The Whole Child

What is the most difficult task in integrating health and physical education with other subject matters? Why?

I think the most difficult task in integrating health and fitness education into other subjects is realizing the importance of such behavior. For far too long, our society – particularly the intellectual elite – has dismissed the physical and concentrated largely on the cerebral. It is not a unique observation to say that many educators treat education as an industrial process, where knowledge is poured into children’s heads. Fortunately the pendulum is swinging back towards center and current educational thought emphasizes child-centered and whole child teaching. In this vision of education, the decisions as to what if efficacious starts with the child. The question is how to optimally prepare our students for becoming creative, productive, successful, healthy, open hearted adults. This inquiry leads quickly to understanding a need for the re-integration of body and mind in the classroom. To teach a child, we need to take care of their intellect and their physicality simultaneously.

Two books I think every teacher should read are Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain and Strategies for Teaching Boys & Girls. The first book explains the research and practical results that show the critical connection between body health and fitness and brain health. Physical exercise not only builds a strong resilient body, it is essential to balancing the neurochemistry of the brain. The second book discusses a number of research based, child-centric strategies for helping children engage successfully in their own education. It emphasizes the need for relevance and novelty in lessons and the very high level of need for physical activity in the classroom. Complementing these two books is Brain Gym, a series of mental/physical activities to refresh, focus, and activate learning.

Unfortunately, mainstream education values classroom control above nearly everything. A teacher whose classroom appears chaotic, even if her children are excelling at performance criteria, will be viewed at best with suspicion. Control seems to be the primary fear of many educators. “Losing control of the class” is perhaps the biggest fear and biggest sin. The price of this is lower performing classrooms overall and a major equity problem for the large minority of students with strong physical needs and/or less powerful self-control mechanisms. The simple fact is we are educating our children unnaturally and many cannot or will not endure the discomfort.

It should be noted that this apparent indifference to the physical spill over into health in several ways. First, this indifference is clearly broadcast to most of our children on most days. Is it any wonder they too grow up not valuing the physical? Second, they certainly receive little formal training in health and there is little in the culture to support healthy decisions in the absence of such formal training. Third, being trapped in classrooms like egg laying hens does nothing to teach them of the joy of physical health and activity. Fourth, what PE we have often offer taxes their meager capabilities, leaving most with the sense that physical activity is unpleasant, hard, and something beyond their genetic ability. Finally, they are taught to subordinate health to other things society deems more important, two leading examples being achievement and convenience. Is it any wonder that so many Americans settle for fast food meals as they ricochet through their hectic lives?

Having decided to go contrary to the culture, a classroom teacher who wants to integrate health and fitness into her classes is left on shaky ground. She will be seen to be out of paradigm and she will have little support, in most cases. It is a bit of a leap into the dark. She must integrate lessons on health and fitness, at the cost of other core instructional activities, and she must take the time to address the fitness/activity needs of her students. Some argue that crisp transitions between activities is key to better student performance. Industrial logic suggests that more time on task is more learning. A health sensitive teach will add physical/mental refreshers into transitions, lengthening them. Fortunately, research and practice both confirm that hammering core subjects constantly is inferior to a balanced schedule. Study after study confirm that less time on core subjects balanced with more time on PE, recess, art, and music leads to increased performance in core subjects. The leap into the dark will bear fruit, we know that. So what is left is braving the social stigma in the school community. This is where quiet dedication and a willingness for non-judgement information sharing can help the teacher and, perhaps, change the school environment for the better. It may not, the teacher may feel she is constantly battling her peers and administrators. Then it’s time to look for a more convivial work environment.

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Gender Differences

Gender stereotyping is a very interesting, important, and complex subject.  Stereotype is defined as “a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2010).  Thus, stereotyping is oversimplified, uncritical, and perhaps even prejudiced.  It also lumps all members of the group into the same simplistic judgment.  On its face, stereotyping is wrong.

Our society has entertained many gender stereotypes over its history.  Most were directly prejudicial to women.  The most recent swing of the pendulum brought the culture to a belief in androgyny, a belief that all Homo sapiens have “the characteristics or nature of both male and female” (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2010).  However, recent neurobiological research demonstrates that this cultural assumption, however laudably equitable, is simply not correct.

A recent NIH/NIMH study found that “robust sex differences in developmental trajectories were noted for nearly all (brain) structures” (Lenroot et al., 2007).  The study also noted “peak gray matter volumes generally occurring earlier for females” and that “mean total cerebral volume was approximately 10% larger in males.  Total cerebral volume peaked at 10.5 years in females and 14.5 years in males” (Lenroot et al., 2007).  Thus, on average, male brains are larger than female brains and both total brain volume and gray matter volumes peaked 1 ½ to 2 years earlier in females than males.

A different study found that “girls rely on a supramodal language network, whereas boys process visual and auditory words differently” (Burman, Biten, & Booth, 2008).  In other words, females use different parts of their brain to process language and do so in a different fashion than males. 

With the recent developments in modern neural imaging technology, brains can be observed as never before.  A flood of research is revealing many new facts about how our brains work.  Many of those facts are revelations about how distinct average male and female brains really are.  One other study I would like to note is from a different field.  This study examined prenatal stress in rats and its effect on “latent inhibition (LI),” a Pavlovian conditioned response.  Fascinatingly, “prenatal stress increased the amount of LI only in the males” (Bethus, Lemaire, Lhomme, & Goodall, 2005).  In this pre-natal (i.e. almost entirely social influence free) study, female rats were unaffected. 

The body of evidence is large and growing larger that, on average, males and females have significant neurobiological, developmental differences.  Some are only in the timing of development, some are in structure and processing.  To be sure, there are no claims or assumptions of superiority for either gender.  However, unfortunately the easier and morally simpler assumption of androgyny is simple incorrect.  Unfortunately, there will be no simple answers in the area of gender differentiation.

Lenroot et al. (2007) sum it up nicely: “Differences in brain size between males and females should not be interpreted as implying any sort of functional advantage or disadvantage.  Size/function relationships are complicated by the inverted U shape of developmental trajectories and by the myriad factors contributing to structure size, including the number and size of neurons and glial cells, packing density, vascularity, and matrix composition.  However, an understanding of the sexual dimorphism of brain development, and the factors that influence these trajectories, may have important implications for the field of developmental neuropsychiatry where nearly all of the disorders have different ages of onset, prevalence, and symptomatology between boys and girls” (Lenroot et al., 2007, p. 1072).
 

References

Bethus, I., Lemaire, V., Lhomme, M., & Goodall, G. (2005, March 30). Does prenatal stress affect latent inhibition? It depends on the gender. Behavioural Brain Research, 158(2), 331-338. doi:10.1016/j.bbr.2004.09.013
Burman, D., Biten, T., & Booth, J. (2008, January 4). Sex differences in neural processing of language among children. Neuropsychologia, 46(5), 1349-1362 . doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2007.12.021 Retrieved from
Lenroot, R., Gogtay, N., Greenstein, D., Wells, E., Wallace, G., Clasen, L., Blumenthal, J., … Giedd, J. (2007, March 17). Sexual dimorphism of brain developmental trajectories during childhood and adolescence. NeuroImage, 36, 1065-1073. Retrieved from http://www.boysadrift.com/2007Giedd.pdf
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (2010). Androgyny. Retrieved February 25, 2010, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/androgyny
Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. (2010). Stereotype. Retrieved February 25, 2010, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/stereotype

Gender Stereotypes

What are some examples of gender stereotypes?  Describe the development of gender stereotyping from early childhood into adolescence.

Gender stereotyping can occur in many forms and at many stages of development.  Studies show that gender stereotyped behavior can be increased by parental behavior in very early childhood.  As one example, children’s scores on sex role discrimination at age 4 were elevated in children whose parents had shown sex-typed toy preference at 18 months (Fagot & Leinbach, 1989).  Similarly, another study identified the emergence of gender labeling at about 18 months (Zosuls et al., 2009).  Another study showed that the use of gender in functional categories (e.g. “Good morning, boys and girls”) by teachers in elementary school led to subsequent increase in gender stereotyping among the students (Bigler, 1995).  Interestingly, from a developmental point of view, this increase in gender stereotyping was largest among students who had not yet developed multiple classification skill.  Susan Witt studied the relative influence of parents and peers and found that parents had the more profound influence on gender stereotypes. In addition, she argues, “Sex role stereotypes are well established in early childhood” (Witt, 1997, para. 11).  Other research shows gender stereotypes to be quite persistent, “The experimental intervention with elementary school children led to a reduction of occupational stereotyping.  Children’s own occupational aspirations were not, however, significantly affected” (Bigler & Liben, 1990).

Gender stereotypes can be created and reinforced in many ways.  They can be accidentally reinforced by the unspoken assumptions of caregivers and peers. Gender discriminated color choices (e.g. pink & blue), toy choices (Barbies & GI Joes) and even behavioral expectations (playing catch & playing house) are all examples of unconscious gender role differentiation.  More deliberately, boys are frequently expected to play sports, be tough and exhibit characteristics our culture associates with masculinity. Likewise, girls are directed towards dolls and more feminine behaviors and pursuits. Statements like “You hit like a girl” and “Boys don’t cry” make crystal clear the societal expectations for both genders.  As socialization and maturation progresses, peer pressure to conform can easily come to include gender stereotyped behaviors.  The enforced conformity of adolescence certainly adds to the stereotyping, but as we’ve seen above, gender stereotypes are well in place from very early on.

References

Bee, H., & Boyd, B. (2007). The developing child (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Bethus, I., Lemaire, V., Lhomme, M., & Goodall, G. (2005). Does prenatal stress affect latent inhibition? It depends on the gender. Behavioural Brain Research, 158(2), 331-338. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6SYP-4DK6CJD-2&_user=10&_coverDate=03%2F30%2F2005&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1222824518&_rerunOrigin=google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=e7d13098aea78daa2a945fe5a7a14c84

Bigler, R. S. (1995, August). The role of classification skill in moderating environmental influences on children’s gender stereotyping: A study of the functional use of gender in the classroom. Child Development, 66(3), 1072-1087. doi: 10.1111/1467-8624.ep9509180275

Burman, D., Biten, T., & Booth, J. (2008). Sex differences in neural processing of language among children. Neuropsychologia, 46(5), 1349-1362 . doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2007.12.021

Fagot, B. I., & Leinbach, M. D. (1989, June). The young child’s gender schema: Environmental input, internal organization. Child Development, 60(3), 663-672. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.apollolibrary.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mnh&AN=2737015&site=ehost-live

Lenroot, R., Gogtay, N., Greenstein, D., Wells, E., Wallace, G., Clasen, L., Blumenthal, J., … Giedd, J. (2007, March 17). Sexual dimorphism of brain developmental trajectories during childhood and adolescence. NeuroImage, 36, 1065-1073. Retrieved from http://www.boysadrift.com/2007Giedd.pdf

ScienceDaily. (2008). Boys’ And girls’ brains Are different: Gender differences in language appear biological. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/03/080303120346.htm

Witt, S. D. (1997, Summer). Parental influence on children’s socialization to gender roles. Adolescence. Retrieved from http://gozips.uakron.edu/~susan8/parinf.htm

Zosuls, K. M., Ruble, D. N., Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Shrout, P. E., Bornstein, M. H., & Greulich, F. K. (2009, May). The acquisition of gender labels in infancy: Implications for gender-typed play. Developmental Psychology, 45(3), 688-701. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.apollolibrary.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=39568482&site=ehost-live

Human Development and Footballs

What do you think influences a child’s/adolescent’s development?

There are three major factors that influence human development.

The first is the common genetic inheritance of the species Homo sapiens. The general outline of development is contained in every human being’s DNA. From conception through birth and beyond, physiological development happens according to a common human blueprint. Synaptic development, myelination, and lateralization all occur on a schedule programmed into our common DNA (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 93-99). While experts cannot trace the exact physiological roots of behavioral development, it is clear that the increasing capacity of children parallels the increasing sophistication of the physiology of the body and brain.

The second factor is the specific genetic inheritance of individual human beings. The forty-six chromosomes Influence everything from appearance to physical abilities to personality to mental abilities. This unique individual genetic inheritance creates and defines each living entity in its raw form.

However, neither our common or specific genetic inheritance is determinant. The third influence is environment. As described by Aslin’s Models of Development (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 9), different aspects of development are differently sensitive to environment. Some, like vision or language, have critical or at least highly sensitive periods where some base level of stimulus is essential to proper future functioning. Other aspects, like IQ, result from a complex interaction of different genetic and environmental influences. However, it is clear that proper diet, positive stimulation, loving attention, and emotional and physical safety provide significant modifiers to the core genetic programming.

Imagine that a human baby is a football thrown for a deep pass. The common genetic inheritance is the physical laws operating on the football: gravity, friction, rotational forces, etc. The specific inheritance is the football itself: the shape, the weight, the color, the material, the stitches, the individual variations of this particular football. The environment is its passage through the air to its reception: humidity, wind, temperature and, most importantly, the human(s) at the far end, adjusting their behavior to the flight of the ball to provide a safe landing into loving arms.

Reference

Bee, H., & Boyd, B. (2007). The developing child (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Kindergarten and Developmental Readiness

This is a subject near and dear to my heart. There is a clear collision in modern American kindergarten between increasing academic demands and serious developmental differences between students. This four to six year old period is a time of major development, particularly in areas around writing, reading and reading comprehension. There are large differences in developmental capability amidst kindergarten students.

In addition to the variability between individuals, there now appears to be a systematic variance between the sexes. Research tells us that the language center development in the average 5 year old boy is equivalent to that of an average 3 1/2 year old girl (Sax, 2001, p. 5). We wouldn’t expect a 3 1/2 year old girl to master the academic demands of kindergarten. Yet in assigning expectations based on attendance of kindergarten, regardless of individual developmental readiness, we are doing the equivalent in many cases.

Kindergarten can be a critical period for students. It is their first introduction to formal education. It is a time where they begin to form opinions and expectations of themselves in an academic context and of school as an institution. I feel it is essential to provide the most positive, supportive experience to kindergarten students. Part of that experience must be a clear recognition of their individual developmental readiness and the necessity of finding academic success for each student during this time. Some of this burden falls upon the parents and their preschool advisors to properly evaluate a child’s readiness for modern kindergarten. But necessarily much of this burden will fall on kindergarten teachers to provide this positive experience. Understanding the developmental landscape of this age group can make that task clearer, if not easier.
References

Lenroot, R., Gogtay, N., Greenstein, D., Wells, E., Wallace, G., Clasen, L., Blumenthal, J., … Giedd, J. (2007, March 17). Sexual dimorphism of brain developmental trajectories during childhood and adolescence. NeuroImage, 36(), 1065-1073. Retrieved from http://www.boysadrift.com/2007Giedd.pdf

Sax, L. (2001). Reclaiming kindergarten: Making kindergarten less harmful to boys. Psychology of Men and Masculinity, 2(), 3-12. Retrieved from http://www.boysadrift.com/Sax_APA_2001.pdf

Critical Brain Growth

What factors must you consider for classroom instruction and management in relation to periods of critical brain growth?

There are a number of ways child development should impact classroom instruction and management strategies.

First, in some cases development is very difficult or even impossible to accomplish outside of a certain time frame (the “critical period”). This long observed phenomenon has been scientifically documented in humans or other animals in such varied areas as motor systems, visual systems, the auditory system, the somatosensory system, the taste/olfactory system. It also occurs in “multimodal functions” such as imprinting, stress and anxiety, sleep and language (Hensch, 2004). To the extent this is true, it is obviously essential to provide the appropriate stimulus at the appropriate time. Likewise, and more frequently, development may be most easily accomplished in certain time frames (the “sensitive period”). Again, teachers and curriculum designers need to be aware of current research and incorporate that knowledge into classroom stimulus.

Second, these critical periods of brain growth are reflected in major changes in capabilities (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 97). As a teacher or curriculum designer it is important to understand the developmental growth taking place in children of the relevant age. It is a kind of abuse to ask and expect children to perform tasks (educational or behavioral) which they simply lack the capability to perform. This knowledge is complicated by the fact that children enter these periods of growth at varying times. Also, the year or more age differences of children in the same grade further exacerbates this capability differentiation. Thus, some students may be fully capable of a task while others many not be. The ability to perform assigned tasks also has knock-on implications for the sense of self-worth of the students and their social status. Teachers need to be aware of these factors and monitor the classroom accordingly.

Finally, there is a nutritional component to many stages of growth (Bee & Boyd, 2007, p. 96-97). While there is a limit to what school officials can accomplish in this regard, giving students the knowledge, opportunity and support for proper nutrition is often overlooked and quite helpful.
 
Having said all that, I agree with Bee & Boyd, “Most neuroscientists agree that it is far too soon to form conclusions about how knowledge of brain development might inform ‘brain-based’ teaching strategies for students of different ages” (2007, p. 96). I think that thinking about ‘critical stages of growth’ and other neuro-biological concepts with regard to school aged children is best done in context with other developmental theories. It is absolutely essential for teachers to understand human development, especially as regards behavior and learning, but applying this knowledge in the classroom is best done with a very broad brush rather than a surgical scalpel. Observing each individual student and their learning experience, in the context of a wealth of developmental knowledge, is the way to help each child achieve full potential.

References
Bee, H., & Boyd, B. (2007). The developing child (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.
Hensch, T. K. (2004). Critical period regulation. Annual Review Of Neuroscience, 27, 549-579. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mnh&AN=15217343&site=ehost-live
Wikipedia. (2009). Critical period. Retrieved February 11, 2010, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_period