Your Child’s Growing Mind book review

I recently finished reading Your Child’s Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning from Birth to Adolescence by Jane Healy and I can’t recommend it enough to parents.  I’ve said before that I really enjoy reading about brain development but I what I especially liked about this book P1050895was that it wasn’t simply interesting facts but also useful information that you could apply to your children’s lives.  Healy explains clearly what is going on in your child’s brain at different stages and then gives practical ideas to support your child.

This book covered questions I didn’t even know I had–things like when to start music lessons, if counting on the figures is okay, how children learn new words.  But the book deals with far more than skill development.  Healy really focuses on emotional aspects of development.  I felt like the book gives you a huge pat on the back and shows that you aren’t ruining your child’s life but it also gave a huge list of ideas to help your child be successful in life.

Many books have lists of milestones or what your child should do at each age but these can simply become a checklist making it seem like every child should be able to do the same thing on the same day.  Here Healy explains more about what the brain is capable of at each stage.  She offers very broad ranges and tends to explain things more in the form of “By age six most children can…”  I felt like the book helped me to have realistic expectations for my children. And I really liked how Healy is able to deal with all different ends of the spectrum.  She addresses everyone from average children to gifted children to different learners.  I say different learners because Healy often points out strengths (and even causes sometimes) when discussing learning disabilities or delays.

backpackWhile I think all parents can benefit from this book, and those with little ones might be more drawn to it, I would especially recommend it to those whose children are getting ready to start school.  Having been in education for 30 years, Healy does a fabulous job explaining what you should expect from your school.  She explains what good schools do and recommends how you can go about getting the best for your child.  She offers tips for helping with homework, talking to teachers, studying with your child, and advocating for your student.  Even if you are schooling at home, like we are, the sections on schools will be useful.  When she says what to look for in a school or teacher, I just applied that to our own home and what we should be incorporating.  This truly is a book for everyone.

Brain TVI also appreciate the way Healy deals with technology.  She definitely discourages overuse and explains why.  For example, babies’ brains need live speakers and don’t process the electronic sounds the same way.  But she also makes suggestions for when to use technology and how to get the most of it.  She points out that math programs for early grades can be bad because it’s important to learn the concepts not just memorize the answers but software for older children can be great because it allows them to practice real world skills.

The first part of the book is all about brain development.  Recently I was at the park with the girls and while watching all the kids play I could actually see things she had described in the book.  The later parts of the book all deal with practical applications, specific things you can do based on the science.  While I must read a book front to back or it drives me crazy, this really is one book where you could jump to the section you want.  Just don’t tell me.

Alright, I now feel like I am president of the Jane Healy fan club.   I will stop singing her praises.  I just really think this is one parenting/development book that many, many people can appreciate.

Endangered Minds

Endangered MindsI recently finished reading Endangered Minds, Why Children Don’t Think–and What We Can Do About It by Jane M. Healy, Ph.D.  I’ll be honest, I’m a big nerd who loves reading books about brain research.  But even if you aren’t a nerd like me, I highly recommend this book to parents of young children, especially if you are concerned about the huge amount of technology in our children’s lives.

One of my favorite brain/parenting books for babies was Bright From the Start and I really feel like Endangered Minds picks up where that book leaves off.  Basically we want kids to be strong readers but often are shaping their brain the opposite way.

We have all heard how bad screentime is for children, but why?  Jane Healy really explains to the layperson what is happening in children’s brains as they are growing and how screentime, TV and computers, impacts the growing brain in such a way it is actually changing the landscape of children’s brains.  But what really made the book interesting to me was that she also explained how this all translates to the classroom and society as a whole.  Some of it comes as no surprise, such as how more children are having trouble paying attention and TV teaches them to tune out.  But Healy also explains how TV makes kids passive learners who expect to be entertained and have information spoonfed to them. This is something I have seen in my own classroom–students expecting the answers to be listed right on the page and either unwilling or unable to work to find answers.

I actually kept wishing that I had read this book sooner, while I was still teaching in the classroom since it explained so much about what I was seeing in my students.  But I also know it would have been very frustrating because the power to change really resides in the home with the parents.

Brain TVIt has already changed the behavior in our home.  We now put more emphasis on listening and focusing skills.  We are listening to more novels on tape as a family and discussing them together.  We have also included a strong phonics program as our children learn to read.  And obviously we are limiting screentime even more.

People have made the argument to me that if kids’ brains are changing due to the huge influx in technology then it could be a disadvantage to restrict screentime, computer use, etc. so that my children have an “old” style brain.  I strongly disagree.  As Jane Healy explains, we still have the same overall expectations in school and the workplace.  Students need to do a huge amount of reading in school but allowing them to watch large amounts of TV or play on a computer from an early age makes it harder for them to be good readers and good learners.  But it is more than just reading.  For our changing world, our children need to be able to think creatively, make connections, and draw conclusions.  In order to do this they need to be active learners able to focus and willing to work hard.

Endangered Minds is a little dated, but overall the message and information is true.  In fact, much has just been further confirmed since the book was first written.  It does focus on TV more than computers but all the arguments hold true for both.  The book also addresses issues such as the increase in ADHD and the decrease in test scores including the SATs and GRE.  Other issues she tackles might come as a surprise such as the problem with shows like Sesame Street.  If you are interested in brain and/or looking at how to give your children every advantage, I high recommend it.

My Little Dependent Variables

The other day I took Mia and Zoe to participate in a research study at the University of Arizona.  Personally I love to say that the girls were in an experiment but my husband thinks that makes them sound like lab rats.  I also think it’s hilarious on the days of the study to say that the girls are going to college because they need to work on their research project.  I know, I’m a dork.

Mia checking her brain waves during a hearing study.

Mia checking her brain waves during a hearing study.

This most recent study dealt with language development and was pretty interesting.  One at a time I took the girls into a room where they sat in a little chair infront of a computer screen and next to the grad student running it.  There was a camera to film it all and a seat for me out of the way.  The researcher pulled out a puppet named “Sheepy.”  Sheepy had trouble pronouncing words and it was the girls’ job to help her.  Together they looked at pictures of animals on the screen–a dog, cat, bear, etc.  If Sheepy said the name correctly they gave her a little plastic treat and if she said it wrong they gave her a black rag that she coughed on which the girls thought was funny.  After the familiarization round they then learned completely new animals.  These were ones created by the researchers that appeared on the screen multiple times teaching the girls and Sheepy the made up names.  After that Sheepy was quizzed on the new names just like before with the girls deciding if she said it correctly.  Finally, after a brief break, the girls were quizzed themselves naming pictures on the screen.  For all their hard work they each received a certificate and a toy (both chose a little pony).

This was by no means our first study.  The first time we went the girls were about four months old.  Since then we have made over 20 such visits.  Many have been performed at the same lab or their sister lab with the girls returning as they reach different age ranges.  One required multiple visits over the course of six months.  Another included a home visit.

Why do it? 

The girls usually receive a book or toy, occasionally monetary compensation.  Still that’s a lot of effort for a board book and not why I do sign us up at all.  So, why?

P1020599To be perfectly honest, the first time I did it becuase it was some place that seemed to welcome newborn twins and I needed to get out of the house.  But the main reason we kept going is because I love exposing the girls to higher education.  I love that college (and the University of Arizona) is already part of their vocabulary.  I want my children to be lifelong learners and value education–exposing them to the university and research early on supports that goal.

I also learn more about my own children.  This is a different environment with activities different than what we do at home.  I like seeing how the girls respond and it helps me pick up on subtle differences in how the two learn.  For instance, in this latest study, I was able to see that Zoe is a little more verbal, repeating the names of each animal even though she didn’t need to, whereas Mia is a little more careful, trying to check her answers with the researcher.

Zoe doing baby sign language

Zoe doing baby sign language

And it’s interesting.  I think the studies are neat to see.  One time I was reading a book that referred to studies going on that we had been a part of and I just kept thinking “How cool is that?”  I find brain development fascinating (just check out some of the books on my booklist).  Babies are so little that it’s amazing what they can do.

For instance, did you know that babies understand the laws of physics?  When shown magic tricks, things that appeared to violate the laws of physics, babies were surprised.  They were shown a block floating in midair, objects that disappear and reappear somewhere else, and a box placed behind a screen that had disappeared when the screen fell back.  Babies will look longer at the magic tricks than they did at the similar scenes that followed physical laws.  They know that what they are seeing is not right.

And did you know that babies can do basic math?  When they watch one doll placed behind a screen and then a second doll placed behind the screen, five-month-old babies were surprised to see one or three dolls when the screen dropped.  They knew it was not right.DSCN1559

Baby studies have also shown us how compassionate they can be.  Babies respond more to the cries of other babies than to a recording of their own crying.  And starting at about one year old, they will try to soothe others who appear in distress by patting them or handing over a bottle or toy.

Babies can tell right from wrong.  In one study nine- and twelve-month-olds were shown movies of geometrical characters interacting with one another.  In one, a red ball would try to go up a hill.  Sometimes a yellow square would try to help the ball up the hill and other times a green triangle would try to push the ball down.  Afterwards when the ball approached the hindering triangle the babies were surprised and looked longer than when the ball went over to the helpful square.  Later babies were shown the same scenario but with puppets.  Afterwards the puppets were brought over to the babies, almost all of whom picked up the helpful square.   Similar studies have even shown that in addition to telling right from wrong, babies will reward the good guy and punish the bad.  They also prefer others who reward the good or punish the bad.

There are also studies with more immediate practical applications.  For seven months we made regular visits to the Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences department that included observing how the girls respond to certain sounds and measuring their brain waves while tones were played.  Researchers are studying infants with normal hearing in order to develop methods to identify and help infants with hearing loss.  Results from studies like this will help doctors develop a hearing test for babies and will tell us if their hearing aids are working.

How do we sign up?

I’m sure you are thinking, “That’s cool for you, but how do we do that?”  Okay, maybe you aren’t.  But if you are, I recommend contacting your local college or university.  Most of our studies have been done through the psychology department, specifically the child cognitive lab.  Once you get on one list, you usually can be contacted by other departments and labs as well.  It also helps to just keep your ear out.  Maybe friends are already participating (I’m also telling people they should sign up) or ads are listed with your local parenting group.

We actually had paperwork included in our packet when the girls were born asking if we wanted to be put on a contact list.  That’s how they first found us.  But when we did the first study we again filled out paperwork where we could initial that other studies could contact us.

My girls in a brochure for one of the labs we've attended.  I was such a proud mama when I saw their picture in it.

My girls in a brochure for one of the labs we’ve attended. I was such a proud mama when I saw their picture in it.

I don’t know if the studies my daughters participate in will produce breakthrough results but I like that they are contributing to science and human understanding.  And I like that my children are being exposed to higher education and to people dedicated to learning since I want learning to always be a part of their lives.  I know that these studies won’t make my children any smarter, but, from what I hear, babies are already pretty smart.

%d bloggers like this: