Geraldine has been depressed all year. Her parents got a divorce, she broke up with her boyfriend, and her grandmother died last summer. Her mother and father feel guilty, as they worry they have damaged their daughter permanently. Geraldine feels sad much of every day. She's lost interest in school; her grades show it. Students with anxiety or depressed feelings often lose all interest and become inhibited about performing in school, which then begins to stunt their academic and neurodevelopmental growth. Geraldine has closed her mind to new learning during a period of school in which kids ordinarily develop their ability to absorb and think about highly abstract terms such as creationism, symbolism, altruism, and imperialism. If her mind stays absent from school, this important growth spurt in higher-order thinking may fail to take place. Emotions and neurodevelopmental functions are like a two-way street: emotional problems may weaken the functions and weakened functions can cause emotional turmoil.
Arturo had been in first- and second-grade classrooms in which there were forty-two students with one teacher and only an occasional aide. His parents are utterly frustrated. His mom complained to me at a conference where I spoke, "Arturo is lost, totally lost in that school. He's the kind of kid who doesn't make trouble for anyone but you might not even notice he's around. And he'll never ask for help. He pretends he does understand when he doesn't get it half the time. But the school's so big; they don't see that he's getting nowhere. I'm so nervous about him." Arturo's reading instruction was inadequate, and he fell further and further behind in math as well. Now in sixth grade he remains seriously delayed and has lost his drive, having given up on himself. He is starting to get some individualized help, which is just beginning to make a difference in his performance and his self-esteem. Hopefully, it's not too late. The quality of a child's teaching most certainly affects his or her mind profile. In fact, recent studies using sophisticated brain scans have shown vividly that good instruction can actually result in positive changes in brain structure. It is possible to see increases in brain tissue when parts of the brain get properly stimulated after having been neglected. Also, a child's educational track record profoundly affects motivation, as kids like Arturo, who have failed over and over again in the past, may be sapped of motivation and sink even further into failure. Success, on the other hand, has a way of breeding more success.
How Lifestyles May Affect Learning Styles
Increasingly over the years, I've heard a succession of mothers, fathers, and educators grumble about contemporary children's ways of life and all the ways in which those ways of life are "dumbing them down." A middle school English teacher voiced her concerns as follows: "I feel I'm at a real disadvantage. The students I teach have spent so much of their lives on couches watching sitcoms and violent videos, all of which require negligible concentration, have only sparse details and no implications or hidden meanings in them, and resolve nearly instantaneously any conflicts in their trite plots. How can I then expect my kids to come in here and delay their gratification to wade through A Tale of Two Cities or write a creative short story of their own? So many of their brains are just plain out of shape for what I think they need to be doing, and even enjoying, in my English class." I had to agree. Rapidly paced entertainment can make school content seem like a colossal bore!
I have been finding in all my clinical work that many aspects of contemporary life can stunt the growth of key neurodevelopmental functions. First, there are the effects of all the electronic experiences children and teenagers take in and savor. Television is the most well established culprit. Aside from the violence that may model impulsive, acting-out behaviors, there is the passivity involved in watching most TV programs. Inactive information uptake while lying on your back and consuming buttery popcorn eclipses opportunities for creative thinking, brainstorming, and the development of products and hobbies -- all more active and proactive mind-strengthening activities. For the most part, television shows offer stimulation in small chunks without much call for sustained attention and deep concentration. At times I think certain television shows serve as models of attentional dysfunction for their young viewers. Canned laughter during situation comedies is a major offender in my opinion and should probably be banned as a form of intellectual child abuse! Imagine being told when something is funny -- the ultimate affront to language processing and higher thinking. Moreover, the verbal content of television tends to be woefully unsophisticated, and the stress is very much on vivid visual imagery rather than complex language use or interpretation.
Copyright © 2002 by Mel Levine
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