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Memory-Boosting Activities for Young Children

Jul-21, 2021

A child and an adult try to solve Rubix cubes.

When it comes to our child's brain development, learning and memory go hand-in-hand. A strong memory helps children recall knowledge faster, more accurately, and helps them widen their knowledge base quicker than their peers. So, how can parents support their child's memory development? Let's take a look at how memory works and how we can use the natural brain development our children go through as they age to give them a boost.

Types of Memory

Stored memory is categorized into two types: semantic memory and episodic memory. Semantic memory refers to facts that we can recall. What's the capital of Vermont? That's stored in your semantic memory. Episodic memory refers to our recollection of events, thoughts, and experiences. Our own personal history. These two types of memories can often work together. Can't remember where you parked your car? Remembering the act of parking it can spark that information.

When our brain is making memories, we first commit it to our short-term memory. Despite how the phrase is often used, short term memory only lasts a few seconds at a time. If we can retain the information without distraction, then the memory is encoded in our long-term memory. Humans tend only to be able to hold 7 bits of information at a time, like the components of an address or the numbers in a telephone number.

Managing all these functions is the job of our working memory. Through our working memory, we process information, decide what to remember and what to discard, and work on complex thought tasks. Our working memory is also responsible for storing and organizing our thoughts for later recollection. Usually, it's the strength of our working memory that we tend to credit for our memories being good or bad in general.

Memory Development in Children

What's your earliest memory? For most of us, our episodic memories tend to begin around age 4-6. While children can store episodic memories almost from birth, we tend to lose all of those memories as we age. Conversely, it's the semantic memories we form at this time, our ABC's and 1-2-3's, that we never forget.

So, are those episodic memories really gone? Research into how children form memories says not quite. When we recall events, we have an explicit memory of the event. We also have an implicit memory of that event, which is the way that they event made us feel and the impression we got from it. While we may not be able to recall the events which happened to us at age 2, we are left with an impression that we carry with us forever. A love of trains, a fear of bees, a suspicion of people who wear glasses, any of our inherent biases that we have could potentially trace back to something that we experienced as a toddler.

Can episodic memory be improved in children? Yes and no. While all children will experience a loss of memory known as childhood amnesia, many children are able to recall explicit memories from as early as 3 years old. Strengthening this part of your child's memory is a process of fostering recollection. Ask your children to recall events with examples. Use the 5 W's when prompting them to describe what happened. Reenforcing these memories will not only help your child retain them into adulthood. It also creates a positive pattern of behavior which can make retaining and recollecting episodic memories as they age.

Improving Your Child's Working Memory

As we said before, a strong working memory is the key to a strong overall memory. How can you improve this function of brain development in your child? As educators, this is something that we work on in the classroom daily, and you can, too!

Teachers use a technique called Cognitive Strategy Instruction to improve working memory and make learning more effective. CSI is a goal-based method of instruction which focuses on How and Why. What are the steps required to complete a task? And what are the reasons for each step contributing to the goal being achieved? Using an array of strategies, educators can strengthen children's working memory and keep them more task-oriented. One of the most well-known examples of CSI is the PB&J test and it's something you might have encountered in your schooling as well.

How do you use the principles of CSI at home? It's all about communication. Firstly, don't be afraid of memory aids. "I before E except after C," we all remember for a reason. It's helpful and it works! Allow your child from an early age to take notes, journal thoughts and feelings, use reminders around the house (even pictures for pre-literate aged children work well), and use mnemonic devices. These are not crutches. They are helping your child to internalize the best way to organize their own thoughts.

Also, be mindful that a working memory starts small. What seems like a simple task to you, "Clean up your toys," or "Unpack your backpack," is actually a ton of different little steps. Start small and grow so that your child doesn't give up and lose track of what they're doing. Stay goal-oriented to keep the child on task. Little by little, you will watch their working memory grow. We love incremental progress!

Here are some more resources for memory-boosting games for children.

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3 Exercises to Wake Up Your Brain

May-31, 2021

Three brothers smiling and doing exercise in their at-home learning space.

As students begin to return to school, physical activity is a frequently discussed topic. Play is a huge part of child development and as much as kids may grumble and complain, gym class provides a lot of benefits such as breaking up the learning day, encouraging teamwork and social interaction, and contributing to academic improvement!

That's right - regular physical activity for our kids can boost performance on homework and tests. Studies have shown that regular physical activity can literally increase the mass of a child's brain. Exercise throughout the day is also used by teachers to help kids in the classroom. These "brain breaks" work with a child's natural attention span, need to expend energy, and give boredom a 1-2 punch! We've discussed before ways that we can work with children's difficulties in focusing especially when they're young, and to be understanding and accommodating. Brain breaks are another tool in your parenting toolkit to keep kids on track.

3 Exercises to Wake Up Your Brain!

  • Jumping Rope: An activity you can do alone or in a group, jumping rope gives your child's brain a literal jostle. Group rope jumping encourages teamwork, and coordination and can be a lot of fun!
  • Crab Walk: Fight the studying slump! Crab walking encourages a child's natural flexibility while building strength. You can challenge kids by using ankle weights or balancing items on a child's stomach. A good crab walk helps flip a child's perspective upside down.
  • Go Run around the Block: Who hasn't had this yelled at them when they were a kid? But running has incredible benefits for the body, and kids seem to naturally enjoy cutting loose and breaking free. Normally we disapprove of running in the house so take this brain break outside.

What exercises do your kids enjoy? Every child likes to be physical in some way. To get started, identify something they genuinely have fun doing and incorporate that activity into their day. You'll both be happy with the results!


Help Your Daughter Overcome the "Math Gender Gap"

Mar-29, 2021

A girl doing math problems on a white board while another girl watches.

From Ada Lovelace to Kathrine Johnson to Mayim Bialik, it's no secret that when it comes to mathematics, women can achieve anything that men can. However, despite all the attention paid in recent years to the contributions of women in STEM, it hasn't made up for the centuries of their contributions being overlooked, both by popular opinion and general academia.

When it comes it our kids' education, there is a definite gender gap which begins to form as students advance in grade level. Girls tend to perform better in reading and writing, while boys tend to perform better in math and science. We've discussed before the difficulty that boys face with reading comprehension. What are the contributing factors of the math gender gap for girls?

A lot of discourse around the gender gap comes down to perceptions. While boys tend to perform better in math than girls do, girls still perform well. But perceptions can lead to stereotyping, which can harm children's performance in school as they model their behavior based on what they're taught. Many programs have popped up over the last decade specifically designed to fight negative stereotypes about girls and STEM. Since girls as a group are not deficient in math skills, they shouldn't be discouraged from pursuing STEM education.

Another factor may be a natural binary that we tend to believe in. You're either a word person or a number person, but not both. And this doesn't have to be the case. Being strong academically doesn't have to be limited to one subject. Specialization in knowledge is for career or hobby pursuits, not general education. Since girls tend to score higher than boys in reading and writing, there is a natural tendency to encourage those skills and ignore or minimize the others. And everyone likes to receive praise and attention, especially kids. When they get positive feedback for something, chances are that's what they'll devote their time to improving.

As 21st century learners, our kids are in a unique position to leave behind all negative stereotypes about gender and be treated equally as human beings. It's great to celebrate being a girl, being a boy, or any other attribute, but we can no longer allow labels to limit the potential of our kids. So, how can you help leave those old attitudes in the past and close the math gender gap for your daughter? First, be aware of her strengths and weaknesses, and set realistic expectations. Relate math skills to what they want to do in life. Girls who want to pursue the life of a dancer, actress, or artist will need math constantly in the real world, especially if they plan on working for themselves. Chefs, teachers, writers, athletes all need math to get them to their goals. Centering math skills as an essential stepping stone to your child's dreams reenforces the idea that math is for everyone.

If your daughter dreams of pursuing a career or hobby in STEM, or is passionate about space, science, video games, or a related pursuit, seek out role models to build confidence. From NASA's Office of STEM Engagement to the Girls Who Code organization, industry professionals are setting up more and more opportunities for girls to engage with real, working professionals who have been there, done that, and overcome adversity to succeed and thrive in their field.

Finally, it's important to remember that even if you don't have a daughter yourself, your sons also need to support their classmates. Peer pressure comes from peers, so check in with your kids to make sure they're being positive allies in the classroom. Attend a local fundraiser, girl's sporting event, or support a girl's club with a donation or volunteer to help chaperone an outing. Our kids will need to work together and support one another as they grow and shape our world, so encourage this behavior early, and set a good example for them to aspire to!

What is Mental Math?

Jan-04, 2021

A young boy sits at a desk in a classroom counting on his fingers.

Quick! What's 4 times 4?

16? That's right! Now, how did you come to that solution? Did you perform the equation in your head, 4 + 4 + 4 + 4? Or did you just know the right answer? That's an example of mental math! We use it every day, from telling time, to making payments, to reading recipes. Math is all around us, and the sooner we pick up these mental math skills, the easier it is to master more complex equations.

So, what exactly is "mental math?" Mental math refers to the math we do in our head, simple calculations we've memorized so that we do not need a pencil and paper or calculator to tabulate the correct answer. Metal math can also help us break down more complex equations into smaller amounts for faster calculation. Learning mental math strengthens both our long-term memory and our working memory. A strong working memory helps children stay on task and organized, like an imaginary notepad.

Developing mental math skills begins at a very early age. Preschool-aged children learn to identify numerical symbols, 0-9, as well as begin to develop their number sense, to understand what these symbols represent. As children progress in their education, their mental math expands to basic addition and subtraction, multiplication and division of 0-12, fraction to decimal conversion, etc. Each concept builds on itself to expand the child's knowledge bank.

Beyond fostering important life skills, developing strong mental math is essential to progressing through a child's education. The sooner your child can stop counting on their fingers and do simple calculations in their head, the sooner they can move on to more complex problems. An accelerated learning program should incorporate mental math training to keep kids on track!

So, how can you encourage mental math in the home? Here are some suggestions!

  • Food and cooking: From counting out scoops to dividing pizzas and pies, the kitchen is full of math! Utilize timers and the clock, scale up or down recipes, count out ingredients, and divide portions. Cooking and baking with your kids will make math a treat!
  • Toys and games: Who says math can't be fun? Count toys as part of clean-up, use Lego blocks to teach geometry concepts, and play board and dice games to reinforce math concepts. 3-2-1-FUN!
  • Music and dance: Rhythm is how our bodies make math! Count out the beats in your kid's favorite songs, incorporate clapping, and copy dances from music videos or Tik Tok. Music and dance have a way of ingraining math into your child's heart.

These are just a few ideas for you to explore. Want more help? Connect with real math teachers to support your child's educational journey.

Study Habits to Try During COVID-19

Nov-23, 2020

child studying, girl reading, at home learning, distance learning

By now, it's become apparent that COVID-19 has negatively impacted the academic progress of our kids. While this impact has not yet been quantified, it can certainly be estimated. We already know how decreased instruction, absenteeism, and the so-called "summer slide" can all delay progress. Because of COVID-19 and distance learning, all of these factors have compounded, on top of added emotional stress and a de-emphasis on hands-on, inquiry-based learning that happens in the classroom. As a collection of educators, we are always looking for new ways to offer help for your kids. To that effect, we're profiling 3 study techniques which improve performance, so that you can try them in your household to see if they have a positive impact on your child's education. Let's get started!

The Pomodoro Technique

A favorite method of designers, developers, and other creative types, the Pomodoro Technique increases productivity by balancing work and breaks on a schedule. It's no wonder, then, that its creator, Francesco Cirillo, is a developer himself. The method is named after the Italian word for tomato, pomodoro, since as a college student, Cirillo used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to keep him focused on his school work. His method is simple; break up your work, whether it be writing, reading, studying, or any other task, with short breaks. Here's a step-by-step guide:

  • Choose a task to be accomplished, like a worksheet or a reading chapter.
  • Set a timer to 25 minutes. This 25-minute sprint is called a Pomodoro.
  • Work on the task until the timer goes off.
  • Take a short break, about 5 minutes.
  • Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break, about 15-30 minutes.

Now, since this method is generally used during an 8-hour work day, not a 2-3-hour homework or study session, feel free to adjust your child's Pomodoros accordingly. Also, remember that any distractions which interrupt the Pomodoro reset the timer. So, if your child is 10 minutes in and request a snack break, the Pomodoro resets when they finish eating, it doesn't keep running. And, best practice is to run a little over time if a task is almost completed, like finishing the last page of reading or the last few questions on a homework page before starting the break. The goal of the Pomodoro method is to keep the child focused and not overwhelm them.

The Testing Method

This technique is used to retain information. At its core, the method is very simple, requiring students to test themselves periodically on information that they are learning. Employing this method works best for students when their homework is not interactive, such are reading long passages in textbooks or works of fiction. The Testing Method was developed by researchers Karpicke and Blunt in 2011 by testing various methods of memory retention. Interestingly, this method found that reading a passage twice as much was less effective at retaining the knowledge than reading the passage less times, but testing the subjects to recall the knowledge directly after reading.

So, how can your child implement the Testing Method in their studies? Like the Pomodoro Technique, this method is time based. Break the study session into 5-minute periods of reading, and 10-minute periods of writing. Read each passage twice before moving on. In the writing portions, the student should try to recall everything that they read in the passage, and challenge themselves to remember more the second time than the first. If your child reads their assigned work over and over and over again but can't seem to retain the information, then the Testing Method is definitely for them!

Spaced Repetition

We've explored before how forgetting is built into the human brain, and is actually essential for lifelong learning. The more we hear something, the more likely we are to remember it, as our brains recognize it as important information for us to retain. This learning concept has many other names, such as spaced rehearsal, expanding rehearsals, graduated intervals, repetition spacing, spaced/expanded retrieval, or repetition scheduling, but they all refer to the same method. The goal of spaced repetition is to retain knowledge by repeating the information to engrain the knowledge in our brains. To do this, a schedule must be created. Some curriculums have spaced repetition built in. If not, you can implement a schedule, of which there are many and are created by various companies.

Like the Testing Method, spaced repetition involved recalling information throughout the learning phase. First, take notes on what you are trying to memorize. Flash cards can also be used. This should be done within a day of initial studying. Then, try to recall the information in a non-study environment, such as when taking a walk, listening to music, or playing. Repeat this process daily, and after several days, study the original material again. Daily practice will lead to retention!

We hope that the above methods will help your child as they deal with distance learning during COVID-19. Parents of Best Brains students will notice that we utilize many of these methods within our unique curriculum. That's one of the reasons we have been so successful over the years, and why our students are academically achieving during this pandemic. If your child could benefit from these methods, you can join our Math and English programs anytime!

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Brain Food to Keep Your Child Focused

Oct-19, 2020

brain food, salmon, brocolli, nuts and berries, chalkboard, healthy eating, food for kids

As busy parents, it's easy to overlook the power of food on our kids. Grocery stores are full of snacks aimed at kids, with colorful packaging, small portions, and easy accessibility. But by and large, these snack options offer little more than a quick carbohydrate boost, and any nutritional value is added, not inherent to the food item itself. For every boost there comes a crash, causing crankiness and a lack of focus. In fact, there is evidence that a lower sugar diet for children can actually increase mental focus. Let's take a closer look at the relationship between food, metabolism, and brain power.

An Ever-Changing Metabolism

From the moment they are born, the metabolism of children is constantly changing. Since babies only start ingesting food after birth, it can take up to a year for their bodies to become accustomed to the practice. After that, babies transition gradually from a diet of milk to a balance of water and solids. This, combined with the increased mobility that comes from learning to crawl, walk, and talk, means that active toddlers require a steady stream of calories to fuel their curiosity! High fat foods are ideal for this stage, as they contain the most calories per gram, and therefore are the best source of energy for a small body to digest.

Not only do toddlers need certain foods as fuel, but also as the building blocks of their growing bodies. A high fat, low fiber diet helps them to build a strong brain and nervous system, and a well-balanced diet with fruits and vegetables represented sets up a healthy immune system. Older toddlers up to age 5 do require more carbohydrates than young toddlers, but beware of sugars! Look for more complex carbohydrates like biscuits, tortillas, and bread to provide energy without the spike/crash that sugar provides.

Food for Focus!

As children enter school age, creating a meal plan which emphasizes foods known for their benefits to focus, memory retention, and mood can help them from morning to night. Let's look at some brain foods perfect for your elementary schooler!

  • Eggs: Delicious for any meal, eggs contain protein and nutrients essential for concentration. Plus, eggs pair well with complex carbohydrates, like in a breakfast taco or in egg salad with pita chips for dipping. Plus, their pleasant texture and mild flavor mean lots of potential to add the seasonings your kids love the most, whether that be Italian herbs, Indian spices, or even a little squirt of ketchup!
  • Apples and plums: While all fruits are good for our kids, apples and plums contain an antioxidant called quercetin, which specifically fights decline in mental skills. Does your child have a hard time focusing around 3pm? Consider an apple and peanut butter break to get them back on track – skin on!
  • Oatmeal: We're always praising the power of oatmeal here at Best Brains! This is one incredible brain food, for sure. Not only is eating oatmeal amazing for your health, it also helps kids who eat it for breakfast out-perform their sugary cereal-eating peers. Plus, cinnamon, a common spice used in oatmeal, can also have positive effects on the brain.

Brain Food for All Ages and Stages

As children age and begin to be more adventurous with their eating, you can start to branch out when choosing their brain food. Omega-3 fatty acids contained in fish have several benefits to brain function. Broccoli, while difficult for the palates of little children, can help prevent certain diseases as well as boost brain function, along with other vegetables like bok choy, cabbage, and brussels sprouts.

While there are many supplements on the market purported to boost brain function, there is no substitute for getting these nutrients directly from diet. Unless directed by a doctor due to a diagnosed deficiency, reach for the real thing, not a pill.

Looking for some brain-boosting recipes to start your child's day right? We have the solution for you!

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