The numbers keep going up.
According to an article by Bloomberg News, the number of children with ADHD has risen 33% in the past decade. Autism has risen nearly fourfold. In total, about one in six children in the United States has a developmental disability, which is an estimated 10 million kids.
With those numbers, the article raised these concerns: How will we provide enough services to help that many kids? What is it going to cost?
There were no answers. So, maybe it’s time to look through a different lens to help these struggling kids.
I’ve had the pleasure of working with thousands of kids who had developmental disabilities when they first started the Brain Highways program. Yet, many (if not all) of those disabilities dwindled and disappeared once the kids started organizing their brain. Every time.
But here’s what I also know: Despite the fact that thousands of kids have changed how their brain functions, we’ll continue to see more doom and gloom articles in the very near future.
So something has to change — like maybe right now.
There are just too many kids with brilliant minds and compassionate hearts that we’re overlooking. Who knows? The next incredible inventor, musician, writer, or mathematician may be sitting right next to us—and we don’t even know it.
So I’m asking parents who have participated in brain organization programs to “pay it forward.” Write your newspaper’s editors. Tell your doctors and classroom teachers. Revisit prior therapists. Shout it from the rooftop: We don’t have to sit, helpless, and watch the numbers rise. The brain can change. Best of all, we can teach parents how to help their kids do this.
Of course, the naysayers will say: What? You’re giving parents false hope. Where’s the research?
Count on that last question. It’s often asked as a way of silencing those who are doing something new and different. It’s also meant to remind parents that there are charlatans and snake oil out there.
And yes, there are. But this is also true: Many kids have participated in researched-based programs that yielded little or no notable improvements.
So that also needs to be said, again and again: Researched-based programs don’t necessarily guarantee results for your child. And programs without research aren’t all snake oil. (Why do I think those comments just made me a target and arrows are flying my way?)
But I’ve decided to stick my neck out there.
Let me clarify. Am I against research? Of course not. It’s important to document results. But it’s also possible to do so without published research.
For example, the Brain Highways program has concrete, objective ways to measure success, but we lack formal published, scientific studies. Why? Well, those studies cost a lot of money. They also require unbiased, qualified people to do the work (if the study is going to have true merit), as well as time to track long-term results. Couple that reality with how many people need help right now . . and we’ve chosen to go straight to the latter by teaching parents how to facilitate their kids’ brain organization—today. It’s today that Tommy or Susie or Trevor needs help.
So, here’s what we can do. Let’s start our very own Brain Changing Awareness Week. Why not? The goal: Use Twitter, Facebook, email, and personal contacts to send this simple two-part message to as many people as possible: The brain can change, and parents can learn how to facilitate their kids’ brain organization.
There are millions of kids waiting and hoping that message is heard.
Would pioneer parents be baffled by how some modern-day parents “protect” their kids?
After all, doing more of our child’s nightly homework than the child, calling meetings with a teacher or coach or dance instructor the minute our child voices something didn’t make him feel good, or even going further by insisting our child switches to a different class or team . . . is a far cry from the perils that pioneer parents faced to keep their kids safe.
Do today’s parents believe they’re helping their child when they dive in to thwart feeling distressed? Yes.
But in the world I know, not everything is always easy or a perfect fit. So if we teach kids to flee at the first sign of discomfort, we keep reinforcing a brain map that says: Hey, feeling a little uneasy? Then bail!
And with that kind of brain map in place, why would we be surprised, for example, to learn such kids become adults who quit jobs the minute they don’t like their boss’s feedback or end personal relationships as soon as they becomes a little tense?
So, instead of modeling how to flee, we can use such times to teach our kids how to deal with a little distress or discomfort. For example, a child (not the parent) could talk to the teacher to explore whether homework could be modified so that he could do it independently. Similarly, a child could talk to the coach to discover how he might improve in order to get more playing time.
In other words, we teach our kids to first engage in a dialogue to express their concerns and give the other (involved) person a chance to respond. We teach them that they can actually “survive” a little discomfort, which in itself, creates a useful brain map.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we always stay in whatever situation, no matter what. That’s not what we want our kids to learn, either. But there’s a big difference between bailing at the first sign of discomfort and making a decision based on knowledge that various options were truly explored.
Turns out, we’re really no different than pioneer parents. It’s instinctive to want to protect our kids. However, the difference today is in recognizing whether our kids are experiencing a little uneasiness or are truly in danger. It’s that kind of awareness that then helps us know how to best respond.
Parents often rely on the latest buzz around the neighborhood, soccer field or baseball bleachers to learn who’s the best teacher for next year.
But I never found those sources reliable. That’s because the real question is: Who is the best teacher for my child? So, here’s a set of questions to ask prospective candidates:
1. How do you honor kids in your classes? We’re hoping teachers rattle off a list of concrete examples that show how they find ways to make each child shine (regardless of their current academic level), how they peel back, as needed, to ensure kids don’t shut down, how they hold kids accountable for what they can do, and how they set challenges that are within reach of every child.
2. What percentage of the day are kids expected to be seated and quiet? How many opportunities to move are included within daily lessons (and can you give some examples)? If teachers stumble on providing specific ways movement is integrated into their curriculum or if there is a high percentage of seated, quiet time, this classroom may be problematic for kids who really need to move.
3. Are the majority of your lessons multisensory in nature? If so, can you give me some examples? Most traditional classroom lessons rely heavily on visual pathways. So good to know whether auditory, tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive sensory stimuli are also included, especially if kids are not strong visual learners.
4. How do you create a “safe” learning environment? Ideally, teachers respond that they focus more on thinking (rather than just getting the right answer) and more on the process than the end product. So it may be a red flag if the teacher immediately refers to a set of classroom rules when answering this question.
5. How do you handle kids who are viewed as uncooperative or who do not finish their work? Looking to determine whether: a) the teacher views classroom problems as his or her responsibility to address or expects parents to bring about change; b) the teachers’ response to such kids could be considered punitive or “branding” the child (i.e. every student in the classroom can quickly name who always gets “in trouble”); c) withholding recess is used as a consequence for unwelcome behavior or not finishing work.
6. Do you assign homework that can be done independently by the child? How much time a night do you expect kids to do homework? Since parents seem to differ in regards to what’s an acceptable amount of homework and how much parents should be involved, good to know if the teacher’s homework policies are in sync with parents’ expectations.
7. How do you make learning joyful? (See Why Schools Fail for a list of ways to do this.)
But what if your school doesn’t allow parent input for teacher selection? Well, just a quick look around the classroom can be very telling. Parents can also answer the above questions as they hope their next year’s child would respond, and then give that to whoever is responsible for their child’s class placement.
The bottom line: Each year, kids spend more than a thousand hours in a classroom. Seems worth the time to ensure that environment is a good fit and one where the child can succeed.
Bill Gates, along with other well-known philanthropists, has now contributed billions of dollars to improve education.
What kind of change has all that money created? Well, Newsweek recently gave the overall results a disheartening B-minus to C-minus grade.
So I guess money wasn’t the simple answer.
But what if, before ever donating a dime, all those philanthropists had first answered this straight-forward question: How can we make learning joyful?
Yep, when we answer that question, we may be surprised at how much everything else falls into place. Here is how I believe we can make learning enjoyable.
1) We rewrite standards.
I’ve yet to read a state standard that includes the word joy as part of any criterion. Somewhere along the way, we decided that it’s only, for example, important to learn how to read—but it’s irrelevant whether we ever enjoy reading. But I don’t think you can separate the two.
So I want to see the words “with joy” tacked onto whatever skills are spelled out in existing standards. Think we’d see a change in classrooms if such qualifying words were part of how we measure success?
2) We present lessons that trigger a positive physiological response in the brain.
When we provide opportunities to move, engage multiple senses, and interact with peers while learning, the brain is able to process information efficiently and stay alert. It may even release dopamine, a neurotransmitter related to pleasure and motivation.
In contrast, if the brain becomes frustrated or feels “threatened” (e.g. “I can’t do this”), it immediately shuts down, going to the survival part of the brain. With repeated failure, the child then additionally creates a general brain map that says: I can’t learn. I’m not smart.
3) We present curriculum that parallels natural brain development.
For example, since there’s a growth spurt of dendrites in the right hemisphere during ages 4-6, we should be engaging these kids in activities that include lots of movement, music, creative thinking, fantasy and other activities reflective of the right side of the brain. We actually used to do that with our youngsters.
But without any research to back up the change, we switched to a left-brain focus (e.g. reading, writing) that begins as early as kids start school. Any surprise that so many children are now struggling?
4) We encourage and honor thinking over finding the “right” answer.
Not sure how getting it “right” ever came to rule in the classroom. But it’s a completely different learning environment when kids feel as though their ideas and reflections and questions are valued more than getting the correct answer.
Decades ago there was a “just say no” campaign against drugs. Well, how about parents “just say no” to stressful learning. Starting today, let’s make learning without joy . . . unacceptable, unpopular, offensive.
I’m lucky. I think learning is one of the most blissful experiences. That’s why it makes me sad that so many kids have no idea what I’m taking about.