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Tips for Helping Kids Learn in the Classroom


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?

Autism Criteria May Be Changed


How will changing the autism criteria help kids?

That was the headline in today’s paper.  So, if your child was diagnosed with autism in the past, he could be instantly “cured” in the near future—if he doesn’t fit the new definition.  But why doesn’t that sound . . . right?

Here’s what has transpired to date. A panel of experts, appointed by the American Psychiatric Association, is recommending pretty dramatic changes in the present criteria for diagnosing autism.

For example, with the new guidelines, there would no longer be related disorder categories, such as Asperger’s or PDD-NOS (pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified).

Instead, there would be just one autism spectrum disorder, and qualifying for that diagnosis would be much more difficult than the current guidelines.

But here’s the upside. These experts claim that such changes could dramatically affect the rate of autism.(In some places, the rate of autism is now as high as 1 in 100 children.)  In fact, Dr. Fred R. Volkman, director of the Child Study Center at Yale University of Medicine says, “The proposed changes would put an end to the autism epidemic.  We would nip it in the bud.”

Okay, first pause.

Changing statistics do not improve a problem.  For example, we could raise the driving alcohol limit, and thereby greatly reduce the number of people arrested for drunk driving. But a change in those statistics wouldn’t mean we’re now any safer on the road. In fact, changing the criteria for drunk driving (by making it so less people were deemed driving under the influence) would only put everyone more at risk.

Second pause.

Is money partially (or completely) driving this reclassification?  With the current criteria, hundreds of thousands of people receive state-backed special services. So, you gotta wonder if tightening the criteria for autism and eliminating its related disorders isn’t just a creative way to help fix existing state budget problems.

That being said, diagnosing autism and its related disorders has always been subjective, and this latest attempt to change the criteria underscores that point. In other words, such diagnoses have never come about in the same way, for example, as a cancer diagnosis—where there’s tangible “proof.”

And here’s another truth: While parents of kids with Asperger’s and PDD-NOS may presently qualify for certain resources, those services are limited. Often, such assistance does not even render significant results.

So maybe this is one of those blessings in disguise.

Maybe—if such changes pass—more parents will be motivated to learn about brain organization and how they can facilitate positive changes in their child’s brain wiring.  Maybe more parents will no longer be resigned to out-of-bounds behaviors that they’ve been told to “expect” if their child has autism or one of its related disorders.

And maybe, just maybe, the focus will return to this question: How can we best help kids who are struggling?  If that is the driving question, then having or not having a diagnosis becomes irrelevant.


Lessons We Can All Learn from My 94-Year-Old Dad


We will all be lucky if we age like my dad.

My dad just recently started to age. Truly. A year ago, he was still playing golf twice a week—even though he was 93 at the time.  He only started using a cane six months ago (and it’s one he personally created out of a dowel stick, with a golf-ball-handle on top), and it’s just been a little over two months since he stopped driving altogether.

So it’s entirely new for me to watch my dad . . . finally age and require some modifications in his life.

But rather than focus on what he no longer can do, I decided to see what kinds of lessons I might learn as he enters this new stage of life. It turns out this was much easier to do than I thought.  Here’s some of what I’ve gleaned.

Experience 1: My dad’s vision has diminished somewhat, so I recently bought him a phone with extra large buttons and offered to copy his personal phone directory in large, bold font. But while the time-worn book was filled with lots of names, he only wanted me to copy the numbers of these few people: his daughters, sisters, and grandkids.  That was it.

The Lesson: Most people in our lives come and go, yet a small inner circle will remain with us for life.  So the next time a coworker or neighbor or teacher upsets us, we can ask ourselves: When I’m 94, is this person going to make the cut in my new phone book? Could be a helpful guideline for deciding who’s worth getting distressed over right now.

Experience 2:  I’ve never known my dad to drink wine, and he has probably had a total of a dozen or so beers in his entire life.  But recently, he started drinking wine with his “girlfriend.” (My mother died after they had been married for 50 years, and he’s been with his girlfriend for the last ten years.)

The other night we were all out to dinner, and they were both having a glass of wine.  While she has always enjoyed wine, I confess it was such an odd picture for me to see my dad drinking out of a goblet.

So I nonchalantly asked why (after all these years) he had now decided to drink wine.  Without missing beat, he raised his glass and toasted it against his girlfriend’s glass and said, “So that I can do that.” And then with a twinkle in his eye, he added, “I couldn’t do that if she was drinking alone.”

The Lesson: With my dad’s new changes, he can no longer help his girlfriend in some of the ways that he previously did. So, he has found a new way to make her smile. Bottom line: If we’re willing to explore possibilities, there’s always a new option.

Experience 3: Since I started taking my dad to his doctor appointments, I noticed a disturbing theme. The doctors turn their back on my dad and talk to me—as though he isn’t even present.  After the third time this happened, I brought it up to my dad.  I was getting pretty huffy about it, but he merely shrugged his shoulders and said, “They just don’t have experience treating a 94-year-old patient.”

The Lesson:  Insight over indignation is always a much better way to go.

Experience 4:  My dad does not talk about what he can no longer do or what he now does more slowly than before. Instead, he proudly shows off what he can do—and that’s a lot.

For example, while he’s no longer driving to the grocery store, he does all his own shopping once someone takes him there. While he has some difficulty seeing the line to sign on his credit card, he whips it out of his wallet right on cue. If you shake his hand, be prepared for a grip that rivals young twenty-year-olds.  The list goes on.

The Lesson: There are always going to be negatives and positives in our lives. That’s a given. However, we can choose which of those two we decide to focus on.

Experience 5:  For as long as I’ve known my dad, he has eaten the same breakfast, for which he preps each night. He’s still doing this; however, he recently asked me, “How would you define optimism for a 94-year-old man?” His answer was:  A guy who prepares his breakfast . . . the night before.

The Lesson: It’s important to have a sense of humor at any age.

Now, it’s not as though my dad has lived a charmed life. Not at all. He’s a WWII veteran with some pretty horrific war experiences. In his forties, he was robbed at gunpoint. He has had cancer not once, not twice—but five times.

Yet, he never complains about anything.  There is something to learn from that, too.

So as I spend time with my dad in this new phase of his life, I’m going to keep focusing on the positive and see what other life lessons I can extrapolate from our time together. That’s because I want to feel joy, not sadness, as he continues to age.

And that  . . . seems the best way to honor how he’s lived for over nine decades.


A Different Letter for Santa


What gifts can’t be wrapped?

Okay, I may be a little old to be writing Santa, and admittedly, this may be beyond the scope of what he ordinarily does.  But here it goes:

Dear Santa:

Please make sure all kids get . . .

  1. Daily opportunities to share their innate gifts
  1. Unstructured downtime
  1. An educational environment where joyful learning is required
  1. A sense of security and trust in those who are in charge of them
  1. Encouragement to be creative
  1. Lots of time to move throughout the day
  1. A sense that they belong—even if they seem different from the rest

Santa, I’m thinking that some of today’s kids have become so lost that they don’t even know to ask you for any of the above. So I’m asking for them.

I also truly believe there isn’t a video game or electronic toy out there that even comes close to bringing the kind of joy this list could bring to kids.

So, please talk this over with your elves and see whether you can help make this holiday a brand new beginning for many kids.


Giving and Receiving


Do we give to others, but deny others to do the same for us?

Giving and receiving are part of the same circle; we can’t have one without the other.

Yet, after we’ve become parents, that circle is often lopsided, with the greater emphasis on the giving side. Somewhere along the line, we seem to forget how to also receive graciously.  We’re overwhelmed, tired, frustrated—but when people offer to help, we often brush them aside, saying, “I’m okay.”

My dad, who lives completely on his own, now needs help getting his weekly groceries. Mind you, he can still do all the shopping; he just can’t drive to the store any more. So, I wanted to arrange a schedule where family members came and took him to the store each week.

As expected, his first response was no.  He just could pay someone to do this.  But I was armed with my giving and receiving speech.

I told him he had given so much throughout his life, yet I couldn’t recall a single time he had ever asked someone else for help. I talked about his lopsided circle when it came to giving and receiving, and how it wasn’t fair to my sisters or me if he didn’t allow us to help him.  I knew I had to offer a fresh perspective in order to circumvent his knee-jerk “I can take care of this myself” response.

Guess what? We’ve not only set up a grocery store schedule, but he loves doing it this way! He still gets to do the part that’s fun for him (picking out his own grapefruit, deciding what cookies he wants, etc.), all while enjoying the company of one of his girls during the excursion.

But we don’t have to wait until we’re 94 to open some space to allow others to give to us.  However, the first step may be to make it known that, yes, we’d love some help.

That’s especially true if we’re now thinking, “Well, no one ever offers to help me.” Chances are  . . . they did a long time ago. But after so many refusals, people do quit asking. Of course, we don’t ever have an expectation that someone should help us.

So, what else gets in the way of receiving graciously?  There’s pride (I’m confident and capable) or self-judgment (I should be able to handle this on my own) or just plain habit (I’m used to doing everything myself).Yet, each of these thoughts push others away from helping us, and so our giving and receiving circle remains lopsided.

For kids, receiving is a natural.  However, their giving and receiving circle is often tilted heavily on the receiving side.

So how can we balance that? Well, we can encourage our kids to routinely give gifts that require no money.  For example, they can give thanks for the rain and sunshine (since we couldn’t live without either!).  They can give their time, such as visiting a senior home or even just calling up Grandma or Grandpa to chat.  They can give away something they own to someone who may appreciate it more. They can give a smile to someone who is feeling down.

Sharing is also a form of giving, so kids can be encouraged to share a toy or treat, or even share a creative idea that they may have.

In truth, there are endless possibilities when it comes to giving and receiving.

So maybe this upcoming holiday becomes an opportunity to begin balancing our giving and receiving circles if they’re out of whack. For example, if we fall short in the latter category, we now open space for others to help us.  If our kids fall short in the former, we now redirect them to adopt more of a giving than receiving mindset.

And when we do so, we discover that the spirit of giving and receiving . . .  is truly one and the same.

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