Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Hiking Can Change Our Brains

“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves,” wrote John Muir in Our National Parks. Clearly, John Muir understood the intrinsic value of spending time in nature.

Along with Muir, many of us recognize that hiking in nature is good for the body, mind, and soul. Walking through the woods while observing colorful birds and foliage, smelling the aroma of spruce and pine trees, and listening to a soothing running stream simply clear our mind and make us feel good. Lucky for us, doctors agree. Study after study shows there are many mental health benefits to spending time hiking in nature.

Hiking in Nature Reduces Rumination

Those who ruminate or focus too much on negative thoughts about themselves can exhibit anxiety, depression, and other issues, such as binge eating or post traumatic stress disorder. In a recent study, researchers investigated whether spending time in nature affects rumination, and they found that hiking in nature decreases these obsessive, negative thoughts.

In this study, researchers compared the reported rumination of participants who hiked through an urban environment and a nature environment. They found that those who walked for 90 minutes in a natural environment, which took place in a grassland near Stanford University, reported lower levels of rumination and also had reduced neural activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is associated with mental illness. Those who walked through an urban environment didn’t enjoy these benefits.

These researchers indicate that our world is becoming more and more urban and that urbanization is linked to depression and other forms of mental illness. Visibly, simply removing us from an urban environment to spend time outdoors where there are fewer mental stressors, less noise, and fewer distractions can be advantageous for our mental health.

Hiking While Disconnecting from Technology Boosts Creative Problem Solving

According to a study by Ruth Ann Atchley and David L. Strayer, creative problem solving can be improved by disconnecting from technology and reconnecting with nature. In this study, participants hiked while backpacking in nature for approximately four days and they were prohibited from using technology. They were asked to perform tasks requiring creativity and complex problem solving. They found that those immersed in the hiking excursions had increased performance on problem-solving tasks by 50 percent.

Researchers indicate that technology and the noise of urban areas constantly demand our attention and disturb us from focusing, which taxes our cognitive functions. Thus, when we’re feeling overwhelmed from the stressors of urban life and being plugged-in 24/7, nature hikes can be strong medicine. They reduce our mental fatigue, soothe our minds, and help us think creatively.

Hiking Outdoors Can Improve ADHD in Children

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a common disorder among children. Those with ADHD generally have trouble staying focused, are easily distracted, exhibit hyperactivity, and have difficulty controlling impulses.

Raising children with ADHD can be perplexing for parents. Nonetheless, great news has emerged from the medical and scientific world. In a study conducted by Frances E. Kuo, PhD and Andrea Faber Taylor, PhD, researchers found that exposing children with ADHD to “green outdoor activities” reduced their ADHD symptoms. Thus, according to this study, the benefits of exposure to nature can extend to anyone with inattention and impulsivity.

Doctors conclude that simple changes that involve green activities or settings can improve attention. For example, increasing exposure to a window seat with a green view, participating in an afternoon nature hike, or simply playing ball in the park can ease unwanted ADHD symptoms.

Hiking in Nature is Great Exercise, Which Boosts Brainpower

We’ve all heard the expression healthy body, healthy mind. Hiking outdoors is an excellent form of exercise and it can burn 400 to 700 calories an hour, depending on the difficulty of the hike. An added benefit is that hiking isn’t as hard on our joints as other forms of exercise, such as running. Also, it’s proven that those who exercise outside are more likely to stick to their exercise programs, which makes hiking an excellent choice for those hoping to integrate exercise into their daily lives.

The mind and body are naturally connected. Exercise helps to keep our brain cells nourished and healthy. In fact, according to researchers from the University of British Columbia, aerobic exercise might improve memory and cognitive ability. In the study, they found that aerobic exercise increased the hippocampal volume in older women. The hippocampus is a part of brain associated with spatial and episodic memory.

Not only does exercise improve cognitive ability and possibly prevent cognitive decline as shown by the study, it can also reduce stress and anxiety, boost self esteem, and release endorphins (feel-good hormones). It’s astonishing that a physical activity as simple and low-cost as hiking can provide so many mental health benefits.

Hiking is Now Prescribed by Doctors

Has your doctor ever told you to “take a hike?” This isn’t a phrase that we typically want to hear, especially from our doctors, but they actually have our wellbeing in mind. Progressive doctors are now aware that people who spend time in nature enjoy less stress and better physical health.

According to WebMD, more and more doctors are writing “nature prescriptions” or recommending “ecotherapy” to reduce anxiety, improve stress levels, and to curb depression. Plus, nature prescriptions are becoming more accepted by traditional health care providers as more research shows the benefits of exercising and spending time in nature.

The state of California is traditionally one of the more progressive states in the area of alternative health. As an example, the Institute at the Golden Gate has been leading the charge to promote ecotherapy through its “Healthy Parks Healthy People (HPHP)” initiative. In this program, community organizations work with health professionals to improve the health of their parks, and to promote the use of parks as a passageway to health for the people who use them.

How Do You Get Started with Hiking?

Fortunately, hiking is one of the easiest and least-expensive sports to get involved in, and it’s fun and beneficial for the whole family. If you’re just getting started, don’t plan a Colorado 14er or to hike the Appalachian Trail. You can start small. Check out local short hiking trails and work your way up to a safe and comfortable distance. You can find trail maps online and there are smartphone apps to help you find the best trails for your level and interests.

Ensure you wear sturdy hiking shoes that are appropriate for the terrain. Consider using trekking poles, which reduce stress on your knees, increase your speed, and improve your stability. Layer clothing as necessary for the weather and wear breathable, moisture-wicking fabrics such as silk, polypropylene, wool, and fleece to reduce sweat and stay warm. Use sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat to protect you from the sun. Stay hydrated and have fun!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Shift In Teachers' Paradigm.

How to cater to the needs of so many different children?

Teachers at Sri Ayesha help learners get to the point where their minds and hearts are open, leaving them ready to learn. In effective schools, students are not so much motivated by getting good grades as they are by a basic love of learning. As parents know their own children's learning styles and temperaments, teachers, too, develop this sense of each child's uniqueness by spending a number of years with the students and their parents.

Teachers should focus on the child as a person, not on the daily lesson plan. Great teachers lead children to ask questions, think for themselves, explore, investigate, and discover. Their ultimate objective is to help their students to learn independently and retain the curiosity, creativity, and intelligence with which they were born. As I’ve said in many of teachers training and discussions, teachers don't simply present lessons; they are facilitators, mentors, coaches, and guides.

Traditionally, teachers usually told that they "teach students the basic facts and skills that they will need to succeed in the world." Studies show that in many classrooms, a substantial portion of the day is spent on discipline and classroom management.  At Sri Ayesha, we do things a bit differently.
Normally, Sri Ayesha teachers will not and should not spend much time teaching lessons to the whole class. Their primary role is to prepare and maintain the physical, intellectual, and social/emotional environment within which the children will work.  A key aspect of this is the selection of intriguing and developmentally appropriate learning activities to meet the needs and interest of each child in the class.

Our teachers are supposed to present lessons to small groups of children at one time and limit lessons to brief and very clear presentations. The goal is to give the children just enough to capture their attention and spark their interest, intriguing them enough that they will come back on their own to work with the learning materials.

The teachers closely monitor their students' progress. Because they normally work with each child for two or three years (in the case of Dar-Salam and Dar-Izzah), they get to know their students' strengths and weaknesses, interest, and personalities extremely well. We want our teachers to use the children's interests to enrich the curriculum and provide alternate avenues for accomplishment and success.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Reviewing the Roles of Teachers at SAIS and Parents at Home

Both teachers and parents need to have a clear path on how best to assist children in gaining freedom and discipline within the classroom and beyond.  To achieve that, lets share some of the methodologies to impart in adults the “philosophy and praxis” necessary to carry on this mission.
It’s important that we adults are given opportunities to practice, follow a consistent approach, and have the motivation to achieve. These three concepts: practice, consistency, and motivation are known to be necessary for the brain to learn. In a similar manner, the adults should allow children an abundance of opportunity to practice, follow an elegantly consistent approach to instruction using learning materials, and support the basic principle of the child’s self-determination necessary to ignite the child’s motivation.

How wonderful when this approach is carried out by every adult and in every environment the child encounters. In both school and home, a common approach by adults is core for the child’s development of independence. However, the child has many additional experiences upon entering school -- in halls, office and an-Nadiya store, during lunch, during outdoor physical activities, leaving the school, etc., and often with several guiding adults. Unfortunately, the impact on the child can be negative. In many exchanges between adult and child, the child may learn to ignore adults, fear adults, argue with adults, or become dependent upon adults.

All adults in the school environment need to be provided with guidance in interactions with children -- to understand their role in school-wide discipline inside and outside the classroom.  This will include the understanding on classroom lesson contract and presentation vis-à-vis the flexible time periods, the tools of grace and courtesy presentations, and, in the primary, group discussions/meetings with children.

Guidance for adults (Parenthood and Teachers training) can reinforce the SAIS’s approach in the classroom and provide a more fundamentally safe environment for the child: one in which the child does not fear “being yelled at and scolded,” does not become angry at feeling powerless in a situation, does not become dependent on an adult for direction, nor seek adult attention. Failure on the adult’s part may lead to inadvertent reinforcement of exactly the behaviors that are unsuitable / inappropriate, and lead to the child being typed or prejudged by the adult.
We have found that an approach built on short-term intervention practices used in behavioral psychology is effective.  In this approach each adult is asked to master a defined intervention technique so that the technique is carried out as second nature and flows quickly. Note that changing our own adult behavior can be difficult, so we need opportunities to role-play example situations, self-critique interactions, discuss the rationale for each step in the process, and to discuss refinements for given environments while learning this technique.
The goal is to address a child’s specific behavior in a quick, consistent interaction that leads to reinforcing positive behaviors and extinguishing negative behaviors. The adult stays respectful, apprises the child of missing information, guides the child with an unemotional interaction and demonstration, and ends with an opportunity for the child to try the actions/words for one’s self. These brief interactions are intended to be short, yet lead to long lasting results. Intentionally, interaction time should be in seconds, rather than minutes.

The following seven steps outline the approach:
1.      Stay observant: Watch the children for any situation that needs adult intervention.  One of our teaching protocols was a patient observer and researcher of children while knowing that occasionally there was a need for that “special call”.  It is always easier to redirect children at the first indication of a problem. Key indicator: Is there clear danger for the child or others?  Clear abuse of the environment?  Does the child need information?

2.      Be active: Approach the child; be on the child’s level; make eye contact. Key indicator: Adult should be able to use a quiet, calm voice. The adult actively stays emotionally calm and uses self-awareness.  The adult adjusts to age appropriateness for the kindergarten or primary child.

3.      Be objective: Make sure that the child knows you are there because of what you have observed. Share the situation so you can solve it together. This is a respectful way to approach the child. Use statements like: “I see you rocking the shelf and that will hurt someone (or yourself).”   “That stick has a sharp point on it.”  Key indicator: short factual statement.  The child is not “over-talked.

4.      Clearly, quickly state the common practice, rule, or human right to the child.  These are the collaborative practices, rules or rights that have been previously established at SAIS or home.  “We use inside voice inside the classroom.”  “The class agreed that all pointed sticks are safest staying on the ground,” can be a reminder to a child. “At school everyone has the right to work undisturbed.” Key indicator: statement is short; statement is not framed as a question; statement does not lead into an adult/child discussion;  statement must be suitably framed for a primary or kindergarten child.

5.       State the specific appropriate action that the child should do, and offer to the child the opportunity to do that action. “Please put the sharp stick on the ground or in the trash bin.” “This is the shelf where we put cups and glasses.” “Please simply ask her for a turn with the jump rope when she is done.” This key indicator is the same as in step four: statement is short; statement is not framed as a question; statement does not lead into an adult/child discussion; statement must be suitably framed for a primary or kindergarten child.

6.      Observe the child doing the appropriate action. This opportunity for correct practice is extremely important. This is a non-verbal stage of addressing the situation. The adult must be focused exclusively on the action and be totally present with a warm presence for the child. Stay with the child all the way to completion of the action. Key indicator: Adult can confirm that child has followed direction to completion. The adult is self-aware of being present with the child.

7.      Acknowledge that the child has completed the appropriate action or behavior, smile, and turn your attention to other matters! Psychologically, this may be the most important for maintaining a positive relationship and fostering the child’s independence. Acknowledgment is known to be a powerful behavior shaping practice. This is distinct from simple praise which can lead to dependency and derails self-motivation in children. Reinforce the appropriate action or behavior with a smile or nod or appropriate short statement: “Now that sharp stick on the playground is out of the way. No one will get hurt!”  “Now everyone is free to come down the slide, that’s safe!” “Taking turns is fair for everyone!” Key indicator: Statements acknowledge effort, call attention to detail, direct attention back to the appropriate action, show a modest and sincere positive emotion... smile!
Note: Detrimental praise has not been used; that is, undeserving or inflating, creating dependence on the adult, focusing on the person and not the action, e.g., “That’s a good boy!” or shows exaggerated emotion: syrupy sweet, “I love you for doing that.” Acknowledge and move on. It’s over.

Let’s face reality. Reading this article is only a first step. So many adults at school and home are intellectually on the same page but vary widely in daily practice. We need to stay conscious of the above information to use “best practice” on a consistent basis.

In order for a school community to function in the best interest of the child, as written above, all adults need opportunities for discussion, opportunities to list example situations, self-reflect on current adult behavior, and examine if adult statements to children promote the goals of a balanced education. As a training tool for adults, a chart with a simplified version of the seven steps can be created. Finally, discussion needs to be supplemented with actual practice of the above steps in an unhurried manner, practice to carefully hone communication to be brief, and practice in using proper ways to acknowledge children.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Children work collaboratively and cooperatively.

In the kindergarten, your child was best able to concentrate when working parallel to his peers, each with her own activity.  The primary children, however, are at a different stage of development and have a strong drive to be social and to collaborate.  For this reason, most of the lessons and follow-up projects in primary level are done in pairs or groups of children. Each day, your child will practice the social skills necessary to plan and carry out his projects: delegation and division of labor, sharing resources, making group decisions, taking responsibility for actions, and celebrating the success of peers. Conflict is not uncommon, but the motivation to resolve it comes from the children and their engagement with their projects.  The teacher models and supports constructive and respectful problem solving.   Learning how to work well with the different personalities and characteristics of other children in the classroom community is a significant life lesson with practical applications in the “real world” of high school, college and the professional workplace of the future.

Friday, February 12, 2016


"Normalization" is a Montessori term that describes the process that takes place in the classrooms in which young children, who typically have a short attention span, learn to focus their intelligence, concentrate their energies for long periods of time, and take tremendous satisfaction from their work.

The following are characteristics of normalization in the child (6-9 yo):
  • A love of order;
  • A love of work;
  • Profound spontaneous concentration;
  • Attachment to reality;
  • Love of silence and working alone;
  • Sublimation of the possessive instinct;
  • Obedience;
  • Independence and initiative;
  • Spontaneous self-discipline;
  • Joy
  • The power to act from real choice and not just from idle curiosity.
From the age of 6 onwards, the characteristic evolves slowly into making them someone who loves to social, collaborate, and serve others.  Their ability to acquire basic skills previously will transform into "them" contributing to the community inside the classroom. Sri Ayesha is helping this growth in behaviour and character by giving them time and space (the environment) so they can flourish in attaining courage, self-confidence and independence in life.