Monday, February 19, 2018

Before School Exercise to Build Bodies and Minds

We all know that exercise is good for kids. But we often think about opportunities for exercise as something that happens after school or on weekends. A growing national (and now international) program, now in about 3,000 schools, BOKS (Build Our Kids' Success), changes that paradigm with a before-school program of exercise, activity, and skill-building that has been shown to improve both the physical and mental health of the children who participate.

Training from BOKS, an affiliate of the non-profit Reebok Foundation, is free and the start-up costs for schools (things like balls, jump ropes, and cones) are minimal. Trainings take place at several locations around the country or ,virtually, anywhere they are desired.

According the BOKS website, a typical one hour before-school session starts with check-in and free play. There is then a brief review of the lesson plan for the day and the "skill of the week". Next will generally come a running activity, which is a key part of every session, followed by practice of specific skills (things like push-ups or squats) through game playing. Classes end with a game designed to promote teamwork, and then the students stretch and cool down and discuss nutrition tips with the trainer.

While this all sounds like fun, the most impressive part of the program is the impact it has on the physical and emotional well-being of the children who participate. As noted in a recent piece in The New York Times, researchers looked at 707 students in 24 Massachusetts schools, ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade. They all participated in a BOKS program for 12 weeks - some students twice a week and some three times weekly. The study found  that both the two and three times per week participants showed improvement in student engagement, positive affect, and vitality/energy measures. Changes in body mass index (BMI) were apparent in those students participating three times weekly, but not those who participated only twice each week.

If you are interested in implementing the BOKS program in your child's school, you can find the information to do so on the BOKS website.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Dealing with Bullying in NYC Public Schools

We have written before about a number of issues relating to bullying:

and even about when kids are bullying -- or at least manipulating -- their parents.

To add to these resources, we have recently come across a very detailed and practical guide to policies and practices relating to bullying in the New York City Public Schools, prepared by Advocates for Children of New York (AFC), a wonderful nonprofit resource for New York City families. 

AFC’s Guide to Preventing & Addressing Bullying was issued in December 2017 and includes specific procedures, links, and telephone numbers that can be used when children and families are struggling with bullying. Also included in the Guide are discussions about what constitutes bullying, what happens once a complaint is filed, and how bullying can be prevented.

This is a worthwhile reference for every public school family in New York City. .

Monday, February 5, 2018

New Research on Emotional Regulation and Academic Achievement

A new study was recently published that broadens our understanding of how emotions relate to academic achievement. It’s old news that emotions play a role in students’ achievement and school functioning, but this study uses a different lens by looking specifically at emotional regulation rather than simply positive or negative feelings in students.

Here at The Yellin Center, we see a lot of students who are having trouble regulating their feelings and their behaviors. This incredibly complex skill is not often taught explicitly; rather, we learn it by observing others and experimenting with our actions over the years. Kwon, Hanrahan, and Kupzyk, the authors of the 2017 study, looked at how emotional expression and emotional regulation related to academic functioning. Emotional regulation is your ability to effectively process incoming emotions and modulate how you handle them and how you express them. It is very closely related to attention and behavioral regulation – your ability to inhibit or engage in certain behaviors. Not surprisingly, behavioral regulation is a common concern in classrooms, especially for students who have difficulty paying attention. The combination of attentional control, behavioral regulation, and emotional regulation can be called effortful control.

Prior research has already set the stage for the importance of effortful control and emotional regulation in younger students; the current study took it further by looking at older elementary students. Effortful control in our youngest students – preschoolers – is positively related to early literacy skills. In other words, young children who are more capable of processing their emotions and regulating themselves have higher literacy skills. Kindergartners with higher emotional regulation skills have higher literacy and math skills. Elementary students with better emotional regulation were more able to attend to academic tasks. This isn’t surprising, considering how easy it is for our emotions to take up a lot of our limited brain space, or attention, and distract us from tasks.

The newest data support the notion that emotional regulation affects academic engagement which, in turn, affects academic functioning (e.g., achievement on standardized tests, teacher ratings of engagement). The authors point out that our emotions affect how well we are able to “allocate and utilize cognitive resources and skills” including those necessary for learning. Poor regulation of emotions, wherein our feelings may flood our mind, could lead to avoidance of academic tasks.

There are two important implications of this research. First, it reminds us that just as negative emotions and poor emotional regulation might affect achievement in a negative way, positive emotions and effective regulation are actually related to higher achievement. This means that rather than always placing a focus on targeting students with poor emotionality and trying to decrease sadness or anger, we should also remember to invest some resources into increasing happiness and exuberance. Second, it may be beneficial to directly teach students the skills necessary for effective effortful control, including emotional regulation. While many students develop these skills independently, there are many others who experience significant difficulty in school because they are expected to be able to control their behaviors, attention, and emotional expression without ever having been explicitly taught how to do so, and without being given room to practice without facing negative consequences.

Kwon, K., Hanrahan, A.R., & Kupzyk, K.A. (2017). Emotional expressivity and emotion regulating: Relation to academic functioning among elementary school children. School Psychology Quarterly, 32(1), 75-88.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How Emotions Are Made

In the traditional view of emotion, emotions are their own entities, with their own essences, which can be found somewhere in the brain and which manifest in particular expressions we can all recognize.

In How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, a fascinating book by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, the author presents a research-supported paradigm shift. Emotions are not inborn things to be found; they are made. Just like any thoughts or perceptions, emotions are constructed, and variability is the norm.

Our brains are actively participating in our realities, imposing meaning on stimuli rather than simply receiving meaning from the world around us and/or the physical sensations within us. In other words, we see what we believe, rather than believe what we see. If the brain were merely reactive, it would require too many interconnections to be metabolically efficient and keep us alive. It is advantageous for the brain to represent information utilizing as few neurons as possible. It does this by separating statistical similarities from differences and categorizing a set of experiences in a concept, as a kind of shorthand, to provide meaning and inform action.

An emotional category such as “Anger” is merely a concept that we use, with the aid of language and a probabilistic assessment of past experiences, to understand a variety of experiences in the present. Just as our concepts of color guide us to see only seven colors of the rainbow despite the many frequencies within each color category, we recognize emotions only as much as our constructed concepts allow. These concepts are basically our best guesses at what is going on in any particular moment, so that we can figure out how to deal with it to stay alive and well.

Because the body is just another part of the world that the brain must explain, our emotions may be telling us as much about what is going on within us as much as what is going on around us. With our limited amount of energy resources, the brain must constantly use past experience to predict the body’s need for these resources, and to budget accordingly. When the budget is unbalanced, the state of that budget is felt, prompting the brain to search for explanations. This may then be conceptualized as an emotional experience. Misinterpreting the reason for a bad feeling can lead to mistakes. For example, judges are more likely to deny parole for hearings that occur just before lunchtime.

The author makes some recommendations for keeping your body budget as balanced as possible, i.e., with a solid foundation so the budget is easier to maintain and to keep you feeling generally well. The suggestions include:
  • Exercise (Consider yoga, which includes a beneficial combination of physical activity and slow-paced breathing)
  • Engage with books, movies, or other forms of storytelling (Involvement with others’ stories helps to avoid rumination)
  • Eat healthy foods
  • Get a good amount of sleep
  • Surround yourself with greenery and natural light
  • Practice giving and gratitude
With emotional well being so closely tied to success in school and in life, and with emotions so inextricably linked to our physical states, it is wise to take good care of our bodies and minds, and to tend closely to the emotions we construct.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Podcasts: Part Two

Our last post shared some of our favorite podcasts for elementary school students. Today, we continue our list with selections for students in middle and high school. Like our prior list, these are all free and are terrific ways to entertain while building knowledge and vocabulary. We suspect parents will enjoy them just as much as their kids!

For Middle School and Up

RadioLab – Episodes are usually just under a hour long.

Originally created as a science podcast, Radiolab has evolved into an edge-of-your-seat ode to curiosity. Hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich present entertaining, profound explanations for natural, social, medical, and cultural phenomena (organ donation, genes and genetic mutation, animal research, sports, hunting, the elements, criminal justice…) all around us.

TED Talks – Episodes are usually between 7 and 15 minutes long.

TED has something for everyone. Topics cover the arts and sciences, innovation and philosophy, entertainment and history, and many, many more. Their relatively short runtime is also a plus; most can be enjoyed on the way to school.

The Allusionist – Episodes are about 20 minutes long.

This podcast is a fun romp through the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the English language. Episodes delve into topics teens will find interesting, like cursing and accents.

For High School

Freakonomics Radio – Episodes range from 30 to 45 minutes.

The hosts of this entertaining, irreverent show look for explanations for things you never knew you wondered about (but are captivated by the moment the episode begins). Recent shows explore questions like how to do the most social good with $100, why gluten has been demonized, languages and Esperanto, brain damage among N.F.L. players.

Intelligence Squared – episodes are about an hour long.

The premise of this podcast is simple: a motion (e.g. “Dating Apps have Killed Romance”; “Pay College Athletes”; “The U.S. Health Care System is Terminally Broken”) is introduced and the audience votes, indicating whether they agree, disagree, or are unsure. Then four experts on the topic, two who support the motion and two who oppose it, debate with each other and field questions from the audience. At the end of the show, the audience votes again, and the side that changed the most minds wins. The debate among listeners is likely to continue long after the episode is over!

More Perfect – Episodes range from a little over 30 minutes to just under an hour.

Brought to you by the brilliant creators of RadioLab (see above), More Perfect explores the Supreme Court, covering its history, its impact on current events, and the impact it may have on our country in the future. More Perfect is hip, entertaining, and addictive.

This American Life – episodes are about an hour long.

This is one of the best podcasts around. TAL’s journalists present a series of stories each week that all revolve around a current, relevant, theme. Some are humorous, some are poignant, all are thought-provoking. A few of our favorite shows have featured the outcome on group of convicts at a maximum security prison when they learn and perform Hamlet; the ups and downs of union membership for a group of employees at a car factory; sleepwalking; obesity in America; and, hilariously, a policeman frantically trying to catch a squirrel.
How Stuff Works – episodes generally run from 20 to 35 minutes.

The How Stuff Works website features a rabbit hole of fascinating videos and articles, too, but its selection of podcasts will keep fans busy and informed on the go, too. There are a number of categories, including Stuff You Missed in History Class (genuinely interesting tales your teacher probably didn’t have time to get into); Stuff You Should Know (a grab bag of topics including current events, historical tidbits, politics, environmental issues, and many more); and the fascinating Stuff to Blow Your Mind (recent episodes explore why you shouldn’t drink seawater, meditation, Tetris syndrome, and grisly ancient neurosurgery).

Monday, January 22, 2018

Podcasts: Plug In!

For families on the go, podcasts can be a great way to make any time a time for learning. Play a podcast during chore time (it will make folding laundry or loading the dishwasher feel enjoyable – really!), the morning drive to school, or through headphones when your child must wait to see the doctor or dentist.

We’re sharing some of our favorite podcasts, organized by the age of the intended listener. Today’s post lists our choices for elementary school children; later this week, we’ll share our selections for students in middle and high school. All will sneakily build vocabulary and background knowledge while they entertain the whole family. And, happily, all are free.

Podcasts for Elementary School

Short and Curly – Episodes are about 20 minutes long

This rather strangely named podcast explores kid-friendly ethical questions (“Do you have to love your sibling?” “Are some lies OK?” “Is it ever OK to fight back against a bully?”) that will get young minds churning.

The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified – Episodes are around 10 minutes long

Radio journalist Eleanor travels to locations as ordinary as the gym and the breakfast table and as exotic as Congress and outer space as she follows scoops. Her adventures are enjoyable and enlightening.

Tumble – Episodes are just under 20 minutes long.

Small scientists will love learning about scientific topics like Antarctic dinosaurs, Mars, deep-sea creatures, parasites, and more from experts and researchers.

The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd – Episodes range from 6 to 15 minutes.

Follow the adventures of the World's Most Brilliant Scientist, Dr. Floyd as he tries to thwart the plans of his evil arch nemesis, Dr. Steve. All the while Dr. Floyd (and listeners) learn about the people and events that shaped the history of the Earth. This podcast has been described as a mix between Rocky & Bullwinkle and Mystery Science Theater 3000 with an educational spin.

For great stories, check out Storynory (tales are a little more than 20 minutes long) and the Stories Podcast (tales are around 15 minutes long).

Friday, January 19, 2018

Books for Young Children

A number of years ago, we looked at a program called, A Book on Every Bed, which was designed to encourage families celebrating Christmas to leave a book on every child's bed, so that he or she would wake up Christmas morning with the special gift of a book.

Even though Christmas has come and gone this year, we were reminded of this initiative just yesterday, when your blogger "played hooky" and took a one-day trip from New York to Washington D.C. to spend time with her new grandson.

This baby is surrounded by books. They are part of his life long before he can even speak, let alone read. His parents have been the beneficiaries of numerous gifts of books - classics they recall from their own childhoods and new books that are destined to be classics in years to come. They have started reading to him even though he is only a few weeks old.

But too many children aren't as fortunate. We know that reading to and with children builds crucial skills that stay with children as they grow and develop. That's why we have been big fans of the national nonprofit organization, Reach Out and Read (ROAR), which we have written about before. Building on the fact that over 90 percent of young children are seen in a pediatric practice at least once a year, ROAR provides training to doctors, nurses, and nurse practitioners in how to talk to parents about the importance of reading to their children; how to demonstrate to parents how to interact with their children while reading - including cuddling and setting reading routines; and then gives a new book to each child to take home and keep.

If your child lives a life rich in books and reading, you may want to learn more about  Reach Out and Read, and express your gratitude by helping a less fortunate child to know the same joy of books and the benefits that reading brings.

Photo by Picsea on Unsplash