Notes from a Developmental Psychologist

It’s that time of year again. A time for new, exciting beginnings filled with a bit of apprehension. A time for new places and new friends, while trying to see if the old friendships are still alive. It’s a time for new clothes. New must-have sneakers.

It’s a time that many parents dream for months of, but, if we’re honest, we still shed a tear or two when the day finally arrives. It’s time for Back to School.

Of course with going back to school, there are the basic supplies needed. Lunch boxes, backpacks, notebooks, pencils, and pens. Depending on the age of your returning students, you might need Kleenex, or glue sticks, or washable markers. Perhaps a new laptop, or USB flash drives, or the dreaded graphing scientific calculator are driving your back to school spend through the roof?

With the hustle of back to school shopping, Developmental Psychologist and Professor of Psychology at the College of Charleston, Gabrielle Principe, Ph.D. reports that there are other back to school items your students might need. These things won’t be on the list sent home from the teacher or the principle. But, they’ll do a world of good for your kids in the long run. The good news is, these are things you already have and won’t need to spend more money on. Best yet, they’re all grounded in scientific research for improving children’s ability to learn.

Telling them they’re smart
Might be setting them up for failure

Telling children they're smart doesn't give them the confidence to take on new challenges or the self-esteem to persevere when they fail.Let’s be honest. We’re all parents and we all want to think of our kids as smart. Most of us tell our kids how smart they are – and in most cases – they really are. We say things like, “You’re SO smart, dude!” We brag about their smarts to their grandparents. We’re parents. It’s okay to be proud. But, let’s try praising their effort, not their intelligence.

While this might just seem to be good parenting, Principe tells us that “telling children they’re smart doesn’t give them the confidence to take on new challenges or the self-esteem to persevere when they fail.” She goes on to say, “Research suggests that telling children they’re smart might actually interfere with their ability to learn.”

It seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Research suggests that praise for being intelligent sends the message that being smart is an inherent and immovable trait. This leads to kids’ not believing that they can move the bar through effort. They think, “I’m smart, so I don’t need to try hard,” and they can be tricked into believing that big effort is something only “dumb” kids have to do. Left unchecked, this appears to lead to kids who are less likely to take intellectual risks and are more likely to give up when things get tough.

When we tell our kids that they’re smart when they bring home good grades, we’re unintentionally sending the message that they aren’t smart when they don’t bring home the A on the report card. For kids who are told constantly how smart they are, they figure that if they’re suddenly not succeeding, they must not have the intellectual fortitude to cut it. Several studies have shown that when “smart” children struggle, they’re more likely to lit about it than to admit that they had some difficulty.

It’s commonplace for kids succeeding easily in elementary school, only to find subjects that take more time and effort in middle school. When the kids who have been constantly told how smart they are begin to struggle, they tend to give up. According to Principe, “They conclude that they must have been unintelligent all along. It’s at this point that many “smart” children throw in the academic towel.”

When kids are given kudos for effort, on the other hand, they learn early on that intelligence is a quality that can be improved through hard work. These kids know that their success is in their controls and they don’t give up after a little failure. In fact, according to Principe, these are the kids that interpret failure as a signal to try harder or to do things differently. These kids are eager to go after new challenges, persevere when the going gets tough, and they bounce back more easily after a failure.

The takeaway?

Give your kids kudos for trying hard. You know what they’re capable of, so give them an “attaboy” for living up to their potential. When they bring home good grades, give them recognition for trying hard and talk about how they prepared. If they bring home grades lower than expected, be honest with them. Don’t tell them they could have done better because they’re smart. Talk with them about ways they can improve the next time around.

Banish the Bribe

 Let's be honest. We're parents. We've perfected the art of the bribe. Let’s be honest. We’re parents. We’ve perfected the art of the bribe.

“If you get all your homework done, and you clean your room, you can have an extra 30 minutes of TV time.”

Don’t judge. We’ve all done it.

Unfortunately, according to Principe, this can squash the child’s drive to learn.

Children come from the womb with a strong desire to learn. Some psychologists consider it a universal human drive, like thirst or hunger. Consider infants and toddlers who are constantly observing, exploring, experimenting, asking questions, and mimicking our less-than-perfect language and behavior. Don’t believe us? Sit in a traffic jam with a 2-year-old and see if he doesn’t pick up some colorful language that he’ll use in every possible worst-case scenario. Like when your in-laws visit. Voice of experience here.

It sounds weird, but according to Principe, learning is internally motivated. Kids can get a “learner’s high” when they’re making new discoveries, learning new things, and mastering new skills. This behavior leads to even more discoveries, learning and mastery, which leads to more good feelings and the circle gets perpetuated.

So – why shouldn’t we reward learning? Seems like a good thing, right?

According to Principe, decades of behavioral research shows that rewarding any behavior that is internally motivated with external incentives reduces our human drive to carry out that behavior. Basically, it shifts our attention to the rewards and we pay less attention to the pleasure (or pain) that comes from doing the behavior. Marketers have known about this phenomenon for decades, hence the “sweepstakes” that always seems to be going on at your local fast-food drive in. They know that you’re focused on the rewards – not the money you’re spending or the terrible food you’re eating.

The biggest problem is that bribery is so effective. Kids will do more math homework or read more if we promise them a delectable dessert. But, when we’re always rewarding them for doing their work, the go from learning because it feels good to learning to get something. According to Principe, “Then the goodies, rather than internal drive, come to motivate learning. Even enjoyable tasks can be turned into drudgery that children will do only for external incentives. Rewards for even play activities, like drawing and block building, can snuff out the fun.”

The takeaway?

According to Principe, we should make sure that kids understand the real-world benefits of the skills they’re developing. “Think of it this way. It is surely tough for a first-grader to understand why he’s being asked to memorize how to spell a set of strange words, write them four times each, and then sort them into alphabetical order.” She goes on to say, “But if his parents regularly read storybooks, street signs, store marquis, cupcake recipes, and restaurant menus with him, then he’s likely to understand not only why his teacher is asking him to learn new words, but also that reading can be good fun.”

Boost the Playtime

 Because kids are all naturally born scientists. We're born to experiment. Once kids gather a bit of initial data, they experiment further.An infant grabs, squeezes, pushes, pulls, spills, rips and bangs things all day. Why? Because kids are all naturally born scientists. We’re born to experiment. Once kids gather a bit of initial data, they experiment further. “What happens if I pull on Mom’s hair?” “Will it come out? Will she make noise?” Over time, these experiment designs get more complicated as the child assimilates more data. “If I throw my sippy cup in the air, how high will it go? If I throw harder, does it go higher? Faster?”

It’s through these experiments – and these experiences – that kids discover the natural world and learn a lot about themselves, too. Interestingly, these things that seem to have annoyed mothers for millennium are the same qualities that we attribute to adults who are considered innovators and visionaries in their fields, according to recent research. “What if,” “Why,” and “Why not” questions challenge the status quo and shake up thinking. They also lead to new, creative associations between facts. These innovators also have a seemingly unquenchable drive to experiment and ‘tweak’ things and new ideas. Sound suspiciously like any three year olds in your life?

Hal Gregersen, one of the authors of the study on innovators said, “You can summarize all of the skills we’ve noted in one word: ‘inquisitiveness.’ It’s the same kind of inquisitiveness you see in small children. If you look at small children, they are constantly asking questions and wondering how things work. We also believe that the most innovative entrepreneurs were very luck to have been raised in an atmosphere where inquisitiveness was encouraged. We were struck by the stories they told about being sustained by people who cared about experimentation and exploration.”

Gregersen and his peers found that the best innovators – those who have changed the world with their ideas – also think about the nonexistent and dream up imaginary worlds. The difference between children and adults, however, is that adult innovators work tirelessly to make their fantasies come true.

The great Steve Jobs, way back in 1994 said, “Everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you.” It’s the job of the current generation to raise up a new generation that has what it takes to invent new ideas. We need to give them the room to consider, create, and immerse themselves in worlds that don’t exist.

The takeaway?

Encourage natural inquisitiveness and your kids’ natural desire to explore and experiment. Make sure that they have the tools to let their imaginations lead them to their next great discovery, and the one after that.

Secondly, give your kids the space and the freedom to fantasize. Getting older shouldn’t have to mean the end of the line for our pretend lives. The knowledge that we gain as we grow older should power our imaginations. This is how one engineer took Isaac Newton’s theories on gravity and centrifugal force and innovated a roller coaster with an inclined diving loop and a wraparound corkscrew.

Recess, Recess and More Recess

 Studies have consistently shown that East Asian elementary school kids - who routinely outperform American students on standardized tests - are given more recess breaks than American kids.In recent years, academic performance in the United States has taken an almost permanent place in the news headlines. As a result, many school administrators have shortened recess times in an effort to make more time for teaching skills in the hopes of improving student’s scores. At some schools, it’s common place to take away recess for bad behavior, while some believe that recess is an out-dated practice that only serves to make kids (more) uncontrollable afterwards. In other schools, favorite childhood games are banned – like tag, chase, and dodgeball. Playground monitors seem to hand out playground balls like they’re controlled prescription medication.

The problem is that none of these trends appear to be supported by any research. Believe it or not, academic performance was better in the years before schools started taking recess out of the mix. Studies have consistently shown that East Asian elementary school kids – who routinely outperform American students on standardized tests – are given more recess breaks than American kids.

It may be hard to believe, but experimental studies have shown that children’s attention to tasks is better, not worse, following recess. They fidget less and focus more. It seems that free play – non-structured breaks of play activities – are especially important to a student’s performance. This is especially true for younger kids whose nervous system is still developing. For these students, long classroom tasks are especially challenging.

The takeaway?

Recess IS learning. There are social and cognitive demands that come along with playing with others. It is demanding and motivating. In order to keep the play going – which most kids are very motivated to do – they must understand their peers’ perspectives, figure out what behaviors are expected, and keep their emotions in check. As a result, they learn how to cooperate with others, regulate their emotions, communicate effectively, and pay close attention. And these are skills that will help them both in the classroom and the real world.

H is for…Homework?

 There's little solid empirical evidence that homework actually improves young children's learning.There is growing scientific and developmental literature that homework is busy work that causes many family’s undue stress. There’s little solid empirical evidence that homework actually improves young children’s learning. In fact, when a child is asked to do too much homework, the opposite is the case, according to Principe. “Homework only has minimal benefits for achievement in middle school,” she reports. “It’s not until high school that there are clear academic benefits to homework, but again, they start to decline if students are too overloaded.”

Generally speaking, elementary students may be spending more time with the TV than with doing homework. Yet, it’s interesting that if there’s no solid evidence that homework has benefits, but educators still assign it and parents still struggle with their kids to get it done.

Chances are, you’re not going to be able to fight city hall on this one. But, at the same time, if you feel that your kids are getting too much homework, have a conversation with their teacher. Find out why they think that homework is a good thing for your young students. Explain that other pastimes outside of school are likely a better, more fun, and more fulfilling way to spend their after school time.

The takeaway?

 Sandra Hofferth found that the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems among three- to twelve-year olds was more family meal time together.If you’re a parent that can’t stand it when the kids have no homework and you’re looking for an outlet to focus some of that energy, here’s a suggestion. Cook dinner. Together.

In a large study, University of Michigan researcher Sandra Hofferth found that the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behavioral problems among three- to twelve-year olds was more family meal time together. Believe it or not, family meals beat out all other predictors, including time at school, attending church, playing organized sports, art activities, and doing homework.

If you’re looking for some dinner (or dessert)-spiration, check out our recipe library. If you’re a family with food allergies, don’t worry. We have excellent recipes that work for everyone. Some of our favorite recipes are gluten free, low carb, vegan and vegetarian. Of course, you can always save on Brothers All Natural snacks and recipe builders at

Until next time,
Live Healthy. Live Happy. 

Information for this article has been adapted from a post at the Psychology Today Blog, published by Gabrielle Principe, Ph.D. The original article can be read here.

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