Turn Summer Brain Drain into Brain Gain!

While summer break is a fun time packed with family activities it’s also when a phenomenon strikes that teachers know all too well—the “summer slide” or “Brain Drain” – the loss of knowledge and ability that occurs when formal education stops during the summer.

Research shows that all young people experience learning losses when they don’t engage in educational activities during the summer. In fact, the average student loses approximately 2.6 months of grade-level equivalency in math computation skills over the summer months. This learning loss affects children when they begin their new school year in September because teachers typically spend four weeks re-teaching or reviewing material that students have forgotten over summer break. Playing ‘catch-up’ as the school year begins can also negatively effect your child’s self esteem.

While your brain is not a muscle, the adage ‘use it or lose it’ certainly holds true for your brain too. Mental exercise can keep the brain strong, just as physical exercise can keep the body strong.

Here are some ideas to help your child get their brain “exercising” before school starts:

Tips for Grade Schoolers:

20 Questions.  Think of a person or thing and give your child 20 chances to guess what it is by asking yes or no questions. Sharpens memory, logic and reasoning skills.

Rhyme Time.  Have your child choose four rhyming words and use them to create a poem. For younger kids, simply say a word then take turns coming up with words that rhyme with it. Builds auditory analysis, verbal rhythm and memory.

Needle in a Haystack.  Take a page from a newspaper and time your child as she circles all occurrences of a specific letter or word. Improves visual processing speed and sustained attention.

Counting Counts.  Encourage your child to count by 2’s, 3’s, 4’s etc. when they go up stairs, dribble a basketball, swing on a swing set or jump rope.  Builds math fluency, processing speed, divided attention and memory.

Play Time is Gain Time.  Play is crucial to healthy brain development. Prioritize play with your kids to keep their creative juices flowing and minds working.

Pick a Pen Pal.   It doesn’t matter whether it’s a family member or friend, near or far, writing letters  will give kids a chance to rehash and share their summer adventures and practice their writing in the process.

Teach mini-lessons.   Transform everyday activities into learning opportunities. Children can count change, read directions for a trip, write a shopping list, or calculate a recipe’s measurements.

Gather activity books.   Give children their own activity book with crossword puzzles or number games customized for their specific age group.  Set a “due date” to keep them on track, but let them work at their own pace.

Strategize screen time.  Educational computer games or apps can engage students’ minds, but make sure your child is spending enough time away from the screen.  Assign a daily block of time for family members to turn off phones, computers, and the TV, and instead play a board game or read together.

Talk to your child.  So many conversations between parents and kids during the school year are directional: “Get up; get in the car; do your homework.”  Before you are back in the grind make some time to chat. Spend time getting to know how your child feels about going back to school, any concerns they may have.

Have Kids’ Dinner Night.  Once a child is 10 or 11, have him be fully responsible for dinner one night.  That means coming up with the shopping list (Mom or Dad still has to pay), setting the table, preparing the meal, deciding on the dinner conversation topic and cleaning up afterward. It involves math, organizational and, perhaps most importantly, life skills.

Tips for Middle-schoolers:

Middle school is a huge transition and, for many kids, can be fraught with academic and social insecurity.  But it’s also a time when kids are discovering different ways to learn, and that can make summer learning especially important.

Do something new. Middle school is all about exploring new interests. Your child may discover an interest that you never imagined. So expose them to a new sport, a new hobby, a new class.

Be nontraditional. If you want your child to start reading before school starts, great. But don’t force him to do the reading you think he should be doing. Going online to read something and having a discussion about it can be just as educational as reading a novel from a book list.

Help make connections. For middle school kids, relevancy is so important; if they have experienced something, then they can understand it better. So go downtown, visit a museum or an art gallery. Social learning is important for kids this age.

Tips for High-schoolers:

It’s very difficult for adults to understand how stressful high school is. The amount of stress high school kids put on themselves to get into college means that they are thinking about their future constantly. By the time kids are in high school, you want them to understand that learning is a lifelong pursuit.

Start a store.  Use math skills and organization to plan the store and “sell” goods.

Explore “Going Green.” Your carbon footprint and whether recycling is all it’s cracked up to be: These activities involve not only math skills, but applying research to higher level critical thinking and analysis.

Go to an outdoor movie festival.  It doesn’t feel like learning, but watching ‘Casablanca’ absolutely is.  And so is the shared experience of discussing it afterward.

Be the editor of your family newsletter.  Practice journalistic and writing skills, including interviews, news, pictures, advertisements and even cartoons.

Grow your own food.  Children who grow their own food are more likely to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as gaining knowledge about nutrition and healthy eating.

Do something that opens your world.  Not everyone can study French in Paris. But there are so many opportunities to learn by accident.  And if you’re having fun and you learn something, you’ll remember it forever.

Take some positive steps to ensure the brain is ready, willing and able when school starts!

Is Medication the only answer for ADHD? No….

medsIn the past 10 years, millions of kids have been introduced to amphetamines and other stimulants to address ADHD. The number of prescriptions increased from 34.8 to 48.4 million between 2007 and 2011 alone. This medication comes with high costs both financially and physically – with horrible side effects such as agitation, flattened mood, confusion, mood swings and upset stomach.  Medication alone also doesn’t prevent ADHD, it simply masks the problem. Recent studies suggest cognitive behavioral therapy and neurofeedback could be a much safer alternative because they address the underlying problem without the harsh side effects of medication.  More new studies are being done to find safer, more effective ways to manage and cure ADHD – without overmedicating. Recent findings suggest that plain old physical activity may also be a highly effective treatment for ADHD.

Physical activity is a high-yield investment for all kids, but especially those who are attentive or hyperactive. Physical movement improves mental focus, memory, and cognitive flexibility and new research supports just how critical it is to academic performance.

Pediatrics recently published research that found kids who took part in a regular physical activity program showed important enhancement of cognitive performance and brain function. The findings,”demonstrate a causal effect of a physical program on executive control, and provide support for physical activity for improving childhood cognition and brain health.” Furthermore, the improvements in kids who exercised regularly came in ‘executive control,’ which consists of inhibition (resisting distraction, maintaining focus), working memory, and cognitive flexibility (switching between tasks).

Another recent study found that a 12-week exercise program improved math and reading test scores in all kids, but especially in those with signs of ADHD. (Executive functioning is impaired in ADHD, and tied to performance in math and reading.)

Last year a very similar study in the Journal of Attention Disorders found that just 26 minutes of daily physical activity for eight weeks significantly allayed ADHD symptoms in grade-school kids. The modest conclusion of the study was that “physical activity shows promise for addressing ADHD symptoms in young children.”

John Ratey, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard, suggests that people think of exercise as medication for ADHD. Even very light physical activity improves mood and cognitive performance by triggering the brain to release dopamine and serotonin, similar to the way that stimulant medications like Adderall do. He added, ‘physical exercise “is really for our brains.” He likened it to taking “a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin.”

So, encourage your kids to put down those video games and go out and play!  It’s good for our bodies, but it’s even better for our brains – no matter what age we are!

Self Inflicited ADD/ADHD – OUCH!!

Most of us take pride in how well we multi task and juggle multiple things at the same time.  We must, if we expect to meet the expectations of our bosses, teachers, and friends.  That’s not counting the additional work of the spouse or parent and all the normal daily stresses that come along with it.  We live in a world that sends information to us 24/7 in every way imaginable, often simultaneously.

The brain is not set up to process information like this; our brain is not designed to multi task.  Our brain is designed to focus on one thing at a time, whatever it decides is the most important, and that is usually what is most closely related to our basic survival.  When you ask the brain to focus on more than one task at a time, it must switch between tasks.

For example, if you are driving, talking on your cell, looking at your GPS for directions, and consequently you miss the exit, it is because your brain is switching back and forth, attending to each activity.  There is a lag time when switching between different tasks, although he would hardly notice it.

Too much information too quickly can lead to a brain freeze.  The feeling that you have too much information to process is a common occurrence, and the term “information fatigue” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2009.  We are starting to realize that information overload leaves us frustrated and emotionally depleted.  The term “Brain fart” already has its own Wikipedia page.

When we are in this fatigued state, we can make decisions that we might later regret.  By switching between so many stimuli, we leave ourselves depleted and distracted, the exact opposite of  the state in which to make best decisions.  When our brain is being bombarded with information, it tends to favor ease over accuracy.  Do you think a quick decision is the best decision?

There are many things you can do to improve your brain functioning, but here are 3 simple suggestions to think about:  1) Limit the amount of information your brain receives at one time.  2) Focus on one task at a time. 3) Give your brain time and space to integrate information and make the connections.

Take care of your brain.