Friday, February 22, 2013

Worrier or Warrior?

I recently read a very interesting article in The New York Times entitled  Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure

The article focused on the pressure kids feel taking standardized tests, especially tests like the SAT and ACT that, to some, impact a child's academic future, i.e., the quality of school they attend.

While we all deal with competition and pressure in different ways, this article focuses on a specific gene (COMT) that influences why some of us when it comes to competition are warriors and while others are worriers.

The COMT gene regulates dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain "where we plan, make decisions, anticipate future consequences, and resolve conflicts."

Dopamine is like a shot of adrenaline for the brain: to function well, the prefrontal cortex, like Goldilocks, needs not too much or too little but just the right amount of dopamine.

There a two variants of the COMT gene: one slowly removes dopamine and the other quickly removes it from the prefrontal cortex.

In general, those who have a slow-removing gene function best in normal day-to-day situations that are predictable and rarely involve much stress. (The article states that people with the slow-removing gene on average have higher IQs than those with the fast-removing gene.)

However, in a stressful situation, your body injects a lot of dopamine into your brain. But, because the slow-removing gene cannot in a timely manner remove the dopamine from your brain, your prefrontal cortex does not work optimally--hence, you panic and can't think straight.

Conversely, those with the fast-removing gene love challenge, competition, and stress: they thrive on stress; however, "to them, the everyday can be underwhelming."

According to the article, about 50% of us have both genes, 25% have just the slow-removing gene, and 25% have only the fast-removing gene.

If we in America think tests like the SAT and ACT are high-stakes in terms of a child's future, be glad your child does not attend school in Taiwan, where 9th graders take the Basic Competency Test that largely determines which high school they will attend. Only 40% of 9th graders pass the test; the others head to vocational school.

COMT gene researchers used this test in Taiwan as an opportunity to study the effects of high-stakes testing competition. Sure enough, those with the slow-removing gene performed worse on the test than those with the fast-removing gene.

Does this mean the COMT gene is the key to the explaining why you either did or didn't do well on the SATs (or hit the game-winning shot in a high school basketball game)?

No: the article explains that worriers can learn to handle stress with practice. By gaining experience of stressful situations (which could include even talking about how to handle oneself when confronted with stress), worriers can learn to become more comfortable in stressful situations.

While there is the danger of relying too heavily on any one explanation of how we learn and deal with stress and competition, this article did make me think about reasons why some of us embrace competition and others don't. In my case I think I am in the 50% group that has both COMT genes. I prefer routine and predicability, but I do not melt down is stressful situations. I have benefited and learned from experience: when in a stressful situation, I do try to think about what I felt like and how I dealt with it before.

Earlier I referenced having the pressure of taking an end-of-game shot in a high school basketball game. Why did I choose this example? Because I experienced it.  I won't tell you whether I made or missed an end-of-game free throw to win a game in high school, but that was a stressful situation--and regardless of the outcome (I'll keep you in suspense), I learned from the experience!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Parent-Teacher Relations

There was a recent article in The New York Times called The Dicey Parent-Teacher Duet that provided some sage advice on how to foster stronger relationships between parents and teachers.

The author is both a teacher and parent, and she wrote the article from both perspectives.

Parent involvement in a child's life is a delicate balance:  On the one hand, you want need to provide guidance and support while on the other hand you don't want to smother your child and "become an obstacle to your child's growth."

The author points out that in fact many parents are not very comfortable at school. They think of school they way they experienced it. I have heard from many parents how uncomfortable they are in my office: they feel like they're in trouble.

Parents also typically have one to a few kids, and they don't have much experience with the full gamut of kids, as teachers do. (I'm a parent with two kids, yet I've taught and coached thousands of students through the years.)

But teachers are uncomfortable as well. Most of us became teachers because we liked school, the classroom, and kids. We leave our comfort zone when we have parent-teacher conferecnes. The author of the article also points out that teaching today is tougher than ever: "Teachers are being bashed everywhere they turn. They're scared. They feel parents put their jobs in jeopardy. The parent is in the position of power."

She offers a few tips on "how to best reduce the mutual anxieties and establish and maintain the kind of trust that is essential to respectful and productive parent-teacher communications."

First, parents need to empower their children to be personal advocates. The author cautions parents to resist contacting the school whenever their child is dealing with some difficulty at school. As many child psychologists (Wendy Mogel, Madeline Levine, Robert Evans, etc.) have noted, kids need to learn how to deal with and overcome problems and disappointments. Don't call the school when your child doesn't make the basketball team or gets the part he/she wants in a play. Instead ask them how they will deal with and settle the problem. (Of course, there are times--bullying, etc.--when parents need to take the lead, yet in my experience parents are all too often much too quick to get involved with a school issue that the child needs to deal with on his/her own.)

Second, be mindful of how dangerous electronic communication can be. Use it to convey factual information. Teachers and parents should not get into lengthy email communication over meatier topics. Use email to set a time to speak on the phone or better to meet face-to-face.

In terms of email etiquette, the author also cautions teachers or parents to not cc the teacher's supervisor. To her, "it's disrespectful to teachers and parents alike, as it sends the message you don't think there's even a chance you can work this out on your own."

Teachers need to respond to parents inquiries in a reasonable time period. Even if you won't be able to deal with the issue immediately, still let parents know that you have it on your list and, if possible, give them an approximate time you'll be in back in touch with them.

Teachers also need to develop a trusting relationship with parents. This occurs more easily if, early in the year, the teacher contacts parents with good news about their child. Teachers need to show parents that they know and understand every student as a unique individual. With that accomplished and a level of trust set, it's much easier for a teacher to contact a parent about a concern.

Finally, the author advises parents to listen skeptically to your child's explanation of what happens at school. We are all the protagonist of our own life story and our version is rarely 100% accurate and objective. And going back to her first recommendation, if your child does complain about something at school, empower him/her to work out the problem.