Coffee Break

Dr. Judy Willis speaks at the recent PTA Coffee Break meeting. (Courtesy Kate Rogers / April 11, 2013)

PTA's Coffee Break last month welcomed Dr. Judy Willis at the Aliso Creek Inn & Golf Course to speak about the application of neuroscience to practical aspects of child-rearing.

Willis, a neurologist and educator, discussed down-to-earth techniques to assist in the development of the critically important "executive function" of the brain's prefrontal cortex. As Willis presented her concepts, the understanding around the room was palpable, and an excitement grew as listeners realized that in simple and easy-to-apply ways, parents really could make a real difference in unlocking greater brain functioning in children.

Uncharted challenges fill our children's future. It is estimated that 50% of "facts" known now will change or be modified within 10 years. An international survey among employers showed that the ability to find and evaluate information is far more valued than the archaic concept of "years of experience." The mental tools to adapt to this changing landscape undergo profound development during the late teen years, and with exercise, the functioning of the prefrontal cortex can be strengthened.

The prefrontal cortex is the last part of the human brain to mature, and it is the control center of executive functions such as judgment, critical analysis, prioritizing, deduction, induction, imagination, communication, reflective (vs. reactive) emotional control, and goal development, planning and perseverance.

A strong executive function correlates with school success. "Maturation" is a physiological process whereby an insulating substance called myelin wraps around the connecting dendrites. This myelin is thickened through use and leads to greater processing speed, durability and efficiency to the connections. If these connections are not reinforced through use, they eventually are pruned. "Neurons are like stem cells" and our brains are capable of building and rebuilding.

These mechanics boil down to one very actionable insight for teachers and parents: What we ask of the brain has a very direct impact on how it develops and what its capabilities become. This is where Willis identified several areas of opportunity for parents wanting to promote such development.

Encourage children to ask questions. Willis lamented the drop from a preschooler's 100 questions a day to the falling off of questions in middle-schoolers. When kids stop asking questions, they lose motivation and their engagement drops off.

"They lose interest because they stop asking questions," Willis said.

As parents, we need to promote curiosity and imagination. Don't give answers. If a question arises, encourage kids to analyze, predict and evaluate the situation themselves.

"Remind them what they already know, and plan with them what information they can find themselves," Willis said.

Provide "wait time" when the answers aren't forthcoming. Willis admits this feels strange, but this allows a more thoughtful, extended pattern of evaluation and an invitation to explore further.

Remember that decision-making builds judgment. Invite children into family decisions and allow them to participate in the analysis. Discuss goals and have them develop their own approach. This works well when planning family vacations or when a large item is being purchased. Children could also be allowed to participate in the stock market and gain experience researching, estimating and assessing their own success or failures. For older children, ask them questions within areas of their interest.

Another opportunity is when a child declares something "isn't fair." We can ask "why not?" and suggest that the feeling can be explored. Another technique could be to have them predict the counterargument to their position and respond.

Help kids "build a template of analysis" by comparing sources of information and introducing the idea of considering the source and any potential bias in the information provided. For example, two-thirds of people claim they have had a bad experience with online information, yet the vast majority of people continue to trust the Internet. Discuss fact versus opinion. Look at TV advertising, tear apart claims in magazine ads or in fliers.

Our environment is rich with opportunities for analysis and judgment. If your kid feels comfortable with an online source, ask how he or she made that choice and what characteristics he or she was looking for to feel comfortable about its accuracy.

The exciting news is that we all have a very real effect on the development of our children's, and even our own, brains. Through simple shifts in how we approach decisions in the family, or how our experience with the outside world is discussed, a difference can be made in kids' ability to develop higher brain function.

Moreover, we can enjoy a richer experience of exploring the world with our children and know that it benefits all.

For more detailed information, a video recording of the morning can be found at GoToCoffeeBreak.com.

KATE ROGERS is a mother of three and a member of the Coffee Break committee.