Friday, September 26, 2008

Pre-School Parenting: Biology, Behavior, and your Kid's Brain

Your child has changed. I understand that the whole of your kid is a work in progress. The changes I want to write about today have to do with the subtle, and often not-so-subtle changes that might catch you unaware. These are not growing changes of the kind that forces you back to the store for a new set of clothes, a larger car seat or even a top-of-the-head mark on the kitchen wall. These changes are happening inside your child’s skull.

The pre-fontal cortex of your child’s brain is not fully formed by age two, but the changes that this part of the brain is subjecting you to may seem as if it has taken a devilish turn. From birth, a pattern of sleep at night, don’t sleep at night has been almost a constant in your daily life and certainly high on your list of sleep-deprived complaints.

Some are fortunate to have a child that actually enjoys her/his sleep and wakes up on the “right side of the bed” everyday. But that is the subject of another blog post. Yet, the same part of the brain that gives you joy or something quite the opposite, will ultimately send a barrage of messages to your child that will, if it hasn’t already, caused you great alarm.

Suddenly your little angel, or as one father referred to his youngster the other day “my special little snowflake”, will alter behavior and become something totally alien. They will interrupt and erupt, cry suddenly, color on walls or throw whatever they have in their hand, eat, scream and otherwise shift gears at lightening speed. Life becomes impulsive. Control becomes wishful thinking.

You can blame biology. The density of those neurotransmitters is far lower than that of the average adult yet we expect a progression of growth in your child that coincides with height or weight. They are, for all intents and purposes, physically where they should be but not mentally where you might expect them to be all of the time. The key to solving this problem is growing your child’s self-possession.

In order for your child’s behavior to develop, quite literally by forcing the biology to bend in the right direction, some exercise is needed. I practice developing these kids here by using story time as a time in your pre-schooler’s day when they must listen to the words. Only on the most rare occasion do I share the pictures in the story during the first go through of a book. This absorption in the story, the eye contact and the subsequent quiz that follows some time later, all help your child’s focus on controlling their impulse to simply get up and play.

This sort of biological push now will help them when they enter school and are required, for example, to stop playing when recess ends. By age three, your child should not only be able to count objects, but to check the work of another child (or even you). This simple games of checking the counter help the child not only focus on getting it right the first time, but subjecting their attention to a fact checking.

Next time you take out the bread to make a sandwich, count the slices aloud. Ask your child to check your work. You need four oranges at the grocery store. Have them recount what you have chosen to make sure you got it correct.

Have you ever heard us sing about cleaning up? Do you have a bedtime song you and your child sing together while they get ready for bed? These are memory builders that force your child to do two things at once, focusing on the success of both.

Now I know what you are thinking. Are you or I supposed to be training our little charges with a future of multi-tasking? In a way, yes. We “walk and chew gum". We drive and listen to the radio, often singing with great gusto. I know none of you use a cell phone and drive but the idea of being able to focus your brain on numerous tasks at once is the result of how well your prefrontal cortex developed and because of this training, it now fires those messages of self-control to your everyday life.

These kinds of studies are still in their formation stages. Although scientists such as Jessica Fanning and Helen J. Neville at the University of Oregon have begun projects to help train parents, the programs still seem to over reach, taking the childhood out of childhood. Any of these tools for teaching, especially at this age should be integrated into a daily routine of interaction. There will be plenty of time for your child to fall into the classroom style of learning. But until then, make every opportunity to learn fun.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Asthma, Kids and the Daycare Setting

We all know what asthma is. The wheezing, the lack of breath, the seemingly sickliness that having an inhaler at a young age all contribute to the image that your child's problem is of your making. And perhaps it is. But in all likelihood, it isn't.

The odds are stacked against your child when it comes to asthma. Researcher Nicolaos C. Nicolaou, MD of England's University of Manchester has identified several variables contributing to the disease. Being male, testing positive for allergic sensitivity, having a mother with asthma, and having a mother who smoked during pregnancy all have been known to add to the child's problems with breathing. But what Dr, Nicolaou was not expecting was the effect of daycare on asthma.

With over 6.2 million children in the US suffering from the illness (according to the American Lung Association), the concerns about how this problem develops the more a country industrializes has had medical researchers in quandary. Why if, as we progress and become more prosperous to the risk of breathing problems actually increase? Turns out, it is your house and your attempts at creating the most sterile environment possible for your child.

Not that there is something inherently wrong with keeping a clean house - and you certainly don't want to change your ways simply because your child cannot breath - but your fastidious behavior has been found to be a contributor. Why? You have eliminated many of the germs and bacteria that children readily absorb and use as a defense against the problem.

Called the Hygiene Hypothesis, Dr Nicolaou discovered that putting your child in a daycare situation actually increases the chances of your child gaining control over the problem. The contact with other children often builds the immune system back to normal levels and may actually stem the root cause of the asthma. While exposure to other children works in this process, older siblings living with the asthmatic child do not have the same effect.

Nicolaou was quoted in a recent article o WebMD saying that: ""This is probably because the size of the exposure matters," Nicolaou says. "Being exposed to a lot of children very early appears to be more protective than being exposed to just a few." He added that the daycare solution is best for children who are genetically disposed to asthma.

Next: Is the medication we give them also a cause?