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Tips for Helping Kids Learn in the Classroom

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Simple actions can make learning much easier for many kids.

Here’s an idea for an invention that might revolutionize teaching.

I’m picturing a small machine that is hooked up to each student’s cortex—the thinking, logical part of the brain. As students access their cortex during lessons, teachers would now see different sections of those kids’ forehead light up as they process, ponder, and reflect on the information being presented.

However, if students are stuck in the primitive parts of their brain, teachers would now just see black, empty screens on those kids’ forehead.

So how would this nifty invention make a difference? Well, what if teachers, for example, note that 75% of their students have a black, empty screen?   Yikes.

I’m thinking that’s going to make it a lot harder to continue with the lesson as planned. I’m also thinking there’d be more understanding and incentive to implement teaching techniques that address the probability that some (or many) students in a classroom have underdeveloped lower centers of the brain.

But, in truth, we don’t really need that invention.  We already know there are kids in the classroom without complete lower brain development—those who have to juggle between paying attention to the lesson and finding ways to compensate for missing automatic brain functions.

We already know that when such underdevelopment is present, it doesn’t take much to trigger a “primitive brain response”—and once kids are in that state, no learning at all is going to happen (i.e. we’re back to the black, empty screen).

So why not forge ahead with various actions to ensure learning is accessible to everyone? Here are some simple ways to do just that.

 

1.  Toss the idea that kids have to “sit up and be still” in order to pay attention.

When the vestibular system is not functioning properly, movement wakes up the brain. So when such kids rock or wiggle in their chair, this actually helps—not hinders—their ability to focus.  Similarly, when kids have retained primitive reflexes, they’ll slouch or sit in chairs in odd positions but that, too, actually make it easier for them to pay attention.

2.  Provide opportunities for kids to get up and move within lessons.

We all need to move to stay focused.  The irony is . . . the classroom teacher is often the one who moves the most in the classroom.

3.  Ask questions instead of issuing directives.

Kids with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain may not process directives the same way others hear it.  In such case, a directive may become distorted and trigger a response that often seems disproportionate to what was actually said.

For example, a simple statement, such as, “Thomas, put away your book,” may be heard as: “THOMAS! PUT AWAY YOUR BOOK!”  In such case, Thomas now responds as though someone had just threatened and yelled at him.

On the other hand, if we forgo directives and ask questions, we avoid this possibility altogether. Here, the teacher would say, “Thomas, did you think we wanted your book on top of your desk or inside?”

In short, questions are always processed in the cortex (where we want students to be at all times).

4. Reduce visual stimuli on the walls, ceilings, desks, and around the white board.

Some kids with an underdeveloped midbrain also have what’s called a visual figure-ground problem. Here, the brain has difficulty relegating information to the “background” and keeping what’s important in the foreground. So all those extras (that we thought were providing a stimulating room environment) are just sensory overload for many kids.

5. Keep directions short.  Model both what you do and do not want to happen.

Kids with an underdeveloped midbrain don’t often process speech at the same speed as the rest of us.  So, when teachers fire off multi-step directions, these kids are still processing the first part while teachers are now explaining the next step.  We also increase the probability of kids comprehending directions if we take a few seconds to model what we don’t want to happen. Such contrast helps to make the desired action crystal clear.

6.  Pass out materials only after the directions have been given.

When the midbrain is underdeveloped, it’s often like we have a magnetic draw to touch whatever is in front of us.  So, by waiting to pass out materials, we automatically ensure that such kids are not playing with materials when directions are given.

7. Refrain from requiring kids to make eye contact.

If kids’ don’t have good peripheral vision (which is often the case with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain), they’re not going to be able to sustain good eye contact, whereas kids with poor eye teaming may actually see multiple images if forced to look directly at the person talking.

In short, kids with limited peripheral vision and poor eye teaming will be able to pay better attention to what the person is saying if they’re not required to make eye contact.

8.  Honor the act of thinking, rather than getting the “right” answer.

If teachers deem an answer “wrong” in front of the whole class, kids with underdeveloped lower centers of the brain are likely to shut down or respond negatively (i.e. we see the black, empty screen when we’re in the survival part of the brain). That’s because such kids are “wired” to go into fight-or-flight behavior as soon as they feel threatened or fearful or uncomfortable.

So what can teachers do instead?  Well, they can thank the student for giving the question “a whirl,” as well as acknowledge the thinking that went into the response.

Just eight simple tips . . .  yet they can radically change many kids’ learning experience.  What would it take to make these changes in every classroom?

When Kids Make Fun of Kids

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It’s possible to turn kids making fun of other kids . . . into something positive.

A mother recently shared that another child was mimicking her daughter’s speech. She admitted that her daughter’s speech is sometimes hard to understand, but nonetheless, she was upset by this.

I certainly understand a knee-jerk reaction of wanting to shield and protect our kids from such negative interactions.  But since we cannot control what others say and do, I actually find such situations to be  . . . unexpected gifts.

How can that be? Well, it gives us a chance (as parents) to teach our kids how to respond when others aren’t acting in ways we perceive to be kind or understanding.  In truth, we all continue to experience such unpleasantness throughout our lives. So why not help our kids build effective brain maps right now—when they are young—so that such negativity doesn’t throw them off balance, now or later.

For example, we can teach our kids not to cringe or withdraw or even judge the person who wasn’t responding as we’d like.

We do this by role-playing what our child might say to shift the spotlight back on that person who initiates the negativity.

For example, in this case, our child might say: “I was wondering why you’re imitating how I speak.”

With that single comment, we empower our child how to quickly redirect the focus back to the other person, as well as teach her to ask others to clarify their intent.  Wouldn’t that be a helpful brain map to have throughout life?

Or, our child could ask: “How were you hoping I’d respond when you imitate how I speak?”

Again, this comment puts the spotlight back on that person—so that he’s the one on center-stage and is now the person who has to come up with a response.

Of course, it’s unlikely the child will say something as direct as, “Well, I was hoping you’d cry because I’m mean.”  But even if the child says that, then this immediately erases any doubt the comment was really about him—and not our child.

But more likely, the response will be something along the lines of, “Uh, I don’t know” or “I just thought it was funny.”

So we teach our child to follow up (regardless of what the person says) with only this short sentence: “Thanks for sharing that.”

Nothing more needs to be said because our child has already accomplished the original goal: She has nicely shifted that she, not the other child, has been in control of this interaction.

Or, our child can even just say from the get-go:  “Thanks for giving me feedback that it’s sometimes hard to understand my speech.  Good to know that I’m working hard at building highways in my brain so that it will be easier to understand me.”

It’s irrelevant whether or not the other child processes that message. When our child says this truth aloud, it reminds her why her speech may seem unintelligible to others—and that it won’t be that way forever.

So, while it sounds odd, kids making fun of other kids can actually be a wonderful gift—if we choose to view it that way.  In fact, all challenges are really just opportunities (in disguise) to learn.

 

How Jon Bon Jovi May Inspire Parents

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While The JBJ Soul Kitchen is intended to help people who are hungry, it’s also a model for parents.

Jon Bon Jovi has just opened a “pay-what-you-can” restaurant in Red Bank, New Jersey.  But guess what? The premise of The JBJ Soul Kitchen restaurant is also a great model for parents.

How’s that? To understand the connection, we first need to learn how The JBJ Soul Kitchen differs from a traditional soup kitchen.

First, the food is gourmet-quality. The JBJ Soul Kitchen’s menu includes savory dishes such as grilled salmon with seasonings, pork chops with fig and apple chutney, mashed sweet potatoes, sautéed greens, and homemade carrot cake. The menu in itself underscores an important premise of the restaurant: Just because someone is homeless or in a need of a meal doesn’t mean that he or she wouldn’t also enjoy delicious, healthy food.

Second, there are no prices on the menu.  Instead, paying customers are encouraged to leave whatever they choose in envelopes left on the tables.  Those without money can bus tables or wait on tables or work in the kitchen. They can even volunteer elsewhere and earn a certificate that’s good for a meal at the restaurant.

That’s because The JBJ Soul Kitchen is based on another general premise: Those on the receiving end are also held accountable for giving something back.

So Bon Jovi is meeting a community need (i.e. feeding hungry people,) but he’s doing so in a way that honors and respects such individuals’ dignity. He does that by giving people options as he also holds them accountable for contributing something to the community.

That’s a great outlook for parents, as well.  We, too, can meet our kids needs in a way that doesn’t come across as pity or condescending or one-sided (where we do all the giving, and they do all the receiving).  Like The JBJ Soul Kitchen, we can present our kids with options for ways to give back to our family. That way, we also create a sense of community in our own homes . . .  where receiving and giving are then considered all part of the same circle.

The Upside of Letting Go

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When we’re not so attached to an outcome, we find ourselves smiling a whole lot more.

How many times have we been emotionally invested in an outcome, only to react with fear or anger or frustration when it didn’t turn out as we hoped?

Since we can’t control many of the outcomes in our lives, maybe it’s time to give up being so attached to them.  In such case, we still note what we’d like to happen—but then, we let it go, choosing to view all outcomes as just opportunities to learn and grow.

And guess what? Turns our there are lots of perks when we chose to detach from an outcome.  Here are just a few:

  • We don’t waste time worrying about what might happen.
  • We aren’t disappointed by whatever does or does not come to pass.
  • We don’t place judgment on the experience.
  • We aren’t tempted to cheat (e.g. on a test) since we are no longer fixated on the results.

Seems like a pretty good deal for simply shifting how we think.

Yet letting go is not always as easy as it sounds, especially when it comes to our kids.

For example, we’re often calm and collected when dealing with someone else’s child. But the minute our child does the very same thing, we morph into someone else. Why? Well, we’re very attached to our child’s future.

Yet there’s some irony here. The child we’re not nearly as invested in . . . gets the better side of us. Hmmm . .  maybe that awareness alone can help us lighten up when interacting with our own kids.

We may also have trouble letting go if we think we’re owed an apology. Nothing like feeling we’ve been wronged to justify “holding on” to something.

Yet, again, what does that really get us? I’ve found this quote to be helpful in such situations: “Apologizing does not always mean that you’re wrong and the other person is right. It just means that you value your relationship more than your ego.”

Last, I think it’s easier to be detached from an outcome if we remember that other people may also be involved in same situation. That means, by default, not everyone is going to get what he or she wants.

Carol Burnett underscored this kind of thinking when she first started her career. I recently watched an interview of her, and she was sharing how she never became upset or second-guessed her talent if she didn’t get a job after an audition. Instead, she just viewed the actor who got the role as . . . this time, it was the other person’s turn.

So, it comes down to this: Is it serving us (or our kids) well whenever we’re attached to an outcome? If the answer is no, then why not let it go and see what happens.

Since I’ve been doing that, I find that I’m traveling much lighter these days—and enjoying the journey so much more.

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?

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