A Tale of Two Students

A Tale of Two Students

It was the best of first-days at school.  It was the worst of first-days at school.

Tammy transferred from private school to public school, and today was her first day of classes.  She was nervous, didn’t know anybody, and wasn’t thrilled with the choice to switch schools– a choice I advised her parents to make based on her educational needs.  She got through the first day and will return to the school tomorrow.  She told me, “It wasn’t as bad as I thought, and I like not having to wear a uniform.”  I reassured her that the days would get easier, she was building skills, and I would support her throughout the transition.  She texted me a brief thank you later that night.

Joanna transferred from private school to public school, and today was her first day of classes.  She was nervous, didn’t know anybody, and wasn’t thrilled with the choice to switch schools– a choice I advised her parents to make based on her educational needs.  She got through the first day and will NOT return to the school tomorrow.  She told me, “I hated every minute of it.  It was awful.  There was nothing good about the day.”  I reassured her that the days would get easier as she built skills, and I would support her throughout the transition.  She told me that she was not going back and hung up the phone on me.

What’s the reason for the difference?  The ability to power through a tough situation.

As you’re reading this, I’m sure some of you will contend that different situations present different challenges, and to a certain degree this is true.   However, this was not the case in these two situations.

Transitioning to a new school YEAR presents challenges to even the most confident learner.   Transitioning to a new SCHOOL can be even trickier.  Will I earn good grades?  Will I find my classes?  Will I be able to open my locker?  Will I make friends?  Basically, will I be accepted by my peers?  The natural “will I fit in” dilemma.

And this is where parents can help their children most of all:  foster an expectation that you need to “Commit to your Commitments” (one of my personal mantras).

In Tammy’s situation, the parents set an expectation that Tammy would attend and adjust.   In Joanna’s case, the mother and daughter had a history which allowed Joanna to bail out of a situation at the first sign of discomfort.  And that’s exactly what happened on the first day of school:  discomfort.  Joanna’s mom let her stay home from school on the second day to avoid any more discomfort.  Bad pattern.

Kids need to learn how to break through fears in order to successfully conquer them.  Kids who continue to avoid discomfort tend to develop a psychological defense method that basically says, “This is hard.  I am uncomfortable.  I do not like this.  I am shutting down.”

This is what really troubles me because no matter where an individual attends school or eventually works, she will have to face difficult situations without shrinking from them.  If she retreats at the first sign of a challenge, her self-esteem will continue to plummet and her anxiety will increase.  This sets the foundation for all future reactions.

In college/university, IDEA, the law that requires student success/maximum achievement in high school, no longer applies.  Colleges only need to follow ADA/ADAA regulations and a 504 plan only guarantees access to help NOT success , so Joanna will need the ability to “power through” tough situations if she wants to earn a degree.

There’s no perfect school, no perfect program, no perfect career, so it’s important to at least work on these skills at this point (by teaching appropriate self-advocacy, anxiety management, etc.).  If she knows she has to face the situation without having an “out”, she can learn to desensitize herself from whatever it is that’s driving the discomfort.  It’s painful and slow, but it’s part of the process and must happen in order for her to be independent one day.

Independence and self-confidence are “far, far better things that she does, than she has ever done.”

(Thank you, Charles Dickens. )

Should I Get My Kid (or Myself) Tested?

Well, by now, everyone should know that my answer will always be “yes”, since it is important to know how your brain works and processes information.  But my families often express a lot of confusion over whether or not to test, not to mention what those test results mean.

Over the years, I’ve been amazed by the number of parents who have their kids undergo hours of testing, sometimes paying thousands of dollars out-of-pocket, only to shove the testing results into the kitchen drawer.  And even more amazing are the teachers and administrators who pull out a pristine copy–with no notes or markups in the margins–at a 504 or IEP meeting.

Is anybody reading these testing results?

What do the testing results mean?

Does anybody know how to take the testing results and implement practical, results-oriented interventions? (Ok, that’s my job)

Beyond a specific diagnosis, such as ADHD or depression, most families don’t understand what the psychoeducational evaluations communicate about the learner.  Some parents fear the “label” while others feel relief at the”label”.  But besides the “label”, test results often outline a child’s natural learning style, detailing the specific strengths and weaknesses, as well as the biological reasons for the learning challenges.  For example, the psychologist can use the results to explain that a child ” is smart but just has problems with memory.”  After so much frustration, possible self-blame, or self-loathing, it can be quite powerful to hear a specialist reinforce that he or she is smart and capable, and back it up with EVIDENCE.

Probably the most important point to remember about the psychoeducational evaluation is that the PROCESS of testing provides the results.  No single test can be used to diagnose.  No individual score can stand alone to indicate a specific strengths or weaknesses.  Specialists look for a PATTERN of strengths and weaknesses that emerges across several tests.

In future posts over the next few weeks, I’ll go through what to look for in an evaluator, how to read the results, what the most commonly-used tests assess, and how to implement and incorporate results into an action plan.

 

 

 

 

Reading is NOT Natural

Reading is NOT Natural

A few years ago, I made the mistake of requesting information from a company that “guaranteed improved reading scores within a few weeks”.  Ever since then, despite repeated attempts to block them, the company frequently emails me special offers and webinar/seminar opportunities.

Then I get kind of angry because I think of all the kids and adults who think they’re stupid because they can’t translate these symbols (visually) into meaningful ideas.  Then I think of countless educators who give lip service to the idea that “every teacher is a reading teacher”.  Then I get even more upset when I hear the world-at-large label weak or inexperienced visual readers as deficient students/people.

Then I calm down because reading is NOT a natural process.  After repeating this mantra seven times, I can remind myself and others that neuroscience has probably given the best insights into the reading brain, and this science will eventually reach a classroom or professional development series.  That’s where I can help.

So why do so many kids struggle with reading?  (For purpose of today’s writing, “reading” will be defined as “making meaning of text via visual processing” rather than my regular definition of “making meaning through comprehension of text”.

The brain’s ability to develop spoken language, which is a natural process, seems to greatly impact the brain’s ability to read.  As humans begin to associate meanings to arbitrary sounds in approximately 6500 languages worldwide, it is difficult to not be awestruck by the brain’s ability to process these complex patterns.  Without going into too much detail, the brain’s neural components allow humans to go from a simple spoken word, and through a series of steps, arrive at concept formation (Gazzaniga, 2002).

Reading ability has very little to do with intelligence, and vice versa.  You can have a genius IQ and still not be able to read.  In fact, most kids who struggle with reading have above-average IQs (Shaywitz, 2003).  And unlike spoken language, which has specialized areas of the brain (Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area), there is NO specialized area of the brain for reading.  This is where teaching can help to link e sounds of a language to the letters in an alphabet can help.  But simply learning sound-letter relationships does not necessarily improve phonemic awareness (the ability to break down verbal language into smaller pieces).

Consider this piece of writing taken from a physics book:

“…sound waves are propagated through air and other gases as a series of compressions and rarefactions that take place so rapidly that there is no time for heat to flow from one part of the medium to another.  Volume changes for which Q = 0 are called adiabatic processes. We can ensure that Q = 0 either by carrying out the volume change very quickly (as in sound waves) or by doing it slowing in a heavily insulated environment.  Let us see what kinetic theory has to say about adiabatic processes.” (Fundamentals of Physics, Halliday and Resnick, 3rd edition)

Okay, now please take out a sheet of loose-leaf paper and summarize what you just read without looking back at the text.  Plagiarism will result in a “zero” and an academic referral to the principal or school head.

I bet that most of you could decode (pronounce the word and probably define many of the individual words), yet could you summarize it in your own words?  If you said yes, then you comprehended the text.   If you said no, then you didn’t understand the point.  You fail the test because you’re dumb, no recess for you.  See my point?

I could spends months on this topic, and since there’s so much data and research on the topic, I will have to “chunk it” to keep it manageable.  There are so many others factors to consider, including working memory, syntax, morphology, eye movement, etc.

So the next time you encounter someone who struggles to read, remember that reading

Reading is NOT Natural

A few years ago, I made the mistake of requesting information from a company that “guaranteed improved reading scores within a few weeks”.  Ever since then, despite repeated attempts to block them, the company frequently emails me special offers and webinar/seminar opportunities.

Then I get kind of angry because I think of all the kids and adults who think they’re stupid because they can’t translate these symbols (visually) into meaningful ideas.  Then I think of countless educators who give lip service to the idea that “every teacher is a reading teacher”.  Then I get even more upset when I hear the world-at-large label weak or inexperienced visual readers as deficient students/people.

Then I calm down because reading is NOT a natural process.  After repeating this mantra seven times, I can remind myself and others that neuroscience has probably given the best insights into the reading brain, and this science will eventually reach a classroom or professional development series.  That’s where I can help.

So why do so many kids struggle with reading?  (For purpose of today’s writing, “reading” will be defined as “making meaning of text via visual processing” rather than my regular definition of “making meaning through comprehension of text”.

The brain’s ability to develop spoken language, which is a natural process, seems to greatly impact the brain’s ability to read.  As humans begin to associate meanings to arbitrary sounds in approximately 6500 languages worldwide, it is difficult to not be awestruck by the brain’s ability to process these complex patterns.  Without going into too much detail, the brain’s neural components allow humans to go from a simple spoken word, and through a series of steps, arrive at concept formation (Gazzaniga, 2002).

Reading ability has very little to do with intelligence, and vice versa.  You can have a genius IQ and still not be able to read.  In fact, most kids who struggle with reading have above-average IQs (Shaywitz, 2003).  And unlike spoken language, which has specialized areas of the brain (Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area), there is NO specialized area of the brain for reading.  This is where teaching can help to link e sounds of a language to the letters in an alphabet can help.  But simply learning sound-letter relationships does not necessarily improve phonemic awareness (the ability to break down verbal language into smaller pieces).

Consider this piece of writing taken from a physics book:

“…sound waves are propagated through air and other gases as a series of compressions and rarefactions that take place so rapidly that there is no time for heat to flow from one part of the medium to another.  Volume changes for which Q = 0 are called adiabatic processes. We can ensure that Q = 0 either by carrying out the volume change very quickly (as in sound waves) or by doing it slowing in a heavily insulated environment.  Let us see what kinetic theory has to say about adiabatic processes.” (Fundamentals of Physics, Halliday and Resnick, 3rd edition)

Okay, now please take out a sheet of loose-leaf paper and summarize what you just read without looking back at the text.  Plagiarism will result in a “zero” and an academic referral to the principal or school head.

I bet that most of you could decode (pronounce the word and probably define many of the individual words), yet could you summarize it in your own words?  If you said yes, then you comprehended the text.   If you said no, then you didn’t understand the point.  You fail the test because you’re dumb, no recess for you.  See my point?

I could spends months on this topic, and since there’s so much data and research on the topic, I will have to “chunk it” to keep it manageable.  There are so many others factors to consider, including working memory, syntax, morphology, eye movement, etc.

So the next time you encounter someone who struggles to read, remember that reading is NOT natural process!

Obesity IS Malnutrition

I’m really getting tired of watching people feed their kids crap food.  A steady diet of chicken nuggets, white bread, hotdogs, and processed food is bad for the body and the brain.  High fructose corn syrup is horrible; there’s absolutely nothing positive to say about it, other than it’s a cheap way to overly-sweeten foods to increase profits for junk food corporations.

In the USA, one out of every six kids is obese.  One in three is considered overweight.

Since 1980, childhood obesity has tripled, and since 1990 preschool obesity has increased by 60%.  (source:  JAMA, CDC)

The biggest excuse I hear from parents who feed their kids garbage is that “my son or daughter is young and can burn it off.”  Yeah, okay, but think about the nutrition foundation you have set for your kid. A big fat ZERO.  The eating habits and expectations that you set for your child will last a lifetime.  When you rotate a series of breakfasts that include sugary cereals or waffles,  lunches that include pizza, cookies, bologna on white bread, “fruit” roll-ups, and combine it with a dinner rotation of pizza, hotdogs, microwaveable meals in a plastic bowl, and soda, you are setting your child up for obesity, not to mention brain deficiencies.

Whenever I travel overseas, I notice that few, if any restaurants offer “kiddie meals”.  The little kids grow up learning to eat the same food as the adults.  No chicken fingers, no hotdogs with ketchup, no pizzas.

Yes, yes, once in a while everybody eats something bad for themselves, but when you do this consistently, you are harming your child’s potential.  Why would a child who has never grown up eating vegetables choose vegetables as an adult?  Why would a child who drinks soda or “fruit” juice  with almost every meal ever feel compelled to choose water or milk?  Why would a child who has been conditioned to eat foods with “fruit flavor” ever choose a piece of REAL fruit over the junk?  They don’t.  Then they grow up with the same horrible eating habits, usually combined with a sedentary lifestyle, and voila OBESITY. Not to mention diabetes, heart disease, cancers.

But wait, you defend these eating habits by saying that you ate like this as a kid?  Nope, you didn’t.  High fructose corn syrup didn’t sneak into the food chain until the 80s.  It’s so much sweeter than sugar and it’s so cheap.

Excuse #347 of not eating healthy foods:  It’s too expensive.  I call foul!  By eating whole grains, bulk veggies (even frozen), and fruits, you can fill up on real food and actually spend less.   What’s really expensive is paying for diabetes care, cancer treatment, or cardiovascular disease.  The cost of obesity-related medical expenses in the United States topped $190 billion last year… Don’t feel full?  Consider your environment.  If you’re eating on the run (in the car, on the way out the door, etc.), you’re not being mindful and will overeat.  Remember, it takes your brain about 20 minutes to sync up with the feeling in your stomach.  And if you want to see how healthy your diet is, click on the American Institute for Cancer Research’s link http://www.aicr.org/reduce-your-cancer-risk/diet/reduce diet quiz.html

Sorry for sounding so harsh.  No, scratch that.  I’m not sorry at all.  Feed your brain and body healthy food, and you will reap the benefits for a lifetime!

OBESITY IS MALNUTRITION.

The Case for Pong

Space-Invaders. Centipede. Tron. Galaga. Pac-Man. Mario. I remember, in 198X, after much anticipation (aka delayed gratification), the joy of finding an Atari gaming system under the Christmas tree. I had waited months to play the “realistic” games of destroying aliens and eating power pacs. I thought these games were so much better than Pong, which essentially used a line and a dot on the screen. And if you have no idea what I’m talking about right now, these were the first videogames.

Anyway, after an hour or so of sitting in front of the TV, if by some miracle the joystick didn’t break, I got bored or just needed to fidget (remember, I’m pretty sure I had ADHD before the diagnosis was available). I’d climb a tree, read a book, invent a game, or look for the elusive four-leaf clover. My neighborhood friends and I had pick-up basketball or kickball games, we tore apart Stretch Armstrong to see what made him stretch, we had superball competitions (who could bounce the highest, longest, most in succession, etc.) If someone in the neighborhood got a new refrigerator, we’d make a fort or a castle from the giant box. We laughed, got into arguments with each other (one time I smashed a tomato on my best friend’s head), we worked it out. Videogaming wasn’t that compelling. Living and creating was.

So what happened? Well in the 30+ years that videogames have become a part of our culture, the nature of the games has changed. Mortal Korbat, Halo, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Medal of Honor. These are NOT games for children. They are designed for adults, who presumably have fully-developed prefrontal cortexes, whose brains have developed to avoid desensitization to violent acts. Why do parents buy these games for children? I recently had one parent confess that she hated these games, and she feared that she was beginning to see signs of aggression towards her (although “she didn’t think he was the type to shoot people in real life”—does anybody think their kids will do this????) yet she bought these games to “keep the peace” in the household. Sad irony.

Many years ago, I remember sitting in a seminar at Johns Hopkins, listening to researchers present analysis from data they collected from gamers. The evidence back then was inconclusive, at best, but keep in mind we also didn’t yet have the technology to study the brain like we do today.

I just read a compilation of studies dating back to 1984, and most of those studies have shown that playing violent videogames increases neural patterns consistent with aggressive cognition and behavior.

One meta-analysis of 35 different studies (“Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior, Aggressive Cognition, Aggressive Affect, Physiological Arousal, and ProSocial Behavior: A Meta-Analytic Review of Scientific Literature” 2001) concluded that “exposure is positively associated with heightened levels of aggression in young adults and children, in experimental and nonexperimental designs, and in males and females.”
35 studies.

In another meta-analysis (“Violent Video Game Effects on Aggression, Empathy, and Prosocial Behavior in Western and Eastern Countries: A Meta-Analytic Review” 2010), of 130,000 participants, the researchers concluded that “videogame violence exposure was positively associated with aggressive behavior, aggressive cognition, and aggressive affect.”
130,000 participants.

I am sure that I will hear from people who have turned out “perfectly normal” and “successful”, but what good can come from violent videogames? Isn’t there a better way to spend your time?

Can’t we just go back to Pong? Or better, can’t we read a book or climb a tree?

You CAN Be Smart AND Have a Learning Disability…Yes, You Can.

The hardest part of my job is persuading parents or spouses that their family member can be really, really smart and still have a learning disability. Last Friday, I attended a parent-teacher meeting at the request of the school and the student whom I coach. As the meeting progressed past the opening remarks and niceties, we got down to the business of grades and academic output. This was a status check to see whether or not the school and the child were a good fit for each other.

The father’s concerns included a feeling that Brad (not his real name) did not seem motivated, didn’t have “a fire in his belly” to do more than what was required. He worried, justifiably, that Brad always seemed to wait for someone to tell him what to do, and he never went back to check his work for accuracy and completion. Brad’s mother took an opposite view and commented that Brad had made progress, had friends, enjoyed going to school (Kudos to the teacher!), and excelled in the arts program. Bottom line, though, that even with a multitude of support systems (informal accomodations, after-school coaching, in-school tutoring, and parental involvement), Brad was still only a point or two above a failing mark and possible dismissal from the school.

This little guy had been working really hard, and motivation wasn’t an issue. By the way, motivation is rarely the cause of academic failure, and I have yet to meet a person who wouldn’t do well if they could, but I will save this topic for another day. Anyway, this kid was using so much mental energy to just make the cut, so it was a fair question to ask whether or not Brad should continue at the school in coming years, when the workload and expectations would increase pretty dramatically. The answer from both the teacher and myself? Maybe.

Both parents looked at me in surprise, but that’s the truth. If Brad enters the next level and hasn’t “improved”, the school will ask him to leave. On the other hand, Brad may grow into his brain with interventions to help the process. My recommendation was to have Brad have a neuropsych evaluation to determine whether or not he has a processing delay (which he exhibits). As you know from my previous posts, I believe EVERYBODY should have a neuropsych at some point in his or her life, just to know how our own brains work! But, this, too is a topic for another day.

Unfortunately, if Brad does have some learning challenge, we need to have a diagnosis in place to secure the accomodations he will need as he advances in school. The mother in particular worried that a diagnosis would be a label that would scar him emotionally and psychologically. That has not been my experience. It seems that the parents have the issue with the label because they believe it’s somehow a judgement against their parenting skills. That is the parents’ issue, not the kid’s. Most kids who struggle in school already feel a stigma of falling behind academically, and most feel some sense of relief when there is a reason for the “problem.”

And do you know what the best thing about having a “problem” is? We can work together to solve them!

Did You Ask a Good Question Today?

Did you ask a good question today? Well, did you? In our daily interactions with ourselves, with others, or the world around us, we consciously and subconsciously form questions and sometimes answers. Questions range from “What do I want for breakfast?” to “Did I brush my teeth?” to “Why did they eliminate the tan M&Ms?” to “What can be done about violence and poverty in the world?” Some questions are rhetorical, some are open-ended, and most are “yes-no”.

The “yes-no” questions can be the most simple, yet the most frustrating questions, especially when you try to engage somebody (your son, daughter, spouse, friend) into a conversation, hoping that the other will “use his/her words”.

Last week, while waiting for a student after school, I overheard the same interaction between parent and child at least 15 times:
Parent: “Did you have a good day at school?”
Child: “Yes.”
Here’s a variation:
Parent: “What did you learn today?”
Child: “I don’t know.”
One more:
Parent: “How was school today?”
Child: “Fine.”

Ho-hum. Boring. Cliché. Banal. Let’s shake it up a bit, and strive to reach levels 5 or 6 in Bloom’s Taxonomy, shall we?

Kids frequently have to answer everybody else’s questions, whether from teachers (“What is the answer to #3?), doctors (“How ya feelin’ today?”), or from parents (“Did you clean your room?”) A response to these questions is a somewhat passive exercise for the brain. So rarely do we ever encourage thought-provoking, higher order thinking skills, also known as questioning.

I’ll use my own learning experience to illustrate what I mean. When I studied Italian, I got really, really good at answering my teacher’s questions. I used complete sentences with proper grammar and pronunciation in my responses. Four years later, I moved to Rome, Italy for graduate school. I got off the plane and couldn’t find my ride to my apartment. A slight panic took over when I realized that I didn’t know how to ask the questions to find my ride. And I certainly didn’t know how to extend with follow up questions. I struggled to generate even the most basic conversational question because I had never been expected to do so. Fortunately, as a child, I was the pipsqueak who always had to know “why” and “what if”. After a few weeks of making a fool of myself with ridiculous and often embarrassing mistakes, I developed the “mental muscle” for asking questions in another language.

By encouraging people to ask questions, we learn a lot about their mastery of the relevant information. Is the question basic or more complex? You get a lot of insight into another person’s mind by observing the types of questions he or she generates. Scientists, engineers, and creative educators constantly ask questions. Without questions, we stagnate.

Compare these two questions:
“How many legs do spiders have?” vs. “Why do spiders need 8 legs?”

Which is the higher order question? Which allows engaging discussions, creative thought, or multi-layered thought processes?

We can shape learning and self-advocacy skills by helping people develop more pointed, analytical questions. So the next time you pick up your child from school or the bus stop, be sure to find out what question he or she asked in school. Over time, you may find more delight, amusement, and satisfaction in the question than you would in the answer.

How Much Does the School Environment Prepare Learners for “Real” Life?

January hasn’t been much of a snow-producer by us, but I have had to endure the frequent, tortured laments, such as ” Why did we only get a 2 hour delay?” or “I need a snow day!” or “please, please let there be ice so I don’t have to go to school tomorrow!” this is much the same as what I endured in the summer, when only a few weeks before school began, the complaints began. Comments such as “OMG! We only have 19 more days off!” and “Do not even talk to me About school supplies–it makes me sick” clog my Facebook page.

But these comments aren’t from reluctant students, who by the way have had to complete packets and packets of summer work, but rather TEACHERS! As a former middle school teacher (who always worked a second and third job and never took a summer off), I began to think about traditional education practices and how little they prepare an individual for life in “the real world.”

Besides the typical lament that school should be year-round, it is important to realize that the American educational system is based on philosophy, rather than science and what we know about the developing brain. For instance, it is now commonly-known that teenagers’ brains go through a blossoming phase and that they typically go to sleep later and wake up later. So why do classes start so early for them? Sometimes I see kids waiting at the bus stop at 6:10 a.m., and in the winter darkness, I know they won’t be awake and Alert for at least 2-3 more hours. Why not simply flip the elementary school times with the middle/high school times?

Ok, so now the student arrives in school, where he or she is is expected to sit at a desk pretty much all day without talking to other kids. And during a quiz or test, we do not allow collaberation or use of resources. How is that normal in today’s world? When was the last time you had to solve a problem and weren’t allowed to ask someone else in the office, use the internet, consult a reference book, or check your notes. So what we’re really testing in school is memory, huh?

Do you play music while you work or move around when you feel restless? If you do in the classroom, the nurse will often send you a behavior checklist to fill out for your pediatrician (that’s a whole different topic…)

And as far as creativity, we are creating a whole generation of passive learners who have learned to answer somebody else’s questions but don’t really know how to generate their own questions to explore.

So what can we do to improve the situation and help students and teachers get excited by learning, growing, and having fun learning?

Stay tuned for some ideas…

New Year’s Resolution, Take 2

Since 60% of us have already trashed our New Year’s resolutions for 2013, today seems like a good time to talk about goal-setting. Ugh. Yuck. Groan. Reject inertia, and let’s get started!

First, let’s discuss why most people fail to reach their goals. Failure, or what I call “delayed success”, occurs when people make a dream, which they confuse as a goal. Allow me to explain. Anyone can state what they want. “I want to lose weight”, “I’d really like to go to Alaska”, “I wish I could go back to school”, “I hope I can get a new car”. With those words and no plan, these are just dreams, not goals.

Over the years, I’ve heard every excuse in the world why someone can’t—or won’t—do something. Sometimes individuals have conflicted goals. By that I mean that the person’s stated goal conflicts with his or her behavior. For example, I once worked with families 7 days a week, never taking a day off. Although I love what I do, I knew I would burn out if it kept going, and I would lament that “I’d really like to have one day off to relax and recharge.” My husband looked at me and in his matter-of-fact engineer voice told me that “my behavior undermined my goal.” At first I defended my workaholic behavior, wearing it as a badge of honor, retorting, “I want to help these families! They need me.” Then I thought about it. I had to practice what I preach by setting goals and boundaries for my time. Within three months, I had all of my families scheduled within the 6 day timeframe.

There are patterns for successfully achieving your goals, and they include the following 7 action items, in no particular order:

1. Eliminate Self-Limiting Self-Talk
Listen to the voices in your head. Most of the time we are telling ourselves horrible things that defeat us, sometimes before we even begin. We often talk to ourselves in negative terms, which our brains cannot process as easily as affirmative terms. For example, if I tell you to “sit down”, you will plop yourself in your chair. Yet if I tell you “don’t stand up”, you have to think about it, even if just for a nanosecond. Telling yourself, “I will eat fruit”, is much more effective than telling yourself “Don’t eat sugar.”

Your brain laser-focuses on goals that are clearly stated. Get rid of these terms when setting goals:
• I’ll try
• I want
• I hope
• I wish
• I’d like (to)
These are all excuses for future failure. Think about the last time you told yourself “I’ll try not to eat that ice cream.” I know you ate it. Why? Because the brain cannot effectively use wishy-washy commands like these. How do you measure “trying”? You can’t. Sorry fellow teachers.

Replace the above commands to yourself with the following:
• I will
• I will not

“Do or do not. There is no try” -Yoda.

2. Create measurable objectives with subgoals and target dates.

Here are three examples, taken from my life.
• I will read 15,600 pages by December 31, 2013.
I will read for 30 or more minutes 5 or more times each week.
• I will lose 7 pounds by May 1, 2013.
I will work out at gym at least 5 times per week.
I will meditate for 15 minutes at least 4 times per week.
I will eliminate processed or genetically-modified foods from my diet.
I will plan my meals in advance.
• I will finish Level 3 of Rosetta Stone by June 30, 2013.
I will complete at least 3 lessons per week.
I will close my office door and post a “do not disturb sign” on the doorknob.

Notice how these are measurable and have termination/assessment dates.

3. Write it all down. Put them in a journal. Post them on sticky-notes throughout the house, on your laptop, on your iPad. Use a virtual sticky note on your phone. Post it to Facebook, Tumbler, Twitter, etc.

4. Create a mantra. A mantra is a simple set of words that positively reinforce your belief in yourself, even on days when you really don’t believe in yourself. Say it out loud at least 3 times every morning and evening. I post mine on a sticky note on the mirror in my bathroom. “I am a patient and loving person.”

Here are some sample mantras that some of my clients have used:
• “I am loving and deserve love.”
• “I am an honor roll student.”
• “I am a happy, open-minded individual.”
• “I am successful and deserve to be happy.”
• “I am joy.”

5. Stick with your goals for at least 9 weeks before changing or giving up. 9 consistent weeks. If you skip a week, the clock starts over. Keep a calendar, indicating the start date.

6. Share your goals with at least one supportive person. There will be days when you don’t feel like working on your goals, and we all need a little boost from time to time. That said, shield your goals from negative-minded people in your life. These people have their own baggage and usually use excuses for their own failures to set up roadblocks for you.

7. Replace a negative activity with a positive activity. In order to achieve a goal, we replace a negative behavior with a positive behavior. For example, instead of watching NCIS for the 103rd time, I use that time to read my book. Instead of sleeping in and feeling groggy all morning, I schedule early morning workout classes at the gym. Instead of spending money on spontaneous lunches and dinners every day, I plan my lunches and dinners for the next few days.

So, as you revisit your goals, establish new goals, and develop your plan, remember to honor your commitment to yourself. Make it a successful year!

The Case for Taking “Safe” Risks

“That teacher hates me, so I’ll never get a good grade!”
“Why are you looking at me like that? You always make that face whenever I try to tell you something!”
“Stop judging me! You never think anything I do is good enough!”

Ah, the teenage brain. High emotions. Absolute words. Hormonal changes. Neurotransmitters gone wacky. Yes, your teenager is nuts! Don’t take this the wrong way, it’s all a natural stage of growing into the adult brain. Blame the amygdala, the tiny almond-shape part of the limbic system, that the brain automatically defaults to when the Executive Functions in the prefrontal cortex haven’t fully developed.

Think about the last time somebody said or did something completely horrible to you. Maybe it was someone who cut you off on the Beltway or someone who neglected to hold the elevator door open for you. How did you react? You may have wanted to give the offender “the finger”, cursed, or even become physically aggressive. But did you? Probably—and hopefully—not.

Why? As healthy adults, our prefrontal cortexes have developed to the point where we can override those thoughts, thereby putting the “brakes” on the situation. Perhaps we even think through the outcomes of our negative reaction: an argument, a public scene/social misstep, violence, judgment, etc. We also want to avoid being a bad role model for the younger people who mimic our actions and words. This all occurs within a fraction of a second (literally!) in our brain.

Now let’s replay that scenario in the teenage brain. Since the prefrontal cortex hasn’t finished growing, the teenager will often lash out or respond way out of proportion to the input because he or she doesn’t have the ability to self-regulate. Not an excuse for poor behavior, just a reminder that responses must be conditioned and occasionally modeled while the learner grows into his or her brain. Many researchers believe that it takes a full quarter-second for an impulse to travel from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex.

So what does this have to do with learning? The limbic system is our emotional center. It’s primarily the place where “fight” or “flight” decisions occur. We are wired to defend ourselves or leave a threatening situation. Way back when, there wasn’t time to ponder if the saber toothed tiger had plaque on its teeth, why it was there, if it should just be passing through, etc. We either attacked the animal or got away quickly. Those who stood around and tried to apply reason to the tiger’s existence were eaten by the tiger, by the way.

Most of us no longer have to battle animals in the wild in order to survive, but our brains don’t know that. So when there is a highly emotionally-charged situation, especially in the teenage brain, thoughts and reactions defaults to the amygdala. In order modern day learning environment, if the emotion tied to learning is negative, such as fear, anger, hostility, ridicule, etc. no higher learning can occur because the amygdala kicks into gear. If on the other hand, the emotion tied to learning is joy, fun, laughter, no fear, etc. learning takes place efficiently because it’s a “safe place”. No surprise that your child’s favorite teacher will most likely be the teacher he or she thinks is “nice” or “fun.”

Part of the challenge is allowing our children to take safe risks. What the heck is a safe risk? It’s simply an opportunity that allows learning to occur even if the outcome isn’t what we desire. Safe risks could include writing an opinion essay that goes against the popular opinion, giving an explanation of a math problem without remembering all the steps, or arguing his or her point of view with you (sorry!).

We have become a society used to automatically saying “no” instead of “yes”. For the next few weeks, I challenge you to track how many times you say “no” to yourself, to your child, to your spouse, or to anyone else you encounter. You will begin to notice how frequently you, and those around you, do this. In order to help those prefrontal cortexes develop, how about if instead of automatically responding “no,” we ask first ourselves “why not”?