Tips for Parents
April 28, 2010
A Tip Sheet for parents and professionals prepared for the April 16-17, 2010 conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois
By Ellen Galinsky
FOR the past two decades, parents have felt ever-increasing pressure to buy expensive, high-tech learning toys and enroll their children in special activities that will give them an edge in getting into a good college and embarking on a rewarding career. Yet employers overwhelmingly report that young employees are not prepared for the demands of the 21st-century workplace. Specifically, they complain that the kind of skills successful workers need are typically not taught in school nor tested for — skills such as communicating effectively, working well with diverse groups of people, thinking outside the box, and being ongoing learners.
All these skills involve enhancing the “executive functions” of the brain—the brain functions we use to manage our attention, our emotions, and our behavior in pursuit of our goals. And none of them requires expensive equipment, coaches, or tutors. Here is a list of the seven life skills and a few research-based tips for fostering them that professionals can pass on to parents.
FOCUS AND SELF CONTROL
Children need this skill in order to achieve their goals, especially in a world that is filled with distractions and information overload. Focus and self control involve paying attention, remembering the rules, thinking flexibly, and exercising self control.
Tip for Parents: Play a simple game like “Simon Says” with your preschooler. Your child has to remember to pay attention, and not to do what you say unless you say “Simon Says.” You can also create a more difficult game that helps children learn to exercise self control by asking them to do the opposite of what you are doing – for example, if you clap once, they clap twice, if you clap twice, they clap once.
Perspective goes far beyond empathy: it involves figuring out what others think and feel, and forms the basis of children understanding their parents’ and teachers’ intentions. Children who can take others’ perspectives are also much less likely to get involved in conflicts.
Tip for Parents: We all know that we should read to our children, but it is how we read that matters most. Ask children to think about the perspectives of the characters in their books – why do they think that person acted a certain way and what must he or she have been thinking or feeling?
Communication is much more than understanding language, speaking, reading and writing – it is the skill of determining what one wants to communicate and realizing how our communications will be understood by others. It is the skill that teachers and employers feel is most lacking today.
Tip for Parents: Engage your children in conversations that extend and elaborate their past experiences by asking “wh” questions: why, what, where or who. For example, after a trip to the zoo, ask” “What animals did you see?” Then repeat back what the child says (“You saw a lion!”), thus encouraging the child to say more.
Making connections is at the core of learning: Being able to identify what’s the same and what’s different in disparate pieces of information or experience, or to transfer something learned in one area of life to another one is at the core of creativity. In a world where people can google for information, it is the people who can see the connections who will succeed.
Tip for Parents: Play sorting games with your child. Tear out pictures from magazines and ask them to put all pictures of the animals in one pile. Then change the rules and ask them to put all of the pictures that have yellow in them in a pile.
Critical thinking is the ongoing search for valid and reliable knowledge to guide beliefs, decisions, and actions.
Tip for Parents: Promote children’s curiosity – if they are wondering about something, help think of an experiment where they can figure it out for themselves, such as why do different things float in water. With older children, help them evaluate ads on television, asking them if they think a claim an advertisement is true and how they would find out.
TAKING ON CHALLENGES
Life is full of stresses and challenges. Children who are willing to take on challenges (instead of avoiding them) do better in school and in life.
Tip for Parents: Instead of praising children’s personalities (“you are so smart” or “athletic”), praise their efforts or strategies (“you worked hard to find the right piece of the puzzle”). Studies have found that this kind of praise encourages children to challenge themselves, while the more global forms of praise actually have the opposite effect, dampening a child’s initiative and interest in learning.
SELF-DIRECTED, ENGAGED LEARNING
It is through learning that we can realize our potential. As the world changes, so can we, for as long as we live – as long as we learn.
Tip for Parents: Help your child make plans – whether it’s what they want to play with next, what to do on a rainy Saturday, or how they are going to tackle a homework assignment. Then ask your child to evaluate those plans – how did they work out and what might they change next time? This helps children take responsibility for what they do and what they are learning.
Ellen Galinsky Talks with Katie Couric About Mind in the Making
Ellen Galinsky spoke with Katie Couric recently about Mind in the Making on the @katiecouric web series. You can watch the full 40 minute interview, or watch short clips on Examining the Marshmallow Test, Overpraising Children, and The Way We Praise Children.
Giving Kids an Allowance
April 23, 2010
By Karen Walrond
“Mom? Can I please have a Nintendo DS?”
This question had been plaguing me since the summer. In July of last year, some Australian friends of ours came to visit for a week or so, and their 7-year-old daughter had a Nintendo DS. My 5-year-old daughter Alex was enthralled with this small electronic toy, and began a relentless campaign to get one for herself. Being rather old school, I thought spending somewhere in the neighbourhood of $120 for a 5-year-old’s toy was, well, INSANE, and I told her no. I naively thought that would be the end of that.
I was wrong.
“Please, Mom,” she’d beg daily. “I promise I’ll take care of it. Please.”
This is very uncharacteristic of Alex: she’s usually pretty good at understanding that in our house, no means no. When I realized how much this meant to her (coupled with the fact that my little girl was actually weeks away from starting elementary school), I devised a plan: I would start giving her an allowance.
I went to a local hobby shop and bought three mason jars, and with a black Sharpie, I wrote the words “spend,” “save” and “charity” on each of them. Then I called Alex into the kitchen.
“Okay, kid, here’s how this is going to work,” I said. “Every week, I’m going to give you 4 quarters. One will go into the “save” jar. When that jar is full, we’re going to deposit all the money in it into your bank account.”
“One quarter is going to go into this second jar, the ‘charity’ jar. This is for you to give to whoever you think deserves this money. It could be for kids who are poor, or who are sick, or who otherwise need help. When this jar is full, you and I will get on the Internet and look for a good organization for you to send this money to. But you get to choose.”
She nodded again.
“Now this jar,” I said, as she scootched closer to me. “This is the spend jar.”
“What’s that one for?”
“For whatever you want,” I said. “Each week, you’re going to put two quarters into this jar. The only rules: it can’t be for food of any kind – I’ll buy you that myself. It also won’t be for books or clothes – I’ll buy you those, as well. But if there’s any toy that you want, you can take the money from this jar, and with my guidance, buy it yourself.”
Her eyes lit up. “Like a Nintendo DS?” she asked, excitedly.
“Like a Nintendo DS,” I nodded. “But those are expensive. You’re going to have to save quite some time to get one. But if you do save up for it, once you do, I’ll buy a game for you to go in it. But if you don’t save, then you don’t get it. Understood?”
Boy, did she. We took all the money she had from various piggy banks she’d received since she was an infant, and divided the coins among the three jars, to give her a head start. Every week, I gave her the 4 quarters, and she dutifully deposited them into her jars. Occasionally, when we were out shopping, she’d spot a toy she wanted.
“Did you bring some money?” I’d ask, raising an eyebrow.
“No,” she said. And then more resolutely: “Never mind. I’m saving for a Nintendo DS. I don’t need it.”
Finally the day came when she’d saved enough to buy her DS, and I don’t think she has ever been more pleased with herself. And since then, we’ve continued the system: with my guidance, she buys her own toys now (all arguing in stores at check-out counters has virtually stopped), and when her kindergarten class raised funds for the kids of the Haiti earthquake victims, she proudly brought her “charity” jar to school to add its contents to the pot. In the process, she’s happily learning new skills, like how to count for change, how to make sure that she keeps her money safe, and how to manage money.
Now if only I could how to manage my own money, we’ll be ahead of the game.
Karen Walrond is a photographer, blogger and author of the upcoming book The Beauty of Different to be published by Bright Sky Press in Fall 2010. You can read more about her at www.chookooloonks.com.
Mind in the Making: #1 in parenting books on Amazon!
April 22, 2010
Thank you for making Mind the Making hit #1 in parenting—child development books and #1 in parenting—child care books on Amazon the day after its release. We are so grateful for your support.
The many messages we have received indicate that you continue to appreciate our bringing the best research to you. Here’s an example from Dr. Sue Bredekamp from the Council for Early Childhood Professional Recognition.
"Mind in the Making is literally a mind-expanding contribution to the field and will have a huge impact on how teachers and parents think about and understand children's learning and development, and hopefully their interactions with them. Accolades to you and all your colleagues."
Some of you have written us that you missed Ellen Galinsky's interview on CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. She talked about Mind in the Making, the seven essential life skills, and Dr. Walter Mischel's famous "Marshmallow Test." If you missed it, here is a link so you can see it:
Closing the Achievement Gap
April 19, 2010
By Ellen Galinsky
This year, a number of changes are planned by the Obama Administration, the Department of Education, the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers and others to address the achievement gap in the United States, a gap that begins before children even enter school and widens as children grow up.
The achievement gap, which the National Governors Association calls “one of the most pressing education-policy challenges that states currently face” is almost universally defined as a problem of low-income children and the distance between them and their higher-income counterparts in academic achievement. That gap certainly exists, and absolutely must be addressed. But there is a much larger and more significant gap—a gap whereby all of our children aren’t living up to their full potential and aren’t gaining the life skills they need to thrive now and in the future. There is no question in my mind that we won’t be able to address the achievement gap for some of our children if we don’t address this life skill gap for all of our children.
In nationally representative studies of employers conducted by the Families and Work Institute, employers tell us again and again that young people don’t have the life skills—not just the content information— they need for the 21st century.
Others have talked about skills for the 21st century before, but eight years and interviews with more than 85 of the leading researchers in child development and neuroscience have led me to new insights about which skills truly have short-tem and long-term effects on children’s development. Unfortunately, however, we aren’t turning this knowledge into action well enough or soon enough.
Often when people talk about skills, it turns into a debate—skills versus content, but that’s the wrong debate. Both are essential and they are inextricably interconnected for the simple reason that life skills enable us to use the knowledge we have. Essential life skills involve the part of our brain (the prefrontal cortex) that weaves together our social, emotional and intellectual capacities in pursuit of our goals.
Life skills are tied to academic achievement, without question. Take one of these skills—focus and self control. Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia University and a group of other academics recently reviewed six studies that followed children over time. Out of literally hundreds of analyses, only three competencies that children had when they entered school were strongly related to their later success in reading and math. Two are obvious: the children who were good at math and reading when they entered school were likely to be good at math and reading years later. But the third is less obvious. It is “attention skills.” As Brooks-Gunn says, attention skills “allow children to focus on something in a way that maximizes the information they get out of it.”
Life skills can be improved. Megan McClelland and her colleagues from Oregon State found that when preschool children improved their focus and self control during the year, it was equivalent to having an extra month of pre-kindergarten in their gains in literacy skills, and an extra 2.8 months in vocabulary skills. And focus and self control can be taught, as illustrated by the computer game experiments of Michael Posner of the University of Oregon with four- to six-year-olds.
Life skills are at the heart of learning. For example, the skill of making connections—that is figuring out what’s the same, what’s different and sorting things into categories—is a skill that underlies literacy, mathematics, and the sciences. In addition, making unusual connections is at the heart of creativity. And in a world where people can google for information, this is a must-have capacity.
Life skills underlie good relationships with others. Perspective taking—understanding what others think and feel —goes far beyond empathy. As the late Peter Drucker, considered the father of modern management has said, “an outside-in perspective”—seeing things as customers and clients would see them—is the ability that is behind the launch of most successful businesses. For children, studies have found links between perspective taking and reading skills as well as between perspective taking and being involved in less conflict with other kids.
Another example is the skill of taking on challenges. In today’s multi-tasking, distracting, complex world children must do more than cope with challenges—they need to actively take them on.
There are everyday things that busy parents and teachers can do to promote life skills. For example, Megan McClelland uses a measure called the Head-to-Toe Task: children are asked to do the opposite of what the experimenter tells them to do. If the experimenter says, “Touch your toes,” the children are to touch their heads; if told to touch their heads, the children are to touch their toes. Playing this as a game calls on the children to pay attention to the directions, remember the rules, and inhibit the tendency to go on automatic and follow the directions of the experimenter.
Life skills must be promoted in age-appropriate ways. It would be counter-productive to expect two or three-year-old to be able to switch from one rule to another when playing the Head-to-Toe Task. In addition, life skills must be promoted in playful ways. There would be nothing worse than taking away the fun in these games—turning them into drill and kill routines that sap their purpose, which is to engage children in learning.
It is time for real reform in addressing the achievement gap, but if we do not address the life skills gap for all of our children we will not make the gains we as a country, as parents, and as teachers sorely need and deserve.