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As a parent, are you unsure about how much help to give your children on homework assignments and special projects? Do you sometimes feel "darned if you do and darned if you don't"? If you don't help your child enough, does she get poor grades? If you do help, is the teacher critical?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may feel stuck in "the parent trap." We all want our children to be independent learners, but getting them there can be difficult—especially if you have a struggling learner or a child with a diagnosed learning disability. Here are some suggestions that might help.
Avoid blame. Make it a game.
It’s hard for people to self-motivate to work hard in areas where they struggle, and children are no exception. If you feel you are always badgering your child to get his work done, try turning homework into something fun by scheduling 'game breaks' every half hour or so. Set a timer for a short interval, and as long as he has worked consistently before the timer goes off, do a few minutes of something fun together—a race outside, quick game of "go fish," a short video game, etc. Elementary age children love playing games with a parent, so game breaks can be a great motivator.
Build rewards on assignment boards.
Post a whiteboard in the kitchen or another common area of your home. Each day after school, help your child write a to-do list of assignments for that night as well as for any projects with due dates. Then work with your child to determine a reasonable reward for completion. A reward might be watching a special TV show, calling or texting a friend, or a healthy before bedtime snack.
Rewarding your child for doing homework independently builds important life skills like self-control and stick-to-itiveness. Especially when children struggle with school, rewarding something your child can control (like how long they worked on an assignment by themselves) builds confidence and increases motivation better than punishing bad grades or rewarding good grades.
The 80%-20% rule builds success in school.
Brain scientists have found that when a task is 20% challenging it promotes brain plasticity (positive brain changes). So, to maximize your child’s learning potential, encourage her to do all assignments by herself first, assuring her that you will be there to help once she has completed as much as she can on her own.
You will be the checker: finding mistakes or missing pieces and then helping her with those. If she is accustomed to you providing more help, it may take a few weeks for her to work on her own. If so, set a smaller goal (half of each assignment alone, or a designated number of problems, for example) for a week or so. Try to get to the point where you help with no more than 20% of any assignment.
Strive for drive.
Remember, by making your child's independence in schoolwork your goal—instead of grades or other measures of achievement—you are not only improving your child's motivation and ability to please you, but you also are building self-sufficiency, a trait that will lead to success in many aspects of life.
Not everyone can get top grades in school, but everyone can learn to be a self-starter. Getting out of the parent trap will not only make your life easier it will foster important life skills in your child. In adult life, the ability to self-motivate is where the real dividends of a good education are paid out.
If you have already tried these suggestions or you feel your child cannot realistically reach 80% independence, consider consulting a professional. Your child might have a specific learning issue that can be significantly improved with appropriate neuroscience-based interventions.
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Earlier this month, Dr. Martha Burns presented a webinar titled “What’s in the Common Core, but Missing in Your Curriculum.” One of the exciting new changes that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) bring is a great deal more emphasis on how students learn rather than focusing solely on what they learn. The emphasis of previous standards have focused more on memorization of facts rather than on higher order thinking skills. In this webinar, Dr. Burns reviews the learning capacities spelled out in the CCSS and describes the skills that students need to be successful as lifelong learners, e.g., the ability to evaluate, to adapt, adjust and critique, etc. At the foundation of these higher order abilities lie the foundational skills below. Together, these skills can be termed the “process of learning.”
· Executive control or self-control
Students with deficiencies in these foundational skills may be labeled as “trouble makers” or “at risk” and have difficulty keeping up in today’s growing classroom. Experienced educators have always recognized the importance of these skills, but the idea that they can be specifically addressed and improved is relatively new. Without the ability to remember the details of a non-fiction text, how would a student be able to evaluate and critique it?
Dr. Burns describes new insights in neuroscience that are contributing to our understanding of the process of learning and what can be done to strengthen these skills in all learners, even those with learning disabilities and other challenges. The idea that these skills are inherent in students and cannot be changed is simply untrue. With the right training, all students can become stronger, more capable learners.
One efficient way for students to practice the skills needed to meet the rigor of the Common Core Standards is through the research-based learning tools employed by Scientific Learning’s Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant programs. Dr. Burns concluded her presentation with a walkthrough of the programs, highlighting the aspects of the programs that speak directly to the foundational skills needed to create college and career ready students. She also describes what happens in the student’s brain when they are engaged with the software and the results that can be expected.
This new approach by the Common Core State Standards to draw attention to the “process” of learning, rather than just content, is important for all stakeholders to understand. With this new understanding comes a greater importance to use all of the tools at our disposal to help all learners succeed.
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What would it be like if you went to a cocktail party – or a rock concert or even your quiet corner coffee joint, for that matter – and you didn’t have the ability to filter out one voice or sound from the sea of other sounds around you? This ability is called “selective hearing” and is a computational function in your brain that enables you to focus in on your companion’s voice in the midst of the endless sound waves coming from ceiling fans, ambient music, and other people’s voices bouncing off the walls. Your ability to focus in on that single selected voice is impressive.
Doctoral candidate Bridget Queenan of Georgetown University Medical Center is figuring out how we humans are able to perform this difficult feat by studying bats. She has found that certain neurons in bats’ brains can “quiet” other neurons, allowing the bat to prioritize certain sounds over others. In short, through “turning up the volume” on certain neurons, bats can zero in on the most important sounds, such as their own echolocation sounds, and allow other sounds to fade into the background. (2010)
Researchers at UCSF recently published an article in the journal Nature that describes how they have actually seen this process take place in humans. Using a sheet of 256 electrodes placed on the brain, they can see which neurons activate at the sound of certain voices through the use of sound samples played simultaneously. They could then “decode” the data from the electrodes to find out what the patient heard without talking to the patients themselves. (2012)
When you consider that a bat must hunt, gather, and navigate through spaces populated with thousands and thousands of other bats, it’s easy to see why a brain function like selective hearing is essential to survival. Humans have depended on selective hearing throughout our history for much the same reason.
Although most modern humans are no longer engaged in hunting and gathering activities, our world would look very different were it not for selective hearing. Imagine living in a city – or even a moderately sized suburban town, for that matter – with its ambient atmosphere combining traffic, voices, weather sounds such as wind or rain, and the rest of the cacophony of daily life that we simply don’t think about from moment to moment. Were it not for selective hearing, we would drown in an overwhelming sea of noise, unable to focus on any one sound well enough to effectively evaluate its importance. Considered in that context, the neurological capability that we call selective hearing has played a significant role in defining how we function as a species.
You can also see how this ability would be important in the real-world context of the classroom. Without it, students who are already easily distracted would simply be swallowed by the noise. Independent research has shown that students’ selective auditory attention improves after they use the Fast ForWord program for as little as six weeks. (2008)
So the next time you find yourself unable to focus on someone’s voice at a party, or you encounter a student who is having a hard time paying attention in a noisy classroom, take a moment. Appreciate your ability to use your selective hearing. And have patience while that other person works to engage theirs.
Bardi, J. (2012). How Selective Hearing Works In the Brain. Retrieved from the University of California San Franciso website: http://www.ucsf.edu/news/2012/04/11868/how-selective-hearing-works-brain.
Mallet, K. (2010). Bat Brains Offer Clues As to How We Focus on Some Sounds and Not Others. Retrieved from the Georgetown University Medical Center: http://explore.georgetown.edu/news/?ID=54075&PageTemplateID=295.
Stevens,C., Fanning, J., Coch, D., Sanders, L., & Neville, H. (2008). Neural mechanisms of selective audiory attention are enhanced by computerized training: Electrophysiological evidence from language-impaired and typically developing children. Brain Research. 1205, 55 – 69. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2007.10.108.
Attend one of our popular webinars with thought leaders in learning. Live and pre-recorded webinars are available. Register today!
In a recent webinar, Dr. William Jenkins, a leader in the field of childhood brain development and one of the founders of Scientific Learning, presented on the importance of executive functions in the development of preschool students.
As described by Dr. Jenkins, the executive functions of the brain consist of:
In other words, these processes are the ones that allow a small child to develop good learning habits, pay attention in class, ignore distractions, and think creatively when unexpected outcomes occur.
Where do they come from?
One of the misconceptions among preschool teachers and parents is that executive functions are inherently developed rather than taught, a product of the genetic lottery rather than learned behaviors. This is a dangerous proposition.
Studies show that these skills need to be introduced early in life and practiced in preschool in order for students to have a greater chance at academic success later in their school careers. “These skills support the process (i.e., the HOW) of learning – focusing, remembering, planning – that enables children to effectively and efficiently master the content (i.e., the WHAT),” Dr. Jenkins said.
What can an educator do?
The good news for educators is that we already have the tools to help address executive functions. They tend to be grouped under the heading “classroom management”.
Think about it. It requires working memory to be able to follow directions. It takes cognitive and mental flexibility to understand why we behave differently out on the playground than we do in the classroom. And nearly every classroom rule ever written is either aided or hindered by a child’s ability to inhibit their immediate needs and desires.
According to the webinar and an accompanying white paper authored by Alexandra Main, it’s never too late to address these skills with students. The prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain that tends to govern executive functions - continues to develop in humans well after their twentieth birthday. Of course, by then the child is either about to graduate college or has already ended their scholastic careers.
With all of this evidence, it’s imperative that teachers in early childhood education – especially preschool teachers – rededicate themselves to instruction in these executive skills using the best practices and patience that they use during reading and math skills instruction. There are remediation opportunities for children that have fallen behind in their executive functions, including some software programs discussed in the white paper.
But if you wait too long to address these skills, their lack of success in executive functions will translate into a lack of success in the academic skills in which they will be measured later in their school careers.
For further reading:
Our Fall Webinar Series for Educators is here! Join us for presentations on topics from how the brain learn to how you can increase test scores and reading proficiency for your students.
How the Brain Learns
Dr. William Jenkins, one of our four founders and an expert in learning-based brain plasticity, will review the three dimensions of executive function often highlighted by scientists—working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility. Learn about the development of these skills across childhood and look at some popular misconceptions about executive function in children. His last webinar on executive function was a big hit—you‘ll want to join us for this one!
10/11 - Teaching with the Brain in Mind
Brain-based learning expert Eric Jensen returns to share specific, practical brain-compatible strategies you can use in the classroom right away. Discover how the brain works, how teaching changes the brain, and what it takes for students to acquire complex learning and achieve their best. Jensen’s webinars are always packed—be sure to register and arrive early!
Dr. Paula Tallal will join us to discuss the latest neuroscience research on learning, her original research on auditory processing and language, and the classroom application of these scientific findings to help struggling learners succeed. Dr. Tallal is one of our four founders and a very engaging presenter—don’t miss this rare opportunity to learn from her!
Real Life Results with Scientific Learning Programs
Returning presenter Cory Armes will discuss how the Fast ForWord program supports English Language Learners by simultaneously developing academic skills critical for reading, such as English language conventions, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, and comprehension. A live Fast ForWord demo will be included in this webinar.
Dr. Martha Burns will open the webinar with an overview of how the brain learns. Then, special guests Dr. Dave Mundy and Cindy Keever from Westfield-Washington Schools in Indiana will discuss how students achieved nearly double their expected gains in reading with the Fast ForWord program. Bring your questions for our guests!
Maura Deptula will provide an in-depth look at the Reading Assistant online reading coach and results achieved by students using it. Reading practice with Reading Assistant helps strengthen fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. This webinar will include a live product demonstration.
9/10 - The Science of Learning
One of our most popular presenters, Dr. Burns returns to discuss ways to accelerate your children’s learning. Recent brain research shows that developing the critical cognitive skills of memory, attention, processing, and sequencing can make a significant difference for your children and result in improved test scores. Dr. Burns will discuss key areas of the brain and how these areas influence reading and academic performance. Angela, a parent from Wisconsin, will discuss her son’s progress and results with the BrainPro program.
Have you ever wondered what structures or areas in your brain allow you to understand language? Read books? Appreciate music? At a basic level, scientists have already correlated discrete brain structures to specific human abilities. As today’s researchers take this understanding further and actually map intellectual ability in the brain, they are discovering that many abilities are not neatly confined to a single area.
Scientists have employed various techniques to delve into this “intracranial cartography.” One method used by Dr. Aron Barbey, professor of neuroscience at the University of Illinois, involved finding patients with highly localized brain injuries and comparing their cognitive abilities and executive function with other individuals who had those same structures intact. Barbey’s evidence showed that intelligence relies on localized areas of the brain working together collaboratively as opposed to residing independently in a single region or the brain as a whole. In his own words: "We found that general intelligence depends on a remarkably circumscribed neural system. Several brain regions, and the connections between them, were most important for general intelligence." (2012) Barbey’s research supports the idea that areas of the brain controlling executive function, which governs skills such as self-control and planning, overlap “to a significant extent” with areas that control general intelligence. (2012)
Another method of mapping intellectual ability involves performing brain scans while subjects carry out cognitive tasks, and then indexing the areas of the brain that are engaged in specific types of processes. Using the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS), a standard index for measuring IQ, Caltech neuroscientist Ralph Adolphs was able to measure subjects’ performance in the four specific areas that the WAIS covers: verbal comprehension, perceptual organization, working memory, and processing speed. (2010)
Interestingly, Adolphs found that even though the WAIS defines verbal comprehension and working memory as separate abilities, areas responsible for each were shown to overlap, suggesting that they represent a similar type of intelligence. Also of note, the study found that processing speed seemed to be a more global function controlled by connections across different areas of the brain as opposed to localized structures.
Barbey’s results support that same finding. “In fact,” he says, “the particular regions and connections we found support an emerging body of neuroscience evidence indicating that intelligence depends on the brain’s ability to integrate information from verbal, visual, spatial and executive processes.” (2012) The implications are intriguing, and support our evolving understanding of human intelligence as a network that can be developed by simultaneously cross-training those regions in the brain that most effectively work together.
Research performed in the past few decades has demonstrated that we can improve reading skills by teaching students “metacognitive strategies.” By metacognition, we refer to enhancing one’s awareness of “what one believes and how one knows.” (Kuhn, 2000). In other words, the more we can teach students to be actively thinking about thinking as they learn, the more effective their learning will be.
In fact, we can teach students to become what Marcia Lovett of Carnegie Mellon University calls “expert learners.” According to Lovett (2008), teaching metacognition involves three specific processes:
According to Lovett’s research, an experimental group of students who used metacognitive strategies more strongly believed themselves to be effective learners, demonstrated greater motivation to learn, and achieved better academic performance than the control group. (2008)
What exactly do such metacognitive learning strategies look like in the classroom? Diane Dahl, in her blog post at The Educator’s PLN, shows how these ideas can be implemented in any number of ways, many times by simply tweaking existing instructional strategies. Here are a few recommendations based on her list.
While it might be easiest to imagine implementing these kinds of strategies in reading instruction, they can be adapted for teaching any subject. The idea is simply to get students to be consciously aware of, and take charge of, their own learning. The more we can do that, the more effective we will be as teachers.
We generally don’t consider the development of manual dexterity like hand-eye coordination in babies to be an essential element of cognitive development. In fact, the scientific terminology itself – “motor skills” for movement and “cognitive skills” for mental processing – draws a clear and definite separation between these two types of functions.
As it turns out, such thinking may be holding us back from innovations in education that might truly be able to make a difference for a great many young learners.
Recent research has demonstrated a clear connection between the development of fine motor skills in early life and later success in math, science and reading. Such skills – those as simple as how an infant can use her eyes to track her mother’s face and then reach her hand out and touch her mother’s nose – may just help us understand how ready that child will be for kindergarten, as well as what kind of achiever she’ll be over the next few years.
The Motor-Cognition Connection
To arrive at such a conclusion, we first need to understand the connection between the motor and cognitive centers of the brain. Through neuroimaging and neuroanatomical analysis, Adele Diamond (2000) uncovered “significant evidence” for a number of motor-cognition links in the brain. Prior to such analysis, these abilities were attributed to separate areas of the brain: motor skills were centered in the cerebellum and basal ganglia, and cognition in the prefrontal cortex. But Diamond’s research showed that both could be activated during certain motor or cognitive tasks. Further research also showed that “individuals with brain damage to either the primary motor or primary cognitive areas often show impairment in both skill areas.” (p. 1013)
In fact, Karen Adolph (2005, 2008; Adolph & Berger, 2006) suggested that a complex relationship exists between cognitive and motor skills development in infants. Since infants are learning to process a complex and changing world at the same time that they are learning gross and fine motor skills, they are in a state of constant adaptation. Their bodies are changing simultaneously as the world around them is presenting new information. Thus, their physical existence in the world – and their movement through it – is one that requires constant cognitive problem solving. In short, infants spend the vast majority of their existence, when they are not sleeping, learning how to learn.
Motor Skills as a Predictor
Talk about factors that predict future achievement in reading, math and science most often includes discussions of early math skills, early reading skills, social skills, attention skills, and attention-related measures like curiosity, interest and a desire to learn. Note that none of the aforementioned abilities has a motor physical component.
Yet, from the motor-cognition connection, researchers like David Grissmer, Sophie Aiyer, William Murrah, Kevin Grimm and Joel Steele (2010) have brought the issue of motor skills development to the fore. They went back and analyzed data from six data sets, and found that, indeed, fine motor skills were a strong predictor of later achievement. In fact, they conclude that taken together, “attention, fine motor skills and general knowledge are much stronger overall predictors of later math, reading and science scores than early math and reading scores alone.” (p. 1008)
Toward Better Interventions
According to this team of researchers (Grissimer, et al, 2010), “There are few interventions directly testing whether strengthening early attention, fine motor skills, or knowledge of the world would improve later math and reading achievement.” That said, some facts are quite clear:
Ultimately, with that understanding in hand, we clearly have a research opportunity to more comprehensively pursue an understanding of these connections. Findings from such research could put us in a position to create more novel, more effective interventions that strategically integrate motor and cognitive skill building, and continue to hone how we help our youngest learners prepare for future success.
For further reading:
Grissmer, D., Grimm, K., Aiyer S., Murrah, W., Steele, J. Fine Motor Skills and Early Comprehension of the World: Two New School Readiness Indicators. Developmental Psychology. 2010. Vol. 46, No. 5. 1008-1017.
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.
The brain's executive function is a kind of internal "air traffic control system" that is a group of skills that helps us to focus on multiple streams of information at the same time, monitor errors, make decisions in light of available information, revise plans as necessary and resist the urge to let frustration lead to hasty actions. The development of solid executive function is one of the key learning tasks of early childhood, and a significant contributor to later success in life.
In his recent webinar on the topic, Scientific Learning Chief Scientific Officer and Co-Founder Dr. William Jenkins dug deep into the three interrelated skills which comprise this air traffic control system: working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive/mental flexibility. These three skills help us keep information in mind, master our impulses, and remain flexible in the face of change—and are crucial building blocks for the development of both cognitive and social interaction skills in young children.
Dr. Jenkins outlined a number of reasons that parent should take an interest in helping their children develop sound executive function skills in early childhood:
1. Strong executive function skills provide the best possible foundation for school readiness.
In many ways, executive function skills could be called the "biological foundation" for school readiness. It has been shown that children with strong working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive/mental flexibility skills make greater gains in academic areas than peers with weaker executive function skills. Coming to school with these foundational skills well-developed is just as important, if not more important, than fluency with letters and numbers.
2. Executive function skills begin at home.
Executive function skills are not automatic. These skills are built over time through practice, and can be observed in infants as early as six months, when some infants can understand and obey a simple directive such as "don't touch that plate." Parents can support (or "scaffold") the development of these skills from early childhood by teaching and reinforcing common concepts such as taking turns and using "inside" and "outside" voices. In addition to the home, executive function skills continue to be developed in childcare programs, pre-schools, elementary school classrooms, and other social settings, into adolescence.
As Dr. Jenkins notes in the webinar, elementary school teachers are keenly aware of the importance of executive function. Parents who are actively, consciously participating in the development of their child’s executive function skills will have a richer understanding of the importance of all activities and expectations revolving around classroom life, from the way one lines up for lunch to the way one studies for a spelling test. This has the potential for a dynamic, integrated educational experience for the student, teacher, and parents, working together to build a better brain for each child.
4. Executive function skills help lay the foundation for the kind of student, citizen, and social being a child will become.
Ultimately, the skills that cohere into executive function are the skills we use to navigate family, school, and work settings for our entire lives: retaining and using information, filtering thoughts and impulses, focusing on a task at hand, recognizing errors, changing plans, and understanding how different rules apply in different settings are all skills that require stewardship from birth to adulthood. Parents armed with this knowledge are more apt to take an active part in the development of these skills from an early age.
5. Understanding executive function gives parents a fuller understanding of a child who is struggling.
It is a mistake to immediately brand a child who struggles with things like inhibitory control as a "bad kid". Understanding the concepts behind executive function gives parents a fuller picture of what is happening with their child when he or she is having difficulty controlling impulses, focusing on a given task, or understanding that different rules may apply at different times. This will help parents decide if outside help may be needed to help their child (studies show there is at least short-term effectiveness in interventions that support executive function development).
Interested in learning more? Listen to Dr. Jenkins’ webinar here for more in-depth information on all aspects of executive function and its importance in early childhood development and brain fitness.