Three Things About Kids and Learning That You Should Know

Pi Day Celebration

Pi Day Celebration

Being somewhat self-reflective and slightly neurotic (although I’m told you’d never know it if you meet me, thank goodness!), pretty much every day I wonder if I’m screwing Devon up in some way. Do I coddle her? Does she need more structure? Should I step back and let her make mistakes? Should we impose more rules? What would happen to her grades if we stop asking questions?

Aside: Devon is a great kid, so clearly these questions are more about me.

So. When I found myself sitting across a dinner table from Jessica Sommerville, PhD, and Associate Director for the Foundations for Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Competence at the Center for Child and Family Well-Being at the University of Washington, I had to ask this question:

“What are the things you think parents need to know so they don’t screw up their kids, or at least so they can minimize the damage?”

I’d had a couple of glasses of wine, and was feeling brave and ready to hear just how badly we’d done. Or maybe I was hoping for some affirmation. Or information that wouldn’t be too late to act on. Or news that despite our shortcomings as parents, kids are resilient.

And I guess I also wanted the nuggets of information, and Jessica’s unscripted, unplanned and super-helpful answers gave me just that.  They’re mostly do-able for most of us and I don’t think it’s ever too late to act on these particular gems, so I did a little more research on each of them, thinking that if we know the reasons, statistics, and studies behind the advice, we might actually take it.

After all, think about the children 🙂

These are the three things that popped up:

Limit Screen Time

The American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) suggests limiting screen time to one or two hours a day.  Children learn more efficiently from the real world, not the seemingly limitless virtual worlds this modern society has created. Language development is improved when language comes from real people, not screens.  In fact, the more that it comes from real people, the more that kids understand and produce later on.

In addition to its impact on learning, the folks at the Mayo Clinic describe other consequences:

  • Obesity: kids who watch more than two hours of TV a day are more likely to be obese
  • Sleep: kids who watch more TV are more likely to resist going to bed at a decent time, and more likely to have a hard time falling asleep
  • Behavior problems: elementary school students who watch more than two hours of TV a day are more likely to have attention, social, and emotional problems. Engaging in video games increases the likelihood of attention problems. Kids who watch TV excessively are more likely to be bullies.
  • School: kids with TVs in their rooms tend to do worse on tests.
  • Play: Active, creative play is great for kids, physically, socially, and developmentally. If they’re looking at a screen, they’re not playing.

Encourage the process and not the result.

There is a super-interesting study that supports this advice, and I read about it a few years ago in Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman’s book Nurture Shock (which should be recommended reading for anyone with a kid). Seriously.

The first chapter in Nurture Shock is aptly titled “The Inverse Power of Praise.” Bronson and Merryman describe a study of fifth-graders, in which the researchers were curious about the effects of praise on kids who were faced with failure or difficulty.

So, here’s what they did: researchers took individual kids out of the classroom and gave them a nonverbal IQ test, consisting of puzzles. It was designed to be easy enough that the kids would do pretty well. The kids were randomly divided, with some getting praised after taking the test for their intelligence (“You must be smart at this”) and some getting praised for the effort (“You must have worked really hard”).

Next the kids were given a second test, but they were given a choice: they could take a test that would be more difficult than the first, but were told they’d learn a lot from trying the harder puzzles, or they could take an easy test, like the first one.

And this is where it gets interesting: 90 percent of the kids who were praised for their effort chose the harder test, while a majority of the kids praised for their intelligence chose the easy test.

In a later round, for kids ahead of their grade level, a first test was designed so everyone would fail. The kids were then either praised for their effort or their intelligence, and then given another test.  The kids praised for their effort assumed they hadn’t focused hard enough on the first test, and got really involved in trying to solve the puzzles on the second test, with some of them stating it was their favorite test. The kids praised for their intelligence assumed they failed because they weren’t actually smart, and they suffered and struggled accordingly.

In the next round, all the fifth-graders took a test that was designed to be as easy as the first. And it gets interesting here again: the kids who had been praised for their effort scored 30 percent better, but the kids who were told they must be smart scored about 20 percent worse.

So there you go. That’s just one study, but it shows that if you encourage and praise the process of learning, rather than the outcome, kids do better both on actual test scores, but they also seem to have more of a love of learning. And good grief, what more can you ask than that?

Emphasize that intelligence is learned; we are not born with it.

Kids who believe that intelligence is a “fixed trait” are more likely to avoid challenges and less likely to learn from their mistakes. And people who believe that intelligence is “incremental” tend to do better–they focus better and they learn better.

Here’s some support to back it up:

In a study of Columbia University undergraduates, cognitive neuroscientist Jennifer Mangels and her colleagues divided students into two groups: those who believed that we are born with a certain amount of intelligence and it can’t be changed, and those who believe intelligence is more malleable and can be learned. Students were then quizzed on a variety of subjects, and were asked to rate how confident they were about each answer. After answering each question, the students were told whether their answers were right or wrong, and then they were tested again, but only on the questions they got wrong. Throughout the testing, researchers monitored the students’ brain activity.

Both groups did equally well on the first test, and felt equally confident. But they responded differently to mistakes. When they were told the correct answer to a question they answered incorrectly, the students who believed intelligence is learned seemed to pay more attention. What’s more, their brain activity showed that they were engaged in more sustained “deep” processing and, the second time they were tested, they were more likely to get the answers correct.

So, it seems like if you believe intelligence is fixed, you’re less likely to focus, or to fix your mistakes because after all, what’s the point if your intelligence is what it is? But, if you recognize that intelligence is learned, you may be more interested in figuring out why you got something wrong so you can fix it the next time around; and, in fact, you are more likely to.

So, I guess the lesson here is to make sure your kids know they are the masters of their intellectual destinies.

For Devon: when you tell me about how smart your friends are, I realize you haven’t figured out yet how smart you are. Just wait and see.

Confession for Devon: I didn’t figure out I was smart until I went to college.

Dilemma: I really want to ram that intelligence is learned down your throat and into your brain. But that seems like a harsh tactic 😉 So I won’t.

And I love you.

By Tracey March

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