Too Good Today

  • The Effects of Stress on Student Learning

    Thinking happy kid in glasses with idea bulb aboveWe typically associate stress with the challenges of adult life: work responsibilities, family needs, and other conflicting or overlapping commitments that demand both attention and solutions.  It is safe to say that anyone facing numerous obligations and the stress to meet them can find the effort exhausting.  Students are not exempt from stress.  They face all forms of stress in their academic careers.  High pressure testing environments and increasingly formalized teaching structures are just a couple possible contributors, as well as the increasing social stresses that students face as they mature and navigate more complex social dynamics.  This raises the question as to how stress affects students’ overall academic performance and retention of information.  Scientific neuroimaging studies have shown that stress physically blocks students’ receptivity of information.  Judy Willis, MD, writes in Edutopia, “students' comfort level has critical impact on information transmission and storage in the brain.”

    There is a science behind why the brain does not absorb information under stress.  According to Willis, when the amygdala is overstimulated by negative stress, new information cannot physically pass into the areas of the brain responsible for memory.  Willis calls this phenomenon the “affective filter.” Additional neuroimaging studies have shown that the limbic system, along with chemical transmitters in the brain, more effectively retains information when students have greater levels of comfort in their learning environment.

    But what makes for a comfortable learning environment?  Willis says “brain research demonstrates that superior learning takes place when classroom experiences are motivating and engaging.  Positive motivation impacts brain metabolism, conduction of nerve impulses through the memory areas, and the release of neurotransmitters that increase executive function and attention.” The more we do to facilitate a positive and engaging environment for students, the more they will excel academically.

    Willis suggests that relevant lessons that encourage students to stake a claim in what they are learning keep students engaged.  An interactive learning environment promotes active student participation.  The Socratic Method, or the positive back and forth exchange between teacher and student, incentivizes students to develop better study and preparation habits.  Teaching strategies that rely on interactive and cooperative activities help students feel as if they are participating in their education, rather than serving as a passive recipient or storage device for information.  Today’s rigorous education standards often mandate a large quantity of knowledge be delivered in a limited amount of time.  The urgency of which can be stressful for both the teacher and the student.

    Students who participate in interactive lessons are more likely to stay engaged, speak their minds, and build confidence.  All of which reinforce learning to create a solid knowledge base.  Willis writes, “When teachers use strategies to reduce stress and build a positive emotional environment, students gain emotional resilience and learn more efficiently and at higher levels of cognition.” The result of such strategies makes for happier, healthier students whose minds are fertile for planting seeds of knowledge.

  • Inside Out: Exploring Emotions with Pixar

    Girl with different emotions

    Spoiler Alert: This article gives away plot elements of the Pixar movie Inside Out.

    I’m sure by now you have heard about, or maybe even seen, the new Pixar movie, Inside Out. The story follows a young girl named Riley as she faces the challenges of a cross-country move with her family. But the real stars of the show are the characters depicting Riley’s emotions: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. Dr. Janina Scarlet, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, writes in Psychology Today that “our emotions are all important, every single one of them. They all serve an important function and we cannot selectively feel some but not others.” And Inside Out brilliantly illustrates this importance.

    When Riley has difficulty adjusting to her new home, she tries her best to stay happy. In fact, her mother further insists they both need to stay strong for her father. At the emotion control center in Riley’s brain, Joy is notably the emotion predominantly in control, and she tries to keep Sadness contained. At one point, she draws a circle on the floor in an attempt to keep Sadness from interfering.  However, Dr. Scarlet explains that by numbing sadness “we also numb joy.  We need to openly experience all our emotions, and that includes sadness, as painful as it may be sometimes.”

    In the story, this co-numbing effect is illustrated with Joy and Sadness’s expulsion from the control station, leaving only Anger, Fear, and Disgust to man the control panel, while Joy and Sadness both try to find their way back.  On the exterior, we journey with Riley through her attempts to fit in and be happy in her new life.  She sets out to make new friends and join a hockey team, but as the circumstances of her new environment prove overwhelming, we continue to follow Riley as she boards a bus to run away to her old hometown.  On the interior, Joy and Sadness navigate challenges to try to rejoin Riley’s other emotions while coming to realize their joint role in protecting her as they inform her and those around her of what she is feeling.

    The film illustrates the effects of emotions that have not been appropriately identified, expressed, and managed, and learning to do so allows us to cue others as to how we are feeling.  Dr. Scarlet writes, for example, sadness can produce physical indicators such as “tears running down our face, the pupil dilation, the non-threatening posture.  These signals help others understand we are in need of help.” When we have this open dialogue, there can be a healthy exchange between our neighbors and us.

    In the end, we find the role of Sadness is as equally valuable as the role of Joy, for it is Sadness that allows Riley and her parents to reunite. When Riley shows sadness, her parents are empathetic to her struggles. Dr. Scarlet writes when “we stay with this individual and share our emotions together, the resonating effect can produce a healing experience.”Through appropriately identified, managed, and expressed emotions, we can understand and be understood, ultimately allowing us the opportunity to bond in meaningful relationships.

  • Youth Nonviolence: The Path to a Peaceful Future

    Kids holding hand

    Keeping up with current events often means facing the grim reality of youth violence in our society. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey from 2011, “32.8% of students had been in a physical fight one or more times during the 12 months before the survey” and “7.4% of students nationwide had been threatened or injured with a weapon.” These are alarming numbers to consider, ones that are difficult to ignore.

    The American Psychological Association outlines several motives for youth violence. Expression, manipulation, and retaliation are just some of those reasons. Perhaps most importantly, violence is a learned behavior. Youth who have not learned effective means of expression and who have been exposed to negative role modeling that normalizes violence as a means to resolve conflict are more likely to act on violent impulses. Youth exposed to the use of violence or aggression to resolve problems in the home  are more likely to adopt those norms to resolve their own problems. Furthermore, media and news events may perpetuate the normalization of violence as an acceptable means to resolve conflict.

    The road to mitigating conflict peacefully begins with youth learning healthy ways to express themselves. Youth who are able to identify and manage their emotions are better equipped to calm themselves down before anger or sadness begin to drive aggressive behavior. Likewise, these youth are more able to and more likely to then communicate what they are feeling with more peaceful results.They are also more likely to ask for help and to trust adults. Taking that a step further, youth who are able to identify the emotions of others are better able to prevent conflict by recognizing the circumstances that could result in a violent conflict and manage their own behavior accordingly. This awareness of self and others is a twofold approach for youth to practice pro-social bonding and to learn to differentiate between unhealthy and healthy relationship qualities.  Learning the difference between aggressive behavior and assertive behavior goes a long way in solidifying positive norms.

    If youth are not exposed to healthy role modeling in their homes, they may not know what makes for acceptable behavior. School is a place where they can learn essential social emotional skills, as well as find positive role models in their teachers and their peers. Activities that simulate real-life scenarios let youth practice the skills to identify and manage emotions, communicate effectively, and problem solve peacefully so they can ultimately assimilate those skills into their own lives.

    Violent acts happen, and  we cannot shelter youth from exposure to them. But youth equipped with strong social emotional skills and the ability to navigate relationships in healthy ways are more likely to apply prosocial solutions in the face of potentially violent situations.  With education, role modeling, and practice, youth can boldly embark on a path to a more peaceful future.

  • Early Learning Through Play

    Beautiful little kids playing with toy kitchen in the garden

    It’s that time of year when the days are growing longer and a trip to the beach may be on the horizon. The kids may be home for the summer, but they are learning essential skills even away from school. Amid sand castles and lemonade stands, the activities of child’s play continue the development of social emotional skills.

    Much research has been devoted to the study of early childhood learning through play, and the results show there is a wide spectrum of benefits. Children’s play is essential to the development of their social emotional and executive function skills in both the short and long-term.

    Pretend play with peers offers a particularly valuable element to social emotional learning.  It is most common for children ages 3-6 and involves taking on social roles and enacting narrative scripts.  According to Par Jane Hewes, PhD of the Early Childhood Learning Knowledge Center, pretend play “fosters communication, developing conversational skills, turn taking, and perspective taking, and the skills of social problem solving – persuading, negotiating, compromising, and cooperating.” Though children often create their own scripts, parents and caregivers can foster such creative play by organizing and encouraging children to participate in skits and role-plays that will aid them in working together while learning the skills they need for their future success.

    Peter K. Smith, PhD and Anthony Pellegrini, PhD in the Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development report a hypothesis that “pretend play enhances theory of mind development. Theory of mind ability means being able to understand (represent) the knowledge and beliefs of others; that is, that someone else can have a different belief or state of knowledge from yourself.” This type of peer interaction helps children try on different roles and learn how to express themselves, which in turn develops an awareness of self and of others.  With such skills, children develop empathy for their peers that will nurture their ability to engage in healthy relationship patterns.

    Whether participating in play within a school environment, at home, or on vacation, young children are continuously developing fundamental skills through their activities.  Caregivers and educators can provide opportunities for children to explore their environments and relationships with their peers by fostering the prosocial peer bonding that will ready them for success in life.

    So when you are at the beach this summer, take a closer look at that sand castle or that popular lemonade stand.  The skills your children used to build them will be the skills they use to build their successful futures.

  • Student Happiness and GPA

    e6238f5a-9990-4238-ba38-ea2f57ffef13A recent study headed by Christina Hinton, Ed.D. at Harvard Graduate School of Education “found that from elementary school to high school, happiness is positively correlated with motivation and academic achievement.” The study measured student happiness against GPA and found happier students have higher GPAs.

    There are several ways we can cultivate student happiness. We can provide for them a safe environment where they in turn feel at ease exploring and learning. Once such an environment is established, students are more likely to forge meaningful relationships. According to Hinton’s study, bonding is an essential contributing factor to student happiness. Students “cited many reasons for their positive feelings, including feeling safe and comfortable at school and having secure relationships with their teachers and their peers.”

    Student feedback from Hinton’s study also reported that fun, positive feelings helped promote learning. Incorporating social emotional learning through interactive activities is a beneficial way for students to not only gain the opportunity for healthy bonding but also to have fun doing so.

    In practice, developing social emotional skills through cooperative learning designs, such as strategy games and role play, reinforces the concepts so students internalize what they learn.  Hands-on experience allows students to apply the skills, while paired and group activities encourage students to collaborate, make group decisions, develop relationship skills, and resolve conflict peacefully.  As a result, students develop a stronger sense of self-worth and self-efficacy to build the confidence that fuels academic success.

    Students who learn how to manage their emotions have the tools they need to cope with stress in a healthy manner. In the process of building these skills, students first learn to identify their own emotions; this is as simple as students learning to pay attention to the physical signals their bodies give them to indicate how they are feeling.  Then, students learn to recognize those signals in others. Activities that challenge students to “try on” a multitude of expressions help them connect how their own emotions physically feel with how those emotions appear on others’ faces.  Equipped to quickly recognize emotions in others, students learn to pause and consider their own feelings before they act and to develop empathy so they can react appropriately to the feelings of others.

    Teaching emotion management skills through interactive activities is a fun and effective way for students to learn to navigate their emotions and become more aware of self and others; both of which resolve stress and mitigate conflict. By building a safe and positive environment, as well as teaching the skills students need to bond with and relate to one another in a healthy way, students will be well on their way to academic success. It is no mystery why happy and healthy students make the grade.

  • Altruism and Social Emotional Learning

    Two hands reaching out

    Social emotional learning has been shown to heighten academic success, ready students for the workplace, and help prevent risky behaviors such as substance abuse and violence. Furthermore, researchers at the Greater Good Science Center say social emotional learning cultivates in students an innate human altruism. Dacher Keltner, UC Berkeley professor and author of Born to Be Good, asserts “based on research in psychology, sociology, and neuroscience that we are also wired for good.” If we are wired for good, the theory is we need simply to harness that desire to act based on that hard-wired good.

    According to the Greater Good Science Center, much “compelling proof that we are wired for altruism, kindness, and compassion comes from numerous studies that demonstrate children as young as 14 months have innate altruistic tendencies, well before socialization can have a major influence on their development.” The Science Center cites 18-month olds who help other people without outside encouragement. In one case, seeing an adult who had his hand full of books, a toddler opened a cupboard for him.

    Still other researchers found “toddlers’ happiness levels increased significantly when they gave away one of their own treats rather than a treat that belonged to another person.” Toddlers’ positive feelings were reinforced by their desire to share their belongings with their peers. It is a sort of cyclical effect of the desire to do good deeds for others engendering good feelings which then prompts the further desire to do more good deeds.

    But how does this all tie back to social emotional learning? The development of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and empathy encourages children to bond with others in a meaningful way.  According to the Greater Good Science Center, “fostering social and emotional skills helps to build classroom and school environments that bring out our innate altruism.” Cooperative learning environments that reinforce and normalize cooperative behaviors in children, in turn inspire children to carry these behaviors out into the world. In this process of bonding, children are likely to find the desire to share and to give, reinforcing what Keltner calls the hard-wired altruism that lies within us.

  • National Prevention Week

    Mendez_I_Choose_PhotoWagner was so excited to participate in SAMHSA’s “I Choose” Project for National Prevention Week!  As we wrap up a week of spreading messages for prevention, we at the Mendez Foundation reflect on our origins, and we thought it would be fun to share with you a little of our history.

    Doing good work for the health and well-being of our children is nothing new for the Mendez Foundation. For more than thirty-five years, we've been developing and implementing prevention education programs K-12 that teach kids they are too good for drugs and violence. Our evidence-based, skill-building programs make a positive impact on the lives of students, teachers, parents, and community leaders nationwide.

    Charles E. Mendez established the C. E. Mendez Foundation in 1964 to support local charitable organizations serving underprivileged children and their families living in the Tampa Bay area. Following his death in 1967, Charles E. Mendez’s legacy and the Mendez Foundation were carried on by his family.

    In 1975, Charles E. Mendez, Jr., now President of the Foundation, grew concerned with the alarming growth of drug, alcohol, and tobacco use by young people. He refocused the Foundation's efforts to develop and deliver prevention education programs to address these substance abuse problems.  To that end, our own Prevention Specialists have been positive role models delivering Too Good for Drugs in Hillsborough County Public Schools since 1980.

    The Foundation's programs would be developed with this philosophy in mind: providing children age-appropriate, factual information about the negative health effects of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco, combined with development of critical decision making and goal setting skills, delivered by professional educators who are positive role models, will result in better decision-making by our children.

    We also put our community stakeholder hats on when we put together fun, free family events like the Too Good for Drugs Walk and Kidfest and the I am Too Good for Drugs Junior Gasparilla Distance Classic events in Tampa.  Summertime in Tampa bridges the school years with the Summer Parks program in the City of Tampa Parks and Recreation Centers.

    Our social emotional learning skills-based prevention programs soon gained national recognition, and our curricula are currently used by over 3,500 school districts, community agencies, and law enforcement agencies throughout the United States.

    As prevention educators, we have a professional commitment to the careful development, rigorous testing, and on-going refinement of our programs. As an organization, we have a time honored commitment to ready children for success in school and in their future careers. It's our purpose and our passion.

  • Benefits of Childhood Card Games

    Card games can be a beneficial means for children to build character, develop executive function skills, and learn healthy bonding norms. According to an article recently published in The Wall Street Journal, “card games can teach math and memory skills, as well as strategic thinking, psychologist and sociologists say.” Executive function skill development, such as working memory and strategic thinking, is fundamental to preparing children for successful academic life, as well as future employment.

    Families and schools who encourage children to engage in card games also establish healthy bonding norms. The Wall Street Journal says “the conversation and friendly rivalry that come with sitting down to play cards can strengthen family ties.” And children will mirror the healthy norms established in caregiver relationships as they socialize and form connections outside the family in their schools and communities.

    Defining strong character traits in children is another key component of playing games, as they “can build children’s confidence: The rules are the same for everyone, and it is fun to play a game in which anyone can win.” In family settings and school settings alike, card games can simulate real-life problem solving and strategizing, giving children the opportunity to face challenges in a controlled environment so they can take what they learn and apply it to their lives.

    It turns out there are multiple compelling reasons card games have prospered from one generation to the next. They bridge age gaps and social constructs, bringing children to an equal playing field, building problem solving skills and emboldening children with the confidence they need to face life’s challenges. Who would have thought a simple game of Go Fish could facilitate the foundational development needed for success in life? In the midst of fun and laughter, children gain the character and skills necessary for happy and healthy lives.

  • Childhood Self-Control Linked to Future Job Success

    According to a recent study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Sciences (APS), “children with high self-control — who are typically better able to pay attention, persist with difficult tasks, and suppress inappropriate or impulsive behaviors — are much more likely to find and retain employment as adults.” Learning such executive function skills early in life builds a foundation for future success.

    The APS study found adults who properly developed self-control early in childhood spent almost half as much time unemployed than those whose self-control was underdeveloped. This is a significant number to consider when one’s livelihood is on the line. Furthermore, those lacking in self-control who lost their jobs had a difficult time finding new jobs. APS says this could be due to a number of factors such as “a heightened vulnerability to stress due to unemployment, the adverse effect of prolonged career interruptions on skill development and a greater likelihood of falling into habits which hinder their chances of regaining employment.”

    The evidence is clear, but how can we help children develop self-control early in life? APS suggests school programs, as well as mindfulness exercises such as yoga or walking meditation. We can promote self-control practices by teaching children the tools they need to make responsible decisions and manage their emotions. Self-control is apparent in children who stop to think before they act or take a deep breath before expressing an emotion. Small gestures can go a long way in helping children establish healthy and confident behaviors.

    Children who develop these social emotional skill sets and who develop an eager readiness to learn are better prepared for success in school and beyond. Self awareness and self-control help facilitate in children a desire to make school a priority, and that attitude extends into employment when they grow into adulthood. It is crucial for children to learn these skills to prepare them forAnchor both short term and long term success.

    Early grade school is an effective age to begin implementing self-control practices, according to APS, so it is never too early to begin teaching children how to incorporate these practices into their daily lives. Early implementation also equips children with the tools they need for ongoing development as they continue to meet the challenges they will face as they grow older. Children who get a head start on these essential life skills are more likely to secure for themselves steady employment and therefore a flourishing future.

  • Social Media and Underage Drinking

    According to a study by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, children and teens who spend time on social networking sites are three times more likely to drink alcohol than those who don’t. This connection is not obvious on its face. However, the popularity of social media provides the alcohol industry a widening reach to market its products. And that reach extends to a large number of youth. Regardless of intentions, enticing promotion tactics capture the interest of children and teens, and this type of advertising, coupled with the ubiquity of social media, creates a formula that promotes alcohol use.

    Alcohol brand fan pages on social media sites are public forums for all to see. It is common to find posts of photos displaying colorful mixed drinks or bottles of beer frosted on ice. Fans can post comments and pictures in response to the alcohol advertisiAnchorng. Children and teens need only to like a fan page to see these photos and comments in their newsfeed. But children and teens may also be exposed to advertising secondhand if one of their friends becomes a fan of a brand alcohol page and shares photos from that page.

    The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at Johns Hopkins University reports in a pamphlet that children misrepresent their ages to join social networking sites that have a minimum age requirement of 13. So the reality is children are gaining exposure to alcohol advertising at a very young age. CAMY further states “14 longitudinal scientific studies provide strong evidence that the amount of exposure to alcohol advertising influences whether young people start drinking or, if they already drink, how much they drink.”

    Though the percentage of teen drinkers has lowered slightly in a recent ten year period, there is no question underage drinking remains a problem. Project Know, an organization devoted to raising awareness of substance abuse through informative maps and graphs on their website, reports “since 2003, the nationwide prevalence of students who drank alcohol at least once in the previous 30 days hasn’t dropped below 34%.” That’s still a sizeable number to consider.

    Youth develop positive expectations of alcohol use when they are repeatedly exposed to the often glamorized and alluring alcohol advertisements and promotions. Correcting misperceptions that children and teens may have about alcohol, as well as educating them as to the negative consequences of underage drinking, can effectively counter expectations that alcohol is the key to maturity, escape, and social success. Well informed youth are better able to make responsible decisions, and youth who are ready to make responsible decisions are better equipped to resist media influences. We might not be able to control the images placed before them, but children and teens equipped with the tools they need to recognize it is wiser not to engage in underage drinking will scroll on by the frosty beer.

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