Only Calm Minds Can Learn, According to Science

In May I made a split second panicked decision to cancel a trip to Mexico with my best friends and our children because my 19-month-old daughter was on day five of having absolutely insane tantrums. The one at the airport (that ultimately resulted in me returning to the airline desk in tears to retrieve my already checked luggage and carseat) was going on thirty minutes before I decided there's no way I was putting myself in a 3-foot torture chamber for the next five hours with a screaming toddler on my lap and 100's of people staring at me in frustration, or at best pity, no matter how much I craved Mexican culture, the beach, making memories with good friends and relaxation, which I clearly wasn't going to get. After that incident, I began obsessively consuming books with titles like, "No Drama Discipline", "The Happiest Toddler on the Block" and "How to Deal with the Terrible Twos". Thank God for Amazon's "Customers who bought this item also bought" feature. In all these books, I noticed one common theme, the same theme I saw in every educational book or training I participated in as a behavior interventionist: Only Calm Minds Can Learn. 

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It doesn't matter if you're teaching mathematics in a classroom, or teaching little Suzie that she doesn't get a candy every time you check out at the grocery store because its bad for her teeth. A mind that is worried, upset, frustrated or angry can not physiologically absorb information. When we're feeling this way, the part of the brain called the amygdala hijacks the rest of the brain, and stress hormones flood the body, meaning that the part of the brain that allows us to take in and process information (the prefrontal cortex) is not fully functioning because its been taken over by the amygdala. This is why it is so important to calm the mind before the brain can learn. 

In the book No Drama Discipline the authors explain that from its inception, the word discipline has meant "to teach", and remind us that the goal of discipline should not be to punish, but to teach the correct behavior. Punishing without teaching will not foster the correct behavior in future situations. Luckily, parenting books are chock-full of incredibly effective and easy little techniques to use with your children to calm them down. (My personal favorite, and what I found most effective with my daughter, is to remove the tantruming toddler from the situation, then get below their eye level; set them on a counter, or kneel down to speak to them. This removes the authoritative feel, and provides connection for the child when they need it most.)

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Unlike these parenting books, I found almost no strategies to use in the classroom to create a calm learning environment when I was an educator. Of course when you're trying to calm one child, similar techniques as found in parenting books can be applied, i.e. connecting, removing the child from the situation, breathing, counting, etc. But, how could I make sure the minds of 20+ children are calm in order for them to learn? This was of particular concern to me working with students from inner-city households because poverty is the number one predictor for stress in children, and high levels of stress hinder the development of a child's prefrontal cortex, that part of the brain mentioned above that controls our intellectual functions, according to Paul Tough in his most recent book Helping Children Succeed (p. 15). Dr. Dana Suskind author of Thirty Million Words says, "If a child's mind can't, in a sense, quiet itself or concentrate on the information being presented, that information will not be absorbed by the child. It's that simple. The result is not only curtailed learning at that moment, but a poor prognosis for future learning, regardless of the child's potential IQ." (Suskind, p. 112). Yikes! 

I had been practicing mindfulness regularly, and noticed that I was not only much calmer, but my thinking was clearer, too. So clear that I told my mindfulness expert, Dr. Bira that I really, honestly, with all of my heart and research from experts believe mindfulness is the key to education because it helps students' minds quiet and the part of the brain that allows them to learn (the prefrontal cortex) is ready to absorb information. We can create all the fanciest academic curricula in the world, but if our students' minds aren't calm and focused, then they're not learning it. Dr. Bira agreed, but said, "I don't know how to work with kids. You've got to do this." It was then that Calma was born, and with the oversight from Dr. Bira, focus groups of very honest kids, and teacher feedback we wrote a 5 week, 5 lesson curricula with grade-specific guided mindfulness audio in order provide teachers the tools they need to calm the minds of their students in order to grow their brains. And, it is amazing to see calm and loving minds achieve. 

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How to Use Growth Mindset Language to Foster Grit and Good Character in Kids

The work of Carol Dweck's growth mindset has become very popular in classrooms across the country because her research proves that intelligence is malleable, and with hard work, dedication, and the right mindset, anyone achieve. People with a growth mindset "believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment." The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset, which she defines as "people who believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort." But, they're wrong, she says.

There is, however, very specific language to develop such a mindset in children, and it all boils down to praising the process, not the person, or using process-based praise instead of person-based praise. Let's say your child got an "A" on their math test. Awesome! A process-based praise would sound like, "I know you studied really hard for that test to be sure you understood the material. It looks like your hard work paid off. Good job!" as opposed to "You're so good at math; you're a math wiz like your dad!". And, as you might have guessed, person-based praise is praising the person. When Johnny scores the winning goal of his basketball game person-based praise would sound like, "You're so good at basketball. You're a natural." as opposed to "Those extra hours you put in practicing your three-point shot really showed today! Way to go!"

Person-based praise, or telling a child he or she is "smart", "amazing", "a natural", or "the best" unfortunately does not produce a child that will grow up to be "smart", "amazing", "a natural" or "the best". According to Dr. Dana Suskind the author of Thirty Million Words, praising a child in this way is actually counterproductive and counterintuitive because when the child inevitably runs into a situation where something doesn't come natural he or she will be more likely to give up, whether is be on a math test or on the basketball court. This type of praise fosters a fixed mindset, the belief that basic qualities, like intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits that cannot be developed. Dweck's research supports that children who have heard person-based praise have been found to be more likely to give up when things became challenging, and were more likely to lie about achievement in order to appear smarter (Suskind, p. 105). 

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However, when you want to foster a child with good character, one who is kind, empathetic and honest, the exact opposite is true. You want to praise the person, not the process, because you want children to feel like they ARE intrinsically good. For example, if I see my child share her toys I would say, "You ARE such a good friend" as opposed to "It was really nice of you to share your toys." This makes her feel like she is a good person or friend, not that she made the choice to be, and that she has the choice not to be. Adam Grant, the author of the article Raising a Moral Child says, "When our actions become a reflection of our character, we lean more heavily toward the moral and generous choices. Over time it can become a part of us.” (Suskind, p. 125).

In summary, praise the process if you want a gritty child who won't give up. Praise the person if you want to develop a child with good character. I suggest a balance of both so all kids know how to work hard and be nice. 

Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: Empathy

Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: Empathy

Empathy may seem like a "soft" skill, one that's not very important to acquire, or teach our children in order to be successful in school or life. But, new research on the topic shows that empathy is far from "soft", and actually plays an integral role in predicting kids' current and future happiness, success and overall well-being, according to Dr. Borba's book Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. Research shows that having the ability to empathize affects our heath, wealth, authentic happiness, relationship satisfaction, and ability to bounce back from adversity faster. In fact, Harvard Business Review named it one of the "essential ingredients for leadership success and excellent performance". And, just like all character traits, it is a skill that can be taught, learned, cultivated and lived.

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Bilingual Brains

Bilingual Brains

Living in south Texas, my daughter June has already picked up a lot of Spanish, only referring to water as "aqua" and eggs as "huevos", and today she started at the Mustard Seed Academy, a full Spanish Immersion school. When June was just a baby, I read Thirty Million Words by Dr. Dana Suskind, a research-based book that proves that a child's brain grows 85% in the first three years of life, and a warm, loving positive language environment greatly enhances that growth, which affects life-long learning. In her book TMW, she shares the latest research on bilingualism, and discusses the verbal and non-verbal advantages of children who are bilingual. After reading this research, I knew I had to take advantage of the ubiquity of bilingualism that exists in San Antonio, and luckily for us, the Mustard Seed was just three blocks away.

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Connection Calms

I was working as a behavior interventionist at an inner-city charter school a couple years ago, and I distinctly remember the moment I realized that what my most behaviorally challenged kids needed was simply more connection, not more rules and discipline. I was called into a classroom to encounter a five-year-old boy walking around clearly very angry, chest puffed out, a scowl on this face, his hand in the air giving his entire Kindergarten class the middle finger... five.years.old. I guess my mommy instincts kicked in, or something, because I looked at that child and, I thought to myself, "the last thing that kid needs is another stern disciplinary response from another angry authoritative figure. What that kid needs is a hug." Since then, my whole approach to working with "behaviorally challenged" children changed to a connection first approach. 

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Talk to Your Kids About Tragedy

Talk to Your Kids About Tragedy

I am so glad my daughter is only 19 months so that I don't have to talk to her about events like the Manchester bombing... yet. It's only a matter of time. The reality is that terrorist attacks, shootings, and other tragedies will continue to occur in this World. I, for one, am so glad to see experts and organizations coming together to provide resources for us parents, educators and caregivers to know how to talk to our children about these horrible events. 

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Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: Gratitude

Practicing gratitude might sound fluffy, unimportant, or unnecessary, but hard science shows there are many benefits to having a "gratitude attitude" (sorry, I had to). Having a daily gratitude practice, like keeping a gratitude journal or writing daily "thank you" notes increases your energy levels, improves relationships, and makes you happier and healthier, according to science.

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The Traveling Bug

The Traveling Bug

In our early twenties, two of my girlfriends, Aly, Janell, and I had a crazy dream to travel the world. We saved all our money for over a year, quit our first "real" post-college jobs, and travelled to 13 countries and numerous cities from New Zealand to Australia, then Asia & Europe. Needless to say, it was one of the best decisions of our lives because we had an absolute blast, of course, but also because we learned so much about different people, food, cultures, perspectives and ways of living. Now, Aly is adamant that we pass the experience of travel down to our kids with our first stop being Tulum, Mexico in May, and research highly supports it, too!

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Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: 3. Focused Attention

I once heard at a positive behavior training led by Dan St. Romain that a child's attention span = their age + or - two minutes, up to the age of 14. This means a five-year-old kindergarten student can realistically only pay attention for a whopping 3-7 minutes. An eighth grade fourteen-year-old middle school student can give you 12-16 minutes before he or she checks out. Add in hours of screen time full of fast-paced entertainment, and a child's ability to focus in the classroom decreases, while their need for loud, animated, rapid and exciting entertainment increases. This leaves teachers to fight a losing battle, vying for the attention of 25-30 students while delivering lesson plans of minimal entertainment for more than quadruple the amount of time a child is actually able to pay attention. 

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Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: 2. Stress Reduction

Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: 2. Stress Reduction

Have you ever taken a shower, and when drying off thought, "Did I even wash my hair?" because you were so focused on rehearsing that crucial conversation you are supposed to have with your boss that day? Or have you ever driven somewhere thinking about the millions of things you have to do just to arrive at your destination, and realize you don't remember the drive, that you were on complete autopilot? That's ok. Me too. It's not your fault, or mine. Our brains are preconditioned to stress over the past, or worry about the future, instead of focusing on the present moment. Research shows us that this stress is really bad for our health, but also that there's a lot we can do to change the brains we were born with, even into adulthood. 

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Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: 1. Self-Control

Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids: 1. Self-Control

I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a parent or teacher say, "He just needs to learn to calm down, control his temper, not talk back, stop yelling, or not hit his sister when he gets mad." In other words, he just needs to learn self-control. Expecting kids to just learn self-control is like expecting them to just learn math, but actually even harder because the part of the brain that learns math is developed, but the part of the brain that would help them calm down, the prefrontal cortex, doesn't completely mature until the early twenties. 

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Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids

Counting the Benefits of Practicing Mindfulness with Kids

I've mentioned before in previous posts that I started practicing mindfulness, or mindful meditation, back in March when I stumbled upon Dr. Lindsay Bira's meet-up group. (See the video below about mindfulness if you have no idea what I'm talking about.) Mindfulness, again, isn't some weird, fluffy hippie stuff; it is research-based science that proves that you can train your brain to have better focus, attention and emotional regulation. After attending a couple drop-in mindfulness classes guided by Dr. Bira, I began to notice physical and mental benefits: my stress/anxiety level had decreased drastically, I felt like I could think more clearly (no more mommy brain!), and, overall I was calmer and happier. Knowing I would be returning to work as an inner-city charter school educator in the not so distant future, I began thinking about how practicing brief mindfulness techniques in the classroom could benefit the staff, but especially my (K-4) students who seemed to lack the basic ability to focus, emotional and behavioral regulation, and self-control. Coincidentally, Dr. Bira had recently trained an elementary school staff in mindfulness practices, and was happy to train ours. 

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How to Raise Kinder Kids, According to the Experts

How to Raise Kinder Kids, According to the Experts

Despite a tough political season, I still have so much hope for our children's future because of the many parents, grandparents, caregivers and educators (from both parties) I have spoken with who are ready to roll up their sleeves, and get busy raising a generation of kids that are kinder, more understanding, accepting and loving. Fortunately for us, there is a growing body of research called behavioral economics that explores the sometimes irrational ways we all make decisions and think about the world. The hope of the researchers, according to Karen Weese, is that maybe if we can understand a little more about the instinctive, irrational quirks of our kids' minds, then we'll be better equipped to raise children to become caring, respectful and responsible adults. According to Adam Grant's article Raising a Moral Child, studies suggest that anywhere from a quarter to more than half of our propensity to be giving and caring is inherited (i.e. nature). That leaves us a lot of room for nurture, for us to use these researched-based recommendations to mold our children's hearts, and encourage their actions. So, let's get started.

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One Year, Twenty-nine Words

One Year, Twenty-nine Words

Hi. Bye. Bubbles. Mama. Dada. Granddad. Up. Aqua. Ball. Baba. Tickle. Poof. Boo. Moo. Banana. Purple. Hello. Uh-oh. Quack. Woof. Puff. Chris. Thank you. Gus. Diaper. Good. Book. Ooops. and Butt paste... This is the list of words that we have heard our daughter June say in recent weeks leading up to her first birthday compiled by her grandparents, her dad and myself. If you've read my blog, or if you know me at all, I hope you know by now that I am not writing this to brag. As an educator, I am so passionate about sharing any information I can with other moms, dads, caregivers, or anyone willing to read, that will help them to know how important their role is in their child's brain development. In fact, in her book Thirty Million Words, Dr. Dana Suskind says, "the most important component in brain development is the relationship between the baby and his or her caretaker."

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Take a Moment to be in the Moment

Take a Moment to be in the Moment

Since about March I have been practicing mindfulness, or mindfulness meditation, which is simply trying to focus on the moment you are in, recognizing when your mind starts to wonder to other things, then bringing it back to the present moment over, and over, again, and again, without judgment. It's actually incredibly hard because our brains are preconditioned to perseverate over the past, or worry about the future, instead of being in the present. Practicing mindfulness has helped me tune-in to the moment, while in the moment, instead of thinking about the past or worrying about the future.

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Simply Tune-in

In her book Thirty Million Words Dr. Dana Suskind informs us that a child's brain grows 85% in the first three years of life, and that growth is completely dependent on the language environment in which the child is exposed to, which WE, as parents, provide (or not). In her book, she guides us to create the optimal language environment in "three simple steps", called the Three T's: tune-in, talk more and take turns. Lately, I have been making a very conscience effort to "tune-in" with my daughter, June, for the few hours we get to spend together each evening by putting my phone away, turning my thoughts off and engaging in her little world.

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Good News Grandparents, FaceTime is NOT Screen Time

My husband and I live 1,111 miles away from our family, which means our daughter, June lives 1,111 miles away from her closest grandparent. So, naturally, we get several FaceTime calls a week, and by "we" I really mean June. My mom doesn't even try to pretend like she's calling to talk to me anymore. She'll even text me saying, "What's June doing right now?" If I say she's napping, or she's out with her dad, she'll write back, "ok, talk later!" (I don't blame her one bit, though. I can't imagine being 1,111 miles away from June.) So, with six grandparents, and at least double that amount of aunts and uncles, we spend a good amount of time Facetiming. Luckily, FaceTime does not count as screen time.

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Tuned-Out

I recently started back to work as a character development teacher after having spent seven months at home with my daughter, June. I have been shocked at myself because I thought I would soak in every precious, golden second I could with her after going from being with her 24-hours a day to approximately four, if I'm lucky. Instead, too often, I find myself thinking "I'm just going to grab my phone to turn on music for us", and ten minutes later I'm still checking Emails, or texting my mom pictures of her, or watching another clip from The Late Night Show about the political craziness our country has found itself in. I have to constantly remind myself to put my phone away, and tune-in. 

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The Rules of Two to Tackle the Terrible, Terrible-Two's

There is nothing I love more than a good tantrum. Seriously. Some people like to watch thunderstorms from their front porch, or cat videos on YouTube. Not me. I love a good ol' fashioned melt-down. (As long as it's not my child, of course.) I was out to lunch with a friend the other day, and she called me out on completely ignoring her to watch this mother daughter duo have it out in the middle of the restaurant. The toddler ran across the dinning room away from her mom twice. It was awesome. I even follow an Instagram account called @assholeparents that is dedicated to posting children having tantrums over ridiculous things like a boy's mom giving him the blue bowl instead of his sister's pink one, or a couple of parents not letting their daughter have birthday presents, when it wasn't her birthday. I highly recommend you follow the account so that us parents can bond over the absurdity of our children. 

And that's exactly the point. Tantrums, more often than not, make no sense, begin out of nowhere and over nothing, and, when met with logical reasoning, only seem to escalate. Last year, when I was working as a behavior interventionist, it was my sole job to understand the tantrums of five and six-year-olds, and to try to prevent their reoccurence. I'll be the first to admit that I had no idea there was so much neuroscience behind tantrums, and I wish I knew then what I have recently learned. In The Whole-Brain Child, authors Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson do an amazing job of explaining the brain science behind tantrums. The authors write that there are two specific types of tantrums that come from two different regions of the brain, not to be confused with the two different hemispheres of the brain, which are also extremely important to understanding tantrums. I'll explain...

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Teaching Children Tolerance

Disclaimer: This is more of an Op-Ed post, if you will. So far, all of my blog posts have been research-based, but this one is written about my experience of teaching children tolerance, empathy and respect as a behavior intervention and character development teacher. After the worst shooting in U.S. history, I feel compelled to do my little part of spreading love, peace and tolerance to anyone willing to read.

Sunday morning I sat in bed reading the news and watching videos on the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub that killed 49 men and women, and injured 53 others. I was so sad, and angry; I could literally feel my blood boiling in my body while tears rolled down my face. Luckily, I had been asked attend a prenatal yoga class that afternoon as a sort-of "graduate" to share how practicing yoga helped me in pregnancy, and through the birthing process. Before class started, the mommies-to-be in the room were asked to go around the room, and share how many weeks along they were, and how they were feeling that day. One of the women broke down crying on her mat about the Orlando tragedy, scared of the type of world she is bringing her baby into. We all sat crying, thinking about the pain and suffering of this sometimes scary world until one mom spoke up, and said "you know, it's ok to grieve, and we all should. But, we can also feel empowered, and encouraged that we have the opportunity to raise these children of ours to be the ones that spread love, that show tolerance and respect to others. We get to raise a new generation of people, and I think that's a gift."

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