“New Year, New You” – the Nobel Way!

Don’t give up on your resolutions – Nobel can help you modify them to actually work!

New Year’s resolutions often start with the grand idea of perfecting something or making yourself perfect. We all know, though, that perfection isn’t a realistic, achievable goal, which is why many resolutions tend to be unsuccessful. Nobel Coaching & Tutoring truly knows how to help clients set goals, utilize strengths, and work to achieve success, so we’re offering some quick tips and insights on how you can get started.

  • Prioritize: Be mindful of what you actually want or need to achieve and prioritize two or three realistic and measurable goals.
  • Set short-term targets for long-term goals: Define what can be tracked in manageable, short-term periods that could help you reach a long-term goal.
  • Accountability: Use your resources to help you work on your trackable short-term goals (calendars, reminders, loved ones, personal trainers, Nobel Coaches, etc.).

So, let’s see where you should start!

Setting S.M.A.R.T. goals

Have you ever created a long list of New Year’s resolutions, adding one wish after another, full of motivation and confidence, only to give it all up as your motivation starts declining and your goals start to seem unattainable?

To prevent that from happening, each and every goal you decide on should be created based on the above catchy abbreviation, that stands for: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. [2] We’ll now go through the most popular New Year’s resolutions for 2018, see what they’re missing, and turn them into more easily achievable goals!

The three most common resolutions for this year are:

  • Eat healthier
  • Get more exercise
  • Save (more) money. [1]

But since Nobel Coaching is dedicated to students’ academic success, here we’ll add another, very common one:

  • Do better in school

Let’s start with the first thing from the S.MA.R.T. template and try to make these goals more specific.

Specifying your goal

Although “eat healthier” is a very positive goal to strive for, this definition allows for a lot of cheating! You need to define what eating healthier means for you and be as specific as possible. [2] Does it mean eating at least one vegetable a day? Does it mean no chips and soda? If you don’t define it, you could make yourself believe one vegetable and two sodas a day constitute a good diet, and once you don’t see any results, it would be easy for you to give up. But if your goal is clearly defined, you’ll be much more motivated to go on.

So, instead of making “eat healthier” your goal, let’s say “cut out chips and soda”, or “instead of sweets, eat fruit for dessert”, or “no eating after 8:00 p.m.”, or – why not all three of these combined?

Instead of  “get more exercise” (you could convince yourself that walking for just a few minutes constitutes that!), you should set a clear goal, such as “exercise three times a week at the gym” or “jog for half an hour three mornings a week”. Notice that it’s important to specify even the place or time; the more specific your goal, the easier it will be for you to make it a habit.

“Save more money” could turn into a specific monthly sum that you want to save, depending on your salary. Even if it seems like only a small amount for you, be sure to specify it! You’ll still save more money that way than if you give up after a month or two!

Finally, “do better in school” also lacks precision. So instead, you could put “go from a C to a B student”, or even better – “Go from C’s to B’s in these three courses”. Then you can choose two or three courses you’re currently having trouble with, and decide to focus on those first.

Measurable goals

You can see that most of our goals have numbers in them, which allows for them to be measurable. [2] If you only say “get more exercise”, there’s nothing to stop you from exercising only once every ten days. But if you say you’ll exercise three times a week, it will be harder for you to skip a day! In order to set goals that are even more measurable, you can separate them into short-term and long-term goals, but be patient: while you could achieve short-term goals fairly quickly, getting to the long-term goal will take more time. Make sure not to give up and not to change the long-term goal in the middle of the time-frame you’ve created!

For example, both “instead of sweets, eat fruit for dessert” and “no chips and soda” could amount to the goal of  “eating two portions of fruit and vegetables every day”, while “save more money each month” can be a stepping stone towards a specific sum you want to save altogether. When it comes to grades, your long-term goal could be a fixed GPA; getting to your B’s and A’s could be just a start towards this goal!

Attainable goals

Reading this, you might start thinking: “Jogging only three times a week? I can do much better than that!” And although one day you will be able to surpass these temporary goals, starting too big too soon more often than not results in disappointment. This will cause you to drop all your motivation and stop trying altogether, and we don’t want that! Once you’ve achieved your current goals, there’s nothing stopping you – you can set more goals and make them bigger!

But for the very beginning, they should be more easily achievable, to make sure you don’t lose your motivation and the will to achieve them. This is why we said “jog only three times a week“ instead of “jog daily”; similarly, make sure to take your financial situation into account when making plans concerning your savings. Regarding your grades, although going from C’s to A’s sounds wonderful, don’t push yourself too hard. Going up a whole grade is something to be proud of, so start with B’s first. Once you’re there, feel free to find new goals for yourself. [2]

Relevant goals

Although we want you to succeed, we don’t want you to put as little effort into your goals as possible. Your goals should be your actual goals, and not just something made up to keep your spirits high while you’re actually not accomplishing much. For example, if you rarely eat sweets and are eating a healthy diet, putting “no more sweets” on your list means you’re crowding out other, more important goals. If you’re a student, these important, relevant goals could be “go from C to B in five of my classes” or “pass all of my tests this year with at least 80%”.

The relevance of the goals also means that your list of resolutions shouldn’t be a mile long – decide on two or three most important long-term goals and once you’ve achieved those, you can add others to the list! [2]

Time-bound goals

Now, what do we mean exactly when we talk about short-term and long-term goals? Short-term goals are simply your stepping stones towards long-term goals. Long-term goals tend to be more specific and measurable. “Going from C’s to B’s in these three courses” would be a short-term goal, while “reach a 4.5 GPA” would be a long-term one. Make sure to give your short-term goals a time limit; this makes it easier to achieve your long-term goal (which should also have a time limit!) more easily and quickly. For example, your short-term goal could be to save “this much” the first month, “this much” the next –  and so on until you reach your long-term financial goal. [2]

To make sure these goals are met, you should use all the resources available to you that could help you track and achieve your short-term goals. This applies to all the groups and individuals who could be helpful: for example, you can join a gym and find a personal trainer, team up with your friends when it comes to jogging or studying, or contact us at Nobel Coaching & Tutoring and decide on a plan together!

But as you embark on this journey, remember one more thing… Don’t tell everyone about your big resolutions! You can share them with your family and one or two close friends, but that should be it. If you go around telling everyone you plan to start jogging or studying two times a day, you’re tricking your brain into thinking you’re actually doing it. This is because the reward centers in our brains are activated by both words and actions, so your brain will essentially be rewarding you just for talking about your big decisions!

So, make S.M.A.R.T. resolutions, use all the resources at your disposal, and your motivation will be sure to stay with you all the way through!

by Jelena Jegdić

References:

  1. https://www.statista.com/chart/12386/the-most-common-new-years-resolutions-for-2018/
  2. https://www.smartsheet.com/blog/essential-guide-writing-smart-goals

Teamwork for Children with Learning Differences

The cornerstone of good teamwork is cooperation. This is a skill which requires practice to master, and some need more practice than others. The best way children can practice teamwork is through play activities, where they have the chance to learn all kinds of prosocial behaviors and social cues such as smiling, conversing, or praising. [1]

But it’s not only about learning; play is natural for every child. If they’re asked to become responsible too soon and not allowed to play enough, they’ll try to find play in places they shouldn’t – during class, for example – which can negatively affect their ability to be part of a group. [2]

Since we find that play is the best way to practice teamwork, this article will be centered around building the best possible play atmosphere for kids whose learning difficulties are directly related to attention.

Scheduled activities

While promoting natural, spontaneous play is beneficial for most children, kids with learning differences tend to work better if they have a clear schedule in front of them. This serves to essentially “wire their brains” – it’s like putting up a flashing neon billboard inside their minds, which helps them focus more easily. So instead of simply gathering them together and telling them to play, you should create activities for them and act as a guide.

It’s also beneficial to allow them to be the co-creators of the schedule. For example, you can color each activity differently and ask them which colors you should use. You can tell each child to write down the schedule and tell them to color it the way they want. This will help them focus on the task at hand and memorize future activities more clearly. [5]

Interest raises motivation

Some children have trouble maintaining their attention on the task at hand, and one of the main reasons is that they lack the motivation to finish it. [1] Quite simply, they don’t find it interesting enough, so they choose to move to a different, more interesting task, often leaving their teammates (in, say, a group practice during class) to deal with it alone; that, in turn, leads to other children starting to avoid teamwork with them.

To help them with this during play, you can organize them into groups based on their interests. For example, you might ask each child what they want to be when they grow up. All those who choose the same profession can be put in a group together. Next, you can give them some questions to answer or tasks to complete based on this profession – that way, they’re more likely to remain motivated to persevere rather than switching to something else, all while practicing teamwork.

Verbalizing social cues

Another challenge some kids might face is difficulty recognizing others’ feelings and thoughts. This can lead to misunderstandings, with other children viewing them as insensitive, not understanding their issues. To help solve this the best way possible, create games requiring acting or imitation.[1] Charades would be a good example for this. It gives kids the chance to practice recognizing cues their teammates are giving them. Some themes you can create here are “emotions”, “chores”, “school activities”, etc. They can also imitate their own classmates – that way, they become familiar with how others act and what they mean by it. This also necessitates your instructions for a game be as clear and specific as possible – understanding you correctly means kids will be more likely to proceed with undivided attention.

Another way to help them is to encourage the other children to verbalize their feelings more. This is actually a good practice for every child.  Kids with learning differences want to play just as much as any child does, but if they keep feeling as though they’re doing something wrong without really understanding what that is, they’ll eventually choose to play on their own instead. That’s why other kids telling them things like “It makes me sad and angry when you take my ball because you want to play something else” can be beneficial – they’ll learn that everyone makes mistakes, but that some mistakes can be fixed; they can learn to talk to other children, understand their feelings, and practice choosing group activities together.   

The importance of friendship

As a general rule of life, having a friend or a sibling who’s there to support us helps us overcome our problems with more strength and self-confidence. So if you make sure the child who needs some extra help has a peer alongside them who understands the way they think and act, it will make their teamwork much easier; their friend can give them important cues, teach them what is expected of them, and develop their prosocial skills. [1]

Being a peer team coach can be a challenging task – sometimes it can take a lot of time and practice for their peers to be able to understand and help these children. And be careful not to put two children with learning differences in the same group, or you’re risking them just playing with each other and not the others, which, in the long run, doesn’t do much good for them.

That being said, children with learning differences should ideally start learning about teamwork in smaller groups, or even in pairs. Anything more than three people can frighten them and make them feel insecure, leading them to act out. [3]

Rewarding prosocial behavior

Any behavior that shows signs of cooperation should be rewarded; this way, children are more likely to continue doing what is expected of them in a group environment. [1] The Reward can be as simple as praise – “good job!”. This makes a huge difference in their lives, as they become aware they’re doing something right, which gives them the motivation to continue doing so. [5] Praise can come from you as well as their peers. You can ask each group to say one good thing about each of their playmates – what they like about them, if they think they’re especially good at something… This also strengthens the bonds of their newly-formed group and allows them to interact more easily.

Green spaces

Another thing to consider is the setting in which teamwork takes place. For children with learning differences, green spaces can be much more beneficial than any others. So if you can, choose a park for teamwork practices, or a backyard – any place that offers enough nature. If outside teamwork is impossible for some reason, then try to find a room with a green view. [4]

Green spaces are highly beneficial when it comes to our ability to focus. Our attention span isn’t infinite – once we reach our limit, it drops off. However, we can restore it by going to sleep or by practicing gently absorbing activities that draw on what is called involuntary attention. This type of attention is effortless and allows the brain to relax and, in a way, reboot. For example, listening to light music while working could be an example of a gently absorbing activity, as long as you are aware of the music, but not actually focused on it. Another thing that works as an outlet for involuntary attention is, again,  nature, which helps the brain focus on the task at hand.

You can also help by tailoring the environment to meet children’s needs in terms of visual and auditory stimuli.  You can turn on a song or make the room more colorful – all of these serve to increase involuntary, and, consequently, voluntary attention. [3]

Natural play

Last, but not least, children need to feel as free as possible during play. This sounds counterintuitive, given the aforementioned rules of successful play. However, a limit should be set for the amount of interference. Yes, you should step in if you notice a problem, and yes, it’s better to present them with a clear schedule, but any further interference should be brief and clear. If you notice some of the kids are isolating themselves or not respecting teamwork, you can take them aside for just a moment, explain what should be done differently, and allow them to continue playing, instead of punishing them by, say, having them wait until the next game. This way, they’ll see the immediate continuation of play as a reward for understanding you, and it will help them act better in the same situation next time. [2]

In conclusion, it’s not easy to plan and organize teamwork practice for children with learning differences. It requires a lot of patience and not a small amount of creativity. Some rules need to be followed, while you try not to suffocate the kids too much. But if you use what we’ve mentioned above, they’ll be able to play more smoothly, and, eventually, they’ll internalize what you’ve been teaching them, and become able to participate in teamwork with less stress and more understanding.

One important thing to remember is – it all happens one step at a time. 

If you want your child (with learning differences or without them) to get a great teamwork practice while learning about something that interests them and developing other 21st century skills, check out our online program based on the Project Based Learning approach, Nobel Explorers.

by Jelena Jegdić

References:

  1. Cordier, R., Bundy, A., Hocking, C., & Einfeld, S. (2009) A model for play-based intervention for children with ADHD. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal (2009) 56, 332–340
  2. Panksepp, J. (2007) Can PLAY Diminish ADHD and Facilitate the Construction of the Social Brain? Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry16(2), 57–66.
  3. Sherman, J., Rasmussen, C., & Baydala, L. (2008) The impact of teacher factors on achievement and behavioural outcomes of children with Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): a review of the literature. Educational Research, 50:4, 347-360
  4. Taylor, A., & Kuo, F. (2011) Could Exposure to Everyday Green Spaces Help Treat ADHD? Evidence from Children’s Play Settings. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 2011, 3 (3), 281–303
  5. Personal interview with a school counselor for kids with learning differences

Cultivating a Sense of Gratitude

Gratitude is the emotion we experience when we notice and appreciate gifts that have been given to us in our lives. These gifts are frequently thoughtful things others do for us, but they can really be anything that makes us stop and say, “I am so grateful for this!” You can appreciate the gifts of nature, be grateful for feeling good today, or just for being alive!

But gratitude is often overlooked in the fast-paced world of today. It’s easy to get lost in the hassles of our everyday lives and never pause to look at the big picture and realize there’s a lot to be grateful for. And although gratitude is an emotion, it can, through time, grow into a positive personal ethic. If we feel gratitude as an emotion, we feel it only briefly and not necessarily often. But if we integrate it into our value system, it becomes part of us and we feel it more often and more deeply.

However, that requires persistence and hard work, but we’re here to help! Today, you’ll learn about all the positive outcomes of gratitude, as well as how you can practice it to become a happier and healthier person.

Psychological benefits

Gratitude can be beneficial for our mental health in many different ways. First and foremost, it’s a good stepping stone for combatting – and preventing – depression and anxiety. [4] People who suffer from mild depression have said that when they feel as though they’re sinking, being grateful helps them feel they can survive and swim instead.

But besides that, gratitude can simply make us feel happier, more enthusiastic, and more optimistic about our present and our future as well. [3] People who tend to focus on all the gifts they’ve been given also tend to experience negative emotions like envy, sadness, or bitterness, less than those who focus on their problems. [3] This isn’t to say all our problems should be completely overlooked and expected to solve themselves; rather, we should start by being grateful for what we still have, before proceeding to work on the issues we’re facing.

Finally, gratitude is a very adaptive feeling when it comes to facing stressful situations. People who often feel grateful say they feel calmer and less stressed when it comes to difficult situations, compared to those who don’t practice gratefulness that often.

Interpersonal benefits

As we mentioned before, gratitude is often related to other people in our lives. Although we may feel grateful for life itself, we tend to appreciate the people we have in our lives and everything they are giving us wholeheartedly – all their help, love, and care. When we feel grateful about that, we start feeling loved and cared for, which further leads to us trusting other people and wanting to preserve our existing relationships, or even build new ones. [2]

Some say that gratefulness is the core of altruism. [2] If we feel other people have been kind to us and if we appreciate it, we’re more likely to help them out when needed, even if it can sometimes come at the short-term expense of ourselves. Through gratitude, we learn to let go of our fears of being hurt or used, and we start feeling good if we help others, just as we feel good when they help us.

Physical benefits

You may have now realized that gratitude can have mental benefits, but can you believe it also helps you be physically healthier? And it’s not just self-reports, either.  If you start feeling grateful often, people close to you are bound to start noticing both mental and physical differences in you. There are cyclical physical benefits to the immune system: gratefulness helps lower stress, which lowers blood pressure, too; having more balance in your body means your immune system will be stronger and thus you’ll be getting sick less often; being sick less often decreases your psychological anxiety, which lets you sleep better. Finally, all of this helps you look better and have more energy, which is very helpful if you’re having trouble convincing yourself to exercise. Of course, exercising helps the body, too. And it all starts with gratitude! [4] [3]

We can be very focused on what we don’t have – so much so that we forget about the things we do have. But after hearing of all the benefits gratefulness can give us, the question remains – how do we cultivate a sense of gratitude? How do we internalize it, instead of it being an emotion we tend to feel only once a year during Thanksgiving?

One thing you can do is keep a journal. [4] Writing in it every day might be a bit too much – you could get so used to writing gifts down that you start feeling indifferent towards them. Instead, write in it once or twice a week, or as often as you feel like – everybody is different when it comes to that.

What you should do is create a list of things you’re grateful for – family, friends, a wonderful day, that great new song you heard – anything that makes you happy. Simply think of all the things you have that are not really a default in life, as well as things you didn’t even have until recently.

Another useful thing you can do is help your community. You can volunteer or donate to the less fortunate.  Getting a sense of other people’s misfortunes and feeling you are helping someone makes you feel more grateful for the things you have in your own life. [4]

Finally, a simple meditation practice can help open your mind and make more room for gratitude. [4] Each person has their own preferences, and gratitude works best if they choose the practice that fits them best. So choose yours and ask yourself – What am I grateful for?

by Jelena Jegdić

 

References:

  1. Bartlett, M., & DeSteno, D. (2004). Gratitude and Prosocial Behavior. Psychological Science 17(4):319-25.
  2. Emmons, R., & Stern, R. (2013). Gratitude as a Psychotherapeutic Intervention. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(8):846-55
  3. Emmons, R., & McCullough, M. (2003). Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, No. 2, 377–389
  4. Sheldon, K. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to Increase and Sustain Positive Emotion: The Effects of Expressing Gratitude and Visualizing Best Possible Selves. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2): 73–82

Four More Team-Building Activities For Teens to Develop Teamwork And Trust

We had such a great response from our first article on team-building activities for teens that we’re back with more ideas!

Team-building activities are fun and easy ways to help teenagers (and adults too!) learn and practice how to communicate their thoughts and ideas, develop relationships, and build teamwork and trust. These activities can be invaluable because being able to work effectively on a team is an imperative for the 21st-century workplace. Here’s a list of four team-building activities to help teenagers develop their social skills, teach them the importance of teamwork, and provide an opportunity to share their points of view.

1. Photo Scavenger Hunt

In this activity, small groups (around 4 members) have a time limit (e.g. 1 hour) to take photographs of various objects or situations. In order to play, each group needs to have at least one camera or a smartphone and a checklist of the items they need to photograph. This activity can be organized as a competition between groups where each item is worth a certain amount of points, with bonus points given for creativity and originality. It’s important to make the checklist as fun as possible and include both easy and challenging tasks. These could include various landmarks in the neighborhood, animals, a group reflection in the water, unusual food, something frozen, a picture where you look like you’re flying, etc. If you want to encourage creativity, you could use nonspecific tasks – take a picture of “something green” – “something you love” – “something that begins with the letter Z” or “something funny”  to give groups more freedom to express themselves. Many people have shared their own lists online, so you could use those as inspiration to create your own tasks.

This activity works best when members of each group stay together. If you want to practice teamwork, cooperation, and decision-making, you might decide to allow team members to split the tasks among themselves or reduce the time limit to make things more challenging. However, the activity could then become stressful and less fun. The “stay-together rule” is the preferred way to go, because as the group works on the activity together rather than having participants wander around alone, cohesion develops and social skills are enhanced. When the time is up, every group presents their pictures and the winner is chosen (the group with the highest score).

2. Fear In a Hat

This activity can be helpful for adolescents because they get a chance to hear different opinions about a specific personal problem or a fear they may have. Acquired information can be very valuable because teens often feel ashamed or scared to seek help from their peers. In addition, by participating in this activity, group members realize that everyone has similar fears and this promotes unity and trust.

Before starting this activity, the group moderator should make sure to set an appropriate caring and serious tone. Introduce the topic of fear, explaining that everyone experiences some worries or fears about all sorts of things, and that a good way to fight those fears is to acknowledge them openly.

After this, each person writes down their personal fears privately on a sheet of paper, which they then put in a hat. In order to make it easier for the teens to formulate their fears, you can use unfinished sentences like – “I am most afraid that…” or “The worst thing that could happen to me would be…”

When all the fears have been placed in the hat, each person in turn takes one out. (This is not done simultaneously because group members might focus only on the fear they pulled out of the hat.) After reading the contents, the first reader describes his own understanding of the writer’s fear. If the reader does not elaborate enough, the group moderator should ask one or two questions without expressing an opinion on the topic, unless the reader misunderstands what has been written.

Depending on the group size, the moderator can initiate a discussion with the rest of the group right after the first reader explains their understanding of the fear (whether they agree with the reader or not, what is their opinion, and have they experienced something similar), or after everyone has had a chance to be a reader. The moderator should facilitate intra-group communication, keeping in mind that the purposes of this activity are fear reduction and showing empathy and understanding.

3. Jigsaw-Puzzle Pieces

Setting up this activity is simple. A large jigsaw puzzle is divided and the same number of pieces given to each group. Make sure to divide the puzzle in a way that every group can fully assemble their own part of the whole. The moderator should introduce this activity in the following way – “The aim of this exercise is for each team to assemble the jigsaw puzzle as quickly as possible using the pieces provided. You will receive no additional instructions.”  This way, groups will think that they’re competing against each other before realizing that the only way to complete the entire puzzle is by working together.

This is a great activity for kids and younger adolescents where they learn that a competitive spirit can put cooperation and teamwork at risk. After the puzzle is completed, the moderator can lead a discussion around the fact that most jobs in the modern world require cooperation and teamwork, or more broadly, that humans in a society must work together to survive and advance. Another thing that should be discussed is the strategy each group employed during the assembling of their own section – were there any leaders, did everyone work separately, did they split tasks (e.g. sort the blue pieces, find the edge pieces), and how did all these things affect their efficiency and satisfaction with the activity.

4.  Spot the Difference

To begin this activity you need to divide the group into two teams. Then, have each team form a line so that each person is facing someone on the opposite team. Give the teams some time (e.g. 15 seconds) to memorize as much as possible about the other team’s appearance. After that, have one team turn their backs or exit the room so that the opposing team has enough time to change appearance. Each person should change a fixed number of things about their appearance. Any change is allowed, the only rule being that the changes must be visible. When the second team returns (or turns around), they need to find as many differences as they can. Once this is done, teams swap roles.

There are at least two ways to determine the winning team. One way is to determine a time limit – the winner is the team which found more differences during the limited time period. Another way is to remove the time limit and see which team notices all the differences faster. If a team cannot notice some changes, you can add time (for example 20 seconds) onto their total time for each change they could not find.

This activity is great for improving focus and memory, but it requires teamwork and communication, too. The team of observers can form a strategy (this should be explicitly suggested to groups after playing a round or two) where every person tries to remember as much information about the person right in front of them and one or two persons next to that person. Team members in the “observed” team should work together to make the changes in appearance hard to notice for the other team.

Teamwork is one of the key values here at Nobel Coaching. Check out our new engaging program Nobel Explorers where middle and high-school students work in small teams to learn something new, overcome a challenge, or accomplish a goal.

by Marko Nikolić

The Effects of Sleep on Performance

In this day and age, sleep could be considered a luxury for many of us. Whether you have to study, work, or do chores, sometimes it’s difficult to get enough sleep. This leaves you feeling tired, irritable, and sleepy the next day. This problem is even bigger if you’re an adolescent who, due to brain chemistry, usually goes to bed very late and ends up getting too little sleep.

In the next few paragraphs, you’ll learn exactly how sleep affects performance, the DO’s and DON’T’s of staying awake, and how you can get more sleep. Also, we’ll look at common assumptions about sleep and determine if they’re myths or if there is some truth to them.

Consequences of poor sleep

When we say “poor sleep,” we’re thinking of both quantity and quality – how many hours and how restful those hours actually are. Poor sleep includes not enough hours, frequent nocturnal awakening, and trouble waking up in the morning. Sometimes, if you don’t sleep enough, the quality of your sleep can compensate for it; other times, even if you sleep for ten hours but wake up non-stop, you might wake up feeling tired. [2]

The things that are most affected by the lack of quality sleep are learning, memory, and motor skills.

In order to really learn something, the newly acquired knowledge needs to be properly consolidated – that is to say, stored safely in our long-term memory. For this to happen, at least 4.5 hours of sleep is necessary the night after learning something new. So, if you spent hours studying something the night before an exam, but didn’t give yourself enough time for quality sleep, chances are you’ll do worse than if you only studied for half that time, but got enough sleep afterwards. [2]

As for performing motor skills, similar rules apply – you need enough quality sleep for best performance. This is especially important for movement-based sports, learning an instrument, or developing fine artistic movement. If you don’t sleep enough the night before the big competition, you’ll be slower and less precise than you might expect to be. What you should do is get some rest from that activity for 24 hours before the performance, as well as make sure you get a good night’s sleep. This might sound counterintuitive – shouldn’t I squeeze in as much practice as possible? Not the day before the performance! As we mentioned before, newly learned things (and this means movement-based things as well) need to be properly stored in long-term memory if you are to remember and perform them correctly. [3]

Now the question arises – how can I best use sleep to my advantage? What are the DO’s and DON’T’s?

Let’s go through some common sleep myths, and hopefully, all your burning questions will be answered.

Myth  No.1: “The older you are, the less sleep you need”

Sure, this is true when comparing adolescents to very young children. However, adolescents in high school DO NOT need less hours of sleep than, say, adolescents in middle school. They need the same amount, which depends on the individual, but is sometimes as long as ten hours. This is proven by the fact that most high school students who don’t need to get up early in the morning will often wake up only after a full ten hours of sleep. [2]

So why do we believe they need less, then?

There are two reasons: first, high school students usually go to sleep later than middle school students, and second, they start school earlier. Thus, their overall sleep time becomes shorter; and seeing how a majority of adolescents lives on seven-ish hours of sleep a night, we tend to believe they just need less of it – which simply isn’t true. [4] This was the reason for the recent debate about U.S. school starting times. Many think it would be more beneficial for students’ health if high school classes were to start an hour later than they currently do, and based on research, we can’t help but agree with that.

Myth  No.2: “Adolescents’ brains are different, so they turn into night owls”

This is true, but there’s more to it. If you are an adolescent, especially one who considers themselves to be mature, chances are you start feeling sleepy later at night than you used to – this is a purely biological factor. [2] However, there are social factors as well, one of them being late-night social activities – like parties –  that often start happening during adolescent years. Be that as it may, the biggest culprit is still technology.

Older students tend to spend more time using their smartphones, computers, and technology in general. And while too much time in front of a screen is harmful in itself, it also affects our sleep schedules. Screens we look at daily have a special type of light – blue light – that our brains read as a “wake up” signal. This is why most social networks have blue backgrounds – Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr… So if you decide to “just check Facebook before bed”, you might find yourself still attached to your phone an hour later. Add this to an already delayed sleep schedule and you can begin to understand why most adolescents today suffer from sleep deprivation. [4] [9]

If you want to learn more about screen addictions and how to manage them, sign up for our free webinar on this topic and save your spot now!

Myth  No.3: “Naps are a valid replacement for night sleep”

Again, this statement is partially true. Naps can be extremely useful if you didn’t have enough sleep last night, or haven’t slept in a long time – but in the long run, not enough night sleep will cause you issues like diminished alertness, irritability, learning and memory problems, and micro-sleep  – when you fall asleep for just a second or two, which can be deadly if you’re sitting behind a wheel. Therefore, naps shouldn’t be overused, but they can be useful if need be.

But now the question arises – what is a perfect nap?

First of all, you should nap in the afternoon; ideally, anywhere between noon and 2:00 p.m. [7] As for how long these naps should be, anything between 30 and 60 minutes is great. [8] You should be aware, though, that after you’ve awakened from a nap, you’re almost certain to experience sleep inertia – that feeling of sleepiness and fatigue that comes after a nap. [7] However, this usually passes after five to fifteen minutes, and then you’re good to go!

Myth  No.4: “If you don’t have the time to sleep, energy drinks or coffee are a good substitute!”

The truth is, energy drinks can do more harm than good, especially if you have medical issues like diabetes or a heart condition. The amount of caffeine in energy drinks is not regulated and is usually through the roof; on top of that, energy drinks have sugar and additives such as guarana, to further help you stay awake. [6] So if you absolutely must stay awake, coffee is a better solution. But the problem here is the more you drink, the more you need to drink to stay awake. And if you drink coffee less than six hours before going to bed, you’re more likely to have trouble falling asleep. [5]

That’s why a short nap is a much healthier and more beneficial option. Another thing you can do (if you’re not a nap person, or you just can’t fit one in) is some brief exercise. It can be anything – sit-ups, squats, a short run – anything to get your heart rate and adrenaline up. After it, you’ll feel much more awake and without any of the side effects of energy drinks or coffee!

Helpful tips for a better sleep

Now that we’re at the end of our sleep-conversation, here are some helpful tips to make you feel more energetic and functional in the morning.

Growing up, adolescents start craving more and more independence, and one of these acts of independence is setting their own bed-time. And while this surely helps you feel more mature, it can often create issues when it comes to a sleep schedule. As mentioned before, it often means going to bed later and sleeping less. But if that is to be expected due to changes in the brain, how can it be countered?

Ideally, you will set your own bed-time no later than 11 p.m. If you do this enough times, your brain will rewire to accommodate the new sleep schedule. Next, you should try to create a relaxing pre-sleep atmosphere. It can be meditation or listening to some light and slow music, but the most important thing is – no loud noises and no screens! The best thing to do is to read a few pages of a book.  It’s been shown that people who read before bedtime fall asleep faster and have a more quality sleep, than those who don’t. [4]

Finally, your sleep schedule should be consistent, no matter the day. An additional problem for adolescents is they tend to sleep much longer on weekends. It’s impossible to live on quality weekend sleep only – sleeping regularly every day is the way to go. Sleeping longer on weekends only confuses the body and it can’t revert to the weekday sleep schedule until, say, Wednesday. But just when it gets the hang of it – boom, it’s the weekend again! [1]

Following these rules, you shouldn’t have too many problems with sleeping, learning, or performing. But if you notice some problems still remain, experts are just a click away from helping you with that.

by Jelena Jegdić

 

References:

  1. Bonnet, M.H. (1985). Effect of Sleep Disruption on Sleep, Performance, and Mood
  2. Curcio, G., Ferrara, M. & De Gennaro, L. (2006) Sleep loss, learning capacity, and academic performance. Sleep Medicine Reviews 10, 323–337
  3. Walker, M.P. et al. (2002). Practice with Sleep Makes Perfect: Sleep-Dependent Motor Skill Learning. Neuron, Vol. 35, 205–211
  4. Carskadon, M.A. (2011). Sleep in Adolescents: The Perfect Storm. Pediatr Clin North Am; 58(3): 637–647
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nn42RC1zT_A
  6. Seifert, S. M. (2011). Health Effects of Energy Drinks on Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults. pediatrics.org/cgi/doi/10.1542/peds.2009-3592
  7. Naitoh, P., Englund, C.E. & Ryman, D. (1982) Restorative power of naps in designing continuous work schedule. Human Ergol.,11, Suppl.: 259-278
  8. Gillberg, M. et al. (1996). The Effects of a Short Daytime Nap After Restricted Night Sleep. 19(7):570-575
  9. http://jap.physiology.org/content/110/5/1432.full

Bullying: How to Recognize it and Build Resilience

Bullying is a very emotional topic for kids and parents alike. Unfortunately, we are used to hearing about bullying incidents that mostly happen during middle and high school, due to the biological, social, and emotional changes adolescents undergo during this period. [3] That being said, it’s important to emphasize that while bullying tends to be more noticed during those years, for some children it can start as early as preschool.

If you’re not certain whether something constitutes bullying or not, ask yourself these questions: Is there a power imbalance?, Is the negative behavior intentional?, and, finally, Was it a single incident or is it ongoing? 

A power imbalance makes bullying easier. The bully can be physically stronger than the victim, but that doesn’t have to be the case. These days, being popular creates the biggest power imbalance in schools and often allows spreading rumors and name-calling to be perpetrated with no repercussions.

Also, bullying is an intentional infliction of harm. Bad things can happen accidentally – if a bad message goes to the wrong number by accident, it’s not bullying. But if it’s sent with full intent, then whoever sent it could be considered a bully – if it’s not a single incident. A single bad action cannot be viewed as bullying, though it should be dealt with firmly. Bullying implies the incidents are being repeated, creating a vicious pattern. [4]

Types of bullying

Many people tend to think of bullying specifically as physical abuse. A physical act of bullying can be any situation in which the student’s physical integrity is under attack – pushing, kicking, hitting… However, it’s not the most common form of bullying today.

The two most common are verbal and relational bullying, and a very specific form that’s being practiced more frequently – cyberbullying. [3]

Verbal bullying is very common and it mostly revolves around name-calling. Relational bullying doesn’t necessarily involve face-to-face contact between the bully and the victim. Any form of social exclusion (not allowing someone into a peer group, denying them access to social activities on purpose) or rumor-spreading falls under relational bullying. Another form of relational bullying is issuing orders and ultimatums to peers in order to command more power in social circles, for example, “you can’t hang out with that person and still be part of our group ”.

Cyberbullying is a growing problem for many reasons. For one, access to technology has never been easier, and with a growing number of platforms where someone can express their opinion by sending and receiving messages, the proportion of cyberbullies is growing as well.  Instant messaging allows perpetrators to “hide behind a screen”, which instills a lot of anxiety in the victim, given that the identity of the bully is often not known. [5]

Recognizing bullying is the first step in tackling an issue that’s been going on for a very long time. However, recognizing a child who’s being bullied is just as important.

Signs that a child is being bullied

It’s not easy to recognize that a child is the victim of bullying, but you should be able to notice that something is wrong. The best thing you can do is create a loving, positive, and safe atmosphere in which your child feels comfortable enough to tell you they’re being bullied.

Bullying can have many consequences, from emotional distress to lower grades.

Behaviors resembling depression or anxiety are very common indicators that a child is being bullied. You may notice that they have trouble sleeping (insomnia, nightmares) and they look sad and worried. Consequently, their desire to go to school, as well as their grades, might be plummeting. It’s difficult for a student to concentrate on studying and paying attention in class if they’re afraid of what’s going to happen after class is out. [7] If they look fearful and anxious before going to school, or they’re constantly making up excuses to avoid going, the best thing to do is talk to them about it.

If you notice that they look nervous after interacting with technology, it could be a sign of cyberbullying. Some children will become socially isolated due to rumors being spread or name-calling, so they might not be hanging out with friends as much as they used to. [4]

In extreme cases, the child might resort to self-harm as a way to cope with stress and fear. If you notice any cuts or bruises they try to hide, you should talk to them about it. They could also start acting out in an unusual way – they could become aggressive verbally or even physically towards others, both as an outlet for frustration and out of the belief that aggression should be battled with aggression. [4]

As we mentioned before, these are some of the signs that could help you notice something’s off, but it’s difficult to know for sure unless they tell you themselves or a teacher reports it.  Remind your children often to let you know if they’re being bullied – anywhere!  Assure them that you will not overreact, but instead, will assist them in dealing with it themselves.

Why do they hide it?

The solution to this problem would be easier if all the victims of bullying came forward. Unfortunately, many students do not do so. One reason is that they don’t want to seem”weak“ in front of their peers, so they choose to take it silently rather than admit to it.  Another possibility is fear of retaliation once the bully is punished for their behavior. Last, but not least, they sometimes think their parents will want them to change schools, and they don’t want to leave their classmates and friends behind. Starting over can be very difficult, especially in adolescent years.

Because of this, we need to create a safe environment that clearly condemns bullying; we need to tackle it systematically. However, parents can do their part as well, and to help with that we’ve prepared some advice.

Building resilience

Often, we tend to (wrongly) assume that if we remove the bully, we stop the bullying. This might be the case for some children, but for most, bullying is an ongoing process that has to do with their vulnerability. And while no child is to blame for being bullied, there are some characteristics that make them susceptible to bullies, and that parents can help them strengthen.

By achieving resilience, children start feeling:

• in control of their lives

• strong enough to battle this issue

• confident that they have enough strength and outside support to do it, and

•able to communicate their problems and expect a positive outcome.

One of the characteristics that might make them vulnerable is solving problems by internalizing them. They feel anxious and depressed when dealing with stressful events, they have trouble telling anyone about it, and aren’t assertive enough. Kids like these may be perceived as easy targets who won’t retaliate if attacked. [4]

Alternatively, if children tend to externalize their problems, dealing with them by showing aggression (yelling, breaking things), their peers might not accept them, leaving them without social support and vulnerable to bullies. [4]

Once we have this in mind, we can work on strengthening the characteristics important for resilience.

1. “This is my fault”. Victims of bullying often feel they’ve done something to deserve it. Parents and teachers alike have the responsibility to talk to children and let them know that nobody deserves to be bullied. However, this might make them feel there’s nothing to be done about it; if it’s not about them, how can they change something and stop it?

It’s of the utmost importance to help children understand that bullies come after those whom they think either won’t defend themselves or appear to believe they have no one to defend them. This is what makes confidence, sense of self-efficacy and assertiveness pivotal to resilience. [2]

2. Confidence and self-efficacy. Children who have experienced bullying often don’t have a lot of confidence, and don’t perceive themselves as being in control of their lives. They don’t think they’re able to change anything, and that leaves them vulnerable. [2]

In order to be able to solve problems and acquire confidence, children need to be given two things: autonomy and support. You should encourage them, from an early age, to try and tackle the obstacles they face. If they see you believe that they’re strong enough to solve something on their own, they’ll eventually start believing it themselves. [1]

However, you should also be there for them as a safety net. They need to know that should a problem prove to be too big to solve alone, they can always confide in you and receive support and help.

3. Being assertive. When faced with bullying, vulnerable children often try to deal with it in one of two ways: they either hide and take it silently or they try to battle aggression with aggression. Neither of these options is beneficial; they should instead be taught to be assertive. This means they learn to express their emotions and thoughts, letting the bully know how they feel – that the behavior is wrong and punishable. If that doesn’t prove to be enough, assertiveness also means they can confide in their parents, friends, and teachers and expect that the problem will eventually be solved. [4]

4. Standing up against bullying. Even if your child is not the one being bullied, standing by as some other child is being abused makes an audience out of them, and that audience is often what reinforces further bullying. They should understand from a young age why bullying is wrong and, if they see it happen, they should support the child being attacked and help them report it. It’s also important to know that children who have close friends (particularly at school) have less chance of being bullied than children who have no peers to protect them. By becoming part of a peer group ready to protect their members against bullying, they are well on their way to becoming more resilient. [6]

5. Dealing with stress and emotions. The cornerstone of resilience is being able to deal with stress without being overwhelmed by anxiety. A positive reaction to stress means being able to keep a clear head and think of different ways to solve a problem. Of course, feeling sad or angry is a normal reaction to negative events, but the important thing is to not internalize or externalize.  Keeping problems and emotions to ourselves even as they overwhelm us is a mistake, but so is acting out.

A healthy reaction to stress consists of confidence in our strength to solve a problem as well as the belief that there are people in our lives who will help us if it becomes too much to handle. If you can instill that way of thinking and feeling in your child, they’ll be much more protected against any type of bullying. [4]

What can you do?

Dealing with bullying is not an easy task, and the solution is not a simple one. And as with any other problem, mistakes are always a possibility. So to help you be there for your child in the best way possible, we’ll list some of the things you shouldn’t do, and advise you on what to do instead.

Taking away their phones/computers. If your child is being cyberbullied, taking the technology away from them doesn’t solve the problem; if anything, it creates a bigger one. Many children won’t admit to being bullied because of this exact reason – fear that their parents will take their computers away from them. Instead… 

…Build resilience. Try to find out who the bully is, talk to teachers and other school staff. Taking the phone away doesn’t mean that the bullying won’t continue in “real life”. [5]

Overreacting. Similarly, you might want to change schools as soon as you hear about bullying. But what if there’s another bully in the next school? Running away from a problem doesn’t help solve it. Alternatively, some parents tell their kids to just stay put and they’ll take care of things. But solving the problem while keeping them excluded could lead the child to think they’re not strong enough to solve their own problems. So if a similar situation comes up later on, they might react even more negatively than the first time. Instead… 

…You should work on it together and discuss every possible solution with them. Once included, their confidence and perceived sense of control will grow. [1]

Telling them it’s all a part of growing up. Sure, kids can be mean,  but a joke is only a joke if both parties understand it as such. If your child is feeling negatively towards being called names or pushed around, telling them it’s all normal and that “boys will be boys” won’t help them build resilience. If anything, it will teach them that being aggressive and not respecting others’ emotions is okay. Instead…

…You should show empathy and understanding towards their feelings and work on the best possible solution – together.

by Jelena Jegdić

References:

  1. Grotberg, E. (1995). A guide to promoting resilience in children: strengthening the human spirit. Early Childhood Development: Practice and Reflections Number 8
  2. Narayanan A. & Betts, L.R. (2014). Bullying Behaviors and Victimization Experiences Among Adolescent Students: The Role of Resilience. The Journal of Genetic Psychology Vol. 175 , Iss. 2,2014
  3. Wang, J., Iannotti, R.J., & Nansel, T.R. (2009). School Bullying Among U.S. Adolescents: Physical, Verbal, Relational and Cyber. J Adolesc Health 45(4): 368–375.
  4. Arseneault L., Bowes L. & Shakoor S. (2010). Bullying victimization in youths and mental health problems: ‘Much ado about nothing’? Psychological Medicine / Volume 40 / Issue 05/ pp 717 729
  5. https://pro.psychcentral.com/cyber-bullying-recognizing-and-treating-victim-and-aggressor/00112.html
  6. Craig, W.M., Pepler D., & Atlas, R. (2000). Observations of Bullying in the Playground and in the Classroom. School Psychology International, Vol. 21(1)
  7. Juvonen, J., Wang, Z., & Espinoza, G. (2011). Bullying Experiences and Compromised Academic Performance Across Middle School Grades. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 31: 152

Is Helping Your Child with Homework Beneficial?

Now that October report cards are here, many parents will be asking themselves how they can help their child more with their grades. Is it okay to help them with homework, or should it be 100% on them?

The short answer is – yes, it’s more than okay! Helping with homework involves a lot of challenges and poses a lot of questions, but once you find the right approach to it, both you and your student will benefit. Here we will explain why, and we’ll also give you some tips on how to work through the challenges.

Benefits of helping with homework

Attitude towards learning. If you manage to create a comfortable atmosphere where mistakes are allowed and knowledge is rewarded, it will translate into a positive attitude and motivation to do and learn more. You’re showing your child that you believe in the school process and what it is trying to accomplish; you’re also guiding them to understand that hard work pays off. This mindset is a huge plus during their school years and in their future lives as well. [1]

Confidence. For some children, school is a piece of cake – they’re motivated, hard-working, and bursting with confidence about their grades. Yet for many of them, things aren’t so easy, especially at school where the teacher cannot focus on each student individually. But you can. At home, you can offer them the chance to develop and show off their skills without worrying whether their answer is correct or not. And after a while, this way of thinking will transfer into their school environment, giving them the confidence to help them progress.

Closeness. This part is especially important if your child is a teenager. As they grow up, children start craving more autonomy, becoming closer to their peers and spending less time with their parents. So bonding over homework and creating a welcoming atmosphere at home could be rewarding for your child, as well as you. Thanks to this interaction, you’ll be aware of what your child is currently learning, what their aspirations are, and whether you share an interest that could allow you to talk to them more.

How do I help?

If you have a child who’s currently in school, they’ve probably asked you to help them with homework a couple of times. You might have sat down with them, helping them with the difficult steps, or encouraged them to come up with the answers themselves. And while doing homework helps them understand school materials better, it also raises some questions parents often ask – How can I help them with their homework without solving too much for them? Should I monitor the whole process or just help them with the most difficult things? Am I capable enough to help them? – and so on.

To help answer these questions as well as any others you might have asked yourself, let’s start with a few tips on what to pay attention to when the time comes for your child to open the textbook.

Things to pay attention to

Atmosphere. While being knowledgeable about the topic at hand is likely to help you aid your child, it’s far from all that’s important. Even if you’re not too familiar with the topic they’re asking you about, you can still help by providing a good learning atmosphere that will help them concentrate better. And later on, who knows – maybe they’ll be able to come up with the answer themselves!

Now, what constitutes a good learning atmosphere?

This is different for every child, so there’s no simple answer. Let’s start with the way they act in their school environment (you will understand this one best if you contact their teacher and ask them). Are they usually interested and able to concentrate in class? Are they active and asking questions? If the answer to these is mostly “yes”, then you should create a similar, more structured atmosphere for homework as well. You can offer to time them as they do their homework or make sure they’re sitting at a desk clear of unnecessary and distracting things (such as a phone).

However, if they’re usually bored in class and have difficulty keeping their attention undivided, they may benefit from a less structured homework environment. In that case, having a bunch of things on their desk or even sitting on a couch as they try to do their homework could suit them better. If they feel comfortable, their attitude towards homework will be more positive, making it easier for them to finish their tasks. [2]

Learning style. This is similar to atmosphere, but it’s more about details than the amount of structure. Parents who understand their children’s learning style are better able to explain something to them in a way they will understand. While some children can sit in front of a book for hours, just reading and soaking up the knowledge, others do better with visual representation, so make sure to tailor your explanations to their individual style.

Also, children will enjoy the process of doing homework more if it matches up with their preferences. For example, some children prefer silence so they can focus more clearly; others work better if there’s some light music in the background, or just the regular everyday noises (neighborhood dogs, cars, etc.). And if your child tells you they’re calling friends over for a study group, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll just hang out and get nothing done. Some students thrive in the presence of their peers – they can motivate and explain things to each other. A group can often possess more knowledge than an individual. [3]

Level of directness. If you’re wondering whether you should give your child the answers or just hints, the answer is – it depends. When it comes to very young children (first or second-graders), they’ll most likely need direct answers. But as they grow older and more autonomous and start thinking in abstract terms, they’ll benefit from indirect answers. This is just a general rule, and it differs from subject to subject, task to task. If they need to memorize something, direct answers are the only way to help them; but if they have a science project or need to write a poem, you should merely stimulate their thinking with some helpful instructions and hints. [2]

Rewards and incentives. While it’s true that children should internalize the need to study and do well at school, giving them some rewards and incentives can help them along the way. A lot of children, both younger and older, tend to put off their homework until after they go out with friends, or until after that new episode of their favorite TV show is over. Instead, you can offer them a reward for after they finish homework. It should be something they really enjoy – a bigger allowance, a favorite dinner, slightly delayed bedtime, or a promise to take them to the concert they want to go to. Once you offer them something you know they want, they’ll be more motivated and get to their homework faster.

Just be careful with this – you shouldn’t reward them for every homework assignment, otherwise they might not internalize the motivation to do it! After some time, you can go from short-term to long-term incentives – if they get an A at the end of the school year, they’ll be rewarded. This way, they’ll realize they need to pay attention to homework in order to reach a future goal and they’ll be on their way towards having a positive attitude and greater motivation for it. [2]

Keep it short. For some parents, homework is just not very enjoyable. For others, it can be exhilarating, especially when it comes to subjects they really enjoy. It’s important to allow your child to focus on finishing their assignments before sharing your passion about the subject with them. Later on, if you notice they’re asking you some extra questions, you can enjoy a lengthy conversation with them. But while they’re in the middle of their work, they’ll prefer short and specific answers so they can deal with the task at hand before moving on to the next one – otherwise they might start getting distracted. Sharing your passion is a good thing; just make sure the timing doesn’t interfere with their assignments and doesn’t undermine your child’s needs. If you keep it short, you’re also showing them that you are focused on their needs instead of your own. [1]

Don’t be a prison guard. If you know your child’s motivation for homework is pretty low, you’ll be tempted to check their homework every day, maybe even against their wishes. And while some children like to have all their answers checked, others might feel as though they’re being constantly monitored and not smart or good enough if they get more than a few wrong.[1] So, how do you best work with these different points of view?

You can try to meet in the middle. For example, you can offer to check on the part of homework they find the most difficult. That way, they keep their autonomy for the majority of the assignment, but you’re showing them the importance of doing their work correctly at the same time.

Challenges

Now that you’re familiar with some of the tips you can use to help with homework, it’s only fair to mention some of the challenges parents might face themselves – the most important ones being time and knowledge.

Time. For some parents, squeezing in homework time can be difficult. You may work long hours and once home, you may be too tired to give your full attention to school assignments. So one fair solution could be to split the homework tasks – Dad could help on Mondays, Mom on Tuesdays, and so on. But this isn’t an option in all households. And while you may decide to give it your all and try to help despite being tired, if the homework takes too long, you may get even more tired and frustrated, which doesn’t help the situation.

So instead of going beyond your limit, you can schedule regular helping sessions that aren’t too long, but are enough to show your child you’re available and willing to help. With younger children, you can read together for ten minutes two or three times a week; with high school students you might discuss their science project after work.  Instead of battling to keep your eyes open so you can help with everything, you can have a short, enlightening discussion that will still be able to help them. This doesn’t only help them with their grades – it’s also a way to be a positive support for your child and to be engaged in their life, while making both of your lives easier! [2]

These arrangements are possible within most family schedules and still allow you to help; and besides, you can always offer rewards, as we mentioned before, and give valuable advice.  For example, if you notice your child is overwhelmed and becomes anxious about homework, suggest they separate it into smaller units and tackle one at a time. These don’t take too much of your time, but it still keeps you up to speed. [2]

Knowledge. Some parents might feel as though they’re  not up to the task when asked to help with homework, especially when it comes to older students. If you tend to think this but still want to help your child, the first thing you should do is talk to their teacher. Ask what they’re currently learning and, if time allows, you can also ask the teacher to recommend some books so you can familiarize yourself with the topic.

Another thing you can do is start from a positive standpoint – make yourself available for your child when they have questions and, who knows, maybe you will know the answer. However, if you don’t, it’s better to admit it than lead them astray. You can still help in two ways:

  1. By asking them to describe the problem to you. By going through it and answering their own questions, using you as a sounding board, they might find the answer themselves. [1]
  2. Create a positive atmosphere. As we mentioned before, giving an answer and being knowledgeable about the topic at hand are useful, but that’s not the only way you can help with homework.

Needless to say, every family is different. So if there’s still some issues not mentioned here, there’s plenty of experts willing to help you.

by Jelena Jegdić

References:

  1. Solomon Y., Warin J. & Lewis C. (2002). Helping with homework? Homework as a site of  tension for parents and teenagers, British Educational Research Journal, 2002 28 (4)
  2. Walker J.M.T. et. al. (2004). Parental Involvement in Homework: A Review of Current Research and Its Implications for Teachers, After School Program Staff, and Parent Leaders
  3. Perkins P.G. & Milgram R.M. (1996). Parent Involvement in Homework: A Double-Edged Sword, International Journal of Adolescence and Youth, 6:3, 195-203

Extracurricular activities – how (many) to choose?

The Romans had a saying – Mens sana in corpore sano – a healthy mind in a healthy body. And they practiced what they preached. In ancient Rome and Greece, it was expected that students not only give their all in philosophy and mathematics; they were similarly required to practice gymnastics – what we would now call “athletics”.

Nowadays, we tend to have a different view of what’s necessary for an adolescent. We often expect them to figure out their own particular interest or vocation and to channel their energies exclusively into that one thing.

However, attitudes are changing.  We’re beginning to acknowledge that adolescents need more than one narrow focus and we’re encouraging their participation in extracurricular activities. And that’s a good start towards fostering a multi-oriented young person with a wide variety of interests and skills.

Unfortunately, society dictates a lot of the choices adolescents have. There are certain labels that, once established, can be very difficult to shake off. We have “jocks”, “nerds”, “cheerleaders”, etc., – and their peers (and adults alike) tend to see them as one-dimensional. For that reason, “nerds” will go for chess club rather than trying out for the football team where they might not be easily accepted. But why shouldn’t a young person who has both the interest and skills go out for both – as unlikely a combination as that might appear to some? It’s up to us to encourage them and teach them that it’s okay to do well academically and be a good athlete at the same time.  Not only is it okay, it’s very good for both their mental and physical well-being!

So, how do we recognize which extracurricular activity is right for a particular adolescent?

Here’s some questions whose answers might offer a solution to that dilemma

1. What is your child interested in?

Even though adolescents spend a lot of time with their friends, parents have obviously been with them far longer. They’ve watched them grow up, playing with the same toys for hours and begging for that soccer ball until they finally got it. You are clearly the ones who can best try to answer this question – what is it that always interested my child? Sometimes, girls will be interested in new technologies and dream of becoming a programmer or a game developer. But once they enter high school, they’re told that it’s a man’s field and they might be encouraged to go for soft skills instead. The same goes for boys and, say, dancing. But if these kids had spent years practicing different programming languages or dancing in their room, you should talk to them about it and try to convince them to pursue their passion by joining a computer club or a dance troupe. Just make sure to be as objective as possible. Try to remember those early occasions when your child asked you for something, not when you bought it for them without asking first. It’s important (and not always easy) to distinguish between your child’s and your own interests, as parents often see themselves reflected in their children.

Extracurricular activities shouldn’t be there to fill in their free time with just anything – they should offer children a unique chance to develop, to find something they are passionate about and, who knows, maybe make a living out of one day. Adolescents who work at something they’re interested in and motivated by tend to have more success in that field than their peers, as well as being happier and more fulfilled. [2]

2. What are they good at?

Another important thing to consider is not only what children like, but also what they seem to be talented at. If they choose to engage in activities they already have a gift for, it will significantly elevate their fragile self-esteem. [1] Adolescence is a time when it’s important to develop a sense of self and confidence, and for most, years will pass before they master this. So being very good at something and having the opportunity to prove oneself might be extremely beneficial. That being said, the chosen activity should still be sufficiently challenging – they might not enjoy “easy wins”.

Now, if what interests them and what they are good at are one and the same, they’ll have the perfect extracurricular activity. But what if it’s not one and the same? What comes first? Should they choose what interests them or what they’re good at?

Well, there’s no reason to choose. There’s nothing wrong with participating in several organized activities in one’s free time.  And when they’re involved in more than one extracurricular activity, adolescents tend to like school more and do better academically than their peers who only follow one. [3]

3. Do they enjoy socializing or are they shy?

So far I’ve been arguing that extracurricular activities should be tailored to the child’s interests, but there’s definitely more to it. Different activities offer different possibilities, and if they choose the right one, children can develop all sorts of skills. For example, if an adolescent prefers doing things alone – not because they are shy, but because it’s simply their preference – joining a math club or chess club may be the right thing to do. However, if you’ve noticed that your child wants to socialize but feels too shy to attempt it, a team sport could help them enormously. Of course, it might be difficult in the beginning. Trying new things usually is. But as time goes by, spending hours of their free time in a structured environment with their peers learning responsibilities and team spirit will start reaping benefits, and you’ll soon see them turn from shy to sociable.

4. What are their priorities?

It’s good to encourage adolescents to try many different things. But occasionally, you’ll find children who’ve been obsessed with a only one activity since their earliest years. They may see themselves only as dancers, or actors, or game developers, and they focus all their efforts on becoming better at that one particular thing. In that case, it’s okay to remind them there are other activities out there, not just drama or computer club. It is up to them to decide whether they’ll give them a try or not, though. If they identify strongly with the activity they’ve chosen, they might see other activities as a waste of the time they’d rather be spending practicing what they enjoy most. [3] However, bear in mind there are certain caveats here. If their action-of-choice is a physical thing, such as football or dancing, go for it! But if the activity they’ve chosen is sedentary, it might affect their physical and mental health negatively. Since most school activities are done while sitting down, going to a computer club just to sit some more could carry certain health risks. This is why it would be good to encourage them to practice a variety of extracurricular activities. [4]

Mixing it is best!

Adolescents need to be stimulated both in terms of learning and physical development. Their brains and bodies alike are undergoing a lot of changes that are sometimes confusing and not easily understood. It definitely helps if they can hold on to something throughout these changes.

School tends to focus on academic achievement, be it through math, languages, or science. That’s far from a bad thing, but it’s not enough for a developing young person. And even though they have the opportunity to practice PE, its benefits are easily diminished by the overwhelming amount of time spent sitting, studying, and doing homework. So, if your child wants to only do things related to athletics outside of their school time, it’s okay. School will deal with their knowledge and learning habits, and athletics will help with that, too.  Children who engage in physical activities such as sports or dance have shown greater liking for school and enhanced learning ability, probably because physical activity increases blood flow to the brain, making it more active and alert, which positively influences their attention. [4]

What are their choices?

Up until now, I’ve been separating extracurricular activities only into academic and athletic, but there are at least two more types of activities a child might want to try – performance arts and prosocial activities. If they are interested in performance arts, they might want to join a school band or a drama club, for example. The children who will go for these are usually those who enjoy being in front of the audience, but shy children can benefit from participation as well; performing is good practice for the future, as they may one day be required to give a speech or hold a presentation. And there’s the added benefit of the built-in socializing factor that goes along with it. Just keep in mind that it’s up to you to encourage your child to try something, but in the end it’s up to them whether they feel comfortable enough to do it.

Finally, we have the so-called prosocial activities –  the one most commonly practiced being volunteering. This one is very important, as doing something for the community helps an adolescent feel more a part of things and gives them a sense of belonging. Not only that, they become part of a social network of both peers and adults who could potentially give them useful advice and teach them new things.

The important thing is that all of these activities have a lot of pros – they all lead to better grades and a higher college attendance, while prosocial activities and performing arts also help prevent potentially risky behaviors. Now, I’ve mentioned previously something along the lines of “the more, the merrier”- but there’s a limit to that. So where do we draw the line? At what point do we tell them they’re putting too much pressure on themselves? How many activities are enough and how many are too much?

Magical number 5-19

Different cultures have different expectations for their children. In Europe, students are expected to have high grades, while volunteering is looked upon as a plus. Anything above that is a bonus, but not necessary for success. In many countries in Asia, they have a different outlook. From a very early age, children take on piano lessons, English classes, swimming, baseball, art… And that’s just for one child. Children who have too many responsibilities and too little free time growing up tend to be very stressed-out, not only as adolescents but also later in life. However, children who have few commitments and challenges during their school days also tend to be under a lot of stress once they get a job and responsibilities, since they’re not used to the pressure and not well equipped to deal with it. So what’s the solution? Moderation. Children whose parents’ expectations for them are moderate tend to go on to lead more fulfilling, healthy lives while still managing to succeed in their chosen area.

But what exactly constitutes “moderate”?

It’s been shown that adolescents who spend between five and nineteen hours a week doing extracurricular activities are less likely to engage in risky behaviors. Anything above nineteen hours has either no effect or a negative one, as it leads to adolescents being under too much pressure and resorting to risky behaviors to try to find a way out of anxiety or depression. [3]

So, what can we conclude?

Encourage your children to try different things. If they are shy, a performance art might help them. If they feel like what they love doesn’t fit their perceived role in society, urge them not to give up on their passion. If they are only interested in academic or prosocial activities, help them fit a physical activity into their schedule. If you’re not sure what they are interested in, feel free to recommend them one you’re interested in or have experience with, as long as you don’t push it on them. It will give you some extra time with your teen that they might otherwise prefer to spend with their peers.

And last, but not least – don’t let them over-commit themselves. They still need some unstructured, free time with their peers or alone.

by Jelena Jegdić

References:

  1. Eccles, J.S. (2003).  Extracurricular activities and adolescent development. Journal of social issues, Vol. 59, No. 4, 2003, pp. 856-889
  2. Holland, A. & Andre, T. (1987). The Effects of Participation in Extracurricular Activities in Secondary School: What Is Known, What Needs To Be Known
  3. Farb, A.F., Matjasko, J. (2005). The role of school-based extracurricular activities in adolescent development. Review of educational research.
  4. Biddle, S. J. H., & Asare, M. (2011). Physical activity and mental health in children and adolescents: A review of reviews. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 45, 886-895 doi:10.1136/bjsports-2011-090185

Balancing Homework And Friends After School

School and social activities are high priorities for young people, but balancing the two can sometimes be challenging. If you think this occasionally applies to you, here’s some advice on how to solve the dilemma.

1. Do It Together

People differ when it comes to the surroundings that make them feel relaxed and comfortable. Some prefer spending a quiet night in with a book or a movie, while others usually need external stimulation to feel good; they enjoy loud places, meeting lots of people, and being the center of attention. However, most of us fall somewhere in between the two extremes, sometimes preferring peace and quiet, sometimes bright lights and lively company.

But how does this relate to helping you with your homework? Well, depending on which end of the continuum you’re closest to, the solution to your problem with the homework-friends balance might be different.

If you generally prefer small groups, you might find it hard to choose between picking up a school book or calling a friend over or perhaps messaging them all day. Having one eye on your work and the other on your phone tends to be very distracting. So, do you perform your academic tasks or decide to have a fun time with your friends? Actually, there’s no need to always choose between the two. You can ask your friends to come to a study group with you. Just choose a quiet place, decide on a goal together (forty-five minutes of studying, fifteen minutes of free time, for example) and follow it. It helps to work together – you’re motivating as well as keeping an eye on each other. And after the homework’s done, you can continue to hang out.

Now, what about those who prefer to be among lots of people? Pretty much the same thing applies, except the surroundings are different. Contrary to popular belief, not everyone needs to be closeted away in a quiet room to make the most of their homework time. If you find it hard to concentrate this way, you might benefit from a different approach. Invite your friends to join you at a neighborhood coffee shop, or go to a popular park with a blanket and your books and get ready to work! You’ll be with your friends, and surrounded by the chatter and stimulation that simply doing your homework in your room doesn’t give you.[2] You’ll feel comfortable and much more able to focus on your work.

However, for most people, the ideal work environment depends largely on their current mood. If this describes you, you might sometimes prefer quiet surroundings, sometimes lively ones. You know yourself best, so find out what works best for you at any given time. Be honest with yourself, though. It’s important to do the work as well as socialize, so if you notice you’re frequently distracted while with your friends, you might want to try the other approach.

2. Do It As Soon As Possible

Whether you decide to do your homework with friends or alone, tackling it as soon as possible after you’ve dealt with the material in class can lower the time you’ll need to retain the content successfully. When new information is still fresh in your mind, it’s easier to recall the small details and hints your teacher gave you as well as the overall material. [3] So, doing your homework first is a smart move. It means you’ll finish it more quickly and have more time for your friends later on. That in itself should be motivation enough.

And here’s something else that may help. It’s been shown that studying, as well as homework, is best done in parts. [4] That means that though you should ideally start doing your homework as soon as possible, if you feel your eyelids getting heavy and your yawns getting the best of you, it’s probably time to hit the pause button. You can use this time to clear your head.  Listen to some music, make some coffee, exercise, or squeeze in a little quality time with your friends. The choice is up to you. However, the time you spend on your break should depend on the amount of time you’ve spent doing homework. If you only began half an hour ago, a break of ten minutes will do just fine. On the other hand, if you’ve been dealing with it for two hours straight, an hour off won’t be too much. This break helps you in two ways. Your brain will return to the task refreshed, yet still able to remember what you’ve been working on, and as a matter of fact, tasks you don’t finish from the get-go tend to be remembered more clearly than those you do! [5]  So, having a break is nothing to fear, as long as it doesn’t turn into a vacation.

Now that you know these little tricks, there’s nothing stopping you from leading a fulfilling academic AND social life. So, enough procrastination and off you go!

by Jelena Jegdić

References:

  1. Jung, C.G. (1987), C.G. Jung Speaking
  2. Geen, R. G. (1984). Preferred stimulation levels in introverts and extroverts: Effects on arousal and performanceJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(6), 1303-1312.
  3. Edwards, C.D. (1999), How to Handle a Hard-to-Handle Kid: A Parents’ Guide to Understanding and Changing Problem Behaviors
  4. Mace, C.A. (1963), Psychology of study
  5. Zeigarnik, B. (1967). On finished and unfinished tasks. In W. D. Ellis (Ed.), A sourcebook of Gestalt psychology

Getting into Flow

The concept of flow

What makes us happy? What does it mean to have a meaningful life? Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi thinks that the answer to these fundamental questions has a lot to do with a specific kind of experience that he named “flow”. He defines flow as a psychical state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it. Flow is a universal phenomenon that can be achieved while performing many activities ranging from cooking and performing surgery to dancing and rock climbing. However, some flow activities are more likely to provoke a flow state. These activities have rules, they require skill learning, they make it possible to set goals, and they provide feedback.

What are the positive effects of flow? Many studies have shown that experiencing flow is in positive relation with psychological and subjective well-being, increased concentration, self-esteem, creativity, and performance. Adolescents who regularly experience flow are friendlier, happier, and more sociable.

In the first part of this article you will learn more about the concept of flow and its characteristics, while at the end you can find some practical tips for nurturing flow in your own family.

How to recognize flow?

In his TED talk, Csikszentmihalyi specified different aspects of flow. We can use some of these aspects to determine if we succeeded in entering flow or as guidelines that can help us enter this state.

Firstly, someone experiencing the state of flow feels completely involved in the activity they’re doing. The human cognitive system has a limited capacity for information processing and during flow this capacity is used for only one activity. Our attention is focused. At the same time, this means there is no more capacity left to process any other information, which leads to merging of action and awareness – you stop being aware of yourself as separate from your actions, your attention is completely absorbed by the activity.  However, in everyday life, we are often bombarded with various stimuli and our attention is dispersed. Therefore, attention plays a major role in entering and staying in flow. This has some practical implications. In order to facilitate entering flow you should get rid of potential distractors (for example, turn off your smartphone while studying)

Secondly, it is important that we know what needs to be done and how well we’re doing it. This means that in order to achieve flow, we should set specific goals and pay attention to the feedback. The nature of this feedback differs from situation to situation, but its main role is the symbolic message it carries – I have succeeded. However, sometimes we cannot set clear goals (for example, in some artistic activities). In this case, we must develop some sort of personal sense of what we want to accomplish.

Thirdly, the experience of flow is intrinsically rewarding. Contrary to extrinsic motivation, where someone performs an activity in order to attain a desired outcome (money, reputation…), intrinsically motivated people perform an activity for its own sake. The state of flow itself is recognized as a reward, or as Csikszentmihalyi would say, an action becomes autotelic (auto – self, telos – goal).

The fourth aspect of flow has to do with our skills. In order to achieve flow, we must perceive an activity as doable. In other words, we must evaluate our skill level as high enough to successfully perform an activity. The relationship between skills and challenges has a key role in entering flow and is described in the following section.

Finally, we experience temporal distortion. A person in flow usually has a feeling that time passes much faster compared to time spent doing mundane, boring activities.

Models of flow – relationship between skill and challenge

Csikszentmihalyi “mapped” flow experience using a simple schema that includes measures of skill and challenge.

models of flow

 

In his early work, Csikszentmihalyi thought that in order to enter flow it was necessary to find a balance between your skills and challenges (as represented in the first model). If the equilibrium was broken, you would experience either anxiety (when challenges are overwhelming) or boredom (when challenges are too easy).  However, many studies have shown that balance alone is not enough to enter flow. In situations where both skills and challenges were slight, people did not experience flow or actually, anything at all. Imagine playing a Tetris game set on minimum speed. You would most likely be very successful in sorting blocks and clearing rows but eventually it would result in complete boredom, even apathy.

These findings led to the modification of the prior schema. The new model included the concept of apathy (low skill/low challenge alternative), and a more detailed view on possible states when there is a discrepancy between skills and challenges. The center of the concentric circles represents an average level of skill/challenge that is different for every individual. In order to achieve flow, a person must perceive their own challenges and skills as higher than average. States of arousal and control are close to flow, and one can easily slip into the desirable flow state by making adequate modifications. A very important thing to notice is that we have the power to modify or change our challenges/activities, and improve our skills. In order to achieve flow from the state of arousal (high challenge but the skill is not quite there), we must improve our skills. On the other hand, when someone has a feeling of control (high skill, but the challenge bar could be set higher), one can easily slip into flow by increasing the challenge.  We all have the power to choose and we are responsible for our chosen objectives. Another important fact is that we can use the feelings presented in the second model as feedback that informs us what kind of  change we need in order to achieve flow.

way to slip into flow

 

Let’s return to our Tetris example. What happens if we increase the difficulty of the game to maximum without any prior practice?  Blocks would start filling the screen before we could react and the game would end, resulting in a player who would experience, maybe not anxiety, but certainly some level of dissatisfaction. What happens if we develop our Tetris playing skills but always stick to medium difficulty? In this case the player is in control (which is a good state to be in, according to Csikszentmihalyi) and can have a reasonable amount of fun, or, at some point, play the game for purely for relaxation. However, flow as an optimal state of mind can be easily entered from control just by increasing the difficulty and creating a more challenging task.

How to nurture flow in your family

Rathunde, one of the authors who studied flow, specified five family characteristics that provide an optimal context (autotelic family context) for adolescents to achieve flow.

  1. Clarity – adolescents have a feeling they know their parents’ expectations. Communication in the family should be unambiguous and goals explicitly defined. Parents need to provide clear feedback regarding the adolescent’s behavior.
  2. Centering – adolescents have a feeling that their parents are truly interested in their actions, feelings, and experiences. Parents need to explore the teenagers likes and dislikes, and pay close attention to both verbal and non-verbal communication.
    Existence of choices – adolescents have freedom of choice. They can even disobey the rules set by their parents if they accept the consequences. This may be hard for parents to accept, but having freedom of choice has many positive effects, including development of an internal locus of control – the feeling that we can have control over various life events.
  3. Commitment – children need to feel secure in order to lose themselves in an activity. If parents threaten to withdraw their love from a child every time a rule is broken, the child can become anxious and insecure.
  4. Challenge – parents need to create/provide increasingly complex opportunities for action. In doing so, parents must be careful not to set challenges way above or below the skill level of their children. Providing both support and challenge helps your children become more confident and independent.

These 5 C’s of nurturing – clarity, centering, choices, commitment, and challenge – set the stage perfectly for adolescents to be able to enter the state of flow. As mentioned earlier, there are numerous positive effects of flow. Some even argue that regularly experiencing flow is the secret of happiness. Because of that, it is not surprising that there are experts on flow who can help adolescents and parents create an optimal environment and bring more flow into their lives.

by Marko Nikolić

References:

  1. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. S. (1988). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. New York: Cambridge university press.
  3. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Flow and the foundations of positive psychology. Dordrecht: Springer.
  4. TED Talk – Flow, The Secret To  Happiness (2004).