Friday, March 15, 2019

Some Thoughts on Autism, Vaccinations, and Screens

I recently read an article talking about the massive increase in diagnoses of children on the autism spectrum. The numbers have been climbing – more like skyrocketing – for the last few years. There are more than likely a number of reasons contributing to this increase:

NO, it is not due to vaccinations. While the misleading information on this issue looks so slick and convincing, it is merely designed to bring parents to the point of fear. Here is how I know that vaccines DO NOT cause autism. MULTIPLE studies that checked for a correlation between the two show that children who are not vaccinated are just as often diagnosed with autism as those who are vaccinated. It does not matter what theories are proposed – the relationship is not there.

Some reasons for the increase have to do with definitions of autism and awareness, but a new intriguing theory suggests we might be creating some autism symptoms by exposing children to activities that delay their language and social-emotional development. These activities primarily involve screens. In fact, in some countries, when a child receives an autism diagnosis, the first therapy is to reduce screen use for the child as much as possible. This often reduces the symptoms to a point where the child requires little additional therapy. 

The reason screen usage might be contributing to the symptoms of autism is that it prevents children from engaging with other humans, and that is how children develop both language and social-emotional skills.(Deficits in these two areas are markers for autism.) Playing video games and watching YouTube will make your child good at screens, but will not help them to be better with communication or relationships.

I am NOT suggesting that keeping your child from screen use will prevent autism.There is no reason to believe screen use causes autism -- just that it might make some of the symptoms more likely.

I am NOT suggesting that you ignore an autism spectrum diagnosis and just reduce screen time.We will leave diagnosis to the experts and trust their suggestions for therapy.

However, I do feel comfortable telling parents that reducing screen time will not, in any way, hurt your child.If children never see a computer until school age, they will pick up the skills without a problem.

And I do know that if children do not develop communication skills, social skills, or emotional regulation skills in a timely manner, they will have big problems not only with relationships but also with anxiety and learning.

My advice? Get your children vaccinated and rethink your screen use and your child’s screen use. Let them learn how to be a human, first. Let them learn the way God designed their brains. We cannot improve on that.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Building Executive Function Skills at Home: Part IV

Cognitive flexibility is the last of three major skills involved in executive function. Cognitive flexibility is the skill that allows your child’s brain to switch from one thing to the other quickly or to see a problem in a new light.

The picture to the left shows an example of a problem that needs cognitive flexibility. The  Candle Problem is an experiment conducted by Karl Duncker in 1945. Participants were to use only these tools to attach a candle to the wall so that the lit the candle would not drip wax on the wall. 

Most people could not get it because they did not see the box that held the tacks as an available tool. If you tack the box to the wall, it will serve as a shelf to hold the candle. Cognitive flexibility lets you see the box as more than the container for tacks – it is also one of the tools available to solve the problem.

Children use cognitive flexibility when they read, and it allows them to develop reading fluency and strong comprehension skills. Readers have to be able to quickly go back and forth between decoding words and paying attention to the content.  Children also use cognitive flexibility when they problem solve with authentic problems. Authentic problems are the kind where the answer is not in the back of the book.

Here are some home activities that can increase cognitive flexibility:

Family Meals When children help to plan, fix, and clean up family meals they have many small opportunities to problem solve.  When children are first learning these skills, resist the temptation to answer questions or solve problems for them quickly. Let them try first and only step in with a hint if they are on the wrong track.

Role Play Stories Acting out a story will add fun to reading and will promote better reading skills by strengthening cognitive flexibility. Solving problems on how to create a simple costume will add to the fun and brain power. For something different, show your child how to read a story with silly voices, and then encourage your child to try. 

Cooperative Board Games There are some new board games out there where players do not compete against each other. Instead, the players form a team and compete against the game.  PANDEMIC and FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD are suitable for older children, while younger players will enjoy FLASH POINT and RACE TO THE TREASURE.  Because everyone is working together, these make good family games when there is a big age range. Cooperative games are all about helping your team members.

Building Projects Encourage your children to attempt creative projects that involve design, building, and problem-solving. The end result is great, but it is not the goal. The journey is where your child will find the real reward of stronger brain skills.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Building Executive Function Skills at Home: Part III

Divided attention is the second of three executive function skills children need to be successful in learning and relating to other people.

To understand divided attention, it is helpful to imagine a workbench in the brain. On this bench the brain stores important current information as well as previously stored information. When the two groups are combined, the brain can direct activities and create new learning.

The game Connect Four is a useful example. To successfully play this game a child needs to have a plan, insert the pieces, remember the rules, and pay attention to the opposing player strategy. If divided attention skills are not yet strong (i.e., there is not enough room on the workbench) then it is likely that the child will stop paying attention to at least one skill. 

When I taught kindergarten, I would play Connect Four with my students and get the chance to see divided attention develop. The student I played would be concentrating so hard on adjusting the plan that he or she would not pay attention to my possible wins. The student would be shocked to see I achieved four in a row. Then, I had an excellent opportunity to teach why that skill was important.  I usually lost the second game.

Adults can keep 7-9 things going on the workbench at a time. Young children can balance a much smaller number, but as they use their brains, they develop divided attention. 

Humor is a perfect example of how this works. Small children are amused by silly things they see. This kind of humor does not take a great deal of divided attention as toddlers are for the most part reacting to the difference between what they expect and what they see. As children get older, they start to understand humor in a more complicated way. For instance, jokes take more divided attention because you have to pay attention to the words being said and a second meaning behind the words.  

When families tease and joke with each other, in a gentle way, divided attention adds a new skill. Now children must understand the humor of the joke and the shared family knowledge of why it is funny.  Who knew family humor was a higher order thinking skill? 

In addition to humor here are some other divided attention building activities to consider:

Physical Activity: Any sports or physical activity will exercise divided attention. Your child’s brain has to pay attention to the game, the rules, and the other team. Sports and exercise have an added benefit in that they often require repetitive practice which is very good for developing divided attention.

Family Read Aloud Time: Listening to a story read aloud is good for children well into the middle school years. When children listen to a story, they need to create a mental image of the setting. As they listen they edit the image in their heads. Listening to chapter books means children will need to remember storylines from one reading session to the next. If you stop occasionally and talk about the story, or imagine how you might rewrite it, you are adding a new layer of divided attention. Children are typically able to comprehend stories several grade levels above their reading level, so it might be easier than you think to find a book everyone enjoys.

Fine Arts: Any lessons in singing, instruments, dance, acting, art, etc. will give children great practice in divided attention.  The fine arts often use different parts of the brain than other activities and provide the brain ample opportunity to practice and develop divided attention skills.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Building Executive Function Skills at Home: Part II

Inhibitory control is one of three primary executive function skills the brain needs to develop to learn. Inhibitory control is a unique skill because the brain musts learn to stop doing something.  Our brains have a huge capacity but limited power. We have millions of neural connections, but things would be a mess if all of the connections were to fire at the same time. The brain has to be able to turn connections off and on to accomplish appropriate functions.

Take a look at the image at the beginning of this post. You may have noticed that the pictures of animals do not have the right names.  If you first try to read the animal names and ignore the images, you may feel a bit of hesitancy as you focus on the words. If you try to name the animals and ignore the words, you will likely have more difficulty. In each instance, you are practicing inhibitory control – ignoring one thing to focus on another.

What skills does inhibitory control enable a child to learn? First, it helps their brains to keep unnecessary information (smells, noises, etc.) from cluttering up the learning workbench. This leaves more room (and brain energy) to be able to take in relevant information and to encode it for later use (i.e., learn.)

A second important skill is delayed gratification. When you delay gratification, you ignore your wants so you can focus on what needs to be done. Delayed gratification is an essential skill for success in life because it is what helps us plan and reach goals, both small and large.

Reduce screen time and send them outside to play instead.  When children are engrossed in a video or computer screen, the activity is focusing for them. These games and apps are designed to draw in and use manipulative tactics to keep attention focused. On the other hand, when children play outside there are lots of sounds, smells and sights giving children ample opportunity to learn to block some out, focus on others, and to integrate sensory processing.

Engage your child in conversation. When children engage in conversation, they have to learn how to pay attention to someone else and be ready to respond. Each conversation interaction reinforces not only attention but delayed gratification. Children need millions of these kinds of interactions to build strong inhibitory control. It is incredible to think that even when children are arguing with each other or with parents, they are learning something helpful.

Play games as a family. Playing games requires both attention and waiting your turn – need I say more?

Set up chores, homework, and practice to be done before free-choice activities.  This gives your children the opportunity to practice delayed gratification and to set up good habits later. Also, try to avoid overscheduling children to make sure there is free-choice time when work is done.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Building Executive Function Skills in the Home

More and more parents hear about executive function skills and how important they are to learning. The term executive function (EF) refers to specific brain processes that all us to focus, encode learning, and problem solve.  Executive function skills promote the ability to do the things listed in the diagram – and more. As you can well imagine, these skills are vital to learning.

Play is how children practice EF skills so they can perform them later.  These are not skills that are easily taught in activities or lessons. They are skills the brain is already programmed to learn – as long as the child spends time in healthy, useful activities.

The education world has known about EF skills for some time, but the term has just begun to wind its way down to schools and classrooms in the last few years. Poor EF skills are not a learning disability. However, poor use of these skills will make other learning disabilities much worse. They are just as important for a child not diagnosed with a disability to allow them to learn at their potential.

Whenever we hear something new about learning it is common to look for a program or a complicated process to help us teach it. But, developing EF skills is pretty straightforward. . Here are four that can easily fit into any family schedule:

Reduce screen time

Screen time takes away from the time children could be spending developing EF skills with other activities such as play and conversation. Research tells us to keep screen time to a minimum. Even education games take away from EF skill development.

Send them out to play

Any kind of non-screen play, the more active, the better, offers children plenty of time to practice the EF skills that will be strong and ready when they need them for school learning. Children who have weak problem-solving skills, working memory problems, or difficulties staying focused will all be helped by healthy doses of play.

Talk with them and read to them

Strong language skills are the foundation for any learning. When you talk with your children and read to them, you are building EF skills that will help them learn. This is one reason why families that have technology-free meals together produce better learners.

Hold them accountable for tasks

When children have jobs to do, they practice EF skills. When you give them feedback on how they are doing they practice EF skills in a way they will use them in school.  

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Grace Sandwich

We may think parenting is about the right answer or the correct response to each situation. In a real world, the correct response is not easy to determine. Research shows us that good parenting is really about balance. We want high expectations for our children because we know this builds confidence. We also want to show our children high levels of responsiveness, so they know they are not alone in the world.

One of the best ways I have found to do this is to use the grace sandwich in discipline or correction situations. The grace sandwich allows you to address the behavior in a spirit of gentleness.

The first piece of bread in the sandwich is grace. Before you apply correction, remind your child you are doing this out of love. Believe it or not, this is an easy thing for a child to forget and that reminder puts the child in a different, less defensive mood.

Next apply the meat of the sandwich which is the correction and appropriate discipline.

Finally, don’t forget the last piece of grace bread. Finish the discipline session with forgiveness and a reminder that God sends His Spirit to help us learn and grow. 

When you wrap your correction in love you are teaching your child a vital faith lesson:

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5: 14

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Read to Your Child!

This video clip of a Grandma reading to her grandson is hilarious. Just try to watch it without laughing.

While we are in a good mood, let’s think about what is happening as this baby hears this story:

  • He feels his grandma’s joy and his mirror neurons are showing him how to feel positive emotions. 
  • He is learning how to regulate his emotions as he listens to his Grandma calm herself to continue reading.
  •  He is learning that books hold much promise for entertainment and learning.
  •  He is learning that words can be said with emotion and expression.
  •  He is learning that words communicate an idea.
  •  He is learning that words and pictures tell a story and it is worth the time to decode those words.
  •  He is developing his sense of phonemic awareness as he hears the rhyming words over and over, again.
  •  His brain is taking statistics on the necessary sounds of language.
  •  His brain is identifying a pattern by hearing it repeated.
  •  He is learning that you turn the pages of a book to hear what comes next.
  •  He is developing executive function skills by redirecting his attention to the book that Grandma is enjoying.

Who knew so much learning could happen from a 4-minute story? Forget the fancy apps that “teach” phonics or sight words while ignoring the fact that children learn to read within the context of family and language learning.
Read to your child!  

  • Picture books until they are too old to sit in your lap. And then continue picture books while they sit beside you.
  • Start the chapter books as soon as they can listen for the length of the chapter and don’t stop when they learn to read. 
  • Read 20-30 minutes a day. Every. Day
  • Mute your phone and put it in a different room. (Then your child will know that this is important)
  • Start reading Bible stories as soon as possible and later discuss those stories after your child reads them to you.

Read to your child!

Wonky Donkey by Craig Smith and illustrated by Katz Cowley