The Gift of Learning – Part 6 (of 6)

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 graduating student

As I wrap up my six-part series on The Gift of Learning, I want to thank all of you for hanging in there through this long series. I don’t think I could have done justice to this important topic if I focused less time and effort on it. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to read Parts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 of this series, I would encourage you to take the time now to review them before reading the conclusion in today’s blog.

In writing this series, I am reminded once again of why I love what I do as a psychologist. I get to have a front row seat to see how God transforms lives, but I also get a snapshot picture of what makes each one of us unique as I assess the children, adolescents and adults who come to our offices for an assessment. And so, as I talk about some of the strategies parents can use to help their kids with their learning, keep in mind that these are general principles, and as I’ve been stressing from the beginning of this series, it’s important to consider the individual needs and learning styles of your kids.

Sleep and Nutrition

When parents come to my office, one of the first things I do is rule out physical reasons for some of the challenges that their kids are facing in schools. I especially focus on their sleep and nutrition because these two critical factors have been found to be very significant in a child’s cognitive well-being. When I ask parents, many times they have to admit that their kids aren’t getting enough sleep – either because parents aren’t monitoring them or setting strict sleep schedules, or because their lives are too busy and chaotic with too much extracurricular activities that compromise the time their kids have to sleep and rest. Unfortunately, sleep deprivation has been found to impact attention, working memory, long-term memory, visual-motor performance, visual spatial reasoning, decision-making, and receptive and expressive speech, just to name a few cognitive functions.

The relationship between diet and cognitive development is also important. Proper nutrition is essential to learning, thinking, and cognitive perception. Researchers have found links between nutrition and brain development, cognitive function, curiosity, behaviour, and communication and social skills. Many parents automatically assume that their kids are fine and they would answer that their diets are “healthy” but when I drill down into specifics, it often turns out that a parent’s view point of what a healthy diet is whole wheat bread, granola bars, and juice. Too many of us as parents are too busy nowadays to take the time to be fully informed about the nutritional needs of our kids, and so our reliance on processed and pre-packaged food is rampant. Unfortunately, studies show that this typical diet of our kids is lacking in many essential nutrients that they need for healthy cognitive functioning.

I speak at greater length about the importance of sleep and nutrition for our kids in my series on stress; while my focus in that series was on stress, the comments I make pertain just as well to cognitive functioning. So, before spending the time and money to get your child assessed for learning disabilities, take the time to assess and improve your child’s sleep and nutrition. Those two improvements can go a very long way to improving your child’s cognitive performance.

Medications

To medicate or not to medicate? This is a question I get all of the time from parents whose kids have been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD in particular. This is a controversial topic, with some people strongly believing it is the best option and others believing medication shouldn’t be used on children. Determining the best option for your child is an important decision that shouldn’t be made without doing your homework. Before you make this decision, you should know that there are pros and cons to ADD/ADHD medication and that medication might help one child but not another. In our practice, we have seen good results with kids taking medications but we’ve also seen similarly good results with parents who have chosen to pursue natural remedies for their kids.

Making ADD/ADHD medication decisions can be difficult, but doing your homework helps. The first thing to understand is what the medications can and can’t do. Medication may help improve the ability to concentrate, control impulses, plan ahead and follow through with tasks. However, it isn’t a magic pill that will fix all of your child’s problems. Even when the medication is working, a child with ADD/ADHD may still struggle with forgetfulness, emotional problems and social awkwardness. That’s why it’s so important to make lifestyle changes that include regular exercise, a healthy diet and sufficient sleep.

Medication doesn’t cure ADD/ADHD. It can relieve symptoms while it’s being taken, but once medication stops, those symptoms come back. Also, ADD/ADHD medication works better for some than for others. Because each person responds differently and unpredictably to medication, its use should always be personalized to the person and closely monitored by a doctor.

ADD/ADHD medication has been shown to reduce or even eliminate some of the behavioural symptoms associated with ADHD. By reducing students’ hyperactivity and giving them the ability to focus, medication gives many students the ability to perform better in school, make friends and participate in extra-curricular activities. There have been numerous studies indicating that psychotropic drugs are safe, tolerable and useful for children. These studies suggest that if children take the prescribed dosage indicated by their doctor, then the medication is safe and that the majority of the side effects are mild.

On the flip side, however, one aspect of ADD/ADHD medication that should be of concern to parents is that there are very few studies done on the long-term effects of the medication. So, while we know that these medications are safe in the short-term, the prospect of giving kids medication without knowing the long-term effects bring cause for hesitation. There are also mild side effects associated with many of the medications including loss of appetite, difficulty falling asleep, dizziness, moodiness and growth problems.

When deciding whether medication is right for your child, there are four things to consider: 1) the severity of your child’s symptoms and how much they are interfering with his/her school performance; 2) the effectiveness of other treatments; 3) the side effects; and 4) how your child feels about taking the medication. Before you make this decision, take with your child’s teacher, the school counsellor or psychologist, your health care provider and most importantly, your child. For more information on ADD/ADHD medication, check out this article that outlines a basic overview of this topic.

Accommodations

The most common approach to helping students with identified learning challenges is to provide accommodations for these kids at school. Once these kids have been assessed and diagnosed, they are usually evaluated by school personnel, in conjunction with their parents, to develop an individualized education plan (IEP). While some people believe that this may give them an “unfair advantage” over the other kids, I believe that accommodations actually level the playing field so that these kids are being taught and assessed using strategies that work better for their learning style.

Some of the common accommodations provided for kids who have been identified include assistive technology (i.e., access to computers and computer programs for their work), extended time limits for tests and assignments, alternative testing strategies (e.g., multiple choice or oral exams rather than written), as well as reduced homework or workload. The psychologist who assesses your child will work with you to develop a list of accommodations that are best suited to your child’s learning needs.

I have found that when kids are identified at a younger age, they are less likely to feel self-conscious about being “different” from the other kids. They are also likely to be more successful academically and learn great life skills that will help them throughout their lives. They learn about their unique learning strengths and weaknesses, and they learn early on to adopt strategies to help them succeed (which they can then take into adulthood). On the other hand, teens are much more aware of their peers and can be overly concerned about what others think, so educational accommodations may work less well at this stage of development. Putting an IEP in place may not help as these teens may avoid doing anything that sets them apart from their peers. Parents often complain at this point that their kids aren’t accessing the supports that have been put in place for them. Since teens are also at the stage of trying to individuate from their parents, nagging them often proves to be fruitless and only exacerbates the tension between parent and teen. If this is your child, then it may be helpful for them to talk to a school counsellor or therapist who is able to help them navigate through this, so that they can benefit from academic supports.

Brain Training

There is a growing number of proponents who believe in brain training to strengthen the weaknesses in the brain. For example, some programs like Arrowsmith (named after it’s founder, Barbara Arrowsmith who suffered from a severe learning disability but was able to overcome it with the program she eventually developed) focus on repetitive exercises that build the weaker parts of the brain. According to their research, they have been able to demonstrate significant improvement in performance. Even more encouraging, these changes have been shown to remain, even years after the child has completed the program. In his book, The Brain that Changes Itself, Dr. Norman Doidge presents a very provocative look at some amazing results of brain training.

However, this type of approach doesn’t come without a significant cost, both in money and time. As well, it can be difficult to retain a child’s engagement with this type of program because of the many hours of repetitive exercises they have to complete every day. And for the programs to be fully effective, these children often need to continue doing these exercises over a number of years. Hence, ass with medication, parents need to do their research and evaluate the pros and cons, before determining the best course of action for their kids.

Think Strategies

One of the biggest mistakes we make as parents and teachers is to focus on rote learning – that is, sheer repetition, drills and use of rote memory until our kids “learn” what they are supposed to know. If our children struggle in math, we think that we need to spend hours drilling them with math problems, over and over again. Or if it’s a language issue, we spend our time in repetitive word exercises to try to help our kids.

Recent studies show that teaching our kids cognitive strategies is much more effective than simply rote learning or trying to drill facts into the kids. Cognitive strategies are HOW you do what you do, not WHAT you’re downloading into a child’s brain. A workshop I attended just last week by Dr. Jack Naglieri, a well-known researcher in the field of cognitive assessment and development, reinforced this very important distinction: he found that kids who used worksheets that focused on learning strategies did significantly better than kids who were taught through traditional teaching techniques – even though the kids in the latter group actually got MORE instruction than the first group. And a year later in follow-up, Dr. Naglieri found that the kids taught using learning strategies still performed better than those taught traditionally.

So what would be some examples of cognitive strategies? The use of mnemonics to cue recall, summarizing a text you’re reading and identifying the central idea, monitoring your understanding of what you’re reading, and reviewing and learning from our mistakes, just to name a few. For more information on these types of learning strategies, check out Jack Naglieri’s book, Helping Children Learn.

Beyond helping your child succeed at school, focusing on learning strategies are life-long skills that can help them in the “real world” because they are transferrable to many situations. While they are much more likely to forget the “facts” of what they’ve learned, they’re likely to retain the strategies they’ve developed. It also helps your child gain a sense of mastery over their world, as they learn how to apply these strategies time and time again for themselves, rather than relying on adults in their lives to monitor their schoolwork.

So as I end this six-part series on The Gift of Learning, I hope that it’s been helpful for you! If you have any additional questions, comments or concerns, please feel free to email me or comment on this blog.

 

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