Month: August 2018
A few weeks ago, one of our followers on Instagram posed a great question – “why is it that some parents don’t see raising their child as something so complex, and that they just think that their children will be fine with whatever happens in life?”
Because it is a question that touches on a lot of important issues I promised in my Instagram response to answer it more fully in a blog post. So, @brookehilder, here goes! I’ll start by rephrasing and simplifying the question. Why do some parents leave their child’s development to chance rather than take an active role in promoting it?
Let me begin by talking about parents. Here at BrainFit Kids we have the utmost respect for and confidence in parents. We believe with our hearts and souls that the best chance that every child has in life rests with his or her parents. This is because of what we call the anthropological reality of the family bond. Woven into the very nature of what it is to be a human being is the love that exists between parent and child. This is no ordinary love but a special kind of love that only a parent can understand. There is no sense in trying to explain it to someone who is not a parent. You simply have to experience it for yourself. But once you experience it, you will never be the same person again. Ask any parent.
We’re convinced that parents really do want the best for their children. We have always taught that parents know their circumstances and their children best and they should decide what is best for them and their children.
We know that parenting is a tough job. Raising children often involves making sacrifices and establishing new priorities. Parents today face challenges and pressures and decisions that are unique to our modern era.
When two parents are working outside of the home, whether by necessity or choice, it can be difficult to reconcile their baby’s deeply ingrained biological and physiological needs with their own social and psychological needs. That is something that each family must figure out for themselves. We think that’s the way it should be.
So let’s get back to the original question – why do some parents leave their child’s development to chance rather than take an active role in promoting it?
I think it is safe to say that from the moment a couple learns they are expecting a child, they begin to have hopes and dreams for their little one. Some parents have really specific dreams but mostly parents dream that their child will grow up to be healthy, capable, successful, and happy. And so the little bundle of joy is born and then many parents cross their fingers and hope their dream comes true. Why? There are probably as many reasons as there are parents but here are two reasons that most parents share.
First, for most of recorded history the standard dogma about child development, particularly child brain development, has been that it is the luck of the draw. Remember, we have been at this game for more than forty years. As the popular Farmers Insurance commercial says “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two”! The phenomenon of neuroplasticity (the idea that the structure, chemistry, and function of the brain is influenced by experience) was proved and recognized as scientific fact in other mammals (dogs, cats, mice, rats), as early as the 1950’s. But neuroplasticity in human beings was denied. As recently as twenty five years ago, the medical, education, and psychology establishments taught that the human brain was not affected by experience or its environment.
While we now know that neuroplasticity exists in human beings, the popular belief remains much as it was forty years ago… if you are lucky enough to be born with a good brain you will do well in life; if you are unlucky and are born with a compromised brain you will struggle. So, it is no surprise that many parents assume their child will be fine. In a certain sense, this assumption is a bit of self-preservation because if it’s the luck of the draw anyway and there isn’t much you can do about it, much better to just think positive!
Second, the rise of the professional class (medicine, education, psychology) over the past hundred years or so has resulted in a shift of responsibility for many aspects of our lives. Generations ago, parents truly were responsible for every aspect of their child’s development. Without any fancy degrees or special knowledge, drawing on their personal experiences growing up and relying on wisdom passed down through the generations, parents managed to raise children quite successfully. Knowing nothing about neuroplasticity, mothers and fathers managed to bring us from the caves of the prehistoric age to the modern age. In the process they raised some pretty extraordinary humans. The philosophers of ancient Greece, the geniuses of the Italian Renaissance, the Founding Fathers of the American experiment in democracy are just a few examples of amazingly capable people who were once children who were raised lock, stock, and barrel by their mothers and fathers.
Sadly, some parents today feel insecure about this responsibility because, after all, they are just parents! What do they know about raising children? Part of the insecurity parents feel is due to the fact that generally we have smaller families today so many parents have little personal experience to draw on. Part is due to the fact that, as least in the United States, the family is not the close unit it once was and we are a much more mobile society. So parents often can’t rely on the wisdom of previous generations. So they turn to professionals!
Education professionals in particular are only too eager to capitalize on this. All one needs to do to see how far this has gone is to look at the push for universal daycare and universal early childhood education. After denying neuroplasticity for decades, professionals today try to justify having every child in daycare or school as early as three months of age on the basis that it is important to take advantage of neuroplasticity!
Now, please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. We believe that every child should get the best quality care and a good early education. Indeed, that’s what BrainFit Kids is all about! We’re all for taking advantage of neuroplasticity! It’s just that we believe that parents are perfectly capable of doing this and can do so much better than professionals. What parents need is knowledge and our support in making that possible.
So, what’s a parent to do? Well, that really depends on how parents see their role and how much of themselves they want to and are willing to invest in it. Again, that is something that only parents can decide. But for those who want to take an active role in fostering their child’s development, the answer is education. Unlike a new car, little babies don’t come with a manual that tells you how they work. We started BrainFit Kids to fill in that knowledge gap.
Parenting With the Brain in Mind is about parents having an awareness of two things – the absolute miracle going on inside the head of that little baby they love so much and the extraordinary influence they have on that miracle. Once parents have that knowledge and awareness they can never look at their child or themselves in the same way again. That leads to children who are more capable and struggle less.
Speaking about struggle, today we have an epidemic of children diagnosed with attention problems, behavior problems, and learning difficulties. More than 5 million American children take drugs for attention problems alone. These children suffer terribly as a result of their limitations. The tragedy is that much of this suffering is completely avoidable. When parents have more knowledge and awareness about child brain development they are in a much better position to help and make a difference!
I’ll end with two final thoughts. As you make your own personal decisions as to what works best for you and your family, understand that there is no such thing as perfect parenting. You can parent with the brain in mind, which is to say with a very important purpose, but you can’t possibly be a perfect parent. So cut yourself some slack and just do your best. And keep in mind that raising children is the ultimate responsibility because, as Wordsworth said, “the Child is father of the Man”; children are our future! So long as you recognize the importance of that responsibility, you and your children will be just fine and our world will be a better place.
In our science blog earlier this month, we talked about the progressive nature of brain development and the importance of understanding and paying attention to this core principle. Now, let’s take a look at the development of understanding as a practical application of this principle.
We grown-ups often pay a lot more attention to a child’s ability to give us information (output) rather than how much information a child is receiving (input). The development of understanding, like all other functions, goes from simple to complex. It is very progressive. At first a baby only understands your tone of voice and sounds in the environment. Then comes the understanding of simple words, then simple sentences, followed by simple orders or instructions (Wave bye-bye!) that then lead to more complex multiple step instructions. This then leads to the beginning of an understanding of time (soon, later, etc.) and space (up, down, over, under, etc.) which makes it possible for the child to understand deals or negotiations. At first, a child will only have concrete understanding. Then, as her understanding develops and matures she will begin to understand simple abstract concepts and so on.
How well a child understands, where she is on the progression, will impact her behavior and how well the child relates to the world around her. We will dive deeper into the topic of behavior in a future post but let’s talk a bit about the relationship between understanding and behavior.
People often talk about the infamous “terrible-twos”. This is the stage where a child is beginning to test the waters. This is when your child wants to get what they want when they want it. Usually that means, right now! There is no negotiating on your part. The child wants something and they want it immediately. If they do not get it they will cry, throw a tantrum, or perhaps have a full-blown meltdown. The degree of the outburst will depend on how badly she wants it, how often you have given in, and how much attention she is getting when she is “being loud”.
Have you ever seen a child throwing a tantrum at the checkout counter in a supermarket? You know the drill. She wants the candy/toy/whatever that is purposefully placed near the checkout so your child will see it. What a perfect place to have a tantrum! You are horrified that your child is screaming and you are getting judgemental looks about your parenting skills from the people around you. Or at least that is how you feel! And then there is the occasional person who asks your child “What is wrong? Don’t cry!” which gets her to scream even louder because she now has a sympathetic audience which might result in her getting what she wants. You might end up giving in just so you can keep the peace. Right? Does this scenario sound at all familiar? Are you getting anxious just reliving this scenario?
So, you might be asking, how can I minimize this kind of behavior in my little darling and make my trips to the store a bit more pleasurable? First, remember that how you go about this will depend on your child’s level of understanding, where she is in the progression to mature understanding. Second, remember it is impossible to negotiate with your child if she does not have some understanding of time concepts. If you say to your child “you can not have it now but I will give it to you later (or tomorrow, after lunch, etc.)” and your child does not understand time she will not understand you trying to reason with her.
Here are some tips to make your shopping experience more enjoyable:
Set yourself up for success
Avoid going to the grocery store when your child (or you!) are tired. I know, I know – as a parent you are pretty much always tired, but you know what I mean. Also avoid going if you’re in a hurry. It just sets you all up for frustration and struggle. Whenever possible, make a shopping trip part of your weekly routine. The consistency will help your child as it will be a part of their routine. It will also allow you to plan for the trip and not be rushed which always adds stress to the situation.
Establish rules beforehand
Make sure your child is aware of the rules before you even go into the store. For example, children should not run around the store. There are too many ways they can get hurt. This should be rule number one. Let her know that the store rule is that everyone always walks or rides in a cart while in the store. Anyone who runs is denied the fun of shopping.
Engage your child
Always try to engage your child. Talk to her about what you need to buy. Tell her how great it would be to have her help. Make it fun so she wants to participate. Young toddlers may not have time concepts but they want to do everything by themselves. They are beginning to experiment with independence. So, take advantage of this by requesting their help! Make her think you need her help because you really do if you are going to get anything done!
Keep your child busy with little tasks
Whenever possible, give your child the item you are purchasing so she can place it in the cart or basket for you.
Use the little carts when available
If you are shopping in a store that has little carts for children, let your child push her own cart with the understanding that your shopping will take longer. When children are pushing their own carts it is a good idea to place heavier items in the cart to slow them down. This way you can avoid your child running down the aisles and crashing into someone or worse into breakable bottles! So, start your shopping by placing the heavier items into her little cart. She should still be able to push it but will have to make an effort thus slowing her down. This will also make it easier for you to direct her and avoid crashing. Once, I was in Trader Joe’s with my grandson and I placed the 6 wine bottles in his cart. I told him that since he had the bottles in his cart he had to be very careful. While we were walking through the store I wondered how many people thought I was crazy as we were getting quite a few smiles as people looked into his cart. I assure you he was very proud that I trusted him with the breakables and was extremely careful as we strolled through the store. Of course, I reminded him a few times of his “responsibility”.
Be consistent and stick to your established rules
Finally, accept that sometimes you just have to leave the store. At this stage, if your child does not understand your words or does not “believe” them, you will have to show it by taking action. Calmly. If you have told your child that the rule of the store is that everyone walks (i.e. no running) and she insists on running and screams or cries when you place her in the cart, it is best to stop your shopping and leave. No complaining, no yelling, no berating. Just take action. This is not because of what others are thinking but because you want your child to learn that this rule is followed consistently. It happens to everyone and it’s not a failure on your part if you have to abandon a shopping trip. By sticking to your established rules, you are being consistent in your messaging to your child and helping her to know what to expect and what the boundaries are surrounding such an outing.
The ability to reason is a result of a much more sophisticated level of understanding than most 2 years old have. So there are many things that affect or relate to a child’s behavior (brain organization, nutrition, parenting style, etc.) but understanding is high up on the list. The more sophisticated your child’s understanding is, the easier it becomes. Well… not always, because the more sophisticated your toddler’s understanding becomes the more she will try to negotiate with you as well! In the end, that is a small price to pay. So, pay attention to the progression of brain development, keep giving your child information through language, keep engaging her in conversation and the activities of daily life, and enjoy the rewards of her output!
There is a lot to discuss when it comes to dealing with children’s behavior and we look forward to more blogs on the subject in the future. For now, let’s keep increasing their level of understanding. Enjoy the ride!
Earlier this month, in looking at the science of child brain development, we discussed the progressive nature of brain development. As an illustration of this core principle, we looked at the progressive development of the function of mobility. Today, we’re going to put that process under the microscope in order to show you how even within the various stages of mobility we can see the phenomenon of progression at play.
One of the most interesting and amazing characteristics of the human brain is its ability to recognize patterns.
Patterns are readily observable throughout the natural world and the human brain is an absolute master at recognizing them.
We do this primarily with our sensory functions of vision, hearing, tactile ability, taste, and smell.
What is fascinating is that we also move in patterns. When we observe babies carefully as they develop mobility, we see clear patterns emerge during each stage as the brain develops and they learn more about their bodies and movement.
Patterns of Movement
In the beginning, movement is random and without any real purpose. It is the result of reflexes being triggered and the baby’s body responding. Gradually however, with sufficient opportunity and as a result of thousands of experiments (remember frequency?), children integrate those reflexes and learn that by moving their arms and legs in certain ways they can move more effectively and efficiently. Nobody teaches the baby how to do this. It is hard wired into the system. When we give a young child frequent opportunity to learn how to use their arms and legs; when we give them that opportunity without restrictions; and when we keep the duration of those opportunities just right; the process plays out exactly as it is designed.
If you pay careful attention to how your baby is moving, you will observe several distinct patterns of movement as he learns how to move. You will see at least some of these patterns at the crawling stage, at the creeping stage, and at the walking stage. There are four distinct patterns of movement that children will use. They are the truncal pattern, the homologous pattern, the homolateral pattern, and the cross pattern. Let’s take a look at each of them.
The truncal pattern involves very simple movement, flexion and extension of the trunk. This is how the baby moves in utero during fetal development. When Mom feels her baby “kicking”, she is feeling the baby move from flexion in to extension. It is a very primitive pattern of movement, the kind of movement that we can observe in the fish. In both the fish and the newborn baby, it requires the presence of a well-functioning medulla and spinal cord, the parts of the central nervous system that are fully functional at birth.
The homologous pattern involves extending both arms simultaneously to pull forward followed by flexing both legs simultaneously to then push backward. The result is forward movement. This is often how the baby will begin to crawl forward on the tummy. Sometimes it also makes baby go backwards for a time if the arms are used more than the legs! This is the kind of movement that we can observe in primitive amphibians like the frog and, in both the frog and the newborn baby, it requires the presence of a well-functioning pons, medulla, and spinal cord.
The homolateral pattern involves moving the arm and leg on the same side of the body simultaneously. Compared to the homologous pattern, this is a more effective and powerful pattern of movement for tummy crawling. This is the kind of movement that we can observe in the higher amphibians like the salamander and newt and it requires the presence of a well-functioning pons, medulla, and spinal cord.
The cross pattern involves moving the opposite arm and leg simultaneously. This pattern of movement is much more complex than the previous patterns and, although not as powerful as the homolateral pattern, it is much more efficient. The cross pattern is the pattern of movement we can observe in reptiles and mammals and requires the presence of a well-functioning midbrain, pons, medulla. and spinal cord.
The journey through these patterns of movement can be observed in babies at each and every stage (tummy crawling, creeping on hands and knees, walking, and running) in the development of mobility as the brain moves from function that is primitive and simple to function that is sophisticated and complex. These patterns are deeply ingrained in the human brain’s wiring as a result of the many millions of years it has taken for the human central nervous system to develop to its present state. They are essential for the full development of the brain because they serve the very important purpose of organizing the central nervous system, a process called “neurological organization”. All human functional ability is dependent on neurological organization.
This video demonstrates a great example of cross pattern tummy crawling:
It bears repeating that, obviously, in order for these movement patterns to be expressed the baby must be given the opportunity to move. A baby cannot learn how to move correctly, cannot develop through these patterns of movement, when she is lying on her back, strapped in a chair, or sitting in a swing. Only when placed in a functional position (i.e. prone, which is to say on her tummy) and given the freedom to move without any restrictions, and with the frequency, intensity, and duration appropriate for her age, can she fully express her physical potential.
What pattern is your baby using when he crawls, creeps, or walks?
Take the time to be a careful observer of your child’s development… you’ll be amazed because it truly is a miracle!
Today we are delighted to feature another guest post, this time by our dear friend and colleague, Gail Engebretson. We’ve known Gail for more than forty years. She taught Juliana how to play the violin and worked with us in France for many years. She’s really part of the family. Gail probably has more hands-on knowledge and practical experience teaching music to children and using music to develop the brain than just about anyone on the planet.
Gail Engebretson graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1974 with a BA in Music Education. She received special training in the Suzuki violin method and studied with Dr. Shinichi Suzuki in Japan. In 1976, Gail began training in Human Development at the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia. There she designed music programs for young children and babies. Gail later developed music and violin programs in California, Wisconsin, and Washington. She currently lives in the Seattle area where she teaches music and violin to a bunch of really lucky kids. Gail also volunteers her time in an after-school string program in a native American community. In addition to her music and teaching career, Gail is a life coach and a published author.
Music to Grow the Brain
What does music have to do with brain development?
Many people believe music, musical instruction and learning an instrument are nice but not very important – certainly not something crucial in a child’s development or critical to maintain in our school’s curriculums. But most people have not considered music as a way to enhance brain development in a child.
Music is a language, a very complex language. Music has pitch and tone and rhythm. It has texture and form. Learning to play a musical instrument requires fine-tuned listening skills, spatial awareness, tactile awareness, manual dexterity, and physical coordination.
The brain is made up of billions of neurons and as these neurons become stimulated they make new connections – synapses. If they receive stimulation and are used they become stronger. If they are not used, they die.
One of the three main pathways into the brain is the auditory pathway. This pathway is strengthened and grown every time a child listens to music. Listening to classical music, which has a more complex musical structure, uses even more neurons and creates more connections in the developing brain.
There have been numerous studies done in recent years about music and the impact it has on children’s mental, physical and even psychological growth.
When the brain is processing music, both the right and left hemispheres of the brain light up. It shows activity in the auditory, visual, cognitive, spatial and motor systems of the brain. Research has shown that classical music primes the brain to solve spatial problems faster. Children with music training have scored better in math and verbal skills.
Stimulating the brain through music enables a child to have better listening skills. They are able to differentiate pitches and sounds. This helps in language development and later, reading development. Even a little bit of music training can make a difference in a child’s listening abilities later in life.
There’s a window of opportunity for creating the greatest impact through music. This window exists between the ages of two and ten. This is also when the greatest growth of language and the parts of the brain responsible for language are occurring. It makes perfect sense that music has its greatest impact then.
So what can you do as a parent to enhance your child’s brain development using music? Here are eight simple but powerful suggestions:
- Put music on in your child’s environment, especially classical music, starting as early as possible – even in utero
- Encourage singing – sing to your child and with your child (even if you don’t have the greatest voice).
- Teach your child song games that involve movement such as “Pat-a-Cake” and “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes”.
- Have your child move to music, dance, clap or bang out the rhythm of the music – help them make that physical and kinesthetic connection.
- Start your child on a musical instrument such as violin or piano as soon as you feel they’re ready, preferably around age three or four.
- The Suzuki Method is an ideal place to start.
- Use music to teach numbers and letters or other information. We remember song lyrics!
- Encourage your schools to maintain music classes, singing, string programs and band programs.
It’s very important to keep all music activities fun and enjoyable for your child. Music is a wonderful thing when it’s not being forced on a child. Many of us have gone through music lessons that became excruciating. Keep the bigger picture in mind – you’re not out to make master musicians but rather, happy, smart and capable children.
We’re going back to the science of child brain development this week. Previously, we established that the development of your child’s brain is governed by three very basic laws of nature. Just to recap those laws quickly, they are:
- Function determines structure. This law explains why, just like a muscle, the brain grows through use.
- The frequency, intensity, and duration of an applied stimulus (eg. light) will affect brain growth. Increase the frequency, intensity, and duration of the stimulus and you accelerate its transmission throughout the central nervous system. This law tells us how to facilitate the process of brain development.
- Where there is a need, there is a facility. This means that before a baby can develop an ability there must first be a need for that ability. Increase the need and it is more likely that the ability will develop. Decrease the need and it is less likely that the function will develop.
Brain development is progressive
In addition to the three laws that govern brain development, there are three simple, core, universal principles that we can observe about how the brain develops.
The first core principle is that brain development is progressive.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines progressive as “happening or developing gradually or in stages”. This is precisely what one observes in the development of the brain in children. Brain structure (neurons, dendrites, myelin, etc.) gradually changes from simple to complex. As a result, it is also what one observes in the development of functional ability in children. Functional ability changes from primitive to sophisticated.
The progressive nature of brain development can be seen quite clearly in the development of human mobility. A child is not born with the ability to walk. At birth, from a neurological perspective, he functions at a reflex level. He can move his arms and legs but any movement that he has is completely reflex and involuntary. But, if he is exposed to adequate sensory stimulation and given adequate opportunity to experiment with his arms and legs, he will learn that certain combinations of movements have certain effects. Eventually, as long as we place him in the prone position (on his tummy), and as long as we do not limit or interfere with him, he will learn how to crawl on his tummy. He is now mobile! He can crawl for transportation! This is the first stage on the path to walking.
Now that this little one is crawling around the house on his tummy there are a whole host of things that are happening to prepare him for the next stage.
Most importantly, as he crawls around the house, his brain is becoming more organized, it is growing new dendrites, it is producing more myelin, and it is producing more brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which neuroscientists like to call call “Miracle-Gro for the brain” because of the proliferation of new neurons and dendrites produced whenever it is found in high concentrations. He is literally growing his brain!
But that’s not all! In addition, as he crawls around the house he is developing his muscles. First, he develops the muscles of his neck and trunk. Then, once he can move forward, he develops the muscles of his arms and legs, and his hands and feet. And there’s more! Crawling on the tummy is hard work, even for a little baby, and another result of that hard work is that the baby is developing his ability to breathe. This is important because it is through breathing that we supply most of the oxygen that our brain uses. Most people do not realize this but the ability to breathe is an ability that develops. The breathing of a newborn baby is totally different from that of a grown child. The breathing of a newborn is fast, shallow, and irregular. The breathing of a grown child is slow, deep, and regular. The driving factor in that transition is mobility.
Once our little one’s brain has developed enough, and he is strong enough, and his breathing is sufficiently developed, he will start to push himself off of the floor in defiance of gravity and into a creeping (hands and knees) position. Now he will spend some time experimenting with this new thing called balance. He will push up, maintain a quadruped position, and experiment with how far he can lean in one direction or the other as he learns about his body and how to keep himself upright. All the while, he continues to develop the strength in his arms and legs.
Eventually, once he has developed good enough balance and has enough confidence in his ability to stay upright, he will start moving forward on his hands and knees. Now he is creeping! Once again, provided we give him ample opportunity to use his new ability, as long as we do not limit or interfere with him, he will become an Olympic creeper.
In the process, he will develop much better balance and far more sophisticated coordination, which are the tools he will need to eventually take that final journey into the unknown, learning how to walk.
So, the process of brain development is progressive. It is a magnificently conceived process in which each level of ability provides the child with the tools that he will need to go on to the next highest level of ability.
The same process happens in all other areas of function. It can be observed in the development of vision, hearing and understanding, tactile ability, language, and manual ability.
Knowledge is power
Now that you know that brain development is progressive, you have a powerful tool in hand. The simple awareness that the brain adheres to this core principle will help you stay attuned to your child’s development. This is not something to obsess about. But it is good to be aware of it because when you are it is highly unlikely that your child will skip any important stages of brain development.
But, of course, life isn’t always so simple as that. Things do happen. That makes this knowledge even more powerful. Why? Because if the developmental process is changed to any significant degree, regardless of the reason, you already have the first step towards a solution. You know that the progression is essential to good development. Now you just need to ensure that it is followed.
The human brain is a magnificent thing. Knowledge is power.
Go hug your kids!