Managing Your Mental Health During The Holidays

During the holiday season, many look forward to festivities with friends and family. But for others, this time can bring on or worsen stress, anxiety and depression.

There are a variety of factors that can bring on holiday anxiety and depression. Some people experience increased financial burden due to travel, gift and/or hosting costs. Others may feel overwhelmed as the holiday season often includes a packed calendar of parties, performances and traveling that can be difficult to balance with everyday responsibilities and self-care. Not to mention: High expectations to give perfect gifts and plan perfect events, as well as loneliness for those who aren’t with loved ones.

If you are experiencing any of these challenges, here are some coping tips you can use to manage your increased levels of anxiety, stress and sadness.

Stay In Therapy

Although the holiday season is overwhelmingly busy, do not cancel your therapy sessions to make time for other activities. The holidays can bring up difficult emotions. If you can, keep your scheduled therapy sessions to ensure you have built-in time to explore anything that comes up.

Mindfulness

In addition to professional mental health care, mindfulness can be a valuable mental wellness tool. Certain practices can be particularly helpful if you are traveling or running on an unusual schedule. If you’re new to mindfulness, the online MSW program at the University of Southern California created a Mindfulness Toolkit featuring free mindfulness resources, like guided meditations for beginners.

Don’t Rely On Drugs And Alcohol

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends avoiding drugs and alcohol for comfort. While the prospect of escape can be appealing, substance use can ultimately worsen your issues. There is a 20% overlap between people with anxiety or mood disorders and substance use disorders, and substances can exacerbate symptoms. When you feel you need a relaxation aid, you can instead turn to a mindfulness tactic or other healthy coping mechanism.

Soak Up The Sun

Some struggle with depression during the winter months because of Major Depressive Disorder with a Seasonal Pattern. Exposure to bright lights, including fluorescent lights, can help ease symptoms. Even for those without this form of depression, walking outside in the sun can be an effective centering and calming tool. Numerous studies have pointed to the mental health benefits of spending time in nature, including stress relief, better concentration, lower levels of inflammation and improved mental energy.

Set Realistic Expectations

Another major source of anxiety, stress and depression around the holidays can be examining accomplishments from the past year. Some may experience negative feelings over not being at a place they feel they “should be” in life. Get yourself out of this space by adjusting expectations and setting realistic goals. For example, if you’re trying to establish an exercise routine, try setting a goal of talking a walk three times a week rather than vowing to do CrossFit every day.

Managing mental illness is always challenging, but it can be particularly difficult during the holiday season. While the struggle can feel isolating, remember that you are far from alone. Seek help from professional mental health services, maintain your self-care routines and include mindfulness practices into your days as you approach 2018.

 

Colleen O’Day is a digital marketing manager and community outreach support for 2U Inc.’s social work, mental health and K-12 education programs. Find her on Twitter @ColleenMODay.

https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/December-2017/Managing-Your-Mental-Health-During-the-Holidays

Millennials And Mental Health

As a mother of two Millennials, I’ve noticed differences between their generation and mine. Like how they prefer to spend money on travel, amazing food and experiences rather than physical things like homes and cars. These aren’t negative qualities—just different.

There is one difference I’ve noticed that is extremely positive: how they view mental health. I recently had a conversation with my oldest daughter, Mackenzie, who struggles with anxiety.

“Mom, you wouldn’t believe how many people my age talk about mental health,” she said. “It’s not a taboo subject anymore. I know a lot of people at work and friends outside of work who see therapists or take medication for anxiety and depression.”

I couldn’t hide my smile. Obviously, I’m not happy they’re dealing with mental illness, but I’m glad they’re not afraid to bring up the subject. My experience growing up was completely the opposite. I felt totally alone. My panic attacks began when I was 10 and I kept it a secret. I didn’t want to be seen as strange or different. By the time I was in my 20s, I panicked every time I drove or went to the grocery store. I knew my symptoms weren’t normal, but I still said nothing. Stigma and fear kept me quiet.

Meanwhile, Mackenzie was 23 when symptoms of anxiety first started to show. At first, I don’t think she wanted to admit she was having problems. She spent hours at the office, working her way up; she rarely took time to relax, never thinking much about her mental health. She blamed her lack of sleep on her motivation to get ahead, and her lack of appetite on acid reflux. But there was a deeper problem.

Mental health conditions run in our family. My mom had depression. My youngest daughter and I have recovered from panic disorder. Mackenzie was aware of our family history, and maybe that made it easier for her to talk about her symptoms. But I think the main reason she was encouraged to get professional help was that she heard her friends and coworkers openly discuss their mental health issues. Mackenzie didn’t feel ashamed or alone.

Millennials are often referred to as the “anxious generation.” They were the first to grow up with the constant overflow of the Internet and social media. The Internet can make life better, but it can also make life complicated, as Millennials often compare their personal and professional achievements to everyone else’s. This can result in low self-esteem and insecurity.

The world is at Millennials’ fingertips, but they also feel its immense weight. “Everything is so fast-paced and competitive. Part of that is social media,” Mackenzie told me. “The sense of immediacy—everything has to happen right away, at the click of a button. There’s pressure to constantly be ‘on.’ To look and sound perfect, and act like you have it all together. But you don’t.”

She continued, “I’m relieved my friends and I talk about being anxious and depressed. I don’t have to pretend anymore.”

2015 study by American University said that Millennials grew up hearing about anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicide, and they are more accepting of others with mental illness. Millennials are more likely to talk about mental health than their parents or grandparents. As more people speak out, the stigma surrounding mental illness is beginning to lessen.

Word is spreading through social media that mental health is an important part of overall well-being. Celebrities are openly sharing their struggles. The younger generation is learning about mental illness at an earlier age (thanks to programs like NAMI Ending the Silence).

It’s still difficult for many people to be open about their mental health issues—I’m not saying stigma is completely gone. But at least it’s not a totally taboo subject, like it was when I was growing up. I’m thankful Millennials are helping to break that stigma barrier a little further. I’m so glad my daughter doesn’t feel alone.

 

Jenny Marie is a mental health advocate and blogger. Jenny is married and has two daughters. Her blog is called Peace from Panic.

https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/December-2017/Millennials-and-Mental-Health

In Depth: Eating Disorders in Men

People often think “Eating disorders are a woman’s disease.” This myth is constantly reinforced by character portrayals on television, targeted advertisements, and even studies and articles that draw from exclusively female samples. The sad reality is that eating disorders affect any and all genders, and those who do not identify as female may even suffer more with the very diagnosis of their disease due to the stereotype that eating disorders are feminine. Therefore, although eating disorders affect each individual differently, it is important to consider one’s gender identification in order to increase efficacy for prevention, detection, and treatment of the disease.

Why do men get eating disorders?

While beauty standards for women emphasize thinness, men are taught to prioritize muscle gain. Similar to women’s beauty standards, this fixation on strength derives from cultural gender norms and is perpetuated at a very young age. Throughout the past five decades, the muscles on action figures have been getting significantly larger. Comparable to the physically impossible size measurements of Barbie, the 1998 Wolverine doll had a waist the size of its bicep and half the size of its chest.1 One study confirmed that male college students who were assigned to play with the most unrealistic action figure dolls then reported the lowest levels of self-esteem.2 Another study found that men’s confidence surrounding their physique plummeted after watching music videos that featured hyper-muscular stars. Even more fascinating—researchers still observed this drop in self-esteem after the male participants watched music videos in which the main star did not have outrageous bulging muscles, but rather, was a more realistic depiction of an average (white) American male.3 These unanimous declines in body image indicate that men are deeply susceptible to ingesting harmful media standards, and these standards can take a lifelong toll on their body image.

What do eating disorders look like for men?

These dips in body image can oftentimes lead men to develop an unhealthy fixation on their build or, in some cases, an eating disorder. The estimated rates of men with eating disorders vary. Some studies cite that for every 10 women with an eating disorder there is 1 man with the disorder14, while other studies indicate that 25% of eating disorders occur in men5. The discrepancy in these statistics is due to the fact that many men with eating disorders do not report their disease, due to shame and fear of suffering from a “female” issue. Another stereotype is that the men who are diagnosed with eating disorders are predominantly homosexual. This assumption has been widely disproved, and in fact 80% of men with eating disorders are heterosexual.4 That being said, confusion surrounding sexual orientation can be a contributing cause for eating disorder in some men, so it is important to acknowledge sexuality during the treatment process.

Men can suffer from any and all types of eating disorders, but some of the most prevalent eating disorders among men are binge eating disorders or exercise addictions. As for the former, American culture is actually more accepting of men with binge eating disorder than their female counterparts. This acceptance is positive for men who may avoid emotional scarring from fat shaming, but it is negative for men who are enabled to continue binge eating because their symptoms are not validated as being disordered eating, and therefore they are significantly less likely to seek treatment. However, the severity of binge eating disorder among men should not be minimized. A recent article, which profiled men with binge eating disorders, included testimony from a man whose early life traumas caused him to weigh 724 pounds by the time he was 34 and from another man who gained and lost 100 pounds 4 times throughout his life.4

Exercise addiction, sometimes called Anorexia Athleticism, is also prevalent among men with eating disorders.1 These addictions usually stem from a cultural aversion to softness, particularly in men.6 Many of the behaviors characteristic of this addiction are similar to those of anorexia, including restlessness, physical over-activity, and self-starvation.1 This addiction can also lead men to develop substance abuse problems, particularly with steroids. Over two million men in the United States have reported using anabolic steroids at some point in their lives, and while these drugs do not have any immediate effects, they can have disastrous physical and emotional long-term effects, such as high cholesterol, depression, and prostate enlargement.1

How do we treat men with eating disorders?

Because there are so few studies on men with eating disorders, there is not enough substantive literature that indicates how (or if) eating disorder treatment should vary between men and women. However, there are some known factors to bear in mind when treating male eating disorder clients. While women are more susceptible to developing eating pathology if they have a history of feeling fat, men have a much greater risk of developing an eating disorder if they were actually obese during childhood.1 Additionally, men who have a history of sexual trauma are more prone to develop an eating disorder due to the body image disturbance that can occur as a result of their abuse.1 Men who experience a sexual assault can also develop a drive to build their muscle mass because they believe that becoming stronger and more masculine will make them more prepared in the event of a future threat.1 Additionally, depression can be a major cause of eating disorders, but since depression is also stigmatized as a “feminine” disease, it can go severely underreported.1

Men who have confusion surrounding their sexuality may find comfort in starvation, especially because anorexia can lower their testosterone levels and lead to asexuality, so by wiping out their sexuality altogether they no longer have to cope with the internal worry.1 However, this can make treatment much more difficult because regaining weight will unleash any sexual feelings they may have been repressing, which restarts the sexual discovery many men dread. Eating disorders are also common among men who identify with an “undifferentiated” or “feminine” gender role. Therefore, understanding the sexuality and gender of a male patient is imperative in order to grasp the underlying influences for one’s eating disorder.

Finally, many male eating disorder clients who engage in excessive exercise have Muscle Dysmorphia, which is categorized as an obsession with one’s body or muscle size.1 However, since there are no official diagnostic criteria relating to food or diet, it is not technically considered an eating disorder, even though the symptoms and treatment suggestions are almost identical to those for eating disorders.1 Therefore, treatment practitioners must be able to identify the ways in which Muscle Dysmorphia manifests and may contribute or cause an eating disorder.1

Although there is still major progress to be made in the depiction of eating disorders as diseases that affect all genders, there is promising evidence to suggest that men can successfully recover from eating disorders. However, because men are taught a completely unique set of beauty standards, their eating disorders manifest in many different ways and they require specialized treatment that reflects these cultural gender differences. The sooner we abandon the stereotypical notion that eating disorders exclusively affect one group of people, the quicker we can pave the way for reduced stigma, access to recovery, and a bright future for all eating disorder clients.

http://www.emilyprogram.com/blog/eating-disorders-in-men

How To Encourage Someone To See A Therapist

It’s hard to watch someone you care about struggle with their mental health. It’s even worse when you know they could benefit from professional help. Approaching an individual and encouraging them to seek therapy can be a tricky situation. If done the wrong way, you could aggravate the person or turn them against the idea entirely. However, there is an effective way to have this conversation.

Here are some steps you can take to tell your loved one about the benefits of seeking therapy.

Show Support

Misconception about mental health and therapy has intensified stigma in society. Your loved one may be awarethat they need help, but may be afraid to seek it if they think you will judge or treat them differently. Therefore, it is essential to use non-stigmatizing language when talking with them about their mental health. Assure them that you will support them through the therapy process.

Demi Lovato is one of the most vocal celebrities about her mental health issues. She mentioned on multiple occasions how important it was for her to have people around that really care about her wellbeing. She credits her support group for being able to go through everyday life. Demi asks for advice from her loved ones and asks them to let her know when they feel something’s off: “So whether it’s with my management team or with my friends, every choice that I make, I run by people. And that’s what’s really helped me—vocalizing what you need.”

Be Sensitive To Timing And Place

Talking to someone about mental health requires emotional sensitivity as well as physical sensitivity. The “where” and “how” the topic is presented may determine how a person reacts to your suggestions. Your loved one may not be as bold as Kesha when she shared her condition and struggles with the world while receiving an award.

Don’t start this delicate conversation in front of other people or where others can hear as this may cause discomfort. And avoid grouping up in an intervention-style conversation as people do on TV shows. Allow the person struggling to decide whether they want others to know. This way, they feel respected and in control of their own treatment.

Also: Avoid talking to someone when they are in a bad mood, tired, have tight deadlines at work or if they’re doing something important. They may dismiss you or disregard the weight of the topic. Approach the person when they’re in a good mood, relaxed and undistracted. Try as much as possible to keep the conversation private, friendly and relaxed.

Prepare For Resistance

Not all people who hear about therapy will be willing to try it out. You need to be prepared to make your case if your loved one resists your suggestion. Here are some ideas that you can use to highlight the importance of therapy:

  • Try to use your relationship as leverage, in a loving way. Whether you’re their sibling, friend, spouse or relative, tell them how important your relationship with them is to you. And how it could benefit from their seeking therapy. However, avoid giving an ultimatum as it can cause emotional distress.
  • Name their admirable qualities. It’s easier to appeal to someone by pointing out what you like about them. When you point out someone’s positive qualities, they will be motivated to take the necessary steps to better themselves even further.
  • Explain specific areas of problematic behavior. Most people who refuse therapy may claim that they don’t have a problem. By pointing out specific problems without coming off as judgmental, you can help them see the need for seeking professional help.

Offer To Help

You can try to embolden someone to go to therapy, but unless you are willing to offer meaningful support, it’s not going to encourage them. Some people do not know where to start when seeking help. Guide them in finding a suitable therapist in the area, depending on their preferences. You can contact offices on their behalf or research various professionals, their credibility and reviews.

Some people are scared of seeing a therapist alone or signing up for group therapy. Offer to go with them until they’re comfortable. You can sit in the waiting room during their first few sessions. Make sure to assure them that you won’t ask prying questions about the counseling unless they want to share.

Seeking therapy is one of the best steps that a person with a mental health condition can take. However, it’s an effort that requires great strength and courage. Share your suggestions as openly as possible and leave them to make the decision that best suits their needs. Above all things, assure them of your continued love and support throughout the process.

By Mike Jones

https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/November-2017/How-to-Encourage-Someone-to-See-a-Therapist

 

Can Social Media Save A Life?

Like many who have social media accounts, I regularly check my timelines and feeds for intriguing articles, updates and happenings. Two years ago, I was mindlessly scrolling through one of my accounts before going to bed and one post immediately stood out among the rest: It was a suicide note.

Frantically, I read my friend Mark’s post. It detailed his internal suffering over the years, which he no longer wanted to endure. The comment section grew at an alarming rate. People asked questions, both directly to Mark and to each other. Some people were pleading with him to reconsider. Others offered comments of hope.

Over the next few days, I saw something I did not expect. Hundreds of comments on Mark’s post evolved into a community of people coming together to help find Mark, who had gone missing. People used his previous posts on other social media platforms to piece together his possible location. Some contacted the authorities—and thankfully, those authorities located him before he took his life.

Social Media On The Rise

We live in a world driven by technology. We see the media regularly report on new apps for our smartphones and the latest trending celebrity tweets. Whether we’re commuting to work, studying in a coffee shop or spending time with our family and friends, being connected digitally is part of our lives. An entire generation of young people is growing up with devices in their hands, regularly engaging in social media.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2005 only 5% of American adults used at least one social media platform. That number has since grown significantly: Today, 70% of the public uses social media, with many people using more than one platform.

Some researchers are beginning to identify connections between online social networking and mental health concerns. Among these concerns are varying levels of self-esteem and addiction to social media, as well as the internet. However, it is uncertain whether signs and symptoms of mental health conditions are the causes or effects of using social media. Since each platform is different and new platforms continue to be introduced, future research is needed to assess the true effect of social media on mental health.

Identifying Mental Health Concerns Online

When used responsibly, social media can be used in positive ways. It can be used to promote mental health to a large audience. I’ve seen individuals share their personal stories of recovery, like those on NAMI.org at You Are Not Alone and OK2Talk. I’ve seen mental health writers connect with one another on Twitter. And as with my friend Mark, during times of crisis, social media can even save lives.

On platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, users now have options for getting a friend help. If a user thinks a friend is in danger of self-harm or suicide, they can report their concerns by going to the social media websites’ Help Centers. These online Help Centers have dedicated content about suicide and self-harm prevention, which include online resources and phone numbers for suicide hotlines around the world.

The most helpful feature I’ve seen instituted recently is on Instagram. Users can anonymously flag posts by other users that have content about self-harm and suicide. That user then receives a message encouraging them to speak with a friend, contact a helpline or seek professional help. The same message appears for people who are regularly searching self-harm- or suicide-related content on Instagram.

Recent research by the Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Office notes that personal social media accounts “can provide an important window into a person’s state of mind.” At the Secretary of the Army Symposium on Suicide Prevention in mid-January 2017, military leaders, mental health professionals and companies like Google, Facebook and LinkedIn came together to see how social media can be used to connect those in need to care and resources.

How Can I Help?

With social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat dominating our screen time, it’s wise to assume that social media will continue to be a primary method of communication. Therefore, it’s up to us to look out for mental health warning signs while on social media so we are better prepared to assist a friend in need.

If you see any of the following behavior online, it may be time to step in and contact your friend directly to see how you can help:

  • Cyberbullying, which includes:

a. harassing messages or comments

b. fake accounts made to impersonate someone else

c. someone posting unwanted pictures or images of another person

  • Negative statements about themselves, even if it sounds like they are joking, such as

a. “I’m a waste of space.”

b. “No one cares about me.”

c. “I seriously hate myself.”

  • Negative leading statements with little to no context that prompt others to respond, such as:

a. “You wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through.”

b. “Today was the worst day ever.”

c. “It’s like everyone is against me.”

If someone you know is in immediate danger—for example, they talk about a specific plan for harming themselves—contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. This lifeline can support the individual and their family members, and has the ability to connect with local law enforcement, if necessary. If a person has attempted self-harm or is injured, call 911 immediately.

If the threat of physical danger is not immediate, here are some things you can do to help:

  • Report the content on the social media website’s Help Center;
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255; or
  • Reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting the word “NAMI” to 741741 (standard data rates may apply).

As you scroll through your social media feeds, be mindful of what others post. Being educated about available resources is important for those of us who promote mental health, but knowing when to reach out to a friend who may be experiencing a mental health crisis is even more important: You just might save a life.

By Ryann Tanap

Ryann Tanap is manager of social media and digital assets at NAMI.

https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/September-2017/Can-Social-Media-Save-a-Life

5 Reasons We Should Stop Distracting Toddlers (And What To Do Instead)

Apparently, distraction often works — at least momentarily — and I can appreciate that it allows mom, dad or caregiver to remain the good guy. I love being the good guy! Instead of saying, “I can’t let you draw on the sofa. Here’s some paper if you want to draw,” (or better yet, not leaving young children unsupervised with markers in the first place) it’s easier and less likely to cause friction if I change the subject enthusiastically: “Can you draw me a silly face on this piece of paper?”

So, I may save my sofa in the nick of time, but my child has no idea that drawing on it is not okay, and he may very well try it again. Well, at least there are no tears, and I’m still the good guy!

And right there is the first of several problems I have with distraction:

1) Phoniness. I don’t like acting perky and upbeat when I’m really a little annoyed. Besides making me feel like a big phony, I don’t think it’s good modeling or healthy for my relationship with my children. As uncomfortable as it is to face the music (or markers on the sofa), I believe children deserve and need an honest response. No, we shouldn’t react angrily if we can possibly help it, but we don’t have to perform or be inauthentic either. Staying calm and giving a simple correction and a real choice (like “You can draw on paper or find something else to do.”) is all that’s needed.

Yes, the child may get upset — he has a right to his conflicting opinion and his feelings. It’s good for him to vent and for us to acknowledge, “You really wanted to draw on the sofa and I wouldn’t let you.” Children are capable of experiencing these kinds of safe, age-appropriate conflicts. Which brings me to my second objection to distraction….

2) Wastes opportunities to learn from conflict. Our children need practice handling safe disagreements with us and with peers. When our infant or toddler is struggling with a peer over a toy and we immediately suggest, “Oh, look at this cool toy over here…,” we rob him of a valuable opportunity to learn how to manage conflicts himself. Directing our child to another identical toy, if there is one, might be helpful if children seem really stuck, but even then the infant or young toddler usually wants the one that has ‘heat’ in another child’s hands. Often the children are far more interested in understanding the struggle than they are in the particular toy. But whatever their focus, young children need time and our confidence in them to learn to resolve conflicts rather than avoiding them.

3) No guidance. What does a child learn when we direct him to draw a silly face rather than just telling him we can’t let him draw on the sofa? Infants and toddlers need us to help them understand the house rules, and eventually internalize our expectations and values. Distraction erases the possibility of a teachable moment instead of helping children benefit from it.

4) Underestimates and discourages attention and awareness. Distracting a child means asking him to switch gears and forget what has taken place. Is this lack of awareness something to encourage? An article I read recently on the subject (“Understanding Children”) suggests: “Since young children’s attention spans are so short, distraction is often effective.”

Even if I agreed about children having short attention spans, which I don’t (see video), distracting them from what they are engaged in seems a sure fire way to make them even shorter.

On the other hand, children who aren’t used to distraction don’t buy it. They can’t be fooled, coaxed or lured away from marking up the sofa (unfortunately). Encouraged to be fully present and aware, they need a straight answer, and they deserve one.

An aware child may be less convenient sometimes (when we can’t trick him with sleight of hand, “Oops, the cell phone disappeared, here’s a fun rattle instead!”), but awareness and attentiveness are essential to learning and will serve him well throughout his life.

5) Respect. Distracting is trickery that underestimates a toddler’s intelligence — his ability to learn and comprehend. Toddlers deserve the same respect we would give an adult, rather than this (from a website about parenting toddlers):

Distract and divert. The best form of toddler discipline is redirection. First, you have to distract them from their original intention and then, quickly divert them toward a safer alternative. Give them something else to do for example, helping with the household chores and soon they will be enjoying themselves rather than investing a lot of emotional energy into the original plan.

How distraction can be construed as discipline is beyond me, but more importantly –would you distract an adult in the middle of a disagreement and direct her to mop up the floor? Then why treat a younger person like a fool? I believe that we can trust babies to choose where to invest their emotional energy. Only babies know what they are working on and figuring out.

Here are some alternative responses that not only work,  but also feel respectful and authentic:

Breathe first. Pause and observe, unless there is a marker making contact with our sofa or a fist making contact with our toddler’s buddy’s head, in which case we quickly take hold of the hands and/or markers as gently as possible. But then we breathe.

Remain calm, kind, empathetic, but firm. In the case of a peer conflict, narrate the situation objectively without assigning blame or guilt. Infant expert Magda Gerber called this ‘sportscasting’. “Jake and John are both trying to hold onto the truck. It’s tough when you both want to use the same thing… You’re really having a hard time…” Allow the struggle, but don’t let the children hurt each other. “I see you’re frustrated, but I won’t let you hit.”

Acknowledge feelings and point of view. When it’s over, acknowledge, “Jake has the truck now. John, you wanted it. You’re upset.”

Be fully available to respond with comfort if the child wants it.

After our response to a behavior like drawing on the sofa, and after we’ve allowed the child to cry, argue, or move on as he chooses, while offering empathy and comfort, we can acknowledge his point of view. “You thought the sofa needed decorating. I said no.”

Recognize achievement and encourage curiosity. The use of distraction as redirection reflects our natural tendency to want to put an immediate end to a child’s undesirable behavior. And in our haste, it’s easy to forget to recognize and encourage positives in the situation – positives like inventiveness, achievement, curiosity. When the situation isn’t an emergency, we can take a moment to acknowledge: “Wow, you reached all the way up to the counter and picked up my sunglasses!”

Then we can allow the child to examine the sunglasses while we hold them. If he tries to take them out of our hands, we might say, “You can look at these and touch them, but I won’t let you take them.” Then, if that turns into a struggle, we might say finally, “You really want to hold these yourself and I can’t let you. I’m going to put them away in the desk.”

Dealing with these situations openly with patience, empathy and honesty — braving a child’s tears and accepting temporary ‘bad guy’ status — is the path to a loving relationship, trust and respect. This, believe it or not, is real quality time.

http://www.janetlansbury.com/2014/05/5-reasons-we-should-stop-distracting-toddlers-and-what-to-do-instead/

Why Executive Function Is A Vital Stepping-Stone For Kids’ Ability to Learn

brain
iStock/manopjk

Neuroscientists and educational psychologists are constantly learning more about how children learn and the various influences beyond IQ that affect cognition. Some research, like Carol Dweck’s on growth mindset or Angela Duckworth’s on grit, quickly became catch phrases among educators. At the same time, critics have pushed back against the notion that students underperform only because of cognitive deficits, pointing to an equally pressing need for big changes to teaching practice. Many teachers are trying to combine the research about cognitive skills with more effective teaching practices. They are finding that whether students are working on self-directed projects or worksheets, executive functioning skills are important.

Bruce Wexler has been studying executive functioning — a group of cognitive abilities crucial for managing oneself and information — for the past 20 years. He first worked with adults, but he began to wonder if he could design interventions specifically for young children to get them started down a positive path before any of the negative secondary qualities associated with under-achievement — like disengagement, low self-esteem and behavior problems — began to manifest at school.

“The data just keeps coming in about the importance of focus, self-control and working memory for learning and life,” Wexler said in an edWeb webinar. One meta-analysis of six studies found that a child’s executive functioning skills in kindergarten predicted reading and math achievement into middle school and beyond. This research is particularly important because students who have poor executive functioning skills because of trauma, poverty, or diagnosed disorders are missing out on learning. Often these children haven’t had a chance to develop executive functioning skills required for school before arriving there.

Many kinds of interventions can work to improve executive functioning, another reason researchers feel confident that this cognitive ability is not innate, but rather taught. Martial arts, yoga and exercise, among others, help improve students’ ability to focus and control themselves. Wexler helped design his own intervention, called Activate, which uses a mixture of online games and physical activities to target focus, self-control and working memory, the skills most closely linked with academic achievement.

To test whether the program works Wexler’s company, C8Sciences, took executive function tests designed by the National Institutes of Health and made them Web-based so teachers could use them in class. These tests helped Wexler’s team learn about the relative areas of cognitive weaknesses in students before using the Activate program.

“Soon it became evident that not only did we want that information, but that it was very valuable for teachers,” Wexler said. It’s often hard for a teacher to know when a student isn’t learning something because of a lack of executive functioning capacity, because it hasn’t been taught well enough, or because the student just needs more time with the content. The online diagnostic tests helped give them valuable insight to tailor their teaching.

After determining a baseline for students, Wexler’s team asked teachers to use the Activate program and then tested students after four months to see how it affected their cognitive abilities. Early tests showed the training improved working memory, but Wexler was more interested in whether the training would carry over into academic achievement, so he tested third-graders from a low-income school on reading proficiency. In the test group that used Activate, 83 percent of students reached third-grade reading proficiency, compared to 58 percent districtwide. On a first-grade math proficiency test, 92 percent of students in the test group reached proficiency, compared to 63 percent districtwide. In another first-grade class at the same school that did not receive the training, only 53 percent of students reached proficiency.

“Training these executive functions leads to improvement in achievement schools,” Wexler concluded. And the effects seemed to last through the summer. Another test showed kindergartners who received the training showed better executive functioning skills when they started first grade than their peers.

When Wexler compared the effects he was seeing to other interventions — like one-on-one tutoring, summer and after-school programming — improving executive functioning skills had a much bigger effect. “Training a whole classroom in focus, self-control, and memory has a bigger effect on math achievement than providing one-on-one tutoring,” Wexler said. Tutoring had the next strongest effect.

Executive functioning training also seems to make a difference regardless of student IQ. “Its effect was four times as big as the differences in IQ,” Wexler said. “Of course IQ is important, but executive functioning is something we can do something about.”

SCHOOLS FOCUSING ON EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONING

Carlisle Area School District has taken the research on executive function and put it into practice, especially in K-5 schools where educators hope to improve these cognitive skills early so students don’t fall behind. District leaders started by educating teachers about different neural pathways and why problems with executive functioning could lead to problems with learning. In trainings they give teachers scenarios, and ask them to identify a student’s cognitive weakness based on behavior, and then design an intervention. They also ask teachers to reflect on their own cognitive weaknesses and where they might be able to identify with a disorganized student or one who has a hard time staying on task.

Carlisle teachers also have a long list of strategies they integrate into the day with the whole class that emphasize brain breaks, exercise and routines. Additionally, some children need more help developing executive functioning, and educators differentiate strategies for them as well. They often talk to students about how their brain works and emphasize that when their “amygdala is hijacked,” they need to stop and think about the next action rather than lashing out.

STRATEGIES

  • Breathing buddies: Students lie down on the floor with a favorite stuffed animal on their chests. They slowly breathe in and out, watching the animal rise and fall. This helps students calm down when they are upset and gives them a strategy to implement when they feel themselves getting worked up.
  • Teachers keep “meta boxes” in their classrooms full of fidget toys students can use to help them pay attention when they feel like they need to move.
  • When transitioning between subjects or recess, teachers often play calming music and let only five kids in at a time to limit the chaos.
  • Many elementary school teachers have had the experience of asking a question, seeing many hands in the air, but then calling on a student who says he forgot. That could be a working memory problem. Some Carlisle teachers are proactively addressing this by letting those kids record their thoughts on paper or a device so they can contribute when they’re called on.
  • Carlisle was an early adopter of Wexler’s Activate program, too. The iPad lessons focus on typical working memory games that require students to remember the order of things, progressively getting harder as the game develops. The physical games reinforce the online learning with social interactions that help embed the memories in movement. Mass ball is one game that requires students to throw a ball in a specific sequence. Students have to juggle paying attention to the order and catching the ball.
  • Carlisle teachers also have students do a lot of balancing games, which help with executive functioning. Teachers might ask students to walk on a line balancing bean bags on their heads or to do the same walk on tiptoe. Teachers also use relay races to get kids moving, since exercise alone helps with executive functioning.

Adults have an attention span of about 12 minutes with a fully developed executive functioning system, so it’s no wonder kids can’t focus without a break. “It cannot be overemphasized that all of us need to be thinking about taking information in smaller chunks,” said Malinda Mikesell, the reading supervisor for the Carlisle Area School District. She said kids need an opportunity to do something with the information on their own before having the chance to reset for the next chunk of information.

“We have mature executive function systems as adults, so we have to be careful that we’re not putting our perspective onto very immature executive functioning systems,” Mikesell said. She also emphasized that teachers in her district have successfully involved parents in their effort to improve executive functions, educating the adults about the brain and what cognitive weaknesses look like. Often parents have noticed the same lack of short-term memory, difficulty focusing, and disorganization affecting kids at school, and are happy to learn tips to help their child.

Mikesell said Carlisle is in the early stages of evaluating data on how well their approach is working. Early data showed that kids in the Activate program were outperforming peers not in the program on reading tests. Teachers are also reporting stories about disorganized students improving, who never had what they needed for the day or activity. Now those students are able to follow the classroom routines and are benefiting from checklists and visual organizers that teachers put together to help them with their working memory weaknesses.

https://ww2.kqed.org/mindshift/2016/12/13/why-executive-function-is-a-vital-stepping-stone-for-kids-ability-to-learn/