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.
Welcome to the BrainFit Kids blog. We’re so happy that you found us. If you’re a new parent, congratulations on landing the most important job in the world! Our goal at BrainFit Kids is to help you raise children who are smart, capable, and compassionate. Children who have self-confidence, are not afraid to try new…Learn More +
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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:
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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!
It’s time for a paradigm shift in how we look at human functional ability. In his landmark book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, physicist Thomas Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift” to describe the change in thinking that precedes dramatic changes in scientific models. The shift in the field of physics from the laws of motion of Sir Isaac Newton to the theory of relativity of Albert Einstein is a good example.
Traditionally, the medical, psychology and education establishments have assigned human beings to categories according to functional ability – what they can and cannot do, as well as according to how well they do what they can do. This remains the dominant paradigm today. It is most commonly seen in the diagnosis of disabilities – children are placed into categories according to their lack of ability and are then placed into categories within those categories according to the severity of their lack of ability. But it’s been a pervasive idea throughout society for a long time.
Here’s a personal story that shows how this played out in schools when I was young. When I enrolled at Archbishop Wood High School for Boys sometime in the last century, I was assigned to a “track” based on my IQ score and previous academic performance in elementary school. There were three tracks – first, second, and third.
The “first” track was for the kids who had high IQ scores and really good grades in elementary school. It was generally understood that the kids in these classes were going on to college after high school graduation and that most of them would go to top-notch colleges and universities.
The “second” track was for the kids who had average IQ scores and average grades in elementary school. That’s where they put me. It was generally understood that the kids in my “track” would also go on to college but the push for us was to aim for the smaller state colleges where the admissions requirements were not as stringent.
The “third” track was for the kids with below average IQ scores and below average grades in elementary school. It was generally accepted that the boys in the “third” track were not college material and therefore would go on to learn a trade like plumbing or auto mechanics.
Nobody ever told us that the divisions between “tracks” were made along these lines, but we all knew it. And it had a significant influence on how we saw ourselves and our potential and also how we saw each other. It was, in a certain sense, a caste system based on the belief that intelligence is predetermined and unchangeable. So we all thought that if you were lucky and born smart, you were dealt a good hand of cards; and if you were unlucky and not born smart, you were dealt a bad hand of cards. Stanford University psychologist Carolyn Dweck calls this the fixed mindset and when I was growing up the fixed mindset ruled!
The idea that any ability, including intelligence, is predetermined and unchangeable has always been a lousy idea and it has limited the potential of untold numbers of people. But during the last decade or so there has been a movement afoot in neuroscience circles that deserves our attention because it represents a significant departure from the traditional way of assigning children to fixed categories. It is called “neurodiversity”.
Advocates of neurodiversity view neurological conditions like autism and dyslexia as being the result of natural variations of the human genome rather than pathologies or disorders. On that basis, they argue, the traits caused by genetic variations should be celebrated and that there is no need for or possibility of a cure. The neurodiversity movement has seen it’s most ardent embrace amongst the autism community.
Let me give some perspective. Forty years ago, there was no such thing as the autism spectrum. There were simply children with autism and they were categorized as mild, moderate, or severe. That’s it. Some years later, those terms were replaced with autism, pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), and Asperger’s syndrome. Today, those terms have been largely replaced with the blanket term autism spectrum disorder and the children are all somewhere “on the spectrum”. While autism spectrum disorder is still a medical diagnosis that categorizes children according to sets of symptoms (and is therefore not acceptable to neurodiversity advocates) it is a term that nonetheless was greatly influenced by the neurodiversity movement.
While I have fundamental disagreements with both of these developments (neurodiversity and the autism spectrum), they do represent an encouraging trend. These concepts represent ways of looking at human ability that seek to find some commonality amongst all people or at least people with those traits rather than focusing on their differences. And they also at least imply the possibility that performance amongst people who are “neurodiverse” or “on the spectrum” is somewhat fluid rather than static. That’s a big difference from the classical approach of diagnosing a child with a disability and placing him in a box from which he cannot escape.
Nonetheless, these changes do not go far enough because they are still mired in a concept of human functional ability that is essentially based on the idea that ability is predetermined by genetics and therefore is largely unchangeable. This ignores all of the extraordinary advances in our understanding of the human brain and neuroplasticity of the past forty years. So, I propose that we take this notion several steps further.
We have worked with children whose abilities span the entire spectrum of human performance for more than forty years. Since the late 1970s, we have taught a concept that we call the Continuum of Human Functional Ability. A continuum is defined as a continuous sequence in which adjacent elements are not perceptibly different from each other, although the extremes are quite distinct. The Continuum of Human Functional Ability ranges from little functional ability on the low end (as in a child in a coma) to superior functional ability on the high end. When we speak of functional ability we mean sensory, cognitive or intellectual, physical, emotional, and social ability. We mean ability in its most comprehensive or holistic sense. In between the low end and high end of the continuum, there are gradations of functional ability.
In order to understand the continuum, one must first understand that all human functional ability is the direct result of the development and organization of the human brain. You are able to do what you do and do it as well as you do because of the degree to which your brain is developed and organized.
Essentially, the idea is that all human beings can be placed on a continuum that is based on the degree to which the brain is developed and organized. You can see this in any classroom. There is always a range of performance (i.e. ability) amongst the children. That range of performance is, to a very large extent, the result of a range in brain development and organization. Same thing on the soccer team. Same thing in the band. Same thing with children who are diagnosed with disabilities – take ten children with Down syndrome and you will find a range of functional ability, take ten children with cerebral palsy and you will find a range of functional ability.
Remember, these differences in ability are based on brain development and organization not on genetic endowment. Because of that, one’s position on the continuum is fluid. It can change! Improve brain function and you can move up the continuum towards the superior end. Suffer a loss of brain function and you might move down the continuum towards the low end.
We have seen this happen more times than I can count in our work with children who have developmental difficulties. Back in the days before the “autism spectrum” we saw children start our Home Program with a diagnosis of autism. Two years later they came back and their diagnosis had been changed to pervasive developmental delay. Two years later their diagnosis had been changed once more, this time to Asperger’s syndrome.
After you’ve seen this scenario play out enough times you have to say to yourself, what is going on here? If each of these conditions is genetically determined how is it possible that we are changing the diagnosis every two years. Was the original diagnosis wrong? Well, if this experience were only confined to children on the “autism spectrum” perhaps that might be the case. But, it’s not. We have seen the same pattern in children with every diagnosis we work with – cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, Sensory Integration Disorder, ADD, ADHD, and on and on. Over and over again, we have watched children start at one point on the continuum and, as their brain’s developed and became organized, they moved up the spectrum towards a higher level of functional ability!
So, here is the bottom line. We are all, each and every one of us, on the Continuum of Human Functional Ability. I am on it. Conceição, my wife and colleague, is on it. Juliana, our daughter is on it. Same for her husband, Jack. Same for our grandchildren, Jack and Adeline.
You are on the continuum too, and so are your children!
If you have been a regular reader of this blog you know that, as a parent, you have a significant influence on your children and their development. What you do as a parent matters a lot! You can play a role in helping your child find a place high on the continuum.
Finally, and this is the key, ALL of the children who are diagnosed with some type of developmental challenge regardless of the name that the doctors, or psychologists, or teachers have given it, are also on the continuum.
We are all on the continuum! Where we find ourselves is determined by the degree to which our brain is developed and organized. And that, at least as far as functional ability is concerned, is really the only difference between us! I have a great deal in common with the child who is diagnosed with cerebral palsy. I also have a great deal in common with the child diagnosed with Down syndrome. Each of those children has much in common with the other. We are all so much alike!
The beauty of the continuum is that it represents the hope contained in the miracle of the human brain – plasticity, growth, potential. And, best of all, it does this while simultaneously erasing the stigma associated with so many of the antiquated ideas of the past. Diversity is a wonderful thing but so is brotherhood and sisterhood. When it comes to the human brain and functional ability we are all brothers and sisters!
Happy Earth Day!
Earth is a magnificent place when seen up close and magical when seen from space. I don’t know anyone, grownups and children alike, who is not in awe when seeing pictures of Earth from space! You would think everyone would want to care for it, and keep it clean, pristine, and healthy so it would be capable of hosting us forever.
Modern convenience did not equal sustainability for the planet.
We now know that because of many inventions and practices of the recent past we have polluted and destroyed a lot. Many things were developed to make our lives easier. Plastic, microwaves, frozen prepared foods, chemicals to make our fruits and vegetables grow faster and bigger, automobiles, etc. We were in love with the new technology that was making our lives more “modern” and easier. We no longer had to spend an hour making dinner. We could pop dinner in a microwave and have a meal within a few minutes. Plastic was a great thing and helped make our lives easier. But did anyone consider that some of those inventions might be damaging our environment while making our lives easier? The answer is no, or at least not many, and not for a long time.
Now that we have realized how much trash we create that is not biodegradable, and how much we have polluted the air we breathe and the water we drink, we are rightfully concerned. Now we are making changes in how we live even though some of those changes are at times inconvenient. We are doing this in order to protect the Earth. We are now focusing on developing products that are better for the Earth and that will hopefully stop or reverse the damage we’ve created in the name of progress. We are focusing on creating solutions to restore the Earth back to health. That is a great thing and it really makes me happy because the future of our children and humanity depends on it!
Modern convenience is impacting our children’s brain development.
So, what if I tell you that there is something else that is just as important, just as magnificent and magical as our Earth, and that we seem to be just as unaware that we are polluting it? That magnificent, magical, and important thing is called the human brain. Yes, our children’s brains! Are do you find this statement surprising? Some of our “modern” practices and gadgets are damaging and polluting our children’s brains and, just as what happened with the Earth, we are distracted by the fact that those “modern” practices and gadgets make our lives easier! The lack of awareness and concern for this makes me very sad and very concerned because the future of our children and of humanity depends on it.
Having taught parents how to improve the function of their child’s brain and accelerate their child’s development for over 40 years, I have seen up close the potential of this beautiful organ!
As a parent, I know parents love their children more than they can express in words. Every parent wants their child to be happy, healthy, and successful. In order for parents to achieve this we need to pay attention to how we are treating our children’s brains. We created BrainFit Kids for exactly this reason – to teach parents about brain development and the best practices to help their children reach their potential. As part of that teaching we must sound the alarms when parents are following practices that are detrimental to good brain development even if those practices make parents’ lives easier.
Three negative practices impacting children’s development.
Now that I have you thinking about your child’s brain and the need to give it the same care and attention as we give to the Earth, let’s talk about some of the “modern” practices that are negatively affecting our children’s development.
1. Lack of access to tummy time: Babies do best, in every sense, when they learn to tummy crawl. It is an extremely important function for a baby to learn as it promotes good brain organization, amongst many other things. In order for a baby to learn to crawl on his tummy he must be placed on his tummy early and often. In today’s busy world, kids are often placed in car seats, swings, laying on their backs, or sitting for most of the day. In doing this we prevent them from learning how to tummy crawl which has a negative affect on the development and function of that magnificent brain. You can read more about the importance of tummy crawling in an earlier blog here.
2. Poor nutrition: The human brain needs proper nutrition in order for it to develop to its highest potential and function at an optimal level. The brain needs protein, fat, the right kind of carbohydrates, and certain vitamins and minerals. When we feed children mostly foods that are high in sugar, contain chemicals (food colorings, flavorings and/or preservatives) we are negatively affecting brain development. You can read more about the importance of good nutrition for the developing brain in an earlier blog here.
3. Technology: Last, but not least, when we give our toddlers and young children smartphones or tablets we are, in fact, “polluting” their brains. This may seem like too strong a statement to you because so many parents are allowing, if not encouraging, their children to use these devices. It quiets them down and keeps them distracted. This is a perfect example of a practice that is used because it makes parents’ lives easier. Let’s face it, kids get completely hypnotized by these devices leaving parents free to do whatever they desire for that time.
This practice is painful to me because you see it happening everywhere and with very young children! You cannot go to a restaurant, walk in a city or a store, fly on a plane or go anywhere else where children are not connected to digital devices. Sadly, most often, so are their parents! This practice is wiring our children’s brains in ways that they were not meant to be wired and the result is a lack of concentration, inability to focus, learning difficulties and poor social skills.
Children who spend a lot of time in front of a screen, any screen, do not learn to play creatively, have difficulties playing independently, and often become “addicted” to the device. The more they use it, the more they want it. If you want to increase the chances that your child will be a good learner do not “pollute” your child’s brain by putting these devices in their hands.
The American Academy for Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under 18 to 24 months. The only exception to this is occasional video chatting (FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp, etc.). They recommend no more than 1 hour per day of screen time for children between 2 and 5 years of age. They also recommend that when children do have exposure to screen time it always be viewing together with the parents.
I’ll take that a few steps farther. My recommendation is no screen time other than occasional video chatting) before 3 years of age. For children between 3 and 5 years old, I recommend you limit screen time to 30 minutes at a time and not everyday. What your children don’t know, won’t hurt them. If you do not show them games on the phone they will not know to ask for them. For some insight into how this can be done in practice check out our previous post here. You can read more about the effects of screen time on the developing brain here and here.
Get outside and enjoy our beautiful Earth!
Instead, give them plenty of time for free play. Get them outside to enjoy this wonderful planet we live on. Encourage them to get their hands dirty, to jump in puddles, to climb things, etc. Their brain will benefit so much more from these activities.
I sincerely hope that all parents take this advice to heart. In the same way we need to respect our Earth and pay attention to what we do to it, we must respect our children’s brains and pay attention to what we do to them. The young brain is the most valuable resource a child has and it is worth our time, attention and investment!