Getting Good Habits Early

Teachers invest a great deal of time in enabling children to learn their seven times tables, until 6 X 7 = 42 becomes a very automatic and speedy output. But, as useful as this skill might be (perhaps?), how much time is invested in enabling young children to acquire habits that are proven to play a part in enabling a person to live a successful life?

Aristotle is quoted to have said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

Evidence keeps mounting, in my view for the benefits of the right habits and the potentially horrendous limitations or impairments that happen for those who don’t acquire positive habits early. There’s also an awful lot of evidence that the development of positive habits is easier and more effective when two things happen. Firstly, getting the habits early. And secondly, being mindful and aware of the good habits, why they matter and the benefits of having them.

When we look at the acquisition of habits from the perspective of being a parent or an educator, one of my own strong beliefs is that a habit is only a habit if it’s owned by the individual and that only comes with self-discipline based development and understanding of the ‘why’. The key to this is we can’t put habits in to children through enforced discipline. So, making children act in particular ways “because I say so” or because we’re big, you’re small and we know best and you must be obedient is not the way to build positive, constructive habits. In fact, I see greater likelihood that when the pressure is taken off, there’s a strong chance that we’ll see the young person follow the very opposite habits and go down unproductive paths.

Obviously, when a child is really young, we have to take the lead on habit development. They have to come from us. But, as the child gets older, we need to hand over more of the responsibility to the child. I often compare this to flying a kite. When it gets up in the air we pay out more line – equivalent to handing over more of the power to the child. If there’s a lull in the air flow, the kite may dip and even start to fall towards the ground. At that point we draw some of the line in (not all of it!) until the kite height and the wind strength are compatible. Then, as the kite steadies, we start paying out more line again.

I believe that somehow, today, parents and educators have come to believe that the antidote to strict, controlling parenting is completely laiiez faire parenting where children are left free to make all their own choices and judgements. These appear to be very dangerous extremes. Instead, the right way is to aaply the kite analogy above. This does require investment of time and effort, flexibility and strong awareness of the adult to both their own emotions and how the child is responding to the opportunity to set their own routines and habits.

With regard to habits, we need children to know and understand the implications of good or bad habits, be given the help to acquire the good habits, reflection when they let the good habits slip and to get back in to believing they are capable of establishing clear, positive habits – growth mindset is also a vital ingredient.

here are two recent articles that show, if not definite cause, then certainly strong risks for children who don’t have positive, healthy habits in their lives early on. The first suggests a strong correlation between teenage obesity and failure to have positive, regular bedtime habits in the early years of life;

NPR – Eat, Sleep, Repeat – How Kid’s Daily Routines Can Help Prevent Obesity

The second again highlights correlation, but not yet conclusive evidence of cause, regarding very young infants and screen use causing delayed speech development;

CNN – Speech Delays in Kids Could be Linked to Mobile Devices

Young Children & Screens – Changed Recommendations

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) have changed their recommendations regarding younger children and their use of screens. It used to be that they had a flat moratorium on use with children under two years of age. However, I’m not really surprised that they’re responding to the reality of what’s happening (nobody took much notice of their earlier recommendations) and trying to at least steer parents towards responsible and effective use.

Edweek Blog – Pediatricians Shift Stance on Electronic Media Use for Young Children

Having acknowledged that parents are going to put electronic media in the hands of their young children, the advice is shifting towards encouraging responsible use (and discouraging the irresponsible where the media is simply used to babysit the child). As a result the emphasis changes in two significant ways;

a) Exposure to quality media content – being more discerning about what’s being selected, and
b) Collaborative viewing, rather than just leaving the child to be distracted by the media alone.

It would be nice to think the advice will make some difference, but i fear the convenience and personal vested interest of parents will be the dominant factor.

Screen Time and Sleep

These are two topics on which I’ve written quite often, mainly because these days they are right at the top of the agenda when it comes to causes of worry and anxiety for parents (and anyone working with children). The fear levels tend to rise in the weeks of ‘idle leisure’ of school vacations when children feel free to indulge themselves.

Screen time and usage is something really quite new, both for children and adults, and so people struggle with very differing opinions about what’s right, healthy and makes sense without causing harm. For many parents, seeing their child frittering hours of meaningless time on mindless ‘online’ activities, the suggestion that we should be using more ICT in the classroom and as part of the learning process is met with some alarm. The internet is seen (sometimes because of parents’ own experiences) as a place of loss of self-control, the ultimate procrastinator’s pit of damnation. Their fears for their children are very genuine – my child will become habituated, if not addicted, to messing around mindlessly, won’t do what’s necessary to learn and study and will, as a result, be left behind in the race to succeed in life.

Recognising these fears and concerns, many experts have sought to research and experiment to shift these debates from the realms of conjecture to something based on real evidence. From time to time, there are some very good appraisals of where that research has reached. This NPR article I came across recently is such an example;

NPR – Education – On Kids And Screens, A Middle Way Between Fear And Hype

The article takes a sensible and nuanced line, avoiding sensationalizing. Key messages include;

a) Yes, there are risk issues for children, and we should be talking about them. However, that discussion should be balanced by more talk of the benefits to be had.
b) Buying the hardware/ software then handing it over to children and disengaging increases the risks. Adults need to remain engaged with the child and the technology to be sure they really understand what’s happening.
c) With a little creativity, parents can use the internet as much as TV to bring families together, rather than atomising – use of shared screens, watching or absorbing things together and having debates and discussions sparked by the material.
d) Technology use in schools is a problem area – it’s tending to only really be used creatively in the classrooms of odd individual teachers with a ‘techy, nerdy’ leaning rather than being embedded effectively in learning processes. There was a lot of early hype and at times this was more about wowing everyone with something new, rather than being clear that real, genuine learning benefits were resulting. Now, it’s time to move beyond that through more solid changes that work through curriculum, teacher training and school infrastructure development

In short – we need to get less ‘hypey’ about the technology, work to understand what’s happening with it more rationally and make our messages for parents and children far more nuanced about what’s in their best interests.

The topic of sleep in relation to children is usually very strongly entwined with issues of parents’ abilities to establish firm, consistent and effective home routines and habits around sleep issues that become natural and positive for children. As a result, it can be a painful touch point for some parents when they find themselves confronted with the evidence that they’ve not been as good as they might (or as good as some others) at getting effective home routines in place for their children. At times, this debate gets mixed up with the one above related to screen time and usage.

Who, as a parent, wants to willingly confront issues of their own inadequacies or shortcomings? Plus, what really is the evidence on the issues of sleep?

Well, the most obvious evidence is the clear data that shows we’re all sleeping less (often a lot less) than our ancestors accompanied by some fairly weighty evidence that this is all having detrimental effects on our health – physically and mentally. Here’s a recent article that shares some pretty startling data linking later bedtimes in young children with much higher levels of obesity in the teen years;

Stgist – Study says kids who sleep early are less likely to become obese teens

It’s important to understand that an article like this is saying that there is correlation, not cause proven in this statistical data. This does mean that claims can be made about one (late sleeping) can be a pre-cursor or evidence for the other (teen obesity), but not that one is caused by the other. Nevertheless, it all adds to a growing body of evidence for the life disadvantages that come for a child when strong disciplined home routines in the early years are patchy or non-existent.

I believe this has to be seen in a similar perspective to the development or management of positive life habits in people of any age. When Western countries had the big drive against smoking, there was a lot of stigma attached to a person who failed to quit. The suggestion was that such people were weak, lacked willpower or self discipline to do what was necessary to change their bad habit in to something positive. This was made worse by implications that such people weren’t just letting down themselves, but society as a whole!

We now know that such sanctimonious approaches really didn’t help. vast numbers of people were genuinely trying to deal with the issues, but by being stigmatized they were left with the impression that trying and failing (to quit) was almost worse than not trying as it demonstrated very visible human weakness and frailty. What worked for many of these people was an acknowledgement that changing ingrained habits is hard, has its good and bad times, but that each failure is not terminal.

I believe we must see the same approaches to help parents with establishing sleep and bed routines with young children. All are different. Some will get good routines quickly and easily and retain them. others will struggle for a long time to get good routines, but once they have them will retain them. Then there are others who will swing through periods of good and bad habits. We need to do more to help this latter group with strategies, especially when so much of the evidence points to significant benefits and points out an ever growing set of risk factors associated with the bad habits.

In the meantime, one of the most important factors is to be properly informed and to be making decisions from a position of knowledge and understanding.

Social Media and Teens

As I’ve been sharing various articles recently, it’s startling to see some of the worrying data that’s emerging about the effects that social media is having on our youngsters. This, a report from the UK Daily Mail shares findings from a poll of 1,000 teenagers:

Daily Mail – Social Media Obsessed Teens Are Scared Of Real Life

This is such a live issue that we clearly need to be talking with teenagers, in the home and school, about the potential risks and I’m sure that more research is ongoing and we need to keep abreast of the findings. This isn’t one of those situations that we can just hope away, or that tolerates shrugging our shoulders and being defeatist.

Screenagers!

I’ve shared a number of articles here in recent months on the subject of children and ‘screen time’ and, as it is one of the most critical issues confronting parents and chilren today, I make no apology for sharing another.

Forbes – Are Your Kids Addicted To Their Phones? Screenagers Wants To Help
(Click on the link above to read the article and to see a trailer of the documentary)

This documentary looks to be well worth seeing once it goes on more general release. Seeing the trailer it came across very obviously that a lot of parents and children know there’s a problem, but nobody’s too sure about what to do about it. One of the scariest comments is the one about the evidence that children tend to believe that they are perfectly able to multitask whilst all experiments have shown that the effect is to perform worse on everything.

Futher, here’s an interview that the documentary maker did for American television;

I think one of the most valuable lessons she brings out is that extreme reactions aren't going to work. parents mustn't take a laissez faire view where they do nothing at all, deny the issues or do nothing because they're unclear about the way forward. Neither is it right to treat the child as 'the problem' or as though they are fundamentally bad. Bans, refusal to give the smart phones and other apparatus of the digital age isn't going to work. In such circumstances children, feeling the need to fit in with peers, will simply find devious ways to get online whenever they get the chance. In these circumstances trust is majorly undermined.

Rather, as the film suggests, we've got to maintain open dialogue with children. I've said before, it's vital that parents (and educators) share with children the simple rudimentary basics of the science of the brain that makes them more vulnerable and susceptible. In turn, we also need to make them part of the solutions, involving them in discussion and dialogue about setting reasonable boundaries. They are always far more likely to work to stick to limits and barriers that they have agreed, although even in these circumstances we have to acknowledge that they will have successes and failures, good days and bad. The key is to see this as a long term project - no point abandoning the process, giving up on the child, as soon as they have a bad day and make a mistake.

There are no easy answers, but i believe the children who will come out best adjusted are the ones whose parents and teachers are consistent and work for the long haul with the children to get these habits right, to learn what's best and to build good practices.

And, ............ as this article sets out and I've said before - we have to walk our talk. A parent who takes calls on the phone from friends or work colleagues during a family meal loses the right to complain when the child is texting and not listening to them!

Controlled By The Internet

Yesterday, I wrote about the scientific understanding behind teenagers’ propensity for impulsiveness, their higher risks for addiction and inappropriate and higher risk behaviour. One of the aspects that was touched upon was addiction to online and internet activity, whether to gaming, social networking or pornography – all things that can potentially have devastating effects on a young life.

Frequently, over the last 5-6 years I’ve had conversations with parents who were trying to grapple with these issues. One question sometimes asked is how to tell whether there child just has a strong habit or an addiction. Also, people can understand at a fundamental level the way that a person can become addicted to a substance like nicotine or alcohol, but find it harder to see internet use as a form of addiction. However, all the evidence is that it ‘hits’ the same pleasure centres in the brain and this is why it can have such a powerful impact.

So, I was keen to share this research from University of North Carolina;

Quartz – New Study Says Half of US Students Could Be Internet Addicts

The findings are really quite stark and startling. This is something that has crept up on society at such pace and in such a startling manner that few are fully and adequately engaging with all the implications. Rational, educated, intelligent parents have had this happen in their homes, right under their noses – the same people who would have launched in to massive action if they saw even a hint of their child getting involved with tobacco or alcohol. If the numbers are really even close to what this research suggests, then the reality is that enormous numbers of students and their parents are really still in denial.

The article also contains some cautionary warnings for adults about the examples that have been/ are being set. However, there are times when I think this needs to be set in context. A parent who reads ebooks, literature or material for their professional or personal development on a device rather than in a book, or listens to professional podcasts, can hardly be compared with the student who spends 6+ hours a day exchanging meaningless social networking messages or playing a computer game. When the parents read books in the past, were the children all following their example then?

These are very real issues that have massive implications for society. And, it’s not going to get better. This year, the market will be hit by large volumes of virtual reality material – hardware and software. The fact that this will be potentially even more immersive, stimulating and exciting will bring more danger to more young people.

Families need to be engaging in open discussion on these issues and educators also need to be engaging young people in sensible, open conversaion so that they can be helped to make better choices for themselves.

Back Away From the Screen, Kid!

The debate about children, screen time and electronic device use goes on.

Here’s an interesting article from NPR that starts with a stark fact – MOST American children are spending more time engaged with screen based devices than they spend attending school! This pervasive presence in the lives of our children has come upon us like a steam train. For many parents it may, at times, have seemed to be a godsend in terms of its ability to act as an unpaid child-minder, even though some may have been questioning whether it was all really a good thing.

We’ve all seen the children in malls, some still in push chairs and prams who are so glued to the devices in their hands that they are oblivious to the world around them. How long before we are confronted with the full implications of the tech-nannies?

The article previews new official guidelines expected to be published very soon in the US. The people behind those recommendations acknowledge that the evidence and data is by no means conclusive yet, from a scientific standpoint. However, I think they’re right to say that this is such a live issue that they cannot afford to wait. Instead, they must take what evidence is available, combine it with practical considerations of the world we live in today and advise accordingly.

I believe rightly, it seems the new guidelines will broaden the discussion from simply talking about how long children are using screen devices, but also the quality of content and material they are engaging with. Also, recommendations for parents to set a good example are surely due!

NPR – Ed – Kids and Screen Time – Upcoming Guidance

So, no pretending there are simple answers. However, what is important is that as research continues we keep ourselves sensibly informed, calibrate our actions accordingly and draw sensible and realistic conclusions.