Before becoming a mom, I majored in Psychology for both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. Before homeschooling my own son, I homeschooled a child with autism, while also teaching and tutoring in a writing center at a local community college. And one thing is for sure… I used my background in psychology every single day of my career.
As a student, I knew that I wanted to teach, so I was always on the lookout for ways that I could use what I was learning to become a better teacher. To empower my students. To better help students with learning disabilities or just with styles of learning less favored by “traditional” teaching. And I knew that when I became a parent, I could use these same ideas to empower my own children and help them love learning as much as I do.
Here are the best tips and tricks from psychology to help you with teaching and parenting:
At birth, there are 100 billion neurons in a baby’s brain, almost all of the neurons a person will ever have. By the time a baby is an adult, the number of neurons will have dropped to only 85 billion. This is called “pruning,” just like pruning a bush. Neurons die off if they aren’t used—”use it or lose it.” Don’t stress that your child is losing millions of neurons every day. It’s a good thing! It’s like cleaning out a messy closet. You have to get rid of the stuff you don’t wear anymore so that it’s easier for you to find the good stuff. The brain gets rid of useless neurons and focuses on building up the ones that child is using the most—making them faster and more sophisticated.
This is where ‘neuroplasticity’ comes in. This word sounds misleading to a lot of people. ‘Plastic’ isn’t referring to the plastic that makes up your child’s sippy cups. ‘Plasticity’ refers to a substance’s ability to be easily molded and shaped. Think about a metal, like gold or silver. If it’s heated, it can be easily molded into any shape you want! Those are metals with high plasticity as long as they’re heated first.
‘Neuroplasticity’ means that the brain can be easily molded and shaped. The physical structures of the brain literally change in response to a person’s environment and experiences. This gives us so much power! We can help our children’s brains be molded in the best possible way. We just have to learn how.
Synapses are the connections between the neurons, creating an interlinking map where a child’s knowledge of the ABC song connects to the memory of tracing ABCs for handwriting practice, which also connects to the muscle memory of drawing on the “A is for Apple, B is for Bus, C is for Car” coloring sheets last week. The average brain has about 100 trillion synapses, or connections, but some people have up to 1,000 trillion synapses.
The brain also prunes its synapses, following the “use it or lose it” principle. But unlike neurons that die off, we can keep creating more synapses throughout our lives! The wider variety of activities you give your child— the more synapses they create. The more you repeat the same activity (or book) again and again and again even though it’s driving you nuts—more synapses and faster synapses (this is why children tend to ask for the same book 1,000 times… the more they read it, the more sophisticated their brain becomes about that topic, those pictures, those words, those characters, how it all applies to real life). The more your child has a chance to EXPLORE new environments through crazy science experiments, nature walks, and travelling—you got it, more synapses!
You have immense power over your child’s brain. Stop seeing homeschooling as just a list of skills to learn (ABCs, numbers, scissors). Start seeing homeschooling as a way to foster the trillions of growing connections in your child’s brain. Get on the child’s level. Think about the connections they don’t have yet and the exploration they need to find them. You’ll teach with more imagination and creativity than ever before!
The second psychology tip for better teaching might help you too! Who else is amazed by children who perform in competitive spelling bees? How can a child so young learn how to spell so many bizarrely spelled words that most of us don’t even recognize? Well, I’m here to teach you how to become a master memorizer!
You already know about synapses and neuroplasticity. Research on memory builds on that. Growing fast synapses in diverse locations around the brain is our goal for exceptional memory. There are three steps for accomplishing that goal:
1. 7+ Repetitions: Let’s say you’re trying to help your kiddos memorize your phone number. To create the synapses required to store that information in long-term memory, your child needs to repeat it at least 7 times. Studying words for a spelling bee? Look at each flashcard a MINIMUM of 7 times. This is for simple information. For more complex information like learning to recognize the entire alphabet and differentiate each letter from the others, the number of repetitions required will be much higher.
2. Spaced repetitions: If you try to memorize something by repeating it 7 times all in one block of time, you’ll most likely fail. That’s because the phone number or spelling word you’re repeating is still stored in your short-term memory, giving your brain a way to cheat and pull up the information quickly while avoiding long-term memory storage altogether. Memorizing a stack of 50 or 100 spelling flashcards is better than a stack of 10 because that’s too many items for a brain to put in short-term storage. The time it takes to get back to the first card is a good enough “space” for that type of learning. Spacing repetitions to once a day or even once a week works great too!
3. Dual coding: The brain is physically organized into different departments. Auditory info (including language), visual info, and tactile info are all processed in completely different lobes of the brain. Even the part of the brain responsible for comprehending speech and the part responsible for producing speech are in different lobes! Our goal is to have synapses in ALL of these areas ALL related to one learned skill. So for learning a phone number… Make it into a song (auditory). Write it on a big piece of paper and recite it every day (visual and speaking). Make a cardboard cell phone with drawn on buttons and have your child practice “dialing” the number (tactile). Dual coding is one of the big reasons a teacher just lecturing on a topic isn’t ideal for learning. Most people need to encode information in multiple ways to truly learn it.
Put all three steps together, and you can feel confident you’re helping your child process and store new information in the most ideal, brain-friendly way!
You’re driving on the freeway when suddenly another driver going 20 over the speed limit cuts you off and races away. What’s your interpretation? Do you assume he’s a rotten, careless person who only cares about himself? Or do you think he must be in a hurry for something really important to be driving like that? Maybe he’s running late for his daughter’s school play or has the biggest meeting of his career later and forgot something at home. We all naturally come up with causes or explanations for our behavior and the behavior of others. Psychologists call this ‘attribution.’
By adulthood, most of our attributions for behavior come naturally. It takes considerable effort to change how we attribute things, even if our patterns are unhealthy. Children, however, are just starting to learn cause and effect. And because of neuroplasticity, we as parents and educators can help them develop a healthy attribution style.
Stop calling your child intelligent all the time
Success and failure can be viewed as controllable or uncontrollable. In the U.S., our culture tends to attribute a child’s success to intelligence. “You got an A on another math test?! Oh my gosh, you are so smart. I knew you could do it.” In other cultures, particularly in many Asian countries, a child’s success is attributed to hard work. “You got an A on another math test! You must have studied so hard. I’m so proud of you.”
I know our kids are brilliant. But the trouble with attributing success to intelligence is that intelligence is uncontrollable. So what happens when a child who grows up believing that their success is due to how smart they are FAILS at something? Research shows that they tend to think, “I got an F on my last essay. I must not be that smart in English,” or even, “I must not be that smart.”
But what about the child who grows up hearing that their successes are due to hard work? When that child fails, they have a completely different interpretation. “I got an F on my last essay. I must not have put as much time and energy into it as I usually do. Next time I’ll start sooner and work harder so this doesn’t happen again.” Hard work is a controllable attribution!
If at first you don’t succeed…
Controllable vs. uncontrollable is one aspect of attribution. The second one is whether the outcome is viewed as stable or unstable. Someone with a stable interpretation of failure would rationalize like this: “It doesn’t matter what I do or how hard I try. I’m just going to fail again anyway. I might as well not even try.” The interpretation is stable because they believe the outcome will be the same every time, regardless of what they do. However, someone with an unstable view of failure would think like this: “I failed this time, but I bet next time if I ask more questions about the assignment if I don’t understand/work harder/don’t procrastinate as much, I’ll be able to get a better grade.”
How can we help our children develop the more positive attribution style? Model it. Think about the things you don’t try anymore because you believe you’re simply not good at them. Opening jars? Parallel parking? Learning French? (Whoops, I’m just listing mine.) TRY them again in front of your kids. Keep trying. And explain your thinking out loud so they can start to internalize it. “I’ve always really struggled with parallel parking, but I’m just going to keep trying anyway until I get it. I’m going to work hard at it, and eventually I’ll learn to do it really quickly!”
Modeling, not just with your behavior, but also with your thinking style, helps kids develop a healthy thinking style too!
It’s all your fault
The last aspect of attribution is internal or external. Are successes and failures determined by internal factors like intelligence, personality, or amount of interest in a topic? Or are they determined by external factors like a boring teacher, a test that was too hard or unfair, or a sibling being noisy and distracting during study time?
All of us tend to attribute internal factors to our successes and external factors to failures. If we ace a test, we believe it’s because we’re smart and studied hard, not because the teacher did an excellent job conveying the material. If we fail a test, we tend to look for someone else or something else to blame.
Strangely, when it comes to evaluating the successes and failures of OTHERS, the attributions are backwards. We tend to attribute external factors to the success of others and internal factors to the failure of others. Think back to the example of the guy who cut you off. Almost all people will attribute this bad behavior to his selfish personality (an internal factor) rather than a unique circumstance that justifies it (an external factor). But when WE cut someone off because we’re speeding, it’s always because the place we’re going is just so important, never because we’re a bad person.
This is clearly a biased perspective… in both directions. With kids (and with ourselves), our goals should be more objective. In reality, almost all circumstances are a mix of internal and external factors. That biology test I aced in college? I’m intelligent, I studied really hard, I had a passionate and engaging professor, and the test was a little bit easier than I was expecting based on what I had studied. It’s all of those things.
We have to learn to overwrite the very human impulse for bias here and view things more holistically. The more you practice this in your own life, the easier it will be for you to help your kids learn it.
So the next time you get cut off in traffic, try to think of all the really good external reasons that would make a person drive like that. And the next time you have a success, say your best run time in awhile, try to have a more balanced explanation for your achievement. “I’ve been running so consistently lately; it’s definitely paying off. I’m so motivated about my health! Also, the weather today was ideal for running. I always run faster when there’s a light mist of rain to cool me down. And these new workout pants are so much easier to move in than my old ones. That for sure gave me a boost!”
Once you train yourself to be more objective (and frankly, more positive about others!), it’ll come naturally to you when your kid only lists internal/external factors and you want to list the other side.
When you were a student, what motivated you? Personally, my parents never had to bribe me for good grades by offering money or ice-cream. From a very early age, I cared (probably too much) about getting straight As. I didn’t care about what friends or family thought about me. Being the best I could be at school truly was my only motivation.
Psychologists call this ‘intrinsic motivation’ because it’s internal. ‘Extrinsic motivation’ comes from things like wanting praise, wanting a prize or reward, or wanting the “fame” of being known as the best. Extrinsic motivation can be very motivating… for a short period of time. But in education, when you need to be motivated for the long haul, no matter how challenging it gets, intrinsic motivation is ideal.
How to encourage intrinsic motivation
- Use rewards like sticker charts, rewards for achievement, and bribes for learning (“If you finish your essay, we can all go out to your favorite restaurant for dinner tonight!” very sparingly.
- Kids are naturally curious about the world. Follow their lead and let them learn what they’re interested in rather than forcing them into the box of a strict curriculum. Read more about the philosophy of unschooling to learn further.
- Let the focus lie more on “learning for the sake of learning” than on grades or reaching a certain arbitrary threshold like ‘Kindergarten ready.’ Learning IS exciting and fun for kids. Let them just enjoy acquiring new knowledge without external pressure to reach a certain level at a certain time.
I could write 100 more psychology tips to help you improve your teaching, but these are definitely the ones that have had the greatest impact on the lives of my students. Comment and let me know about your experiences testing these out! I’d love to hear it.