Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Changing the Brain takes repetition!

My 9 year old doesn't love to write.  He went through a time that he just wasn't going to write if he couldn't do it perfectly- there was a series of broken and otherwise unhappy pencils that didn't stay long on the paper on which they were destined to write.  Thankfully, I recognized that it wasn't so important in that moment that he write right now.  After all, I had decided to pull him out of school and teach him at home.  He now has absolutely incredible oral math skills (as I sit scribbling down the series of numbers to check his math and he sits with a grin watching me, asking why I need to write it down!) and that is such a great skill.  His oral vocabulary is also off the charts because we've spent so much time just being together, interacting with one another, and reading all sorts of books with big words for fun.

So, when he decided to return to school this year in the fourth grade, my only concern was his writing.  He just hadn't been doing it.  It isn't that he can't do it, he just wasn't practicing.  I tried to impress upon him over the summer that now was a good time to start practicing, but it wasn't something I wanted to force.  After all, I wanted him to enjoy learning and writing, not hate it more.  I held my breath a bit on his first day, hoping that he'd be able to handle the stressors of a classroom that is entirely focused on writing.

He came home after the first day saying, "Wow- we did a lot of writing today.  And they said we didn't do very much!"  He certainly had moments of frustration with it, but he was actually handling the stress fairly well.

At the time, I was taking Janet Conner's Writing Down Your Soul class (www.writingdownyoursoul.com) and she had just gotten to the research about why her writing process works (my favorite part!).  She shared information from Robert and Michelle Colt, who are "brain consultants" working with top athletes and Fortune 500 executives in NYC, on neural pathways.  They said that it takes repetitions to create a new neural pathway and change your brain.  Changes begin to occur immediately when you are learning a new skill or working to break an old neural pattern (exercising, changing your diet, learning to write, etc.), but if you don't keep working on it, the pathway begins to recede.  It gave new meaning to "use it or lose it!"  And 30 days is an important number in creating a new neural pathway.  If you maintain something (eating healthy, making a change in your parenting, etc) for 30 days, you can effectively change your brain.

I let that sit for a while, then I shared it with my son one afternoon when he was frustrated with his writing.  I explained that he was changing his brain and that it doesn't happen right away.  He almost visibly relaxed.  

And doesn't this apply to us as parents, too?  When we want to make a change in our parenting, we need to remember to give ourselves some grace.  Changes don't happen overnight, whether you are trying to serve more vegetables to your family or stop doing something that your parents always did to you.  Change requires us to change our brains and that doesn't happen instantly just because we want it to.

So, consider that the next time you get frustrated with yourself for, "doing that again" and forgive yourself.  Think in terms of making the change for 30 days, working to be gentle with yourself when you make a mistake.  And like my son, you'll find that this works much better than getting mad at yourself for not doing it perfectly! 

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