Tag Archives: child development

Finland: Educational Principles That Work

Schools with Shorter Days, No Homework and Better Outcomes

 

I’m not a fan of Michael Moore, but I thought his video about education in Finland would get your attention.

Finland, which has ranked at or near the top of countries in international testing, has discovered principles that we at NACD have known and been implementing for almost fifty years.

Finland’s international ranking was based on the PISA test, which is the Program for International Student Assessment test. When the test was administered in 2015, the United States ranked 41st in math, 25th in reading and 26th in science internationally—not so hot! However, we have been close to the top relative to how much we spend per child.

For the past forty-plus years at NACD we have been working with families to help develop and educate their children, applying some of the same basic principles that have helped turn around the educational system in Finland.

For starters, Finland has learned that less can be more. We have always preached neuroplasticity and the associated principles of frequency, intensity and duration, acknowledging that as you increase duration, you generally decrease intensity and as such push too long and less goes in. Finland also has shorter school days. In Finland, elementary students only attend school for twenty hours a week and don’t even start school until they are seven years old. Older students go to school from about 9:00-9:30 a.m. until 2:00-2:45 p.m. and receive no homework or very minimal homework. When able to really individualize, we can generally accelerate a student at home in about half that much time. The more we can individualize, the more we can target the input and educate efficiently and effectively.

In Finland, they give students many 15- to 20-minute breaks during their school day. We encourage parents to work with their children for short periods, followed by breaks. The younger the children, the shorter the work/attention periods—starting literally from seconds and minutes.

Finland has learned to stop teaching to standardized tests. They are not following a ridged, set curriculum and then testing based on that curriculum. Their system gives teachers much more autonomy to individualize and actually teach until the students have learned something. They are also now starting to use what they call phenomenon-based learning, which means that they are exploring a more holistic approach involving students and encouraging them to explore their interests and talents. We incorporate a child-centered approach as much as possible, using the child’s interests and passions to produce more globally-associated knowledge that sticks, while still focusing on the core, accelerating reading and math. We believe in less curriculum/stuff and more in building the educational foundation and creating a more meaningful education. Establish the educational base, turn the children into readers and turn them on to learning.

Finland also has more children receiving special education services than perhaps any other country in the world. But, it is done differently. Just as we do at NACD, they believe that educational issues can and should be addressed and fixed, not labeled and used as an excuse for failure. Children receive what special services they need so that their issues can be resolved and they can move forward unencumbered.

What neither Finland or any country has learned

The real foundation that we at NACD have been building in children is the neurological foundation—short-term memory, working memory and executive function. What the world has yet to realize is that education alone is not enough. If we build the neurological foundation, we make people smarter—much smarter! And smarter is better!

And now for the rest of the story. . . 

—Bob Doman

 

May I Have Your Undivided Attention? Fidget Spinners

 

Let’s just install ceiling fans in every classroom.

Ban Fidget Spinners with Bob Doman of NACDFidget spinners—what a wonderful invention—as though our children need something else to distract them. Let’s give children mini ceiling fans to carry around to help them pay attention—what a great idea! If spinning things help children concentrate, let’s just install ceiling fans in every classroom.

I have been arguing against giving kids on the Autism Spectrum fidgets for years. Do some kids on the spectrum like and want fidgets? Absolutely—they’re addicted to them. A fidget feeds their sensory addictions and helps keep them seated in their classroom chair when what is being presented quite possibly doesn’t fit them and goes on way past their auditory attention span. You attend to what you can process and if the input doesn’t fit your ability to process the information or what is being presented doesn’t match your knowledge/educational base, then you don’t pay attention to it (sadly this describes most children in most classrooms). Unfortunately, the operational definition of educational inclusion for children with developmental problems has really just come down to the kids sitting in desks and not making a fuss while surrounded by typical children. The special needs children then leave the classroom for a resource room where the instruction is hopefully more targeted and appropriate for the child. So, enter the fidget. The theory is that the fidgets help the children on the spectrum pay attention and avoid being distracted. As far as I know, there has been no good research to substantiate this, but I would suspect that if the research were directed at whether a fidget would keep a child sitting for longer periods the results would quite likely be positive. If, however, the study was testing whether the children learned more or if it helped their sensory issues, I believe the answer would be no. There has, however, been extensive research on the effects of any and all distractions while driving (paying attention) and the conclusion is that they are all bad. Try driving and watching your fidget spinner spin. You can give it another twirl if it stops and tell me if it makes you a safer driver.

One of the first things we recommend parents who have children on the spectrum do for their children who engage in visual DSAs (Debilitating Sensory Addictive behaviors), is to remove or a least not turn on any ceiling fans. As most parents with children on the spectrum with visual issues know, the kids will stare at ceiling fans endlessly if given the opportunity. None of these parents will tell you that their child is paying better attention or is more present while staring at the fan. The fan takes them away—it doesn’t help them focus or concentrate. Most visual stims or DSAs involve the child playing with and stimming with their peripheral vision. Your peripheral vision picks up movement and edges, both of which are stimulated in a negative fashion by ceiling fans, fidgets, waving fingers, staring at edges, etc. Fidget spinners not only distract with the visual aspect, but also with an audio and a tactile component—they hum and vibrate while they spin. So let’s have the child’s brain distracted with extraneous visual, auditory and tactile garbage and simultaneously help build a new addiction.

I’m sure to hear from “professionals” out there, particularly occupational therapists who just discovered that children have sensory issues, but having worked with Autistic children for fifty years and having learned how to help normalize their sensory issues, I am confident that feeding their addictions is not in their best interest in the long term. If the motivation and goal is to keep them content, in their seats and quiet at the cost of their development, then. . .

Now, enter the logic that begins with the erroneous premise that if fidgets help kids on the Spectrum pay attention, then perhaps they will help typical kids pay attention. Sadly many, if not most, children have successfully learned not to pay attention already and the last thing they need is another distraction. Parents and teachers often mistake the child looking in your general direction and apparently listening as attending. At best, we often mistake listening for paying attention. Listening is something you do when you’re watching your favorite sporting event and the game is tied with seconds to go and someone talks to you about the weather. Listening is something you do when you’re talking to someone on the phone while you’re checking your email. Ask the child who appears to be “listening” to repeat the last sentence of something you just said or read to them. When we talk about learning we are talking about changing the brain and to change the brain we need to put in specific appropriate input with sufficient frequency, intensity and duration. Of the three components, intensity is the most important. Intensity means focus and focus means that I have your undivided attention. We need to help teach children to focus and give undivided attention, otherwise parents and teachers are largely talking to themselves.

If we want to be proactive and improve focus and attention, we need to do a better job of targeting the input to fit the child. Teaching algebra to a child who still is struggling with basic math isn’t going to work. Speaking in paragraphs to a child who has difficulty following a two- or three-step direction doesn’t work. Making many children sit in a chair and attend for more than ten minutes without letting them get up and move around a bit generally doesn’t work either. We need to pay attention to the individual and teach to their knowledge level so they have some context within which to associate the information. We need to be aware of the child’s processing ability (short –term and working memory) and target the structure of the input to fit them. We need to provide educational environments as free of extraneous distractions as possible—not contribute to them—and we need to focus upon the neurodevelopmental foundation and help build the child’s ability to learn, communicate and function.

Many children across the county are learning not to attend, not be present and sadly are learning that learning itself isn’t fun, isn’t exciting and that it doesn’t work for them.

Ban Fidget Spinners!

—Bob

What is Natural? I Thought I Knew and Still Think I Know

“Breast Feeding is Unnatural.”

That was the headline I saw the other day when perusing the news. My first reaction was, “WHAT? What is this country coming to?” An article/study in Pediatrics entitled, “Unintended Consequences of Invoking the ‘Natural’ in Breastfeeding Promotion,” written by Jessica Martucci and Anne Barnhill, essentially claims that “referencing the ‘natural’ in breastfeeding promotion—may inadvertently endorse a set of values about family life and gender roles which would be ethically inappropriate.” I’m sorry, but “natural” actually does fit my set of values. How extreme can the obsession with sexuality and gender get?

When I saw this headline, it immediately took me back to UCLA in the early ‘80s. I was doing an early morning news show that was being filmed at UCLA’s Child Development Center. The station brought me to UCLA so I could provide an opinion about UCLA’s daycare perspectives. We did the interview in a huge room that was full of babies, toddlers and lots of noise. The children were on mats and in various cribs and there were students interacting with some of the children, while others slept, cried or expressed varying degrees of displeasure. As we began the interview, the head of the department made a statement that literally left me in a state of shock. She said that young children being home with their mother was UNNATURAL!

To gain a bit of historic perspective, common use of daycares and preschools is really a relatively new phenomenon. Daycares actually date back to the late 1800s as facilities for working mothers. But even back in the ‘50s it was rare for a child to go to daycare. There weren’t yet preschools and the majority of children didn’t start school until they were five or six. To further put things in perspective, back in the ‘50s when we were having air-raid drills in school and were hearing “better dead than red,” we were traumatized hearing stories about Russia, where little children were put in schools as early as two or three years of age—horrifying!

Back at the time of my interview at UCLA, formal daycare was still rather rare. Working moms generally relied on family members or informal situations where stay-at-home moms would take care of another child or two.

In 1964 President Lyndon Johnson created Head Start, a program that was initiated as part of his “War on Poverty” to help meet the needs of preschool aged children from low-income families. Head Start was and is a good thing. Providing early educational opportunities for children from disadvantaged homes is a good thing. Children from disadvantaged families absolutely do better with early childhood educational opportunities.

Today, however, educational propaganda has created the distorted perspective that all children are better off in daycare and preschool and that they are, in fact, being deprived of opportunities if they do not attend. Economic reality is such that many mothers need to work when their children are under five. There are mothers who choose to have careers and need nannies, daycare and preschools, which is fine. Certainly, the better the daycares and the preschools, the more opportunities those children have. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. An involved dedicated mother, who after all knows her child better than anyone else on the planet and who can provide her child with individual attention throughout the day, is not only doing something that is quite “natural,” but is probably optimizing her child’s first critical years of development. An informed, dedicated parent given the right tools, can do absolute wonders—quite naturally.

—Bob Doman

 

 

April is Autism Awareness Month

NACD Autism Awareness MonthIt’s Autism Awareness Month, so let’s talk about ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) and awareness.

They say you are what you eat. They should also say you are what you attend to and can process. What you perceive, the quality of what goes into your brain through your sensory channels, what you pay attention to and how much of it you can process essentially determines what and how much you learn. In turn, it determines how you can think, what you know, how you develop and ultimately your quality of life.

One way to gauge the level or degree of involvement of those on the autism spectrum is to look at what they give their attention to, their overall level of awareness and the degree to which they are present and engaged. As we look at individuals with sensory issues, which is generally how we refer to those on the spectrum internally at NACD, we start with observation and understanding that individual for the purpose of providing strategies to improve specific and global function.

We can observe virtually any child, watch what they are paying attention to and see how much they are attending to what is happening around them. This gives us a fair sense of what and how much they are learning and developing and what issues need to be addressed. Everyone essentially attends to what is meaningful to us and ignores what isn’t. We can observe any number of children who are on the autism spectrum or who have developmental delays, look at their behavior and develop insight as to their needs. For example, if there is a child staring at a ceiling fan rotating over and over, or a child who is in the corner waving their hands in front of their face and making repetitious sounds, or a child sitting quietly sucking on and smelling their fingers, or a child who is pacing around the room, relatively oblivious to anyone or anything going on in the room, then we know we have children who are essentially not present, not learning and not developing. We could also observe other children who are trying to get our attention, or are going around the room investigating and getting into things, looking at this and that, touching or banging things, knocking things over—children who are much more present and are learning and developing at a much higher rate. The varying degrees of a child’s involvement and of being present is essentially a representation of their level of severity and where they are on the spectrum.

The first group of children are not only not learning, they are engaging in behaviors that are making them more and more isolated, further delaying the normal development of their sensory channels and teaching their brains to ignore more and more of what is in their world. For their brains, the meaningless is meaningful and significant to their brains, while what should be meaningful is essentially meaningless. The exploring child is looking for meaning, for significance and that child’s brain will continue to do this with every new opportunity. The degree to which any child is inquisitive, attending to the right things (be it making eye contact because they know there is something to learn from observing your face and listening to your words, or looking at the people and things in their environment and interacting with that environment), the more present they are, the better and higher their level of function, the more and faster they are learning and developing.

Neuroplasticity, that thing which permits the brain to change and develop, occurs through input. It does not simply develop because we are getting older. The quality and quantity of the input the child’s brain receives determines not only how rapidly the child develops, but also how they develop. Good input generates good change and development, while bad input produces negative changes to the brain and impairs development.

Awareness, being present, is that which determines the direction and rate of development. For any child with a developmental delay, normalizing sensory function, redirecting them when they are “stimming” or engaging in DSAs (Debilitating Sensory Addictions or sensory addictive behaviors) and providing them with as much specific, appropriate, targeted input as possible is the formula that can produce the desired results and foster development. Positive neuroplasticity occurs when we provide the child with specific, targeted input that is delivered with sufficient frequency, intensity and duration.

For those children on the lower end of the spectrum, intensive neurodevelopmental intervention is needed to help bring their developmental pieces together. For any child with lesser issues or with a developmental delay who cannot process information or coordinate movements well enough to play independently, they are at risk of getting too good at infantile sensory play, getting developmentally stuck and need intervention to rapidly develop their sensory function and processing. Every child needs attention. Every child needs specific appropriate input and opportunities to maximize their potential. As parents, educators and those assuming various roles in helping children become all they can be, we need to perceive every child as having unlimited potential and do all we can do to provide them with opportunities commensurate with that perception.

All parents should be aware of what your child is and isn’t attending to. Pay attention to how present they are and be proactive. Bring them into this world or they will go into their own. If they have a problem, don’t perceive it as a disease, let alone an incurable disease, perceive it for what it is—one of many developmental steps that you need to help them achieve on their way to achieving their unique potential.

—Bob Doman

 

 

 

 

 

 

Autism Awareness Month – Should we really be using a disease model?

Bob Doman Autism Spectrum Disorder Disease Model NACDI am opposed to labels in general and “autism” is no exception. I am also generally opposed to looking at most developmental issues as diseases and again “autism” is no exception. The label and perception of autism as a disease leads to the perception that there is or that there needs to be a cure, that there is a pharmaceutical cure—a magic pill. I have also believed, having dedicated my life to understanding how to help all people achieve their innate potentials, that our strength as a species lies in our uniqueness as individuals—in our diversity. Every child has developmental needs and the better job we do at addressing those needs, the better job we have done at helping them achieve their unique potential. With those on the spectrum, our job is not to cure, nor to merely teach them skills that we feel are commensurate with the limited potential associated with their “disease”, but to assist in the developmental process. As with all children, we need to assist in developing their sensory function, their processing ability and as much as possible provide an individualized education in a positive, supportive, “typical” environment while simultaneously celebrating their uniqueness and ability to contribute to society. I have been very privileged over the course of five decades of work with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to have assisted thousands of individuals ascend through levels of the spectrum to become happy, successful “disease-free” members of society. Our job, our role for those on the spectrum and for that matter all children, is to understand and assist them in their ascension to a full and happy life.