Your Child’s Growing Brain: Keeping It Happy, Healthy and Moving Forward!

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  • December 01, 2010

baby brain

A guest article about your child’s growing brain by  Frank J. Kros, MSW, JD, President of The Upside Down Organization

I have taken several workshops with Frank Kros from the Upside Down Organization. They are great!!! Just had to share this article with you all! The article is written for teachers but the advice applies to all children and parents!

Parents can do a lot to support the growth and development of his or her child’s brain during this school year. To get the most out of your parenting time and energy, focus on these power-packed strategies.

Strategy #1: Develop the Right Mindset in Your Child

How you praise your child can have a significant impact on his or her attitude and motivation toward learning. In her seminal work: Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House Publishers, 2006), researcher Carol Dweck argues that parents and teachers should stop telling children they are “smart.” Instead of praising them for intelligence or talent, Dweck’s research suggests that praising for strategy selection, hard work and perseverance builds academic resilience in students and improves motivation to learn. Try using phrases such as:

“I like the way you tried a lot of different strategies on that math problem until you finally got it” and “That was a hard English assignment, but you stuck with it until you got it done. You stayed at your desk and kept your concentration. That’s great!” When reviewing homework with your student, ask them to share the strategy they used to solve the problem or task. Focusing your child’s mindset on proper strategy selection, working hard and not giving up when academic material is challenging will develop a “can do” attitude toward learning that will serve them well for years to come.

Strategy #2: Ensure Your Child Gets Enough Sleep

Sleep plays an important role in learning by providing the brain time to organize, consolidate and rehearse information before encoding it to memory. Simply put, children who are shy of sleep are shy of learning. Experts recommend that school-age children need 10 hours of sleep per night and adolescents 9.25 hours per night. Monitor your child’s sleep time to see how many hours they are getting each night. Strive to schedule your bedtime routine so your child is getting the recommended number of hours of sleep. In addition to interfering with optimal learning, youth who sleep less weigh more. If a young person sleeps 9 hours or less per night, research suggests they are up to three times more likely to be obese. Also, less sleep correlates with higher emotional volatility. Helping our children get the right amount of sleep each night has a remarkably positive impact on many important areas of life both at school and at home.

Simply put, children who are shy of sleep are shy of learning. Experts recommend that preschoolers need 10.5-11hours of sleep per night, school-age children need 10 hours per night and adolescents 9.25 hours per night.

Strategy #3: Build Organizational Skills

In a recent survey of private pay tutors, more than half cited the lack of organizational skills as the primary reason students are referred to their companies. Tutors report that teaching organizational skills is often the focus of tutoring because today’s students seem to have more difficulty getting organized and multi-tasking. Many students never learn a consistent, comprehensive organizational system for academics. Both parents and teachers can improve student performance, lower student stress and improve students’ attitude toward school by teaching students how to organize. There are many excellent and inexpensive resources for building organizational skills. Two of my favorites include the SOAR curriculum and Martin Kutscher’s and Susan Moran’s highly practical book, Organizing the Disorganized Child (HarperCollins Publishers, 2009). Both are practical, inexpensive and available at Amazon.com.

Strategy #4: Exercise is Critical to Healthy Brain Development

Exercise is crucial to healthy brain development. Children under 12 should play vigorously (preferably outdoors) at least 60 minutes a day and adolescents should get at least 30 minutes of intense aerobic exercise per day. Research on exercise and brain development suggests that regular exercise is more important to the health of the brain than it is to the body. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and improves thinking ability and oxygen metabolism. Exercise has also been shown to reduce the harmful effects of stress on the brain. Exercise also sparks the growth of new brain cells through a process known as neurogenesis and stimulates older neurons to form dense interconnected webs that make the brain run faster and more efficiently. Exercise produces bigger frontal lobes resulting in improved prediction, judgment, planning and organization. And if all that wasn’t enough, exercise has been shown to stimulate production of brain-derived neurotropic factor (“Miracle Grow for the Brain”) and elevates the brain’s feel good neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. Involving students in active, vigorous play, engaging physical education programs and/or recreational sports contributes significantly to success both academically and behaviorally.

Strategy #5: Nutrition Really Does Matter in the Classroom

The brain is a demanding organ. If we want it to work hard the entire school day, we have to give it the right kind of energy to do so. That energy comes through what our children eat. Why is nutrition so important to optimal brain function in school? Because the brain cannot store nutrients. Saving up the good vitamins and minerals from a healthy meal yesterday to use in supplemented today’s junk food can’t happen. The brain relies solely on calories from food to do its work and has no reserve for periods of nutritional famine. When it comes to the brain, you truly are what you eat! Our children often eat a diet lacking in many essential brain nutrients. We have become “the fast food nation” in that the majority of our meals are packaged, processed, frozen or obtained through a take-out window. How do we begin to reverse our starvation of the brain and get our children the brain fuel they need? You already know to increase fruits and vegetables. Here are six additional tips parents can incorporate to get started on the road to better nutrition for your young brains:

1. Provide your child a healthy, quick breakfast with protein (peanut butter, cheese, yogurt, turkey sausage, nuts, eggs, milk, ham, turkey, smoothies). Protein is digested in “time-release” mode in the body and feeds the brain throughout the entire morning. Try this simple “Elvis” smoothie: 1 cup milk, 1 tablespoon peanut butter, 1 banana, and 4-5 ice cubes. Blend all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Produces a smooth, creamy peanut-butter banana-flavored shake packed with protein!

2. Switch to whole grains in your choice of waffles, breads, cereals and rolls. Brains love the B-vitamins and Omega-3’s whole grains provide.

3. Limit soft drinks. Honestly, I should say eliminate. Soft drinks have no nutritional value and are one of the worst substances you can put in your child’s body. Brains crave and need water, not sugar infused, chemically complicated goo.

4. Integrate dark green lettuce into sandwiches, salads and side dishes. Packed with brain-friendly nutrients, dark greens give the brain lots of bang for the buck. Start small and gradually increase.

5. Add rinsed, canned beans to salads, soups and casseroles. Similar to integrating the dark greens above, start small and progressively increase your use of kidney beans, great northerns, pintos and garbanzos. Beans pack a big nutritional wallop, and just a small amount provides lots of protein and vitamins. If beans just aren’t your thing, try nuts and seeds to get that all-important protein to the brain quickly and efficiently.

6. Assess your meals by the colors of the rainbow. Look at the plate set before your child. If you see the rainbow (lots of bright, varied colors), that meal is likely “brain-friendly.” If you see lots of whites and browns, the meal is probably loaded with too much of the bad fats, sodium and simple carbohydrates.

One last note on nutrition: What our children eat powerfully impacts their mood in addition to their learning. In her book: The Hungry Brain: The Nutrition/Cognition Connection (Corwin Press, 2007) author Susan Marcus writes:

A lack of nutrients to the brain means an immediate cutback on the production of the chemical that supports the mind and keeps it peaceful (Pawlak, 2005). This chemical is called serotonin, and it plays a pivotal role in regulating moods. When serotonin levels are too low, depression, anxiety, hopelessness or rage is often commonplace. This is a recipe for failure. Feed your children’s brains the nutrients they need, and you’ll notice the difference right away.

Strategy #6: Kill Your Television

Arguably, television has its good side. It can provide education and certainly entertainment. It is readily available and relatively inexpensive. And kids really like it. But we know a great deal about television and children because thousands of studies have been conducted on the subject. Bottom line: kill your television and watch your child’s brain benefit.

TV saps time from activities that produce healthy brains and build the kinds of skills we want to see our children develop. Children who spend time watching TV get less exercise, less social time interacting with friends and family, less reading time and less time in sports, music, art or similar activities that require practice to become skillful. Excessive TV viewing can contribute to poor grades, sleep problems, behavior problems, obesity, and risky behavior. In addition, much of children’s programming does not teach what parents say they want their children to learn. Many programs contain stereotypes, violent solutions to problems, and mean behavior. Children view thousands of commercials for unhealthy snack foods and drinks, commercials which often have a much greater impact on their brains than we parents do! Children and youth also see about 2,000 beer and wine ads on TV each year, see their favorite characters smoking, drinking, and involved in sexual situations and other risky behaviors in the shows and movies they watch on TV. With all of this powerful information about the negative impact of television, we might expect TV viewing rates to drop, right? Wrong. According to the University of Michigan:

– TV viewing among kids is at an eight-year high. On average, children ages 2-5 spend 32 hours a week in front of a TV-watching television, DVDs, DVR and videos, and using a game console. Kids ages 6-11 spend about 28 hours a week in front of the TV. The vast majority of this viewing (97%) is of live TV.

– 71% of 8- to 18-year-olds have a TV in their bedroom; 54% have a DVD/VCR player, 37% have cable/satellite TV, and 20% have premium channels.

– Media technology now offers more ways to access TV content, such as on the Internet, cell phones and iPods. This has led to an increase in time spent viewing TV, even as TV-set viewing has declined. 41% of TV-viewing is now online, time-shifted, DVD or mobile.

In about two-thirds of households, the TV is “usually” on during meals.

– In 53% of households of 7th- to 12th-graders, there are no rules about TV watching.

– In 51% of households, the TV is on “most” of the time.

– Kids with a TV in their bedroom spend an average of almost 1.5 hours more per day watching TV than kids without a TV in the bedroom.

– Many parents encourage their toddlers to watch television. Excessive TV viewing is nearly an epidemic. Take control of the TV in your household. Limit TV viewing to a maximum of 2 hours per day, 14 hours per week. If there is a TV in your child’s bedroom, remove it. Get your children outside, exercise, read with them, have dinner together, explore your neighborhood, visit friends and relatives, make frequent trips to the library, attend community events and festivals, practice sports and music, create art. Try it for three weeks. Kill the television. I promise you will be no less than amazed at the results. You will never go back to your old TV habits again.

Was this article helpful to you? Please tell us by commenting below! For more baby, toddler, and family sleep tips and tricks, please subscribe to The Sleep Lady’s Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, and YouTube channel! If you are looking for more sleep content, please check out Get Sleep Now-an exclusive members-only area designed to provide in-depth help and support during your sleep coaching experience.

photo credit: jpo_photo via photopin cc

Kim West
Kim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 24 years, and the creator of the original gentle, proven method to get a good night’s sleep for you and your child. She is the author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night Sleep Tight, its companion Workbook and 52 Sleep Secrets for Babies. Click here to read more about her.

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One Comment

  • Lara Gustafson says:

    HI Kim. I simply love your book. My first son was sleeping in our bed and a friend of mine gave me your book. It had been the third book I read. At one year of age I trained my son exactly by the book. It was magic. Then my second son I trained him at 9 months. They have been awesome sleepers ever since. Then along came my daughter. At nine months I started to train her and then she got sick. I stayed where I was a bit longer in the same position and then moved again and again she got sick. She recovered again and I moved slowly and started the shuffle again. She goes to sleep awake and goes down easy for both night and daytime naps. However she is waking up 4 times a night and 1/2 hour into her sleep. I tried moving her bedtime earlier. Did not work. I tried a third nap and did not work. HELP!! Should I start the shuffle all over again?