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Parents Council of Washington Summary of Dr. William Stixrud Presentation
“Stretching Kids Without Breaking Them: Stress Free Ways of Promoting Development”
Our children need to be challenged, but children work best when they are working in the context of safety. The brain does not work well when it is stressed. Children who are less stressed are better learners. We need to create environments where kids’ brains have the chance to work efficiently. In the Washington area it is easy to think that the most important outcome is getting into college. He works on teaching parents how they can act as a “non-anxious presence” in their kids’ lives. Parenting works better if the parent isn’t stressed or afraid, so that he or she can provide the child with a sense of security. When he does therapy with families he sets as a goal simply being able to enjoy your kids.
The most important outcome of early childhood is a sense of secure attachment, usually to the mother. Attachment is the foundation of resilience and this sense of security allows for growth. The best predictor of whether kids finish college is the security of their attachment at 18 months old – not grades or SAT scores. It is hard to develop a secure sense of attachment if there is too much rushing and anxiety. When a baby is securely attached at 12 months old it is hard to stress them. Inner security is a big deal.
When adolescent girls are too tired and too stressed for too long they become depressed. People are constantly seeking safety and security. The amygdala is the part of the brain that is very sensitive to threats. A lot of kids that he sees have a very sensitive amygdala. This is the part of the brain that initiates the flight or fight response when threatened. The challenge of modern life is not to get stressed. In the book “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” the author makes the point that zebras that are attacked show increased levels of cortisol. However their cortisol levels go down to normal shortly after the attack is over. The problem with people is that we maintain high levels of stress in our bloodstream for weeks or months at a time.
NUTS is an acronym for what makes life stressful: novelty/new situations, unpredictability, threat, low sense of control.
A perceived sense of control is extremely important for low stress. If a person feels in control it is difficult to stress that person. It is also clear that it is difficult to think clearly if you are under stress. For example, if you have an argument with a family member or you are worried about someone in your family, it is hard to pay attention. All executive functioning is inhibited when you are under stress. Under stress children will try to work harder, but will produce poorer quality work. Children need to feel safe in school in order to learn. Stress can lead to anxiety disorders and depression.
The older he gets, the more humble he gets about what is in a child’s best interests. Often he finds that what seems like a disaster turns out to be the best thing for the child.
The optimal mental state for learning is relaxed alertness. A high difficulty/low threat environment is the optimal environment for learning.
ADHD and Autism are very genetically based. If one twin has either one of these, it is 80% likely that the other twin will have it as well. Anxiety disorders and depression are only 35 to 40% genetic. They are most likely caused by stress. In the past few years the age of onset of depression has decreased dramatically from 35 to 14. Girls are much more vulnerable to depression. The formula for depression is being too tired and too stressed for too long. Experts say that depression scars the brain and can raise the risk of future depressions. In fact, once someone has experienced depression it is more likely to recur. Depression is the leading cause of disability world-wide.
We can prevent mental health problems with preventing sleep deprivation and stress. “Rest is the basis of activity.” Activity is dependent on how much rest you get. Even minor sleep restrictions impairs cognitive functioning in children and adolescents. Kids are now sleeping one hour less than they did in 1970. They have shown with rats that they will die quickly if you keep them awake.
Researchers have shown that if you learn something before you go to sleep the brain works on it while you’re sleeping. New connections are formed in the brain while you sleep. Therefore, if we let our kids sleep they will learn better. Sleep is also crucial for motor development. If you’re working at 8:45 at night you are working at about 10% efficiency. If you do the same work after you sleep you can do it much better. In Israel someone paid 4th and 6th graders to go to bed 1 hour later or 1 hour earlier than they usually do for 3 nights in a row. The 6th graders who went to bed 1 hour later had the cognitive ability of 4th graders after 3 nights.
Carol Dweck did a study on motivation. She created two categories: adaptive motivation which is the urge to work harder when something gets harder to do; and maladaptive motivation which is the urge to avoid something if it gets harder because you don’t want to look stupid. Adaptive kids believe that they can do better through their own efforts. They have a growth mindset. Maladaptive kids feel that they can’t do anything to do better because they are simply born the way they are. They have a fixed mindset. As parents we need to encourage kids to feel that they can do better through hard work; don’t simply praise them for being intrinsically smart. We need to help children to develop enjoyment of the challenge and to go against the tendency to fear challenge.
There is a term called “flow” which is the experience you have when you engage in something that you are really into – in short, the state of full engagement. This is the sweet spot between being too intense and being bored. Kids turn into motivated adults when they have passionate engagement in one of their pastimes – e.g. an interest in music, dance, etc. Their effort is its own reward. The flow state is good for the brain because it involves high focus and no stress since when you do what you love to do – you enjoy it. Further, if we love what we are doing we will do it over and over again. He sees a lot of academically discouraged kids who are passionate about something else. We need to encourage these kids to work on the thing about which they are most passionate.
There are gender differences with stress. Girls’ response to stress is to “tend and befriend.” They learn better with no stress. Boys learn best with a little bit of stress.
Suggestions for Parents:
- Shoot for balance in your own life, regularity in your routine. Get enough sleep.
- Take a long view. Most kids turn out fine in the end. The frontal lobe of the brain develops really slowly, generally not until age 25. As they get older they become capable of wisdom.
- Place enjoying your child as your highest priority. Think about what is keeping you from really enjoying your child.
- Listen and empathize with your kids. But don’t take on their pain. Don’t suffer along with them. Don’t pity them. If you pity them it will be hard for them to develop a courageous attitude. Resilience develops by being challenged. Don’t protect them from those challenges.
- It’s easier for kids to feel good about themselves if we feel good about them. Practice acceptance and making peace with the current reality. It’s okay for them to be who they are right now. Promote self-understanding in kids. Remember: often we can’t know what’s really in a kid’s best interests.
- Don’t fight over homework. Resist making decisions for kids based on fear and competition. Valedictorians aren’t more successful than others. Where you go to college doesn’t determine success. Tell kids this. There are so many ways that people can find their way in the world.
- Model love for challenge and persistence. Encourage flow in any activity. Emphasize the value of pastimes.
- Encourage kids to make decisions. Insist that teens do it too.
Questions and Answers:
Why did you say it is OK for boys to have a little stress while learning and better for girls to have no stress?
Boys need to be attracted and engaged. Boys are a little more confrontational and do better with a little competition. Girls need to feel totally safe and not too overwhelmed by any competition.
The environment of independent schools seems to go against all of this – our culture sees it as a “badge of honor” to have tons of homework?
As parents, we need to encourage schools to develop stress reduction teams and work with students, administration and teachers to find a balance for our children. This has to be a priority in schools because of the risk of mental health problems that can be brought on by stress.
What are the published guidelines for sleep requirements for children? The National Sleep Foundation has a chart based on age but I would say most adolescents need about 9¼ hours of sleep each night.
Our children are not accepting of who they are and are constantly comparing themselves to others, not as smart, as good in sports, etc. what can we do? Focus on your child’s development and their accomplishments and discourage comparisons.
How do we balance challenging our children vs. over stressing them?
Take a perspective of wanting to see what they become and not have parental expectations. Encourage kids to try new things. There should be a love for challenge and difficulty but talk about what too much pressure feels like, what it is like to have too much on your plate. Work with kids so they can identify when they are too stressed and can talk about it.
Does meditation work for kids who are 12?
Meditation can be beneficial for kids of all ages. This has been proven in headache clinics. Kids can learn ways to quiet their minds and body. We all can benefit from this. Meditation can be a great stress management tool, as well as exercise and yoga.
What effects do electronics have on stress?
Kids really can’t multitask. When they try they are basically doing each thing less effectively. We need to encourage our children to do one thing and focus on it. Having a computer screen on lowers levels of melatonin, which helps us to fall asleep.
There are schools that reward performance based on grades and parents who push the schools and their children. Are schools creating the stressful environment?
Elite schools are becoming more aware of this and more sensitive to these issues. Parent’s anxiety is pressuring schools to remain competitive. Parents and schools need to team up to reduce stress in their children’s lives. In all schools there are 1/3 of the students who are slower getting the work done.
Do you think these changes will really come to schools?
Yes. The more pressure, the less sleep. We have ½ our population on antidepressants and it cannot go on like this. Things will have to change.
What do parents do about kids who come home with too much homework and can’t finish it all?
Parents need to talk with teachers and administrators regarding the amount of homework and the correlation of learning. Why are they giving the homework, is it necessary? How much is reasonable at each age?