Month: April 2019
It’s time for a paradigm shift in how we look at human functional ability. In his landmark book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, physicist Thomas Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift” to describe the change in thinking that precedes dramatic changes in scientific models. The shift in the field of physics from the laws of motion of Sir Isaac Newton to the theory of relativity of Albert Einstein is a good example.
Traditionally, the medical, psychology and education establishments have assigned human beings to categories according to functional ability – what they can and cannot do, as well as according to how well they do what they can do. This remains the dominant paradigm today. It is most commonly seen in the diagnosis of disabilities – children are placed into categories according to their lack of ability and are then placed into categories within those categories according to the severity of their lack of ability. But it’s been a pervasive idea throughout society for a long time.
Here’s a personal story that shows how this played out in schools when I was young. When I enrolled at Archbishop Wood High School for Boys sometime in the last century, I was assigned to a “track” based on my IQ score and previous academic performance in elementary school. There were three tracks – first, second, and third.
The “first” track was for the kids who had high IQ scores and really good grades in elementary school. It was generally understood that the kids in these classes were going on to college after high school graduation and that most of them would go to top-notch colleges and universities.
The “second” track was for the kids who had average IQ scores and average grades in elementary school. That’s where they put me. It was generally understood that the kids in my “track” would also go on to college but the push for us was to aim for the smaller state colleges where the admissions requirements were not as stringent.
The “third” track was for the kids with below average IQ scores and below average grades in elementary school. It was generally accepted that the boys in the “third” track were not college material and therefore would go on to learn a trade like plumbing or auto mechanics.
Nobody ever told us that the divisions between “tracks” were made along these lines, but we all knew it. And it had a significant influence on how we saw ourselves and our potential and also how we saw each other. It was, in a certain sense, a caste system based on the belief that intelligence is predetermined and unchangeable. So we all thought that if you were lucky and born smart, you were dealt a good hand of cards; and if you were unlucky and not born smart, you were dealt a bad hand of cards. Stanford University psychologist Carolyn Dweck calls this the fixed mindset and when I was growing up the fixed mindset ruled!
The idea that any ability, including intelligence, is predetermined and unchangeable has always been a lousy idea and it has limited the potential of untold numbers of people. But during the last decade or so there has been a movement afoot in neuroscience circles that deserves our attention because it represents a significant departure from the traditional way of assigning children to fixed categories. It is called “neurodiversity”.
Advocates of neurodiversity view neurological conditions like autism and dyslexia as being the result of natural variations of the human genome rather than pathologies or disorders. On that basis, they argue, the traits caused by genetic variations should be celebrated and that there is no need for or possibility of a cure. The neurodiversity movement has seen it’s most ardent embrace amongst the autism community.
Let me give some perspective. Forty years ago, there was no such thing as the autism spectrum. There were simply children with autism and they were categorized as mild, moderate, or severe. That’s it. Some years later, those terms were replaced with autism, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), and Asperger’s syndrome. Today, those terms have been largely replaced with the blanket term autism spectrum disorder and the children are all somewhere “on the spectrum”. While autism spectrum disorder is still a medical diagnosis that categorizes children according to sets of symptoms (and is therefore not acceptable to neurodiversity advocates) it is a term that nonetheless was greatly influenced by the neurodiversity movement.
While I have fundamental disagreements with both of these developments (neurodiversity and the autism spectrum), they do represent an encouraging trend. These concepts represent ways of looking at human ability that seek to find some commonality amongst all people or at least people with those traits rather than focusing on their differences. And they also at least imply the possibility that performance amongst people who are “neurodiverse” or “on the spectrum” is somewhat fluid rather than static. That’s a big difference from the classical approach of diagnosing a child with a disability and placing him in a box from which he cannot escape.
Nonetheless, these changes do not go far enough because they are still mired in a concept of human functional ability that is essentially based on the idea that ability is predetermined by genetics and therefore is largely unchangeable. This ignores all of the extraordinary advances in our understanding of the human brain and neuroplasticity of the past forty years. So, I propose that we take this notion several steps further.
We have worked with children whose abilities span the entire spectrum of human performance for more than forty years. Since the late 1970s, we have taught a concept that we call the Continuum of Human Functional Ability. A continuum is defined as a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, although the extremes are quite distinct. The Continuum of Human Functional Ability ranges from little functional ability on the low end (as in a child in a coma) to superior functional ability on the high end. When we speak of functional ability we mean sensory, cognitive or intellectual, physical, emotional, and social ability. We mean ability in its most comprehensive or holistic sense. In between the low end and high end of the continuum, there are gradations of functional ability.
In order to understand the continuum, one must first understand that all human functional ability is the direct result of the development and organization of the human brain. You are able to do what you do and do it as well as you do because of the degree to which your brain is developed and organized.
Essentially, the idea is that all human beings can be placed on a continuum that is based on the degree to which the brain is developed and organized. You can see this in any classroom. There is always a range of performance (i.e. ability) amongst the children. That range of performance is, to a very large extent, the result of a range in brain development and organization. Same thing on the soccer team. Same thing in the band. Same thing with children who are diagnosed with disabilities – take ten children with Down syndrome and you will find a range of functional ability, take ten children with cerebral palsy and you will find a range of functional ability.
Remember, these differences in ability are based on brain development and organization not on genetic endowment. Because of that, one’s position on the continuum is fluid. It can change! Improve brain function and you can move up the continuum towards the superior end. Suffer a loss of brain function and you might move down the continuum towards the low end.
We have seen this happen more times than I can count in our work with children who have developmental difficulties. Back in the days before the “autism spectrum” we saw children start our Home Program with a diagnosis of autism. Two years later they came back and their diagnosis had been changed to pervasive developmental delay. Two years later their diagnosis had been changed once more, this time to Asperger’s syndrome.
After you’ve seen this scenario play out enough times you have to say to yourself, what is going on here? If each of these conditions is genetically determined how is it possible that we are changing the diagnosis every two years. Was the original diagnosis wrong? Well, if this experience were only confined to children on the “autism spectrum” perhaps that might be the case. But, it’s not. We have seen the same pattern in children with every diagnosis we work with – cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Sensory Integration Disorder, ADD, ADHD, and on and on. Over and over again, we have watched children start at one point on the continuum and, as their brain’s developed and became organized, they moved up the spectrum towards a higher level of functional ability!
So, here is the bottom line. We are all, each and every one of us, on the Continuum of Human Functional Ability. I am on it. Conceição, my wife and colleague, is on it. Juliana, our daughter is on it. Same for her husband, Jack. Same for our grandchildren, Jack and Adeline.
You are on the continuum too, and so are your children!
If you have been a regular reader of this blog you know that, as a parent, you have a significant influence on your children and their development. What you do as a parent matters a lot! You can play a role in helping your child find a place high on the continuum.
Finally, and this is the key, ALL of the children who are diagnosed with some type of developmental challenge regardless of the name that the doctors, or psychologists, or teachers have given it, are also on the continuum.
We are all on the continuum! Where we find ourselves is determined by the degree to which our brain is developed and organized. And that, at least as far as functional ability is concerned, is really the only difference between us! I have a great deal in common with the child who is diagnosed with cerebral palsy. I also have a great deal in common with the child diagnosed with Down syndrome. Each of those children has much in common with the other. We are all so much alike!
The beauty of the continuum is that it represents the hope contained in the miracle of the human brain – plasticity, growth, potential. And, best of all, it does this while simultaneously erasing the stigma associated with so many of the antiquated ideas of the past. Diversity is a wonderful thing but so is brotherhood and sisterhood. When it comes to the human brain and functional ability we are all brothers and sisters!
Happy Earth Day!
Earth is a magnificent place when seen up close and magical when seen from space. I don’t know anyone, grownups and children alike, who is not in awe when seeing pictures of Earth from space! You would think everyone would want to care for it, and keep it clean, pristine, and healthy so it would be capable of hosting us forever.
Modern convenience did not equal sustainability for the planet.
We now know that because of many inventions and practices of the recent past we have polluted and destroyed a lot. Many things were developed to make our lives easier. Plastic, microwaves, frozen prepared foods, chemicals to make our fruits and vegetables grow faster and bigger, automobiles, etc. We were in love with the new technology that was making our lives more “modern” and easier. We no longer had to spend an hour making dinner. We could pop dinner in a microwave and have a meal within a few minutes. Plastic was a great thing and helped make our lives easier. But did anyone consider that some of those inventions might be damaging our environment while making our lives easier? The answer is no, or at least not many, and not for a long time.
Now that we have realized how much trash we create that is not biodegradable, and how much we have polluted the air we breathe and the water we drink, we are rightfully concerned. Now we are making changes in how we live even though some of those changes are at times inconvenient. We are doing this in order to protect the Earth. We are now focusing on developing products that are better for the Earth and that will hopefully stop or reverse the damage we’ve created in the name of progress. We are focusing on creating solutions to restore the Earth back to health. That is a great thing and it really makes me happy because the future of our children and humanity depends on it!
Modern convenience is impacting our children’s brain development.
So, what if I tell you that there is something else that is just as important, just as magnificent and magical as our Earth, and that we seem to be just as unaware that we are polluting it? That magnificent, magical, and important thing is called the human brain. Yes, our children’s brains! Are do you find this statement surprising? Some of our “modern” practices and gadgets are damaging and polluting our children’s brains and, just as what happened with the Earth, we are distracted by the fact that those “modern” practices and gadgets make our lives easier! The lack of awareness and concern for this makes me very sad and very concerned because the future of our children and of humanity depends on it.
Having taught parents how to improve the function of their child’s brain and accelerate their child’s development for over 40 years, I have seen up close the potential of this beautiful organ!
As a parent, I know parents love their children more than they can express in words. Every parent wants their child to be happy, healthy, and successful. In order for parents to achieve this we need to pay attention to how we are treating our children’s brains. We created BrainFit Kids for exactly this reason – to teach parents about brain development and the best practices to help their children reach their potential. As part of that teaching we must sound the alarms when parents are following practices that are detrimental to good brain development even if those practices make parents’ lives easier.
Three negative practices impacting children’s development.
Now that I have you thinking about your child’s brain and the need to give it the same care and attention as we give to the Earth, let’s talk about some of the “modern” practices that are negatively affecting our children’s development.
1. Lack of access to tummy time: Babies do best, in every sense, when they learn to tummy crawl. It is an extremely important function for a baby to learn as it promotes good brain organization, amongst many other things. In order for a baby to learn to crawl on his tummy he must be placed on his tummy early and often. In today’s busy world, kids are often placed in car seats, swings, laying on their backs, or sitting for most of the day. In doing this we prevent them from learning how to tummy crawl which has a negative affect on the development and function of that magnificent brain. You can read more about the importance of tummy crawling in an earlier blog here.
2. Poor nutrition: The human brain needs proper nutrition in order for it to develop to its highest potential and function at an optimal level. The brain needs protein, fat, the right kind of carbohydrates, and certain vitamins and minerals. When we feed children mostly foods that are high in sugar, contain chemicals (food colorings, flavorings and/or preservatives) we are negatively affecting brain development. You can read more about the importance of good nutrition for the developing brain in an earlier blog here.
3. Technology: Last, but not least, when we give our toddlers and young children smartphones or tablets we are, in fact, “polluting” their brains. This may seem like too strong a statement to you because so many parents are allowing, if not encouraging, their children to use these devices. It quiets them down and keeps them distracted. This is a perfect example of a practice that is used because it makes parents’ lives easier. Let’s face it, kids get completely hypnotized by these devices leaving parents free to do whatever they desire for that time.
This practice is painful to me because you see it happening everywhere and with very young children! You cannot go to a restaurant, walk in a city or a store, fly on a plane or go anywhere else where children are not connected to digital devices. Sadly, most often, so are their parents! This practice is wiring our children’s brains in ways that they were not meant to be wired and the result is a lack of concentration, inability to focus, learning difficulties and poor social skills.
Children who spend a lot of time in front of a screen, any screen, do not learn to play creatively, have difficulties playing independently, and often become “addicted” to the device. The more they use it, the more they want it. If you want to increase the chances that your child will be a good learner do not “pollute” your child’s brain by putting these devices in their hands.
The American Academy for Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under 18 to 24 months. The only exception to this is occasional video chatting (FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp, etc.). They recommend no more than 1 hour per day of screen time for children between 2 and 5 years of age. They also recommend that when children do have exposure to screen time it always be viewing together with the parents.
I’ll take that a few steps farther. My recommendation is no screen time other than occasional video chatting) before 3 years of age. For children between 3 and 5 years old, I recommend you limit screen time to 30 minutes at a time and not everyday. What your children don’t know, won’t hurt them. If you do not show them games on the phone they will not know to ask for them. For some insight into how this can be done in practice check out our previous post here. You can read more about the effects of screen time on the developing brain here and here.
Get outside and enjoy our beautiful Earth!
Instead, give them plenty of time for free play. Get them outside to enjoy this wonderful planet we live on. Encourage them to get their hands dirty, to jump in puddles, to climb things, etc. Their brain will benefit so much more from these activities.
I sincerely hope that all parents take this advice to heart. In the same way we need to respect our Earth and pay attention to what we do to it, we must respect our children’s brains and pay attention to what we do to them. The young brain is the most valuable resource a child has and it is worth our time, attention and investment!
Yay, Spring is here… at least for many of us! If it is Autumn where you live, no problem. You can still apply what follows with your little one. Just call it Fall or Autumn cleaning. No law against that! 😉
With the change in seasons, we get the urge to make changes in our homes, especially when the weather begins to warm up and the days are longer. The flowers begin to come out, we all seem to get renewed energy, spend more time outdoors and revel in that happy feeling that good weather brings! With that comes an extra awareness of our environment. The “clutter” for some reason seems to be enhanced or we become more aware of it and then many of us get the urge to clean a bit deeper and to unclutter. Maybe because when we have less clutter we are more likely to stop to enjoy and smell the flowers. Whatever the reason, raising your young child in an uncluttered house is best for their development and learning.
This is a great time to look at your children’s stuff, especially the toys and games, and let go of the things she does not play with. Many children have way too much stuff that they don’t even look at, never mind play with. Take the time to unclutter your child’s room and make her a part of the decision of what she will keep and what will be donated or sold at a consignment store. When you unclutter, you provide your child with a better learning environment. When you involve her in the process, you teach her important social skills like sharing and give her the opportunity to learn about gratitude and compassion. Yes, you read that right. This simple action teaches all of those important lessons! Let’s explore how this works.
Babies and young children pay attention to literally everything that is going on around them. Unlike older children and adults, they do not have the ability to sort out what is important to pay attention to and what is unimportant. They simply can’t block things out like you and I can. So, they go from one thing to another as different things grab their attention. Everyone knows that children have shorter attention spans than adults. Right? The ability to pay attention for a long period of time comes with advanced neurological organization. The more organized a child’s brain becomes the better they can focus. This does not happen with the simple passage of time (chronological age) but instead is the result of the environmental stimulation and developmental opportunities that babies receive from birth. You can read more on brain organization here.
Because they are incapable of judging the value of the input around them, babies, toddlers, and very young children do not function as well in a cluttered room. To their brain, a cluttered room is complete chaos! So, obviously, a very young child will not do well in a room that is overloaded with toys. The younger a child is, the less you should give her to play with at any one time. Keeping her playroom clutter free and organized will promote learning and fun! You know you have too much in a room when you see your child go from one toy to another without truly playing with any of the toys. When this happens your child is not learning or benefitting from any of the toys she has. So, the first reason to spring clean and to unclutter your child’s room is to create a learning-friendly environment. An environment where your child will truly benefit from her toys.
The second motivation to unclutter is that it gives you the opportunity to teach your child to share what she has with others who are not as fortunate as she is. Point out to your child that some parents are unable to buy toys for their children and she will make another child really happy by giving away her toys! When you do that you teach your child to care for others. You are teaching her to be grateful and compassionate. Don’t forget to tell her how proud you are of her for giving away some of her toys to make other children happy! It is a fun way to teach the gift of giving!
Here is how you should approach your child so she does not feel you just want to get rid of her things. You have to involve her and give her a sense of ownership.
Here are some steps to follow:
1. I suggest you first decide, on your own, what toys/games are still age and skill appropriate and therefore should be kept. Then decide which are no longer appropriate and separate them.
2. Think about the toys/games that your child seems to gravitate to more often. What do they have in common? Do her present interests cause her to gravitate to them? Is it the ease of use? Is it just because those are the toys/games she can reach on her own? This will help you decide what pile they should go in and where you should place them when the room is uncluttered.
3. Once you have the keep pile and the giveaway pile separated you should engage your child.
4. Let your child know that you are going to be tidying up her room and will need her help.
5. Begin with the toys/games you decided should be kept. First, tell her that you need her help to place the “fun” toys that you are keeping where she will be able to get to them whenever she wants to play. With her help put them away where they belong by encouraging her to put them at a level she can reach on her own. Give her one toy at a time if she is a toddler or if she is not accustomed to helping.
6. Keep a maximum of 5 toys at the child’s reaching level and the rest out of the her sight level. Occasionally rotate the toys. This will keep her interested and having fun since they will feel like new toys to her.
7. Now that all the toys you are keeping have been taken care of it is time to deal with the toys in the giveaway pile.
8. Let your child know that there are children whose parents can’t buy them things like toys and how happy she will make those children by giving them the toys she no longer needs. Go through the pile with her and if there are toys she absolutely refuses to give away agree to put them away for now. Whenever she agrees to give a toy away tell her how proud you are of her and how happy you are because some child who has no toys will be so happy and grateful for her kindness.
9. When doing this be mindful of your child’s understanding and maturity level. You can not expect a 2-year-old child to be happy about giving ten of her toys away all at once. Start small! One toy is a successful way to start! You can put the rest away for a while and if she does not ask for them after a few weeks or a month you are safe to give them away without her “consent” because most likely she will not even remember she had them! 😉 As your child gets more mature and comfortable with the idea of giving you can expect her to be comfortable with giving more toys away at once.
10. Now choose the organization to whom you are going to donate the toys. Organizations that work directly with children are best – foster care organizations, organizations working with single mothers, etc. For a young child, it makes her donation more real when she has some sense of who she is helping.
11. If your child is older and has a nice expensive toy, you might want to teach her the value of things. So, you can take her to a consignment store to sell her old toy. Have your child go with you so you can teach her how the process works. Talk to her about what she can do with the money if her toy sells. She could save the money to use at a later date or she could buy another toy she wants. It is important to know both options. Agree on it ahead of time.
12. Finally, make sure you and your child celebrate having an organized and clutter free playroom or bedroom! If she has donated toys, celebrate her kindness! If she sold a toy, celebrate the lessons she learned about the value of things. It’s a win-win situation for everyone!! 🙂
Now go for it!
In a recent blog post we talked about the importance of letting children learn on their own, make mistakes, and try again in order to grow up to become independent adults who are not afraid of failing. Independence is a wonderful thing in a child but if children are to become capable adults, independence and responsibility must go together. They are two sides of the same coin.
You can begin giving your children opportunities to be independent and develop a sense of responsibility when they are stable walkers and understand enough to follow simple instructions.
Here are 10 simple practical tips to foster independence in young children:
1. On my own! In general, it is a good idea to encourage your children to do things for themselves and for others as soon as they understand. For instance, have your child choose the clothing they are going to wear that day. If you must, you can give options to choose from.
2. Laundry Time: At the end of the day when your child is getting changed have them get into the habit of placing the clothing they wore that day into the laundry basket. My grandchildren have a laundry basket with a goat on it and so they have fun “feeding the the goat” – a fun little trick to get them into the habit of putting their clothes in the laundry basket each night. They also love helping to do the laundry!
3. Clean Up Time: From the time your little one can walk while carrying a toy or object begin encouraging them to put toys away when they’ve finished playing. In the beginning, keep it to just 2 or 3 toys and give one toy at a time asking your child to help you clean up. Let them know how much you appreciate the help and remember to say ‘Thank you for your help’ when they’ve done it! If you search on your favorite music service for “Clean Up Song,” you’ll find many options. Pick a few and make a playlist to make it fun and a cue for your children to start cleaning up.
4. Walk the Dog: Walking the dog is a great responsibility for a little toddler as long as you have a well-disciplined dog. It is a way to begin teaching a child to care for others and it is a fun outdoor activity! OK, maybe not so fun when snowing or raining!
5. Clear the table: After breakfast, lunch, snack, or dinner have your child clear their plate, cup, or silverware to the dishwasher or to whatever place you assign that is within their reach. You might begin with just one meal. Choose the meal that you consistently have at the table at home. Eventually, it should be their ‘job’ to clear their place completely.
6. Clothes: When your child starts to develop the ability to use both hands together it is a good time to begin encouraging them to undress on their own. Children first learn to undo things before they learn to put them together. Undressing comes before dressing. Have your little one pull their socks off, or shoes, or pants. At first, you might need to pull the item of clothing off half way and then have them finish. Give the necessary help to encourage them to finish but not so much that your little one doesn’t have to put in an effort to take it off. It is a matter of trial and error for both of you. The important thing is that, as your child learns to undress and dress, it becomes their “job” and you should only do it for them on very few occasions when you absolutely must.
7. Snack time! Whenever possible set up a snack station at a place and height where your child can serve themself when they’re hungry. Containers of dry fruits, nuts, granola bars, or whatever you choose. Keep everything necessary for the child to serve themself (the food, the bowls and whatever they need to serve) on the same shelf or close to each other. Also, have your child serve their own water to drink. Having smaller pitcher is handy for this so that they have a vessel that is manageable for them.
8. Feed the dog: Let your little one be responsible for feeding the dog, cat, or whatever pet you might have. Begin when they are a new walker by just giving a few nuggets of food that they can give to the pet. As they grow and develops better control of their manual ability and better understanding you should increase the degree of independence necessary to feed the pet. Eventually, probably around 2 – 2 ½ years old they should be able to scoop the food from the container, pour it in the bowl and put it down in the appropriate place. Your child should be able to do this independently with just some verbal guidance and reminders until it becomes their own responsibility.
9. Around the house: There are many activities a child can do at home that teach independence and the importance of helping each other. They also help develop tactile ability, manual ability, help teach them colors, counting, and much more. In addition, as your child is learning they are helping you get some household tasks done. Yes, it will slow you down but it will be more fun for both of you! Examples of such tasks are – dusting, wiping a small table, sorting laundry, helping to set or clear the table (teaches quantity by counting), making a sandwich, folding kitchen towels, etc. Keep the duration of the task short in accordance with your child’s attention span. For example, if you are folding kitchen towels with a very young child, 3 towels is a good start.
10. Encourage your little one! Last, but not least, encourage and expect your child to be helpful around the house. The more opportunities you give them to be independent and helpful to others and the more you praise them for the help and effort they are putting in the more aware of their ability your child will become and the more willing to help others they will be. When children are given these opportunities they learn to be less self-absorbed and more aware of the needs of everyone around the house and in society.
To summarize, be aware of all the things you are doing for your child that they could be doing for themself. Stop and encourage them to do those things on their own! All children want to be independent. They want to be allowed to do things for themselves. We grown-ups are often the ones who stop or discourage them when they are very young. Later, when we want them to begin helping they have lost their young child’s desire. They have developed an attitude of entitlement. It becomes a struggle to get them to help. They still want to be independent but without any responsibility. Unless it is unsafe, let your child try and learn by doing things independently right from the young toddler stage! Remember, once you have given your child a responsibility you must not do it for them or you are giving the message that it is not important or necessary for them to do it!
Finally, ALWAYS be thankful for their independence and their help and make sure you let them know how happy you are and how proud you are of all the effort they are making.