-being are implicated; Immordino-Yang and her colleagues argue that research on the brain at rest can shed light on the importance of reflection and quiet time for learning.

They discuss practical implications of this research for education. “We focus on the outside world in education and don’t look much at inwardly focused reflective skills and attentions, but inward focus impacts the way we build memories, make meaning and transfer that learning into new contexts. What are we doing in schools to support kids turning inward?”

The authors observe that while outward attention is essential for carrying out tasks and learning from classroom lessons, the reflection and consolidation that can accompany mind wandering is equally important, fostering healthy development and learning over the long run. As with so much else, balance is the key. Attention to content mastery is critically important, but time spent reflecting and imagining—appearing to do nothing, to daydream, or waste time—can actually improve the quality of outward attention that people can sustain. Mindful reflection is also essential to our ability to make sense of the world around us. It contributes to the development of moral reasoning, and is linked with overall well-being.

Immordino-Yang and her colleagues warn that the high attention demands of urban and digital environments—very much including social media—may be distracting young people from looking inward and reflecting, and that this could have a negative impact on their psychological development. They write, “Consistently imposing overly high-attention demands on children, either in school, through entertainment, or through living conditions, may rob them of opportunities to advance from thinking about ‘what happened’ or ‘how to do this’ to constructing knowledge about ‘what this means for the world and for the way I live my life.’”

This research provides valuable information for parents. It suggests that children who are given the time and skills they need for mindful introspection, reflection, and contemplation, will be more motivated, be less anxious, perform better on tests, and plan more effectively for the future. It also suggests that parents should be modelling reflection and contemplation themselves, maybe even giving themselves permission for a bit of daydreaming now and then.

In Being Smart about Gifted Education and elsewhere, Joanne Foster and I emphasize the importance to children’s best development of what we’ve called ‘do-nothing times.’ It seems that current scientific research is providing compelling evidence for just that.

Journal reference:

Authors: Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, Joanna A. Christodoulou, and Vanessa Singh

Article full title: ‘“Rest Is Not Idleness”: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education’

Journal: Perspectives on Psychological Science  http://pps.sagepub.com/content/current

Abstract: http://pps.sagepub.com/content/7/4/352.abstract

Article: https://docs.google.com/viewer?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww-rcf.usc.edu%2F~immordin%2Fpapers%2FI-Y_et_al_REST%25202012.pdf

Thank you to Rebecca McMillan and The Brain Cafe for bringing this to my attention!

Emotional Attunement: Good Food for Babies’ Brains

Warm, caring, attentive human connection is as essential to babies’ developing brains as food and sleep are to their physical growth.

An emerging area of science is demonstrating something that most parents know instinctively, and that attachment theorists have known for a long time: When an infant’s mother is calm–even in the face of daily disasters such as the baby’s hunger, exhaustion, or discomfort–the child absorbs and acquires a capacity for calm self-soothing. When his mother is distressed or agitated, the baby absorbs and learns that.

‘Attachment neurobiology,’ ‘biological synchronicity,’ ‘limbic resonance,’ and ‘mommy mind-meld’ are some of the names being given to emerging findings that show the deep connections that are formed at the brain level between infants and their adult nurturers. All of these terms, including ‘mommy mind-meld,’ refer to an infant’s experience primarily with her mother, but also with any other adult with whom she has a strong, nurturing connection, including a father, grandparent, or other close, caring, and consistent person in her life.

In a recent blog, Mary Axness discusses the science behind this phenomenon. She cites the research of neurobiology pioneer Allan Schore, who describes the mother as ‘downloading emotion programs into the infant’s right brain,’ and the child as using the mother’s right hemisphere as a template for the imprinting and hard wiring of circuits in his own right hemisphere, giving the child a template for mediating his emotional experiences.

Axness also discusses problems with all of the electronic engagement-replacements available today—television, videos, Baby Einstein, iPhones, iPads, and other computerized programs designed for babies. These may appear to give a sense of engagement, but excessive use of these media devices is actually associated with delayed language development. In 2009, the American Academy of Pediatrics went on record against using electronic media with children younger than the age of two, stating that they ‘probably interfere with the crucial wiring being laid down in their brains during early development.’ In the ensuing media debate on the topic, an AAP spokesperson declared that ‘parents hoping to raise baby Einsteins by using infant educational videos are actually creating baby Homer Simpsons.’

Understanding the power of infants’ connections to their parents as ‘mind-melds’, where babies are downloading certain aspects of their caregivers’ brains—is a great argument for parents and other caregivers to take very good care of their own mental health. In addition to all the basics for good physical and emotional health (good nutrition, regular exercise, as good a sleep regime as possible), caregivers might consider integrating yoga, journal-keeping, mindfulness, meditation, or other reflective, mind-calming practices into their lives.

Another practice to consider is conscious attunement to sources of gratitude. The fields of positive psychology and psychoneuroimmunology demonstrate the ways that the choice to feel appreciation for what one has in one’s life (and to combat feelings of entitlement and resentment) changes the level of oxytocin available, thereby changing one’s attitudes, perceptions, and behaviours. A parent who attunes regularly to her sources of gratitude provides a clearer, more positive mind for her baby to meld with, thus giving her baby a better start on creating a good life for himself.

For more information:

My inspiration for this blog: Mommy Mind Meld blog by Marcy Axness: http://mothering.com/all-things-mothering/mothering/nourish-infant-brain-development-with-the-mommy-mind-meld

A great background resource for people interested in the science behind these ideas:  Schore, A. N. Attachment and the Regulation of the Right Brain. Attachment and Human Development 2, no. 1 (2000): 23-47.

For more on the effects of media use on infants’ development, see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1651-2227.2008.01027.x/full  for an article by Dimitri Christakis, called The Effects of Infant Media Usage: What Do We Know and What Should We Learn? Acta Paediactrica 98 (2009): 8-16. Christakis’ conclusions: ‘No studies to date have demonstrated benefits associated with early infant TV viewing. The preponderance of existing evidence suggests the potential for harm. Parents should exercise due caution in exposing infants to excessive media.’

For more on the power of gratitude to change our minds, see Laura Markham: http://www.ahaparenting.com/_blog/Parenting_Blog/post/How_to_Change_Your_Happiness_Set_Point_with_Gratitude/

For more on similar topics:

Raising Smarter Kids blog: www.raisingsmarterkids.net