Welcome to The Learning Mind: How the Brain Affects Your Classroom

Only in its infant stages, the 21st century has already ushered in an era of promise, excitement, and advances. From paralyzed people walking again to children writing computer programs, the 21st century has opened up many doors that had previously been closed to us. One such door that has been thrown ajar is the one to our brains.

fMRIInventions such as the fMRI, which measures activity in the brain in relation to stimuli, have given us fresh insights into how the brain works. This has come to enhance every field, opening windows into marketing, addiction recovery, and education.

The latter field is where we step in. Always on the forefront of the best educational initiatives, Kars4Kids is supporting the study of Mind, Brain, and Education Science through its new educational blog: The Learning Mind.

MBE is a discipline that emerged at the turn of the century in response to innovations in studying the brain. We are able to see how people learn. Thus, we can use this knowledge to best tailor our teaching practices to our students. We can use this same knowledge in our parenting practices with our children.

Our content is designed to give educators practical tips to bring into their classroom. We also provide teachers with the science behind those best teaching practices. Nevertheless, parents can equally benefit from our content. Anybody interested in one of the most fundamental parts of our humanity—our brains and how we learn–can benefit from our research.

classroomWe cover a broad range of educational topics that span from technology to mindset, from classroom design to the arts, from executive functions to body language, and everything in between. The latest articles feature research into the growth mindset, the flipped classroom, music and the brain, decision-making, and more.

Reporting from within the classroom, we interview, observe, test, and publish the best teaching practices in action. We bring you fresh ideas that have been piloted and assessed in classrooms just like yours.

The Learning Mind is dedicated to a better world and a better future for our youth.

As readers, we ask you to peruse our content, spread knowledge, join the discussion, and help initiate change in your corner of the globe.

Ready for the challenge?

Join our community at The Learning Mind.

New Dyslexia Law May Lead to Early Identification and Treatment for Virginia Schoolchildren

A new dyslexia law has got Virginia educators and dyslexia advocates mighty pleased and excited. The new legislation, just signed into law by Governor Terry McAuliffe, calls for teachers to undergo training in dyslexia awareness. Teachers will have to take a single one-hour online course in order to qualify for or renew a license to teach.

Can a brief one-hour virtual lesson for teachers make a difference in the classroom?

Dyslexia experts say yes. Because that one lesson won’t make teachers experts in dyslexia, a reading difficulty affecting one in every five children. That lesson will, however, help teachers spot signs of dyslexia in their students. More to the point, the course will guide teachers in ensuring those children have the support and assistance they need to succeed in the classroom.

New Dyslexia Law: Effective July 2017

The new dyslexia law takes effect beginning with the 2017-2018 school year. Dyslexia experts say the law is important because the earlier children are identified as having dyslexia, the sooner they can begin treatment. The earlier children receive treatment for dyslexia, the more likely it is they will learn to manage their difficulties and go on to read and learn.

Because teachers have not been educated to spot reading difficulties in their pupils, some children with dyslexia fall through the cracks. Some children fake their way through school and life pretending they can read. As adults, they may never find adequate employment.

Why would a person pretend to be literate? It’s a societal thing. We take pride in academic accomplishment. Not being able to read, in that light, can feel shameful.

Which is a shame, because there’s no shame in having dyslexia, a common disability. And there are ways for children with dyslexia to excel in school. They just need to receive help and support.

An Unexpected Difficulty

Dyslexia is defined as an “unexpected difficulty,” which means that people with dyslexia are of normal intelligence. That is why we fail so many children with dyslexia. It’s why these children are not diagnosed and treated.

Teachers look at the student with dyslexia and see a child of normal intelligence, not learning to read. That teacher may think, “This child is not trying hard enough,” or even, “This child is lazy. The teacher may even reprimand the student, or give a negative report to the child’s parents. This leads to shame and feelings of failure in these children. Sometimes the effects of all this last a lifetime.

The new dyslexia law should change all that for the children of Virginia. From next year on, a teacher who sees a bright child struggling to read, will understand the child has a reading disability and needs extra help. The accusations of laziness will be a thing of the past, and so will the shame. There will still be calls home to parents: calls that explain and advise, rather than accuse.

There is nothing shameful about having a brain difference, which is how many experts see dyslexia. The brain simply sees things a different way which makes it difficult to translate symbols into sound. The new dyslexia law will do a great deal to change educators’ perceptions of students who struggle to read. This will, in turn, do a great deal to help children with dyslexia feel good about themselves. Freed from any sense of shame, children with reading difficulties will  now feel encouraged to do what they need to do to get ahead in school and in life.

The new dyslexia law is a beautiful thing, almost a miracle. Let’s hope the idea of educating teachers in dyslexia awareness spreads and grows so no child ever has to feel shame for being different in Virginia or anywhere else.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe

Teachers As Comedians?

Teachers As Comedians?

Think back to your school days. Picture your favorite teacher. Now, picture your best friend’s favorite teacher. Chances are that they had something in common. They were funny.

Indeed, some of our funniest teachers may just have been the “best” for more reasons than one. Studies now show that laughter and happiness increase learning and memory. Dopamine is released when we are happy and oxygenation increases when we laugh, both of which stimulate the learning process. This makes humor a powerful tool for teachers.

The Science Behind It All

The newly emerging field of Mind, Brain, and Education science (MBE) represents a cross-section of neuroscience, education, and psychology. Laughter is just one subject, among many, that has been put under the microscope as MBE science is developing. Understanding the chemical effects of laughter on the brain can help educators recognize the significant impact this may have on learning.

MBE science aims to develop the best teaching practices, utilizing research from neuroscience and psychology. MBE topics cover the gamut from mind-body connection to reading interventions, from time management to classroom management, among many other subjects. This new approach to education can lead to exciting discoveries in each area: the study of the brain, psychology, and education.

The Brain on Laughter

Laughter, as seen from the MBE approach, has an impact on both the brain and body.  For instance, the medical profession has identified healing properties in laughter. The appearance of laughter therapy and even laughter yoga has become more commonplace in our times. Laughter therapy is a way to provide relief from emotional and physical pain and stress. This new therapy is even being used in conjunction with cancer treatments.

Cancer Treatment Centers of America cite studies that indicate that laughter provides physical benefits, such as boosting the immune system, enhancing oxygenation to the heart and lungs, relaxing muscles, releasing endorphins that subdue pain, improving blood pressure, stimulating cognitive functions, and soothing stomach irritation. Laughter yoga, much like laughter therapy, is touted as an antidote to chronic conditions such as depression, high blood pressure, and even asthma. However, laughter is not just a cure for those who are ill. Research is proving the physical and psychological benefits that laughter provides, and it also has positive implications for education.

MedicineIn her book, Mind, Brain, and Education Science, professor and educational researcher Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa suggests that laughter enhances our learning experiences:

Laughter triggers the release of endorphins and enhances oxygenation in the brain, both of which aid in learning.

She cites recent studies which suggest that laughter triggers memory, helping us to better remember those experiences and ideas connected to moments in which we find ourselves chuckling. Imagine that! The more you laugh, the more likely it is that you will remember whatever is linked to that moment.

Furthermore, there are changes in hormones that occur during times of laughter. Just as we know that happiness induces the flow of dopamine, it also augments our learning. Happiness and laughter, intricately tied together, serve to enhance memory and concentration.

In Flourishing in the First Five Years, Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers stress the importance that optimism plays in the classroom. Teachers are encouraged to promote positive feelings. Laughter is clearly a positive feeling, which allows teachers to provide an invigorating learning environment. Not only do children look forward to classrooms where humor is a part of the daily routine, but they actually learn better from the positivity that laughter creates.

Teacher
Laughter is now being thought of as similar to exercise and movement within the classroom. What was once frowned upon is now recognized to be highly valuable to the learning environment. In fact, Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa names laughter as a tenet of MBE science, along with exercise and movement. Maybe there is a reason that some kids just can’t sit still in class? Perhaps their brains and bodies know just what they need to absorb more information. What about that class clown, was he on to something?

Now, the discovery of the positive effects of laughter and movement in the classroom doesn’t necessarily mean that all children who can’t sit still or all class clowns are on the right track. Every case is obviously different. However, it does give us better insight into the “whys” of what occurs when students laugh and fidget in the classroom. It also enables educators to work to create the best learning environment possible for their students.

Practical Implications

What are the practical ramifications of such studies on laughter? How can educators, and parents alike, make the most of this research? We learn that every tiny detail and experience inside (and outside) of the classroom and home makes a difference. As neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer says:

The brain is always learning–as it cannot function any other way.

A person’s brain functions best based on ideal timing and conditions, which help us to make the most of our learning. Understanding how the brain works allows us to create environments that are stimulating for our children. Researchers are not suggesting that teachers drop lesson plans in favor of comedy skits. However, creating a relaxed environment, sprinkled with laughter, can actually cause students to not only enjoy coming to class, but to retain what teachers work so hard to instill.

Brain

Perhaps teaching methods should incorporate humor. Perhaps teachers should welcome humorous comments (albeit appropriate and relevant to the discussion) from students. Perhaps a relaxing educational environment will allow humor to flourish. Not only that, but maybe, teachers should consider making time for laughter in their teaching schedules. For example, it might be pertinent to start classes off with a funny anecdote. Or, maybe, giving students a “laughing” transition between one topic and the next can be a perfect place for that pithy anecdote. Teachers can block out three minutes of time where they share a funny article, illustration, etc. As research suggests, those three minutes of “laughter time” can actually increase what students retain from lessons. Educators should also be cognizant of highly stressful times for students, such as before an exam, and use humor to reduce the anxiety of the situation. This will allow students to retain more of what is going in the lesson and participate in the here and now.

Tips for Integrating Humor in the Classroom

The National Education Association (NEA) advocates using humor in classrooms. They suggest using “games, parody, or comical voices (or wigs or hats)” to bring meaning and freshness to content. Some teachers use humor as part of their lesson plans, bringing in funny examples of their subject matter. English teacher Tracee O. made a Pinterest board of real-life examples of funny grammatical errors to teach her lessons. Other teachers relate how they intersperse comical facial expressions, voices, or stories into their teaching day.

Rutgers Professor of Psychology, Maurice Elias, author of “Using Humor in the Classroom” also gives examples of how to apply the humorous approach. He suggests creating bulletin boards for funny quotes and illustrations shared by teacher and students, placing humorous items on exams and assignments, encouraging students to bring in jokes for transition periods, and asking students to discuss some of their favorite comedic books.

Kids

Nevertheless, the American Psychological Association (APA) cautions against overdoing laughter to the point that students are distracted from the purpose of the lesson. Instead, when humor is applied correctly and in the appropriate times and amounts, it can stimulate interest in subject matter outside of the classroom. Students may actually seek out “homework” for themselves, because teachers have generated interest in a particular topic. Dr. Ron Berk, author and educator, uses musical skits to teach his biostatistics course. The result is that more students leave exhilarated with the (all too often boring) subject-matter and prepared to apply it in real life.

Teachers should also to remember to be careful in how humor is applied in the classroom. Chad Donohue calls our attention to making sure humor is always used in a respectful manner. He makes the point of telling fellow educators never to use laughter to single out or belittle a student. While this should go without saying, it is important that the sensitivities of all students are understood and that humor is used appropriately. Donahue chooses to create a relaxed atmosphere in his classroom, where students feel at ease, and he uses humor to do this:

In more than 20 years of teaching students ranging from as young as 12 to as old as 70, I have found one thing to be verifiably true: Humor positively impacts the learning environment.

Returning to your school days and that favorite teacher of yours…The APA proposes that it was, indeed, most likely the funny one: “Research suggests that students rate professors who make learning fun significantly higher than others.”

Humorous teachers have mastered the art of making learning fun. More importantly, when humor is applied correctly, humorous teachers can come to master the art of making learning memorable and significant.

Teaching a Child How to Perform the Heimlich Maneuver

 

Heimlich Heroes teaches kids how to perform the Heimlich Maneuver and other life-saving methods.
Heimlich Heroes teaches kids how to perform the Heimlich Maneuver and other life-saving methods.

It’s not unusual to hear about a child who performs the Heimlich Maneuver on another classmate and saves a life. Nevertheless, the occurrence of it never ceases to amaze and astonish adults. How did that child know how to perform the Heimlich Maneuver? How did the child recognize the signs of choking and keep his cool?

Here are some examples of some quick-thinking Heimlich Heroes:

  • A teacher, Judy Rader, popped a few almonds in her mouth between classes to get her through until lunch. When one lodged in her throat, one of her students, Sam Barrera, just 15, knew what to do. He put his arms around his teacher’s abdomen, felt for her belly button with his finger, went up two inches, clasped his hands together and pulled in and up. On his third thrust, Sam literally lifted Rader off the ground and the almond popped out.
  • At Walnut Grove Middle School in Midlothian, Texas, September 10 is “Basilio Rocha.” It’s the day when Basilio Rocha, a 13-year-old student, saved the life of a 12-year-old classmate who was choking on a muffin. Basilio had learned the Heimlich last year in his sixth-grade health class.
  • In Kersey, Colorado, 13-year old Gabe Valentine was honored at Platte Valley Middle School for administering the Heimlich maneuver to a friend. Gabe had learned the skills two years ago when he took a course for 11-13 year-olds at the North Colorado Medical Center.

Teaching a child how to perform the Heimlich Maneuver isn’t just empowering for that child. It could save a life at some point. Yes, it’s hard to imagine a small child performing the Heimlich Maneuver. It’s hard enough to think that your child might be faced with a life and death situation. But knowledge breeds confidence and by empowering your child with some first aid and life saving skills accomplishes a couple things. It encourages grit and resolve in your child. It breeds confidence and leadership. It also tells your child that you trust them enough to aid in the case of an emergency, that you think they’re grown up enough to take on some grown up responsibilities. And kids don’t just love to be given adult responsibility. They reach deep down when a grownup believes in them and performing astonishing feats.

What is the Heimlich Maneuver?

The Heimlich Maneuver is a life-saving procedure developed by Dr. Henry Heimlich. The procedure is meant to clear the airway of a choking victim by harnessing the power behind air pressure that builds up behind the diaphragm and kinetic energy. By applying quick thrusts to the upper abdomen (just above the belly button), the force of air in the lungs pushed out with a thrust can dislodge and expel an obstruction or piece of food lodged in the airway. The advantage of using the Heimlich Maneuver over a slap on the back is that the air pressure pushes the obstruction up and out of the mouth instead of further down into the airway.

Kids are just as able to learn this procedure to save a life. In fact, kids who learn the Heimlich Maneuver feel more empowered because they feel less powerless when someone is choking and can make a difference.

What does a child learn as a Heimlich Hero?

Any child taught the Heimlich Maneuver will be taught to recognize the universal signals of choking. They will learn when it’s time to act, where to stand, where to place hands, and how to administer the procedure properly. They will practice the procedure over and over until it becomes an automatic response.

 

First, they will learn how to assess if someone is choking.

If an adult is choking, they should see any of the following behaviors:

  • Coughing or gagging
  • Hands on the neck or breastbone
  • A look of panic
  • Inability to talk
  • Wheezing
  • Passing out
  • Turning blue: Cyanosis, a blue coloring to the skin usually around the face. lips, and in the fingernail beds.

In an infant or toddler is choking, a child who learns the Heimlich Maneuver should learn to recognize certain behaviors in infants not present in adults. Infants and young children don’t clutch their throats. They may cry or cough weakly and may begin to turn blue if they’re choking.

Second, they will learn how to get into position and perform abdominal thrusts (Heimlich Maneuver).

  • Stand behind the person. Wrap arms around the waist. If it’s an adult who is being rescued, it may be too difficult to tip the person forward.
  • Make a fist with one hand. Place the fist two inches above the belly button.
  • Grasp the fist with the other hand. Make a quick jerking movement backwards toward the person’s belly. The movement should be in and slightly upwards.
  • Perform a total of 5 abdominal thrusts. If the obstruction doesn’t pop out the first time, repeat the thrusts five times. If the obstruction still doesn’t come out, call 9-1-1 or ask someone nearby to call for you. Then repeat the 5 abdominal thrusts.

Note: The American Heart Association does not recommend the use of back blows. Although the American Red Cross recommends them, they can do greater harm, can lodge the obstruction deeper into the airway and can cause internal injuries.

If the person becomes unconscious, perform standard CPR with chest compressions and rescue breaths.

How Does Heimlich Heroes Teach Kids About the Heimlich Maneuver?

The Heimlich Institute has developed 42-inch dolls equipped with an internal airway, lungs, and a diaphragm. Kids learn the Heimlich Maneuver by practicing real- life situations on the dolls.

Educational Television: Is SpongeBob Square Pants The Best We Can Do?

spongebob1

 

When I was little, I spent weekend mornings watching Bugs Bunny, Wylie Coyote and the Roadrunner, and the Pink Panther episodes. It was a ritual I relished; and at the time, wasn’t considered educational or hazardous. It just was something kids did on Saturday and Sunday mornings. They watched cartoons just like they played outdoors or played “Cowboys and Indians” with cap guns. No one talked about the impact of watching too much television, or the impact of television on cognitive development.

Captain Kangaroo circa 1960

And the only real educational programs at the time were Romper Room and Captain Kangaroo. Those of us raised in the 50s, 60s, and 70s watched Captain Kangaroo and fondly thought of the characters as television friends who helped us as we grew up.

With the advent of public television in the 60s and the subsequent technological revolution, and studies that focused on links between television viewing and violence acts committed by children, the subject of watching television, how much television, and the quality of television programming were highlighted. Educational television was good. Saturday morning cartoons were not so good. And parents who plopped their children in front of the television for a couple minute of parenting reprieve or as a convenient babysitter were chastised as relinquishing parental responsibility.

As an educational tool, television is considered a passive medium, one that limits the viewer’s engagement, has an addictive quality, and diminishes creativity. But there are exceptions.

With the flood of digital media, online videos, gaming, social media, and Cartoon Network, it’s hard to know what’s good and what’s not. It’s hard to sift through the abundance of literature, reviews, and parenting guidelines. And it’s hard to know precisely how much or how little time is too much television time. Can educational television be beneficial to our children? To what extent? And if so, what are some of the best educational programs? Is SpongeBob Square Pants the best we can do?

Television Guidelines

The following are some guidelines recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Children younger than 2 should not be exposed to television viewing. While television can be entertaining and mesmerizing for infants, long-term studies show that television has a negative effect on infants younger than 2.

Studies found that language skills in children exposed to television during the 0-2 year window had less interaction with parents. Less interaction means less language and conversation that impacts vocabulary and language development. Television viewing also interferes with play. Play in infants is shown to be crucial in cognitive development and emotional health. Also, television viewing at night is complicit with sleep disruptions. Poor sleep patterns in infants has been linked to mood, behavior, and learning.

For preschoolers, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than 1 to 2 hours a day of television viewing, even educational television. In this age group, television viewing can enhance social skills such as sharing, manners, diversity, and cultural awareness. But pediatricians recommend that parents monitor shows for educational value, information content, and violence. Parents should also watch television with children. Watching with your child encourages parent/child interaction. It can also be a launching point for conversations, a way for a parent to mitigate concepts that might be confusing or scary for young children. And for increased language benefit, parents should read to preschoolers, not only as a way to reinforce vocabulary used in the television shows. They should read books about themes discussed in the television shows to help young children understand the world around them.

For older children and adolescents, pediatricians caution parents to be vigilant. Television viewing should be educational, of a higher quality and screened to limit gratuitous violence, suggestive material, drug orientation, and programs that skew healthy body image. If you plan to discuss a provocative subject with your child, television programming can be a good launching point, a segue to a more serious conversation with your child.

Educational Television and Its Benefits

Educational television, unlike the mass programming available around the clock, can be a powerful educational resource. In one study, “The Recontact Study,” Daniel R. Anderson found that preschoolers who watched Sesame Street had larger vocabularies in high school compared to children who watched other programming or no television at all. The results were especially apparent in children from lower income neighborhoods. Anderson also found that these same children were better prepared for school than their peers, had higher grades in science and English, had higher total GPA, read more books, placed more value on achievement, and were rated as more creative, compared with their peers.

As preschoolers develop language skills, television can reinforce storytelling skills such as plot, sequence, character development, and theme.

What are educational television programs to consider?

Sesame Street: This program exposes kids to cultural and ethnic diversity and real-life concepts. Its focus on language skills, reading, context, conversation, and social skills has been shown, with decades of research, to improve educational outcomes for kids, especially kids from lower socioeconomic communities. And it’s adult spin on timeless favorites engages older kids and adults into the television-watching experience.

Mr. Rogers: Filmed in Pittsburgh, PA, Mr. Rogers has special meaning for many of us raised in his neighborhood. Mr. Rogers, a minister and social worker, felt it important to teach children about peaceful interactions, about acknowledging feelings and learning how to communicate them to others, about working with others, learning, and other common themes that young children might encounter. What’s special and lasting about this show is the narrative, the soothing nature of Mr. Rodgers himself, processes he feels important for young children to understand, and the importance of community and relationships. For those of us who interacted with him in Pittsburgh, he treated each of us the way he treated his television characters–with respect, kindness, and validation.

Super Why: Super Why reinforces reading, syntax, contextual clues in reading, analysis. This show also teachers basic literacy skills like alphabets and phonetics, and engages the viewers in the storyline.

WordWorld: This show takes letters and words and superimposes it on real life so that children begin to associate words with their meanings. Children learn site words through recognition and context.

Sid the Science Kid: This is science explored on a playground, early childhood level. Sid, the main character asks questions and explores subjects the way a child might.  It goes over scientific method, shows its application, and reinforces critical learning and analytical reasoning.

Reading Rainbow: Reading Rainbow brings books alive and spark an interest in reading. Narrated by Lavar Burton, it also draws in curiosity from those of us who knew Lavar Burton as Geordie in Star Trek: The Next Generation and want to see him again. The show engages young readers but explores story themes more in-depth. For example, some books discussed discuss slavery and its relationship to U.S. history, the intersection of people of different cultures living and interacting in an urban setting, moving away and the feelings young children go through, anger and methods to cope, and so on.

New Electric Company (Kindergarten age): Based on the 1970s version of PBS’ The Electric Company, this show continues to teach phonics, grammar, and spelling. It creates skits with lively narratives and engages kids with humor and silliness.

Between the Lions: A play on words (Between the lines), this show covers early literacy skills, reading, but teaches analytical skills. How to figure out words in context? How to glean the meaning of a reading passage? What is the plot?

Magic School Bus A narrative-based show, this show explains processes and the workings of the world kids are most tuned into. It also takes kids into the fray, allows them to imagine what it might be like to be intricately involved in a process and that engages the imagination and creativity of a child.

Cyberchase Cyberchase blends adventure and learning, with the characters finding out things about real-life skills (like map reading) as they work to protect the land of “Cyberspace.” Because it deals with computers and digital media, it has particular relevance in today’s world.

Nova: For older school-aged children and adolescents, Nova covers topics that span science, culture, history, music, and many subjects kids might be interested in but on a more complex level. Most topics covered by Nova are set up with a narrative and chronology that helps viewers see a process in its entirety.

Homeschooling Parents: What You Should Know About the GED Exam

Earning a high school diploma from an accredited institution means that one has achieved a certain level of proficiency in high school coursework. It’s the minimum credential employers look for and an educational requirement for college entrance. Homeschooled children don’t necessarily have the backing of an accredited institution; and while most have diplomas, they’re usually endorsed by their parents.

In the past, homeschooled children took the GED Exam to prove to employers and colleges that they had achieved a basic level of proficiency. But the trend requiring the GED has shifted. Homeschoolers no longer need it. In addition, modifications to the GED itself is making it, as a standard, increasingly obsolete; and some states are looking at alternatives to replace the GED.

History of the GED

Developed during World War II, the GED exam (general education development) was a way the military could provide a credential for servicemen who were deployed into combat before high school graduation. Successful passing of the GED exam provided servicemen with a certificate that could be used as proof of high school equivalency in the civilian workforce. For servicemen applying to college after combat, it was as acceptable as a high school diploma and had universal acceptance in all 50 U.S. states and in Canada. For adults who couldn’t afford to take four years to finish high school, it was a cheaper, faster alternative.

Unfortunately, there were issues with the GED. It carried a stigma. Those who took it were compared to high school “drop-outs.” And study after study showed that passing the GED wasn’t the same as four-years of learning. Learning outcomes were better for those who invested the four years of learning and studying for the GED simply wasn’t equivalent. (Cameron & Heckman, 1993; Tyler, 2003).

In 2011, the GED went through a major overhaul. Under fire for not being in compliance with common core standards, the American Council of Education (ACE) entered into a partnership with Pearson Learning. Pearson, the sole GED test designer, has brought the test up to common core standards that is supposed to assure colleges, universities, and prospective employers that adults with the GED are able to complete and succeed in a more “global economy.” Unfortunately, the change has made a much more expensive test that is more difficult to pass. While the cost for the old GED test was $30, the new one designed by Pearson Learning is $120 (prices vary by state and may include fees) and requires customized materials for purchase that teach potential test-takers needs in order to pass the test.

According to data collected through the GED Testing Service, the new test is problematic. The pass rate has been abysmal.

“There was a drop this year of almost 90 percent in the number of people who earned a GED across the country this year. In 2012, 401,388 people passed, and 540,000 passed in 2013. Only about 55,000 passed this year.”

The numbers are similar throughout the country. In Georgia, as of Nov. 31, Online Athens reported, “5,340 people had completed the test and 2,270 had passed, a 51 percent pass rate. For the 2013 calendar year, 28,732 people completed the previous test and 22,178 passed, or about 77 percent.”These figures should be concerning to you if you’re a homeschooling parent. and the steep costs mean that most who take it will have to shell out hundreds of dollars to pass. Some states, as a reaction, are reevaluating the credibility of the GED and the feasibility of replacing it with alternative tests.
This change just reinforces reasons why homeschooling parents don’t want their children to take the GED. Why take an exam that a) doesn’t measure the potential learning, b) has a high fail rate, and c) is exorbitantly expensive.

Homeschooled Children Are Not Drop-Outs

While not the rule, generally speaking, homeschooled children tend to outperform their peers who attend traditional school programs. In one study, 16,000 homeschooled subjects were analyzed in reading, language, and math. The “mean in reading for homeschoolers was at the 79th percentile; for language and math, the 73rd percentile. Iin addition, nearly 80% of homeschooled children achieved individual scores above the national average and 54.7% of the 16,000 homeschoolers achieved individual scores in the top quarter of the population, more than double the number of conventional school students who score in the top quarter.”

How Can Homeschooled Children Prove High School Proficiency?

High School Diploma: While not endorsed by an accredited institution, homeschooling parents can purchase diplomas and endorse them themselves. With accompanying transcripts, the diploma should be accepted by employers and college admissions. If not accepted by college admissions, homeschooling parents can get help, legal if necessary, through the Home School Legal Defense Association. An advocacy group for home schooling parents, it has created legislation that protects the rights of homeschooling parents to educate their children at home. It also negotiates guidelines by which homeschooled children can access secondary education.

Homeschooled children who apply to college should indicate that they’re homeschooled. Why? Since most colleges receive some kind of federal funding and many students need FAFSA, a federal source of financial aid, a student must show proof of high school proficiency. Even without a high school diploma from an accredited institution, homeschooled students are eligible for financial aid on a federal level.

Alternative Tests of Proficiency: Since the roll-out of the new and intensely difficult GED, a few states have begun adopting alternative testing for students who don’t want to take the GED.  One exam, HiSET is the high school equivalency exam offered by ETS. The tests costs $50 and covers five subjects: reading and language arts, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies. Like the GED, HiSET is computer-based, modular (can be taken in parts or in total). Another type of standardized test is called TASC. Developed by CTB/McGraw-Hill, an educational publisher, the test also covers five subjects and costs a mere $52. Not nearly as difficult as the GED, it was designed as a transitional test to help students who didn’t learn concepts under a common core curriculum develop those skills.

If homeschooling parents want to register their children for the alternative tests, they should check with State guidelines and standards. Most but not all states recognize the alternative tests.

In cases where colleges ask for something more than a parent-endorsed high school diploma, Home School Legal Defense can advocate and if a homeschooling parent ends up in court, the advocate claims it will provide full representation to members.

Parenting, the Holidays, and Teaching Your Kids About Frugality

 

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It’s the end of another calendar year; and as we approach the New Year, many of you will be moaning over depleted bank accounts and higher credit balances. Some of you will make resolutions to reign in that spending. Others will feel shame, guilt, a need to self-flagellate, to punish or torture themselves as penitence for out-of-control spending. And if you’re parents to once-bundles-of-joy-who-demand-expensive-gifts-but-get-bored-with-them-after-a-week, you might threaten retribution. “Because you don’t appreciate what I gave you, I’m giving you underwear and socks for the next three birthdays.”

There are alternatives. You don’t have to make New Year’s Resolutions to reign in out-of-control spending. You don’t have to inflict self-harm to punish yourself. You don’t have to threaten your children with utilitarian gifts. You can change the course you’re taking.

By tracking the little expenditures, you can cut your spending.

You can teach your children frugality. You can give your children a lifetime lesson they can implement during good times, and bad.

I’m not suggesting that you should teach your children to reuse tea bags, that you should raise hens in your backyard, or dumpster dive for precious morsels. No. I’m suggesting that you should teach your children that spending money is about making choices, about creativity, about self-control. It’s about making a change in a mindset, about documenting expenditures, and realizing that little things do add up. Those flavored lattes at $4.00/cup, those breakfast sandwiches on the go, those quick stops for prepared dinner food at the market all add up to a lot of money. And that money you casually blow could be saved for a family vacation, to buy something special, memorable, something the entire family can benefit from. It can also be used to pay off debt, your car and mortgage, college tuition, or any other serious expenses that arise. And major expenses do arise.

I first became aware of frugality in my 20s and 30s. I was working for a company that paid its employees once a month. That one paycheck had to last an entire month. We had little kids. We had to pay utilities, rent, car payments, and food from that once-a-month paycheck. So I joined a food coop, one where I could purchase bulk products. I shopped at supermarkets that carried bulk and set a grocery budget. And I shopped for clothing at consignment and thrift stores. I wasn’t a die-hard tightwad. But I noticed that not spending money on fast food and not running to the supermarket for one missing item and coming home with three grocery bags did add up.

Then I subscribed to a handy little newsletter called The Tightwad Gazette. Published by Amy Dacyzyn, a military wife and mother to six children, The Tightwad Gazette, a compilation in book form, created a cult following. Dacyzyn insisted that by documenting expenditures, by consciously journaling (yes like a food journal) where money was spent, one would cut back and save. She was living proof. She had a debt-free life, a Maine farmhouse paid in full, and she and her husband had raised six children on an annual naval salary of $29,000.

 

When my now-twenty-four-year-old daughter turned four, I decided to apply some of her principles, just to see if I could. I threw an enormous birthday party for my daughter with a $25 budget. Sure, it took some planning. I made homemade ice cream, a triple-layer chocolate birthday cake (to this day, it’s the best cake I ever made). I made prizes from the lids of orange juice cans, melted crayons, and aluminum foil. And the exhilaration that I could keep to that budget really taught me what I hadn’t been doing all along.

I don’t generally practice frugality like Amy Dacyzyn, but her suggestions are sound and the lessons she offers, that she passed down to her own children, make perfect sense and teach resiliency and creativity.  What are other lessons your children could learn from frugality?

Self Sufficiency: Not all children will appreciate this. My older sons used to complain that there was nothing in the house but bulk food that had to be cooked. As teenagers, they were hungry, always hungry. And the food they wanted to eat, they wanted it to be ready for consumption in a second–not in an hour. Some of my daughters remembered the lessons of cooking from scratch, of buying bulk supplies, of always having staples and replicated those lessons in their own homes. Some didn’t. But they did learn self-sufficiency. Two birthdays ago, my 25-year-old son decided he was going to make me a birthday cake, as a surprise. He found a recipe, enlisted his 11-year-old sister, and gathered ingredients to make the cake. After adding five pounds of flour and a dozen eggs into a mixing bowl, he paused. “Something doesn’t feel right.” When he checked the recipe, he realized he’d followed a recipe for a multi-layer wedding cake, and not for a two-layer birthday cake. Rather than throw the entire fiasco into the trash, he adjusted. The cake, a purple three layer monstrous birthday cake was much larger than he planned. It fed over twenty people, and went into the family annals of storytelling. I could not have been prouder. The cake, dense, moist, slightly sweet, and grossly misshapen was delicious and illustrated how this child had internalized self-sufficiency.

Delayed gratification: The most difficult aspect of frugality for some kids is the delayed gratification. For one of my children, waiting for a special pair of leggings or boots from her favorite store is agonizing. The store in question gives out special dollars that are good only during certain dates. During the waiting period, I try to influence this child with shopper’s sense. I tell her that shopping before Christmas is crazy; the only time to purchase anything of value is after New Year’s when merchants are clearing out inventory. It’s when some stores slash prices by 75 percent. That’s when I buy most of the kids’ clothing, shoes, major appliances, gift wrap or anything else I might use in the coming year. It’s hard for me too. I have to plan, to resist impulse shopping like my daughter. But gradually, ever so gradually, she’s picking up the habits. When January approaches, she looks for store circulars, looks for the best buys on items she’s waited patiently for. And when I’m certain the prices on her favorite leggings couldn’t possibly drop any further, we buy them.

But there’s a more important lesson in teaching children delayed gratification. According to Stephen Wallace,  an associate research professor and director of the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE) at Susquehanna University, “learning self-control, even over other [urges] is an important part of psycho-social development. It teaches young people how to delay gratification and certainly not to seek it at the expense of someone else’s physical, emotional, or social well-being.” As children grow into adults, there will be less parental supervision. And children turned adults will find themselves in situations with greater temptation and greater risk. Not exerting delayed gratification can lead to some pretty serious ramifications such as drug abuse, alcoholism, and unwanted pregnancy. By teaching your children lessons of delayed gratification, you are providing them with practice for life’s temptations during the adolescent and early adult years.

Setting and maintaining a budget: This is a hard one. My eight year old still doesn’t get that money isn’t always available if I stick my ATM card into the bank machine. He doesn’t understand that the dollar bills that shoot out of the machine are finite. What comes out must go in and once the money’s gone, it’s gone. Teaching children how to budget is a valuable life skill. Learning how to budget is learning how to live within boundaries. There are just boundaries in life we have to live within. It is our fiscal responsibility to live within our means, to not spend more than we make. With credit cards, it’s easy to fool ourselves that spending is limitless.

The simplest way to show a child a budget is two-fold. Give him a weekly allowance and discuss how much he has to spend. With paper and pencil, write down the weekly allowance, what items your child wants to buy, and show him how quickly the money goes and where it goes. Amy Dacyzyn encourages this method. If we keep a spending journal, if we write down where we spend every penny, then we’ll get a sense of spending habits, how much we actually spend, and where the money goes. It’s an essential lesson to pass on to our children.

Fiscal responsibility: Fiscal responsibility means that we take responsibility for financial obligations we have. We have to pay rent/mortgage, our phone bill, for water, electricity, and heat, for groceries, for clothing, and many other essentials. This is a life skill that many adults never master. Most importantly, we don’t write checks from an empty bank account.

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Many of the above lessons seem grown up and some are just dry and boring for kids to retain. We don’t need our kids to cost-compare health insurance or cell phone plans. We do need to motivate them that frugality is a good thing, a life skill that providers freedom. So what are ways we can teach our kids about frugality without making it painful and boring?

Make it a game: Dacyzyn said that frugality became a game. She knew it was possible to buy essentials at the store. But how much fun would it be to get it for little to no money at all. By making it a game for her kids, by teaching them to look for deals as though it was all part of a scavenger hunt, she taught them to see frugality as a creative alternative, a game rather than a chore.

Set a goal: For all those little items you convince your child to do without, set a goal (with your child’s input) for something big to save for. For example, a trip to the beach could be the result of ten dinners at a restaurant. That xBox that costs hundreds of dollars–that could go toward the ultimate goal.

Give an allowance: If your child doesn’t have an allowance, give her one. Not only will you suddenly become a generous parent. Unbeknownst to your daughter, you will be teaching her how to budget without her permission. How evil!

Cost comparisons: After Christmas, look for free fliers from local stores. Stores routinely advertise store specials and while many specials seem similar in cost, there are always anomalies. Fliers are great ways to show your child cost comparisons between stores, between brands, and between items.

Flea market shopping: I have always loved flea markets and garage sales. This is where bargains on clothing and home furnishings can always be found. I purchased towels, sheet sets, clothing, chairs, paintings, and many other homegood items this way. Flea markets, while not always cheap, are fun and cheap activities for kids. My kids love some of the sidewalk sales in Manhattan, the closest city to my home. Items are never cheap but they’re carried by artisans, jewelers, potters, and designers. Sometimes the vendors, at the end of a flea market, will slash prices to move inventory.

Coupon cutting: This is a game for my kids. Whatever store we shop in, my kids search the aisles for coupons. Then we compare the coupons to store circulars. Sometimes it’s a game how quickly we can save $20 for a routine shopping trip. While coupon cutting used to be a fun Sunday pastime when I was a kid and the Sunday paper always had the coupons and fliers, there are coupon-cutting services that offer coupons for pennies and do the cutting for you. My kids do like shopping for coupons on the internet.

Frugality as a life lesson is actually a gift you can give your children. By teaching them how to live debt-free, how to delay gratification, how to navigate when money is low and save when money is plentiful, you are better-preparing them for the real world. And you are them lessons that extend well beyond the pocketbook.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Ways You Can Teach Your Child Social Injustice

Despite the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the Feminist Movement, school desegregation, the nomination of a black president, and countless legislation aimed at protecting minorities and women in the workplace, school, and in the political process, social injustice runs rampant.

A consequence of social injustice is evident in statistics.

  • The World Health Organization reports (11/2014) reported that 35% of women worldwide have experienced violence at the hands of an intimate partner or at the hands of a non-partner over the course of their lifetime. In addition, 30% of women who have been in a relationship report they’ve experienced some form of violence. And sadly, as many as 38% of murders committed against women globally are at the hands of a partner.
  • In 2013, the Pew Research Center reported that 58% of blacks reported feeling discrimination in at least four community institutions (based on the following institutions–the police, the court system, the workplace, stores and restaurants, public schools, the health care system and elections). On the other hand, 49% of whites did not experience the same unfair treatment in any of the areas.
  • The Wall Street Journal reported on religious bias in the workplace. According to their report, the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) received 3,811 religion-based complaints in fiscal 2012, the second-highest level ever and just below the record 4,151 in 2011.

Why do we continue to see social injustice manifesting as gender violence, homophobia, imbalanced due process in the judicial system, racial profiling, hate crimes, and antisemitism? Because beneath it all, we as human beings haven’t really changed? Our inherent value systems haven’t changed that much and we still use race, ethnicity, religion, and other biases to feel better about ourselves and to position ourselves in crumbling power structures.

To turn a blind eye, for lack of a better analogy, is to wait for a moving train. If you’ve never experienced social injustice, it’s only a matter of time. Social injustice is an attack on social justice and it affects all of us.

So how do we change those inherent value systems, the values we’re born and raised by, the unspoken values passed down from one generation to the next, the values that are culturally and historically entrenched?

One way is to empower our own children, to teach and guide them in a way that changes attitudes and their inherent value systems. We need to encourage our children to address social injustice with others.

The following are three ways children can be taught social injustice.

Through experience and discussion: In 1968, one day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jane Elliot, an Iowa schoolteacher decided to conduct an experiment to teach diversity, social injustice, and tolerance. In the experiment, she divided her third-grade class along lines of eye color. On day 1, blue eyes were superior; on day 2, it switched. Brown eyes were superior. Her experiment, better known as “A Class Divided,” has been reproduced in other schools and was made into a documentary for PBS.

Children can also be taught through encouragement and example.  Malala, just 17 when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, fought for the right of girls to receive an education. As a child, Malala’s father, headmaster of a school had encouraged her to learn. At 11, against orders of the Taliban, she hid her school books under her clothing and snuck off to school. And when the Taliban gunned her down with a handful of friends, she chose to address the social injustice by fighting for education for girls. Thanks to her family’s encouragement, she has become a symbol for girls worldwide.

By showing them through representation: In Whitwell, TN, there are no Jews. After hearing a Holocaust survivor speak at a teacher training conference, David Smith, and other teachers created the Whitwell Middle School Holocaust Project, a curriculum about issues of hate and intolerance. The project expanded to the creation of a Holocaust memorial, and became the subject of a documentary film, “Paper Clips,” and a book, “Six Million Paper Clips: The Making Of A Children’s Holocaust Memorial.”
If we teach our children how to effect social justice, to confront social injustice, they in turn can teach us. Children are blessed with the optimism, the creativity, the hope that adults sometimes forget how to access.

The Montessori Method: Why Isn’t It Adopted by the Public School System?

No doubt, if you’ve been in the parenting business, you’ve heard about different educational models. Some have greater appeal than others. Some lasted longer than others. The “Look-Say” reading method lasted a good thirty years. The Whole Language Method started off like a race horse in the early 1990s then seemed to fall behind the Phonics Method. New Math and the Open Classroom were short-lived. It’s hard to find an educational method that has lasting appeal.

That’s what I think is unusual about the Montessori Method. Despite being over a hundred years old, it still remains a progressive method in education. And even when it’s not used in its totality, aspects of it are used in conjunction with others methods–in the traditional classroom, in the flipped classroom, and in tutoring centers such as Sylvan and Huntington Learning Centers. Some public and charter school have adopted its principles. And it seems to maintain a widespread international appeal.

To date, there are more than 4,000 certified Montessori schools in the United States and more than 7,000 worldwide.

Despite criticisms, studies have proven that the Montessori Method improves learning outcomes and social and emotional development.

And get this. Some of the most innovative thinkers in business and entertainment including Google’s founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia, Julia Child, and rapper Sean “P.Diddy” Combs started their early years in a Montessori school.

In a 2006 paper published in Science Magazine, Angeline Lillard and Nicole Else-Quest made this conclusion after studying students in an urban section of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Via lottery system, students participating in the study were divided into two groups: experimental and control. Students in the experimental group were enrolled in a Montessori school; those in the control group attended a public school in the same area.

At the end of two developmental levels (ages 3-6 and ages 7-12), children were tested using the Woodcock-Johnson test, an assessment test that measures cognitive, academic, social, and behavioral skills. Researchers found “… significant advantages for the Montessori students in these tests for both age groups…”

According to the report, “Montessori students [particularly those in the 5-year-old range] proved to be significantly better prepared for elementary school in reading and math skills than the non-Montessori children. They also tested better on “executive function,” and their ability to adapt to changing and more complex problems.” On the social and behavioral tests, researchers found that Montessori students were more likely to engage in “emotionally positive play” with peers of same and different age groups, were less hostile, and exhibited a “greater sense of justice and fairness.”

In the older group (tested at age 12), the Montessori children wrote essays that demonstrated greater creativity and complexity. Like their younger counterparts, the 12-year-old Montessori students had a greater sense of community, felt a need to help others, and tackled unpleasant social situations with more positive methods.

Based on these significant results, why is the Montessori Method not being used as a standard in the U.S. public school system? In the face of falling test scores, the Common Core Standards nightmare, and ever-changing rating standards for teachers, why is the Montessori Method not being considered as a legitimate model?

Well, it is. There are just issues.

The current educational system is too entrenched. The Montessori Method is structurally different from a traditional classroom. In a Montessori school, teachers become the architects and facilitators of each student’s learning program. The teacher evaluates each student, designs an individualized educational plan, and creates learning materials and work specific to each student. There are no tests or assessments. Learning is hands-on, active, and independent. And a student’s success is based on mastery. A student moves on to new material/concepts only when he can master the one he’s working on.

Marie Montessori believed that each child had an innate curiosity that could be unlocked with the right tools and environment.
Marie Montessori believed that each child had an innate curiosity that could be unlocked with the right tools and environment.

In the current public school system, a teacher lectures, students passively listen, take notes, and active, independent learning frequently occurs at home, usually while the student is completing mounds of homework. Learning outcomes are measured by assessment tests. In fact, much of the teacher’s role, because a child’s success is attributed to test cores, is to teach for testing. For example, in New York State, all students must pass Regents. High school graduates must earn a Regents Diploma. Preparing for the Regents requires time–lots of it. In early Spring, the curriculum shifts to Regents Preparation and students are drilled, given problem sets, practice tests, and problem-solving tips. They’re even taught how to master a timed test.

It’s not a great system. Learning is not active, child centered, and the critical skills needed for problem solving and metacognition, for life beyond school, aren’t developed.

To switch to the Montessori Method in the public schools would require a massive overhaul of the current system, an entrenched system. As a teacher who no longer teaches in the classroom, I don’t see it happening anytime soon.

The Montessori Method is expensive. To be certified as a Montessori program, a school must create physical space that complies with the guidelines. The school must also invest in materials needed to outfit classrooms. Montessori certified teachers require two licenses: one through the State and one through Montessori associations that offer certification and licensing. In some cases, experienced teachers must relearn educational methods to adapt to the Montessori Method.

For some school districts the expense isn’t the issue. According to Jane Carol Manner, Associate Professor of Education, East Carolina University, some districts might be willing to absorb the expense that comes with Montessori certification. They do however want some guarantee that the method will produce results (aka learning outcomes via test scores). Because the Montessori Method doesn’t subscribe to testing, there are no guarantees.

There is a conflict between the Montessori Method and current No Child Left Behind objectives. The current thought behind the No Child Left Behind legislation is that every child should have the same learning outcomes and schools should follow standards, Common Core Standards. To be Public and Montessori, a school must implement testing, which of course runs counter to Montessori guidelines. How can a Montessori public school hope to achieve similar results as a private Montessori schools, if the curriculum changes to accommodate testing? Additionally, Manner raises another real concern. The teach to test method gives students in the public school system ample practice test-taking time. How can a Montessori student, without that test-taking practice, demonstrate the same results?

Children learn in mixed-age classrooms.
Children learn in mixed-age classrooms.

Students entrenched in a traditional classroom method might have difficulty switching to the Montessori Method. Typically, Montessori schools don’t admit older students who haven’t been trained in the Montessori Method. The entire idea of child-centered learning, working alone, working in a mixed-age class, and mentoring other students is foreign to the public school system. If implemented, older students might not adjust well to independent learning and might be a transitional period where they learn how it’s done. In addition, the Montessori Method pairs students in a class based on developmental levels, not age. This could be hard for an students suddenly thrown into a class with younger classmates.

It’s clear, before the Montessori Method is applied, there must be a transitional period where parts of the philosophy are overlapped with current practices. A shift from a traditional classroom to a Montessori classroom must evolve in a natural way. A flipped classroom might just be an effective part of that transition.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the MOOC and its use in a flipped classroom. In the flipped classroom, schools that were able to adopt it realized higher learning outcomes. In a flipped classroom, a teacher assigns short videos and online assignments either through distance learning or a MOOC. Students watch videos, complete short assignments, and learn foundational concepts at home. Class time then becomes a space for homework, problem solving, collaboration, and critical thinking. And instead of being a lecturer, the teacher becomes a facilitator.

In a school system where learning outcomes are low, high school drop-out rates continue to rise, and students aren’t getting the intellectual, social, and emotional skills they need to functional well in the adult world, a transitional model that eventually shifts the public schools from a traditional classroom to a Montessori classroom might be an effective way to transition administrators, teachers, and students to a more effective educational system.

Evaluating Montessori Education. Angeline Lillard and Nicole Else-Quest. Science 29 September 2006: 18931894.

Parenting and B.F. Skinner: It All Boils Down to Operant Conditioning

Do you remember the Youtube video that went viral about the three dogs that learned how to drive a Mini-Cooper? In case you don’t, I’ve included the clip to remind and entertain you.

In the video, three dogs rescued by the SPCA in New Zealand are trained by professional animal trainers to drive a mini-Cooper. Through months of painstaking training, the dogs are taught simple behaviors that when fit together will create a series of behaviors needed to drive a car. By the end of the training period, the dogs were able to climb into the driver’s seat, start the ignition, put the car into gear, accelerate, and navigate the car around a track.

It’s a masterpiece in operant conditioning and illustrates how a well-designed behavioral modification plan can reinforce desirable behaviors and eliminate less desirable ones.

Operant condition? Dog training? What does all of this have to do with parenting?

Parenting children, raising them to be fine, upstanding, stand-on-your-own-two-feet adults who make us proud requires training. As we mold our children’s behavior, we aren’t simply teaching them how to eat, maintain personal hygiene, how to become good students, or even the careers they pursue, we are molding their value systems. And all of this behavioral molding depends on operant conditioning, a system of operant and reinforcement first proposed by B.F. Skinner, a behaviorist and the Father of Operant Conditioning.

Who is B.F. Skinner? Think back, way back to your freshman year in college, Psychology 101. Remember the name? How about classical conditioning, the Skinner Box, lever-pressing rats, or pigeons that could read?

In 1948, B.F. Skinner conducted experiments with rats and pigeons to show that behavior could be changed or shaped through reinforcement. In one experiment, he placed a hungry rat in the skinner box, a box with a feed cup and a lever. Initially, the rat was rewarded with food if he approached the lever and touched the lever. Over time, the rat learned that touching and ultimately pressing the lever rewarded him with food. Desirable behavior was reinforced by food and the rat pressed the lever with increasing frequency. More interesting though, behaviors that offered no reward diminished.

Skinner also suggested that free will in humans really wasn’t random. It was also based on a series of reinforcements and that human beings tend to behave in ways that offer reward or that avoid punishment.

Here’s an example. You’ve joined a playgroup and for months, you’ve had positive feelings toward the other mothers, the social interactions you’re child is getting by playing with other toddlers, and the commaradarie you feel to those other mothers. Then one day, you make an innocent comment to a mother whose child has a cold. “Have you ever thought of using some of those natural treatments like Echinacea?” Instead of a balanced response, the mother screams at you and informs you that a) she doesn’t need another adult telling her how to raise her child, and b) there is no supporting evidence that those natural herbal treatments work one bit.

Your initial reaction is one of shock. Then, the effect of this negative interaction slowly begins to modify your behavior. You begin to feel negatively about the playgroup and look for other playgroups. You think about taking a mommy and me class offered at the same time. You avoid places where you feel you might cross paths with this mother.

Are these decisions based on free will? According to Skinner, they’re based more on operant conditioning. He believed that operant conditioning was the basis of all actions, thoughts, and learning. It was responsible for habits like smoking and alcoholism. It was responsible for our parenting styles and the life partners we choose.

Confused? Here’s another example, how you as a parent reinforce desirable behaviors.

You have a newborn and after a couple months of getting your baby on a feeding schedule, you and your child are still not sleeping. The problem? Your child doesn’t seem to know night from day. Throughout the bewitching hours (that cranky time from late afternoon and until night when babies tend to be cranky), your child is clearly tired, cries despite being fed, changed, or burped.

That was me in 1988. My now twenty four year old was a colicky, fussy infant and after too many sleepless night, my pediatrician recommended one of the most useful baby books of my parenting career. In 1985, Dr. Richard Ferber, a pediatrician and former director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital in Boston, published his landmark book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems.

The basic idea of the book is to train your child to soothe himself to sleep through operant conditioning. After a soothing, regular bedtime ritual (a bath, lullaby, or a last feeding), put your baby in bed awake, walk out, and close the door. Even if he cries, wait out short periods, five minutes or so, and then walk in. Rub your baby’s back, talk to him in a soothing tone, but don’t pick him up. Over a period of weeks, increase the “waiting” time to ten minutes, twelve minutes, fifteen minutes, etc. It’s painstaking and you might find it hard to watch the clock, but over time, you baby will learn that crying doesn’t reward him. You don’t pick him up at bed time, and he learns how to soothe himself to sleep.

While the Ferber Method, as it is called, has been the subject of criticism and has been deemed as cruel to a crying infant, it’s a perfect example of operant conditioning. If you consider Skinner’s theory when applying the Ferber Method, by not responding to your baby’s crying at bedtime, the crying, an undesirable behavior, diminishes over time and sleeping becomes the outcome.

Why is operant conditioning so important?

It’s the basis of all learning. Human beings learn by making associations, consciously or innately. Infants learn that breastfeeding provides milk and comfort. Saying “dada” makes mom and dad very happy. And in the teen years, doing homework and chores earns greater rewards and privileges.

It can be used to manage behavior. Teachers use operant conditioning methods in the classroom to manage classroom behavior and to keep students on task. It’s also a method you can consciously employ at home to encourage more constructive behaviors. Recently, my youngest found out that not brushing his tooth caused multiple cavities and a crumbling tooth. Despite our pleadings and naggings, the negative reinforcement was powerful reinforcement and helped shape new behaviors. He now flosses and brushes twice a day; and when he gets his cavities filled, his desire to avoid the pain of fillings will reinforce the benefits of tooth brushing and good personal hygiene.

Reinforcements must change with time. Based on the behavior, you need to change the reinforcement. Giving a teenager a lollypop isn’t as powerful of a reinforcement as it is to a toddler. Getting the keys to dad’s car means nothing to a five year old.

Non-adaptive behaviors don’t last. Generally speaking, human beings have an innate drive to survive. Learned behaviors that interfere with that need to survive don’t last, except in the case of addictions.  In each of us, there is a strong drive to survive. If you child is engaging in life-threatening behaviors like alcohol use or drugs, you need to aggressively take action to break that learned association and to replace the kind of reward a child gains by taking drugs. If you have a child in this situation, you should seek professional help.

While it’s easy to think that human beings operate on a more enlightened level and that the choices we make are based on free will rather than conditioned responses, B.F. Skinner would probably disagree. Though current behavioral thinking has discounted some of Skinner’s conclusions, the core of his theory, operant conditioning has stood the test of time. Human beings and animals alike learn behaviors because of a operant conditioning. As parents, becoming aware of the power of and creative uses of operant conditioning can make parenting a more thoughtful journey.