Simple Ideas with Profound Impact

SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

By Charles Solis | September 5, 2019

Name of Book:
SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

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.


Name of Book:
SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain


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)


Book Category:
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!

4 Tips for when it’s getting out of control!

By Conceição Solis | July 29, 2019

Part four of our summer series on behavior:

My last post, The Mirror: 7 Behavior Principles for your Child’s Development, will take you and your child a long way on the road to success when it comes to behavior and social skills. But let’s face it, no matter what you do or how well you do it, there are going to be bumps in the road. After all, you and your children are human and there are bound to be situations where everyone feels tired, frustrated, and upset. So, let me give you my 4 Top Tips for those times when things are getting out of control.

1. Avoid Power Struggles!

Why? Well, don’t tell your child this, but it’s because your child will always, and I do mean always, win! When we enter into a struggle with a child with whom you can not reason, the child will always win the battle. So, avoid this by physically removing her if you are in a situation which can be disturbing to others or by removing yourself from the room if you are at home. 

Actions speak louder than words, especially when you are dealing with a child who is developmentally immature. An 18 month old to 3 year old does not have the understanding or the maturity to listen to an explanation of why her tantrum is frustrating you. Trying to explain your frustration while she is upset is useless because it will just prolong the tantrum and frustrate you even more. You are better off doing one of three things – ignoring the tantrum, holding your child quietly (if allowed), or leaving the room. During those times you need to take a step back, count to 10 (or 100!), calm yourself, and practice patience!

Remember, it takes 2 to tango! Sometimes you just need to know when to retreat. If you withdraw yourself from the conflict, there is no longer a conflict. Leave the talk and teaching for later after everything is calm and your child is no longer upset. Only then is your child in a place to listen and learn better ways of dealing with situations. 

Sometimes the best way to deal with an upset child is to use diversionary tactics. Change the subject, talk about something or someone else. Last summer, when Juliana and Jack moved to California their lives were very stressful because so much went wrong with the move. One day, I was traveling with them and after a couple of hours in the car 2 year old Adeline began to cry. We tried singing, changing the music on the radio, giving her a different toy, telling her that we were almost there, but nothing was working. All of a sudden, her 4½ year old brother Jack said in a lively voice, “Adeline where is Ceci (her friend from back in Chicago)? Is she in San Francisco?” Immediately Adeline stopped crying and with a big smile she said “No!” and he continued, “Is she on the top of our car?” and she repeated “No!” and that went on until we got home. We had a good 15 to 20 happy minutes at the end of the trip because Jack knew what to say. He diverted her attention by making up a fun guessing game using the name of the little friend she had just left a few weeks prior. We all thanked him for his help with his sister.

2. Use Natural & Logical Consequences, Avoid Punishment & Reward!

Punishing a child for “bad” behavior or rewarding a child for “good” behavior is not the way to go. Remember, children want attention and will do what is necessary to get it. They will not learn what is right or what is wrong by being punished or rewarded. When we punish or reward a child we are teaching them that we have control over them. Instead, we should teach them that their actions, their choices belong to them. At least that is the ultimate goal, right? We want our children to learn that their actions, their choices, have consequences and they are responsible for those consequences. 

There are two types of consequences – natural consequences and logical consequences. 

Natural Consequences

A natural consequence is something that is the natural result of an action or choice. Here’s a good example – if you touch a hot iron you get burned. Natural consequences are extremely effective! All you have to do is touch that hot iron one time! You get the message loud and clear and you know that the pain you feel is a direct result of something that you did. So you should use natural consequences whenever you can. Unfortunately, as you can see, many natural consequences are also often dangerous. So, although they are really effective, they are not always useful with children. That’s where logical consequences come in. 

Logical Consequences

A logical consequence is something that logically follows an action or choice. You have to make sure that the logical consequence is a)enforceable, b) appropriate to the offense, and c) imposed with love and empathy. 

Let me give you an example of what I mean by a logical consequence. Let’s say your toddler is playing with building blocks and she decides to throw a block. She knows that is not allowed. You first remind her that she must not throw blocks because she could hurt someone or break something. If she doesn’t listen and throws a block again you should pick up all the blocks and put them away where she can not reach them. No screaming, no “I told you so”. You simply, calmly, and with great empathy explain that because she threw the block she lost the privilege of playing with them. That is a logical consequence. This teaches your child a direct relationship between her actions and the result of those actions. You throw blocks, you lose the blocks. 

Another example. Many can relate to this, especially now that it is summertime. You are at a party at a friend’s home playing in the pool. You explain the rules to your child – only walking around the pool because it can be slippery, no rough play in the pool because children can get hurt. Your child completely ignores your rules. Here is what probably happens most of the time. You keep telling your child over and over again not to run or not to play rough. Then either someone gets hurt or you lose your patience and grab your child for a serious talk. Then, as soon as your talk is over she is back doing whatever she wants. Sound familiar?

Well, what would the logical consequence be in this situation? Removing the child completely from the pool, right? Of course the only guaranteed way to keep your child from the pool if she is being really defiant is to leave the party. This is a hard thing for parents to do because they are enjoying the company of their friends. But I promise you, unless your child has a developmental difficulty and neurologically does not understand consequences, you will not have to leave many more times before your child learns. You should not own her choices. It is for her to pay the consequences. 

If you use natural and logical consequences and use them consistently your child will learn to own their actions, their choices, their behavior. 

3. Practice Emotional Detachment!

This one is not always easy. The more you can detach yourself emotionally when imposing logical consequences, the better. Anger, lecturing, “I-told-you-so’s” dilute the power of logical consequences because the child stays focused on us rather than on the lesson the consequence is meant to teach. Think of yourself as a police officer pulling someone over for a traffic violation.

“License, registration, and proof of insurance, please.” No screaming, no tantrums. What you want to teach your child is that she lost a privilege because she chose to break the rules. It’s not because you are mean or frustrated or stressed. If you allow yourself to become emotionally involved and you scream or go on and on lecturing her, you are in fact owning her actions and making yourself the “bad” guy for punishing her. Do you see the difference?!

4. Empathy Wins The Day!

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, which is to say the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. We were all children one day. We all misbehaved, broke rules, made mistakes. We all know what it feels like to be reprimanded, to lose privileges, to be punished. So, we’ve been there and, therefore, it should actually be quite easy for us to place ourselves in their place when our children mess up. And it is so unbelievably powerful and effective. Why? Because empathy is an act of love. Our love for our children takes precedence over everything. Our relationship with them is of the utmost importance. A screw-up in behavior, even a big screw-up doesn’t change that. Our children need to know that little fact about us and how we feel about them. We need to tell them regularly. So, when they do mess up we really need to let them know how much we “feel their pain”. When we show sincere empathy while imposing consequences it tells them that we understand, we’ve got their backs, we love them no matter what. That then allows the consequences to do the teaching.

If you apply our 7 principles and 4 tips and you are still struggling with your child’s behavior please contact us to schedule a 30 minute online consultation which we offer free of charge.  

The Mirror: 7 Behavior Principles for your Child’s Development

By Charles Solis | July 9, 2019

Behaviornoun – 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!!

Nutrition’s link to behavior and the brain

By Charles Solis | June 13, 2019

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

Natural

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

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.

Whole

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:

Lean protein

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.

Fat

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.

Vegetables

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

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.

Nuts

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:

Sugar

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

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.

Behavior…one of the most common concerns

By Charles Solis | June 5, 2019

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.

Highlights

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.

Cheers!

My speech at the UN, Empowering Mothers to Parent with the Brain in Mind

By Conceição Solis | May 23, 2019

As a follow up to our Mother’s Day post last week, and in light of some of the pressing problems our country is facing at this moment in time, I thought it appropriate to revisit a speech I gave a few years ago.

In March of 2016, my daughter, Juliana Gaither, and I represented the REACH Family Institute and BrainFit Kids as part of a delegation from Big Ocean Women at the United Nations for the 60th Commission on the Status of Women. We were there to advocate for the right of families to be an integral part of the development and education of their children. I was a lead speaker at a special meeting on refugees and gave the following speech on the subject of “Empowering Mothers to Parent with the Brain in Mind.”


Conceição & Juliana at the United Nations

2016 United Nations, New York

60th Commission on the Status of Women

We live in a troubled world… a world plagued by extreme poverty, hunger, disease, inequality, human trafficking, natural disasters, violence, terrorism, war and the related humanitarian crises and forced migration of entire populations.

It is for this reason that 193 nations negotiated for 3 years to create “The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, a lofty set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The purpose is nothing less than a complete transformation of our world. I propose to you that this transformation will only happen if we first transform our children’s lives.

Imagine a world in which all children are valued… a world where every child, regardless of sex, race, ethnicity or level of ability, is treasured as a precious gift.

Imagine a world in which all children are compassionate… a world where every child goes out of their way to help the physical, spiritual, or emotional hurts or pains of another. 

Imagine a world in which all children are capable… a world where every child is reaching his or her God-given potential, whatever that potential may be.

Our children are our future. They are the teachers, doctors, lawyers, artists, scientists, public servants, politicians and leaders of tomorrow. Imagine those valued, compassionate and capable children as adults taking their rightful places in leading their communities.

Ending poverty, hunger, war and all of the other problems that the 2030 Agenda proposes to solve will only happen if those who are working to solve these problems value one another, have respect for human dignity, treat others with compassion, and are highly capable in every sense of the term.

I believe that is a world worth fighting for. The driving vision of the REACH Family Institute, the organization I co-founded and co-direct, is the creation of such a world… one in which all children are valued, compassionate and capable. It’s our purpose, our raison d’être, our why.

The good news is we already know how to transform children’s lives. In fact, we have 40 years of experience doing it with children of every level of ability, with families of every race and social class throughout the world, including thousands of families living in extreme poverty.

Goal #4 of the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda is to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. Goal #4.2 is to ensure that all girls and boys have access to quality early childhood development, care, and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education.

Since we are discussing “empowering the refugee family”, how can we do this in the context of the refugee crisis currently gripping the world’s attention? The key to success lies in the two greatest assets that every child has – the family and the magnificent human brain.

It is absolutely essential that we focus on these two things because refugees typically live in conditions of poverty. Their children are susceptible to the neurological consequences of poverty. Additionally, many refugee children suffer both psychological and neurological effects of their traumatic experiences. Given that they are living in a very different culture amongst people who speak a different language, the added burden of these neurological impacts places these children at significant risk.

Memories from a Vietnamese Refugee

Recently, I met a Vietnamese woman who came to one of our workshops hoping to learn something that might help her brain-injured sister. After the workshop, she stayed to speak with me. Her story is a sad illustration of what can happen to refugee children and also a splendid example of the triumph of the human spirit.

On April 5th of 1975, her family became part of the wave of Vietnamese refugees who escaped to Guam. Her father was an infantryman in the South Vietnamese army so his family was at great risk. She was 5 years old at the time and her only memory of the experience is spending a long time on a grey, metal boat. Her youngest sister was born three days before they fled. She was a perfectly fine, healthy baby at birth. But within days of escaping, she developed severe jaundice. Weak and listless, she clung to life. Many died along the way and as they did they were buried at sea. Fearing she would be tossed overboard if she were discovered, her father wrapped her in newspaper and told his wife to hold her tight to her body. There was nothing else to do but hope and pray that she survived the trip.

Upon reaching Guam, the baby was given medical care, diagnosed with a severe brain-injury and her parents told she would never learn to speak or move. Unfortunately, the die was cast for her. Upon reaching the US, given no hope for her future, her parents did the best they could to care for her and settled into the task of assimilating into American culture and raising their other 8 children.

Today, 40 years later, this refugee family, now totaling 12, is a testament to the American dream. The children are grown adults living successful lives with families of their own. The parents, who sacrificed so much to protect them and give them the chance for a future, are enjoying their golden years.

Parent with the Brain in Mind

How might this child’s life be different today? If someone had empowered her parents with the knowledge and tools to unleash her hidden potential she might be very different.

The first key is to empower the family.

Placing the family, particularly mothers, at the center of early childhood development is crucial for several reasons. First, the family is ultimately responsible for and uniquely positioned to have the greatest effect on human development, including education. Second, because mothers and fathers are the most influential teachers their children will ever have. There is no greater or more dynamic learning team than that of the family. Mothers, in particular, when able to trust their instincts, know exactly what their children need and when they need it. The third and final reason is the power of love. Parents love their children more than anyone else in the world. That includes poor, uneducated parents. It includes refugee parents. Love knows no university and it knows no social class.

The second key is the magnificent human brain.

According to James Heckman, University of Chicago professor and 2000 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, “Early experiences can translate into school readiness, academic success, and lifetime well-being. Success builds upon success. When more children in a community are ready to learn, community-wide levels of human and social capital rise.”

The “Investing in Children” report done by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation concluded that resources focused on children early in life have a multiplier effect on society. The long term financial return on investments in children under the age of five is 400% – 800%, based on increased individual earnings, decreased government spending on special education, remediation and welfare costs, and those costs related to criminal activity.

Unfortunately, despite this recognition, for many children brain development happens by chance. Few parents, even affluent parents, demonstrate an understanding of the link between brain development and long-term outcomes. Most parents do nothing to actively promote brain development and learning.

But it doesn’t have to be that way! A child’s future no longer needs to be left to chance. Our 40 years of neuroscience research and practical clinical experience demonstrate that early attention to brain development pays big dividends. Through our work with the poor, we proved that any parent is capable of transforming their child’s life provided they have three things – knowledge, determination and, most of all, love.

It works!

I want to tell you one final story to illustrate what happens when we empower families, including poor families, with the knowledge and tools necessary for them to maximize their child’s neurological potential.

In Venezuela, we saw a family with a 6-month old girl born profoundly brain-injured. She was blind, deaf, immobile, and very sick, with frequent seizures and under heavy anti-convulsant medication. The mother was in a severe state of depression. We evaluated the girl, designed and taught a program to try to improve her function, and urged the parents to get counseling to help them through their grief.

Six months later with just one look in the mother’s eyes, we knew things were going very well. Mom and Dad looked 10 years younger. We discussed the changes – beginning to see, to hear, to move, reduced seizures, good health – all of which are absolute miracles the parents created. Then we talked about the next steps. As we concluded, Dad was telling us how happy they were with the changes in their little girl. His last sentence was “The best thing about this program is that now we know there will be a tomorrow”.

Now we know there will be a tomorrow! Hope for the future based on the concrete results of dedication, effort, and love applied in the present. God created mothers and fathers so that they can ensure their children will have a tomorrow. Let us not allow any professional or bureaucrat to take this greatest of all gifts away from them.

The gift of a child is also the gift of parenthood. It is a life-transforming gift, unleashing stores of love, devotion, and compassion of which people never dreamed they were capable. When these qualities are directed towards any child, particularly the brain-injured child, there is a ripple effect of change that goes well beyond the changes in the child. It changes the parents, the brothers and sisters, the extended family, the local community and, eventually, the larger society.

Dig, plant, build relationships – 5 hands on activities

By Conceição Solis | May 16, 2019

Spring! For those of us who live where there are clear changes in the seasons, it is a beautiful time of the year. Spring has such wonderful displays of color and it is hard not to get that special feeling when the season really reaches its peak. The trees and bushes are blooming and the perennials are coming up! Your favorite flowers have just shown themselves or are in buds. The weather is warming up and we are spending more time outdoors. If you are anything like me you are feeling more energized and a sense of renewal after the long winter!

Spring is a great time to take your children outside, let them run around, climb a tree, look for snails or worms or whatever bugs they can find. It is also a great time to dig and plant! It is best if you plant herbs, fruits, or vegetables so that you all can enjoy the “fruits” of your labor. When gardening with a little toddler you don’t need much space and you don’t need to be a good gardener. All you need is the desire to do it!

Gardening can teach your child about relationships

First, let’s talk about why I am encouraging you to dig and plant with your child. What is in it for them? The obvious answer is that it offers good tactile stimulation and opportunities to develop good gross and fine manual ability. Gardening also provides an opportunity to learn new vocabulary and teaches kids how to follow directions and therefore increases understanding.

But “gardening” can provide so much more. You are not just going to teach your child how to dig and plant are you? Of course not! That is just the beginning. Once you and your child plant her little plant, you will teach her how to care for it. How often will she need to water it, how much light does it need, how often do you need to feed it?

When teaching your child to plant and care for a plant, you are teaching your child the importance of caring for something well so that it grows healthy and flourishes. And with this comes the lessons your child will learn that are not so obvious and that, in the end, might be the most important lessons. Consider the question of light. All plants need sunlight but the amount is not the same for every plant. Some plants need sun all day while others prefer shade to grow healthy. When you teach your child this she is learning to respect differences. Not all plants are the same! Often parents ask me “How can I teach my child to be caring and nice to others?” “How can I teach her to respect others feelings and not bully them?”

One of the hardest things for a parent is when their child is hurt, perhaps because their friend ignored her on a playground because they were playing with others and didn’t bother to include her. Most parents experience this and it is difficult when your child is crying because someone ignored her, said something hurtful, or outright bullied her. You might understand what happened and why but your child doesn’t and therefore doesn’t know how to deal with it. As a mother and grandmother, I know that sometimes we just want to solve problems for our children, right?

While solving problems or interfering in these situations may make your child happier in the moment it does not teach her how to handle these types of situations herself and she will just keep getting hurt in the end. The best thing you can do is teach your child to be kind, caring and understanding of others feelings and differences so she learns how to choose friends, how to be a good friend, and how to stand up for herself. It does not happen overnight or without getting hurt or making mistakes and you should be there to hug and kiss her when it happens but you will be doing her a favor, in the long run, to let her learn by trial and error.

Having said that, I suggest that you begin to teach her these lessons by having her learn to care for a plant. Why? Because you will provide your child with something concrete as an example. Here is how what your child learns from caring for a plant can be used as a lesson for her own life.  Let’s go back to the example in the park. Your child was just ignored by her friends and is pouting. When you are alone with your child (sooner is always better than later when dealing with a young child), say to her, “Remember how plants have different needs? How some plants need a lot of water and others don’t and some need a lot of sun and others prefer the shade?” Let your child answer. Then translate that to a human relationship and what just happened in the park.

You now say, “Do you know that people are like plants? Some of us like a lot of water and others like less water. Some like to play with one friend at a time and others like to play with many friends at once. What do you prefer?” Let your child answer. Let’s say she says she prefers playing with just one friend at a time. Then you say, “You do? Why?”

Do you see what is happening here? You are encouraging your child to express her feelings, her likes and dislikes without pressure or judgment on your part. Now it is time to talk about her friends and how they might be, act, and feel different. You might ask, “What about Mary? Do you think she likes to play with one friend at a time or with many friends?” If she says many friends, you might say, “Oh, that’s interesting. Is that why she was playing with 2 other girls and you did not join them?”

Then go back to the plant. “Do you know, just like plants have different likes and dislikes, so do we. I can see that you were upset that Mary was playing with the other girls and you were all by yourself. Mary likes to play with lots of kids at once so you could have gone to play with her even though you prefer playing with one friend at a time. If you ignore or eliminate the other girls from the group that might make them feel hurt and sad, don’t you think?”

This conversation obviously has to be age appropriate. You have to be tuned in to your child’s level of understanding but the relationship between a plant or animal and human beings can be easily made when it comes to their needs. When a child can see that plants have different needs and learn to care for them, you can draw on that when talking about feelings and relationships. That is probably the biggest benefit your child will get from learning to take care of a plant. The lessons of caring, being different, and understanding not just our likes and needs but those of others as well. You also have a wonderful opportunity to begin teaching your child that nobody can or should control what others feel or do, but that she can control what she does and how she responds.  

Science of Gardening

And the last benefit your child will gain from gardening is that while playing she can learn about the parts of the plant, the life cycle of a plant (seed>plant>flower>seed), the nutrients needed, how plants drink water (how does it go from the root to the leaf), why light is important, how they produce the oxygen we breathe, the seasons and much more. Start simple and be age appropriate. At first, it is all about playing with dirt and then bit by bit developing the knowledge.  

Simple hands on activities!

Now that I covered the benefits let’s look at some simple activities you can do:

Bean Sprout

  • Put a bean (black bean or whatever bean you prefer) in a dish over a wet paper towel. Place it by a window or in a room with good lighting. Make sure you keep it moist and watch it sprout. You can plant it or eat the sprout.

Sponge House

  • Have your child cut up sponges (or do it for your child if she is too young to use scissors), to build a house or whatever structure she chooses. Have her wet the sponge and place different seeds on different areas of the sponge. Spray it daily to keep it moist. Watch it sprout. Have her taste the sprouts!  

Capillary action

  • Materials needed: A handful of white carnations. The same number of glasses or vases. Food coloring.
  • What to do: Fill the glasses or vases with water and put a few drops of food coloring into each glass. Place one carnation in each glass. Observe the flowers after 2 hours, 6 hours, 10 hours. The flowers will begin to turn the color of the water that they are in. You can also cut down the bottom half of the carnation stem and put half the stem in one color and the other half in another. This way your child will observe half the flower turning one color and the other half turning a different color! They’ll also be able to see that the inside of each side of the stem has changed colors. If you plan to split them stems make sure to save the carnations that have thicker stems for splitting.

Importance of light and water.

  • Plant 2 small plants in 2 different pots of the same size. To learn how much water the plants need, place them side by side. Using the same amount of water (i.e. 1 cup) water one plant as frequently as recommended and the other plant twice as often.
  • Observe how the plant is doing and increase or decrease the water amount and frequency until you find the right amount so both plants are doing well. Once the correct amount of water is determined, move one of the plants to a dark place and observe how the plants behave with light and without. When the plant begins to show signs of “stress”, move the plant back to where it was when doing well.

Teach!

  • The names of the parts of a plant.
  • The different categories of plants –  fruit, vegetables, legumes, citrus, etc.
  • The different types of plants – succulents, perennials, annuals, deciduous, conifer, etc.

The sky’s the limit. Go have some fun in the garden!   

The Human Brain Makes Us Brothers and Sisters

By Charles Solis | April 29, 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!

Our Earth, Our Future – Their Brain, Their Future!

By Conceição Solis | April 22, 2019

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!

Spring Cleaning with Children – Teaching them to let go and to share!

By Conceição Solis | April 15, 2019

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!

Make the first three years count!

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