How to get kids to exercise their brains this summer

Parents are worried this summer — far more than in the past — about how to keep their kids learning after a spring semester where many lost ground.

Here’s some help. In this post, veteran educators Daniel and Trisha Willingham have some advice for parents on how to keep their kids exercising their brains and learning how to be independent within boundaries.

Daniel Willingham is a psychology professor at the University of Virginia who focuses his research on the application of cognitive psychology to K-12 schools and higher education. He was appointed by President Barack Obama to the National Board for Education Sciences, the independent and nonpartisan arm of the U.S. Education Department, which provides statistics, research and evaluation on education topics.

By Daniel Willingham and Trisha Willingham

Recent analyses show that distance learning went poorly; most students will be far behind where they should be this fall. That’s not just because teachers had to throw together lessons on the fly; kids didn’t do their part. Eighty-two percent of educators believe students were less conscientious than during regular school. Twenty-two percent of parents said their child spent less than an hour per day doing schoolwork.

Yes, lockdown was stressful, but in addition, kids have little practice in planning and in resisting distraction. Their school sets their schedule, and teachers keep them on task. Covid-19 swept away that structure, and although parents exhausted themselves trying to replace it, they mostly failed.

And this year, summer, which is traditionally the structure-free season, comes with social distancing, closed camps, and in some cases, expectations kids will make up schoolwork. It sounds like parents are in for a grim three months of nagging. But summer might be the perfect time for children to work on skills to plan their day and stay on task.

Planning and resisting distraction are actually related — both are examples of what psychologists call executive function. Just as a CEO directs workers, the executive directs other cognitive processes.

Although the mechanism is not completely understood, it’s broadly accepted that suppression is a key function of the executive. When the child aims to watch a video for history but feels the impulse to check Instagram, the executive must squelch the distracting thought. Mind-wandering can’t be eliminated; good focus means good control of impulses.

Inhibition also plays a role in planning, which requires refraining from taking action immediately, so as to think through a sequence of steps.

This overlap between focus and planning is most visible in a patient with damage to the brain’s frontal lobe, the seat of the executive; her behavior will be poorly planned and impulsive. For example, when trying to make a cake, the sight of the pan might prompt her to put it in the oven before she’s made the batter. And if a caregiver mentions the error, she might act on the impulse to hit him.

Neurotypical people are of course better at planning and controlling impulses, but their abilities vary, with important consequences. A 2011 study measured self-control in 1,000 children via reports from teachers, parents, researcher-observers, and the children themselves. Self-control before age 10 predicted substance abuse at age 32, as well as earnings and criminal offending, even when social class and IQ were statistically controlled.

A strong executive is obviously desirable. Is it trainable?

Researchers find that children who plan well and resist impulses tend to have parents who allow freedom within consistently enforced limits. Free choice affords practice in planning. But the need to conform to household rules means children also learn to curb their impulses.

If you haven’t had a freedom-within-boundaries household before, you can’t expect a child to handle an abrupt change of rules. Here’s how to make the transition.

For planning, start by asking your child to notice what he’s done. Kids who carom from one activity to another scarcely think about it. At the end of the day review with him, and help him assess what was valuable — “I fixed my breakfast. I played outside” — and what wasn’t — “I had a stomping contest with myself.”

When that’s sinking in, move to step 2; if she knows what’s valuable, she can set priorities for the day. If her preferences include only “Fortnight and Lucky Charms,” you set boundaries. Don’t dictate activities — you’re teaching her to plan and choose — but do set categories: every day, you must do something to help your body, something to help your mind, and something to help the family.

If you later review with your child how many prioritized activities he got to, it will help him notice how long each takes, and facilitate planning. You might discuss writing a schedule … but maybe not. Coordination matters in a classroom, but if an individual learns to set and work with priorities, timetables (when they must be met) come easily. If he’s deeply engaged exploring plants in the backyard, why should he break it off?

Addressing distraction requires your direct supervision. Help your child pick the activity that she wants to do or must do (catch-up schoolwork, for example, or summer reading) but finds it hard to stick with.

Find the slowest time of your day, and using a clock, ask that she work at the task for 10 minutes, or whatever you judge she can do. As she works, you work in parallel. When time’s up, take a break together for a minute or two. Never interrupt a working child, even to tell her she’s doing great; that turns you into the distraction. Acknowledge her success at the end of the session.

The pandemic has brought so many new constraints, it feels like the time to bend the rules at home.

But an at-loose-ends kid is not a happy kid. Boundaries communicate to your child that you have made sense of this new situation and know what to do. Freedom to choose within boundaries offers your child some control, a feeling that kids need now, just as we adults do.

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