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December Blues

December Blues

Why is December so hard for students with executive function challenges?

This time of year can be particularly challenging for young people with executive function challenges and their parents/carers. Low mood, coupled with academic pressure from school and general exhaustion can lead to heightened tensions at home and an emotional downward spiral. Hear from Connections in Mind Coaching’s Managing Director Victoria Bagnall about the science behind the December Blues, why they affect students with Executive Function (EF) challenges more than most and what we can do to help.
What are the December blues?

If you talk to any mental health professional in the Northern Hemisphere, they will tell you that the run up to Christmas is their busiest time of year. Many people experience low mood during this time of year. This low mood is thought to be linked to the impaired functioning of the hypothalamus – which can:
* Increase the production of melatonin – this is the hormone that makes you feel sleepy.
* Lower the production of serotonin – this is the hormone that promotes mood, appetite and sleep.
* Affect the body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) – the body uses sunlight to time various functions (e.g. when to wake up) .

Why do the December blues affect students with executive function challenges more than others?

We have to remember that school life is particularly demanding for students with executive function challenges. They have been working hard all term to keep up with their peers and by the end of a long term they can be physically and mentally exhausted. We know that executive functions are impaired when we are tired and there the vicious cycle continues.

What is more, due to issues with emotional control and response inhibition, they might find it more difficult than others to regulate their emotions. Whilst others may find it easier to maintain a strong exterior despite feelings of low mood, often students with executive function challenges wear their heart on their sleeve so to speak and struggle to mask how they are feeling.

Indeed, this will be compounded by the fact that their challenges with metacognition (self awareness) result in them feeling more emotional, but not actually be aware of why, or even the impact this is having on their lives and those around them. They can seem like they are absorbed in themselves and not thinking about anyone else.
What can we do to help?
1. Normalise the December blues and share any feelings of low mood as a family to encourage young people to talk about how they are feeling.
2. Recognise and praise that they have been working hard all term, and empathise with them about how hard it is.
3. Encourage good rest and allow them to drop non-compulsory extra curricular activities if they are showing signs of exhaustion.
4. Encourage them to spend time outside in the fresh air and winter sun.
5. Encourage a healthy lifestyle including regular exercise and healthy eating.
6. Avoid energy drinks – see government/ Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health report on the link between energy drinks and poor executive functions in adolescents.
7. Plan fun activities that the young person will enjoy and look forward to.
8. This video can help summarise what we can do to help with the winter blues.
9. Seek help from trained mental health professionals if you have any concerns about the their emotional state i.e. depression or anxiety.
10. Contact Connections in Mind for more support.

 

Connections in Mind is a family of organisations that is committed to raising awareness of executive function skills and their impact on children’s development and relationships. We offer coaching, parenting courses, revision skills courses and training and support for schools.

Click Here to book in to speak to one of the team about our Coaching Services

Click Here for more information about our Parenting Courses.

Click Here for more information about our revision skills courses run through The Code.

Click Here to find out more about our Training and Schools offering.

ADHD Lobbying

ADHD Lobbying

Co-founder of Connections in Mind and trustee of The Connections in Mind Foundation Dr Bettina Hohnen was invited to speak at an All Party Parliamentary Group for ADHD organised by ADHD Action.

Here are some of her reflections on the day.

One of the key aims of the Connections in Mind Foundation is to influence policy and to increase awareness of Executive Functions (EFs) at a national level. As part of this strategy we have established a working group of psychologists, teachers and coaches who feel passionate about this mission. One of the goals of the working group is to increase the training teachers receive when they are qualifying with regard to what executive functions are, the relationship between executive function learning and mental health, and related neurodevelopmental conditions, such as ADHD.

As the group work towards this goal, an opportunity arose last week to contribute to the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This initiative was the result of many years of work by the devoted and inspirational Michelle Beckett from ADHD Action.

It was a bright autumn day and the queue to enter Westminster was a long one, but I soon began to talk to a mother, coach and young person standing behind me attending the same event. It became clear to me before I even walked into the room that this was going to be a well-attended event full of passionate individuals from all walks of life who had been affected by the condition.

I had been asked to give a five-minute presentation, with the invitation to cite scientific evidence for the causes and incidents of ADHD and its potential impact on mental health and well being. How is it possible, I wondered, to succinctly summarise a vast array of data with a meaningful message in five minutes? I chose to focus on three key myths about ADHD and offer three key solutions.

 

Misconceptions about ADHD

The first myth that needs busting before all else is that ADHD is a behavioural disorder, as some still believe. It is, in fact, one of a number of neurodevelopmental disorders where a child’s brain is developing differently to the majority of the population. Research has clearly demonstrated that people with ADHD have distinct structural, chemical and functional characteristics of their brains that emerge as they grow up. ADHD is strongly heritable and while no one likes the idea of medicating children and young people, a meta-analysis published in 2013 shows clearly that core symptoms of ADHD are most effectively treated with medical intervention.

The second myth is that we don’t know what to do about the epidemic of mental health problems in young people and how to manage the behavioural crisis in school that results in startlingly high levels of exclusion. On the contrary, we have the answer staring us in the face. A very high proportion of children who present with mental health difficulties or cause disruption at school have a neurodevelopmental condition, such as ADHD (1-3 children in every classroom), which is currently under-recognised and under-diagnosed.

The third myth is that effective assessment and intervention in ADHD is prohibitively expensive and hard to implement. We do know how to assess and intervene in a cost-effective manner. The knowledge, expertise and evidence are there. We just need to know how and where to implement change.

 

Solutions

There are three key solutions that are effective, easy to implement and would make a real difference to young people with ADHD.

Firstly, we can equip teachers with the knowledge to recognise ADHD in all children. Teachers are dedicated and hard-working individuals who are currently in the dark. They are given the task of teaching large groups of children, all of whom are different, but a proportion of whom stand out and are struggling. Teachers know ‘one size fits all’ does not work in education but they don’t have the skills to identify what is really going on. This is particularly a problem for girls with ADHD who are systematically under-diagnosed and for children with ADHD in the context of high ability who under-achieve but go unnoticed as they perform at an average level, despite their enormous potential. We just need to train teachers on what to look for to identify ADHD. Iif you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to identify.

Solution number two is to set up affordable but effective screening systems for ADHD for children who are underachieving at school, have mental health problems or have behavioural challenges. We are past the age of believing that children are inherently lazy or naughty. Behaviour is a communication that tells us that a child is struggling. We have a duty to investigate the why and act.

Solution number three is to train all teachers in the small but effective strategies for how to manage all children’s behaviour and to help them engage in learning in the classroom. Some of the most effective interventions in education have come about from relatively small changes in our perceptions and beliefs. Take the work around mindsets, for example. The intervention is small but powerful, as it is meaningful and integrated throughout a child’s life. It’s a change in the way behaviour is perceived by both the adult and child, and a change in how we communicate about success and respond to behaviour.

The current work around Executive Functions (EFs) and metacognition is another example of this kind of approach. Programmes exist that embed an awareness of EF skills in the curriculum, offering both teachers and children an understanding of the processes of learning that are getting in the way of performance. This demystifies children’s performance, reduces teacher and student stress and empowers them both to know how to change. In the UK, the Connections in Mind Foundation has been working with schools to train teachers on how to do this by adopting the Activated Learning approach. Laurie Faith (creator of Activated Learning) reminds us that this kind of intervention is ‘necessary for some and good for all’. With these types of approaches, we are handing children the key to their own success that will serve them now and for many years to come.

The point is that none of these solutions and approaches are expensive, onerous or difficult to implement. This is not about changing the entire education system; it’s about knowing what makes a difference for children.

“None of these solutions and approaches are expensive, onerous or difficult to implement. This is not about changing the entire education system; it’s about knowing what makes a difference for children.”

 

Passionate contribution for all

After my short presentation, Kit Messenger, former head teacher and head of education at Genius Within, spoke passionately about her experience as a teacher, echoing much of what I had said and reinforcing the negative impact in schools where there are cases of undiagnosed ADHD in children. She was followed by Stephanie Camilleri, lawyer, school governor and legal advocate for cases involving ADHD and schools, who talked about her work as a legal advocate as well as her experience of children with ADHD struggling within the school system. The floor then opened for questions and answers, chaired by Alex Sobel, along with Angela Rayner, shadow education secretary.

Passionate personal stories were recounted from parents, young people, professionals, lawyers, police officers and teachers. The strength of feeling was overwhelming. Of the very many important points and messages, what stands out for me are the following: the importance of remembering gender imbalance in diagnoses (girls are systematically under-diagnosed); the potential racial biases in diagnoses (young black boys are more likely to be seen as badly behaved); emotional regulation as a key symptom of ADHD, including heightened anxiety; that it is a child’s human right to have breaks in their school day (a point made with force by a young man who had consistently been held in at break time at school before getting his diagnosis); and that medication does work for some (as illustrated during a Q & A session with a psychiatrist and her 12-year-old patient).

One mother also pointed out that parents need support at home on being educated on what EFs are and how they impact on home life;there are currently no programmes showing them how. This is something that spoke volumes to us because, over the last few years, we have created a course called Connected Minds Parenting to do just this.

As a person waiting to take office who has the understanding and experience that inspires action, Angela Rayner gave us hope for change. Angela is current and cutting edge as a strong female MP, both as a teenage mother and a person with a self-disclosed diagnosis of ADHD, which she referred to as her ‘super-power’. She confirmed what we all know and fear, which is that there is a mighty discrepancy between the way we treat children with physical disabilities and those with neurodisabilities. Her child with visual impairment is well looked after by the NHS. Her child with ADHD has been sanctioned and labeled as naughty and his needs neglected, both before and since being diagnosed. If there is anyone who can champion the cause of the campaign, it’s Angela.

 

What the future holds

The Connections in Mind Foundation is devoted to helping all children flourish by increasing awareness of and intervention to develop executive function skills. While the foundation works hard on its mission, the seeds have already been planted that an executive function approach is an inexpensive, effective and accessible way in which we can support children both with and without ADHD, because at times we all struggle with our executive function skills. There is a lot of work to do, but the foundations have been laid, the motivation is there and the future looks bright. There can be no more excuses. This is not about money or a significant overhaul of our education system – it’s about the motivation to equip everyone in society with the knowledge needed to support all children.

Why We Are Setting up Our Foundation

Why We Are Setting up Our Foundation

At Connections in Mind, one of the struggles we have come across is the lack of awareness about executive functions, the science behind them and how they impact on learning and mental health. To recap – executive functions are the group of complex mental processes and cognitive abilities (such as working memory, impulse inhibition, and reasoning) that control the skills (such as organising tasks, remembering details, managing time, and solving problems) required for goal-directed behaviour.

These are skills we need to flourish in life and poor executive functions can negatively impact on academic achievement, emotional functioning, and job outcomes (Alloway & Alloway, 2010 ; Miller, Nevado‐Montenegro, & Hinshaw, 2012; Snyder, 2013.

We want to dedicate time and effort to: raising awareness with parents and schools; evaluating approaches to strengthen children and young people’s executive function skills; and initiating innovative projects with children and young people from all backgrounds. We think that launching a charity is the best vehicle for us to be able to achieve these aims

 

What We Will Focus On

Children’s relationships and interactions with their parents and caregivers can impact on the development of these skills and the home environment of children can be viewed as a mediator of the relations between the socio-economic conditions of families and children’s executive function development (Finegood & Blair, 2017).

We are acutely aware of the connections between poor executive function development and low socio-economic status (Fernald, Weber, Galasso, & Ratsifandrihamanana, 2011) ; (Hackman, Gallop, Evans, & Farah, 2015); (Haft S. L. & Hoeft F.2017)

When the home environment is negatively impacted by poverty, this can affect the levels of stress in the home and quality of interactions between parents and children. Therefore working with schools, families, children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to improve their executive function skills will be an area of priority for us.

 

Parenting in the 21st Century

Parenting in the 21st Century

Dr Bettina Hohnen one of the co-founders of Connections in Mind will be giving a workshop next week at our summit about parenting in the 21st century to support children and young people to develop executive functions skills.

Much has been written about how the world is changing and how our education system, which was invented in the 19th Century to meet the needs of industrialisation, is not necessarily equipping children with the skills they need to work in 21st century jobs. There is a growing consensus that new skills are needed to succeed in education and in the workplace as is shown in the figure below. Many of these skills are foundational and higher order executive functions (EF) skills such as persistence/grit, adaptability, initiative, critical thinking. It is said that employers are looking for individuals who can understand and analyse new information, know whether content is valid, collaborate and communicate with others while working towards a goal.

While educational professionals are busy working out how the curriculum in schools should change and adapt to incorporate this kind of learning (see Activated Learning for example, www.activatedlearning.org), there is much that parents can be doing at home to support the development of children’s EF skills. Connected Parenting is a programme that aims to equip parents with the knowledge and skills to do just that.

Students must know about their Executive Functioning skills

Connected parenting shows parents how to increase their child’s awareness of EF skills used in the home. Naming them and pointing them out is a crucial step in training them. Children use their EF skills successfully a lot of the time. For example, a child as young as 3 is able to inhibit a response (stop themselves doing things they have the urge to do), most children are able to sustain attention to a task that is not of inherent interest to them from age 5 and by the time they are 6 or 7 many children are able to plan for a trip and pack their bags ahead of time.
Yet children are not aware of the skills they are using.

By naming the skill and focusing on the process the child is going through when they are being successful, we can increase the child’s awareness or ‘metacognition’ (ability to reflect on ones own behaviour). We do not have the brain evidence (yet!), but we believe that by increasing awareness of when EF skills are being used we are stimulating the brain networks to strengthen pathways which will lead to greater competence in this area of functioning.

Of course a child’s EF skills don’t always ‘switch on’, which is perhaps not surprising given that the frontal lobes of the brain which house the EF skills are not yet developed until into the mid 20s. Inactivation of an EF skill underlies so many of the problematic behaviours that cause stress in a family, but if we can name the EF skill not being drawn on we have a chance of fixing the problem. Parents learn how important communication is and a strategy to tackle the problem in a stress-free manner.

The parent-child relationship must be the priority

Due to the nature of EF difficulties, despite parents’ best efforts, the parent-child relationship can become strained. For this reason, priority is given to helping parents to learn how to prioritise their relationship with their child while also changing their child’s behaviour for the better. Old school parenting is more about hierarchy and power with not a lot of questioning or collaborating. In old school parenting there is more of a focus on the goal and on achievement and not so much on the process, such as how we got there. New ideas in parenting focus more on dialogue and empathy, listening and deep learning. A focus on emotional intelligence and compassionate parenting, while naming the skills the child need to draw on to be more successful in that moment (the EF skill), is what Connected Parenting is all about.

 

Bettina Hohnen, Clinical Psychologist

June 2018

“Uniquely Wired But Still Totally Awesome”

“Uniquely Wired But Still Totally Awesome”

Liv Daly is a student in coaching in Connections in Mind and was invited to present at Thomas’s Clapham as part of their neuro-diversity awareness week. Liv gave an impressive presentation about her experiences of living with diagnosis Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, mild hemiparesis, her challenges and strengths.

Liv shared that it was really difficult for her to understand her diagnosis of Asperger’s at the age of 11 and she thought it was a disease. This is a really poignant reflection on how challenging it can be for children and families to understand diagnosis. Liv went on to share that she can struggle with social interactions, keeping focus and organising, and this affects her at home and in the classroom. She has done so many wonderful things, such as singing on Autism’s got Talent, a kids fashion show (that Melanie Sykes was involved in) that raised c. £10,0000, she loves to bake healthy foods and she wrote a book “Flours in my Hair” which was sold for charity and raised £20,000 for a paediatric hospital in Jerusalem

Liv has a really supportive family and a good network around her and she has found the support from her teaching assistant invaluable as well as coaching from Connections in Mind. Liv has mastered organisational skills, and is developing her skills in social interactions. She has found reducing her sugar intake and maintaining a balance lifestyle and diet to have been a game changer for her. She is feeling more focus, organised and on top of things. She is planning to study genetics at University- so she is incredibly smart too!

Liv is a passionate, positive and is proud of who she is and her accomplishments. She is an excellent example of living beyond a ‘diagnosis’ and finding coping strategies that work for her. It has been such a pleasure to work with Liv in coaching in Connections in Mind and thank you Liv for doing such a great job of raising awareness to Year 7’s and 8’s at Thomas’s. We think this could be the first of many public appearances to come

What are the key messages that you wanted students to take away from the presentation?

– That a diagnosis is helpful because it puts things in perspective and makes you realise that you are the way you are because of factors beyond your control. It also helps you realise if you try hard enough you can overcome the difficulties you face;

– Coaching has helped appreciate the behaviours that are unacceptable and to learn to manage them

– A key take home message is to accept who you are and the difficulties you face and to be proud of yourself and your achievements and to regard these difficulties as challenges you can overcome and to remain positive.

How has EF coaching helped you?

Coaching with Rose has definitely helped me with my continued organisation of my school work; somehow I managed to stay organised ish for my GCSEs, but after that it just snowballed and went downhill. I have now organised almost an entire years worth of stuff for 3 subjects (6 sub-subjects) in time for my predicted grade exams in two weeks (first week of June), which is extremely impressive, given that before my GCSEs (and after, before Rose came along) looked like a massive brain dump! Also, Rose is trying to get me to become more independent (like being able to go get a blueberry muffin from Starbucks on my own) and to socialise with people outside of school more (although I’m pretty sure that’s mostly procrastination, as well as a teeny bit of a fear of rejection/worries about how they’d ‘deal’ with me if I freaked out and had a bit of a meltdown in public. At least my parents know how to deal with that. My friends, not so much).

My Experience at the Essex Inclusion Conference

My Experience at the Essex Inclusion Conference

My name is Alise Lewis. This is my first time writing a blog, so this is a challenge for me. I have just finished my undergraduate psychology degree, waiting for my grades in the summer (hopefully a 2:1, fingers crossed). In the future I am hoping to become an educational psychologist, because I have a passion for making sure that every child is able to reach their full potential, giving back to the community and helping young people from disadvantaged backgrounds is of real importance to me.

As this is my final year at university I was searching for jobs in September or volunteering work. I came across Connections in Mind on Indeed and I have been an intern at Connections in Mind since March. Yesterday whilst conducting my work, Imogen asked me if I wanted to come to a conference in Essex, on Inclusion. I was slightly anxious because I did not know what to expect because I have never been to a conference before. But I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to understand more about executive functions and inclusion in schools. I woke up at 7:45, which is very early for me (bearing in mind that I am a student who loves to sleep and takes regular naps throughout the day like a baby!). I drove from my house in Chadwell Heath to Pitsea on the A12. I was unaware of the speed limit so I kept driving really slow. I thought the sun kept shining in my eyes but cars kept flashing me because I was driving so slow. After my slow driving, I arrived at the event. I met Tanya and Richard who both work as coaches at Connections in Mind.

My job today was a social media correspondent for the event, so I was live tweeting, taking photos and making notes. Being a millennial you would think that this would be an easy job for me. But I am one of the few millennials that does not use social media (yes we do exist).

The first talk was from Peter Tatchell on ‘How to Change the World’. His main points was that education plays a big part in reducing hate crime on the streets and bullying in schools. He emphasises the point that no child is born a bigot and that parents and role models around the children introduce bigotry into children.

The next talk was from Maria Tspali on ‘how to change the classroom’. She mentioned the benefits of play in the classroom, which improves literacy skills. Her main point was that teachers should incorporate the mixed approach of direction instruction (traditional approach) and discovery learning (constructivist approach) in the classroom known as inquiry learning. Surprisingly, I knew what Maria was talking about during her presentation because I took the educational psychology module at university (finally my university education taught me something useful). It was good to see the theory I learnt being put into practice.

Personally, psychology at university is very theory based, the only practical I conducted at university was a brain dissection during my second year, which I hated by the way. Therefore, coming to the conference enabled me to see how they put psychological theories of education into the classroom and education system. Connections in Mind conducted a workshop on how executive functions are important in the classroom not just for special educational needs students but for all types of students, for example those from low socioeconomic backgrounds, students with attachment disorders and even neurotypical students.

The next three speakers were inspirational speakers talking about what inspired them throughout their careers. One of the speakers called Louise Hodgson Clark was an excellent orator and really stood out to me. Louise Hodgson Clark is a PE teacher from Canvey Island from a dual heritage background. She spoke about being the only black female in her home town and how her school used to unconsciously exclude her and that teachers should be mindful of that. The reason why she stood out to me because she is a black powerful female, who had such a strong presence. Being a black female myself, it was nice to see her talk so strongly and passionately about teaching and her experience. Being an BME (black ethnic minority) in this country is quite hard. Although I have never experienced any of that hardship in my 21 years of living. But the field of psychology is predominantly white middle-class males and I am the complete opposite of that. So, who knows if I will experience unconscious bias in my future. Hopefully not because I would like to view England as being a diverse and accepting country.

Suzy Stride another speaker, who is a Labour MP also spoke about being from the East End and going to Cambridge University and working in Parliament where she stated that ‘there was no black people, working class people and normal people’, which I found quite funny at the time. But when you process what Suzy said, it is reality for some of people in society, females, BMEs, working class and many others. The last speaker was Louise Clarkson from the mental health charity ‘Mind’, she spoke about the importance of mental health in education as it improves in inclusion in schools (another thing I learnt at university). Overall, I had a really good day it was good to learn about inclusion in schools and more about what they do at Connections in Mind. Hopefully you enjoyed reading my blog, be nice it’s my first time

Alise Krystal Lewis

Why are executive functions important in the 21st Century?

Why are executive functions important in the 21st Century?

    

Consider these two working environments?

At first glance you would be forgiven for thinking not a huge amount has changed in almost 80 years.

That is until you think about the tasks which are being completed and the skills required to complete them……. 

In 1940s these typists are simply typing the written words – what executive functions would they need? Sustained attention to keep on task, certainly; definitely working memory, to hold the written words in their head long enough to type them; maybe organisation, to keep their desk tidy and time management to turn up on time, but little more than that.  Fast forward almost 80 years what skills are needed in a 21st century office?  Yes, sustained attention and working memory are still key, but no doubt these employees will be also valued on their ability to meet deadlines (goal directed persistence and time management), plan their day and prioritise what to work on first (planning and prioritisation), get along with colleagues (response inhibition, flexibility  and emotional control), self-reflection and self appraisal (metacognition). In fact a 21st century employee’s executive functions will determine how good they are at their job and if they are promoted, therefore in-turn affecting their earnings and their quality of life.

Moreover, executive functions are not just valued in 21st century work places, they are covertly examined through the education system in public exams.  Take History A Level for example; it is not just how much you know about History which will get you an A*.  It is your ability to revise (which requires all executive functions). Your ability to prioritise (planning and prioritisation) the knowledge you have into a well structured essay (organisation), from a choice of topics (flexibility), under timed conditions (emotional control, response inhibition, time management). I have seen time and time again students, who excel at their subject verbally, struggling to get above a C grade because of poor executive functions. This would not be an concern were these skills being taught to students, but they are not; there lies the paradox. How can we test students on skills we are not explicitly helping them to develop?

Indeed, the requirement for executive functions is not unique to 21st century adolescents and adults, even primary school children and pre-schoolers are required to have good executive functions. Think about the pupil who is always in trouble for not paying attention in class (sustained attention), for talking out of turn (response inhibition), not moving on to the next task, (flexibility, task initiation) getting into fights (emotional control); how will their first experiences of education affect their learning on going? Are we doing enough to support these children?  Adele Diamond focuses her research in this area and has learned that in order to ensure academic success, it is more important to teach pre-schoolers executive functioning and problem-solving skills than to simply focus on math and reading alone. We are very excited to welcome her as our key-note speaker for our Summit on the 14th of June.

Mrs Victoria Bagnall – PGCE, MA (Cantab)
Director and Co-Founder of Connections in Mind

Join us on the 14th of June to hear from Adele Diamond about her research, and to discuss and learn from like minded people about what we can do to help develop executive functions in 21st century homes and schools.

14th June 2pm to 5.30pm
Foundling Museum, London.  WC1N 1AZ

Places are limited – book your ticket now.

Effective Break Taking

Effective Break Taking

It is commonly agreed that taking a break increases efficiency and productivity in all tasks.  Revision is one such task where we generally understand that taking breaks can be helpful, but what should those breaks look like,  how often and for how long should we take them and which activities are most restorative?

How long should we expect children to concentrate for?

It is generally understood that an adult’s optimal concentration decreases after 90 minutes, but for children especially those with executive function challenges this can be much shorter. Teachers are trained to never have any classroom activity last for more than 20 minutes.  As a rule of thumb, most parents are taught that children should only be expected to concentrate for as many minutes as they are years old and this can be a helpful tool to manage expectations. I personally do not expect my students under 13 to concentrate on one task for more than 10 minutes, with some older students or those on medication sometimes being able to concentrate for a maximum of 20 minutes on one task.

So should I give my child a break every 10 minutes?

Not at all, shifting to another task allows a child to shift focus and start a new concentration period.  For children under 13, I suggest 4 x 10 minute activities followed by a break.  For older children, 4 x 20 minutes is plenty in one sitting.  Back in 1953, Nathaniel Kleitman – physiologist the university of Chicago discovered that the body worked in Ultradian rhythms of 90 minutes, in my view this understanding still stands and is an excellent reason for adults and older children to keep revision sessions to around 90 minutes before having a break.  All this said, each child is different so talk to your child, be prepared to try out different strategies and work out with them what rhythm of revision works best for them.

How long should I allow for a break?

This depends on how long it takes for them to feel restored. Most schools recommend 10 – 15 minute breaks, with a longer break for lunch. Nathaniel Kleitman recommended 20 minute breaks. Experiment with different lengths of breaks until you find a time at when your child is refreshed and able return to work ready to start again.

What are the most restorative activities to do during a break?

These days most of us gravitate towards social media during our breaks. Whilst connecting with our peer group and family can be restorative, it is often better done face to face if possible. Exercise is often heralded an excellent restorative activity; in a recent study at Princeton University they found that exercise releases the neurotransmitter GABA, which has a calming effect on the brain. Being with nature can also be important, indeed a recent paper in the Journal for Attention Disorders offered proof that a walk in the park was more restorative for children with attention deficits than a walk in any other environment. Other restorative activities include short naps, or short periods of meditation – I find the OMM app for one minute meditation an excellent resource.

So…….

We advise you to break revision down into small chunks, liaise with your child to help them workout their own concentration/productivity rhythm, and encourage them to take regular breaks of about 20 minutes: a walk in the park or the countryside has been proved to be the most effective activity to do on a break.

Mrs Victoria Bagnall, MA (Cantab), PGCE.

How to support and stay connected with your child while they are revising

How to support and stay connected with your child while they are revising

Parents want to do their best to support their children at all times, particularly during exam times, but it can be hard to know what and how much to do, especially when they can be grumpy and rude. There are some key things to remember and top tips here.

  1. Scaffold the young person’s life – this may well be happening anyway, but making sure that the structures and scaffolds of family life are securely in place during this time is important. This means having clear bedtimes, meal times, periods of quiet for studying etc. Routines make children feel safe and secure but supporting the brain and body with regularity is also going to be really helpful at this time. So now is not the time to have house parties, be absent as a parent or suggest all night box-set binges!
  2. Communication: Think carefully about what you say and how you say things to the young person. For example, try to make sure you always ask how the child is generally and focus on things they value before asking “what are you going to revise today?”. Use open-ended questions (“do you have a plan for how you are going to spend your day?”) rather than closed-ended questions (“are you going to do any revision today or just sit on your phone all day?”, with sarcasm). Show empathy for their situation (“it must be hard to have to work during your holiday period”) rather than disdain (“everyone else in the world does this too, you are not so special”).
  3. Watch your own emotions: we all want our children to do as well as they can in exams, particularly national exams, when stakes are high. This can raise our own emotions as we feel increasingly anxious about how they will do and frustrated by them not always seeming to do their best. We need to take time out when feeling overwhelmed and not pass on our anxiety or irritation to the young person as this will not help them. Be aware of your own bodily sensations and practice self-regulation and taking time out when feeling stressed. Notice thoughts you have that trigger feelings of stress (“he’s never going to get the right grades at this rate and then won’t get a good job and will end up homeless”). This is time when we can tend to catastrophize and over-generalise. Despite our desire to act when our children are stressed, what we really need to do is be truly responsive and listen to what they need. The more you are able to tune into how they are feeling, the more connected they will feel to you which they need more than ever right now. If a child feels like you are sensitive to their needs they are also more likely to be responsive to your advice.

 

Most importantly, remember that the results of these exams will not be the only determinant of the child’s success in life. Every child and young person will learn and grow just from taking part in the exams and offering an open space for reflection whatever the outcome is what counts.

 

Bettina Hohnen, Clinical Psychologist

April 2017

The Best Ways to Revise – what does the evidence say?

The Best Ways to Revise – what does the evidence say?

Revision Strategies

It is revision time in the UK, with many children facing internal and national examinations in the next few months. Here at Connections in Mind we have been reviewing the research evidence for the best revision strategies so our coaches can provide the best advice to students at this busy time. The evidence is surprising as many of the strategies students turn to have a poor evidence base for being effective ways to learn and commit information to memory.

The winners

Three key strategies are the winners when it comes to revising and they all fit with what we know about how the brain works. The following have been shown to be the top three ways to learn information:

  1. Distributed learning – also known as the spacing effect, is most effective. This means learning information more than once and distributed over a period of time. Cramming is not the best way to learn as things get quickly forgotten. The forgetting curve (see table) shows us that information is quickly forgotten and needs refreshing. The spaces between each ‘refresh’ can increase as the information becomes more embedded. So learning something on day 1 and then refreshing on day 3, then 7, then 20 is a sure way to learn. This fits with what we know about brain circuits needing reinforcing to strengthen and increase in efficiency.
  2. Testing is best – the fluency illusion is the term used to describe the fact that we often have a false confidence about what we know. Students can read through something and think “oh I know that” but when tested, they don’t remember as well. Testing has been shown to be the most effective studying technique to commit things to memory. Unfortunately, testing is loaded with negative connotations and students’ sense of self is often tied up with how well they did on tests. However, kids testing themselves on material learned, without the associated link to how ‘clever’ or not they are, is one of the most effective ways to learn.
  3. Mixed drill practice – mixing up your practice within subjects such as maths and science is important. For example, in maths, rather than doing a whole page of fractions, mixing up a fraction question with a simultaneous equations questions with a BIDMAS question is best. This prepares the brain for the unexpected and encourages students to recall the strategy or technique independently.

 

The losers

Some of the strategies known and loved by students have been shown by research to have low impact on learning and remembering.

  1. Re-reading – reading is a passive activity that has been shown to be an ineffective strategy for later recall. Perhaps reading something through once to familiarise yourself with the topic at the beginning of revision is helpful, but re-reading over and over again is not the best way to use your time.
  2. Highlighting and underlining – this can be helpful as a first step towards further more detailed study but it won’t be a good way to actually learn that information for later testing.
  3. Summarising – summarising is a skill that takes quite a bit of practice to get right. At the beginning of the learning process it can be helpful if done correctly and with support, but as a learning strategy it is also not a good use of time.

 

The take home messages:

Executive functioning skills are going to be key to ensuring your child is most effective in their revision and are therefore able to use time most effectively to not only do well, but also to have time off to relax and stay calm during the examination period. Skills to support are:

  1. Planning – having a good plan for each topic which ensures each subject is covered and they are reviewed a few times with increasing periods of time in-between sessions.
  2. Organisation – having access to testing questions and past papers will be crucial for enabling that all important ‘testing’ session at the end of each block of revision.
  3. Time management – this is such an important skill when revising to make sure sessions are started and finished on time. Breaks are as important as study sessions and sleep is crucial as this is when the brain consolidates memories. So without sleep the information may not stick!

Many other executive skills will be drawn on at this time, most notably emotional regulation which will enable the young person to stay calm and keep focused in the moment.

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