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Put-It-Into-Action Advice You Can Trust
Maren Schmidt, M. Ed.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Noise Surrounds Us

Blaise Pascal, the 17th century philosopher and mathematician, wrote, “All man’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Almost three hundred years later and human misery still stems from not being able to listen to oneself think.  

An edition of Ode magazine was dedicated to the topic of silence.  Several journalists detailed their journey into being alone and quiet.  One writer found being in a sensory deprivation unit not quiet at all, but disturbingly noisy, as he listened to his heartbeat, his pulse beat in his ears, and paid attention to his breathing.  What each traveler into the quiet world found is that there is no silence.   

Noise surrounds us.

Sitting quietly with our thoughts and listening to our inner being is unsettling at first.  

How easy it is to distract ourselves.  Turn on the television, the computer, and the video game.  Pick up the phone, or our music devices.  Open the refrigerator door hunting for something because we feel hungry not for food, but for the quiet.

Paying attention to our inner sensations of feeling, hearing, seeing and thinking takes focus and concentration.   Sitting quietly alone is the key to discovering where and who we are in the universe.  It’s much easier to party than to sit and open the package.  What a gift we have though when we can sit, as Pascal suggests, alone in a room and not feel lonely.

Our world today is filled with more distractions than in Pascal’s time, distractions that help us avoid direct confrontation of who we are.  We let “noise” distract us from our dreams, our desires, and ultimately our lives, because we fear hearing our breath, our heartbeat, and the blood rush through our ears. 

Only in the quiet can we listen to that voice that coaches us to be the person we were meant to be.  If only there weren’t so much noise. 

Today take five minutes to listen to your breathing and to your heartbeat.  Listen to your dreams.  Tomorrow listen for another five minutes.   Listen everyday until you are quiet for twenty minutes a day.

 “Learn to be silent.  Let your quiet mind listen and absorb,” Pythagoras recommended over 2500 years ago. 

Sit comfortably in a room alone and your children, and others around you, will be affected by the concentric waves of peace and quiet that you create.

In today’s world our children are at risk for never having the opportunity to learn to sit quietly.  Movement is crucial to child development, but being still and quiet is also of vital import.  Without a sense of direction, movement is misdirected.  Without movement, inspiration is never fulfilled. 

What are those things that keep our children from having quiet time?  Take a few minutes and make a list of all those activities that prevent quiet from being in your family’s life.  Television. Radio. Computers.  Personal music devices.  Cell phones.  Video games. Over-scheduling.

Don’t let the noise of life prevent your children from having the opportunity to listen to themselves, and discover who they are.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Brains Need Plenty Of Quiet Time

A sign in my father’s office read, “Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits”. 

Ungrammatical, but it captured the essence of my father.  My dad spent a lot of time thinking and planning, but he didn’t hesitate to take the down time of “just” sitting and doing nothing.  Dad understood what was good for him, as well as for all the grandchildren that loved to sit on his lap, and just sit. 

Children need opportunities to simply sit, rest, observe, quietly explore and be.  My dad understood a child’s need for this quiet time.  With our children we need to balance activity with tranquil and undisturbed time.

Our children today seem to be bustled off to gym class, to swim, to dance, to lesson after lesson to try to maximize their learning, or, heaven forbid, prevent them from being bored.  

Instead of trying to cram learning with activity after activity, it is better to have an environment where children can explore, investigate and inquire with help from a guide.  

If a child is interested in looking at rocks, an adult to offer a bit of information by perhaps pointing out the different structure of the rocks—igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic—and then retreating, offers the child the quiet opportunity to do further exploration, thinking, or simple consolidation of new and old information.

A child’s learning is deeper when it comes from within versus being crammed in by using flash cards, worksheets, questioning and on and on.  

If we each look at our individual style of learning, we’ll perhaps see that we learn best when we choose our activity, do it to our satisfaction, and then have a period of rest or contemplation to unify our thoughts.  

My grandmother resisted numerous attempts to buy her a dishwasher, saying that washing the dishes by hand gave her time to think.  My grandmother enjoyed that half hour to reflect on the day’s events and to begin looking forward to the next activities.

Children’s brains need this time to consolidate new experiences, and then choose what activity to do to create meaningful learning.  By the process of selecting what to do, our children reveal to us who they are.  

With time to choose, learning becomes personal and powerful.  Through their choices, our children are telling us their likes, their dislikes, their interests, their passions, their weaknesses, their strengths.  

It all begins with being quiet, and having time that is unencumbered with activities that aren’t evaluated, judged or prioritized by adults.

When we fill up our children’s days with busy work that does not tap into the brain’s powerful way to learn through quiet reflection and choice, we do our children a disservice.

Our children need this valuable unstructured time for contemplation and true learning.  

The brain for proper development needs quiet time, to sit and think and sometimes to “just sits”.  One could say that a child and a child’s brain need time on grandpa’s lap.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Best Brains Require Good Nutrition

Are our children getting the right kinds of food for maximum brain development and health?  

Most parents believe their children are getting adequate nutrition but data shows otherwise.  

Peeking into a few lunch boxes gives some indications and insight into the issue.

Recent research is showing that high levels of fructose contribute to obesity and Type 2 diabetes in children.  High blood sugar levels adversely affect the function of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that helps organize memory.

Children need a diet of complex carbohydrates versus a diet of sugar and foods that have a high glycemic index such as potatoes, white rice, white flour, and white sugar.  Data shows that 25 percent of children under the age of six eat French fried potatoes every day.  One nutritionist recommends avoiding any food that’s white because those foods act like sugar to the brain. 

Current research is showing that certain diseases and conditions have their roots in poor childhood nutrition.  For example, the low intake of calcium rich foods—milk, cheese, broccoli, spinach and other green leafy vegetables—during the first eighteen years of life may predispose women to osteoporosis.

Fresh fruit and vegetables, and whole grains take longer to digest but offer important nutrition that may not be found in the empty calories from the refined carbohydrates in soda and processed foods.  For the young child under age six, certain foods should be avoided, and perhaps we all should avoid them. Two big two no-no seem to be sodas and foods that list sugar in the first five ingredients. 

For sodas, their sugar content is too high and the active ingredients in soda work against bone development.  Soda drink consumption has risen to over sixty gallons per person annually in the United States.  In a study of teenage boys, ages 13 to 18, about 60 percent reported drinking two sodas or more per day, with over 95 percent reported that they drank soda regularly.  In teenagers, over 25 percent of daily calories may be from sodas.  The teenage habits begin before the age of six.

Water is the best liquid for our children to drink as effective brain growth and functioning is dependent on the brain being well hydrated, since the brain is over 90 percent water.

The second no-no: foods that list sugar as one of the first five ingredients include breakfast cereals, breakfast toaster pastries, and more.  High sugar consumption is linked to tooth decay, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and other ailments.  Serve fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains to satisfy a sweet tooth.

Make sure that a child’s diet provides adequate protein.  Too much protein can be as bad as too little but inadequate protein affects brain development and overall health.   Children from one to three years need about 1300 calories per day with 16 grams of protein.  Four to six year olds need about 1800 calories per day with 24 grams of protein.  Seven to ten year olds require around 2000 calories with 28 grams of protein. 

Common protein rich foods include milk, soy milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt, peanut butter, lean meats, fish, poultry, beans, tofu, lentils,  grains, nuts and seeds.
Another nutritionist recommends only shopping the perimeter of your grocery store, as all the nutritious and fresh food is there, and you won’t be tempted by all the fancy packaged processed food in the center aisles.

As my Granddad used to say, pay the grocer or pay the doctor.   Yes, I’d much rather spend my money on blueberries than meeting my medical insurance deductible.  It tastes so much better, and my brain loves it. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Brain Learns Best With Guidance

Studies on how to age well site certain factors for well-being: have a close circle of family and friends, stay active and laugh often.

Amazingly these ingredients for a good life are what the developing mind of the young child under the age of six years also requires. 

Positive social contact serves as a buffer between the young child and the ups and downs of life.  The people in our life can cushion negative experiences and amplify positive experiences. 

Children need a mediator, a guide of sorts, to keep and hold relationships together for the long term.

Young children need people around them who will promote, practice, point out, protect and enjoy the adventure of life with them.  Children should have someone who will explain the nuances of culture.  This help is essential in a young child’s development, as the child has no ability or experience in shaping what influences individual brain development.  The young child needs a person to make sense of life and serve as a protector of brain development.

Brain research supports a new connectionist model of brain development that suggests that sensory input into the brain creates the neural pathways based on life experiences.  The pathways that get the most input grow more complex.  Those pathways that don’t receive sensory input disappear. 

This is part of the nature or nurture question.  Are we born with natural gifts or do we absorb our gifts through the learning we do in our environment?  Research shows that we may be born with natural tendencies, but if those leanings are not supported in our environment, we lose the ability to tap into those talents.  For example, adopted children who had musically gifted parents and grandparents and were not raised in a music rich environment did not show above average skills or interest in music. 

Positive experience creates positive learning.  If a child’s experiences are negative the brain is not growing in a positive manner, but is being deprived of life-affirming experiences.  

We should not protect our children from every bump and bruise as other research shows that we learn from our mistakes, but we want to protect our children from trauma and abuse.

Trauma and abuse are characterized as physical punishment, bullying, teasing, or harassment.  Children do not have the experience to understand the intricacies of safety, manners, or cause and effect, and need a social guide to help them navigate these culturally turbulent waters. 

Young children are vulnerable and are building resiliency through positive experiences in their lives.  We need to provide the environment for positive interaction for our children and protect them from the stress and distress of trauma and abuse.

The young brain needs positive social support from family and friends to develop in healthy life-affirming ways.  Depression and violence in later life seem to be correlated to early adverse experiences. 

It shouldn’t surprise us that research shows that we retain information longer when we laugh.  Laughing relieves stress, helps form positive relationships, and helps the brain grow. 

So…laugh every day with your children.  Guide and protect them through healthy brain development for a lifetime of well-being. 

Next Week: The Best Brains Require Good Nutrition

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Brain Seeks to Control Stress

Brain researchers believe that a newborn’s brain creates neurons at a rate of over a quarter a million per minute. 

The young brain grows and absorbs information without evaluating, filtering or giving priority to the information.

 The brain receives each event with the same import as every other experience.

The young brain hasn’t learned how to filter critical information for survival, as true or false, real or fantasy, or good or bad.  The brain receives violence, disrespect, hurtful language and physical abuse with the same sense of reality as calmness, kindness, positivity and gentleness. 

Loud noises, harsh lighting, disruptions, irregular schedules, though, are among the activities that create stress in the young child and communicates to the brain and body to be on danger alert. 

The brain seeks to control stress in the young child and begins to create a brain structure based on acceptance or avoidance of the stimuli in the child’s environment.

During the first six years of life the child is in a sensitive period for learning about human relationships and what it means to be human.  When the environment is such that the brain perceives the child’s surroundings as hurtful, brain structure begins to reflect that perception by pruning down neuron development for hearing, touch, hunger, etc. to compensate for the stressful sensory overload.  Likewise, if the environment is calm and nurturing, the brain develops to accept and grow in response to that life-affirming presence.

Our electronic babysitters may contribute more to children’s misperceptions of what it means to be human than the actual experience of living with people. 

Some facts to consider:

36 percent of all children have TV’s in their bedroom
50 percent of households have 3 or more TV’s
49 percent of households have video game players
73 percent of households have computers
99 percent of children live in a home with a TV set

The pervasive nature of electronic media in our children’s lives is substantial.  Children’s Saturday morning programs have averaged 20 to 25 violent acts per hour.  The content of the media—violence, abusive language—affects the stress level of a child and thus the development of the brain and personality.

The brain during the first two years of life is absorbing information as if everything experienced were normal and brain development responds accordingly.  If normal is loud, violent, or abusive, and not the expected loving interaction with adults, the child’s brain development begins to incorporate defensive mechanisms that work against the child’s natural tendencies to be curious and seek out new, challenging and meaningful experiences, the core of true learning.

We need to minimize the amount of distress in our young children’s environments.  Noise levels, lighting, abrupt disruptions, and the threat of violence from television or others needs to be managed by the adults in the child’s life in order to maximize healthy brain growth.

If you have a television in your home, step outside sometime today while the television is playing, and look through a window at the television screen.  

  • Imagine that you are a newborn, a two year old, a three year old.  
  • What are the lighting, the changes in images and the type of images conveying to a child’s mind?  
  • Think about how your child’s brain is reacting to these stressors, and how you can minimize these stressors. 
Remember, a child’s brain grows in response to its environment.

Next week: The Brain Learns Best with Guidance

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Brain Craves Clear and Precise Information

During the first six years of life, the child’s natural development includes the formation of language, with the most intense activity occurring during the first two and a half years of life. 

It seems like common sense to say that the more words a child hears during those first two years of life the larger the child’s vocabulary and aptitude for language will be.

Research proves that intuitive deduction showing that children whose parents spoke to them an average of two to five thousand words per day started kindergarten with an excellent vocabulary. 

Multiply 5000 words per day by five years and you have over 9 million words.  For the child who is exposed to only 1000 words per day, this five-year number drops to around 2 million words, and language skills usually lag behind for a lifetime. 

To get a handle what a thousand words looks like; this column is about 500 words.  A normal rate of speech is 120 words a minute, so a thousand words is about eight to nine minutes of speaking. 

A flood of language does not guarantee optimum language development, though.

Children say the names of things first and we are a help to our children if we name things in a clear and precise way in order to avoid confusion. 

I once spent a delightful hour with a six month-old handing him three pieces of fruit and giving him the name.  After he held the banana for about thirty seconds, I would say “banana.”  This activity mesmerized him.  I’d hand him another piece of fruit and say the name.  Apple. Orange. Banana. He’d hand me back a piece of fruit, smiling and confident that he would get another piece, along with a name. On we went for an hour, interrupted only by the fact that he had a plane to catch.  His dad laughed as they left the boarding area, “I think you had him at banana.”

This experience with the six-month old emphasizes the ways in which we as adults can enhance language development before a child begins to talk:

  • Speak clearly
  • Name things one at a time
  • Whenever possible hand the child the object being named
  • Speak using real words—no goo-goo-duckie-poo baby talk
  • Read aloud for at least ten to fifteen minutes per day
  • Speak in whole sentences, slowly, kindly and respectfully
  • For example, “Orange.  This is an orange.”

After the child begins to speak:

  • Ask questions to encourage and help the child to begin to form sentences. 
    • Who gave you the orange?
    • When did you eat an orange?
    • Why didn’t you like the orange?
    • Where did you put the orange?
  • Read aloud for at least ten to fifteen minutes per day.
  • Show words as well as say them as you read.

Research show that perhaps the biggest help to a child’s language development we can provide is acting with loving-kindness.  Talk, read and listen to your child every day with loving kindness.  You can’t talk to or love your child too much.  And a smile may be worth a thousand words.

Next Week: The Brain Seeks to Control Stress

Join me for this workshop today! 

Click here to register or for more information. 

Taken a Kids Talk Online Workshop?

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Brains Love Opportunities for Meaningful Learning

During the first six years of life our brains are developing at a tremendous rate, creating a foundation for life-long learning and accomplishment.  Research shows that under sixes with an enriched learning environment are more likely to complete college, to have successful marriages, and to have less problems with the legal system than their peers who did not have the same learning interventions.

Children are born to naturally learn and confidently engage, while forming attachments, with the people and objects around them.  This positive engagement and attachment with people creates essential social and emotional skills in the child.  

The frequent back and forth interaction with caring adults early in a child’s life forms the emotional development for a life of successful relationships.

This variety of experiences with differing challenges in the context of human relationships creates deep meaning in a child’s psyche.  When these important experiences are not happening, a child will let us know.  

Most children under the age of two years who cry and aren’t wet, hungry, tired or sick are simply…bored.

Bored. Bored. Bored.  The bored child is crying out for challenging and meaningful experiences. The child cannot connect meaningfully to a DVD, TV set or computer game.  The child requires caring people to help him or her get in touch with positive life-affirming activities.

The child comprehends from early on that the adults in his or her environment are the purveyors of these meaningful experiences.  The adult’s preparation of an environment with new, intriguing and purposeful activities is crucial to the child’s developing brain.

The playthings or tools a child needs for these brain-stimulating activities involve these characteristics: 
  • The child’s creative manipulation, not the child watching the toy or activity passively
  • The child’s making of sounds instead of passively listening to recorded sounds
  • The child has pieces to assemble, take apart, put together again, and the objects won’t break   

An example of an activity that most children love to do during the period of time between crawling and mastering walking is getting into the pots and pans.  The child will pull out all the pots and pans, bang lids, try to place the lids on top of different pans, stack the pans, and more.  The child who is walking may carry each pan to a different room.  This child selected pots and pans activity meets the three criteria for a brain stimulating activity.

What is interesting is if we give the child enough time and not interrupt his or her actions, the child will return every item back to the cabinet.  I’ve watched a seven-month old “explore” the pots and pans for two hours one evening, then return the next morning to the pots and pans left out over night on the kitchen floor, returning each item to the cabinet.

In our hurried world we rarely give our children the time they might need to fully experience the challenging and meaningful activities their brains crave for growth.  The young child needs opportunities for meaningful activities, and that requires lots of time with people, as well as time to explore and interact with physical objects.

Give the gift of your time, quantity as well as quality.  A child needs both. 

Next Week:  The Brain Craves Clear and Precise Information 

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