“A boy at my table made fun of me during math today,” my second-grader told me one evening after bedtime. Worries tend to spill out after lights out.
“He said, ‘What?! You are still working on that packet? I finished that yesterday.’ ”
Swallowing my fierce first reaction, I said, “Oh, so how did you handle it?”
“I told him, ‘I like my learning pace. Your fast pace doesn’t work for me. I take my time.’ ”
I was stunned by her courage and her practical insight: speeding through the material is not the path to academic mastery.
In my work as an education journalist, I often take research about learning and the brain and translate it into usable chunks of information for parents and teachers. But this fall, I took on a personal challenge. Could I teach my 8-year-old about how the brain learns? And could this knowledge help her strengthen her academic confidence and agility?
One afternoon, I wrote out 10 insights I wanted to share with her this year — and that I hope to foster through my actions and attitude for years to come.
The brain never stops growing. Brains are amazing. They are constantly growing and changing shape. Everything we do affects our brain. And it goes beyond schoolwork. Anything that is good for a child’s body is also good for their brain. When children play outside, eat healthy food, read a book, move their body, enjoy time with their friends, observe their surroundings, get a good night’s sleep, play a game or figure out a puzzle, they are feeding their brain.
Learning is all about brain chains. When you learn something new, you build a neural pathway — or what learning expert Barbara Oakley calls “brain chains.” The more you practice a skill, the thicker the chain gets, until the task (such as solving a certain kind of math problem) becomes automatic. For example, when you first sit down to learn a song on the piano, it’s slow going. You focus on every note. But after a while, you can sit down and play the piece smoothly and accurately because you have a brain chain for that song. Every new skill is hardest at the beginning — and that’s when a child will be tempted to give up and say “I can’t do it!” Encourage them to change that to, “I can’t do it … yet.”
You can train your brain to focus. Learning how to pay attention is one of the best habits you can build. So practice tuning out distractions while focusing on one task at a time. Adults are not always the best example of this — we like to think we can multitask and, say, text while we talk to you. But multitasking is a myth. Perhaps the best strategy for “focus training” is really simple: The Pomodoro Technique. Have your child set a timer for 25 minutes and choose one activity that they will focus on for that time: reading a book, drawing a picture, building a structure, practicing piano, or working on math homework. When the timer goes off, give them a break. If 25 minutes is too much, start with 15 or 20 and build up.
It’s okay to daydream. Daydreaming builds creativity, so let your mind wander sometimes. Have you ever had an awesome insight or exciting idea while you were taking a shower, taking a walk or staring out a car window? These “aha” moments don’t always happen while you are focusing. Also, mental down time helps your brain rest and make sense of what you’ve learned that day.
Maps, blocks and puzzles will help you learn math and science. Spatial reasoning is a fancy phrase for your brain’s ability to picture objects and move them around in your mind — like remembering where all the furniture is in a room or picturing each side of a block. Those spatial skills will also help you with math and science as you get older. Building these skills can be fun. Have your child draw a map of your house, build an object with blocks, put together a puzzle or solve a maze.
Apply the picture book rule. There’s a reason everyone loves picture books. They combine two things that are easy for our brains to remember: pictures and stories. Most people have a hard time memorizing a list of facts. So instead of just taking notes with words, have your child try doodling or taking “picture notes.” Or ask them to tell you (or a stuffed animal) the story of how a seed grows into a tree, or try to turn what they are learning into a song with hand motions.
Exercise pumps up the brain. We all know that exercise is good for the heart, but neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki has called exercise the most “transformational thing you can do for your brain.” When kids play at recess or ride their bike after school, they are giving their brains a “bath” of healthy chemicals. One burst of exercise can help them focus for up to two hours afterward, so before they dive into their work, have them go play.
Sleep is your mind’s best friend. There’s a reason you have an early bedtime. As psychologist Lisa Damour once told me, “Sleep is the glue that holds human beings together.” We are all more cranky without enough sleep, but people also learn while they sleep. When you dream, your brain lights up with activity as it reviews what you experienced that day. It also plays back what you learned — like a video — and links it to what you already know. This makes those brain chains stronger.
Big emotions are totally normal. When kids feel scared, angry or stressed out, it just means that they are normal, growing human beings. Their brains try to keep them safe. So if their brain senses danger — and sometimes homework or a conflict with a friend can feel like danger — kids might freeze or want to run away or fight. Sometimes these emotions can get overwhelming, like a shaken-up glitter jar, and then it’s hard for a child to figure out what to do. When a glitter storm hits, have them use one of their tools to settle things down: deep breaths (in through the nose, out through the mouth), time in nature, moving their body, listening to a favorite song, getting a snack, or talking it through with someone they trust. Remind them that no emotion lasts forever.
How you talk to yourself matters. Sometimes we are kinder to our friends than we are to ourselves. You would never say, “You are so stupid” or “You will never be good at this” to a friend, but sometimes those thoughts run through our heads. Teach kids to practice self-compassion by using phrases such as: I am still learning; Everyone makes mistakes sometimes; Some days are like this; What’s one step I can take to solve this?; Who can I ask for help?; This is tough, but so am I; I’m stronger than I think I am.