PTA’s Coffee Break welcomed Dr. Judy Willis at the Aliso Creek Inn and Golf Course, to speak about the application of neuroscience to practical aspects of child-rearing. Dr. Willis, clinical neurologist and educator, discussed down-to-earth techniques whose goal is to assist in the development of the critically-important “executive function” of the brain’s prefrontal cortex. As Dr. Willis unbundled her concepts, the understanding around the room was palpable, and an excitement grew as listeners realized that in simple and easy-to-apply techniques, parents really could make a real difference in unlocking greater brain functioning in children, and their success in facing the new challenges of the 21st century.
Uncharted challenges fill our children’s future. It is estimated that 50% of “facts” known now will change or be modified within 10 years. For example, within technology, capacity doubles every 18 months while the cost of delivery drops by half. An international survey among employers showed that the ability to find and evaluate information is far more valued than the archaic concept of “years of experience.” The mental tools to adapt to this changing landscape undergo profound development during the late teen years, and with exercise, the functioning of the prefrontal cortex can be strengthened.
The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the human brain to mature, and is the control center of executive functions such as judgment, critical analysis, prioritizing, deduction, induction, imagination, communication, reflective (vs. reactive) emotional control, and goal development, planning and perseverance. A strong executive function correlates with school success. “Maturation” is a physiological process where an insulating substance called myelin wraps around the connecting dendrites. This myelin is thickened through use and leads to greater processing speed, durability and efficiency to the connections. If these connections are not reinforced through use, they eventually are pruned. “Neurons are like stem cells” and our brains are capable of building and rebuilding.
These mechanics boil down to one very actionable insight for teachers and parents: what we ask of the brain has a very direct impact on how it develops and what its capabilities become. This is where Dr. Willis identified several areas of opportunity for parents wishing to promote such development.
Encourage our children to ask questions! Dr. Willis lamented the drop from a preschooler’s 100 questions a day to the falling off of questions in middle-schoolers. When kids stop asking questions, they lose motivation and their engagement drops off. “They lose interest because they stop asking questions!” according to Dr. Willis. As parents, we need to promote curiosity and imagination. “Don’t give answers!” If a question arises, encourage kids to analyze, predict, and evaluate the situation themselves. “Remind them what they already know, and plan with them what information they can find themselves.” Provide “wait time” when the answers aren’t forthcoming. Dr. Willis admits this feels strange, but this allows a more thoughtful, extended pattern of evaluation and an invitation to explore further.
Remember that decision-making builds judgment. Invite children into family decisions and allow them to participate in the analysis. Discuss goals and have them to develop their own approach. This works well when planning family vacations, or when a large item is being purchased. Kids could also be allowed to participate in the stock market, and gain experience researching, estimating and assessing their own success or failures. For older kids, ask them questions within areas of their own interest.
Another opportunity is when a kid declares something “isn’t fair.” We can ask “why not?”, and suggest that it can be explored. A letter to the editor can be suggested. Another technique could be to have them predict the counter-argument to their position, and respond.
We can also help kids “build a template of analysis” by comparing sources of information and introducing the idea of considering the source and any potential bias of the information provided. For example, two-thirds of people claim they have had a bad experience with online information, yet the vast majority of people continue to trust the internet. Discuss fact vs. opinion. Look at TV advertising, tease apart claims in magazine ads, or in flyers. Our environment is rich with possible opportunities for analysis and judgment. If your kid feels comfortable with an online source, ask how s/he made that choice, and what characteristics s/he was looking for to feel comfortable about its accuracy.
The exciting news is that we all have a very real impact on the development of our children’s and even our own brains. Through simple shifts in how we approach decisions in the family, or how our experience with the outside world is discussed can make a difference in our kids’ ability to develop higher brain function. Moreover, we can enjoy a richer experience of exploring the world with our children, and know that it benefits all.
For more detailed information, a video recording of the morning can be found at GoToCoffeeBreak.com.