Empowering You to Parent with the Brain in Mind
Parents are the first and most influential teachers in a child's life... 85% of the human brain develops in the first three years of life so we want to help you with tips and tools to make every day count and help you maximize your child’s potential.
Our goal is to help you raise smart, capable, and compassionate children.
We hope these Simple Ideas With Profound Impact will make the difference in your child's life.
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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.
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.”
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.
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.