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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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.
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!