Schools and parents share the job of ensuring the healthy growth of vital neurodevelopmental functions. How then do we keep track of a mind's growth processes over the course of a child's school career? The answer is that caring adults need to know how these functions are supposed to be operating year by year -- just as they might be tuned in to a child's ongoing nutritional needs or rate of growth. At first glance, staying on top of the many facets of a child's mind development might appear to be a daunting, unrealistic undertaking in view of the vast constellation of important neurodevelopmental functions. But don't despair; to aid us in our surveillance mission, all of the different neurodevelopmental functions can be sorted into eight manageable categories, or neurodevelopmental systems. In my work with schools and clinicians I have called these "the neurodevelopmental constructs," but they are perhaps more helpfully thought of as the systems of a mind.
In medicine we are accustomed to thinking about overall health as the sum total of the health of various systems, such as the cardiovascular system, the nervous system, and the gastrointestinal system. Similarly, we can think about your child's learning health in terms of the well-being of the eight learning systems I am about to describe. As with the systems that operate in our bodies, the neurodevelopmental systems are dependent on one another. They have to work together if learning is to occur, just as the cardiovascular system has to team up with the pulmonary system to promote the delivery of oxygen to various parts of our bodies.
These systems are like the major characters in an unfolding drama. As we watch our kids grow and develop over their school years, we need to focus on the progress of the eight systems. At any point, the strength of functions within each system directly influences performance in and out of school. Systems change in their capacities. The functions can grow in their effectiveness. They can level off. They can deteriorate. Therefore, it is important that caring adults keep an eye on the progress in each system, promptly detecting and dealing with any important impairments or signs of delayed development.
The eight neurodevelopmental systems are depicted in Figure 2-1. Individual chapters in this book focus on each system. But first, I will provide a brief description of each.
The Attention Control System Jesse gets a traffic ticket for speeding; he's all riled up over it and defends (pardons) himself by proclaiming to his parents, "I just wasn't paying attention to the speedometer. I had other things on my mind." But Jesse often experiences such mind lapses, and has had a long-standing difficulty directing his attention. His mom once pointed out, "That's my Jesse. It's absolutely incredible how he can be doing one thing and thinking about three other things at the same time! He's concentrating on everything but what he's doing."
Attention is the administrative bureau of the brain, the headquarters for mental regulators that patrol and control learning and behavior. The attention controls direct the distribution of mental energy within our brains, so that we have the wherewithal to finish what we start and stay alert throughout the day. Other controls of attention slow down our thinking so we can plan and complete tasks competently and efficiently. An example of attention control is a child's ability to resist the temptation to think about the party she's invited to tonight so she can concentrate on the word problem her math teacher is explaining. Attention keeps your child focused while filtering out distractions. Children vary widely in how often their attention controls function effectively.
The Memory System Elsa keeps "bombing out" on tests or quizzes that force her to memorize and later answer questions that have only one correct response. She recently flunked a quiz on plant structure despite studying like a devout monk. "I thought I knew all that stuff, but it must have just leaked out of my brain while I was sleeping." Our school years involve more strenuous exercising of memory than at any other time in our lives. In fact, much more memory is needed for school success than is required in virtually any career. To varying extents, every course in school is a memory workout. And memory is downright complicated with countless little facets to go with the many different kinds of things we try to remember. Every student has memory compartments that serve him well, while other parts of memory bring on varying degrees of frustration. There are countless intellectually competent kids who unravel in school because they understand far better than they remember. Ironically, there are many students with superb rote memory who succeed with flying colors through their school years simply by regurgitating factual data. They may be far less successful during adult careers when memory plays much less of a starring role.
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