PARENTS ARE THE FIRST TEACHERS
When kids are young, it can feel like they need constant care (which they do!), but babies and toddlers are also building the architecture in their brains that will serve them throughout childhood. Parents have a unique opportunity to help their toddlers develop the emotional intelligence that will aid them in academic and social settings for the rest of their lives.
Young kids often aren’t able to control their own emotions, which is why their tantrums can be fierce, but parents don’t have to stand by, powerless to these whims. Each tantrum is an opportunity for parents to help children learn to identify what they are feeling and why. They can also work to normalize emotions by admitting all people feel angry or sad or frustrated sometimes, while working on strategies to calm down. The strategies for a 3-year-old have to be simple and memorable, like taking a deep breath and counting to four when mad.
Books can also be a helpful way to talk about emotions when a child isn’t in the thick of feeling his own. Little kids can point out the emotions they see characters experience and talk about how he or she might have dealt with the situation. And, little kids aren’t too young to develop a mindfulness practice, which has been shown to improve self-regulation. For example, parent and child could take a “listening walk” around the block, focusing on the sounds in the present moment.
The way parents interact with their young children does more than build the emotional foundation for later success. It can also help kids build the specific pre-academic skills that will ease transition into school. The 30 million-word gap has become cliche now, but understanding the science behind “good talk” for infants and toddlers is an important way parents can contribute to their success.
Studies have shown that parents are more open to this message when they realize that how they interact with their child at a very young age affects the architecture of their brain. The messages imparted are as important, if not more so, than the act of talking itself. Kids need to be encouraged and praised for the processes they are engaged in, not just how cute or smart they are. And, even if a baby can’t yet talk, parents can create a sense of back and forth by responding to gurgles or smiles. Educators play a big role in making sure the parents they interact with know the science of talk and some of the simple strategies to make sure kids are developing a healthy capacity for language before starting school.
There’s a lot of emphasis on what parents can and should do with their very young children because that’s a moment in development when a child’s brain is growing and changing in fundamental ways. But as every parent knows, getting through the first four years is just the start, and there are often parenting bumps along the road. One common rough patch comes when kids become teenagers, with all the hormones and tricky social dynamics that accompany it. Many parents feel lost at this stage, unable to interact with their child in the ways they used to, and unsure of how to best offer support to a prickly teen.
The good news is that teenagers need parenting just as much as younger kids, even if they don’t show their appreciation for it. Adolescence experts say parents are best off honoring their teen’s autonomy, while providing structure and support. It’s easy to see an adolescent not taking responsibility for something like homework and immediately jumping in to help. But it’s far better to set clear expectations and perhaps even schedules and routines that support strong study habits, without micromanaging the process.
Similarly, teens need space to try new things with the knowledge that there’s a safety net if they fail. This includes talking through choices and potential outcomes and then allowing the teen to make his own informed decisions. That doesn’t mean parents can’t jump in and provide extra support at times, but if a teenager never learns to be independent, he’ll have trouble later in life. And throughout it all, parents should continue to show warmth and love toward their teens. They may not seem to like it, but they still need it.
Cultivating supported autonomy will pay off once that teenager becomes a college student. University professors and deans increasingly report that their stduents don’t show the type of self-efficacy required to succceed. Instead, many students turn to their parents to fix even small problems that arise. Many parents look at an increasingly competitive world and see it as their parental duty to make sure their child has every possible opportunity. But actions that stem from love might actually be handicapping young adults.
NEW TEACHING STRATEGIES
While the discussion of “overparenting” often strikes a nerve with parents, the instinct to ward off any potentially damaging failures in a child’s life doesn’t come out of nowhere. Parents are feeling the pressure to make sure their kids get on the “right track” out of fear that any mistake will ruin a chance at a productive life. But where did that fear of failure come from? It’s a pervasive part of society and may even be learned in school.
Many educators feel they must move through curriculum at a breakneck speed to cover everything, leaving very little space for students to experience struggle, failure, renewed attempts and ultimately success in a safe environment. Increasingly, however, educators are having productive conversations about encouraging a growth midset, which focuses on how making mistakes grows the brain and provides fertile opportunities to learn.
This discussion of mistakes has led to some confusion. For example, not all mistakes lead to learning. The best kinds of mistakes for learning happen when a student is stretching outside her comfort zone. When trying something new most people will make mistakes, but with reflection and strategies to address the error, much can be learned. At other times a student might have an “aha mistake” when she completed the task correctly, but realized she should have done it differently because of new information. Both these types of mistakes grow the brain and require self-reflection and renewed effort. But learning from mistakes doesn’t happen automatically.
Another trend to note is how the body and its movements connect to learning. In formal education the expectation has long been that students sit quietly and receive information from teachers. But increasingly neuroscience research is showing how intrinsically learning is tied to body movement.
“We can start leveraging the power of our bodies to help us learn, think and perform at our best,” said Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. This wisdom has long been embedded in progressive teaching philosophies like Montessori, but has been largely eliminated from traditional public schools. But studies are showing that even small gestures can help students grasp confusing math concepts, understand physics and generally feel more connected to what they are learning.
The idea of connecting learning to students’ lives has been a pervasive theme in education circles, but it can be hard to do so when working with mandated content that doesn’t necessarily excite students. A few teachers tried something very different last year when the hit public radio podcast “Serial” was becoming extremely popular. Teachers who were themselves engrossed in the story unfolding each week on the podcast decided to bring their students into the fun, improving their listening and analytical skills in the process.
“They enjoy it so much that they don’t realize they’re learning at the highest level,” said former 10th-grade English teacher Alexa Schlechter. She and her students debated different takes on the murder mystery tale, using Google Maps to recreate crucial scenes, analyzing the transcript for facts to support their arguments and bringing their own adolescent perspectives to a story about high school. The success of podcast projects like this one has sparked other teachers to think more about how audio can be used effectively in the classroom.
Podcasts aren’t the only real-world phenomena making their way into classrooms. Educators are fascinated by how commercial video games can be used for learning. Often games specifically designed for learning can feel out of step and out of touch with what’s going on in the commercial game world. They often can’t compete in terms of graphics, motivation and intensity. But some educators are finding ways to use commercial games that students are already hooked on like “World of Warcraft,” “Minecraft,” and “Never Alone” to teach important skills in all content areas.