Your memory and how it works

This post contains an extract from Dr Don Blackerby’s ‘Rediscover the joy of learning’.

Dr Blackerby has a Neuro-Linguistic Programming background and works largely with children presenting with ADHD symptoms and other learning problems. 

If you find yourself working with or helping children with learning difficulties, it is sometimes rewarding for you and them to intersperse the ILT programme with some useful learning strategies. If you like the extract given below, you might be interested in reading the rest of his book.  Shirley has personally shared the spelling strategy with many children, and with great success!  It is fun to see them succeed and show a spurt of confidence and self-esteem.

Often in school, learners are asked to remember some important information. This may be spelling words, vocabulary words, dates, names, etc.  Too many times the learners flounder around trying very hard to memorise the information and yet when test time comes, they find that they cannot remember it. Many times this comes from the fact that they have no idea how their memory works or how to store and retrieve information in their brain. The following is one way that is useful – particularly in academic subjects.

In order for your memory to work for you and for you to trust your memory, you need to know the following: 

  • Where you are storing the information
  • That you have the information well represented internally
  • How to retrieve the information

Your choices of where to store information are limited to five well-known senses – visual, auditory, kinesthetic (touch and feeling), smell or taste. In school, for all practical purposes, you are limited to auditory, kinesthetic and/or visual.

The auditory field has a major limitation in that it is linear. That is, you can only consciously process one word at a time and it has to be in a particular order. It is, therefore, very slow. For many learners the auditory field is also very boring. The auditory field is very useful in singing, reciting and other subjects requiring auditory recall. In the academic subjects, it is most useful for retrieval purposes.

The kinesthetic field is very useful in sports, typing and other like typing ‘use the body’ subjects, but for most of the academic subjects it is difficult to store information in and it is also very slow.

While all three play an important part in memory, your visual field has many advantages. `it is the fastest.  It is the most interesting to learners of today who were brought up on TV and other screens. You can store vast amounts of information in one picture and access any part of it instantly.

So, for academic subjects like spelling, vocabulary, history, maths, etc., the best field to store the information is in the visual field. That is, make internal pictures in your mind’s eye of whatever it is you are trying to remember. It may be the actual word or date or it may be a picture of the meaning of the word. Later we will cover how the auditory and kinesthetic fields can be very useful in the third point above – that is in how to retrieve information.

Now that we know to store the information in pictures, the question arises about the second point – how to know we have a good picture.  The answer is easy but takes practice for some people. If you are trying to store a word, for example, you take a picture of what the word looks like. When you think you have a good clear picture in your mind’s eye, you spell the word backwards – from right to left. This is a check to see if you have a good picture because you can only smoothly spell the word backwards if you have a good picture.

Once you can do this, the question arises about how to retrieve it. Many tests in school are given auditorially – that is, the teacher asks the question or the learner reads the question by sounding out the words. Therefore, we want the sound of the words to ‘hook’ or bring up the picture of the information so the learner can answer the question off his or her internal picture.

This will happen if you connect the sound of the information to the internal picture. To do this, you simultaneously say the information while you hold the picture of the information in your mind’s eye.  The fact that you are looking at the picture while saying the information logically connects the sound and the picture. A learner learning a spelling word, for example, needs to practice this sound and picture connection about 6 to 8 times, preferably over several days.[1]

Developing a visual learning strategy

One of the most common problems that some learners have is the tendency to not make visual images of the words they hear.  This creates several problems with these learners.

  1. They have to resort to a slower learning strategy such as auditory or kinesthetic. The visual strategy is significantly faster.
  2. For most academic subjects the auditory and kinesthetic strategies are inappropriate and even boring, so the learner who does not know how to make these images is forced to work longer and harder at a task that is boring and ineffective. Guess what this learner’s reaction will be when he is faced with the task of doing his homework or of paying attention in the classroom?

Why would the students not translate the words they read and hear into visual images? Obviously most of them don’t know they are supposed to do it!  Learners sometimes show amazement and surprise at the idea that they could make up their own pictures for the words they were reading off the pages of their textbooks.

One of the causes of this seems to occur in the transition of the reading instruction from the early grades to the middle grades. In the early grades when a word is introduced to the learner, a picture of the object is displayed next to the word. The learner has a natural bridge from seeing and saying the word to having an internal image of the object.  If the instruction also requests the learner to access an experience the learner has had relative to the object, then the word also has a bridge to the kinesthetic (having the learner find a use for the word or make up a sentence using the word can also create a kinesthetic experience for the learner).

This practice is fairly quickly discontinued, however, and the learners have to make up their own pictures.  As learners get older and the words get more abstract, it becomes less natural and harder to do and nobody seems to inform them that they should make pictures of the material and some never get around to it.

Because of the way reading is taught in the grade schools, some learners learn to read by just saying the words, either externally or internally. They do not transform into either visual or kinesthetic unless they already have that accidentally installed in their heads by a personal experience.  For example, a learner who is shown and handles a copy of the country’s Constitution will have a rich visual/auditory/kinesthetic representation of the word Constitution.  When he reads that word in a history book, for example, the rich internal representation will be elicited. Obviously, the schools can’t rely on all learners having these kinds of experiences in all of the subjects they teach.

These rich internal representations can be deliberately internally generated by the learners and the schools need to teach how to do this to those learners who have not yet figured it out. In fact, one of the primary differences between the better learners and the struggling learners is this very ability

So, what do the learners do who haven’t yet learned to do this? Besides not doing their homework, or at least procrastinating on doing it, what kind of learning strategies do they come up with to attempt to do their homework? Well, some are very ingenious!

One well-meaning teenager complained that her studying took too long, much longer than her fellow students. It seemed to her that what the other learners could get accomplished in one hour, took her several hours to do, and it was getting worse with the passing years.  This was a very conscientious student who wanted to succeed in school but was becoming very depressed by her lack of success and the downward trend of her marks. In fact, it was affecting her self-esteem and her attitude about school.

On looking at her reading strategy, it seemed that she used a very complicated auditory strategy. After she had read for a while (by sounding out the words internally) she would realise she did not know what she had read and go back and read it again – this time slower! After trying it a couple of times slower and slower, she would go back to each major word and auditorially insert the definition of the word in the sentence. Guess what that did to her reading speed?

The major words would be words for which she did not have a visual representation. In her case, because her parents had provided a rich background, she had some internal representations of abstract words but not all. She literally would have holes in her comprehension of what she was reading. That’s why she would go back and insert definitions of the major words. She would ultimately comprehend, but only after much effort and in a time consuming manner.

Another young man had much the same problem only he had not had the rich experiences the young lady had so he didn’t have holes in his comprehension, he just didn’t have any comprehension. He was also a dedicated student who spent all of his spare time studying. He was a seventh grade learner who stopped building his reading vocabulary (visual representation) when the schools stopped giving him pictures with words. As the words got more and more abstract, he got further and further behind because all he could do was slow down his reading and try again and again. The only words that elicited a visual representation in him were words that described objects or actions in his real world. This is quite a limitation in school.

So what can be done with these learners? Can they be taught to read and learn so that it is interesting? The answer is YES – and Don tells us to read on!

But first a summary:

To be able to visualize in rich detail, to be able to hold the image so steady you can copy off it, to be able to instantly access large amounts of information, is a skill so significantly valuable for succeeding in school.  The learners who do it have an easier time and do far better in school then the students who don’t.

Back in the olden days (before television), children listened to stories told by their elders or on radio and they made up the pictures because they had to in order to really enjoy the story (sound effects also helped).  Now with TV, the pictures are ready made. I haave had many students who do well in the classroom when the teacher visually presents the material and do poorly when the teacher does not.  They simply did not know that they were supposed to make up their own pictures and the teachers did not know they were supposed to teach them to do it.

One last reason for teaching a visual learning strategy. Imagine having an audio tape of a class you were taking. You can remember the teacher talking about a particular topic, parts of which you could remember including the terms he used. If you wanted to access that information from the audio tape, you would have to do it in a linear fashion. That means you would have to play the tape from the first and listen to every word until you got to the terms you were listening for.  That is time consuming. Now imagine that you have the lecture stored as a detailed photograph or picture. As soon as you say the word or term to yourself and picture what it would be like, you would have instant access to the part of the lecture you were looking for. That is what a visual learning strategy offers. The old cliché that a ‘picture is worth a thousand words’ is only a part of the power of the visual learning strategy. The fact that you have instant access to any part of the picture is what is really helpful to you as the student.

Applying this principl 

Let’s see how a visual strategy can help when learning spelling words.  Many learners are told to write the words five to ten times or to sound the words out phonetically. Sometimes

This works but many times it does not.  Try this extremely effective strategy  for learning spelling words in an easy and fun way.

All excellent spellers have one trait in common. They spell a word off of a very clear internal picture of the word. So the question is how do we teach other learners to do that?  In order to help a child learn to spell using this new spelling strategy, it is important you lead her through these steps for each new spelling word:

  1. Have her write the word divided into syllables (e.g. Gau teng).
  2. Have her analyse the word by scrutinizing each syllable and discussing which one is likely to prove difficult to remember. With the example given, a child may well say that the sound of the letters ‘au’ in Gau may be mistaken as ‘ow’ and cause them to make a mistake.Becoming aware and cognitively processing this type of information helps memory and also keeps the child personally involved in the learning.
  3. Now she looks at the spelling word and REMEMBERS WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE.If the word is long, make a picture of each syllable and then put all the pictures together.

From from her internal image, have her spell the word BACKWORDS (from right to left) out loud to you.  You check to make sure she spells it correctly. Have her do it several times.

  1. Once she can spell it backwards (and only then), have her sound the word out WHILE looking at the internal image of the word. This ‘hooks’ the sound of the word to the internal image of the word.
  2. Then have her spell it from left to right off the internal image.
  3. Praise her for her success and new skill.Go to the next spelling words and repeat the steps.

After the above strategy has been completed on each of the spelling words, practice by picking random words off the spelling list and have the learner spell them. After practicing a word six to eight times, the learner should be able to just say the word, see the internal image and spell it correctly, without having to spell it backwards.  Practicing the spelling words over time (like a few days) will drop the correct spelling into long term memory.

Some additional tips and/or variations on using the spelling strategy are 

  1. Get learners into a visualizing mode by having them imagine something very familiar such as a friend, grandparent, pet or movie star.
  2. Before you launch into this spelling strategy with new and difficulty words, teach them the strategy by spending one or two sessions having them learn to spell small and familiar words backwards. Gradually increase the size of the words until they are the same size and complexity as the words on their spelling list. Let them give you words to spell backwards so you can make it a game.
  3. Some variations on step 1 of the spelling strategy are:
    1. Have the learners look at the spelling word and write it down before they make an internal image
    2. Have the learners write the word in the air with their fingers on an imaginarty chalkboard
    3. While you slowly spell the word out loud, have the students ‘print it’ in their minds’ eye. You may have to repeat it several times.
    4. When the words start to get longer, have them break the words down into syllables or miniwords.

Remember that the reason you have the learner spell the word backwards is to assure yourself and her that she has a clear internal image of that word 

[1]

Busy boys – do they have ‘ADHD’?

                                                                                           

 

It’s come to my attention that quite a few very young boys are being described as ‘ADHD’ or hyperactive.  They seem to be regarded as being overly ‘busy’, mainly by their preschool teachers. Are we forgetting that most young children are highly active, energetic and generally spend much time ‘on the move’?  My long years of experience have shown that highly active young boys generally settle down as they grow, perform well at school and fail to develop any attention or other learning related problems.

So why are teachers sometimes labelling youngsters incorrectly?  Perhaps we need to consider how they come to this decision and consider what other aspects may be contributing to the children’s inattentive behaviours. 

A child who fails to concentrate in one situation is in danger of being seen as a child who can’t concentrate in any situation. If a child doesn’t sit still he is in danger of being called hyperactive. His parents might be panicked into believing hyperactivity and poor concentration are permanent conditions which will need specialist treatment, including medication.

Highly mobile youngsters may show a disinclination to sit down and engage in table tasks.  Their preference will be for outdoor play, usually very physical.  Or others may seem to dislike concentrating on teaching materials, rejecting colouring-in, crafts, puzzles and so on.  They prefer any number of other games or activities that are enjoyed at home.    Boys in particular need to be physically engaged and take much longer to adapt to more sedentary tasks.  They may not want to concentrate on the teaching events, listen to stories sitting quietly in a circle, or follow the teacher’s instructions.

Check his concentration

You can check whether your child can concentrate by giving him something to do which he enjoys doing, and which takes concentration.  If your child can pay attention to the activity for at least five minutes you will know he can concentrate (and sit still).  It’s important to emphasise that if someone can concentrate in one situation, then the problem is not an inability to concentrate. If your child’s attention wanders before the five minutes have passed, maybe he does need your help.  The nature of the help will depend on your assessment of the situation so let’s consider some relevant points.

  1. Have realistic expectations.Some children seem to be able to concentrate better than others.  If you compare one child to others, you may be unrealistic in terms of what he can and can’t do.  Instead, compare what your child is doing this week with what he was doing last week; how he behaved when he went to bed last night; how he played with other children at school compared with how he plays with them at home. When you focus on your individual child and notice changes in his behaviour, it helps avoid becoming trapped into thinking that your child has a problem simply because he’s different from others.
  2. Avoid using checklists.Checklists can convince you that your child has a serious problem because they can be so all inclusive that parents or teachers will find something on the list that applies to that child.  They make you feel they are describing unusual behavior but often they are only describing things that every child will do sometimes.  Checklists for ADHD can include the following questions 
  • Does your child forget instructions?
  • Does your child have a short temper?
  • Does your child fidget?
  • Does your child constantly ask questions?
  • Does your child leave his bedroom untidy?
  • Does your child produce messy work?

Doesn’t this look like a list of the stages that all children go through and outgrow?

  1. Does your child know how to pay attention?Some children will seem to pay attention automatically.  However, every child learns differently and for some, the ability to attend doesn’t come naturally. They need help in learning to concentrate and the good news is that concentration can be taught. For children to learn concentration, they must be given responsibility, must feel that their contribution to family life matters and must have the chance gradually to develop the skills everyone needs in order to be able to function successfully.
  2. Does your child only pay attention when it suits him?The reason for this may be because what he should be doing is: too difficult, too boring, too tedious or not clearly understood.  The child will simply try to get out of something he doesn’t want to do or feels incapable of doing.  This avoidance behavior needs investigating and a good place to start is to find out whether or not he understands how to learn or how to approach the task given. If children are not expected to learn to do things at home, they may struggle to learn at school.  Setting the dining table is a good example of an age-appropriate task that can be used to teach a young child to learn.  It’s a simple everyday activity but it needs a system. While busy, your child will have to keep thinking until the job is done.   Having chores to do at home are good learning opportunities that have unexpected spin-offs!

What to do?

If reports from school concern you, don’t ignore them but don’t overreact either. First do your own assessment of the situation and then, if need be, find a helping professional that will look holistically at the situation.   While most of the younger boys suspected of having ‘ADHD’ will not need intervention, some might well benefit from help.  Unusual behaviours can have many different causes – which is why ILT practitioners are taught to consider all possibilities. 

 

Some thoughts on sleep routines

Is your child having trouble falling asleep?  This seems to be a common problem – especially around the ages of 10 – 14 and one that worries parents as we all know that children need to get a proper night’s sleep. 

The literature available suggests that one of the more successful approaches to the problem is to ensure a bedtime routine.   This is especially effective if a child’s sleeping problems can be traced back to habits the child has developed that interfere with good sleep. 

The first step would be to check to make sure your child’s routines are sleep-friendly. For example, one of the best ways to ensure healthy sleep is setting a consistent wake-up time and sticking to it. The wake-up time doesn’t have to be exactly the same time every day, but it should be within a two-hour window.

Although it may seem helpful to let children sleep in on the weekends, it actually disrupts their internal clock. That makes it much tougher to get back into a weekday sleep routine on Monday. Sleep deprivation then gets worse during the week.

Also, consider your children’s use of electronic devices before bedtime. Many tweens and teens have televisions and computers in their bedrooms. They keep their cellphones close by at all times. These devices can make it hard to disengage from stimulating activities.

For the best sleep, children should turn off all electronic devices at least 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. This gives the brain time to relax and wind down, making it easier to fall asleep. It is strongly recommend that computers and TVs be kept out of a child’s bedroom. It is best for cellphones to be shut down and stored in another room at night.

Children should avoid any food or beverages that contain caffeine or sugar at least two to three hours before bedtime. Daily exercise and other physical activity can aid sleep. But have them finish those activities at least two hours before he goes to bed. Also, even if they are sleepy during the day, encourage them not to nap. Naps do more harm than good when it comes to getting good sleep because they often make falling asleep at night harder than ever.

For some children, when they lie down at night worries and concerns creep into their minds, making it hard to relax and fall asleep. To help clear their minds, it may be useful for them to take a few minutes before bedtime to write down anything that’s on their minds or tasks they need to do. Once they are on paper, sometimes children are better able to let their concerns go and get to sleep more easily.

Although it is not a common condition, another source of a child’s problem could be a sleep disorder related to the workings of his internal, or biological, clock. The most common such problem with tweens and teens is called delayed sleep phase syndrome. Children who have this sleep disorder are “night owls.” According to their internal clock, their day is longer than 24 hours. As a result, they tend to fall asleep at progressively later and later times each night and then have difficulty waking up in time to go to school.

It is important for your child’s sleep problem to be addressed. Too little sleep can make it hard for a child to concentrate and pay attention at school. It can lead to mood swings and irritability, and can increase a child’s tendency to accidents.

Try to first address any habits that may be interfering with your child’s sleep. If changes in bedtime habits don’t help, make an appointment to see a sleep specialist in case he or she has a sleep disorder.

The content of this post was sourced from the Mayo Clinic. 

 

Parents – trust your instincts

 

It’s the end of another term and with that comes the report from school.  Now, as parents, you have to read what one or more other human beings think of your child. This can be a pleasure but can also cause confusion and even concern.  How seriously should you take the schools’ verdict on your child’s performance, behaviour, growing personality and abilities?

Obviously teachers are trained professionals and can be very helpful in identifying areas needing help or areas of great potential.  But as a parent, you are equipped with knowledge and understanding of your child that no other person can hope to equal.  For this reason, my message today is that you should learn to trust in your ‘gut feelings’ concerning your child – especially if they conflict with the opinions of others.

Over many years of dealing with families whose children show one or other need, I’ve come to value the opinions of parents.  Very often conversations with them are prefaced with “I’m only his/her parent so I’m probably wrong, but ……”.  Then the parent goes on to present me with a description of the child that, after thorough evaluation, is found to be highly accurate and insightful, but sometimes contradicts the teacher’s findings.

I’ve known many parents who instinctively felt that their child wasn’t really ready to learn, yet felt intimidated enough by officialdom to send them into formal schooling.  Sometime down the line, they are referred for help with problems caused not by any lack of intelligence but instead a slower rate of neurodevelopment. Others may instinctively know that their young child is ready for school but are told to keep them back.  These children may end up being frustrated and bored at school and have to possibly take the unwise step in being accelerated into a higher grade somewhere along the line.

This doesn’t mean that parents don’t ever make mistakes.  Plenty of parents are guilty of pushing their children too fast and too far before they are ready; they are over-ambitious for children to succeed; some neglect children unintentionally due to work and lifestyle pressures, some refuse to recognise a needy area in the child, and so on.  That, however, is not the message intended here. 

I could write screeds about the occasions when parents were spot on in their analysis of the causes of their child’s behaviour, in contrast with that of the school.  I recall a parent desperately sharing her feeling that her young son’s undesirable, hyperactive, non-compliant behaviour during the Grade 0 school day was due to his disinterest in classroom events.  This was not accepted by the teacher, who saw the symptoms as being signs of anti-social tendencies, mental disorders, impulsivity, disobedience and more.  The mother persevered with her belief and did not seek any intervention. The following year saw a drastic change in behaviour and when challenged, the youngster offered, “School is better now. We’re learning proper stuff.”

Something else to be taken into consideration is that what you want to teach your child is not necessarily what others want to teach theirs.  What your child needs to be taught depends on the society into which he is being raised and in which he will have to cope.  That means that others may not understand the culture of your family and have unrealistic expectations of your child – and your way of raising him.

When you feel that something is not right with your child, with the school situation, with health issues, with friendships, you don’t need to apologise for being ‘only’ a parent.  You don’t always need to rush off for professional confirmation or intervention. It is helpful to have an impartial outsider confirm your beliefs and in some cases might be wise, but this isn’t always essential. The chances are that you’ll have your child’s best interests at heart and your decisions and actions will be based on the most intimate and complete knowledge of the child possible.  Added to that, you know the child’s origins – you understand the gene pool that created him or her.  Trust your feelings.

Really effective help for families of picky eaters

 

 

 

“WE’VE TRIED EVERYTHING – NOTHINGS HELPS, NOTHING MAKES THINGS BETTER”

“I JUST DON’T KNOW HOW MANY MORE MEALTIMES LIKE THIS WE CAN TAKE…”

These are real quotes from parents who felt like they had come to the end of the line in terms of finding solutions to their child’s picky eating. The internet can be a fantastic source of support for parents, but there are so many articles out there, often offering conflicting advice. It can be really hard to know what to trust, and sometimes, too much information can just feel plain overwhelming.

Recently I came across Jo Cormack who specialises in childhood eating challenges.  She gave me permission to reproduce this article.  I would earnestly suggest that you visit her website and take advantage of the help she and her team offer.  Details are at the end of this post.

You’ve had your child’s weight and growth checked and it’s all fine. You’ve ruled out physiological causes of their eating issues, like allergies or physical problems with chewing or swallowing. Everyone tells you that they will grow out of it; that it’s only a phase!  – Just put the food in front of them and wait for them to eat it, because “they won’t starve”. 

But for some children who are extremely wary of unfamiliar foods – the ones who cling to their safe foods like a life raft in a stormy sea, and who really, truly need to know that the food they are offered is firmly within their comfort zone; these children need a bit more help. I call these children cautious eaters

No amount of gentle (or forceful) persuasion, bribery, creative presentation or talk about the nutritional benefits of food will convince a genuinely cautious eater to eat something that they don’t feel comfortable with. In fact, research shows that trying to encourage children to eat can actually make their picky eating even worse.

Serving cautious eaters foods that they don’t feel okay with in the hope that they will eventually get hungry enough to relent and eat something, can end in several terrifying days where children simply don’t eat. This is deeply distressing both for them and for you. Not to mention dangerous.

It is so tough on parents when they don’t know what their next move should be. We can deal with pretty much anything if we feel that we know what we need to do, and we have the support required to do it. There is nothing worse than that feeling that you know your child needs your help, but you’ve simply run out of ideas.

I understand this anxiety and desperation: The urge to feed and nourish our children is one of the strongest instincts a parent has, and to be honest, most of the parents who reach out to me are already at a very low point with their child’s eating… sometimes things have to get to rock bottom in order to ignite a change. 

Help is at hand

I want to share an incredibly valuable strategy that I use in my clinical work when I feel that a child’s picky eating is caused by a genuine fear of unfamiliar and disliked foods. It is all about laying the foundations for helping a child enjoy a varied diet, by teaching them to tolerate unfamiliarity. 

Before I get into what this strategy looks like, I want to explain a little bit about how anxiety can be be at the heart of a child’s eating issues, because seeing your child’s eating through this lens can be a complete game-changer.

 CHILDREN CAN BECOME ANXIOUS ABOUT FOOD FOR MANY REASONS:

  • Perhaps they have sensory processing issues and their experience of eating certain food is so overwhelming to them that it is actually frightening
  • Perhaps they have a naturally cautious and anxious temperament; for them, an unfamiliar food (just like an unfamiliar situation or person) can be really challenging
  • Perhaps they have got into the habit of using their eating behaviours as a way of feeling in control. The idea of not being in control of their eating may be very scary as it takes a coping mechanism away from them
  • Perhaps they are not used to being offered foods that they don’t know and like. If parents consistently stop offering foods at the first signs of rejection, children quickly learn to fear the unfamiliar

This is not an exhaustive list of the reasons why a child may be anxious about disliked and unfamiliar foods. But it has a common theme:cautious eaters feel safe when their food is familiar and unsafe when it is not. If they are expected to eat foods which are not on their safe list, this is extremely anxiety-provoking. 

Laying the foundations for change: a 3 step approach to helping your cautious eater

1) Empathy.Before you can truly be there for your cautious eater, you need to try to understand how it feels to be in their little shoes.

It can be a bit of a shift of mindset to understand that your child’s response to food is not ‘bad behaviour’ – that it doesn’t necessarily fall into the categories of boundary testing or (developmentally normal) struggles for autonomy that run-of-the-mill picky eating can often be understood as.

Your child isn’t trying to get attention, they are simply really, really scared of foods which are not on their safe list. Especially for children with an unusually high degree of sensory sensitivity, the experience of eating foods that are challenging in terms of taste, texture, appearance or smell, is just so intense.  

Many young children can’t verbalise these fears. They may act out, and express their feelings through aggression or alternatively they may withdraw. The first thing you need to do in order to help them is acknowledge that their anxiety is very real indeed and is not a choice. Research is increasingly linking anxiety in children to eating struggles. However hard it may be to imagine being scared of the wrong brand of crackers – appreciating that your child’s reactions  may be anxiety-driven can be very powerful.

2) Make sure that you have a good understanding of your role in relation to feeding your child. You may well already be familiar with Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility (DoR) model. If not, you can learn about it on theEllyn Satter Institute website  where you will also find a very useful downloadable pdf about DoR. There are also lots of great articles written by feeding professionals about how DoR can help your family, like this article from Natalia Stasenko or this oneby Sarah Remmer, which includes a fab kitchen printable. If you are more of a book worm than a blog reader, this short, accessible bookby Katja Leccisi, provides a great overview of how to understand your feeding role.

3) Teach your child to expect variation.This is the killer strategy that will make all the difference. You are seeing things from your child’s perspective, you have educated yourself about your role in relation to feeding your child. But you are stuck, because your child will only accept a limited list of foods. 

You need to begin to teach your child to accept and expect the unfamiliar, in the context of their safe foods.

Much of my work with picky eaters draws heavily on cognitive behavioural therapeutic theory. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) teaches us that if we avoid something we are scared of, that fear becomes stronger. If we confront our fear and manage to do something that is outside of our comfort zone, the fact that nothing catastrophic happened – it didn’t give rise to a traumatic experience – tells our brain to produce a slightly smaller anxiety response next time that situation comes up.

A key aspect of successful exposure therapy is about making sure that you set people up to succeed and not fail. This makes sense if you thing about it; if you try something scary and find that the outcome is very upsetting because the goal was just not realistically achievable, you reinforce your urge to avoid that situation and your fear increases.

Setting your child up to succeed

You need to introduce variety in a way that will be manageable for your child and which they will not experience as intimidating. You do this by drawing up a list of their safe foods and devising teeny weeny baby changes to the foods on the list. These changes are not meant to be hidden from your child; we’re not talking about sneaky changes that they may not notice as this erodes trust and will defeat the object.

The kind of baby steps I’m thinking of, are ones that your child will both notice and cope with. For example, if your they like plain pasta, take a pasta shape that you know they usually accept and cut it in two (when it’s cooked… cutting dry pasta is no mean feat).

Combination and deconstruction

I use the twin concepts of ‘combination’ and ‘deconstruction’ as a jumping-off point for devising tiny changes to your child’s safe foods. Combination is all about pairing two safe foods in a way that is new for your child, and deconstruction is literally about taking food apart and re-presenting it in a slightly altered form.

For this strategy to work, you need to understand that you have a lot of work to do before your child is even ready to try new or disliked foods, BUT that there is plenty of room for manoeuvre within the context of their safe foods. Some children will naturally be confident eaters, but cautious eaters need to learnfood-confidence. And they need to learn it from within their comfort zone.

How this strategy works in practice 

At meals, introduce a tiny change to one of your child’s safe foods. Don’t draw attention to it, just make it available to your child. Don’t praise them for eating it; this may increase pressure and fuel anxiety. Just remain focused on keeping your meals relaxed and upbeat. Perhaps initially try introducing change to their best meal of the day. For example, many picky eaters do best at breakfast – perhaps your child has toast. Cut it into fingers rather than squares. If they like raspberry jam, try sieving it before you put it on their toast so that the texture is very slightly different.

Laying the foundations for change (by helping your picky eater get used to unfamiliarity via constant tiny changes to their safe foods) will set the scene for the longer term task of introducing variety into their diet. It can take weeks – months even – for children to begin to feel comfortable with unfamiliarity. Introduce it at their pace, tune in to them and their responses.

You need to be patient, you need to be persistent and you need to be creative. Above all, you need to be in it for the long haul. But every time your child eats one of their safe foods in a new and different form,  you are inching incrementally closer to giving them a positive relationship with food that will last a lifetime.

Jo does add a caveat to this advice.  She says that the approach is very effective but only once your family’s mealtime dynamics are right (meaning that meals are family occasions where the conversations includes all members) and when optimum feeding practices are in place.  If not, these ground rules need to be attended to first.

For parents wanting to know more about how to parent in relation to picky eating, Jo hasVisit  a new membership site which you could link to: https://jocormack.lpages.co/your-feeding-team-sign-up-now/.  She has a formidable, experienced team ready to help you.

Visit her website at www.jocormack.comto learn more.

Baby-led weaning or spoon feeding? The difference it makes to your child’s eating habits is actually very small

This article appeared in a Science newsletter on April 2nd2019.  We thought it might be of interest as so many children these days present as ‘picky’ eaters who are difficult to feed.

It was written by Sophia Komninou, The Conversation

When it comes to avoiding picky eating and meal time tantrums, parents are usually ready to try any method that promises their child will become a better and less fussy eater. This is in part why methods of giving solid food to infants have received a lot of attention in the last few years. Some think that the way babies are introduced to solids can change their attitudes to food into childhood or even for life.

The most common method used to give babies their first solids has long been to offer a puree or mash using a spoon. This helps parents make sure their babies receive adequate energy and nutrients for their development – something many are often anxious over.

More recently, however, baby-led weaning has gained popularity – and divided parents. This method sees babies selecting finger foods – such as carrot sticks, broccoli trees or other pieces of whole, baby-fist size pieces of food – and feedingthemselves. While there have been unsubstantiated claims that this method can improve a baby’s dexterity and confidence, research has associated baby-led weaning with their ability to recognise when they are full and being less fussy with their food. This makes it an appealing choice for some parents.

However, as with most things baby-related, the reality is that many parents don’t use just one method of feeding. It changes depending on the time, day or situation they are in. Which is why, for our recently published study, we wanted to compare how different styles of feeding affects a baby’s eating habits and attitudes to food.

Is baby-led weaning better?

We looked at four different categories of toddlers, whose parents introduced them to solids using either: solely baby-led weaning, mostly baby-led weaning with occasional spoon feeding, mostly spoon feeding with occasional finger foods, or just spoon feeding. We asked the parents questions about their feeding strategies and eating behaviours of their toddlers, like fussiness and food enjoyment. 

Usually, in a statistical analysis, we look at whether there is a difference between groups. But what this doesn’t tell us is how big the difference actually is. To solve this problem, we looked at the size of the difference between the groups (what we call the effect size). It helps us understand whether the difference actually matters. 

We found that the magnitude of difference in a toddler’s fussiness and food enjoyment is minimal across the four groups. This means that baby-led weaning, spoon-feeding or anything in between might not actually be the solution to future mealtime battlegrounds some parents hope it will be. That may seem to be in contrast with what the research shows so far, but it doesn’t negate those findings. Babies will be less picky about their food if they are fed using baby-led weaning as opposed to any of the other types of feeding, it’s just not by that much.

Socio-economics at play

When looking at the strategies parents use to feed their children, our study did show that those who follow baby-led weaning are less likely to use food as a reward or encouragement, and have less control on eating overall. This helps their toddlers learn to make eating decisions for themselves based on whether they are hungry or full. These parents are also more likely to breastfeed for longer, introduce solids after six months and eat more frequently with their toddlers.

However, the key difference here is not that the children were fed using baby-led weaning but instead the type of families who usually follow it. Our findings show that these parents are usually of a higher socio-economic status and more educated, which makes them more likely to follow a distinctly different parenting style and be able to afford to spend more time and money doing so.

Overall, our results suggest that the way a baby is introduced to solids will make very little difference to how fussy they will become, or how much they will enjoy food. It is important to remember that how children eat depend on a lot of factors, including their genetic background, their past experiences with food and their interaction with their parents.

Research findings are important when communicating complementary feeding advice to new parents, but headlines and quoted study results can often be misleading. So remember that when reports of research say there is a difference between one method over another, it’s not the whole story. The size of this difference – something that is not often communicated – matters too. The most important thing that parents can do is to try their best and introduce solids in a way that is more appropriate for their family, rather than stressing about a specific method, as research suggests might make a only a very small difference.

 

 

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