Think better.

American parents embrace the idea that we play an important role in molding our infant’s brains. Good nutrition, exercise, and cognitive stimulation for our babies leads to smarter, better-developed children.   At the first signs of pregnancy, we spend millions on toys, music, and devices that stimulate neural connections and improve cognition.  We use speakers to pipe Mozart into the uterus, set up black and white mobiles above our babies’ cribs to stimulate their visual systems, and when we have to use formula, we choose formula with DHA to promote myelination. Jean Piaget, a famous Swiss developmental psychologist wryly referred to our culture’s obsession with how to improve our infants’ developmental outcomes as “the American question.” This is our birthright. 

What happens to that enthusiasm for building our children’s brain function beyond toddlerhood?  Even as neuroscience research has accumulated that demonstrates that our brains can be shaped throughout our lifespan by the same environmental factors that shape infants’ brains, neither psychologists or the public have become similarly focused on influencing brain function and cognitive outcomes in later childhood and beyond. That’s not like us.  Rather than focusing on improving brain function, once our children begin school, our focus shifts towards improving brain content.  We want our children to acquire skills and information.  We abandon the project of creating better functioning brains. 

As the data on neuroplasticity (the ability of the environment and experiences to shape the brain throughout life) accumulates, a burgeoning rank of neuropsychologists and neuroscientists are directing our attention to something intrinsically interesting.  How can we help people think better, throughout childhood and beyond?  Framed another way, how can we improve our school age children’s brain function, not just brain content?

In my next series of blog posts, I will be sharing neuroplasticity research, showing that exercise, diet, and exposure to novel experiences improves our children’s brain function.  I will also share the specific strategies that the research suggests: the school age equivalent of hanging black and white mobiles above our children’s cribs.

Creating engineers

I found myself in the “girl aisles” of Toys R Us with my two older sons last week, shopping for my daughter’s 5th birthday. There was no sign directing us to a segregated area of the store, but we knew where we should be going. Girl aisles are filled with pink toys, which include dolls, housekeeping equipment, princess items, and fashion crafts.  And faeries.  Pictures of happy girls are splashed all over the packaging. 

Why are such a small percentage of girls training as engineers and mathematicians in college, and entering STEM (Science Math Engineering and Medicine) disciplines? Few parents today tell their girls that those are “men’s fields.”   But many parents comment that their girls “just don’t gravitate” towards engineering and math. 

Psychology research tells us that what we enjoy has a lot to do with what we are comfortable with, what we feel competent doing, and what we share with our friends.  When our daughters grow up with little experience with engineering activities (like Lego’s and Kinex), and have not experienced success with increasingly complex engineering activities (like following the schemas in a snap circuits set) they naturally do not gravitate towards related engineering activities in school.

This holiday season, I plan to walk away from the “girl aisle” and buy a few toys for my daughter that will allow her to build her confidence and experience a sense of fun with engineering activities. Here is a wonderful video encouraging girls to “disrupt the pink aisles.”  Enjoy!

To cure depression: fix sleep problems

http://mobile.nytimes.com/2013/11/19/health/treating-insomnia-to-heal-depression.html

For decades, researchers have known that poor sleep leaves people vulnerable to developing depression and anxiety.  The presence of poor sleep has also been found to act as a barrier to recovery from mood problems.  Now, researchers have shown that treating poor sleep doubles the chance of recovering from depression. 

From a neuroscience perspective, this makes sense.  Restricting sleep results in less activation of the frontal executive network.  This is the area of the brain that helps us regulate strong emotions like sadness and worry.  When this brain system is working well, it allows us to “talk ourselves down” from depressive thoughts like “things will never work out,” or “I’ll never feel any other way.” When it is not working well, it is easy to become overwhelmed with negative feelings.

When a family member has depression, actively ensuring healthy sleep habits is an important first step in helping them feel better.  Rather than sleeping pills, which have side effects that can effect mental sharpness, the study demonstrates that utilizing non medication sleep techniques works to improve both sleep and mood.

Excerpt from the NY Times article. 

“Curing insomnia in people with depression could double their chance of a full recovery, scientists are reporting. The findings, based on an insomnia treatment that uses talk therapy rather than drugs, are the first to emerge from a series of closely watched studies of sleep and depression to be released in the coming year.

The new report affirms the results of a smaller pilot study, giving scientists confidence that the effects of the insomnia treatment are real. If the figures continue to hold up, the advance will be the most significant in the treatment of depression since the introduction of Prozac in 1987.

Depression is the most common mental disorder, affecting some 18 million Americans in any given year, according to government figures, and more than half of them also have insomnia.

Experts familiar with the new report said that the results were plausible and that if supported by other studies, they should lead to major changes in treatment.

“It would be an absolute boon to the field,” said Dr. Nada L. Stotland, professor of psychiatry at Rush Medical College in Chicago, who was not connected with the latest research.

“It makes good common sense clinically,” she continued. “If you have a depression, you’re often awake all night, it’s extremely lonely, it’s dark, you’re aware every moment that the world around you is sleeping, every concern you have is magnified.”

The study is the first of four on sleep and depression nearing completion, all financed by the National Institute of Mental Health. They are evaluating a type of talk therapy for insomnia that is cheap, relatively brief and usually effective, but not currently a part of standard treatment.

The new report, from a team at Ryerson University in Toronto, found that 87 percent of patients who resolved their insomnia in four biweekly talk therapy sessions also saw their depression symptoms dissolve after eight weeks of treatment, either with an antidepressant drug or a placebo pill — almost twice the rate of those who could not shake their insomnia. Those numbers are in line with a previous pilot study of insomnia treatment at Stanford.

In an interview, the report’s lead author, Colleen E. Carney, said, “The way this story is unfolding, I think we need to start augmenting standard depression treatment with therapy focused on insomnia.”

Dr. Carney acknowledged that the study was small — just 66 patients — and said a clearer picture should emerge as the other teams of scientists released their results. Those studies are being done at Stanford, Duke and the University of Pittsburgh and include about 70 subjects each. Dr. Carney will present her data on Saturday at a convention of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, in Nashville.

Doctors have known for years that sleep problems are intertwined with mood disorders. But only recently have they begun to investigate the effects of treating both at the same time. Antidepressant drugs like Prozac help many people, as does talk therapy, but in rigorous studies the treatments, administered individually, only slightly outperform placebo pills. Used together the treatments produce a cure rate — full recovery — for about 40 percent of patients.

Adding insomnia therapy, however, to an antidepressant would sharply lift the cure rate, Dr. Carney’s data suggests, as do the findings from the Stanford pilot study, which included 30 people.

Doctors have long considered poor sleep to be a symptom of depression that would clear up with treatments, said Rachel Manber, a professor in the psychiatry and behavioral sciences department at Stanford, whose 2008 pilot trial of insomnia therapy provided the rationale for larger studies. “But we now know that’s not the case,” she said. “The relationship is bidirectional — that insomnia can precede the depression.”

Full-blown insomnia is more serious than the sleep problems most people occasionally have. To qualify for a diagnosis, people must have endured at least a month of chronic sleep loss that has caused problems at work, at home or in important relationships. Several studies now suggest that developing insomnia doubles a person’s risk of later becoming depressed — the sleep problem preceding the mood disorder, rather than the other way around.

The therapy that Dr. Manber, Dr. Carney and the other researchers are using is called cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I for short. The therapist teaches people to establish a regular wake-up time and stick to it; get out of bed during waking periods; avoid eating, reading, watching TV or similar activities in bed; and eliminate daytime napping.

The aim is to reserve time in bed for only sleeping and — at least as important — to “curb this idea that sleeping requires effort, that it’s something you have to fix,” Dr. Carney said. “That’s when people get in trouble, when they begin to think they have to do something to get to sleep.”

This kind of therapy is distinct from what is commonly known as sleep hygiene: exercising regularly, but not too close to bedtime, and avoiding coffee and too much alcohol in the evening. These healthful habits do not amount to an effective treatment for insomnia.

In her 2008 pilot study testing CBT-I in people with depression, Dr. Manber of Stanford used sleep hygiene as part of her control treatment. She found that 60 percent of patients who received seven sessions of the talk therapy and an antidepressant fully recovered from their depression, compared with 33 percent who got the same drug and the sleep hygiene therapy.

In the four larger trials expected to be published in 2014, researchers had participants keep sleep journals to track the effect of the CBT-I therapy, writing down what time they went to bed every night, what time they tried to fall asleep, how long it took, how many awakenings they had and what time they woke up.

When the diaries show consistent, seldom-interrupted, good-quality slumber, the therapist conducts an interview to determine if there are any lingering issues. If there are none, the person has recovered. The therapy results in sharp reductions in nighttime wakefulness for most people who follow through.”

 

Neural Stimulation Improves Dyslexia

Italian researchers were able to temporarily improve reading in adults with dyslexia by stimulating neural pathways known to be underactive in dyslexic readers.  

When they read, Dyslexic individuals produce less activation in brain regions responsible for mapping sounds to print, and applying phonetic rules. Researchers tested the idea that non-invasive stimulation of the underactive reading pathways would result in improved reading accuracy and fluency. Indeed, when applied prior to a reading task, dyslexics read faster and more accurately after these pathways were stimulated. 

These findings are similar to previous studies using the same devices, working with stroke patients who had lost language abilities.  Stimulation of language pathways prior to language testing led to patients naming more objects. 

This is a preliminary study of a small number of adults, but the research shows promise.  This was the first study that demonstrated improvement in reading performance based on direct neural pathway stimulation.

How to improve reading skills in dyslexics:  the impact of high frequency rTMS Costanzo et. al., 2013.   

The solution for texting while studying

No Txt @ hmwork!

alarmclock.jpg

Who is better at multitasking?  You or your teenagers?  According to multiple studies, the answer is: you.   Most teens honestly think they are better because the not-quite-fully-developed part of their brain that multitasks (the frontal executive network) is also the part of their brain that monitors how well they are thinking.    

We know from adult studies that being interrupted during problem solving tasks leads to significantly lower IQ scores.  This effect is even worse for teens. Being interrupted during homework time by incoming or outgoing texts, email, or telephone calls, or giving into the impulse to go on Facebook will make it harder for your teen to complete their homework and effectively study.  The problem is, the immediacy of communication makes it difficult to set limits- teens (often rightly so) believe their friends will feel slighted, or they will miss major social events, if they are confined to radio silence for hours at a time.

Unfortunately, this problem is not limited to teens.  All of us must address the barrage of incoming information, while balancing the “NOW!” demands of communication. Here is an effective strategy that we can all use to manage that information, while still feeling connected in:

The 10 minute communication break.  Once an hour, tell your teen to schedule a 10 minute communication break.  For example, this could be from 2:50 until 3:00, and from 3:50 until 4:00. During that time they can respond to texts, write emails, go on Facebook, and use their cell.  After the 10 minutes, all devices are turned off until the next 10 till the hour.  

When adults use this strategy, they often are surprised by their increase in productivity and reduced stress.  Many will create an outgoing email that says they will respond at 10 till the hour, in order to manage expectations from colleagues and friends.  Your teen can do the same with their email or voice mail, writing this on their Facebook wall, and notifying friends in advance.  

Using this strategy allows parents to “put down the rope” in their ongoing tug of war against cell phones, texts, and Facebook during homework time.  When parents model similar strategies in their own home and work life, it creates significant buy in from teens. 

Neuropsychological assessment for attention deficit disorder (ADHD and ADD)

Last year an article in the Boston Globe caught my eye.  It described a new test for ADHD, which involved hooking children up to a motion sensor.  This was hailed as the first “objective” test for ADHD.  Children are complex creatures, and this article struck me as very misleading to parents, educators, and other doctors.  In response, I wrote a letter to the editor, which the paper kindly published titled, “ADHD diagnosis made easy?  Think again.”  

Before diagnosing a child (or adult) with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, we need to first objectively identify the presence of an attention problem. We also need to understand the “so what?” of the problem. Is it affecting the child at school, at home, on the ball field? Are the expectations in all of these settings reasonable? Other factors can mimic the symptoms of ADHD, and identifying whether those factors are present is critical in making an accurate diagnosis. Is the child getting enough sleep, are there stressors at home, is the child dyslexic or anxious?  

In isolation, a single “test” of ADHD can be misleading and result in a treatment path that isn’t effective.   This is the benefit of a thorough neuropsychological assessment.  Objective measurement of attention, identification of other learning disabilities or emotional issues, and a clear description of children’s thinking strengths gives us the most accurate diagnosis of the problem, and also a clear understanding of how best to address the problem.  

A Parent's Guide to the Neuroscience of Earning As: Sleep and Academic Success

What is an “electronic blackout”? Can I really make it happen in our home- and how will it improve my child’s grades?

Its not just teenagers who don’t get enough sleep. Many adults, particularly women in their 30s and 40s come into my office worried that they have adult ADD, or worse, the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease. When we talk about their daily schedule, an overwhelming set of multiple roles and responsibilities emerge. Work, carpools, volunteering, household management. The only time they seem to have to themselves is late at night after the kids go to bed. So they get 6 or 6 ½ hours of sleep each night. And the next morning? Tired. Poor attention.

Neuroscience backs up the folk wisdom that a good night’s sleep is important (“early to bed..early to rise..) Functional neuroimaging now allows us to compare brain function in people who aren’t getting enough sleep each night with those who are. After only a week of 6 ½ hours sleep each night, brain metabolism substantially declines. Particularly in the frontal lobe: affecting attention, problem solving, and the ability to resist distracters. This is bad news for teenagers who are chronically sleep deprived, and really tough on kids of all ages whose parents haven’t structured an early enough bed time.

Our children really need a good nights’ sleep in order to be able to pay attention and learn efficiently. In my clinical practice I frequently see students like Matthew, whose family brought him in to my office convinced that he had attention deficit disorder. His real problem was two years worth of 6 hours of sleep each night. The dilemma in his case was common. An early start time for his high school conflicted with his natural teenage circadian rhythm. Teenagers naturally fall asleep later and get up later in the day. Unfortunately, because school starts so early, often they go to bed late and wake up early, resulting in chronic low level sleep deprivation. So how do we get our teenagers to sleep at a reasonable hour?

ELECTRONIC BLACKOUT:   

The human brain is highly stimulated by electronics: the fast edits of TV, quick pace of video games, multitasking of instant messaging, the beats of songs on the ipod. It is very difficult to fall asleep immediately after shutting the TV off, when the brain is highly stimulated. Rather, the brain needs to come in for a soft landing, gradually relaxing from the high stimulation of daily activities. If one stays highly stimulated until getting into bed, often time there is 30 to 60 minutes of staring at the ceiling before the brain can quiet down and fall asleep. Many people, who never turn off their electronics must use the technique of exhaustion to fall asleep. If one goes to bed after midnight, even a highly stimulated brain will shut down from sheer exhaustion. Often, they will say “but I can’t fall asleep before midnight.” In reality, they don’t give their brains a chance to fall asleep at a more reasonable hour.

The electronic blackout is one of many “sleep hygiene techniques” that allows your teenager’s brain to “come in for a soft landing” beginning about an hour before the target bedtime, so that when their heads hit the pillow, they will be ready to sleep. It’s not rocket science, but it is very effective. One hour prior to bed time, have your child turn off the TV, ipod, cell phone, and computer. They can read, play a game, finish homework, or catch up with family members. Of course you will get flack for this new policy. But the result will be an earlier bedtime, and greater attention capacity during the school day.

Exercise improves our memory

Want to grow new brain cells? It turns out that exercise leads to new brain cell development, in an area of the brain called the hippocampus- which is the gateway to forming memories. This finding is remarkable because until not so long ago, neruoscientists assumed that humans were born with a certain number of brain cells- and that was it throughout one’s life. Now it’s clear that new cells are born throughout our lives, in the area of the brain responsible for laying down new memories, and this process is triggered by exercise. When we exercise- and it has to be enough to really sweat, neurogenesis- or the birth of new cells- is the result.

Even more interesting: animal models suggest that the cells that are born may die within a few days unless the brain is challenged to learn new information. That is, it appears that the cells are born “just in case” they are needed. So in order to improve memory function, It makes sense that we should BOTH exercise and engage in activities that challenge us to think and remember. Get the brain cells multiplying, then make sure those new cells stay around.

Does your job challenge you to think creatively and learn new information? Great. If not, engage in activities that require flexible thought and memorizing. Card games are a great leisure activity that fit this bill. Bridge is making a comeback, and its combination of strategy and memory demands makes it particularly helpful to brain health. Some forms of poker also require memorizing cards and strategy.

Eating foods or supplements with omega-3 fatty acids also improves the process of preserving new cells that were born as a result of exercise in animal models. So eating salmon for dinner, after running in the morning and playing bridge or poker is one of the best brain healthy routines out there.

The caveat here is that the presence of stress releases hormones into the brain that can prevent the new brain cells from sticking. So, if we want to improve cognitive abilities, the key is to exercise and engage in challenging mental activities, while keeping stress down. If you always fight with your partner during a bridge game- choose other games! If stress is present in other areas of life, such as on the job, kids, marriage, practice some simple stress reducing techniques such as mindful breathing.

(Mindful breathing: put aside 5 minutes, sit quietly, relax each muscle group starting with the toes and ending with the head. Then breathe in, stating a word or phrase quietly to yourself, such as “calm.” Exhale. Then breathe in again and repeat the phrase. It’s very simple, and the technique reliably creates a feeling of calm and lowers tension.)

 

A+ study techniques

Teachers frequently come up to me after a workshop and say, “I wish kids were taught study techniques. They come to my class room totally unprepared.” The ironic thing is that it doesn’t matter what grade they teach, they all feel like last years’ teacher should have taught the kids how to study.

It’s time we teach kids how to study.

The ability to organize information as it goes in to the memory system, so students can efficiently get the information out when needed is an important skill of the frontal executive network. Like other executive functions, the ability to memorize efficiently improves over time. Most kids don’t start to spontaneously use memorization techniques until 10 or 11. But, interestingly, if adults lend them relatively simple structures to organize information, younger children’s ability to memorize information is as good as a much older student.


Unfortunately, through high school and even college, most students utilize the least efficient memorization technique: rehearsal. Read the information over and over; write the information over and over. Its easy to “zone out” and not get any benefit from the study session whatsoever. Even if this technique is resulting in A’s this year, as the amount of material to be memorized increases, eventually rehearsal techniques will fail.


Here's a well kept secret: learning study techniques in isolation, like from a book or a study skills workshop, is essentially useless. Techniques must be learned in the context of information to be memorized;  Introduce your child to one study technique at a time, in the context of information they need to learn. My website has a dedicated section, A+ study techniques, that are regularly updated. So as soon as you know when the next test is scheduled, pick a technique, practice it with your child using the information they need to learn for the upcoming test.  If it results in an A, its a keeper.  If it didn't fit with your child's style, try another technique next week.  By the end of the school year, your child will have a study tool kit of 4 or 5 effective study strategies they know well.  This puts them WAY ahead of their peers and in a great position to tackle next years tougher material.

Can a few simple structures improve your child's brain?

In this blog post, I’m going to describe three functions of the frontal executive network of the brain that directly translate into academic success: the ability to inhibit, to memorize complex information, and to think flexibly. These abilities improve as our children mature. Good news for our kids: research demonstrates that adults can lend children simple structures that allow their brains to work as efficiently as if they possessed a more mature frontal executive network system.

Inhibition

In the 70s psychologists wanted everyone to get rid of our inhibitions. “You’re inhibited” became a character slur for the un-cool. To a neuroscientist studying children’s brain development, inhibition is a great thing, referring to the executive network’s ability to suppress input that distracts from the task at hand. The input could come from a student’s own body “I need to stretch,” “the girl next to me is really cute…” , the students’ own thoughts “everyone else has already finished this test!”, or from the outside world such as a noisy classroom. Researchers use a clever strategy called the “day/ night task” to study the emergence of this ability in young children.


A child is asked to look at a picture of nighttime and say the word “day,” and a picture of daytime and asked to say the word “night.” Three and four year olds have a terrible time with this. But by age 6 most children can do this task with ease. Researchers noticed that the older kids tended to pause prior to responding, as if they were rejecting their first impulse, and then switching to the appropriate answer. So they gave the three and four year olds a structure, singing a little song “Think about the answer don’t tell me..” before allowing them to respond. Guess what? When the young children had to wait until the jingle was over, they gave the correct answer just as often as the six year olds!

Same child, same brain, better answer: because an adult had lent them a structure that allowed their brains to work as effectively as if their frontal networks were more mature.

Memorization

Here’s another remarkable example. Many adults with frontal lobe tumors have terrible memories. Give them a list of words to remember and compared to a healthy adult, their scores are abysmal. The difference is that a healthy adult will take a long list of words and organize it into meaningful sub lists- the information is easier to memorize that way. Tumors in the frontal lobe often interfere with the executive function of organizing such information as it goes into our memory system.
When researchers from the University of California Berkeley organized the list before they asked tumor patients to memorize it, the patients were able to recall as many items as healthy adults taking the same memory test.


Same list of words, same brain, better function: because researchers acted as an external frontal network, lending patients a structure that allowed their brains to work as effectively as if they did not have a diseased frontal lobe.


FlexibleThinking

The ability to “think flexibly” or ignore the way you have been doing something, and shift to a different way of doing something is called “set shifting.” And at the moment of “shift” a particular area of our brains becomes very active- the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (or DL-PFC). Researchers use card sorting tasks to study this ability in young children. Toddlers have a difficult time shifting from one way of sorting to another. Is there a way to make set shifting easier for children? Yes. Here’s another example of a fairly simple external structure that boosts children’s executive ability. Natasha Kirkham and her colleagues at Stanford discovered that when the cards are placed face down in the tray when sorting, it is significantly easier for children to correctly shift to a new way of sorting the cards. When the cards are placed face up in the tray, and the children can see the last card while thinking about how to sort the new card, the task is much harder and 50% less 4 year olds are successful!

Same brain, same task, better performance because of a simple external structure.


Just so we don’t become too self satisfied reading this as parents- set shifting, memorizing complex information, and inhibition are still difficult for adult brains. The point here is that it’s much harder for our children to do these tasks that are so important to being successful learners. And we as parents can lend children our more developed executive abilities to make studying easier for them.

"Just back off and let your child learn to study independently"

In the next several blog posts I am going to present simple structures that we can lend to our children during homework time (and that teachers can lend them during class time) that will allow them to learn information more efficiently. These structures include assisting children to organize information before they memorize it, reducing external distracters by creating an optimal study area, and improving their ability to prioritize by creating dedicated study times. Techniques for improving executive function by increasing sleep, helping kids modulate anxiety, and improving exercise will also be shared.

As parents we are often told “Just back off and let your child learn to study independently.” It has some intuitive appeal. If we as parents stop helping our child with their homework, they will “do it on their own.” Maybe. But based on the research, the statement “Just give your child a few simple structures and let them study successfully” sounds a lot more compelling.

Can I borrow your executive network?

What if your teenage daughter asks to borrow your executive network rather than your shoes today? Sounds laughable? You’ve actually been lending it to her since she was a toddler.

Think back to your child’s third birthday party. You may recall that there is no such thing as a drop off party for toddlers. The parents stay in order to follow their own child through the melee, squelching their impulse to grab a present, reassuring them as they cry because they didn’t get the first piece of cake, and keeping an eye out for the first steps in the “pee pee dance.”

A neuroscientist would say that the parents are acting as external executive networks, literally lending their child their own ability to modulate emotion, resist impulses, and plan into the future. Little David’s executive network may not be mature enough to process the urge to pee as a cue to stop playing pin the tail on the donkey. He likely cannot yet plan into the future and see the consequence of waiting too long. But his father uses his own mature executive network to scan for clues David needs to go, and also to modulate David’s frustration that he has to stop playing a fun game to avoid a puddle on the carpet. (Or maybe David’s dad was drinking beer with the other dads and disaster struck).

None of us would agree with the idea that we should just back off and let our toddlers be independent at birthday parties. There would be no more toddler birthday parties! Parents naturally lend their children structures that allow them to function in complex situations. There is nothing about this “loan” that gets in the way of their being able to eventually do it on their own. On the contrary, the loan of their parent’s executive network allows toddlers to have the experience of birthday parties well before they would otherwise be able to independently join in the fun. As children grow and their executive networks begin to mature, they are better and better at regulating their own emotions, resisting impulses, and organizing their time. But as parents of teenagers know, we continue to lend our children structures to assist them in regulating themselves. A set bed time is the perfect example of a structure without which most older children would be walking around like zombies at school after staying up most of the night chatting on the phone with their friends.

Of course, the abilities to resist impulses, plan into the future, and modulate emotion are not only useful for being independent at birthday parties but also for succeeding in the classroom. If we assist our children by lending them our frontal networks in all other areas of their lives, where did the idea come from that they are on their own when it comes to learning?

This is the central irony of education: the executive network of the brain which is responsible for the skills that allow children to study most effectively isn’t fully matured until college is over. Yes, the fourth grade would be a lot easier if we could do it with a mature executive network. Can we lend children our executive networks in academic situations so our kids can learn more effectively? In my next blog post, we will take a look at three executive functions that fuel great studying: the ability to inhibit, to memorize complex information, and to think flexibly. Good news for our kids: research demonstrates that external structures can assist a child’s brain to work as efficiently as if they possessed a more mature frontal system.

The Neuroscience of Earning A's

Welcome to The Neuroscience of Earning A’s

Wouldn’t the fourth grade be easier if we could go through it now, as adults? Is it because our knowledge of state capitals is so encyclopedic that we wouldn’t have to crack a book? No. The real change is the development of our brains over time, particularly a system known as the frontal executive network. This part of the brain is responsible for much of what we value in successful students: bringing us the ability to set goals, organize, memorize complex information, and resist distracters.

The central problem this new blog, The Neuroscience of Earning A's, will address is that we now know this is the last brain region to develop, with a growth spurt in the teenage years, and full maturity around age 21 or 22. Ironically, the system of the brain which allows us to be great at studying isn’t fully on line until college is over! Much of the frustration during homework time for parents stems from this central dilemma. Children forget assignments, don’t prioritize their time, and have trouble resisting distracters during homework. Here is a framework for understanding why this happens with normally developing children.

The good news is that a new generation of brain imaging technologies has changed what we know about how we learn, demonstrating ways in which we can boost the executive function of our children, what to avoid that dampens executive function, and intriguingly, how we as parents can literally “lend children our frontal networks,” using specific techniques to structure homework so that children can learn as effectively as if their frontal networks were more mature.

Over the next several months, I will post entries describing these advances in what we know about how children learn. Here is a fresh guide to helping parents and teachers help children succeed academically, with techniques that make earning As in 4th or 12th grade a lot easier!

The blog is geared to parents and teachers of elementary through high school students who want their children to earn better grades, or who want to make sure their children continue to earn “As” even as academic demands increase in higher grade levels. Parents and teachers of children with executive function disorders- such as attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, autism/ Asperger’s and traumatic brain injury will also find these techniques very helpful in assisting their children to perform better in school.