Different Learners by Jane Healy, Ph.D.

When I was asked to promote Jane Healy’s book, I hesitated because one, I hadn’t read it and two, I have never written a book review. But since I am a huge fan of two of her past books (Endangered Minds and Failure to Connect) I was curious to read a book with a title that is intentionally ‘label free’. Within minutes I was hooked. Jane has done it again. She has the ability to turn science into practical, usable information while she is slowly selling you on a more holistic approach to supporting different learners.

My training as a PCI Certified Parent Coach has taught me to embrace the family as a living systems model and look beyond the child’s behavior (that’s generally why parents seek coaching in the first place), but I look at the whole family, environmental issues, day to day stressors, the child’s learning environment, etc. Jane completely supports that approach when trying to determine if a child has a learning issue and whether it is the result of genes, brain chemistry, environment or lifestyle.

I found myself nodding in agreement with her firm stance on limiting media in a child’s life and how we need to get our kids outside more often enjoying and exploring nature. And stress – painfully I have watched the detrimental effects on my own children. Jane makes several convincing arguments for why we need to slow it down, especially for students who learn differently. So many of them give up.

Jane does an excellent job describing the latest research on the brain in language that even I could comprehend – never did develop that analytical side of my brain! She talks about medication and rightly questions the amount of drugs prescribed to children. As parents we want our children to fit in and find success in school, but often medication is prescribed too quickly as a remedy. As Jane says, “In my opinion, expediency, convenience, or outside pressure are very lame reasons for messing around with your child’s brain chemistry.”

In her chapter “How Your Child’s Brain Works” she devotes the last few pages to motivation. I hear too often, ‘If he were just more motivated . . . “ So we tell our child to get motivated which Jane feels is “a waste of breath”. Jane has a few more thoughts about motivation – this is my favorite:

“One major reason for ‘motivation’ problems is that school curricula are often too rigid to accommodate a student’s need to learn differently and to repeat things for mastery. Policy makers, take note: expecting all students to achieve mastery without adequate support is a recipe for the ultimate motivation problem, dropping out.” (my emphasis)

I particularly liked her chapter on stress. She outlines the stressors our children face in this culture such as school, bullying, and social networking – factors that clearly contribute to an overload on the developing brain. I’m glad she advocates for slowing it down especially for teens. As parents we can become oblivious to what I describe as the silent stressors in our children’s lives such as Facebook, texting, and the Internet. I appreciate that Jane gives parents permission to set appropriate limits on the use of media while providing up-to-date research on screen exposure and guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The Appendices are as important as the rest of the book so don’t overlook those at the end. Jane provides a list of known learning disabilities. And she walks parents through the process of diagnosis with strong recommendations to get second and third opinions if necessary. And if you are like me and have a hard time with ‘psycho babble’ she recommends finding an advocate for yourself and your child.

Parents will find this book user friendly as well as a ‘call to action’. For all of us who are parents with different learners – Jane is our ‘Oprah’. She completely understands what it’s like to both be a child with learning differences and a parent who is struggling to get answers. Here’s one ‘call to action’: She encourages parents to advocate for those parents who cannot advocate for themselves. After reading this book those who learn easily will have a deeper understanding for parents of children who learn differently.  “We say we care deeply about our children’s learning. But do we care enough to do what needs to be done?”

From all of us, . . . thank you, Jane.

Study Shows a Mother’s Voice Can Reduce Stress Levels in Young Girls

By Bill Hendrick, WebMD – Thursday, May 13, 2010

A kind word from mom by phone may be as good as a hug in calming the frayed nerves of frazzled daughters, a new study indicates.

In the study, which involved 61 girls aged 7 to 12, researchers say a mere phone call from their moms helped reduce the stress levels of the youngsters.

Led by biological anthropologist Leslie Seltzer, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the research team set out to measure fluctuations of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as of the “comfort” or “cuddle” hormone oxytocin.

The girls, all volunteers, were suddenly placed in stressful situations. They were asked without warning to deliver a speech in front of a group of strangers, an exercise that can create stress in people of any age.

Then they were drilled with difficult math questions — also in front of an audience. As expected, cortisol levels, known to increase with stress, skyrocketed when measured in saliva soon after the stressful situation.

Seltzer and Seth Pollak, PhD, a psychology professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison, then divided the girls into three groups.

The mothers of one group were on hand to hug and offer physical comfort to their daughters. Other girls were handed a telephone, with mom on the line. A third group watched an emotionally neutral film called March of the Penguins.

Researchers say the calming effect on the girls who were comforted by a hug or physical touch was more immediate, but that the stress hormone levels also quickly dropped in those who received soothing words from their mothers by phone.

For the girls who watched the film, cortisol levels were still considerably above normal an hour after their stressful experiences. Similarly, levels of the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin went up in girls who were hugged as well as those who received comforting phone calls, though not quite as fast in those whose mothers were not physically present.

Oxytocin levels were flat or low in the girls who watched the movie. The hormone levels were tested in samples of urine collected at various times during the course of the experiment.

“It was [previously] understood that oxytocin release in the context of social bonding usually required physical contact,” Seltzer says in a news release. “But it’s clear from these results that a mother’s voice can have the same effect as a hug, even if she’s not standing there.”

The relief from anxiety lasts, Pollak says. “By the time the children go home, they’re still enjoying the benefits of this relief and their cortisol levels are still low,” he says in the news release.

Gender Differences in Reacting to Stress

The findings are published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and they square with a “tend and befriend” theory, explaining how stress regulation may differ between females and males.

Males, when confronted with a threat, may be more likely to choose between fight or flight. But females with offspring in tow, or slowed by pregnancy, may have evolved to make different choices.

“You might not be able to run with a child or defend yourself without endangering both of you,” Seltzer says. She adds that it might make more sense for a female to create or use a social bond to deal with a stressor, either through touch or soothing communication.

“Apparently, this hormone oxytocin reduces stress in females after both types of contact, and in doing so may strengthen bonds between individuals,” Seltzer says.

Seltzer tells WebMD in an email that stress effects on boys were not addressed in this study, but experiments on young guys are under way. “The results aren’t all in, but yes, boys do look different. So do girls who interact with dad instead of mom.”

So would a hug from a dad, or a soothing phone call, do any good for children of either gender? “We just don’t know,” Pollak tells WebMD in an email. “But hormone systems between males and females may also be different. This was the very first study of its kind using the voice.”

Seltzer says her team “chose to focus on girls for this particular study because the hormone oxytocin, which we think helps regulate social behavior, is typically studied in females because of its role in maternal-infant attachment.”

She adds that “male children are equally interesting in their own right and will be the subjects of future work.”

In addition to reducing stress, oxytocin also may strengthen bonds between people, Seltzer says.

“For years,” Pollak says, “I’ve seen students leaving exams and the first thing they do is pull out their cell phone and make a call. I used to think, ‘How could those over-attentive, helicopter parents encourage that?’ But now? Maybe it’s a quick and dirty way to feel better.”

The fact that “a simple telephone call” could raise oxytocin levels “is really exciting,” he adds.

Seltzer is testing whether other methods of communication, such as text messaging, could have the same calming effect as a phone call or hug.

“On the one hand, we’re curious to see if this effect is unique to humans,” she says in the news release. “On the other, we’re hoping researchers who study vocal communication will consider looking at oxytocin release in other animals and applying it to broader questions of social behavior and evolutionary biology.”