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As early as first grade, a child’s social skills are a compelling predictor of his future success both in and out of school. Like any developing skill, burgeoning social skills require support, practice and repetition. The desired behaviors are learned and taught through a variety of accumulating experiences stemming from the earliest years of childhood, between birth and age 6, when children grow and develop faster than during any other stage in their lives.
Children rely heavily on adults and other caregivers to help them acquire social skills and establish pathways for meaningful learning. To that end, researchers have found that when children are provided with positive and caring experiences in these early years, the connections in the brain for feeling good and learning are strengthened, self-esteem and confidence rise, and children are more equipped to cope with life’s challenges.
So whether you’re a parent or an educator, the following strategies will help promote social development in young children, while helping them learn to use their own minds:
Model Appropriate Social Behavior
Take advantage of everyday routines to “show and tell” children what your expectations are for appropriate behavior—for example, how to greet someone new or how to share a toy during play. By talking about what you’re doing as you’re doing it the child will better understand how to manage the situation and replicate it, even when you’re not there.
Positive self-esteem is critical to healthy social development. Make it a point to compliment children on their behavior, how they look, and progress they have made toward goals. When you acknowledge these attributes, children learn how to perceive and act upon their feelings in a healthy way.
Build Problem Solving Skills
Problem solving is a skill that employs reasoning, creativity, inhibitory control and decision making. Because children do not have fully mature executive functions, they are prone to making mistakes as their abilities emerge and the frontal lobe develops. Exploring solutions to problems by asking children “What would you do?” or offering alternative strategies will help them develop effective reasoning skills and mental flexibility.
Infants and young children explore their environment through movement and interaction. As a child develops confidence and control over her body in motion, she becomes more and more eager to venture into the world around her. Aid her natural curiosity by organizing activities that promote safe exploration, both at home and while out. Examples include asking children for help while preparing a meal or tasking them with finding an item at the grocery store. When you gradually extend opportunities to be involved with more complex activities, children will rise to the occasion.
Time spent playing with children can be one of the best investments you make in their educational future. One of the easiest ways to help children develop socially is by the simple act of playing. Joining in play builds relationships in a climate of fun and puts you in a great position to teach skills for sharing and cooperation, introducing concepts like winning or losing, and it also gives children a chance to learn about more subtle social cues, like body language and vocal intonations. So don’t be afraid to turn up the music for a little song and dance, put on a puppet show, or pull out some favorite board games and have fun!
Bierman, K.L., et al., Promoting academic and social-emotional school readiness: The Head Start REDI Program. Child Development, 79(6), 1802-1817, 2008.
Katz, Lilian and Diane McClellan. Young Children’s Social Development: A Checklist. World of Education. March 26, 2012.
Knitzer, Jane and C. Cybele Raver. What Research Tells Policymakers About Strategies to Promote Social and Emotional School Readiness Among Three- and Four-Year-Old Children. National Center for Children in Poverty. July, 2002.
Peters, Zrinka. Support Social and Emotional Development – Through Play! Education.com. March 26, 2012.
Supporting Social Development. Best Beginnings: Alaska's Early Childhood Investment. March 29, 2012.
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Good grades and high achievement test scores are very real portals to success in life. Given the weight society grants such measures in evaluating individuals for everything from college to graduate school to entrance into the professional world, we cannot ignore the essential role of these traditional measures of success.
But that’s tradition; does the science support the idea that intellect and academic mastery ensure later success? What are the true determinants of triumph in school and life? Traditionally, intelligence and effort have been the two traits identified as the golden keys to future achievement. Still, there is a third variable that has long gone under-analyzed; in their 2011 paper, Von Strumm, Hell and Chamorro-Premuzic posit that yet another “pillar” of the mind must be taken into consideration: curiosity.
Back in 1963, Fiske and Butler stated that ability test scores measure what a person can do at a given time, whereas personality scales “provide a measure of what a person is most likely to do” in the future. (Fiske and Butler, pp. 258-259) This difference is fascinating, and one which we all too often fail to differentiate when working with and evaluating our students.
In their research, Von Strumm, Hell and Chamorror-Premuzic reviewed and analyzed multiple studies that investigated the relationships between academic performance and intelligence, as well as those between academic performance and personality traits such as curiosity. They found, among other results, that the combined effects of curiosity and effort equaled the impact of intellect on academic performance. In other words, their analysis played out scientifically what Dewey suggested back in 1910: “The curious mind [is] constantly alert and exploring [and] seeking material for thought, as a vigorous and healthy body is on the qui vive for nutriment. . . . Such curiosity is the only sure guarantee of acquisition of primary facts…” (Dewey, 1910, p. 31)
For educators, the implications of such conclusions represent a refreshing perspective on both how we perceive our students’ abilities and how we imagine and implement strategies to nurture their success. All too often, we fall into the trap of seeing our students and evaluating their performance in terms of their intellectual abilities.
But what if we could see them just as well for their possibilities? What if we could focus our gaze ahead and perceive their potential in those areas of knowledge that they were most hungry to pursue?
Because of brain plasticity research, we know that through finding strong existing neural pathways and thought patterns, we can connect them to the creation of new thought patterns; we can use existing strengths to cultivate new ones. For example, a child might not have excellent math skills, but a deep curiosity for space and the solar system. If we can use that passion for outer space to introduce mathematical concepts, the child is more likely to successfully learn those essential skills.
With this knowledge on our side, if we can tap into and cultivate our students’ curiosity, we can help them turn their immediate educational obstacles into opportunities, as well as help them to establish habits of mind that will serve them long into their futures after that last exam has come to a close.
For further reading: Von Stumm, Sophie. Hell, Benedikt. Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas. The Hungry Mind: Intellectual Curiosity Is the Third Pillar of Academic Performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science 6(6) 574–588.
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Earlier this week, Dr. Martha S. Burns took webinar participants on a tour of the brain and its development from birth to four years of age. Since then, I’ve found myself considering and re-considering much of what I learned from her presentation, including the following memorable facts:
These facts barely scrape the surface of Dr. Burns’ visually rich and informative presentation, which begins with an overview of brain anatomy, brain function, and developmental timelines and ends with a caution against some popular “educational” products for young children.
To learn more about early childhood brain development, including how to build attention, number sense, problem solving and social skills in young children, view the recorded webinar.
Attend one of our popular webinars with thought leaders in learning. Live and pre-recorded webinars are available. Register today!
What is the mark of a good student? Is it innate intelligence? Is it attention span? Is it drive? Studies show that a major contributor to success might be as simple as having self-control. Take, for example, the marshmallow experiment.
Place a single marshmallow in front of a four-year old. Tell them they can eat it now or wait 15 minutes and have it along with a second marshmallow.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Walter Mischel of Stanford University performed this very experiment with over 500 nursery school children. What percentage do you think was able to control their impulses and hold out for marshmallow number two? In the end, fewer than one in three children were able to wait it out for the two marshmallows. At four years old, they simply had not developed the ability to delay gratification required for the challenge.
Paired with recent follow-up studies with 155 of the same individuals, the marshmallow experiment has come to shed fascinating insights on the inner workings of motivation and gratification, and how the two contribute to future success in school and life.
In the end, these studies have shown that children who were able to resist that first marshmallow were also more likely to be able to “avoid substance abuse, maintain a healthy body weight, and even perform better on the SAT than peers who couldn’t resist temptation.” In another study by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, self-control was a better predictor of academic success than IQ.
Self-control: Innate or teachable?
Given the proven connection between self-control and life success, the question arises: Is it possible to develop tools that help people enhance self-control?
As it turns out, self-control is the result of processes in two parts of the brain. Our rational thoughts, such as “If I wait, I get the second sweet,” take place in the pre-frontal cortex. More urgent decisions take place in the more primitive ventral striatum. Decisions like these that connect to deeper desire and reward depend on the environment around us. In this second case, the thought process might be, “Gee, that marshmallow sure looks soft, sweet and yummy, and I really want it. Right now.” Research has shown that the rational thoughts can often be derailed by the primitive limbic system; this is no surprise, given the importance of these systems to the survival of our species over the eons.
So, can we strengthen the ability of the rational side to win out over the impulsive side? One solution might just lie in helping young people change how they focus on the environment around them, such as helping them differentiate between “hot” and “cool” cues. The limbic system deals with “hot” cues, activating emotions like impulse, anger, sadness, happiness and satisfaction. On the other hand, “cool” cues are processed in the frontal lobe and activate cognitive systems that control functions like planning, problem solving, working memory and reasoning. Returning to a variant of our marshmallow experiment, studies have shown that students who were coached to focus on “cool” attributes like color or shape were better able to resist temptation than those who focused on “hot” cues like taste.
Toward impulse-control interventions
Research is now underway to figure out how educators can better harness some of these insights into the power of impulse- and self-control to help students better achieve success. At the KIPP Academy School in New York, the marshmallow experiment has been used as a way to initiate discussions about self-control with 6th graders and help them make better, more rational decisions.
Ultimately, the ability to produce concrete strategies and tools that help students learn to control their impulses will depend upon the results of investigations that are still in the works. But eventually, if we are taking the research to heart, success will likely follow.
For now, if your students seem a bit impulsive from time to time, a chat about marshmallows might be just the thing to get them thinking.
As parents, we want our children to have confidence but not conceit. That is, we want our children to monitor the outcomes of their behaviors realistically, to be polite and considerate of others, but retain a sense of self that is positive and assured. I believe the mistake parents often make is thinking that constant praise of a child is the route to self-confidence. It is an easy mistake to make, especially in a society in which so much emphasis is placed on making our children feel loved and building feelings of self-worth.
I, like most new parents, constantly praised my oldest child for everything she did from swinging at the park without falling to reading a stop sign as we drove to preschool. But the problem with that is that excessive praise may create unrealistic expectations for the child when they are in the “real world” where people do not praise them all the time. I did not realize that for my daughter this was creating tremendous pressure to be successful at everything she did. Conversely, some children who hear constant praise at home may feel confused or dejected when others are not as enthusiastic about their feats and develop a fear of failure.
A young client of mine, whose mother worked very hard to build self-confidence in her children by praising them continuously, developed a host of voice problems associated with stress in elementary school. I have worked with other children who developed a “need” for constant praise that affected their ability to enjoy competition if they could not win.
Since a large component of human brain maturation involves increased self-awareness and improved capacity for self-monitoring of behavior, parents have the opportunity to be instrumental in helping a child develop this advanced skill. By encouraging self-appraisal that is realistic while avoiding being overly judgmental, parents help their child build confidence.
Instead of constant praise, parents can try to use praise more naturally to encourage behaviors the parent believes are worthwhile or beneficial. Statements like, “I like the way you shared your toys today” or “You seemed to be having a lot of fun on the climber, do you feel like you are getting better at that?” may help a child learn to value effort and progress as well as to self-evaluate.
It is important to remind ourselves that to adequately develop the ability to monitor our behavior we have to understand mistakes as well as achievements. It is very difficult for a parent to watch a child fail at something, but as adults most of us are well aware that some of the best lessons we had as we grew up came from our failures, as rough as they may have been at the time.
Building your child’s self-esteem ultimately will help them succeed in endeavors both in school and in life. One of the most important jobs for parents is to help your child successfully through life’s challenges and successes, help them feel good about themselves along the way, and learn to accept mistakes as an opportunity to do better next time.
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been two years since Dr. Bill Jenkins, Dr. Martha Burns, Sherrelle Walker, and a host of staff bloggers launched the Science of Learning blog. In those two years we’ve learned a lot and had a ton of fun while creating posts we hoped you would find valuable.
In honor of the occasion, we’d like to share some of our readers’ favorite blog posts to date. Here are just a few of the posts that readers have told us they’ve liked best:
Kathy recommends: How Learning to Read Improves Brain Function
“As an adult literacy tutor, I was fascinated to read Stanislaus Dehaene's research showing that students who don't learn to read may experience severe difficulties with other forms of instruction as a result. This underscores the critical importance of funding such programs as Second Start Adult Literacy in Oakland, a city with a high level of adult illiteracy. And, fact-based research like this gives us a more powerful defense than emotion-based anecdotes, as we fight to protect city and state literacy funding. Thank you, Scientific Learning!”
Jennifer recommends two posts:
“In a learning environment that tends increasingly towards 'teaching to the test,' our nation’s students are losing the skills crucial to a lifetime of knowledge acquisition. Without good questions we cannot find good answers, good solutions, or grow good thinkers. This article outlines a tested method for teaching children how to go about formulating a complex and well thought out question.”
“School gardens are an invaluable interdisciplinary learning tool that gets students out of the classroom and allows them to use classroom knowledge in a real world scenario. A school garden acts as a place to learn, test out theories, and acquire life skills, as well as providing a space of beauty and an object of school pride. In my time as a garden educator, I found the bounty of opportunity to teach in the garden near limitless, and believe that all children should have the opportunity to see what they can discover in the garden.”
Teresa recommends two posts:
“All of the blogs have good information for parents, educators and caregivers, but the one I like the most is the one about love and limits. I think this post is applicable to all children. The math readiness post is a close second, as I did not know about the "cardinal principle." If more parents knew about the information in the love and limits article, we would have happier and more well-adjusted children.”
“I've got my backpack ready to take a 3-D field trip in learning! This mode of education sounds incredibly exciting for students. The sky will be the limit for learners who become engaged in this technology. Thank you Scientific Learning from a retired Maine Elementary School Counselor!”
Thanks so much for your readership and feedback. We are already hard at work on more high quality posts for the new year, and are looking forward to sharing them with you.
Think back to your grade school days. Did you ever experience a class where a bully ruled the roost? Were you ever bullied yourself? Did you ever have a teacher who frightened you or who made you feel bad for underperforming? Or was there simply a disruptive class clown who constantly broke the classroom rhythm the teacher was trying so hard to create?
To varying degrees, all of the above situations can create what we might consider an unsafe learning environment. The teacher must take unquestionable ownership of the classroom, but do so in a positive, caring, constructive manner. The class succeeds or fails on his or her decisions and management of the entire learning experience.
Why is managing that classroom and creating that safe environment where learning can happen so essential? In her article on the value of safe learning environments, Lora Desautels, Ph.D., reminds us that during adolescence, the part of the brain that controls emotional responses—the amygdala—develops faster than other centers of the brain while the prefrontal cortex, a center for logical thought and rational response, develops later. Thus, our students are more effectively wired for emotion than logic. Their systems are primed to react to situations with feelings and they have not yet fully developed the ability to apply logical thinking to keep those feelings in check.
It follows that the stimuli within and surrounding the learning environment can have great effects on these emotional responses and can serve to either support or impair the learning process. The bully, the clown, and the teacher can all have a profound effect on how well a student learns.
So what can we as educators do to bring down the levels of stress in our classrooms and make sure that our learning environments are safe places where optimal learning can take place? How can we create spaces that keep the emotional responses as positive and free of stress and anxiety as possible so that we can most effectively engage fresh young minds?
Rebecca Alber has written a wonderful list of twenty ways to create a safe learning environment for Edutopia, which I highly recommend. Her advice for educators includes building community, setting clear boundaries, smiling and laughing a lot, and getting to know each individual student, as well as allowing them to get to know something personal about you. She says we should sit with our students. We should keep our expectations for student performance and behavior high. And we should incorporate art and music into the day.
I agree with Alber’s top twenty. I find it wonderful that she strikes a balance between creating a space that is fun and welcoming and full of laughter, but also one where expectations are set and failures become learning opportunities. All of them can do wonders when it comes to creating a space where students can let go of their stresses and anxieties and free their minds to absorb all the wonderful learning we have in store for them.
In the end, the responsibility for implementing these kinds of principles and removing the stressors that can impair learning lie with us, the educators. Creating that safe learning environment is a multifaceted challenge that, when done well, allows students to flourish.
Isaac Asimov said, “The human brain…is the most complicated organization of matter that we know.”[i] And it’s true. Our amazing brains are both a product of biological evolution and a reflection of the world around us.
First, the stuff of the brain – grey matter, white matter, fluids, blood vessels – is made up of nutrients from the plants and animals we consume from the world around us.
Second, in terms of brain function, our interaction with our environment has a major impact on both brain structure and brain health. Extensive and ongoing research into “brain plasticity” has proven that everything we experience, everything we see or touch or hear, creates a perception that changes the wiring of the brain itself.
Given that our brains are a product of evolution (which is outside of our control) and environment (which is only partially under our control, and often less than ideal), how can we keep our brains as healthy as possible, from birth all the way through old age?
The pathway to optimal brain health comes from the small choices we make every day. By making healthy choices on a regular basis, and particularly by turning those choices into habits, we can help our brains stay healthy while also helping the young people in our lives learn positive self-care skills that can last a lifetime.
Here are three important steps everyone can take toward optimal brain health:
The brain might be the most complicated organization of matter we know of, but that doesn’t make it difficult to keep healthy. By learning to choose the right foods, the right activities, and the right input, we can each take control – at any age – of building the brains we want.
Children can begin learning to make good choices from the earliest ages, but it is up to parents and teachers to model these healthy habits of mind.
Yes, that means you.
Many people believe that youth who are aggressive and violent towards other children have low self-esteem. Youth programs are often designed to boost self-esteem in kids at risk. Does the research support this belief? A team of researchers designed a study on young teens to examine their responses to feeling shame.
The subjects were asked to compete in an easy, timed task against a competitor. Some of the youth experienced shame when they were shown a fake list of competitors’ times and saw their own times at the bottom of the list. The group that did not experience shame was not shown competitors’ times or their own rank. Then all participants were given an opportunity to act aggressively by blasting their opponent with loud noise through headphones. All participants also completed self report measures of narcissism (grandiose views of self, inflated sense of entitlement) and self-esteem a few weeks prior to the competition.
The results of this experiment showed no evidence that the kids with low self-esteem were more aggressive. Instead, kids with narcissistic traits were most likely to react to shame with aggression. This is interesting to think about from the perspective of educators who want to support learning through optimizing a collaborative atmosphere as opposed to promoting a highly competitive environment.
For most of us, interpreting and expressing emotion is something deeply instinctive. But what happens when that ability to express ourselves or read another’s emotions goes awry? Imagine what can happen to a student’s classroom experience if they can’t make sense of something as simple as their teacher’s facial expression. In the past, these kinds of students have been seen as having behavior problems. So how can we help them succeed?
Research has shown that people with traumatic brain injuries often experience this same inability to interpret and respond to emotions, a condition called "affect recognition."
Barry Willer, professor of psychiatry and specialist in TBI (traumatic brain injury) of the University of Buffalo, tells the story of a man and his wife who came into his office with a problem. The woman had experienced a mild traumatic brain injury. While her husband was supporting her recovery as best he could, she consistently described his attitude as “indifferent. “ He was frustrated, to say the least.
“His wife didn’t know she wasn’t recognizing his emotions,” said Willer, recounting the story in a 2009 interview with Insciences Journal , “and he had no idea what was going on.”
This couple is by no means alone. Nearly fifty percent of all traumatic brain injuries result in problems interpreting and expressing emotion.
As educators, being able to connect with our students at an emotional level is essential to classroom success. Without that connection, the learning process can quite easily come to a halt. Thankfully, Willer has demonstrated that there is hope for this population, and that the human brain is quite capable of re-learning how to understand facial expressions and use that information to interpret emotion.
Willer and his team have developed two specific interventions that have shown positive results:
"What was so exciting about our preliminary study," says Willer, "is that someone may lose the ability to recognize emotions, but even 10 years later, they can re–learn the skill if given the right assistance."
As it turns out, the only emotion that traumatic brain injuries do not erase is "happy," which is very hard–wired and has an extensive amount of "redundant circuitry." Says Willer, "I don’t know how that happened, but we all can be glad it did."
For further reading: Milders, M., Fuchs, S., & Crawford, J. R. Neuropsychological impairments and changes in emotional and social behaviour following severe traumatic brain injury. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 25, 2003. 157-172.