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Shy Kids are a Myth

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We may not realize that we encourage kids to withdraw.

There isn’t a shy gene—though you’d think there was one by how many kids are called this.

In fact, it’s quite common for parents and relatives and teachers to tell everyone (within earshot of the child) that Tommy or Tiffany or Jake is just shy whenever the child doesn’t want to say hello, play with other kids, or try something new.  And since being shy is generally accepted as a plausible explanation for withdrawal, the label is not challenged.

But what registers in the child’s brain if he’s excused from interacting because “he’s shy”?

First, he learns that he doesn’t have to respond if he feels uncomfortable.  Second, he doesn’t engage in opportunities to practice social skills (e.g. how to greet people). Third, he becomes less and less confident with how to interact with others each time that he withdraws.

And then, how does that brain map serve the child when he becomes older? Not well. In fact, one might argue that such a brain map makes it more probable that such kids become teens or adults who rely on alcohol or drugs to “fit in.”

So why does the shy myth perpetuate?  Well, it’s possible that some (or most) of these kids have an underdeveloped pons. In such case, this primitive part of the brain is still wired to go into “flight” the second it feels threatened—even if such perception is distorted.

But since most parents aren’t aware of this connection, the child’s first withdrawal is merely noted as “he’s just being a little shy.”  After that, such thinking becomes entrenched in the brain every time the child, once again, demonstrates “shyness” so that it has now become a learned response.

Such behavior is often further reinforced when parents allow the child to hide behind them, speak for them, and find other ways that, in truth, only further create the perception that the child is not capable of responding.

So, if we’ve been inadvertently encouraging shyness, how can we turn this around?

1) We tell our child we have been selling him short by thinking and telling others he was shy, that we’ve now learned ways we can help his brain feel more comfortable in situations—without retreating.

2) We quit speaking for our child, and we no longer become a safe haven (where they hide behind or cling to us in social situations).

3) We role-play situations at home so the brain is already familiar with what’s expected in social interactions.  For example, if we know we are going to a family gathering, we practice saying hi to Aunt Evie and Uncle John (with stuffed animals or other willing participants) lots of times before we actually attend the event.

4) We start to incorporate phrases such as “Let’s give it a whirl” for new opportunities.

5) We actively seek opportunities for our child to share what he’s naturally adept at when he’s with others in order to help regain confidence and more likely experience positive interactions.

6) We praise and honor the child when doing any of the above, saying we’re glad he’s creating a brain map that allows him to trust us (e.g. why would we introduce him to someone we don’t want him to meet?) and share who he is with others.

Doesn’t that sound like something we’d want to happen for every child?

Bipolar Kids?

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Kids who are diagnosed as being bipolar are often given medications that have only been approved for adults.

I felt encouraged when I started reading, “Mommy, Am I Really Bipolar?” in the June 27 issue of Newsweek. In the beginning of the article, Dr. Stuart Kaplan, a child psychiatrist with close to five decades of experience, makes the case there is no scientific basis for a bipolar diagnosis for kids.

He claims the bipolar childhood diagnosis only took hold for two main reasons.  First, the authors of a book called The Bipolar Child were featured on 20/20 and Oprah. Following those broadcasts, pharmaceutical companies immediately seized on the current buzz. They began to offer lucrative opportunities for doctors to give industry-sponsored talks to other doctors, with the hopes that more kids would be diagnosed as bipolar and be prescribed their already adult-approved drugs.

In 2006, I was mistakenly invited to attend one of those talks. I say it was an error because I thought I was being invited to a dinner to share ideas on innovative ways to help kids who struggled with attention issues.

I did not know that I was going to be the only non-doctor in the room.  I did not know that the expensive dinner would be complete with centerpieces and take-home goodies that had the sponsoring drug company’s name on everything. I did not know the guest speaker was going to be a psychiatrist who was paid by the drug company. And yes, this psychiatrist spent more than an hour convincing the rest of the doctors in the room to consider a childhood bipolar diagnosis and to use these new drug options with their patients.

So five years later, no surprise that I find myself feeling rather enthused when reading Dr. Kaplan’s article. Here, he’s telling the world that hundreds of thousands of children in the United States are taking adult drugs for a diagnosis he believes does not exist in childhood.  He even goes on to mock how “not waking easily” in the morning has now become considered a sign of being bipolar (this behavior is on the accepted checklist).

The more I read, the more I’m loving it.  Someone in the medical community is challenging what often seems like an indiscriminate prescribing of powerful drugs to young children. Someone with clout is getting others to think about exploring whether this (and other) behaviors could actually be related to something else less ominous.

For example, I’ve met lots of kids with underdeveloped vestibular systems who have trouble waking up in the morning.  How do we know there was a vestibular connection? Well, once these kids’ vestibular systems improved (by doing specific movements, not by taking drugs), they awakened easily.

So I’m smiling as I continue to read, believing that Dr. Kaplan is setting the stage for what’s going to be a good thought-provoking article for mainstream America. But then I read a little more—and, boy, was I ever wrong.

True, he does not believe these kids are bipolar . . . but (are you ready?) he claims these are really kids who have severe ADD and OCD. Worst of all, his point is misdiagnosing these kids means they’re now missing out on being treated with drugs for those diagnoses.

Ah, not to be discouraged. Dr. Kaplan ends his article with hope that the tide may be turning.  The American Psychiatric Association is presently deciding on new criteria that could dramatically reduce the bipolar “fad diagnosis.”  They are recommending a new diagnosis called temper disregulation disorder, citing that this would be a more accurate way to describe extreme irritability in children.

Too cynical to think that drug companies are already starting to ponder what could be prescribed for this diagnosis?

Well, I’m not giving up that, someday, the article I thought I was going to read will be printed in mainstream media.  But guess for now, that time has yet to come.

 

Ending Kids’ Out of Control Behavior

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We don’t waste time blaming others for allowing out-of-control behavior. We now just take responsibility to end it.

I tell kids that out-of-control behaviors are never-evers. Why? Well, it’s a behavior that never, ever—anywhere on this planet—do people embrace. For example, no one is seeking a friend or spouse or employer who hits, screams, bites, spits, or throws things when upset.

Yet, every time a child is allowed to do a never-ever (and if the child does these, then there is some “permission” in the air), the brain registers such behavior as okay, even helpful, if it results in a reaction from others that is perceived as favorable (e.g. the child receives attention, ruins everyone else’s sense of harmony, no longer has to do whatever, etc.).

But here’s what becomes even more concerning: Parents of kids who do never-evers become desensitized to their kids’ out-of-bounds behavior—and that, itself, makes eliminating it more difficult.

For example, the parents may no longer view it as shocking that an eleven-year-old boy hits his mother or spits or slams doors when something doesn’t go his way—even though others are viewing that same behavior with disbelief.

So how do such parents become desensitized? Well, the brain often kicks in a self-defense mechanism (i.e. becomes desensitized) to a repeated negative experience that does not improve. For example, I recall how my friend was initially sickened by the level of poverty she encountered during her first three weeks in India. But by her last week there, she no longer saw the suffering as when she first arrived. In just a short period of time, she had become desensitized to all the anguish.

How Parents May Be Encouraging Never-Evers (and Not Know It)

Not only do parents become desensitized to extreme, out-of-bounds behavior, but other factors also keep them alive.

1. Parents rationalize the behavior.

At the Brain Highways Center, here are some of the common reasons parents have expressed to explain/justify their child’s never-evers:

• She’s nonverbal, so this is how she communicates.

• He gets tired.

• She gets overstimulated.

• He doesn’t understand what is being asked.

• She does (fill in the blank) because she’s been diagnosed with (fill in the blank).

• He doesn’t really know what he’s doing in that state of mind.

• He’s too underdeveloped to internalize any cause-and-effect response to his behavior.

Yet, a never-ever is just that. There are no excuses. Period.

Plus, none of the above reasons even hold up. For example, the nonverbal child still communicates without words when she’s happy, so why would being nonverbal suddenly be an issue when she’s not getting her way?

And kids, regardless of their diagnosis, are not aliens who slip into some bizarre state of mind that triggers never-ever tantrum behavior.

Tired? Overstimulated? Very possible, but why would that justify never-ever behavior?

Too underdeveloped to understand cause-and-effect? Actually, the child proves that he does understand cause–and-effect. After all, he’s learned to pull out the never-ever behavior whenever he doesn’t like something because such behavior often gets him what he wants (see number 2).
One fact is for certain: As long as parents rationalize never-ever behaviors in any way, they will continue.

2. The child’s brain registers others’ response to the never-ever as beneficial.

Suppose we put a screaming child in her room for a “time-out.” Yet, this response may give the child exactly what he wants (i.e. gets out of doing whatever). If that child then decides when to return (to whatever), he’s still controlling the situation. If he gets to merely apologize and waltz back into the family as though no never-ever happened, he’s additionally given a distorted sense of power since he’s the one who is always deciding when and if he’s going to interact nicely with others.

Moreover, if the child can repeat outrageous behavior—but then all is forgiven after he apologizes verbally and is acting pleasant again–why would the child ever stop doing never-evers? In the adult world, out-of-bounds behavior followed by a sweet apology is framed as an abusive relationship. Yet, we don’t often recognize a similar kind of relationship between a child and parent. Granted, it’s pretty chilling to think that our child is abusing us—and we’re allowing it. But that doesn’t make it not so.

Sometimes parents respond to the outrageous behavior by immediately comforting the child, with the idea of trying to calm her down. But how does that kind of response register in a child’s brain? Let’s see: The child screams. Kicks. Throws something–and that results in getting the parent’s undivided attention, complete with full-on comfort. Any surprise that this brain also views never-evers as beneficial?

In some homes, family members (including the parents) have become intimidated by the never-ever behavior. Consequently, they’ll now try to avoid being the recipient of such actions. Yet, the child who does the never-ever behavior knows this. So, once again, her brain believes such behavior is actually in her best interest. For example, she has learned she may get out of doing something or will be required to do less of something simply because others fear her reaction if asked to comply.

3. One or more people in the home need chaos in order to avoid dealing with some other issue.

Yes, never-ever behaviors are a great distraction. After all, when would we have time to think about something in our own life or relationships (that we’d rather not) if we’re so busy dealing with an out-of-control child? In fact, if there is an invitation for pandemonium in the air, another child in the house often steps into the role as soon as the out-of-control child’s behavior starts to improve.

Stopping Never-Evers Today

Any chance never-ever behaviors go away on their own? No. In fact, never-evers always escalate in intensity with time. For example, the child who darts out the door (to run away) at age four grabs the car keys to escape at fourteen. The child who throws toys and books at five throws furniture at fifteen. And so it goes.

So then, how do we stop never-evers if we’ve allowed them in our lives?

1. We look at the behavior as others view it (i.e. appalling, atrocious, etc.) We acknowledge that we have become desensitized to behavior that has and always will be an unacceptable way to respond.

2. We accept that we have played a role in teaching our kids to act this way. But that also means we can teach them something that creates a more useful brain map as soon as we respond differently. So, that’s encouraging!

3. We realize that we have already taught (on some level) our kids about never-evers. For example, while we may have allowed door slamming, kicking, and screaming, our kids know that they can never ever take a knife and slash furniture when they’re upset. So the same “presence” we used to establish that boundary can also transfer to the never-evers we have inadvertently allowed.

4. We pause and ask ourselves questions before deciding how to respond. What kind of brain map will result from my reaction? Will that be useful in my child’s life—or will it actually reinforce behavior that will alienate others and prevent my child from learning a constructive way to respond?

5. We spell out what never-ever behaviors our child does and explain why we would not want the brain to believe such responses are okay. For example, the child who hits and screams while riding in a car first learns that such behavior is unsafe. Simply, we cannot have distracted drivers. It’s not only unsafe for those in the car, but also for others on the road.

If needed, we get creative and use visuals to help our kids really understand why the never-ever has to stop. Here’s an impressive, graphic video a mom made to help her child understand why he cannot hit his face or bang his head when he’s upset.

6. We share, up front, what will happen if the never-ever appears. For example (continuing with the child who hits and screams while riding in the car), if we can’t trust the child to act in a way that ensures everyone’s safety, then we cannot trust her to ride in the car. And yes, guess that means that the child does not go to (fill in the blank) if he has to get there by car. Only after some time (perhaps three or four days—it can’t be a quick turn-around), do we reconsider whether we can trust the child in a car again and give him a chance to prove that.

For some kids, we may actually do a burial service of never-ever behaviors. In such case, we dig a hole in the backyard and bury a list of the child’s specific never-evers. Sometimes, this visual/event helps our kids get that we are absolutely done with those behaviors.

7. We respond to never-evers differently than to general kid-infractions. Forgetting to make the bed or leaving a mess can’t get the same response as punching the wall or ripping a shirt or kicking. We also can’t use the same generic consequence—time out, take away a toy or privilege—for never-ever behavior if we’re going to get the message across that such behavior is way out-of-bounds.

A mere apology is additionally deemed no longer enough to move forward. Instead, we must create an opportunity for our child to experience how such behavior interferes with his life—right now—even though the rest of us are going to (merrily) continue with ours, regardless. The latter is important. We are no longer held hostage by our child’s never-evers.

8. We hold the child accountable for his actions. For example, if he destroys something, he completes a job (e.g. scrubs grout) to earn money to pay for whatever he ruined. If he throws a chair, he now sits on the floor (sitting in a chair is not an automatic “right”).

9. As we do all of the above, our demeanor remains one of indifference. We may now sing a song or flip through a magazine while the child’s having a tantrum. We are no longer angry since that still gives our child a feeling of power (i.e. he likes that he can upset us). We are no longer consoling since that gives our child a confusing message (i.e. his brain registers never-evers as a way to get comforted). In contrast, our indifference negates whatever distorted power the never-ever may have previously generated. After all, never-ever behavior is intended to provoke, throw everyone off-balance. But now it does nothing.

In short, once we understand about never-evers, we no longer participate in ways that enable such behavior. We now realize that doing so actually hurts our child. And that can’t be what any parent wants to do.

Why We Can’t Stay Quiet

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We regain hope when we learn
the brain can change.

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.

Why Schools Fail

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What would it take to ensure
joyful learning in the classroom?

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.

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