Category Archives: research

Finger Awareness and Math Skills: Recent Research, and “Where is Thumbkin?”

 

The Atlantic magazine ran a terrific article, Why Kids Should Use Their Fingers in Math Class, and I am still blown away with the connections they make between brain activity during finger movements and during math calculation and comprehension.  Let me get out my hands and count the ways I could use this information!

They focused on research at Stanford University, and you can look at all the info Stanford has put up at youcubed.org .  Based on brain research, children who count on their fingers should not be criticized, they should be encouraged.  They should even be trained to do so!   It means that all those silly finger plays in preschool are teaching children something more valuable than words to a song, more valuable than following the teacher’s directions.

The bottom line:  When kids have better digital proprioception (awareness of their fingers when not looking at them, for everyone that isn’t an OT), they may have better math skills.  Sounds fishy?  Not if you understand how the brain maps information.  According to the researchers at Stanford, a very respectable academic institution, the same sections of the brain light up on PET scans during finger awareness games and calculation.  Children who play targeted finger awareness games score higher on math tests after finger training.  All that talk about how practicing my piano homework would help me in school might have been accurate.  Sorry I gave you a hard time, Mom!

It all starts in preschool with looking at your fingers, naming them to get greater awareness of them, then using them purposefully.  The Atlantic’s article has a link to some cool activities for older kids, such as tracing colored lines with fingertips that have corresponding nail colors.  But for the little ones, “Where is Thumbkin?” makes more sense.  Developmentally, building a brain that is wired for finger awareness is so much easier than rewiring an older brain.  And much more fun.  Try doing “Tommy Thumb, Tommy Thumb” with a 7 year-old.  He will think you are insulting him.

As a pediatric OT, I teach children to pay attention to their “tippies”, which is my cute term for their fingertips.  Every child knows what I mean when I tell them to put their tippies on their crayons to scribble, and when I mention that their tippies have slipped out of their scissors.  I am going to build in more finger songs into my sessions starting now.  Preschool Finger Play Songs for Hand Strengthening and Sensory Awareness  I want every child to excel at math, and it could start with finger awareness!

How Young Can You Teach The Skills That Develop Grit?

I love the concept of “grit”, probably because I see it in so many of the special needs kids that I treat.  Meeting major challenges of living either crushes you or makes you stronger.  Researcher and author Angela Duckworth has championed the study of grit, and schools are even adjusting their teaching curricula to try to encourage a combination of perseverance and conscientiousness.  As an occupational therapist, there is nothing like the triumphant grin from a child that accomplished something difficult through their perseverance, patience and focus.  But how early can you see grit, and how early can you support the development of grit in children that do not seem to have it naturally?

I think grit is present earlier than the kindergarten stage, but it has to be viewed through a lens that corresponds to an earlier developmental stage than originally thought.  The famous “marshmallow test” study by Walter Mischel in the 60’s looked at 4-to-6 year-olds.  Spoiler Alert:  the kids that could use suggested strategies or come up with their own to avoid eating a marshmallow while alone for 15 minutes (in order to be rewarded with a second one) had better self-control later in life.  They got better grades as a group, completed more advanced educational levels, were more financially successful, and had fewer relationship and workplace difficulties.

One of the general conclusions of professionals since then has been that you really don’t see that kind of ability in kids younger than those in that original study.  I believe that they haven’t recognized the earliest stirrings of grit.  Just like a flower and it’s bud, it doesn’t look the same as full-blown grit.  Being able to avoid eating the marshmallow until the examiner gets back isn’t the appropriate test for grit in a 2 year-old.  Being able to wait for even a minute or two for goldfish crackers might be.  So would calmly picking up toys before bedtime.

Toddlers who have mastered Patience Stretching, Dr. Harvey Karp’s simple method for building patience in children as young as 12 months old, are showing some grit. Stretch Your Toddler’s Patience, Starting Today!  I also think that kids that have learned alternative expressions of emotion instead of resorting to defiance have sown seeds for grit.   Kind ignoring, in which defiance and negative attention-seeking is responded to with a brief withdrawal of interaction only, makes it more likely for toddlers and preschoolers to generate positive strategies for attention.  Toddlers Too Young For Time Out Can Get Simple Consequences and Kind Ignoring  Using those methods requires them to have more focused attention than throwing a fit.

Grit alone is not going to guarantee a happy and successful life.  But grit can support kids when life throws them a curve ball.  Dr. Karp didn’t create The Happiest Toddler techniques to develop grit, but I think it can help create a solid foundation for it to flourish!

The Informed Parent and Happiest Baby on the Block

I read The Informed Parent recently to decide whether it would be a good resource for my clients, and found that the chapters on The Art and Science of Baby Soothing, SIDS, and Sleep Training were worth reading.  This book distills a lot, a whole lot, of research that can confuse those parents who want some clarity in a sea of recommendations. The problem?  The authors, Tara Haelle and Emily Willingham, left me wanting for some good resources to offer parents once they have made their own conclusions about the available research.  They did do something wonderful for me as a Happiest Baby educator:  they included many, many research references to the 5 S’s that support the use of Dr. Karp’s techniques to calm newborns.  If you ever wondered whether swaddling is bad for your baby’s hips or whether pacifiers would help or hurt your chances of successful breastfeeding, the authors have some science-based answers for you.

As an example of what their book offers parents, the chapter on sleep training appeared to summarize all of the research findings by saying that bad sleepers aren’t necessarily disturbed or deficient.  The most helpful conclusion was that children whose parents were available to them emotionally during the bedtime period had fewer sleep disruptions. Parents might be feel less guilty but this won’t help anyone go to sleep.  If a parent is frustrated, tired, and distracted, and has an authoritarian approach to sleep: “Go to sleep NOW, because I said so!”, I believe that they are more likely to end up with a child that doesn’t want to go to sleep at bedtime, and screams for bottles or cuddles at 4 am.  But how exactly does this observation help anyone?  Perhaps there are parents that recognize themselves in that description and decide to change, but I suggest that most of us do not see ourselves as emotionally unavailable, even when we are.   My experience is that the parent-child pairs I have met who have an insecure-resistant mode of attachment (psych-speak for a child that desires parent contact but then reacts angrily or is resistant/fussy when given attention) are completely oblivious to how they contribute to their child’s behavior.   It is going to take more that a summary of scientific studies to have parents recognize the effect of their interactions on sleep problems.

I was disappointed that the authors included the “Purple crying” concept of Dr. Ronald Barr in their discussion of parents that shake a persistently crying infant.  Nothing in this  “approach” is scientific.  Telling parents that colicky crying is normal, but not offering more than “put the baby down and don’t shake him” is reprehensible when methods such as Dr. Karp’s 5 S’s  have actually helped so many families.  Of course shaking is never OK!  I really doubt that anyone that has had a screaming infant has ever felt that “knowing that crying is common and not abnormal” was very helpful.  What you want at that point to avoid doing something harmful is a solution, not a platitude.

Read The Informed Parent and let me know what was helpful and what just made you want some successful easy-to-use strategies for babies and toddlers!

To schedule a in-home training with me in the NYC metro area, or to buy a phone/video consult, visit my website and select the service that fits your needs.  

 

Active Baby? Active Mom? It May Be Epigenetics Again….

This week’s New York Times ran a story  Does Exercise During Pregnancy Lead to Exercise-Loving Offspring? that echoes what I told a mom last month during a Happiest Baby consult about how her behavior during pregnancy “taught” her son to love movement.  She is an athletic woman, a pediatric physical therapist, and her baby really didn’t calm down fully unless he was jiggled or swung.  He just craved movement.  I am not sure if she really bought my explanation about needing to recreate his womb environment to help him feel calm.  After all, she was just doing her normally active life while pregnant.  After delivery, she went back to work almost immediately.  He was laying at home in the pack n’play, trying to tell everyone (by being fussy at times) that he relaxed best by being more active too!

This article is a little complicated, and they spent a lot of time explaining rodent research.  The coolest part?  Much more of the totality of life “in utero” and immediately after birth might directly influence the DNA of a baby!  The authors did mention that this isn’t an opportunity to lay guilt on mothers, something that is done much too often.  Parents don’t need that.  This little article briefly highlights research that suggests the possibility that the entire experience of the pregnancy is important, not just prenatal vitamins and avoiding raw milk.

I wish, of course, that they had mentioned how important it is to understand the need to support newborns by providing the “4th trimester”, as Dr. Karp calls his amazing baby calming techniques.  It is entirely possible that lots of babies progressively need less movement as they develop other ways to self-calm.  And some may have had their DNA tweaked so that they simply can’t wait to get up and move.  Right from the start.

I told the mom at her consult that she had better prepare for her son joining a travel team in the future.  But knowing her, I think she will be totally OK with that!

Take Notes with a Paper Notebook, But Only if You Can Write Quickly

Research in Psychological Science last spring and in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that writing notes by hand requires the listener to synthesize a lecture more effectively than laptop note-taking.  Three studies showed that testing immediately after a lecture and even a week later still saw improved retention of conceptual information when students wrote notes rather than used a laptop during a lecture. No differences were noted in factual retention.  Evaluation of the  actual notes revealed that laptop users were more likely to record the lecture verbatim, even when they were instructed to take notes selectively.  They concluded that there was a subconscious tendency to transcribe a spoken lecture when keyboarding.  Students who used paper were more likely to process, reframe and synthesize the lecture during class.

Before you run out and by a tablet with a stylus (BTW, my new Microsoft Surface 3 and it’s pen is amazing for this purpose), you might want to think about how we used to do it old school.  It is very difficult to take notes quickly while mentally synthesizing the lecture.  You have to have two skills:  fast, readable handwriting and the ability to process information and reframe it in words that are meaningful to the listener.  Teachers do a much better job at instructing children to think critically and synthesize information than they do at teaching them to write legibly and quickly.  This research suggests that they have to teach both skills.  To paraphrase the movie “Jaws”, you are gonna need a bigger boat (of skills).  Teachers need to teach cursive writing.

The fastest method of handwriting is to combine the easy cursive letters and connections such as “he”, “el”, “ff” and “er” with print letters that substitute for tricky cursive connections such as “s” and “bb”.   There are more examples, but you get the general idea.  Anyone who is fluent in writing both styles will soon blend combinations into their own pattern of faster writing.  A child who has had poor handwriting instruction, or whose teachers see no reason to use cursive, will never have the skills to write in this manner.  Children who only print will soon realize that using printing alone is slower than keyboarding.  That child will grab a laptop as soon as possible and take down every word. They have not been given a choice.

It is interesting that the researchers didn’t mention the level of legibility of note-taker’s handwriting.  It may not matter as much as the experience of critical thinking and recording thoughts on paper. That would be an interesting study.  The benefits of the process of reframing and recording synthesized material is a message to parents and teachers to reconsider the power of the pen and the pencil.

Epigenetics and Infant Development

The Wall Street Journal ran a short piece last week on recent research into epigenetics and the effects of childhood poverty. Alison Gopnik was the author of “Poverty’s Vicious Cycle Can Affect Our Genes”. Some scientists believe that the chronic limited security and support many children experience in poverty changes their genetic makeup to bias them for depression and difficulty handling everyday stress later in life. This is different from saying that you didn’t learn effective coping skills to manage stress, this is saying that your biological ability to deal with stress is impaired by your early experience. And that your altered genes get passed onto your children. And their children. The thought that only poverty affects genetic responses is short-sighted. The effect of interpersonal stressors, absent of poverty, has to have strong effects as well.

If you haven’t heard of the field of epigenetics, then expect to hear about it soon. The study of how our genes change with the effects of our environment and our experiences is new, exciting, and a bit frightening. Simply put, there are scientists working on studying how positive nurturing can change our ability to turn on or turn off genes that control important functions like protecting us from toxins. They are also looking at how exposure to environmental toxins and stress in the womb affect the development of disorders such as autism. Epigenetics is huge.

The WSJ piece reported on the research, and did not offer recommendations for living. But it does make me think that my diet, my exposure to chemicals, and my behavior could change more than my appearance or my attitude. It makes me reconsider my choices for the very long run.

For Rosh Hashanah, Some Zitzfleish?

Pamela Druckerman, the author of “Bringing Up Bebe”, has written a NYT piece, “Learning How to Exert Self-Control” on 9/12/14. She reviews a new book by Dr. Walter Mischel, the primary researcher of the famous test of self-control in young children that you know as “the marshmallow test”.

Dr. Mischel has a new book out, and Ms. Druckerman’s article reviews the concepts and also provides some insights into how children and adults can build the ability to leave the Doritos alone, stick with a savings plan, or just not eat that marshmallow.

I will try to remember his suggestions when I create my own New Year’s resolutions.