Friday, February 24, 2017

Sleep and Productive Forgetting

We’ve blogged numerous times over the years about sleep, from sleep recommendations to tips for waking up. Meanwhile, scientists have been spending many of their waking moments trying to learn more about this important but not wholly understood phenomenon. The New York Times highlighted some recent findings.

Examination of mouse brains has revealed that their brain synapses, and accompanying amounts of surface proteins, are smaller when sleeping than when awake. Researchers were able to use a chemical to block this synaptic pruning in some mice but not others. All of the mice, before any were exposed to the chemical, were given a mild shock when they walked over a particular section of the floor. The mice that were then exposed to the chemical overnight, so were prevented from pruning their brain synapses, exhibited trepidation regardless of what environment they were placed in the next day. The mice that had been able to do their regular synaptic pruning only froze up in the particular area where they had received the shock.

The results suggested to one of the researchers that “You can forget in a smart way.” In this experiment, synaptic pruning seemed to narrow down or restrict the shock memory to the particular environment in which it occurred. At least one function of sleep may be for the brain to do some strategic self-editing to keep memories from becoming fuzzy.

photo credit: Rachel Fury via FlickrCC

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How to Make Mistakes

There is no shortage of articles out there - in newspapers, magazines, parenting books, and empirical journals - that extol the virtues of helping children fail with pride. Most recently, Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, published a lengthy, informative piece about what teachers around the country are doing to introduce failure and mistakes into their classroom culture.

As a Learning Specialist at The Yellin Center, I find myself discussing the idea with parents on a regular basis: kids need to see the importance of not getting it right the first time. The concept matches up with Dr. Carol Dweck’s theory of mindset, which we introduced in a 2011 blog post. I even blogged about the importance of failure last fall. Despite the ongoing coverage on our blog and in the wider media universe, one big question remains. What about kids who have already learned to fear failure? How do we help rehabilitate their sense of try-try-again when they are already fearful of taking on big challenges? From a psychologist’s standpoint, I’d like to know the tools for reconditioning this aversion to failure out of our older students, and instilling in them a new appreciation for the learning curve. This common situation is often brought up by parents who are looking for tips and tricks to reteach their children (and themselves) how to make mistakes.

One very powerful example of the benefits of failure continues to pop up in articles and books – learning to walk. Babies spend quite a bit of time and energy pulling themselves up, only to fall back down. And once they’ve finally got standing under their belt, they are even more motivated to continue failing at walking. That is, until they succeed, as they all do, eventually. Babies don’t know that they’re supposed to be good at everything the first time; it seems like we’re hard-wired to push past our failures until we’ve accomplished our goal. If toddlers gave up trying to speak every time their words were misunderstood, we’d all be mute. Sharing this story with our middle- and high-schoolers can be one step in helping them rethink hardship.

One story, however, is not the cure-all. Many schools are already starting to incorporate a love of mistakes into their curriculum and climate, but it’s important for families to work together with schools so that students are surrounded by a supportive environment that values mastery over, for example, how something looks on a college application.

There are other strategies for parents to work on at home while classrooms are being slowly transformed into failure-friendly settings. First, be a positive role model. Consider the language you use about your own abilities, and introduce some new, visible challenges into your own life that your kids can watch you learn from. Even better is to involve them in the process. Maybe this means trying that really difficult recipe you’ve been putting off for years because you know it’s going to be a mess the first time around, or maybe you’ve always wanted to learn how to knit but you’ve made it known that you’re just not good with your hands. Now is your chance to model a new way of thinking about “ability” and growth. Give that recipe or that new hat a go, and laugh about it with your kids afterwards. And don’t forget to let them know how good you feel that you took a risk, and how excited you are to keep trying, because you know that deliberate practice is way more important than “talent.” Check out this episode of Freakonomics for more information about using deliberate practice to learn a new skill outside your comfort zone.

Once you’ve modeled the behavior, you can move on to offering the experience to your tweens and teens at home. It may be too much pressure for a middle- or high-schooler to give up the drive for perfection at school just yet, but any low-risk activity is a great starting point. This might be a really challenging video game, a new hobby, or a strenuous group activity like rock-climbing (there’s a reason we wear harnesses, right?). Paired with the right casual conversation about taking risks and messing up, any activity can jump start a child’s appreciation for falling off the proverbial horse. These activities, which don’t come with the same baggage as an upcoming math exam or the SAT, allow parents to embed little life lessons and healthier ways of thinking into conversation.

While you and your kids are working on making mistakes at home, it’s important to keep the conversation going with their teachers. Are students allowed to rewrite essays and correct their exams? Do teachers encourage students to take risks or, conversely, just to get high marks? Have teachers introduced the students to the language around mindset, grit, and failure? Odds are, your child’s school is already working to make failure an important and stress-free part of the learning process. Teachers and other school professionals could be a great resource for parents to learn more about how to support their children’s development, and open communication between parents and teachers is beneficial for everyone involved.

For more information about mindset, making mistakes, grit, and deliberate practice, check out the following books and resources:

  • A podcast interview with Duckworth, the author of Grit
  • "Mistakes Were Made" in the Harvard Ed. magazine, referenced at the beginning of this post.

Friday, February 17, 2017

A Study on Communicating Biases

Meryl Streep made headlines last month with her Golden Globes acceptance speech that included a response to “one performance this year that stunned me,” i.e.,  Donald Trump’s imitation of a disabled reporter during the presidential campaign. Her words garnered attention, just as Trump’s nonverbal behaviors had. This calls to mind the warning of a character Meryl Streep once played, the witch in Into the Woods. “Careful the things you say. Children will listen. Careful the things you do. Children will see and learn.” When considering the lessons we are teaching children, it should be noted that these lessons are being conveyed not just verbally, but nonverbally as well. 

A recent study built upon past research suggesting that:

a) implicit biases can be communicated through nonverbal signals

b) infants avoid or respond negatively toward objects after observing negative responses to them; and

c) evidence of social bias and prejudice has been observed in children as young as in preschool

Researchers at the University of Washington showed four- and five-year-olds a video of a person in a black shirt and a person in a red shirt, each target person being treated differently by an actor. The actor displayed either positive nonverbal signals (e.g., smiling, leaning in, using a warm tone of voice, eagerly giving a toy) or negative nonverbal signals (e.g., scowling, leaning away, using a cold tone of voice, giving the toy reluctantly) toward the targets. The actor then introduced a novel object. Each target labeled it with a made-up word and used it in a particular way. The video also explained that one target was part of “the dark-red group” and the other was part of “the black group,” and a friend from each group was introduced.

The children were asked which target person they preferred, what the novel object should be called, and how the object should be used. The latter questions were asked because imitation, or failure to imitate, has been shown in the past to reflect children’s feelings about a person. The children were also asked which friend they preferred, and an imitation measure was taken.

Results showed that children explicitly preferred the person who was treated with positive nonverbal signals, and that they were more likely to use that person’s label for an object, even though they were not significantly more likely to imitate the displayed use of that object. Further, the children showed more positive attitudes toward the friend identified as being in their preferred person’s group, and they were more likely to imitate this friend.

While the implicit biases actors displayed in this experiment may be less subtle than many displayed toward individuals and groups in natural settings, the implications are certainly interesting and worthy of further exploration. Adults have great potential to teach children many things, including — it seems — biases. It is likely wise to heed the words of the witch.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Sugar Cravings in Kids

Valentine’s Day is tomorrow and, like Halloween, that may mean a tidal wave of heart-shaped candies is about to take over your child’s diet. In preparation for this celebration of sweets and sweethearts, we have some tips for helping your children (and yourself!) learn to curb those sugar cravings. These recommendations come from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Intuitive Eating program, set out in a book by two forward-thinking nutritionists.

Even though we’re all born with a love of sweet foods, a full-fledged sweet tooth and the cravings that come with it are more a product of our environment. Eating a diet high in sugar leads us to crave more foods with even more sugar. The first step to reducing our “need” for sugar, therefore, is figuring out all the places that extra sugar is getting into our and our children’s food. There are the obvious culprits, of course – candy, baked goods, sugary cereals – but it can be quite surprising, and unsettling, to realize just how prevalent sugar is when it comes to foods we may think of as healthy. Much of the packaged and processed food sold at grocery stores is loaded with sugar. Some particularly naughty culprits are granola, yogurt, beverages, jams or jellies, canned fruit, and tomato sauce. Foods marketed as “low fat” also often have extra sugar to replace the taste you lose when you remove the fat. Figuring out the biggest contributors can help you and your family develop a battle plan to start cutting back.

Barring a child from enjoying a treat every now and then, especially on a holiday that more or less is focused on sharing sweet treats with friends, is an unrealistic endeavor. However, there is plenty of room for cutting back. Two of the most common “uses” of candy are rewards and bribes. It’s tempting to use some chocolate to get your child to finish her homework, or take them out for a sundae after earning a high mark. However, associating sugar with the feeling of relief (finishing homework) and pride (getting good grades) has the potential to devalue both the sugary treat and the activity or endeavor. Instead of turning to sweets, consider some potential alternatives. For example, lots of children crave nothing more than honest, effort-focused praise after they’ve done something really noteworthy, just so they know you are really proud. The American Academy of Pediatrics also warns against the growing “tolerance” to candy as bribes and rewards; eventually, children are going to expect bigger and bigger incentives, potentially negating their natural motivation to succeed and feel good about their work.

Another area to reconsider is the use of sweets as a marker of celebrations. Birthdays, sports games, holidays, and family milestones are often defined by a cake or other sugary sweet. Some schools have begun trading in the birthday cupcakes for healthier options, or celebrating in a different way altogether. When your blogger was in elementary school, a school birthday was focused exclusively on the treat, even though there are plenty of other ways to spend those twenty minutes. Maybe the class can snack on some strawberries while the birthday child leads a game of freeze dance. Birthday parties and sports games also seem to be dominated by brightly frosted cupcakes and candy bars, but it’s likely that fruit and popcorn will go over just as well if the kids are really engaged in having a good time with the activities.

Finally, consider changing the culture around “junk food” in your house. Rather than making chocolate and cookies the forbidden food under tight lock and key, make them available just like all the healthy food you’re already offering around the clock. This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but we all know that we crave what we can’t have. Helping kids learn how to balance their nutritional needs and make choices that will make them feel good on the inside is a surefire way to set them up for good eating habits. That doesn’t mean your nine-year-old isn’t going to eat one too many cookies every now and again, but habits are developed throughout our childhoods, and kids will naturally choose foods that their bodies need if all the options are on the table.

If you are considering recalibrating the way your household consumes sweets and treats, don’t forget to be open and honest with every member of the family about it. Even young children can understand the value of nutrition, and we know that they’re much more likely to be on board if they have a voice in the matter.

For more information about some healthier snack options for growing bodies, the American Academy of Pediatrics has published a short guide that may be helpful.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Book Review: How to Reach and Teach Children with Challenging Behavior

When I started my school psychology internship at a private K-8 school, I never expected to be standing in front of a classroom full of seventh grade boys. Little did I know, it was standard practice at this school to use all available staff to cover for absent teachers. This way, the “sub” would be a familiar face and, theoretically, able to continue with the planned curriculum in a way that an outsider could not. I thought this was a great idea, until it was my turn to lead a small language arts class for 60 minutes. Like many first-time teachers, I was given a harsh lesson in the realities of classroom management. It became immediately apparent that I needed help, so I took two steps.

First, I began observing my peers to see what strategies worked for them in their classrooms. This was a great way to learn about the culture of the school and what the students responded to. I also bought a book that looked promising, called How to Reach and Teach Children with Challenging Behavior, by Kaye L. Otten and Jodie L. Tuttle. It ended up living in my backpack for the rest of the year, because I could never be without it and its reproducible resources.

How to Reach and Teach
is a series of books published by Jossey-Bass Education that aims to provide teachers and other school professionals with interventions and strategies to help children with challenging behavior, ADHD, or dyslexia. There are also two books in the series focused on teaching in an inclusive classroom (i.e., a class with students in both the mainstream and special education programs) and using a balanced literacy approach. I have only used the book geared towards working with students who present behavioral challenges in the school setting, and find myself recommending it to all new school professionals, from teachers to psychologists to learning specialists.

The book takes a positive approach to behavior change with a focus on specific behavioral strategies to help individual students. It also includes detailed strategies for preventing challenging behavior and setting up a classroom that is conducive to learning. The book is user friendly and appropriate for teachers with even the most minimal psychology or classroom management training. It starts with the basics of the authors’ philosophy, which is heavy on developing respect for students and an understanding of why they behave the way they do. It goes on to explain how to use behavioral reinforcement for individuals and groups of students. There is also a chapter on “logical undesirable consequences” which, the authors point out, is not the same as punishment, which in the long run does not teach students the best way to move through school and life. Finally, the book explains the full process of implementing a plan, from operationally defining problem and replacement behaviors to tracking progress.

The book also includes lengthy examples of cases that have worked in the real world and a chapter on how to handle crisis situations. Those who have purchased the book are allowed to photocopy all the resources, which are printed on standard 8x11 paper. This book is one of many great resources for working with students who are having difficulty in a traditional educational environment, and it’s definitely a permanent fixture on my bookshelf.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Managing Email

If you are reading this blog right now, that means that you are not— at least at this particular moment — checking your email. This may be a good thing. A study noted in The New York Times found that the more often you check your inbox, the more generally stressed you may become. This may seem counter-intuitive, as frequent checking can feel like a way of preventing emails from piling up in a stress-inducing way. However, the research suggests that handling the same total amount of emails with fewer inbox checks is a less stressful experience overall. In fact, the degree of stress reduction found was comparable to the degree of benefit generally gained from relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or peaceful imagery visualization. An additional benefit found was increased efficiency. The study participants who checked email less frequently actually handled their emails in a shorter amount of time.
Maximizing time and maximizing well-being are goals that most of us probably share. With evidence suggesting a simple way to do both, it may be well worth resisting that urge to click.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Tools for Finding the Truth

In a time when journalists are employing terms such as “falsehood” and “unsubstantiated” while phrases like “fake news” are simultaneously being used regarding the work of such journalists, our evaluative thinking capacities are called upon to sort through it all in an attempt to make sense of our world. The current climate underscores the need to question answers rather than simply seek to answer questions. It is not enough for educators to help students achieve mastery over content. This would be like simply handing over the fish in the popular "Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime" quotation. Students need to be equipped with the thinking tools to take with them into the various environments of lifelong learning they will encounter outside of the classroom.

Good science education, for example, entails not just sharing facts and formulas, but teaching how to isolate variables and sort correlation from causation. Good writing instruction involves not just a focus on mechanics, but also on appropriately supporting one’s claims. Good social studies lessons include consideration of various primary sources. It is the ability to think critically, perhaps more than anything else, that distinguishes a well-educated student from one with access to Google. Therefore, it should be a priority for educators to cultivate critical thinkers.

Humility is one important tool in the quest for truth. An awareness of our own natural biases and a comfort in acknowledging how much we don’t know are crucial to being able to learn effectively. A teacher who says, “I’m not sure” may be, rather than somehow lacking, actually modeling the valuing of truth over ego, an important lesson in and of itself. The more aware we are of our cognitive and informational shortcomings, the better able we are to counter them.

It is important to be ever in touch with what we know, what we don’t know, and what tools we have at our disposal for accessing and analyzing information. Educators are in key positions to not just inform but to teach how to learn. Even the best fisherman will never get all the fish in the sea, but that should not stop him from fishing, and with the best available equipment.