Álvaro Bilbao


"To help your children reach their full potential, you must help them to feel safe."

How can you help your kids get to sleep? Does punishing your child work?

We know that the components in children's brains don't process information in the same way as the components in adults' brains. Primitive brain reflexes within children's brains help them to survive and also let them know when they're hungry, tired, need to control an impulse or protect themselves when they're alone. This part of the brain helps us to survive and is what children use when they're babies. That's why it's so important to help small children to feel safe, to know that we'll look after them when they're scared, that they'll be well-fed and that we'll make sure they can sleep when they're tired, rather than making them stay awake. It's essential that they feel safe.

The second part of the brain is called the emotional brain. During the first years of life, this is a very important, fundamental part of the brain that lets children communicate their most basic survival instincts to their intellectual mind. If a child develops well, when they're an adult they will be able to channel their thoughts, emotions and actions in the same direction. That's why it's so important to nurture a child's emotional mind during the first years of life. The brain is a bit like a tree: the primitive, survival-based part grows first, then the structures involving emotions develop, followed by the intellect-based part. However, if no effort has been made to help a child feel secure or to look after their emotional well-being, they will not be able to fully develop. A child will have plenty of time to learn Japanese, Chinese or math when they're older. What's important when they're young is that they grow up in a family where they feel safe and that they won't have to pay for their mistakes. All parents should be mindful of these very simple, but really important concepts.

Many other alternatives are available apart from punishments that are much more educational and that children will learn from a lot more. Firstly, you can establish limits. This means explaining to a child what you don't want them to do before they do it. In this way, you can prevent a child from developing certain connections or neurocerebral patterns that will lead them to repeat negative behavior. By pausing to think before something happens, you can prevent it from taking place. That's why it's important to set limits. These limits can become rules. The difference between a rule and a punishment is that the punishment happens after an event has taken place, whereas a rule is usually established beforehand. These rules can start to apply to the whole family from the time a child is three or four. That means that when a child misbehaves, you can speak to them and reach an agreement whereby they acknowledge, realize or understand that their behavior is not acceptable. For example, a few days ago my children started arguing when they were watching TV. I was cooking at the time, so I went to the TV room and told them that I didn't like them arguing and asked them not to start arguing again. Two minutes later, they were arguing again, so I called everyone into the kitchen and we had a small meeting where I told them that it was not OK to argue because of the TV and that, in my opinion, the TV is something to be enjoyed and that they can't go around shouting and getting so angry. I then asked them how they could resolve the situation. What they said was that I could turn the TV off if they started shouting. They came up with this solution really quickly and they were very happy with it. However, what none of us could foresee was that in five minutes they would start fighting again. When this happened, I went into the room and said, “OK, so you're fighting again and, as the rule is that I can turn off the TV if you fight, we have to turn off the TV." That haven't argued about the TV since. Actually, they have argued because I've heard them; however, they've done so very quietly and in a way that you might call 'reaching an agreement'.

We know that allowing children to make decisions helps them to develop an area of the frontal lobe that can resolve problems more effectively. This is because we let children make mistakes and then learn from them. However, we also know that when children are overprotected, the brain's ability to fully develop is restricted. Studies also show that children whose parents protect them too much end up making worse decisions when they're older. That's why I wholeheartedly agree with our Scandinavian friends who set few, but important, limits. When a child is six months old and starts to crawl it's important to establish limits such as not touching a bottle of bleach, because a child can't yet understand why this might be a bad idea. Then, when they're a bit older it's a good idea to set limits about using new technologies, although, you should let them decide how long to use a device for. In Scandinavian countries, you won't hear a parent tell their child to "Finish your food," because a child (and more specifically, their brain) is perfectly capable of knowing how much food to eat. Children from these countries are allowed to choose their own clothes and dress themselves each morning, provided they do so in accordance with the temperature. For example, they wouldn't be allowed to wear a miniskirt with no tights in the middle of January or put a woolen jumper on in August. Leaving these subtleties to one side however, it's thought that it is really helpful to their development if they're allowed to make these decisions themselves.

Parents are expected to play with their kids, and playtime is also encouraged in the classroom. Using games in educational activities and making class work entertaining and interactive so as to generate a positive emotion helps children to learn. Games are a very important part of child development as the human brain naturally learns through play. Through games, children learn about social rules and how to interact with others. By playing, children also naturally learn the psychomotor skills required for development so they can use a pen, hold a conversation and convey what they are thinking through physical movement. We know that games are essential to development. However, they also enable children to participate in situations that are different to those they experience every day, which allows them to practice different types of behavior.

Children from cultures that eat dinner very late might not feel like going to bed when they should. However, parents must understand that sleep is very important. When children are eight years old, a lack of sleep won't seem to make much difference to their ability to learn and concentrate at school. However, it's still a good idea to establish a good night time routine to help them fall asleep quickly. We know that the human brain needs at least eight hours sleep a night. Neither teenagers, nor small children should watch stories on their cell phones directly before going to sleep, as the type of light emitted by these devices delays the release of the hormone melatonin in the brain, which is required for the body to pass from being awake to being asleep. Failing to follow this advice could result in a vicious circle of sleep deprivation. Therefore, a basic piece of advice for parents who want their children to go to sleep earlier is to ban the use of electronic devices after dinner time.

Find out more about Álvaro Bilbao

Álvaro Bilbao has a PhD in Health Psychology and is a neuropsychologist who trained at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and the Royal Hospital for Neurodisability in London. Mr. Bilbao also wrote the book "How a child's brain works, an explanation for parents", which has become a best-seller in numerous countries, and collaborates with the World Health Organization (WHO).
How can we help our children study better?

We know a lot about how the brain learns. What we know from neuroscience about how the brain learns can help children who are preparing for an exam, or parents who want to help their children to study better. One of the most important concepts is that our brains learn best with a visual stimulus. We remember approximately ninety per cent of the things we see; however, we learn very little from what we read. Yet, the system we use to teach children is heavily based on reading, repeating and writing. If we use visual stimuli such as infographics, underlining in different colors or pictures to help children understand material better, they're more likely to remember the information better on exam day. Children don't find it difficult to learn things. What they do find difficult is remembering what they've learned, because the brain learns a lot of the information it is exposed to. Another important factor is creating connections. When a child is able to connect what they've learned in class to real life, they'll be able to remember what they've learned forever. This is not just important for parents, who want to be able to transfer a child's classroom life into the real world, but also for teachers, so they're aware that children learn best when subjects are related to their interests. According to neuroscience, there are three effects that really help children learn. The first is the self-generation effect. When a child writes something down, takes their own notes or draws their own diagrams, their brains are able to retain this information much better because humans are better at remembering things they've done themselves, rather than things they've heard or been told. The second is the spacing effect. When children or teenagers take a break after they've been studying for a while, their brains run through a number of processes that enable them to store the information they've been focusing on in their long-term memory. Therefore, if children take a short nap after studying, or study a subject for a while and then have a five-minute break where they lie down and don't look at a computer or chat to friends, they'll be much more likely to be able to consolidate and remember the information they've just been looking at. The third effect is called the generation effect. When a child studies by going over and over the same thing numerous times, their brain stops learning as it enters what we call an 'habituation' phase. This means that the brain simply ignores words that are repeated over and over again because it's already seen them and has started to lose interest in them. Another effect identified by neuroscience is the evaluation effect, which is where you learn something of your own accord. Children can do this by going over a subject, creating a diagram, drawing helpful pictures and then closing their book and trying to remember everything. This method not only has an impact on learning (which in itself is good for the teenage brain), but also on memory, which is what every student needs on exam day. When exam time comes, almost all students know what answers they should give, but they're not able to remember them.

"To help a child's brain develop fully, you must encourage them to make their own decisions and learn from their mistakes".

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