From Angst to Thanks

There is no job that is more angst-ridden than being a parent. As much as you would like to cocoon your children from the hurts and disappointments and harsh realities of the world – it is simply not possible. Every day we are bombarded by the media with images that reflect all of our worst nightmares. Last week the internet was crowded with remembrances of that horrific day five years ago in Sandy Hook. There are no words that can express the sorrow and the outrage that consumes us all when we allow ourselves to reflect on this kind of violation of what should be one of the safest places on earth for our children.

It is often far too easy to dwell on the dark possibilities of life.  But, as parents, we can not, and should not, go there. Quite the contrary, this time of year should be a time of giving thanks. Thanks for our children and all of the joy that they bring to our lives. Thanks too, to all of the amazing people in their lives who care for them and support them; the people who make sure that they don’t “fall between the cracks”.

Many years ago, one of my older sons declared in the middle of Grade 12 that “school is irrelevant” and stopped attending. No amount of begging, lecturing or threatening would make him budge, and if it hadn’t been for a cadre of teachers who were determined to make sure that he didn’t throw everything away in the last weeks of high school, the end of the story might have been quite different. As it was, he graduated, and then took two years off to work as a short-order cook. More angst! Eventually however, he met a girl. She was interested in school and driven to succeed. Fast forward twenty years and they are both university professors in Winnipeg with two lovely daughters and very successful and satisfying personal and professional lives. And his father? I still remain full of angst –  transferred quite seamlessly to my two young sons (how will I ever get Morgan to sit down to his math homework rather than gravitating to his iPad? Or get Quinn to realize that there is more to life than watching hockey and baseball?) and to my grandchildren who are too far away for me to micro-manage in the way that I want to. That is the nature of parenthood. We want the best for our children and woe be to anything or anyone that gets in the way of it!

Sometimes however, we get so focused on the perceived barriers to our children’s future successes, that we forget to reflect and appreciate those circumstances and people who are not holding them back, but propelling them forward. As our children get older, and our direct influence wanes, those factors (the values, the work ethic, and strength of character that we have tried to instil in them) and those people (their teachers, coaches, friends and extended family members) play a greater and greater role in the path that they choose to follow.

As the term draws to a close, and we look forward to celebrating a holiday season that is more about family than about turkeys and presents, it is a great time to be thankful for all of those people who are helping our children along their way. No doubt, if we could be in a hundred places at once, we would try to do it all ourselves, but sometimes, we just have to let go, hope for the best, and trust that the foundation that we have built for our daughters and sons will carry them through just fine.

So, from me, this is a letter of thanks to my own children’s teachers, past and present, to their friends (and friends’ parents) and to the hosts of cousins, Aunts and Uncles, and Grandparents who have been such an important part of their lives. You don’t relieve my angst, but somehow you make it all come together for my kids.

Have a wonderful holiday!

Timing is everything!

I never miss an opportunity to read whatever Daniel Pink authors, or give up a chance to hear him speak on podcasts, or interviews, or in person. His books: A Whole New Mind; Drive; and, To Sell is Human are three of my favourites and rarely spend much time on my book shelf, as either I take one down to refresh my memory about an idea, or a staff member drops in to grab one of my copies.

Pink’s latest work – When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing hit the bookstores last week and once again he doesn’t disappoint. One of the central themes is his examination of the research studying the correlation between performance and time of day. Scientists have known for a long time that most living organisms have internal clocks or “circadian rhythms”. Pink’s research takes this one step further as he considers the impact of these rhythms on our day to day performance at work, school, or play.

“For most of us mood follows a common pattern: a peak, a trough, and a recovery.” Most of us seem to peak in the morning, trough at midday, and recover in the later afternoon. But, as he notes, even casual observation reveals that not all of us experience this pattern in the same way, in fact, we’re all different “chromotypes.” About a quarter of us are “larks” that excel in the morning; others are “owls” that hit their peak in the wee hours, and still others — between 60 to 80 per cent of us — are “third birds,” somewhere in between. Knowing your chromotype is critical to avoid making dangerous mistakes or becoming the victim of other people’s time-sensitive errors. Pink points out that although most of us fall into that middle group, this is not a consistent pattern throughout our lives. Young children tend to be “larks”, up at ’em at the crack of dawn. After puberty there is a significant shift towards becoming an “owl”. Research shows that for most teenagers, 6-7 a.m. is the physical equivalent of the middle of the night. And, anyone who has tried to dynamite a teenager out of bed in the morning, or watched adolescent zombies walk the halls of a high school before lunch will understand that completely. Eventually, most young adults tend to gravitate to the middle ground in their 20s but will eventually become more and more “larkish” in their 60s and beyond.

So, what impact does all of this have on schooling? To begin with, for elementary students, it is a reminder – which all teachers and tutors know from experience – that the most challenging academic tasks are best performed before the early afternoon. Pink identifies the trough period for most people as hitting between 2 and 4 p.m. but for younger “larks” in the early elementary it may come as early as 11 or so. High School students are more productive if, either their day starts a bit later, or begins with less academically demanding courses such as phys-ed or one on one direct instruction, where they can be individually coached and encouraged, scheduled at the beginning of the day.

Can you break this rhythm, or are we doomed to wallow in the afternoon trough with declining focus and productivity? Well, in this case, Pink gives us a little hope to counter our own circadian rhythms. He suggests that the mid-afternoon is a good time to focus on mundane, administrative tasks. If morning is our peak analytical time, and later in the day is our most creative, then the mid-point might just be a time to grind it out! He also points out that research shows that taking a break (not an extended siesta, but rather a deliberate active change of scene) can also be rejuvenating. I heard Pink speak about this on Quirks and Quarks last week. He recommends a brief – 10-15 minutes – brisk walk, outdoors, ideally in the company of a friend or colleague. This tends to clean out the cobwebs, improve mood, and get you back on track. For elementary students this might mean a “body break” on the playground. For high school kids, a 10 minute afternoon opportunity to walk to the corner and grab a snack. These “time wasters” are actually a great investment in productivity.

So next time you have trouble getting your kids up in the morning, or getting them to focus on homework in the evening. Don’t blame them, blame it on their chromotype!

Timing is everything.

Using your RAM to avoid being rammed!

This morning, my son Morgan missed the bus for school. My previously calculated plan to see him off, stop at Starbucks, beat the traffic down the Cut and arrive at school were rearranged to include a ten minute drive in the wrong direction, drop him at school, adjust my route to avoid the now-jammed up Cut and arrive at KGMS a little later than I had planned. 
Sound like a typical morning at your house? As parents we are often on “auto-pilot” as we manage the routines around work, school, activities and errands. This management skill is called executive functioning. It allows us to set goals, plan, initiate, monitor our progress, review our successes (or failures) and learn from our experiences. In short, executive function is the set of mental processes that helps connect past experience with present action. We use it to perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space.

Needless to say, school success is highly dependent upon executive function. It enables students to regulate their behaviour and to perform those tasks that that facilitate learning. EF allows students to plan; keep track of time; multi-task; build on past experience; evaluate and reflect; make mid-course corrections; ask for help; and, exercise self-control.

However, unfortunately, many of our students have challenges that get in the way of their executive functioning skills. These problems manifest themselves in a number of different ways. Students who struggle with executive function have difficulties with initiating projects; predicting how much time a task will take; relating a story in a sequential fashion; planning and prioritizing; adapting to changing conditions; or retaining information from something that they have read while trying to answer questions about it.

Often when educators think about executive function, they focus on organizational skill development such as time management, developing organizational systems or planning and prioritizing. While this works for many students, there are clear barriers that prevent some children from easily mastering these skills. For them, this traditional approach does not work.

A key EF challenge can be a product of  working memory, which is the ability to hold information in memory while performing complex tasks. It incorporates the ability to “draw on past learning or experience to apply to the situation at hand or to project it into the future”. As an analogy, I recently heard on Quirks and Quarks that while the “hard drives” of long term memory in our brains can store an impressive 100 terabytes of information, our RAM – or working memory – holds very little but that limited data is critically important to the management of our moment to moment operations.

“It’s like mental juggling”, says H. Lee Swanson, PhD, a professor of education with the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside. “As information comes in, you’re processing it at the same time as you store it,” he says. “A child uses this skill when doing math calculations or listening to a story, for example. She has to hold onto the numbers while working with them. Or, she needs to remember the sequence of events and also think of what the story is about” .

Other executive functioning skills include: response inhibition which is the ability to think before you act including the ability to resist the urge to say or do something before you take the time to evaluate what impact your behaviour might have on a given situation; emotional control, that is, the ability to manage emotions, controlling and directing your behaviour in order to achieve goals and complete tasks; and, sustained attention which is the capacity to maintain attention to a situation or task in spite of distractibility, fatigue or boredom.

At our school, every class and tutoring session involves working on developing and enhancing executive functioning skills with our students. Our academic division core teachers work in partnership with our Social Emotional Learning counsellors to support all of our students in this process. It is all part of our universal design approach to learning. Looking around the school you will see all kinds of strategies in action such as:

Working memory supports including cognitive orthotic devices such as written agendas or organizational apps; posting daily schedules, weekly calendars, “to do” lists; giving directions that prompt reference to past experience; breaking tasks into manageable chunks; organizing student workspaces to minimize clutter (at home this could mean having dedicated spaces for certain tasks); and, making sequentially stepped process checklists (“first do this, next do this, etc.”).

For response inhibition and emotional control issues we provide distractions; set time limits; model delayed gratification; reduce or eliminate triggers; remove the student from the situation; and, teach and rehearse coping strategies until she or he has internalized them.

To sustain attention we work on reducing distractions; modifying or limiting the time on task; using peer coaching; providing active exercise breaks; and, reinforcing successful focussing.

In the final analysis, success in school, like everyday life, demands that you not only effectively plan and implement tasks in a logical, sequential fashion but also learn how to self-regulate as well. After all, we all know drivers who have their destination, route, and timing all planned out in advance but cannot cope with any variation that might get in their way. So next time you see someone gripped by “road rage”, you are undoubtedly witnessing a breakdown in their executive functioning. Probably a good idea to just get out of their way!