Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Can Mindfulness Help Parents and Preteens Have Better Relationships?

Can Mindfulness Help Parents and Preteens Have Better Relationships?

A new study combines training, brain scans, and reports from kids to understand the impact of mindfulness on parenting tweens.
Adolescence can be a stressful period for the parent-child relationship. Could mindfulness help? A new pilot study took an innovative approach to the problem, combining classes for both preteens and parents with brain scans of the parents and reports from their children on how mom or dad were doing.
Previous studies found that mindfulness practice can lessen stress, depression, and anxiety in parents of preschoolers and children with disabilities—and that mindful parenting is linked to more positive behavior in kids. This new study is the first to use neural imaging to see how mindfulness practice changes the brains of parents—and the results suggest that cultivating moment-to-moment awareness may help them to become calmer and more empathic with their children.
The study, led by Elliot T. Berkman of the University of Oregon, included 18 parent-and-child pairs; children ranged from age nine to 13. Each pair attended an eight-week Mindful Families Stress Reduction Course, which was an age-appropriate adaptation of the gold standard Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course designed by mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Importantly, these sessions did not involve any explicit parenting instruction. “It was purely just coming together and doing a variety of mindfulness exercises,” says Lisa May, first author of the study. “There’s a famous one where everybody gets a raisin and everybody looks at the raisin and contemplates it.”
The parents and children were also sent home with some guided meditation exercises that they could practice at home, such as an exercise that required focusing on brushing their teeth mindfully. Not all the families were very diligent about practicing outside the weekly course meetings, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “I think that that partly speaks to being a busy family and even makes the results more promising,” says May.
Before and after the course, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at the neural activity in the parents’ brains while they practiced mindful breathing and during a period when they were asked to let their minds wander. Parents and children also completed surveys before and after the course.
Overall, parents reported decreased stress and increased mindfulness after completing the course. And there was a relationship between the two—parents who increased the most on measures of mindfulness showed the largest decreases in stress. While the adolescents, overall, did not report a significant change in how positively they viewed their family relationship, there was a significant increase overall in children’s perceptions that their parents were paying attention to them (so-called parental monitoring).
When May and colleagues compared the brain activity patterns in the parents during the breathing task and the mind wandering task, they saw that the mindfulness activity led to more activation in brain regions known to be involved in attention—consistent with previous results looking at the effect of mindfulness on the brain.
“But what was surprising is when we looked at what changed in that comparison from before the intervention to after the intervention, we saw something completely different: we saw areas related to emotion processing,” says May. The regions that showed increased activity after completing the course included ones known to be involved in self-awareness (the precuneous and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex), emotional regulation (the lateral prefrontal cortex), and emotional awareness (mid-insula).
But perhaps the most intriguing finding in this study was that parents who had the most activation in a part of the brain involved in empathy and emotional regulation (the left anterior insula/inferior frontal gyrus) had children who perceived the greatest improvement in their parent-child relationship.
These results, while quite preliminary, suggest that simply completing this brief course with their kids changed the parents’ brains and possibly made them more empathetic and able to recognize and regulate their own emotions.
“The thing that really hit home for me about this is one of the big outcomes that we often see from mindfulness interventions: People report that they’re better able to be present with their own emotions,” says May. “For example, they might be better able to say, ‘Oh wow, I’m upset right now,’ and just observe that feeling instead of trying to distract themselves from it by eating cookies or watching TV.” Being able to be present with their own emotions, says May, can help parents to be present for the feelings of their children.
May stresses that it is important to take care when interpreting this small pilot study, particularly since it lacked a control group. It could be the benefits of this study came from something as simple as parents and adolescents spending quality time together each week.
“Parents often reported feeling a lot of benefit, and their children reported benefit, just from going to something alone with their parent once a week,” says May. “That in and of itself is wonderful. If we were to do a really tightly controlled design we might see that fewer of these effects were related to the mindfulness practice and more was it was just relationship building for parents and kids.”
May recommends that parents who are interested in mindfulness check out the book Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn or look into Kabat-Zinn’s guided audio meditations. While the jury is still out on whether mindfulness practice—by parents or parents and children together—has specific benefits for the parent-adolescent relationship, at the very least it is likely to lessen parental stress—which is no small thing!

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

People v School System

Plenty of food for thought in this spoken poetry urging people to reflect upon their system of schooling. It does ask for comments afterwards.


This article is a simple reminder of a timeless truth:

“What gets rewarded gets repeated.”
My generation placed an emphasis on several priorities that I believe have backfired on our children. While the goals were well intentioned, they unwittingly manipulated our kids to value lower priorities over higher ones and to value the end, not the means. In fact, for too many high school and college students, the end justifies the means in almost every life context. We unwittingly taught our children to push for results without valuing the process.
Allow me to offer an example.

photo credit: 100_1603.jpg via photopin (license)

Too many parents have decided that getting into a great college should be the number one goal of a high school student. This priority led our students to do whatever it took to please Mom and Dad. The value turned into behavior:
  1. We pushed for higher scores on standardized tests.
  2. We paid for SAT prep at a special tutoring facility
  3. We prioritized academic success over everything.
I wonder if this is a misplaced priority. Our kids observe and listen to what we value, often taking their cues from our obsession with their performance:
  1. Kids find a way to appease their parents, even if it means buying papers.
  2. They figure out how to beat the system: high grades but low retention.
  3. They play a sport even if they’d rather do something else they enjoy more.
  4. They do the extra-curricular activity but deep down are miserable.
  5. They have higher rates of plagiarism than past generations.
From what I’ve read, this seems to have been a part of the problem with the rise in both youth anxiety and school cheating. Parents demand results; kids feel angst . . . and they cheat to cope with their inabilities. It’s become epidemic in some areas. Three out of four students in America admit to cheating in order to get through college.

A Statement That Stopped Me in My Tracks

These thoughts raced through my mind recently when I saw a sign hanging in public. The quote forced me to stop and think about what’s really important in life and what sustains our civilization. It simply said:
“We need to care less about whether our children are academically gifted and more about whether they sit with the lonely kid in the cafeteria.”
I quickly sped down memory lane, trying to remember what my wife and I had said to our children as they made their way through school. We certainly encouraged them to study hard and do their very best in each class. We also encouraged them, however, to focus on behaviors and outcomes that were in their control. We taught them: “You will become what you are becoming right now.”
Displaying empathy for marginalized kids was one of those behaviors we talked about more than once. It was also something we tried to practice, both with neighbors who lived close by and taking trips to serve the homeless at Safehouse Outreach in Atlanta. My son Jonathan has always been drawn to reach out to those on the fringes who appear lonely, unpopular, or unfriended. My daughter Bethany has always stuck up for the person who appears different or quirky. Now that they’re both in their twenties, I am as proud of these predispositions as I was their good grades. Classrooms can only teach so much. These are actions that forge your character. Watching my two adult children today—I am pleased that somehow the right priorities stuck.

So, I just want to ask you: What do you emphasize in your home or school? Is it simply hard skills like math or science, or is it something they may end up needing every time they meet someone new? What message do you send them with your affirmation or criticism? Let me remind you of a timeless principle—what gets rewarded gets repeated.

Friday, September 23, 2016

2 articles from Saigoneer

Dear Parents,

Just wanted to share the following two articles that, from different perspectives, show Vietnam is recognizing the need to address some of its educational issues. The first really surprised me and that is that for the 17/18 school year home work will be banned in Primary schools. What is even more encouraging is that schools will be instructed to find time for independent learning and life skills, curriculum time that we value at ISHCMC.

Saigon Homework Ban to Take Effect Next School Year

Saigon’s tweenagers will be happy to hear that when they return to school next year, homework assignments will be a thing of the past.
According to Tuoi Tre, last Monday the Ho Chi Minh City Department of Education and Training put forth a decree detailing various changes that will take effect for the 2017-2018 school year, including a complete ban on homework for primary school students.
According to the plan, the primary school curriculum will feature two sessions a day. In the morning, students will have lessons on core subjects such as mathematics and Vietnamese. In the afternoon, they will spend time finishing up leftover tasks from the first session. Independent learning will also be encouraged during this session, along with life skill exercises.
The document also explicitly states that teachers are forbidden from giving students homework.
The plan arrived right in the middle of a controversy over a previous policy outlawing schools and teachers from conducting extra classes and receiving pay for tutoring outside of school hours, in the hope of relieving academic pressure on young students.

This short trailer, 3 minute, identifies some of  the economic reasons why girls in rural areas reamin the poorest members of society. Watching it made me think about how I can help to give these girls the opportunity for a better life. Their struggle is consistent with rural girls in all developing countries around the world.

How Poverty is Stopping Vietnamese Girls From Obtaining an Education

Have a good weekend,


Thursday, September 22, 2016

Great site for teaching your children about coding through applying it to other activities like art.

Programming: A 21st Century Creative Medium

In many discussions, art is contrasted with technology and science. We say that kids are “artsy” or “techy,” that people are “left-brain thinkers” (logical or analytical) or “right-brain thinkers” (creative and artistic). Many worry that schools, from elementary schools to universities, are sacrificing their arts programs in favor of a greater emphasis on STEM—whereas others feel this shift is not happening quickly enough in order to meet the demands of a changing economy.
In 1968, Donald Knuth published the first volume of what would become one of the defining texts of Computer Science. He called this book The Art of Computer Programming. Knuth says the title was deliberate. He argues that programming is an art as well as a science because it requires both left-brain thinking to work out the logic of the program, as well as right-brain thinking to devise creative solutions and produce elegant designs.

Programming is an Artistic Tool

Regardless of whether you think programming is an art in and of itself, it’s clear that programming is being used to add to art with motion and interactivity, especially by kids. As they learn valuable STEM skills, they can make incredible storytelling projects, beautiful animations, programmatic drawing, and captivating games. Many young artists see programming in the same way they see painting, drawing, or sculpting: a tool they can use to bring to life what’s in their imagination.
Programmatic drawing is just one way that kids can bring their ideas to life with code.
Emily, the mother of 4th grader and avid Tynkerer Julian, says she loves seeing what her son has been able to create with programming: “It’s the language of creativity. [My children] actually don’t have a lot of screen time, and the only time we allow them to have screen time is if they’re doing something creative. They’re very driven to not just watch things, but do something creative.” Julian used Tynker to program an incredibly detailed game called “The Flying Penguin Game,” for which he created all his own visuals by taking photographs and editing them using Tynker’s image editing software. The game starts with a compelling backstory of why the penguin is lost and how he needs your help to get back home.
The flying penguin gameplay
Kids can use their own drawings and photos to make games.
Julie is the mother of Kira, who is in 7th grade and loves animals, coding, and art. Julie says she’s known Kira was a talented artist since she was three, but learning to code has given her even more ways to express herself artistically. For Julie, it’s clear that Kira being left-brain and right-brain is not a contradiction; they’re just two sides of the same coin, and they allow her to create beautiful animations and stories: “It’s her thing. She’s artsy, she’s techy, she’s just talented.”
Kira - dragon SMALL
Kira - Bird SMALL
Coding allows kids to combine just a couple of drawings to tell animated stories.
Phil is also the parent of an artist, his 12-year-old daughter Abby. Abby, who wants to work on special effects for movies when she grows up, has made some amazing interactive projects that combine incredibly intricate artwork with programming logic, like her “Anime Face Maker” project. For Abby, coding is a natural extension of her artwork. Phil says the most exciting part of Abby learning to code is seeing her “bring her art to life in new ways through coding.”
Anime Face Maker
Kids can make their drawings interactive, so the user can customize the art.
Even if you don’t see programming as an art, today’s kids are undoubtedly using it to create unbelievable artistic projects, making it a perfect way to get STEM-inclined kids interested in art as well as to get art-inclined kids engaged in STEM. If your child loves science, they’ll love how programming allows them to use their technical skills in creative ways, and if your child is an artist, they’ll love the open-endedness of coding.
All of these games and projects were created by kids using the free Tynker app for iPads and Android tablets. Tynker’s fun, game-based programming courses teach kids how to code in an engaging way that allows them to express themselves creatively as they build apps, design games, and create animations. Our programming curriculum allows kids to learn to code at home or at school.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

How to Protect Kids from Nature-Deficit Disorder

Today’s kids spend less and less time outdoors, and it’s taking a toll on their health and well-being. Research has shown that children do better physically and emotionally when they are in green spaces, benefiting from the positive feelings, stress reduction, and attention restoration nature engenders.
No one has brought attention to this issue more than Richard Louv, co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of Last Child in the WoodsThe Nature Principle, and, most recently, Vitamin N: 500 Ways to Enrich the Health & Happiness of Your Family & Community. Louv has written eloquently about the importance of nature for children and what they miss by spending too much time indoors. His books have inspired many parents and educators to more thoughtfully incorporate outdoor experiences into children’s daily lives.
Louv also warns about the consequences for the environment if we don’t raise children who truly have a personal relationship with nature. In our interview, he explains just how dire the problem is and how parents, educators, and urban planners can help kids reconnect with nature wherever they are.
Jill Suttie: You’ve written that today’s kids have “nature-deficit disorder.” What does that mean, and why is it important?

JS: Are there particular kinds of experiences in nature that seem to have the most impact on kids?
More on Nature & Kids
Richard Louv’s new book is <a href=“”><em>Vitamin N: 500 Ways to Enrich the Health & Happiness of Your Family & Community</em></a> (Algonquin Books, 2016, 304 pages)Richard Louv's new book isVitamin N: 500 Ways to Enrich the Health & Happiness of Your Family & Community (Algonquin Books, 2016, 304 pages) 
RL: Programs that infuse education with direct experience, especially in nature, have the greatest impact. For many, the natural environment has been intellectualized or removed. Young people certainly need to know about threats to the environment, but they also need direct experience in nature just for the joy of it. Unless we achieve that balance, many children will associate nature with fear and destruction for the rest of their lives.
Richard Louv: “Nature-deficit disorder” is not a medical diagnosis, but a useful term—a metaphor—to describe what many of us believe are the human costs of alienation from nature: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses, a rising rate of myopia, child and adult obesity, Vitamin D deficiency, and other maladies.
Because researchers have turned to this topic relatively recently, most of the evidence is correlative, not causal. But it tends to point in one direction: Experiences in the natural world appear to offer great benefits to psychological and physical health and the ability to learn, for children and adults. The research strongly suggests that time in nature can help many children learn to build confidence in themselves, calm themselves, and focus.
Studies also indicate that direct exposure to nature can relieve the symptoms of attention-deficit disorders. By comparison, activities indoors—such as watching TV—or activities outdoors in paved, non-green areas leave these children functioning worse. 
Today, children and adults who work and learn in a dominantly digital environment expend enormous energy blocking out many of the human senses in order to focus narrowly on the screen in front of the eyes. That’s the very definition of being less alive, and what parent wants his or her child to be less alive?
JS: How will this trend impact pro-environmental attitudes and behaviors in kids?
RL: If nature experiences continue to fade from the current generation of young people, and the next, and the ones to follow, where will future stewards of the earth come from?
Past research has shown that adults who identify themselves as environmentalists or conservationists almost always had some transcendent experiences in the natural world. What happens if thatpersonal experience virtually disappears?
There will always be conservationists and environmentalists, but if we don’t turn this trend around, they’ll increasingly carry nature in their briefcases, not in their hearts. And that’s a very different relationship.
RL: The quality of the nature experience depends on how direct the experience with nature is. Are kids getting their hands wet and their feet muddy? These types of activities can help kids learn to have confidence in themselves and power to make independent decisions. 
One reason for this is the risk-taking inherent in outdoor play, which plays an important role in child development. Without independent play, the critical cognitive skill called executive function is at risk. Executive function is a complex process, but at its core is the ability to exert self-control, to control and direct emotion and behavior. Children develop executive function in large part through make-believe play. The function is aptly named: When you make up your own world, you’re the executive. A child’s executive function, as it turns out, is a better predictor of success in school than IQ.

 If children are given the opportunity to experience nature, even in simple ways, interaction and engagement follow quite naturally. But parents can sometimes push too hard. Nature time should never be seen by kids as a punishment for, say, spending too much time in the electronic world.JS: What can parents do to help increase caring for nature in their kids?
Perhaps the best way to do this is by example. When parents rediscover their sense of wonder, so do most kids. Many parents tell me that the same kids who complained on the way to the camping trip often, when they’re young adults, recall that camping trip as one of their fondest memories—which (as you might guess) causes mixed emotions in the parents! One thing to keep in mind: People seldom look back on their childhoods and recall the best day they ever spent watching TV.
JS: How can parents help kids care about nature when they live in urban environments without ready access to wild spaces?
RL: Any green space will provide some benefit to mental and physical well-being. In urban areas, more natural landscapes can be found in a park, a quiet corner with a tree, several pots with vegetables growing outside, or even a peaceful place with a view of the sky and clouds.
Connection to nature should be an everyday occurrence, and if we design our cities—including our homes, apartments, workplaces, and schools—to work in harmony with nature and biodiversity, this could become a commonplace pattern.
Individually, we can help bring back the food chain and improve biodiversity by transitioning our yards or other properties to native species. Schools, workplaces, and city policymakers can do the same thing. We do know that the greater the biodiversity in an urban park, the greater the psychological benefits to people. Why not think of cities as incubators of biodiversity and engines of human health?
JS: What can parents do if their kids are afraid of nature or if they themselves are disconnected from nature?
RL: Many children and young adults simply don’t know what they’re missing. It’s never too early or too late to teach children or adults to appreciate and connect with the outdoors. 
Rachel Carson often said that a child’s positive connection to nature depends on two things: special places and special people. As parents and educators, we can spend more time with children in nature. We can go there with them. Taking time to do that can be quite a challenge. Getting kids outside needs to be a conscious act on the part of parents or caregivers. We need to schedule nature time. This proactive approach is simply part of today’s reality.
My new book, Vitamin N, includes 500 actions that people can take to enrich the health and happiness of their families and communities—and to help create a future that we’ll all want to go to.
JS: What can schools do better to help kids develop an affinity for nature? 
RL: While many school districts in the U.S. are going in the opposite direction—toward less physical movement and more testing, more hours at desks or in the classroom—a counter trend is growing, toward school gardens, natural play areas, getting kids out of the classroom. We’re beginning to see the true greening of American education. In education, for every dollar we spend on the virtual, we should spend at least another dollar on the real, especially on creating more learning environments in natural settings.
Ultimately, we need to accomplish deep cultural change. We need to incorporate nature education and knowledge of its positive benefits into the training that every teacher receives. We need to credit the many teachers who have insisted on exposing their students directly to nature, despite trends in the opposite direction. Teachers and schools can’t go it alone—parents, policymakers, and whole communities must pitch in.
Recently, I visited a nature-based elementary school in a lower-income region of a county in Georgia. The school is showing more academic improvement than any other school in that county. The kids are generally healthier, as well.
We need, and I believe we see already growing, a cultural movement– what I call a New Nature Movement—that includes but goes beyond great programs that directly connect kids to nature: a movement that includes but goes beyond traditional environmentalism and sustainability, a movement that can touch every part of society. The object is to give children the gifts of nature they deserve, and for all of us to find kinship with the lives around us, and wholeness in the lives we live.
JS: What kinds of environmental education programs make the most difference in increasing a child’s connection to nature and their willingness to protect it?
Too many students learn about climate change in windowless schools. While including environmental education in the curriculum, many school districts in the U.S. have banished live animals from classrooms, dropped outdoor playtime and field trips, and overloaded classrooms with computers.
Connecting our children directly to nature is a way to both deal with the impact of loss of nature and to plant the seeds, sometimes literally, of a nature-rich future.
JS: What are some more positive trends that you’ve observed?
RL: We’re seeing new appreciation for these issues among parents, educators, pediatricians, mayors, and others.
The National League of Cities (which represents 19,000 municipalities and 218 million Americans) and the Children & Nature Network announced a three-year partnership, the Cities Promoting Access to Nature initiative, to explore how municipalities can connect people with the natural world where they live, work, learn, and play. 
We also see the emergence of biophilic design of our homes and workplaces, reconciliation ecology and human-nature social capital, restorative homes and businesses, eco-psychology and other forms of nature therapy. We see more citizen naturalists, nature-based schools, the Slow Food and simplicity movements, organic gardening, urban agriculture, vanguard ranching, and other forms of the new agrarianism.
As these currents join, they’ll lead us to a different view of the future—a nature-rich future. The barriers are still there, but I do believe there’s more hope in the air, if you look for it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


Taken FROM the Blog CALLED Growing Leaders
I remember becoming acutely aware of students’ multi-tasking abilities in 2005. I watched my daughter, who was a senior in high school, do her homework while also enjoying four other inputs—music from her iPod, a television show, her laptop and her phone, which enabled her to continue an ongoing conversation with a friend about a boy.
Today, most of us can’t imagine doing life without multi-tasking. Our calendars are so full and our expectations so high, we feel we must accomplish two or more tasks at any given time. In 2007, students from Kansas State University surveyed themselves and discovered they cram 26.5 hours of activity into every day—multi-tasking. I think that number is conservative.
Today, I wonder, what has multi-tasking done to us?
As busy people, most of us would agree that multi-tasking is helpful. We pick up our child at school while talking with a friend on our mobile device, all the while running errands that enable us to cook dinner that evening. Unfortunately, at the same time, it seems that few people really pay attention to one thing well. We lack clarity. Multi-tasking seems to make us:
  • shallow, not deep
  • fuzzy, not focused
  • distracted, not aligned
  • live with duplicity, not integrity

What’s Wrong with Multi-Tasking?

Screen Shot 2016-04-12 at 10.31.05 AM
Thanks to social media, our students have grown up multi-tasking, but has all of the multi-tasking been poor for their health? After some digging I’ve concluded that multi-tasking is damaging. Apart from the obvious dangers like “texting while driving,” multi-tasking plays a significant role in the anxiety and depression levels our students experience. A squirt of dopamine is released when we accomplish one of the items on our multi-tasking list. It makes us feel good. We tend to pursue more short-term tasks that give us this dopamine shot, and soon we’re caught up in quantity over quality. We actually work harder, not smarter. And we don’t really focus. We assume we’re doing more and better, but in reality we trade in value for speed and volume.
MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller reveals that our brains are “not wired to multitask well . . . when people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.”
A study at the University of London demonstrated that people who multi-task while performing cognitive tasks experience measurable IQ drops. Believe it or not, the IQ drops were akin to what you see in those who skip a night of sleep or who use marijuana. Wow.
Most of all, doctors tell us that multi-tasking causes an increase in the production of cortisol, the stress hormone. When our brain consistently shifts gears, it creates stress and tires us out, leaving us feeling mentally fatigued. In addition, the barrage of information is overwhelming. Figuring out what you need to pay attention to and what you don’t can be down right exhausting.

A Game Plan: Mono-Tasking

I have a challenge for you. Why not talk this over with your students or kids and encourage them to look at the data. Then—invite them to trade in “multi-tasking” for “mono-tasking.” You read that correctly. Mono-tasking has become a lost art. It means concentrating on one important task, instead of four or five. It’s giving your best effort to one item—not your mediocre effort to several. Most importantly, it enables a student to integrate their life. Integration is taken from the same root word as: “integrity.” It means being one person. Clear. Focused. On-mission. It’s choosing to shun duplicity and hypocrisy in favor of authenticity. It’s really all about mindfulness.
Integration is the smoothest path to overcome stress, and mindfulness is the best path to take toward integration. Mindfulness has become a buzzword in many circles today. In layman’s terms, mindfulness is clearing one’s mind of the clutter of multi-tasking and focusing on the here and now. It can go as far as deep breathing and meditation, but it can begin by simply pushing “pause” on the noise and activity of a stressful day. Neuroscientist Moshe Bar, at Harvard Medical School, tells us our brains switch back and forth from activity to recovery mode. Our brains need periods of recovery, but rarely get them. Mindfulness is about consistently choosing to stop our relentless “juggling acts” (multi-tasking) for a specified amount of time—in order for our brains to recover. The benefits are tangible. “The American Psychological Association cites it as a hopeful strategy for alleviating depression, anxiety and pain.” It’s a step to combat the:
  • over-stimulated,
  • over-taxed,
  • over-connected,
  • over-committed,
  • overwhelmed
lifestyles our young have accumulated. “The American Psychological Association tells us that 34 percent of Americans say their stress has shot up in the last year.” I believe it’s even more so among our youth.

Making a Trade

So, today, I’m suggesting one simple step. To trade in multi-tasking for mono-tasking. To trade in scattered minds for mindfulness. Then, to encourage our students to do the same thing. Rebel against the inclination of our culture for noise and clutter. Rebel against the compulsion to be aware of everything all at once and be mindful. Reject FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and let’s do MONO . . . as in mono-tasking.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Kindy in Tasmania is a great success, attracting, according to the Department, 98 per cent of children without any need to compel. Picture: TIMOTHY CLAPIN
Kindy in Tasmania is a great success, attracting, according to the Department, 98 per cent of children without any need to compel. Picture: TIMOTHY CLAPIN

Talking Point: Too much too young is dangerous

IN the mid-1970s I was the guidance officer for a dozen Tasmanian schools, including one I especially liked, Trevallyn Primary.
The principal, Elizabeth Daly, sought my help there for a problem that still challenges our schools. Significant numbers of children in Prep class were not ready to progress to Grade One, and the research suggested this was not so much an ability problem as a developmental one. They were too young, or simply slower at gaining the readiness to move on. Some of the best minds in the world are slower growing, and this is especially true of boys.
We devised a simple screening test, which told us who was ready to graduate from early learning to formal school. Those not ready could, if their parents agreed, spend another year in Prep. Pushing them ahead too early, or too young, and the evidence was clear, they could flounder and struggle all through school.
Zoom forward to the 1990s. I was researching my book Raising Boys, and running teacher development programs in schools all across the world. What I was learning was that a gender difference, always known about by teachers, was being confirmed by brain scanning.
Boys’ readiness for school, the acquisition of fine motor skills needed for holding a pencil or pen and the language skills needed to perform well in school, generally developed six to 12 months later than in girls. In fact, girls develop in a different sequence to boys. They acquire fine motor skills first, whereas boys develop them only when competent using their large muscle groups, their arms and legs.
Boys under six need to move about a lot. Sitting at a desk for very long causes them acute discomfort, and slows the development of proper co-ordination. And it makes them very unhappy about school.
Kathy Silva, at Cambridge University, found that attitudes to school formed in the first six months often persist for life. You’ll recognise here a very Tasmanian problem, negative attitudes to school, affecting retention to Grade 12; poor performance and high behaviour issues among boys.
Zoom now to 2016 and witness the confusion that the Tasmanian Government has got into by trying to find a quick solution to a problem that needs careful thought.
Australia as a whole is out of step with the world, and our State Government is seeking to make that worse.
Child development experts around Australia were shocked at news of our plan to lower the school starting age. The question immediately asked was: “What are they basing it on?” The answer, it appears, was very little.
The press releases simply repeated uncontroversial words about early learning being important, and play-based learning being good. The Minister made the inaccurate claim this is all that happens in Prep. If only.
The weight of all research in this field over 30 years — and there has been a great deal — is that older starting is better. Strengthening and extending the kindergarten stage for under sixes is the best way to help overcome disadvantage.
There is a real problem in Tasmania caused by socio-economic inequality as well as a multigenerational failure to thrive. In fact, you could say there are three different kinds of Tasmanian childhood.
About half of all children are raised — and in fact have their early learning — from an at-home parent who is secure enough and part of their community — with playgroups, toys, activities, lively and involved, needing very little else before entering kindergarten at the age of four.
A second group for either financial or career reasons uses childcare, happily or reluctantly. These children do best if they do not start too young, or spend too long a day or too many days a week, and if the childcare is of sufficiently high quality.
The third group of children are those with uneducated, illiterate, highly stressed, drug-addicted or violent or unstable families. They may be unable to provide the safe environs, the play opportunities, the affection and engagement that a child needs. Childcare may be too expensive for them, but if they use it, it helps. Kindergarten is a joy for these children, but it may come too late. Otherwise, these children are lucky if they watch a TV uninterrupted, or can play happily in a backyard. These kids don’t get the kind of start that makes for success at school. I think this group is the one that the Government is confused about.
A few weeks ago I was phoned by the Minister’s office, seeking to explore my concerns about the proposed changes. We had some cordial discussion, during which I asked how many children started school each year in Tasmania. After some searching, they ascertained the figure was about 6000.
How many, I asked, were disadvantaged? Their answer floored me, yet it was the same answer Minister Rockliff gave to Burnie alderman Teeny Brumby last week — about 50 per cent. Their definition of disadvantaged, I can only guess, was any child who did not attend daycare.
Perhaps this explains the hugely blunt instrument the Government proposed — forcing all children to start school even younger, when for most there was simply no demonstrated need.
In fact, according to welfare groups around the state, the figure of disadvantaged kids sits between 5 and 8 per cent, depending on criteria. We have our social problems in Tasmania, but we are not quite in Dickensian squalor just yet.
Nobody doubts the need for good early learning, but for the under-sixes that’s why we have kindergarten. And kindy in Tasmania is a great success, attracting, according to the Department, 98 per cent of children without any need to compel. It’s also the optimal length that research suggests, three short days a week are enough to get the very best learning. More than that works in reverse by stressing small children and tiring them.
The elephant in the room of this discussion is that 88 per cent of the world starts school at six or seven years of age. Those countries base this on the neuroscience — this is the age when children’s brains undergo a significant change and become mature enough to benefit from formal learning.
The only countries still starting formal learning at age five or lower are those which were former British colonies and the UK itself. The UK has terrible educational outcomes compared with almost all of its neighbours. Australia as a whole is out of step with the world, and our State Government is seeking to make that worse.
Tasmanian educational outcomes are compromised by the “schoolification” of Prep, which has been contaminated by the pressure to achieve literacy goals and other “benchmarks” inappropriate to this age.
A worldwide movement of educational psychologists, of which I am a part, campaigns against this “too much too soon” trend. Penelope Leach in England, Lillian Katz in the US, and Kay Margetts in Melbourne are world experts in child development who are fiercely arguing the harm of formal schooling for littlies.
And here is where the rubber hits the road. When the new changes come into force, 3000 extra children will join the 6000 who normally begin in that year. The effects of being younger than one’s classmates are well researched, and not something any parent would want.
Frederickson and Ockert (2005) found children who were younger when they started school performed worse in all subjects at Year 9 and were less likely to go on to finish secondary school. Isn’t that what this issue is about?
The solution, though it needs more discussion, may look something like this. We need to do more of what we are doing already — reaching out to very high-need families with support from pregnancy onward. We need to allow, but not force, children into enriched early learning by supporting or subsidising quality childcare. We need to extend kinder by bringing Prep back into the play-based format it was designed to be, and strongly prevent the creep of formal schooling pressures younger than age six.
We need to let children stay in early learning settings until they are individually ready to move up and where they can get individual support and caring help to make that most likely to happen.
Steve Biddulph, AM, is the author of Raising Boys, Raising Girls, and The New Manhood. His books are in 32 languages and four million homes. He has consulted to Tasmanian schools for 40 years.