Raising a young child is a bit like owning an appliance that didn’t come with an owner’s manual. That makes it hard to know what it can do and how to work it! In a sense, every child has a somewhat different owner’s (i.e., parenting) manual. That’s because each young brain comes wired differently. Over time, a growing mind keeps on transmitting signals to let you know all about its unique wiring. But is anybody picking up those signals?
Every child and adult brain houses what we call a neurodevelopmental profile, a kind of balance sheet of current strengths and weaknesses in functions needed for learning, behavior, social interaction, and output or productivity. Profiles can change over time (a phenomenon called neuroplasticity) especially during childhood and the teenage years. Eight major areas of function comprise this vital and too easily misunderstood profile:
Attention – A mind’s ability to stay focused long enough, to filter out distractions, to think about likely results before doing or saying something (previewing), to sleep well at night and remain alert enough through the school day, and to engage in planning and good judgment.
Sequencing – The capacity to absorb, retain and produce material arranged in a particular order (such as multiple-step directions, steps in a math problem, spelling words) as well as the management of time (being on time, meeting deadlines, and undertaking tasks in stages or steps).
Spatial Thinking – An awareness of relationships and characteristics of things in the outside world, including 3-dimensionality, relative size, position, shape, symmetry, and movement, all needed for thinking with images, for math, science, art, building and repair, plus many sports.
Language – Effective verbal communication, both the understanding of words, sentences and passages and verbal output (orally and in writing) - in addition to the ability to use language for thinking, remembering and communicating well with other people.
Memory – Adequate storage and recall of information and skills either in the short run (short-term memory) or more permanently (long-term memory) as well as the capacity to keep several things in mind at once while using them (active working memory).
Neuromotor Function – Operation and coordination of groups of muscles necessary for playing sports (gross motor), doing art work or repairing things (mainly fine motor), and writing (graphomotor).
Social Thinking – Behaviors, language, and insights needed to form and maintain good relationships with others (especially peers), taking in friendship and reputation management.
Higher Thinking – Sophisticated thought processes enabling a child to form concepts, solve problems systematically, use good reasoning; also includes creativity, brainstorming ability, and evaluative (critical) thinking.
Every task a child undertakes and every skill he strives to master require the coming together of a cluster of brain functions drawn from these eight areas. These functions are put to the test throughout the school day. Meanwhile, one hugely important question never ceases to emerge: How well does this child’s neurodevelopmental profile match up with current demands or expectations? For some kids the match seems to be a perfect match. In other cases a child is victimized by a mis-matching of his current profile to school’s demands. Fortunately, a profile that fails to work well at one age or in one educational setting may be ideally suited for another classroom or, eventually, for a particular career! Some people are far better wired for adulthood than they were for childhood! Consequently, there are times when we should not do anything to try to modify the wiring of a kid, feeling confident he or she has what it takes to succeed in the future or under different conditions. There are countless struggling kids who will make awesome adults. The challenge is to get them there – unwounded and unscarred, shielded from excessive criticism and public embarrassment.
Parents should strive to uncover the neurodevelopmental profiles of their children. If and when a child starts to have a hard time in one or more aspects of school, a parent is in an excellent position to pinpoint what may be lacking. “Is Michael having trouble in school because he seems to show a short term memory weakness?” “Could Beth be struggling in History because she does not process language fast enough?” “Is Eva not grasping math as a result of her weak attention for details?” “Could it be Alan’s graphomotor dysfunction that makes him despise writing?” A parent should never assume that the school will detect such breakdowns or dysfunctions impeding performance. No one cares as much and has as much exposure to a child as does a mother and/or a father. But parents need to have the background knowledge to make sound observations of function and act upon these appropriately.
Parents should become aware of their child’s strengths and weaknesses, even if that kid is an adequate performer in school. As the curriculum advances, a child may begin having trouble in secondary school or even college. Knowing her relative weak spots can help prepare for this possibility and deal with the setback if and when it takes place.
It is especially important to “diagnose” the outstanding strengths of a child’s mind. For one thing, those assets have powerful implications when it comes to selecting a college and, more importantly, a career. If a kid shows superb spatial thinking, she or he might orient future planning toward fields like engineering, art, technology, or architectural design. A child with terrific verbal abilities but weak fine motor function may want to consider becoming a psychiatrist, an internist or a pediatrician rather than a thoracic surgeon!
The following are some parenting tips regarding the understanding and care of a child’s neurodevelopmental profile:
1. Parents should become familiar with the eight areas of neurodevelopmental function and some of the roles they play in learning and behavior. They should consider the ways in which life at home can influence the development of these critical areas either positively or to their detriment.
2. Mothers and fathers should have at least a general sense of their child’s evolving profile. Our website bringingupminds.com includes an online inventory that parents complete in order to derive a description of the apparent mind strengths and weaknesses of their sons and daughters. The profile is used further to develop a Success Plan for each child. If a student is having significant problems in school, further clinical assessment may be warranted.
3. Sometimes weaknesses should be accepted with no attempt to overcome them. For example, not every kid has to be an athlete, a very popular figure in the school, or a deft watercolorist. But in certain instances weaknesses are worth trying to fix. For example, a language deficiency must be addressed, since verbal abilities are critical to success in school as well as in most careers. Sometimes a dysfunction should be bypassed. For instance, a kid harboring a graphomotor problem with resulting illegible handwriting can be allowed to write reports or take quizzes on his laptop.
4. It is essential that parents make a concerted effort to strengthen a child’s strengths. In the long run, the strengthening of strengths will have a greater payoff than the patching up of weaknesses! Family activities, afterschool lessons of various sorts, and focused learning should be geared to building on individual assets. Nothing is more important.
5. Once a parent acquires a good handle on a child’s neurodevelopmental profile, this understanding should be shared with that son or daughter. We call this process demystification. A child needs the words to think about and talk about his kind of mind. Kids with school difficulties especially crave and require this insight. The better they understand themselves, the less likely they are to lose their motivation, think of themselves as pervasively defective (i.e., “stupid”), and/or develop serious behavioral complications.
6. Parents have to be sensitive and responsive when a child lives with a sibling who significantly outperforms him in school. They have to find activities or pursuits tailored to the strengths and affinities of the kid who is less of a star in the classroom or on the playing fields. That child needs help establishing his own unique pathways and sources of self-esteem.
7. Children generally know that their parents love them. However, most wonder if their parents respect them. A child has to overhear a mother or a father boasting about him to friends and relatives. Kids are at serious risk when they come to feel that they are a disappointment to their parents. Watching a child’s mind grow and become what it ought to become is one of the greatest pleasures of parenthood. Getting to know that mind and helping it thrive in its own authentic manner makes the parenting experience even more gratifying - and vital.Dr. Mel Levine is a pediatrician and the author of numerous books and articles on learning and brain development during childhood and adolescence. He is the CEO of Bringing Up Minds, a web-based program (http://www.bringingupminds.com) enabling parents to understand their children’s minds while keeping up with the latest scientific and practical knowledge geared toward helping them experience success.
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