Too Good Today

  • Executive Function

    Executive function development is essential for success in college and career. These executive function skills consist of working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control—all necessary components for higher education and the workplace. The most effective time for development of these skills is in early childhood, but they may be fostered well into the teen years.

    According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, early childhood experiences “affect the development of brain architecture, which provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior, and health.” In the early years, there is a process of neural connection proliferation that is necessary for the development of three areas of the brain: the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex. These three areas are responsible for emotional behavior and regulation, short term memory, and self-control.

    Following the process of proliferation, the brain prunes neural pathways. In other words, learned behaviors are defined. It is crucial, then, that early childhood experiences bolster executive function. Building executive function requires a three-pronged approach. This may be achieved through implementing a curriculum that ensures children gain access to education and creative activities delivered by an adult role-model who displays high executive function.

    Adult role-modeling plays a large role in learned behaviors. The Center on the Developing Child states that “even under stressful conditions, supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress response.” Care-givers and teachers may not have control over a child’s family environment, but they can play their part in the healthy development of children’s executive function by displaying their own executive function skills.

    Activities that encourage creative play are another way in which children learn executive function skills. Card games, storytelling, and songs that repeat and add on exercise working memory; movement challenges, such as yoga or freeze dance, practice self-control; children can make their own play props or engage in matching card games to foster cognitive flexibility.

    The Center on the Developing Child says helping provide “the support that children need to build these skills at home, in early care and education programs, and in other settings they experience regularly is one of society’s most important responsibilities.” It is never too soon to start helping children develop the executive function foundation they need to prepare for success in life.

  • Benefits of Interactive Learning

    Interactive activities are an integral part of social emotional learning. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) states that “learning is an intrinsically social and interactive process: it takes place in collaboration with one’s teachers, in the company of one’s peers, and with the support of one’s family.” Active and participatory lessons encourage children to learn social emotional skills firsthand. For the most effective social emotional skill development, it helps if activities are not limited to school but are also extended into family and community.

    Children who are socially and emotionally competent are skilled in five core areas: self-awareness, responsible decision-making, emotion management, social awareness, and healthy relationship building. By developing these skills through engaging activities, children are better equipped to stay on track to their goals, face potential challenges, and resist negative peer influence to engage in risky behaviors.

    What types of activities can be incorporated into lessons to develop social emotional skills? Cooperative learning designs that promote bonding—such as games, role-plays, and skits—are a great way to reinforce what students have learned. Through hands-on experience, students can practice these essential skills. Interactive games promote teamwork, giving students the opportunity to work on group decision-making, develop relationship skills, and resolve conflict peacefully. Real life scenarios enacted through role-plays and skits give students the opportunity to apply the skills they have learned, deepening their understanding of self and others.

    Interactive social and emotional learning helps children internalize the skills they will carry with them through life; they will in turn develop strong character that will give them the resiliency they need to live happy and healthy lives.

  • Marijuana Use Linked to Lower IQ

    Last week we looked at the effects of alcohol on the developing teenage brain, and marijuana use is just as detrimental. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) recently released a study that researched the long term effects of marijuana use. The results included MRI scans that observed physical changes in the brain and reveal chronic marijuana use can actually lower the IQ by five points. This is particularly the case when use begins at an early age.  Because the human brain continues developing into the mid-twenties, regular exposure to toxic substances can hinder its healthy maturation. It is essential, then, that we talk to children at an early age about the potential damage of the use of this substance.

    According to a CNN report, Dr. Susan Weiss, associate director of Scientific Affairs at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says the PNAS study “showed that the orbitofrontal cortex, an area involved in reward, decision making and motivation, was smaller in heavy users.” Teens engaging in marijuana use risk interfering with their ability to function at peak capacity and are therefore robbed of meeting their fullest potential.

    With recent trends of increasing legal access to marijuana, it is timelier than ever that we talk to children and teens about the effects of the drug’s use on the brain and body. In the eyes of the teenager, the evolving legal status implies a green light to use. However, just because something is legal does not mean it is necessarily safe. Informing teens of the negative consequences of substance use, as well as equipping them with the skills they need to make responsible decisions, can keep them healthy and substance-free.

  • Still Growing

    The development and application of  social emotional skills, coupled with drug awareness education, inform teens of the serious negative consequences of underage drinking, substance use, and other risky behaviors, while preparing them to resist experimenting in the first place.  What until recently was not fully understood is underage drinking and substance use can alter the healthy development of the teenage brain with long-term consequences on aptitude executive function.

    A recent Fresh Air interview on NPR, featuring Frances E. Jensen, MD, discusses the topic of her new book, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.  Her book explores the nuances of the developing teenage brain, and outlines the ways in which teenage substance use affects that development.  Jensen says, “The effects of substances are more permanent on the teen brain.  They have more deleterious effects and can be more toxic to the teen than the adult.”

    Contrary to past myths of the physical resiliency of teens, current research shows the human brain is developing well into the twenties.  Therefore, underage drinking and substance use can potentially impair development and lead to permanent brain damage.  Jensen says “drinking can actually kill brain cells in the adolescent brain where it does not to the same extent in the adult brain.” The frontal cortex—the area of the brain directly related to memory and decision-making—is one of the last areas to develop.  Teens engaging in drinking or substance use risk compromising their level of executive function.

    Children equipped with solid social emotional skills sets, as well as an awareness of the negative consequences of underage drinking and substance use, are better able to make responsible decisions that will keep them on track to reaching their goals.  They realize there is much at stake, and they are well-informed to make choices that will keep them substance-free.

  • Speak Up... And Lend an Ear

    Effective communication skills are key to resilient living.  Communication is the means by which we interact with the world, and how we communicate plays a large role in determining the outcomes of our actions and relationships.  Children who communicate effectively are better able to make responsible decisions, stay true to their goals, and develop healthy relationships, because they can advocate their needs, seek help when necessary, and reject unhealthy pressures and influences.

    Dr. Carol Seefeldt writes in Scholastic that with effective communication skills “children can listen and learn from others, discuss ideas, and gain ever more knowledge of the world in which they live.” First, children must learn to differentiate healthy and unhealthy communication styles in order to adopt an effective communication style of their own.

    Our body language speaks to others before we even speak.  For example, an interviewee who enters an interview with slumped shoulders and averted eyes will come across too passive. However, an interviewee who enters the interview with good posture and direct eye contact will come across assertive. The interviewer will take this into consideration and formulate an impression before the interviewee has a chance to answer questions. By discerning between these two communication styles, children learn that assertive behavior is more direct and honest, thereby portraying a confidence and readiness to perform.

    Listening skills are also essential to effective communication. Children learn how to listen by mirroring those who listen to them, but an understanding of the role of non-verbal cues conveys a message to children as well. Dr. Seefeldt writes that educating children by “fostering the conventions of communication, helping children learn to look, to take turns, and to negotiate verbal conflicts” develops an understanding of what it means to empathize with others.  Teaching children to identify and adopt healthy listening skills, such as focusing on what the speaker is saying, smiling and nodding, and asking clarifying questions prevents miscommunication and facilitates stronger relationships.

    The above skills lead to the capacity to develop healthy relationships. As Dr. Seefeldt writes, “Children who look at the child they are talking with, who understand turn taking when communicating, and who know how to solve verbal conflicts are those who make and keep friends easily.” Effective communication helps children navigate challenging situations and peacefully resolve conflict. As a result, they are more likely to share their ideas and feelings with others, which promote enhanced cooperation and healthy bonding.

    Children who are ready to communicate effectively present themselves confidently in both manner and speech. They are emboldened to make responsible decisions that will keep them on track to reaching their goals, making friends along the way.

  • Stop to Think

    The road to healthy living begins with children setting reachable goals, but to stay true to that road children must learn to make responsible decisions.  Children face the challenges of external pressures every day, whether they are from community, peers, or media. Dr. Jim Taylor in Psychology Today writes that "children who are poor decision makers are ready prey to the inevitable bad decisions when they listen to popular culture." Therefore, it is essential for children to learn at an early age what it takes to make decisions that will keep them focused on their goals.

    The primary method children can use to make responsible decisions is to stop to give themselves time to think through the decision before they act.  Dr. Taylor states that children lack the experience of maturity so they "tend to make decisions that are impulsive and focused on immediate gratification." Because time is ultimately the only solution for gaining experience, we need to equip children with skills they can use until they gain that experience. Young children may benefit from such tangible practices as counting to ten or taking a few deep breaths before they speak or act.

    Developing decision making in children must be age appropriate.  It is crucial that we recognize the capacity for decision making that grows with age. Younger children can tackle simpler decisions whereas adolescents can begin to incorporate much longer term thinking, with multiple potential outcomes and consequences, into their calculus.  Thus, as we facilitate decision making, we should be mindful of this incremental process.

    Despite knowing to take time to think before they act, children often face peer pressure and peer influence that can challenge their decision making.  Dr. Taylor says that children under pressure "may know that doing something is stupid, but they may feel peer pressure to do it anyway." Children who develop a strong moral compass and conviction to attain their goals are more likely to make responsible decisions in the face of peer pressure. They will more carefully weigh the negative consequences of making poor decisions versus the benefits of making good decisions and how those consequences, good or bad, will affect their ability to reach their goals in the short and long run.

    Teaching responsible decision-making skills is easy, but learning these skills requires time and practice to incorporate them into everyday life.  A supportive learning environment that allows children to practice these skills and learn from mistakes can foster a confidence to take on more challenging decisions. This confidence in turn enables children to take on healthy risks and strive to reach more challenging goals.

    Children who learn from an early age to approach decisions in a thoughtful manner are better equipped to resist the influence of popular culture.  They are more likely to live confidently in each moment, because making responsible decisions brings assurance and peace of mind. Children who stop to think about their decisions are one step closer to reaching their goals.

  • Building Better Relationships

    As children enter adolescence, their minds and bodies are rapidly changing.  Adolescence marks the beginning of more complex relationships, including romantic relationships, as hormones begin to rage and social influences to begin dating strengthen.

    Because teens are greatly influenced by the role models at home and in their communities, it comes as no surprise that we see teens exposed to violence at home or in their communities express similar behavior in their own dating relationships.

    The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) recently released research on current teen dating violence trends, finding "risky social environment was the strongest correlate of physical and emotional dating violence victimization and perpetration within a romantic relationship." Teens exposed to violence in their community or family environments are more likely to become involved in dating violence, because they often mirror the behavior they see. Home environments that consistently use violence or aggression to resolve problems or to establish power or control set a standard for the children to follow in those environments.

    Teens without healthy role models to establish positive norms about dating relationship behavior are ill equipped to handle the complex emotions that stem from these new relationships.  Teens who learn to identify unhealthy relationship qualities are much less likely to perpetuate negative norms they might have learned in their communities or homes.

    Development of social competency at an early age to promote pro-social bonding equips teens to apply what they have learned about healthy relationship norms to their own relationships.  Positive peer influence  promotes healthy norms as well.  According to NIJ, "Programs that help develop healthy peer relationships should begin early in adolescence, when youth are first learning to establish more autonomous and meaningful peer relationships.  Youth can learn and practice with peers many of the positive qualities that are important in healthy romantic relationships."

    Often, teens simply don't know yet the boundaries of acceptable behavior.  As teens learn to differentiate positive and negative relationship qualities, they learn how to set appropriate boundaries.  SEL activities that simulate real-life scenarios offer teens opportunities to practice handling a spectrum of relationship possibilities.  Essential social and emotional skill development, such as learning to identify and manage emotions, as well as making responsible decisions, lays a strong foundation for lifelong healthy relationship management.  Simple education of the acceptable "do's" and the unacceptable "don'ts" can go a long way to promoting healthy relationships.

    Research may show that teen violence does in fact occur, but we can do our part to steer teens toward healthier relationships. By equipping teens with strong social-emotional skills sets, and the knowledge they need to observe appropriate boundaries and discern unhealthy from healthy relationship qualities, we prepare teens to make healthy choices as they navigate relationships from adolescence into adulthood.

  • Take Five

    Emotion management is one of the core components of social emotional learning skills taught in effective prevention education. Coupled with other social emotional skills, emotion management benefits children both socially and academically.

    Dr. Kenneth Barish, a child therapist and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychology at Cornell University, in the Huffington Post writes, "Children who are able to regulate their emotions pay more attention, work harder, and achieve more in school." And the 2013 Too Good evaluation study showed just that-prevention education that develops social and emotional skill sets, such as emotion management, not only decreases the risk of substance use but also facilitates stronger academic performance.

    Research and evidence show the benefits that result from emotion management, but how can we as adult role models cultivate emotion management in children? One way is by lending an empathetic ear. When children feel they are truly being heard, they feel less a sense of urgency and therefore are able to more thoughtfully express themselves. Dr. Barish states that children are less likely to "get stuck in attitudes of blaming, argument and denial." Children are therefore more likely to take responsibility for their actions and behaviors, which prepares them to make thoughtful, rational choices.

    We can also heighten children's awareness of their own emotions by teaching them valuable self-assessment tools, such as learning to identify the physical signs of their emotions in addition to the thoughts and experiences associated with them. For example, children attentive to how their heart races, or to the feel of the muscles around the mouth when they are frowning, can use these physical signals as a cue to relax. When children learn to identify these signs in others, they are better able to interpret and ultimately anticipate the emotions of others. Acute social awareness provides the necessary elements to applying empathy. Socially aware children are also better able to positively influence the behaviors of those around them by deflecting conflict or intervening with a solution-based attitude.

    Self-aware children are empowered not only to respond to internal and external influences but to bring about positive change in potentially negative situations.  Children who learn to recognize and appreciate the emotions of others develop a greater capacity to build stronger, more supportive relationships.

    Emotion management ultimately leads to responsible decision making, effective communication, pro-social bonding, and academic success-an established formula that emboldens children to establish a bright future for themselves.

  • Please Pass the Gravy!

    As we greet the new year, we tuck away more memories of close family gatherings—memories of the table draped in heirloom lace and the lingering taste of great-grandmother's gingersnaps. During the holiday season, the dinner table is a symbol for tradition and family unity; it is a place of comfort and bonding.

    Moving forward, it would prove especially beneficial to let this tradition extend into a year-round routine. According to a study commissioned by CASA Columbia, teens that have frequent dinners with their families are less likely to engage in alcohol, tobacco, or other drug use. The study showed that teens who had weaker relationships with their parents were more than twice as likely to have used alcohol, twice as likely to use tobacco, and three to four times more likely to have used marijuana.

    Healthy bonding, support, and high expectations are protective factors for establishing positive norms to prevent substance use and abuse. Family, school, and community environments offer children a space to engage in healthy relationships, and bonding through meaningful participation provides opportunities for children to develop esteem, promoting a sense of self-worth in relation to others.

    From the dinner table to the classroom, positive adult role models set and reinforce healthy norms for children. When parents and teachers set a positive example, children will come to expect their parents' and teachers' attitudes and behaviors to be the norm; the opposing negative attitudes and behaviors of negative influences will be seen as an unhealthy exception to the norm.

    High expectations from respected adults, combined with a strong support system, reinforce in children a desire to live up to their best selves, giving them the confidence they need to aspire to reaching their goals and relate to others in a healthy way.

    It is sometimes difficult to resist being swept away by the fast-paced current of our contemporary culture. The holidays remind us to pause and engage more frequently in meaningful exchanges with children and teens who look to us for direction, for we play a significant role in their unfolding futures.

    From all of us at the Mendez Foundation, we wish you a safe and fruitful new year!

  • The Possible Dream

    Goal-setting is a cornerstone to effective prevention education. When children set goals for themselves, they make an investment in their future. The firmer their resolutions, the less likely they are to make decisions that would deter them from reaching those goals. They in turn develop a stronger moral compass, and they are less likely to engage in risky behaviors such as substance use and violence.

    Setting age appropriate goals for children, and encouraging them to set their own, will foster foundational expansion. However, it is crucial to recognize the stages of children’s cognitive development; children move from concrete to abstract thinking over the course of elementary school. In order for children to reach their goals, they must strive toward goals that are set within their stage of development. Furthermore, children who are able to discern short-term from long-term goals may set and reach their goals with greater confidence.

    While aiding children in setting and reaching goals, we must consider the most beneficial learning environment. In a recent Huffington Post article, Dr. Gail Gross, Family and Child Development Expert, writes, “As we guide children towards their fullest potential, we teach them through bonding, observation, social learning and role modeling, how to delay gratification and reach goals and resolutions.” Children thrive in a learning environment that encourages bonding and social learning. They establish a sense of individuality in relation to others, which is necessary for both autonomy and healthy relationship building. Social learning activities may include interactive games, media, and role-plays. These activities simulate real life social constructs so children may tangibly apply what they have learned to their own lives.

    But how does a social environment circle back to goal-setting? Once a community is established, children are able to feel both a sense of individuality and a sense of belonging to a group. These feelings in combination relieve stress in children, which in turn frees them up to set reachable goals for themselves. And the more capable children are of setting reachable goals, the more likely they are to take responsibility for their own actions and behaviors. Children will develop healthy decision making skills that will secure for them a safe and flourishing future.

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