We hear all the time about how exercise is good for the heart. But what about the effects that exercise has on the brain? Well, it turns out that exercise is one more thing that can be added to the list of “what’s good for the heart is good for the brain”! We have used exercise (crawling, creeping, walking, hiking, running, etc.) in our work with children for decades specifically because we were convinced of the organizing effect that physical activity has on the brain. We were also well aware of the many physiological (respiratory, cardiovascular, etc.) benefits of exercise. But Dr. John J. Ratey, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has taken the science of exercise to a whole new level.
Summary of Book:
A groundbreaking and fascinating investigation into the transformative effects of exercise on the brain, from the bestselling author and renowned psychiatrist John J. Ratey, MD.
Did you know you can beat stress, lift your mood, fight memory loss, sharpen your intellect, and function better than ever simply by elevating your heart rate and breaking a sweat? The evidence is incontrovertible: Aerobic exercise physically remodels our brains for peak performance.
In SPARK, John J. Ratey, M.D., embarks upon a fascinating and entertaining journey through the mind-body connection, presenting startling research to prove that exercise is truly our best defense against everything from depression to ADD to addiction to aggression to menopause to Alzheimer’s. Filled with amazing case studies (such as the revolutionary fitness program in Naperville, Illinois, which has put this school district of 19,000 kids first in the world of science test scores), SPARK is the first book to explore comprehensively the connection between exercise and the brain. It will change forever the way you think about your morning run—or, for that matter, simply the way you think. (Summary courtesy of goodreads.com)
Neuroscience, Health, Psychology
Why We Like It:
Quite simply, we like it because it provides a solid scientific underpinning to so much of what we teach about the importance of physical activity or exercise for the development, organization, and function of the human brain. Dr. John J. Ratey looks at some of the latest neuroscience as it relates to physical exercise and the brain and the evidence is clear – if you want to perform to your potential, physical exercise must be a part of your regular routine.
One of the wonderful things about the book is how Dr. Ratey shows the incredibly broad impact that exercise has on the brain – learning, dealing with stress, overcoming anxiety and depression, helping with attention problems, beating addictions, regulating hormones, the aging process. This should really come as no surprise since the brain controls literally everything that we do. But it bears repeating since we tend to take the brain for granted and give little notice to how our daily habits are affecting its performance.
Without getting into any details, I want to give special mention to the first two chapters of Spark. They deal with the relationship between exercise and learning and the extraordinary experience of a school district in Naperville, Illinois when they decided to go all in on a revolutionary physical fitness program. You’ll have to read the book to get the specifics but believe me it will blow your mind! I love that Dr. Ratey decided to begin the book with these two chapters because they provide spectacular scientific evidence for the connection between physical exercise, the structural and physiological development of the brain, and the subsequent development of functional ability. He clearly explains in easily understandable terms a physiological process that takes place in the brain when we are physically active. This is research that was completely unknown thirty years ago. The implications of this are critically important for all of us, especially for our children. The bottom line, as we have said so many times, is that movement (i.e. exercise, physical activity, etc.) is the glue that holds everything together in the human brain. The takeaway for your child is to start early and make exercise and physical activity a way of life. Your child’s brain will thank you for it!
Behavior – noun – the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially towards others.
Perhaps no subject causes more grief for parents than how to deal with behavior. In our two previous blog posts on the subject we looked at two aspects of the behavior question – how a child’s level of neurological development and brain organization can affect behavior, as well as the effect that nutrition can have on brain function and, therefore, behavior.
As you can see from the definition above, behavior involves how one acts towards other people. Obviously, there are always two sides to that coin. As the saying goes, “It takes two to tango!” When we are guiding parents in how to raise their children to be cooperative and responsible we always eventually get around to the role that they (the parents) play in the dance of behavior. So, today we’re going to look at the parental side of the equation.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall!
Since you, as a parent, are an integral part of the dance of behavior it is essential that you take an honest look at how you are behaving. We call that “the Mirror”. Looking in the mirror is important for several reasons.
First, we are all influenced by our parents and that influence includes how we deal with behavior in our children especially when we are under stress! Ever get that feeling that “Oh no, I’m turning into my mother (or father)!” ? Sometimes that influence is constructive and sometimes it is not.
Second, some approaches to behavior are more effective than others. It’s important to evaluate what is working and what is not.
Third, it is important to establish right off the bat that we are only human and that means we are going to make mistakes. We will make mistakes no matter how well intentioned we are and no matter how well thought out our approach to behavior is. We all, at one time or another, feel overwhelmed or stressed by everyday life and lose our patience. Life is full of ups and downs. How well you handle the down times is what really matters. That is when you are teaching the most important messages to your child. So, the first order of business is to cut yourself some slack! Looking in the mirror is not a blame game… no need to feel guilty.
Basic Principles to Guide Behavior
What follows is the result of many, many years of guiding parents of children and young adults with a wide range of functional ability. That experience has taught us a lot about the dynamics of human behavior and some of the best practices for helping children. My hope is that the following principles will give you some inspiration and confidence as you guide the development of your child’s behavior towards the objectives of harmony, cooperation, and civility beginning in your family and eventually extending to the communities in which you live and the wider society. Along the way you will find that these principles will lead to good communication with your child and the establishment of a healthy lifelong relationship.
1. Model the Behavior You Hope to See
Warning! Your child is constantly, and I do mean constantly, watching you and taking cues about behavior from you. All children, for better or worse, mirror their parents behavior. So, when your child is behaving in a way that is concerning to you, you must first ask yourself, “Is she behaving like this because of how I am behaving?”
2. Listen to Your Child
When you listen to your child and seek to understand, you are showing her that you care about her opinions and feelings. You are teaching her that what she says matters. You are telling her that you respect her. This is important because if you want her to listen to you, you must listen to her first.
3. Consistency, Consistency, Consistency
The most common mistake we see parents making when dealing with the behavior of their children is inconsistency. If you want to avoid behavior problems it is extremely important that your approach be consistent. What do I mean by consistency? I mean that, however you approach a given behavior, it is essential that 1) both parents be on the same page and 2) their approach be applied consistently from day to day. Why? Because children need consistency in their lives to feel secure and comfortable. The younger they are the more this is true because young children (i.e. toddlers) have brains that are not yet organized and mature. Consistency helps the young child learn what to expect in any given situation. If the approach is constantly changing then the child does not know what to expect and that leads to problems.
4 . Set Limits and Establish Rules
Children need to know where the boundaries are. They want to know where the boundaries are. Children who are given clear boundaries have better social skills, are happier and can more easily make friends. Having boundaries gives them a sense of respect for things and for people. The younger your child is the more limits she needs because a young child does not know what is right or wrong and they can be in danger when limits are not set. As she grows you should ease up on the limits imposed by you. As her understanding, awareness, and self-discipline develops you can allow her more freedom to set self limits. We all learn from our mistakes and, unless the mistake puts your child or others in physical danger, you should allow her to make mistakes and learn from them.
5. Teach Responsibility and Encourage Independence
Responsibilities should be developmentally appropriate and age-appropriate but you can start at a very young age. As soon as your child can walk you can begin asking her for help with carrying things, putting things away, little things to give her a sense of responsibility. Increase the level of responsibilities according to her growth. Giving children responsibilities encourages them to be independent, which in turn makes them proud of their accomplishments and helps them feel good about themselves. This is true self-esteem! Plus they learn at an early age to become problem solvers. Our society needs people who are independent and who feel comfortable solving problems.
6. Teach Manners
Bullying amongst children is almost constantly in the news these days. When one looks at the overall decrease in civility throughout our society it should come as no surprise. Civility is a word that derives from the Old French and Latin for a good citizen. Far from being a quaint concept, it enables us to live in community and is the glue that holds a society together. It may seem old fashioned and outdated to talk about manners but that is where the seeds of civility are planted. Using words like excuse me, thank you, you are welcome, please, and so on all the time when speaking with your child and others will teach her manners and the polite way to treat others.
7. Recognize Positive Behavior
Children need and want attention and they will do whatever works to get it. We often ignore children when they are “behaving” because that is what we expect but as soon as they begin to misbehave we are quick to reprimand them. This teaches children that the best or fastest way to get our attention is to misbehave. If you want your child to have positive behavior you must recognize it. Give attention to your child when she is being nice, polite, patient. Get in the habit of pointing out and complimenting your child when she is listening or doing anything positive. I guarantee that if you recognize your child when her behavior is positive and give less attention to negative behavior you will see a decrease in negative behavior and an increase in positive behavior.
These seven principles are guideposts to light the way. In the next post I will develop these seven principles further by providing concrete examples of how you can apply them in everyday life. For now I hope this post helps you to set up a positive and healthy relationship with your child so that you can help her get ready to take her place in society.
Behavior is a complex subject. If you are experiencing struggles with your child remember you are not alone. We’d love to have you comment below and feel free to send us a private message or email.
Now go be positive! Cheers!!
Yes, that’s right… the food that your child eats can have a big impact on his or her behavior. Why? Because in the end, everything that happens in the brain boils down to biochemical reactions. The raw materials for those biochemical reactions come from the foods that we eat. So, diet can significantly affect brain function and therefore can impact energy, mood, emotion, mental clarity, behavior… really, almost any aspect of function.
Today, first we’re going to do a crash course in how you can you feed your child so that nutrition contributes to creating civil behavior by enhancing brain function. Then, we’ll take a look at the foods that most often contribute to behavior problems and give a few real-life examples of children with huge behavior issues and how we changed everything for them by changing their nutrition.
How to Feed a Growing Brain
In the first year of life, breast milk is the ideal food for a growing child with some soft solid (or pureed) foods being introduced after about six months of age – and by this, we do not mean rice cereal and other such grains. You can read more recommendations on foods in the first year of life in this excellent guest post from our good friend, Deborah Gordon, M.D.
Once children start eating regular food it is important that you choose foods carefully so that the brain gets what it needs.
All food should be…
No artificial chemicals. No food flavorings, no food colorings, no food preservatives, no artificial thickeners, no artificial anything. The human body is designed to process, metabolize, and eliminate real food. It has no idea what to do with artificial chemicals. Most kids with neurological issues do not react well to artificial chemicals. Avoid them like the plague! This means that you MUST become a label reader. You will be amazed at the junk in the food you eat.
Fresh vegetables and fruit contain the highest vitamin and mineral content. It’s just that simple. Since vegetables and fruit should be the number one source of vitamins and minerals it only makes sense to eat them in a form that provides the most bang for the buck. Another reason that fresh is best is fresh food is more than just calories and nutrients. Fresh food has a life force… it is life sustaining life. You won’t find any life force in canned carrots.
This means foods from which nothing has been taken away. For example, if you are going to eat bread then whole grain bread is more nutritious than white bread, brown rice is more nutritious than white rice, etc.
Essential foods for the brain include:
Beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, fish, etc. Ideally, all protein should come from sources that raise their animals as nature meant for them to be raised. There is a world of difference in the meat that comes from pasture-raised cattle versus cattle raised on grain. Cows are not designed by nature to eat corn, soy, or oats. They are designed to eat grass. And just like us, what they eat makes all the difference. Mainly, the difference is in the fat content. Your cardiologist may very well tell you that you shouldn’t eat red meat. It’s bad for your heart because of the fat. Wrong! The fat from red meat that is pasture raised is really good for you! Really good for your heart and your brain! Why? Because it is very rich in omega-3 fatty acids and the balance of omega-3 fatty acids (high) to omega-6 fatty acids (low) is in its ideal ratio. On the other hand, if you eat meat from grain-fed animals the opposite is true. So, it’s not that red meat is bad for your heart. It’s a question of how that red meat was raised. The same principle applies to all other forms of protein. When it comes to fish, wild is best.
Omega-3 fatty acids are the most important. You can get most of that from protein sources (see lean protein). Good cooking fats are avocado oil, coconut oil, butter from grass-fed cows, and grass-fed ghee (clarified butter). Good oils for salads, etc. are olive oil, walnut oil, almond oil, macadamia oil. Avoid soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, and vegetable oil. Avoid, like the plague, vegetable shortening, margarine and all butter substitutes, anything that says “hydrogenated”, and anything else that doesn’t look real.
This is the main source of vitamins and minerals. The easiest way to talk about what vegetables to eat is to say that you should go for as much color as possible. By eating the rainbow of colors available you ensure the widest range of nutrients (vitamins and minerals) in your diet. Beyond that, the only other caveat is that vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and sweet corn are high in sugar so you want to keep them under control
Fruit in moderation is good for your child. Berries (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries) are particularly good because they are very rich in antioxidants. Don’t drink fruit, eat it. Fruit juice is extremely high in sugar.
Pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, and almonds are all good for you. They are a good source of protein and healthy fats, and all contain antioxidants. Don’t go overboard but a few handfuls a day is perfectly healthy. Nuts are also often available in the form of nut butter which makes it easy for children to eat. By the way, peanuts are not nuts, they are legumes. They really are not very good for you and must be approached with caution if there is a family history of allergies.
Again, you can read more about good nutrition for your growing child in our guest post from Deborah Gordon, M.D.
Nutrition Solutions for Behavior Issues
Over the course of more than four decades of working with children, we have worked with many children who had behavior issues that ranged from simply annoying to downright dangerous. Solving those issues usually involves a multi-pronged approach and improving diet is usually a big part of that. Many children have food sensitivities, many have food allergies, and these can be a major cause of behavior issues.
We have always found it interesting and frustrating that while most people (and many doctors) have no difficulty accepting the idea that sensitivities and/or allergies can cause reactions in the upper respiratory tract (sneezing, coughing, breathing problems, etc.) and the skin (rashes, itching, etc.) they have great difficulty accepting the idea that these same sensitivities and/or allergies can cause reactions in the brain. As if the brain somehow lives in another universe and is immune to the same things that affect the rest of the body!
Our clinical experience demonstrates very clearly that food can and does affect brain function. Here’s the bottom line. If you are seeing behavior issues in your child one of the things you should look at is the foods that your child eats and the possibility that he or she might have sensitivities or allergies to one or more of those foods. The most common culprits in terms of food sensitivities and allergies are dairy, eggs, gluten, soy, corn, sugar, and artificial chemicals (preservatives, coloring, flavoring). However, when children are really sensitive they can react to lots of different foods, even foods that we normally consider to be completely innocuous. Lettuce, for example, can cause some children to react! But, by far, the biggest issues we see are with sugar and gluten.
Foods to eliminate, avoid or reduce:
Refined sugar affects blood sugar level and insulin production causing a yo-yo effect with blood sugar level constantly on a roller coaster. This negatively affects energy level, concentration ability, mood, and emotional stability. Something that most people do not know is that sugar also causes chronic inflammation in the body. Because of this, it is linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, liver disease, and cancer. Refined sugar has a powerful addictive effect, making it very difficult to stop eating it unless one makes a concerted effort. When we say sugar, we mean all forms of sweetener – cane sugar, beet sugar, agave syrup, high fructose corn syrup, etc. Also, all artificial sweeteners should be avoided. Honey and maple syrup in small quantities are usually tolerated.
Gluten causes gut inflammation in most of the population and many people develop antibodies against gluten proteins in the gut. Gluten’s inflammatory effect in the gut causes intestinal cells to die prematurely and causes oxidation in those cells. This effect creates a leaky gut and a leaky gut can allow bacterial proteins and other toxic compounds to get in the bloodstream, which can also lead to autoimmune attacks on the body. A leaky gut also means that food is not digested properly and nutrients are not absorbed fully, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
Real World Examples
Now for a few examples of kids with behavior issues and how changes in diet made a big difference. We have hundreds of examples of this.
Alberto and Sugar
Alberto came to us from Venezuela at 8 years of age. To outward appearances, he was like all of the other boys his age. Except that Alberto had big learning difficulties, poor concentration, and very disruptive behavior. He was failing miserably in school. He was diagnosed with ADHD.
After evaluating him, we taught his parents and grandmother a developmental program to improve his function and, hopefully, his behavior. Part of that program involved making changes in his diet. He ate a ton of sugar. His mother even sprinkled sugar on meat in order to get him to eat it! Before flying back to Venezuela, Alberto stayed in the US for a few weeks with his grandmother in order to attend his uncle’s graduation from law school. That turned out to be a very good thing for Alberto because his grandmother was determined to see him improve and she implemented our dietary suggestions immediately. Just before heading back to Caracas, only two weeks after changing his diet, Alberto’s grandmother called to tell us of the incredible changes in him. He was already a different child – reduced hyperactivity, improved concentration, fewer tantrums. Within one year of us seeing him for the first time, Alberto was able to function just like his peers. Much of that progress was due to the changes we made in his diet.
Jake and Gluten
Jake came to us at about 10 years of age with a diagnosis of autism. On the day that we saw him for the first time, there was a shooting in a local high school in which a number of children were injured. As we were taking Jake’s initial history, his mother asked if we had heard about the shooting. She then said to us, “My biggest fear is that one day a few years from now, I am going to get a phone call from the police telling me that my son was a school shooter”! Can you imagine the fear?
And she had good reason to be afraid. Jake’s behavior was extremely volatile. He was a bright boy but had significant problems with social and emotional development. He could easily have ten knock down, drag out temper tantrums in a day. His younger sister was terrified of him. On that first day, we saw his outbursts a number of times. So, although we rarely do this at the first consultation, with Jake we decided to eliminate all gluten from his diet immediately. We did this based on his typical daily diet (it contained lots of gluten!) and based on our experience with many other children with similar behavior issues.
A week later, Jake’s mother called to give us a report. Immediately after our consultation, she had completely emptied the house of everything that contained gluten and implemented the dietary changes we had recommended. Within days she saw changes in Jake’s behavior. He was more pleasant, less agitated, calmer. Most significantly he was having fewer temper tantrums, they were less violent, and of shorter duration. She was thrilled! Within six months, Jake was already a completely different child. There was still more work to be done but for the first time in his life he was making true progress and she could see the wonderful boy that she knew was inside that body.
Fortunately, these two examples are by no means unusual for us. We see results like this on a regular basis. When we give the human brain what it needs to thrive and avoid those things that cause problems it is amazing how quickly the brain responds.
So, do yourself and your children a favor. Pay careful attention to how you feed them. If, for some reason, your child is experiencing behavior difficulties then make sure you take nutrition into consideration.
Oh boy, BEHAVIOR! One of the most common concerns that parents ask us about is behavior. Mostly, parents want to know how to guide their children in how they behave with them (the parents), with other children, with other adults, and with society in general. So, let’s take a look at how to best address our children’s needs so we can more calmly and confidently deal with each stage of the development of behavior. This is the first in a series of three or, perhaps, four blog posts on behavior.
Parents often worry about how to teach their children how to socialize and how to relate to others without crushing their individuality and creativity. We all want our children to be themselves, be confident and independent, and be comfortable in social situations. Right? We also want our children to be kind and compassionate. No one wants to raise a bully! So, finding a balance between raising a well behaved “nice” child who, at the same time, is not a pushover is something most parents hope to achieve. I think we can agree that for most parents the objectives regarding behavior are harmony, cooperation, and civility beginning in the family and eventually extending to the communities in which we live and the wider society.
The Big Three of Behavior
We’ve been guiding parents in how to handle behavior issues with children and young adults of all levels of ability for a long time. Over the years, we learned that dealing with behavior involves three really important things.
1 – Neurological Organization, or more simply put – brain organization
2 – Physiological issues affecting behavior
3- Parental behavior, or what we like to call “The Mirror”
Today we will focus on brain organization because it is the basis for all human ability including behavior.
As we have covered in past posts here, here, here, here and here as well as in our 7-day Email Course, our brain controls everything we do. It is impossible to have good functional ability without a well developed and organized brain. The more developed and organized a child’s brain is, the better their function will be. Behavior is no exception!
So, when it comes to teaching behavior you need to consider where your child is at neurologically because this determines her level of understanding. Most people tend to use chronological age when talking about what to expect from a child. We prefer to talk about neurological age. Why? Because a child who is experiencing difficulties is not necessarily functioning at her chronological age.
So for the child who is experiencing difficulties, when it comes to dealing with her behavior it is more appropriate and more effective to look at her actions in terms of neurological age. We want to work on improving brain organization so she can get to the point where her neurological age meets or surpasses her chronological age.
Neurological Organization and Behavior
Now, from now on let’s assume that the child I am talking about has a chronological age and neurological age that match. What should you expect from her behavior? Where is she in terms of understanding and behaving? If you understand this you will be one step ahead with understanding where your child is coming from, what is normal to expect, and therefore how to respond.
1 – Birth to 1-year-old – Awareness leading to Center of Attention
In the first year of life, a child begins to develop understanding by first becoming aware of her environment and then learning basic communication skills. The important thing for you to understand and be aware of during this stage is that during the first year of your child’s life, as her brain develops and becomes organized, she is learning that what she does results in a reaction from you. We often think that we are the ones learning how our children behave and that is certainly true, but at this stage, your child is learning a lot more about how you respond or behave to what she does. As she becomes more aware of everything around her she will develop more and more ability to affect your behavior. Children at this stage think, and they are right, that the world spins around them. They feel like the center to everything. So, during this first year of basic brain organization, keep in mind that your child is constantly learning how her actions cause certain actions or responses from you or from the person who spends the most amount of time interacting with her. She is beginning to learn what to do to get or keep your attention when she wants it!
2 – 1-year-old to 2-year-old – Understanding and Using Language
From the age of 1 to 2 years old your child’s understanding of spoken language takes off provided that the process of brain organization is taking place. Your child is beginning to follow instructions and the sophistication of the instructions will keep getting more and more complex. Because the understanding of language is more developed the child begins to respond more to the words she hears than the actions she sees. She also begins to use language to express her likes and wants.
3 – 2-year-old to 3-year-old – Attention and the Terrible Twos
Neurologically, now your child is beginning to follow more sophisticated instructions but because her attention span is still not yet not fully developed she goes from one thing to another and seems to not be able to focus on anything for very long. The reason for this is that the organization of the brain is still in the process of developing. As she matures and her brain becomes more organized, her attention span will increase. But she will be more demanding in her wants and needs because she now knows exactly what to do when she wants your full attention and how to use language to get it. At least that is what she thinks! Thus, the reputation of the terrible twos!
As her understanding and brain organization develops she will begin to explore how she can get her way, what she wants to do as opposed to what you want her to do. This stage can be difficult because your child is learning in a more sophisticated way “who is in charge” and she will be testing the boundaries. Nowadays, many people refer to this stage as the “threenager”. This is the stage that many parents become concerned about what to do because they are afraid to break the child’s “spirit”, their individuality or personality. Remember, your child does not know what is appropriate behavior or inappropriate behavior. She doesn’t know what is dangerous behavior or safe behavior. She doesn’t know how to be considerate of others. If you do not teach her she cannot learn. Her behavior at this stage is indirectly asking you for guidance and it can be done without causing harm to her “personality”.
4 – 3-year-old to 5-year-old – Learning Cooperation
This is the stage when your child is learning about cooperation. How to play and get along with others. This can also be a challenging stage because, as children begin to play with each other as opposed to side by side, there will be more disagreements between them and hurt feelings. This can be difficult for parents because now the behavior issues are not just between you and your child but between your child and their peers. Remember, your child is just learning these skills and she needs the opportunity to learn how to best respond to and relate to others. In reality, this is just the beginning of a lifelong issue so give her the opportunity to learn and only get involved when it is becoming harmful to either child. You will help your child learn some of these skills by encouraging her to help you with tasks of everyday life at home.
5 – 5-year-old to 6-year-old (and older) – Independence and Responsibility
This is the age when your child should become more independent, more aware of the likes, dislikes, and feelings of others, and more responsible around the home. At this stage, giving your child responsibilities that are age appropriate and allowing and encouraging her to be more independent will promote better behavior and result in less conflict.
So, here are the main points I want you to understand for now:
- Good brain organization is the key to good function in all areas of development, including behavior.
- The earlier you focus on brain organization, the better off your child will be and the smoother your child’s transition from one stage to the next will be. That helps to avoid getting stuck in a difficult stage.
- If your child is experiencing difficulties or delays this may be because her brain is not properly organized. That’s not a big deal because thanks to brain plasticity this can be addressed and changed.
- No matter what, at one time or another, every parent deals with behavior issues. It is not about never having bad behavior, it is about keeping it to a minimum and both you and your child learning from it.
- Successful parenting is a constant learning process. Education, education, education!
We look forward to diving more deeply into the subject with you in the following weeks.
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!
Last week we posted an interview with Christine de Marcellus Vollmer about teaching universal values to young children. It was a particularly timely post because it came on the heels of a breaking news story about wealthy parents engaging in all kinds of illegal and immoral activities to pave the way for their children’s acceptance into elite colleges and universities here in the United States.
Today, I want to talk about another aspect of the story that is also quite topical, the phenomenon known as lawnmower or snowplow parenting. I prefer the image of the snowplow moving massive amounts of snow to clear a path so I’ll go with that one. These are parents who believe they must pave the way for their child’s success in life by removing all obstacles to failure. The parents involved in the college admissions scandal are snowplow parents par excellence!
Before leaving the workforce to devote herself to raising her children, Juliana Gaither (my daughter and a big part of BrainFit Kids) was the Associate Director for Study Abroad at one of America’s elite universities. In her role she sometimes dealt with these kinds of parents. In preparing to write this post I asked Juliana to tell me about her experience.
“We often had parents call and ask what their son or daughter needed to do to be accepted into a program instead of the student calling us or coming in to speak with us themselves. We even had the occasional parent wanting to meet with us in place of their child to find out more about the programs and the procedures for acceptance because their children were ‘too busy’ to do it themselves. ”
Remember, these students are 18 to 21-year-old young men and women! Unfortunately, many folks working at all levels of education have run into these types of parents. The problem is that in the long run, this kind of parenting has the opposite effect. Rather than helping children succeed, it sets them up for failure.
It is important for me to deal with this because some people believe that the things we teach at BrainFit Kids will lead parents to become “helicopter” parents or “snowplow” parents. If parents understand what we teach and apply it correctly nothing could be further from the truth.
Here’s a direct quote about the goal of BrainFit Kids from Day 1 of our free email course, “Make the First Three Years Count.”
“Who are BrainFit Kids? BrainFit Kids are children who are smart, capable, and compassionate. They are children who function at a high level physically, intellectually, socially, and emotionally. They are children who are curious and have a love of learning. They are children with self-confidence who enthusiastically tackle new challenges. BrainFit Kids are kids who have many options from which to choose. By the way, other than the fact that they are children who are raised with the brain in mind, they’re just like other kids. In other words, every well-child has the potential to be a BrainFit Kid. We’d like nothing better than to see a zillion of them!”
It is not possible for us to achieve that goal if our parents become either helicopter or snowplow parents.
So, how can you help your child to succeed in life?
First, ensure that that wonderful gift of the human brain is well developed and functioning optimally. Remember, all ability is the direct result of the development and organization of the brain. There’s plenty of information about that in our free email course and on our blog.
Second, take a cue from Dr. Carol Dweck, a world-renowned Stanford University psychologist, about how to interact with your child as they confront the many challenges of life.
Dr. Carol Dweck, has spent decades researching the factors that lead to achievement and success. Her research eventually led her to pinpoint two beliefs that people have about themselves that affect how they approach challenges. She labeled those beliefs the “fixed mindset”, the belief that intelligence and ability are predetermined and unchangeable, and the “growth mindset”, the belief that intelligence and ability can be developed and improved through effort and determination.
Children begin to develop a mindset about themselves by around 3 or 4 years of age. Parents and teachers play a significant role in which mindset children develop because they are constantly giving feedback to them. Dr. Dweck discovered that the nature of that feedback is critical. Simply put, children who are praised for being smart tend to be children who shun challenges and opt for the easy way out, whereas children who are praised for their effort tend to be children who enthusiastically embrace challenges.
Sounds counterintuitive, right? But think about it. If Billy believes that his success is based on his intelligence, he is unlikely to do anything that might alter that perception of him. Billy doesn’t want to fail because that will prove that he’s not smart! On the other hand, if Susie believes that her success is based on her effort and perseverance, she is more likely to give challenges a shot. Susie sees failure as a part of the process of learning. Check out this video of children attempting to do puzzles for a clear demonstration of this concept.
Of course, as with many things in parenting, there are nuances in how one gives praise even when it is “effort” focused. In an article in “The Atlantic”, Dr. Dweck explains,
“If parents react to their child’s failures as though there is something negative, if they rush in, are anxious, reassure the child, ‘Oh not everyone can be good at math, don’t worry, you’re good at other things,’ the child gets it that no, this is important, and it’s fixed.”
“But if the parent reacts to a child’s failure as though it’s something that enhances learning, asking, “Okay, what is this teaching us? Where should we go next? Should we talk to the teacher about how we can learn this better?” that child comes to understand that abilities can be developed.”
“So, with praise, focus on “process praise” – focus on the learning process and show how hard work, good strategies, and good use of resources lead to better learning.”
Dr. Dweck’s research has implications for all of us in our role as parents and in our own lives as we face the challenges of life at work, in our communities, and at home.
So now you have two pieces of the puzzle. There’s one more left.
Third, get out of the way and trust your child!
Let’s face it, nobody learns to walk without falling down and getting a few scrapes and bruises. The road to true success is a bumpy one. We take a few steps, lose our balance, and down we go. But then we dust ourselves off, regain our bearings, and try again. Try, fail, adjust, try again. With effort and perseverance, we eventually succeed. Failure is a part of life. It’s impossible for any child to develop successfully without it.
One final thought. We teach three basic laws of brain development. The third law says that “where there is a need, there is a facility”. Basically, it means that in order for any ability to develop there must first be a need for that ability. It’s an incredibly important law to understand. If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read our post on this law here. I promise you, if you understand it well you will never turn into a helicopter or snowplow parent.
It is my great joy to feature a guest post today by one of our dearest friends in the whole world, Christine de Marcellus Vollmer. I first met Christine and her husband, Alberto, forty-some years ago when they brought their profoundly brain-injured son, Leopoldo, to the clinic where I worked. I became responsible for Leopoldo’s development and over the next ten years he went from cortical blindness to vision, and from deafness to hearing and understanding. He developed good tactile sensation where he had none. He went from paralysis to tummy crawling and then creeping. He eventually communicated his feelings and needs with sounds. He enjoyed good health and dramatically reduced seizures. Leopoldo became a bunch of miracles in one little body. Christine and her family made that happen.
Christine and Alberto became strong advocates and supporters of our work. With their help, we began seeing children in Venezuela in 1983. In 1988 Leopoldo died, having lived thirteen years longer than all of his doctors had predicted. Shortly thereafter we began a pilot project to bring our work to the poorest of the poor in Venezuela. That project was a huge success and became known as “Programa Leopoldo”. Eventually, through Programa Leopoldo, we trained more than two hundred professionals (doctors, therapists, teachers) in our methods and opened thirty-four centers all over Venezuela where poor families could get help for their children free of charge.
Christine is the mother of seven children and grandmother of 26 grandchildren.
She is the president of Asociacion PROVIVE in Venezuela and the Latin American Alliance for the Family. Christine is also a former member of the Pontifical Council for the Family, and a founding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. As if all of that is not enough, Christine is one of the authors of and the principal engine behind ALIVE TO THE WORLD (Aprendiendo a Querer in Spanish) a comprehensive program of education in universal human values designed for the classroom from K to 12. ALIVE TO THE WORLD has reached over 1 million students in selected schools since 1990. Christine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today’s guest post is about teaching universal values to young children. Every day we are bombarded with news reports about corruption, crime, and all sorts of other misbehavior. The very recent scandal of rich, privileged parents scamming the college admissions system is a case in point. It is being portrayed in the media as a problem of the wealthy. It is much, much more than that. It is a problem of values, ethics, and morality. I can’t think of a more timely post.
We decided to try out a different format for this post since Christine is so good at answering questions on the fly about her work. So, we collected questions from some young parents and a few teachers of young children and then posed them to Christine in an interview. For clarity, BFK is BrainFit Kids and CdMV is Christine de Marcellus Vollmer.
Part of the vision of BrainFit Kids is a world in which every child grows up to be compassionate. We know that in order for anyone to be compassionate the parts of the brain responsible for compassion and empathy must be properly developed. We attempt to do this with the information we share in our blogs. What or how do you recommend parents teach and model to best develop empathy and compassion in their children?
Of course, teaching through example is very important. The gestures of compassion that parents can make to those whom they come across who are in difficulties are of prime importance. Certainly, too, the explanation that parents can give as they make these gestures will help greatly. However, I believe (as did Aristotle) that stories and books are the world’s best resource. One difficulty today is that many schools now only recommend the books written that year, and the wonderful classics, such as The Little Princess, or The Secret Garden and so many others, which lead the children to live the acts of care for others, are totally forgotten. I am shocked to see that many excellent young teachers have never heard of these books and stories. We must get back to the classic books whose very existence was to teach values. Our school curriculum, Alive to the World, uses a story to help children and adolescents to interiorize and make their own, the virtues of compassion, solidarity, and integrity. Stories are very effective.
What are the values that are shared universally across a wide range of cultures?
Courage, loyalty, veracity, generosity, perseverance, compassion, patience and grit are shared by all humanity and at all stages. Even when cultures were quite cruel, compassion was admired and included in fables of heroes. I believe that these values are written on the subconscious in some way because we have seen how they are even admired by the members of gangs of delinquents. Their opposite vices of cowardice, betrayal, lying, meanness, etc, are universally despised.
How can sound values best be integrated into the child’s worldview and way-of-life without imposing on them where they might rebel and do the opposite?
Certainly through stories. Adolescents, particularly, are very averse to being told what is right and wrong. They want to discover it by observation. This can take too long in real life. That is why reading (and to a lesser degree, films) are the ideal way for them to ‘learn by observing’ the characters in the books.
At what age do kids start to understand these more abstract ideas such as justice, loyalty, etc.?
Justice is one of the earliest. Just try giving two candies to two three-year-old children and only one candy to a third child. A sense of justice will immediately make itself known. Loyalty is more subtle but very present in small children. Responsibility comes later, of course. Dr. David Isaacs has written about the ‘windows of opportunity’ for the learning of virtues. But in general, these are natural feelings, as expressed in the second question and the important thing is to consistently point out virtues, praise the child for practicing kindness, generosity, sharing, and being considerate. It is also important to avoid saying “you are so kind, generous, etc.” But, rather, to exclaim over the action, “That was so kind!”, in order for the child to understand the action is good, and not feel that he or she has now attained goodness.
What are age-appropriate ways to start introducing these themes?
I feel that pointing them out from the beginning, say 18 months. At first, very simply, insisting on “Thank you” and then on “Please”. This is truly the beginning of virtue as it is the start of knowing that all is not “due”, but we must be grateful. Gratitude contains many virtues, principally humility. As the child grows in understanding of what is going on around him or her, good actions should be pointed out. And selfish actions as well.
Besides setting a good example, how do you teach things like empathy?
Explaining situations empathetically is most effective. Children tend to be very judgmental and look down on all that is done differently in other homes. To explain that others don’t do things the same way for ethnic, religious, or cultural reasons is helpful. “Joey is having a difficult time because he has no daddy. We can help him by having him over to our house” type of thing.
Do you have a list of favorite books, by age, that highlight these values?
Theresa Fagan, a mother of eight, issues one every year called “A Mother’s List of Books”. It is wonderful! Parents can order a copy by writing to Theresa directly at email@example.com.
What are the most important values to teach a young child/toddler and older child?
Gratitude, compassion, and grit are the winners at all ages. Gratitude is absolutely essential, from the beginning. Grit needs to be eased in slowly, but early. This is done by praising bravery over those first falls and scratches. Our series, Alive to the World, works them into each book, from K to 12, putting emphasis on the most age appropriate. All of the virtues are needed, and they are quite intertwined and interdependent.
If talking about values isn’t really something that’s in your comfort zone as a parent what resources are available to help the parent navigate these waters and to help children learn values?
The Alive to the World Series*, now available as digital books, will do the trick if the parents read them as well so as to keep up. Apart from that, “The Book of Virtues”, an anthology of stories that embody the principle virtues, by William Bennett is very helpful, as well as “Books That Build Character: A Guide to Teaching Your Child Moral Values Through Stories” by William Kilpatrick. And again, the books on Teresa Fagan’s list.
Thanks again to Christine for her time and insight.
Information on ALIVE TO THE WORLD can be found at http://alivetotheworld.org/en/. Excerpts from the books in the series can be viewed at www.blinklearning.com/editoriales/alafa. The books can be purchased at https://shopusa.blinklearning.com/en/194_alafa-editores.
Remember the story of the Three Little Pigs? When the Big Bad Wolf got to the third little piggy’s house he huffed and puffed to no avail because that house was carefully built of bricks. It didn’t end well for the Big Bad Wolf! Developing the human brain is a lot like building a house. The more you pay attention to creating a strong foundation in the first years of life, the better the brain will function. You want that brain to be like a house of bricks! Let’s take a look at how we do that.
The most important thing that we can say about the human brain is that the brain grows through use. It does so most rapidly in the first year of life but continues to do so regardless of the age of the brain’s owner, which is good news for yours truly! The brain grows through use because of a basic law of nature that says that function determines structure. I wrote a post about this a while back and hope you found it interesting and informative. If you haven’t read that post yet I highly recommend you read it before proceeding with this post because understanding this law is critical to understanding how your child’s brain develops. You can find it here.
In this post I want to talk about what this law actually means in practice for your child. In order to do that I’ll focus on the function of mobility. There are two ways in which this law affects your child’s structure – the structure of the brain, a process that takes place unseen; and the anatomical structure of the body, a process that is very easy to see.
Function determines structure in the brain
First, let’s look at the brain. For our purposes, in order to keep things simple, we divide the human brain into four parts: the medulla, the pons, the midbrain, and the cerebral cortex. Every time your child’s brain is receiving stimulation from the environment, his brain is changing. Every single message (visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory) that the brain receives actually changes the physical structure of the brain. Likewise, every time your child moves his arms, legs, hands, fingers and toes, and every time he makes sounds, his brain is changing.
When your baby is born the main parts of his brain are already formed but not every part is fully functioning. There are still trillions of connections to be made in order for the entire brain to be fully functional. This is a process called neurological or brain organization. The function of mobility plays a critical role in creating brain organization. Here’s how that happens.
In the beginning, all of the movements your child makes are the result of reflexes being triggered. As those reflexes are used the brain changes as a result of that use. As the brain changes, as new connections are made, your child’s level of ability increases. Bit by bit, provided he is getting the correct kinds of opportunities, i.e. tummy time, he will develop more and more physical ability. First, he will learn to hold his head up. Then he might learn to roll over. Eventually he will learn to crawl on his tummy and later creep on his hands and knees.
When a baby is crawling on his tummy and creeping on hands and knees the parts of the brain that are being stimulated, developed, and organized are the pons and the midbrain, two primitive but very important parts of the human brain. Your child’s pons and midbrain are literally growing as he uses these functions. His brain is developing a richer network of connections and it is getting bigger just like a muscle does when you exercise. And, just like a muscle, it is becoming more efficient and effective.
All you need to do is make sure that you are providing the right opportunities. Mobility is key to brain organization because the brain works as a holistic system. Everything affects everything else. Primitive brain structures (medulla, pons, and midbrain) are connected to higher level brain structures (cerebral cortex). As in any system, it is important that each component of the system functions well for the entire system to function well.
Function determines structure in the body
Now let’s look at how the function of mobility affects anatomical structure.
The most obvious example of this law in the human body is that regular exercise results bigger and stronger muscles. The more we use our muscles the better the structure and the more effective they become. So what does that have to do with your child and her development? More and more people are recognizing the important role that movement and exercise play in brain function. However, precious little attention is paid to how movement develops in children. Many parents focus on when their child will begin walking and are not aware of the importance of the mobility stages that lead to walking.
At birth a baby has little to no head control due to underdeveloped neck muscles. The more opportunity you give a newborn to be on his tummy (function), the earlier he will develop neck muscles (structure) and the earlier and better he will hold his head up. When a baby is on his tummy his head functions just like the weights you lift at the gym (you know, for those parents who still find time to make it to the gym!). Eventually, with plenty of opportunity to be on the tummy, he will start tummy crawling from one place to another.
When a baby is tummy crawling there is a lot that is going on. First, he is developing the muscles in his neck, back, tummy, arms, hands, legs, and feet. He will need these muscles to be able to sit up straight, to push away from the floor into a creeping position, and eventually to stand up and walk. Provided he follows the natural pathway to walking he will develop beautiful posture. This process is how the law “function determines structure” relates to your baby’s physical function and muscle development.
Second, in addition to muscle development, children who tummy crawl a lot develop bigger chests and more mature breathing. Breathing is important because it is the primary way that we get oxygen for our brain. And later it will play an important role in the development of language.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, today many babies skip the tummy crawling and/or creeping on hands and knees stages. Many babies spend hours sitting in chairs (Bumbo, etc.). Many spend a lot of time in walkers. All of these devices are detrimental to good brain development and organization because they deny the baby the opportunity to learn how to tummy crawl and creep on hands and knees and therefore interfere with the process of brain organization.
Many babies roll as a means of transportation. Many scoot on their bottoms. These movements by themselves are not a problem. However, they do not provide the same neurological and structural benefits as tummy crawling and creeping on hands and knees. Because they sidetrack children from learning to tummy crawl and creep on hands and knees, these forms of movement result in poor brain organization, less muscle tone and strength, poor coordination, and poor posture. This is because the opposite of the law is also true – lack of function results in lack of structure, poor function results in poor structure, abnormal function results in abnormal structure.
So, taking advantage of this law is actually really easy:
- Provide your child with the opportunity to go through the natural stages of mobility – tummy crawling, creeping on hands and knees, and then walking.
- Avoid all devices that deny your child the opportunity to go through these stages.
- Make sure that once your baby develops a function, he uses that function. In other words, your baby must practice! The more he uses the function, the more the structure will change, both in the brain and in the body.
The end result? Excellent brain organization and beautiful physical structure, just like a house of bricks. How cool is that?!
The REACH Family Institute and BrainFit Kids really exist for only two reasons… to celebrate human potential and to honor human dignity and respect for life. We celebrate human potential by empowering parents with cutting edge knowledge about child brain development and sharing our four decades of clinical experience with them. We honor human dignity by teaching respect for life, and by serving children of all levels of ability from all segments of society.
All of us at REACH/BFK see all of you as part of our very large international family. Because of that, I want to share with you some of the highlights of this past year, some of the challenges we faced, and some of the lessons we learned. I’ll wrap up with a peek at what we have in store for you in 2019.
This past year was, in many ways, a remarkable year as we celebrated some fantastic milestones in our history.
A Few Milestones
40th anniversary – In 1978, REACH co-founder and Director, Charles R. Solis, Jr. led a group of six brain-injured young adults (the Appalachian Trail Challenge Team) on a successful thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Starting on April 8th at Springer Mountain in Georgia, they traversed 13 states, enduring extreme heat and humidity, freezing rain and snow, dense fog and howling winds. They suffered through painful blisters, hypothermia and physical exhaustion. And those were only the physical challenges! Most people who thru-hike the Appalachian Trail do so alone because it is far more difficult to hike for months on end with a group. Under Charles’ leadership, the Challenge Team reached the summit of Mt. Katahdin in northern Maine on September 15th, his 25th birthday. They were the first group (able-bodied or disabled) in history to successfully thru-hike the entire Appalachian Trail as a group. Their record still stands today.
30th anniversary – In 1988, at Hacienda Santa Teresa in Venezuela, we launched the Programa Leopoldo Pilot Project, a volunteer effort to serve poor families with brain-injured children. Starting with just three families, the project quickly grew and within four years was serving 32 families with a waiting list of more than 500 families from all over Venezuela. In 1992, Programa Leopoldo officially began as a “train the trainer” program for Venezuelan professionals. From 1992 to 2002, Charles and Conceição trained more than 200 Venezuelan doctors (specialists in pediatrics and physical medicine/rehabilitation), physical, occupational, and speech therapists, psychologists, and special education teachers. Working together with Sra. Christine Vollmer, Association Provive, and the Alberto J. Vollmer Foundation they forged a unique partnership with the Venezuelan Ministries of Health and Education and opened 34 centers throughout Venezuela where children with developmental difficulties could be seen free of charge.
25th anniversary – In 1993, the mayor of La Victoria in Venezuela, Ismael Garcia, commissioned a study to determine the incidence of children with developmental difficulties in his region. Stunned by the high percentage of children with a wide range of neurological problems he sought our assistance in bringing badly needed help to them and their families. Later that year we inaugurated the Casa de La Mujer in La Victoria which was staffed by several recent graduates from our professional training program and funded by the city of La Victoria. This was the very first center opened in Venezuela where the initiative and funding came from the governing officials. Charles and Ismael, now a Deputy in the National Assembly, remain good friends to this day.
20th anniversary – In 1998, on the heels of a presentation on Programa Leopoldo at a conference at the Vatican, REACH was awarded non-profit status as an organization formed for charitable and educational purposes.
Launch of BrainFit Kids – In April of 2018, we launched our BrainFit Kids website, blog, and 7-day Free Email Course “Make the first three years count!” BrainFit Kids was years in the planning and creation and we are thrilled that hundreds of people are now taking our course each month.
This past year was also a year of monumental challenges for us, challenges that were personal but that were intricately woven with everything that we teach and have experienced throughout our professional careers.
The challenges involved family and stepping up when help was needed. Mom was suffering the effects of cancer and its treatment, Dad was in the downward spiral of Alzheimer’s disease. Because of failing health they could no longer care for themselves or live safely in their home unless someone could step in to care for them. The question was who? Without getting into the details (there are a lot of details!), after weighing all of the options, we told my mother that we would move in with her and my dad and care for them until the end of their lives.
So began a year of total devotion as Conceição and I took over responsibility for every aspect of their lives. Eventually this involved everything from cooking meals, administering medication, washing clothing, and cleaning the house; to bathing, changing diapers, dressing, and spoon feeding. We did this while simultaneously continuing our work with the children on the West Coast and in France, and traveling to Oregon to pack up our house for the move to the East Coast.
Once my mother knew that we were in it for the long haul, she was able to relax and give herself permission to let go. Mom passed peacefully at home surrounded by her sons and Conceição on the morning of January 22, 2018.
Caring for my father was a very different story. Over the course of the year, as his cognitive decline progressed we saw many different versions of him. At times he was like a hyperactive two year old. At times he was lethargic. Some days he slept until noon. Some days he was up at 5:00 am. Some nights he slept well, some nights he didn’t sleep at all. Most of the time he was very confused, occasionally he was incredibly lucid.
It was a constant roller coaster. Eventually, he no longer recognized either of us. When I would tell him I was Charlie Solis he would smile and say, “Me too!, How about that!” Winter turned to spring, and spring into summer. Dad slowly but surely lost more and more of his memory and his confusion got worse and worse. But, physically he was in great shape and so we planned on this being our life for the foreseeable future.
In July, Conceição went to California to help our daughter, Juliana, and son-in-law, Jack, and the grandchildren with their move from Chicago to the Bay Area. What started as a week or so long trip to help with the transition turned into a 6-week encampment as almost everything that could go wrong with the move, did go wrong. It was rough on everyone but it could have been a lot rougher if not for Vovó (grandmother in Portuguese). Conceição stepped in and lightened the load of caring for the children considerably, thus allowing Juliana and Jack to deal with the myriad issues confronting them.
And then summer turned into fall. In October, at a routine checkup with his cardiologist, we learned that Dad’s heart was failing. Still, he seemed to be doing well in general so life went on. I went to Oregon to pack our belongings for the move. Just as I was finishing up, on the day the movers loaded the truck for the trip to Pennsylvania, my father passed peacefully at home surrounded by my three brothers and Conceição on the morning of December 19, 2018. It still saddens me that I was not there but I have to believe that deep down Dad was OK with that. We had spent so many special moments together during the course of his last year. We had said what needed to be said.
Some Lessons Learned
- Principles are principles! – I spent a lot of time thinking about our decision and commitment to my parents and why, beyond the obvious reasons, we decided to do it. With time and reflection I realized that our entire careers involved work based on two fundamental principles – respect for life and honoring the dignity of every human person no matter their circumstance. We taught these principles for decades in many different situations from individual consultations with families to speeches at the Vatican and in Geneva. I came to understand that the real reason for our decision is that it was inevitable. If we were to remain true to our principles, we had to “walk the talk”!
- Our parents are HEROES! – Throughout our careers, we have always admired the incredible courage and dedication of the parents we work with who have brain-injured children on our Home Program. We often call them the “jewels” of society. They do heroic work with their children, with no recognition, often with little relief, often for decades. We had a taste of this many years ago during our training. We worked in a school with young adults and served as their surrogate parents. We lived with them, ate with them, served as dormitory supervisors, etc. When I took my group on the thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I was responsible for them 24/7 for nearly six straight months with almost no time off. So, we had a sense for what our parents live with on a daily basis. Or so we thought! Our experience living with and caring for my parents multiplied our admiration for them a thousand fold!
- Family is what really matters! – Author Steven Covey was fond of an exercise where you imagine yourself at your own funeral. What will people say about you? How do you want to be remembered? Covey also often said that when on their deathbed nobody wishes they had spent more time at the office. When people have regrets they virtually always involve family. Nothing mattered more to my parents than their family. I had many occasions over the past year to meet people who knew Dad well and every one of them told me that he was always most proud of his four boys. He considered being our father to be his greatest calling and his greatest accomplishment. He was a wise man. Conceição and I cared for my parents until the end of their lives, providing them with the love and support that they so generously gave to me and my brothers when we were growing up. RIP Charles R. and Alma M. Solis. No regrets!
A Peek at 2019
We can’t say too much yet because we are currently transitioning from our role as full-time caregivers. But we can give you some hints. Expect to see a lot more online presence from BrainFit Kids this year. Some of the things we’ve got in the pipeline – Online Video Courses, Online Consultations, Mentoring Programs, BFK Podcast, E-books…
I’d like to leave you with a small but important piece of advice. Teach your children to be flexible. Flexibility is critical when it comes to handling changes in life and life often changes. Also, teach them what really matters in life. People, especially family and friends, are important. They should be treated with love and respect! The rest is just stuff! If we all teach our children to love and respect the people in our lives we will have a much more compassionate world. So, let’s all do our part by beginning at home.
Apologies for the length of this post today. It was important to me to share these thoughts with you as all of it is so woven together as if part of a cloth.
I’d love to hear your thoughts as well. We have much to learn from each other! Share your stories, your struggles and triumphs. Send us your questions, and let us know what topics you want us to cover in the coming year.
Thank you everyone for your love and support this past year and cheers to a 2019 filled with promise and possibility!
GivingTuesday is today – a global day of giving that harnesses the collective power of individuals, communities and organizations to encourage philanthropy and to celebrate generosity worldwide. #GivingTuesday is an opportunity for you to show what values are important to you and connect with a community and an organization working together to make your values into reality – we’re most effective together.
This GivingTuesday, we hope you’ll choose to CelebrateHumanPotential by supporting the life transforming work of the REACH Family Institute and our vision of a world in which all children are valued, compassionate, and capable.
Starting at 8:00am ET (5:00am PT) on Tuesday, November 27, 2018 Facebook and PayPal will match donations up to a total of $7 million on a first come first serve basis. Please consider donating here to help us capitalize on this unique opportunity!
The REACH Family Institute is a non-profit educational organization dedicated to teaching parents and professionals about the extraordinary human brain. REACH’s work applies to children across the entire range of function from little ability (profound brain-injury) to above average ability. International in scope, REACH works with individual families, professionals, and organizations to ensure a better future through more capable and compassionate children.
On April 9th 2018, after several years of hard work, the REACH Family Institute launched BrainFit Kids, our new online initiative designed to empower parents of young children with the knowledge and tools necessary to Parent with the Brain in Mind. BrainFit Kids consists of a website, a regular blog, and online consulting. As a service to all young parents in the world we created a free 7-day email course called “Make the first three years count”. Over the last six months more than 1,000 families around the world have taken the course and are raising their children with the brain in mind!
2018 was also a year of major anniversaries for our worldwide REACH family. We celebrated the
- 40th anniversary of Executive Director Charles Solis’s historic thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail
- 30th anniversary of our Programa Leopoldo Pilot Project in Venezuela
- 25th anniversary of the Casa de la Mujer (Programa Leopoldo) in Venezuela
- 20th anniversary of the founding of the REACH Family Institute!
So, you can see we have a long, proud history of serving children and families throughout the world. We’ve transformed the lives of a lot of children and a lot of parents. But there is still an awful lot to do. High on our list for the coming year is to produce a series of video courses about child brain development. We’d love to have your support in that effort. So, as you consider which organizations you will support this #GivingTuesday, we hope you will choose the REACH Family Institute.
Please Donate Now to help us capitalize on Facebook and PayPal’s generosity to match your gift!