The York University Magazine

YorkU Fall 2014

The alumni magazine of York University

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Page 22 of 39

YorkU Fall 2014 23 hen children find it difficult to learn, the burden of failure is frequently thrown back onto the shoulders of the children them- selves – usually by the frustrated adults who are their caregivers, teachers or mentors. "Problem students" are accused of, among other things, not trying hard enough to inhibit their impulses, not concentrating enough, not doing their homework, not paying close attention and a host of other variables. The supposed reasons for their non-performance are myriad. It is invariably adults who are "writing the story" about the children's behaviour, with little or no understanding of the actual ways the brains and nervous systems of those children work. Luckily, there are people like York's Stuart Shanker, a distinguished research professor of psychology and philosophy, to explain why adults should take a different approach. Shanker sees it as his mission in life to explode the problem children myth and tackle their learning and behavioural difficulties head on – not by berating or blaming the victims, but by using knowledge gained from the latest scientific research findings on children's brains. "Our well-being clearly depends on how well the children are doing," says Shanker. "And far too many of our children are not doing well. But the reason is not because we care any less about them; it is because a number of forces have been unleashed that are leaving our children – and ourselves – exces- sively stressed." Recent books by other authors in the field of child develop- ment have documented stressors such as junk food and lack of exercise, and there are growing concerns about the physiolog- ical effects of too much screen time. Even over-urbanization makes the list. And according to Shanker, this stress dramati- cally affects how we interact with children. In 2005, a major new research initiative spearheaded by Shanker and child psychiatrist Dr. Stanley Greenspan (who died in 2010) was launched to build on new knowledge of the brain's development in ways that can help set children – including those with developmental disorders such as autism – on the path toward emotional and intellectual health. Working through York's Milton & Ethel Harris Research Initiative (MEHRI), Shanker and Greenspan used individual-difference relationship-based therapy (DIR), an intervention technique that mobilizes the emotions of children to promote healthy development. W The key to the work they did was to identify the different kinds of stressors that children were coping with and develop techniques for mitigating those stressors. They helped the chil- dren become aware of what it feels like to be calm, recognize when they are becoming agitated and learn how to get them- selves back to being calm. Shanker says all families can benefit from these basic practices. Shanker and Greenspan worked together for many years doing research and clinical observation, and they uncovered four formative levels of vital nurturing interactions that lead to language acquisition and reflective thinking. Shanker says special patterns of emotional signals must take place between a child and a parent or caregiver for the child to master these stages. They concluded that when these interactions do not occur, development problems can arise, including autism and severe language disorders. "While conventional wisdom holds that the ability to reason is genetically hardwired into components of our brains from birth, our research shows that reason is in fact formed by emotion itself, by the responses of infants to their environment and caregivers," says Shanker. "In fact, the brain starts to work as a seamless whole as a result of these interactions. They are the missing link in the development of symbolic thought and language is a central ele- ment in treating developmental difficulties." A key part of Shanker's research and fieldwork focuses on self-regulation. In the simplest terms, self-regulation is the ability to stay calmly focused and alert. Developmental scien- tists are now aware that the better a child can self-regulate, the better he or she can rise to the challenges of mastering progres- sively complex skills and concepts. Unlike compliance based on punishment, self-regulation nurtures the ability to cope with increasing challenges. Problems with self-regulation in childhood have been linked to risk factors for the development of mental health problems, memory problems, alcoholism, obesity, risky behaviours and even coronary heart disease. In a now-famous experiment on self-control done in 1989 by Walter Mischel, Yuichi Shoda and Monica Rodriguez, children were told they could have one marshmallow now or several later if they waited for the experimenter to come back into the room. Approximately 30 per cent of the four-year-olds in the experiment were able to wait. It turned out that the children who were able to wait had higher academic achieve- ments later in life, lower antisocial behaviour and reduced susceptibility to drug use. How a York professor took the latest findings in neuroscience and created new ways to help kids learn

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