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Category: Behavioral Support

College Preparation: Nature, Nurture or Somewhere In Between

Development, Brain Growth, Nature vs Nurture, education, tutoring, teaching, parenting, college readiness, test prep, cognitition

Nature vs Nurture

Is it nature or is it nurture? Every so often we meet a student who appears to have it all. She seems naturally gifted in every sense: the captain of the varsity tennis team, a Calculus BC mathlete not to mention her high school’s poet laureate, and the first chair violinist. Most would assume she is innately adept at everything, a person who will succeed in any endeavor regardless of circumstance.

Why? Because she was “born with it.” Nature, right?

Not so fast.

MedicineNet, an online publication that features doctors, psychologists and other healthcare providers, suggests an alternative understanding. According to its recent article,  “Nature vs Nurture: Is It In Our Genes Or In Our Environment,

In the context of the nature vs. nurture debate, ‘nature’ refers to biological/genetic predispositions’ impact on human traits, and nurture describes the influence of learning and other influences from one’s environment.

Nurture or one’s environment refines and molds the human brain as a student matures from gestation through adolescence. Whether a student is “born with” higher or lower levels of cognition, environment plays a crucial role in influencing cerebral development during an individual’s formative years.

Historically, nature and nurture in the context of human intelligence and growth have been ceaselessly pitted against one another as incompatible adversaries. For decades, scientists and psychologists insisted that those who are “gifted and talented” have been gifted and talented from day one; those students who fail to show signs of youthful genius never will.

For example, The Time’s of Higher Education’s 1997 essay, “Nature’s Defeat of Nurture,” contends that nature or genes dominate an individual’s growth, aptitude and behavior based on twin studies. Several twins, two children born at the same birth, raised in similar if not the same environment, formed disparate personalities and exhibited differing traits throughout their lives. Therefore, the foremost psychologists in this article argued, “…the common shared environment – the family, the neighborhood, the parents’ income and education, their way of raising children – has no effect on the development of personality.” However, in light of recent analyses, this interpretation has largely been proven inconclusive.

Subsequent studies have since revealed that environment is indeed a powerful player in the brain growth game, even when individuals are raised in parallel environments. According to a 2013 NCBI study of human behavior, researchers  deduced the following:

There was general agreement that everybody’s behavior is influenced to varying degrees by both genetic and environmental factors but deterministic accounts of causation, except in exceptional circumstances, were rejected.- National Center for Biotechnology Information

In short, genetic fixity or rudimentary determinism is not the sole or even primary contributor to a one’s intellectual, personal or creative makeup.

Nature and Nurture

Today, psychologists and educators have discovered “nature’s partner is nurture.” Nature is not nurture’s bullish foe, but rather, nurture is nature’s encouraging mentor. Thus, nurture plays a significant role in any student’s intellectual, social-emotional and creative development. Our superstar tennis champion, mathlete-poet, and violinist has most certainly experienced a supportive learning environment both at home and in school, which has expeditiously nurtured her innate talents and skills.

So, how do hereditary (nature) and cultivated (nurture) traits engineer the academic success and college achievement of diverse students?

We are all born with our initial cognitive potential and family/ community resources; our students are born of their parents genes and into their family’s socioeconomic status. Consequently, some will have a head start due to the circumstances of their privilege; others will experience far fewer advantages as they leap from life’s “starting blocks.”

Nonetheless, nature and nurture coexist. As such, there are abundant ‘free of charge” resources available to all students who range in age, learning style, and inherent ability. Therefore, educators and families should foster “nurturing” environments that will support any student’s university preparation at little to no monetary cost.

Pre-K to 5th Grade- Start Em’ Young!

  1. READ, READ, READ (Nurture, Nurture, Nurture)

*Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library  offers free books to low income students around the world. Check your local area for availability

*The local library is your friend. If your branch doesn’t have your book, they can order it from another location at no cost to patrons

  1. Additional Free Help for Parents
  • Boys and Girls Clubs provide educational, social and other developmental skills coaching
  • Khan Academy (all ages) is a free online resource that hosts numerous learning programs from English and math instruction to SAT help
  • Friends, family and trusted neighbors can also create the nurturing community young students need. If parents struggle with Common Core math, maybe an older sibling who’s already successfully completed the course can jump in!

Middle School- Get Ready!

  1. Enter Enhanced Digital Learning
  • Quill.org is an excellent free online resource for grades 1-9 writing and grammar coaching, lessons and projects
  • iCivics by Common Sense Education, appropriate for grades 6-12, assists teachers, students and parents as they investigate local, state and federal laws, rights, responsibilities and government functions through online interactive games, projects and puzzles
  • Get-the-Math,  another free online opportunity, introduces middle school learners to real life math scenarios, which encourage students to think beyond the textbook and appreciate the ways in which math applies to music, architecture, video game creation and civil engineering
  1. Rapid Brain Development
  • While mood swings and difficult behavior are afoot in the lives of  middle school youth who have been stricken by the onset of puberty, changes in behavior and personality have recently been attributed more to rapid brain development rather than pure hormonal mutiny (Nature)
  • In school and at home methods that sustain students in this challenging developmental stage in healthy ways include:

*Positive Reinforcement– Clearly state what a student is doing well in the moment (it remains ill advised to toss a piece a candy in a kid’s direction every time he does his homework)

*Confidence and Team Building Activities– Rock climbing, hiking, trust falls, scavenger hunts, setting small goals and accomplishing them, arts and crafts, or simply carving out time to listen and suspend judgment are just some activities that promote self-esteem and reduce angst

*A little TLC  or “tender loving care” goes a long way. A “Tween” is on her path to self-discovery while her brain’s prefrontal cortex, the logical command center, battles its amygdala, the emotional vortex of the “lizard brain,” the brain’s most primitive part. Let the girl wear her earbuds and have some down time. We’ll all need it once “teenagedom” is in full swing.

High School and the Road to University

Stay tuned for my next installment about “nurturing” college bound high school students as they prepare for a competitive future through journaling, test preparation, nutrition, internships, and time management, among other techniques.

In truth, not every student will become a hybrid of Einstein meets tennis champion, but educators and families can all work together to build a safe academic space for all students where they will “grow into” their gifts and talents as they mature into professional adults.

An Educator’s Perspective on Discrimination and Bullying

An Interview on Discrimination and Bullyingbullying, discrimination, education, teacher, parents

LOTR (Love on the Regular): We know that discrimination, bias and bullying is on the rise in school-age children, especially with increasing use of social media and the internet. Recent reports show that in 2016 as many as 4400 school aged children committed suicide, many as a direct result of bullying. This is a national crisis. What are some of the effective strategies you have seen employed in schools to reverse this trend?

Juliet: Well for one, ignoring an act of bullying is never acceptable. Time and time again I’ve witnessed teachers “ignore” the behavior, whether it’s name calling, pushing and shoving or backpack stealing. Some adhere to this belief because they believe that failing to acknowledge cruelty will somehow discredit it. This is false; by ignoring, we permit, and permissive educators and parents mistakenly create the proverbial “monster.” Cessation of the behavior must happen immediately and directly, whether in the classroom, on the playground or in the home. As an educator, I respond by immediately walking over to the student performing the bullying and calmly ask for his or her help with anything I can think of: passing out or collecting papers, writing homework on the board, moving books, etc., in order to diffuse the situation. I quickly check in with the harassed student quietly to avoid further humiliation, restate directions to the class as a whole to maintain on-task behavior, and then I briefly chat with my new helper, “So what’s going on? How are you feeling today? Everything alright?” Shockingly, simply asking a student how he is enables him” to drop his guard” and feel compassion from a caring and concerned adult, which he likely doesn’t receive often. I then clearly state that we must discuss “the problem” and we  “make an appointment” to continue the conversation at the appointed time. The discussion usually includes me asking a series of questions, such as “what happened,” “what if it had been you,” “did I miss something,” “what can we do next time.” and so on. Eventually, we discuss solutions and alternatives. With most students, this strategy is effective, but with others, parents and other school officials need to craft and implement a behavioral support plant or BSP to facilitate desired interactions and behaviors. Overall, I’ve learned over the years that those who bully are usually in tremendous pain; they have suffered bullying, abuse or negligence in one or many forms, generally from primary care givers. As an educator, if I can build rapport with my “troubled” students, I can demonstrate, thereby teaching them, how to give and receive the compassion they so desperately seek.

LOTR: What is your advice to parents if they suspect their child is being discriminated or bullied?

Juliet: Parents should approach their children delicately, but directly, perhaps by asking how things are going in school in general to start, and as the conversation develops, hone in on specifics. Of course, listening well and paying attention to their child’s body language is always advisable; a defensive or frightened posture, hunched shoulders and failure to make eye contact may indicate much more than words. Whether or not enough information is gathered in this context, contact the appropriate school officials and discuss your suspicions and the school’s policy. If necessary, teachers will assist with feedback, observations and any documentation of the suspected incidents. In many cases, bullying is undetected, and as previously stated, ignored. Parents should make school officials aware and encourage paying closer attention to their student and any interactions with the potential bully. A one time offense may be handled between teacher ad student. However, if systematic bullying persists, teachers should immediately intervene, carefully document the event in an incident report or referral, and notify the right school officials who should then notify parents to conduct a Behavior Support Plan meeting. Of course, continuing to show much needed “TLC” to the affected child is a must during the process. In short, get involved and be proactive. Further, rather than wait for the first instance of bullying, initiate the discussion with school officials prior to the start of school about policies and procedures, and discuss these with your child at home. Hold school personnel accountable with a simple phone call, routine conferences or recommending a Behavioral Support Plan for the student who is engaging in the bullying, and of course, do whatever is necessary and ethical to protect your child from physical harm.

LOTR: What is your advice to parents who suspect that their child is the one doing the discriminating or bullying?

Juliet:  As I mentioned earlier, youth who engage in discrimination and/or bullying have often been bullied, neglected or witnessed this behavior, generally more than once from primary caregivers. Teens who bully often act out of insecurity because parents are less involved in their student’s life, or too permissive in allowing students their too much decision making freedom and not enough corrective feedback about treating others justly and fairly. On the other hand, in extreme, but tragically common circumstances, some parents are excessively punitive if not abusive. In either case, older students are likely to “act out” because they have received or observed similar treatment. Younger students may experience similar adversity, or they may just merely imitate what they’ve seen adults, older peers or classmates and friends do and say. As a solution, parents may want to examine their own behavior around their younger children, and how, as parents, they respond to difficult situations, and their students needs and behavior. Parents may also do well to observe the actions of older siblings or friends that directly impact their child. Cliche as it may sound, toddlers and elementary school children are the most easily influenced; therefore, their primary caretakers, educators and friends should be “good influencers” or positive role models. In sum, parents should take time out every day to speak with their kids, hang out and enjoy everything from the fun family day at the park to handling the mundane humdrum of preparing and cleaning up after meals. As any good teacher, parents should model desired do’s and don’ts, and point out considerate and kind behavior like holding doors for the elderly, throwing trash or recycling into to the correct bins, or simply smiling and greeting acquaintances. Finally, in recognizing that youth who bully are often our most at-risk, in-need children, adults should pay particular attention to the antecedents or “triggers,” as well as their child’s emotional state prior to overly aggressive or cruel behavior toward others. If parents and teachers can know what “sets off” a student who is easily triggered, appropriate preventative measures can be strategically implemented: a front row seat in the classroom or a special classroom role that only that student has “the honor” and responsibility to fulfill. At home, simply redirecting while expressing understanding of an increasingly frustrated or hostile child to choose from two or three options can often defuse or prevent a confrontation, “I know you’re frustrated that Johnny’s reading your book. You can play with Legos, blocks or puzzle pieces while your brother reads your book. Then you can swap.” Finally, checking in as many times a day as is appropriate and letting your child know that you love them, unequivocally and unconditionally, are two of the simplest, and yet, most powerful acts of love that resist bullying I have ever experienced.

LOTR: What can we do as parents to teach young children about acceptance and diversity? And at what age do you feel it is appropriate for parents to start having these types or conversations or employing these tools?

Juliet: All of the above and the younger the better. Obviously, a discussion about kindness and acceptance, and ultimately, appreciation of our differences, with a pre-schooler will be notably different from that of a rebellious teen, but the message is the same; diversity makes us the beautiful cultural mosaic of our colorful democracy, and yet, for all our striking uniqueness of shade and shine, we are all remarkably similar; we are all human beings worthy of the dignity and respect we expect from others. Continuing the daily conversation, visiting diverse libraries like the downtown San Diego branch, attending cultural fairs and festivals such as December Nights, feeding the homeless at a soup kitchen or volunteering at the Salvation Army, and attending a school of students who descend from various ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds are all beneficial as long as attentive and compassionate parents and educators lead the charge!

LOTR: In addition to your many accomplishments, you are a musician and song-writer. The benefits in music education are expansive. Children who listen to and learn music have higher test scores, enhanced language development, Increased IQ and even finer-tuned motor skills. What other benefits have you seen and how would you recommend parents incorporate more music into their child’s lives?  

Juliet: The benefits of music are infinite: the enhancement of creativity, self-expression, positive “venting” or channeling frustrations and the pure expression of joy to name a few. Music and a variety of it is a must- I recommend classical, world music, “censored” or PG hip hop, reggae, oldies, blues, jazz, gospel, Motown, singer-songwriter and folk, some choice rock and roll, and electronic down-tempo, and of course, joyful joyful House music! Listening and playing music for the purposes of creation, enjoyment, dance, concentration, contemplation or just “feeling” feelings provides a vital wellspring of nutrients for the soul, for both our children and ourselves. Exploring diversity in music also lends itself to the discovery and appreciation of its diverse creators’ backgrounds, personal experiences, talents and passions. Music provides an invaluable teaching tool that validates and showcases our many unique backgrounds and yet highlights our essential “sameness;” we are all human beings who appreciate beauty, feel emotions, desire to be heard and seek love and acceptance. Through an eclectic selection of music, diversity remains relevant, teachable and profound. Parents should play music and play it often, discuss it, dance to it with their kids, or simply relax and enjoy.

LOTR: Thank you very much for sharing your wisdom with us today. We sincerely appreciate your time.

Love on the Regular is a San Diego blog created to inspire parents who have a desire to raise their children to grow up to be good humans. “We explore the virtues of Empathy, Compassion, Kindness, Bravery, Courage and Love.” Please visit Love on the Regular at http://loveontheregular.com/ for more about the organization and its mission.

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