Modern Family Matters

Identifying Your Child's Cognitive Skills to Support Academic Success

July 27, 2023 with Betsy Hill Season 1 Episode 102
Modern Family Matters
Identifying Your Child's Cognitive Skills to Support Academic Success
Show Notes Transcript

We sit down with co-author of "Your Child Learns Differently, Now What?", Betsy Hill, to discuss the importance of a child's cognitive readiness to learn, how to identify your child's cognitive skills, and how co-parents can work together to help their child develop a growth mindset. In this interview, Betsy answers the following frequently asked questions:

  • Why do we need to know how a child learns?
  • What are cognitive skills?
  • How can parents support their children who learn differently?
  • Why is it especially important for co-parenting families to understand how children learn?
  • What is the relationship between learning struggles and anxiety/stress?
  • Are there any learning or intellectual disabilities that don’t respond to building cognitive skills?
  • How does childhood trauma impact cognitive skills?

If you would like to speak with one of our attorneys, please call our office at (503) 227-0200, or visit our website at https://www.pacificcascadelegal.com.

To learn more about how Betsy can help you, you can visit her website: https://mybrainware.com/

Disclaimer: Nothing in this communication is intended to provide legal advice nor does it constitute a client-attorney relationship, therefore you should not interpret the contents as such.

Intro:
Welcome to Modern Family Matters, a podcast devoted to exploring family law topics that matter most to you. Covering a wide range of legal, personal, and family law matters, with expert analysis from skilled attorneys and professional guests, we hope that our podcast provides answers, clarity, and guidance towards a better tomorrow for you and your family. Here's your host, Steve Altishin.

Steve Altishin  
Hi, everyone. I'm Steve Altishin, Director of Client Partnerships here at Pacific Cascade Legal. And today I'm here with neuroeducator and co-author of Your Child Learns Differently Now What?, Betsy Hill, to discuss the importance of a child's cognitive readiness to learn, how to identify your child readiness, and working together with your co-parent to help develop a growth mindset. Wow, that's a lot. So Betsy, how are you doing today?

Betsy Hill  
I am great. Steve. So nice to be here. 

Steve Altishin  
Oh, I'm so happy you're here. This is really interesting stuff. And before we start diving into it, can you just tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Betsy Hill  
Well, the most important thing about me is I raised three boys. And they were as different as different can be. Very different learners, I always say about them that they never would have met if they weren't brothers. That's how different they are. And I had a former teacher taught high school for a while and then distracted as many teachers do. But I've been so interested, really, since college in how the brain learns, and there wasn't much science back then. But the last 1520 years, there's been a lot of science, and it's been just an amazing journey to learn, find new half of what I know, now back then my teaching and my parenting would have been would have been different.

Steve Altishin  
Yeah, I really love what I was looking at some of your stuff, the term neuro educator, I mean, it's like, we don't always think that. I mean, it is actually the brain that learns inside. I really think that's fascinating stuff.

Betsy Hill  
Yeah, it is the brain that learns. And so that, and really, every teacher should have that information. But it is still the case that most teacher preparation programs do not ever mention the word brain. So they don't really talk about talking about a lot of things that help teachers, but not necessarily what really what's going on in the brain when the brain is learning and how to take advantage of that knowledge. And that's why I coined the term neuro educator is that it's someone who is as committed to education as teachers generally are, but also studied and understands the brain and how it learns, and how we can really leverage that information and help create the kinds of learning experiences that are likely to to result in sticky learning. someone the other day was talking to me about that their brain didn't feel very sticky, it couldn't hold on to information. And that's, that's what we want. We want sticky brains, you know, brains that can hold on to information and do things with it and think about it. And  that's what our job as teachers is, really.

Steve Altishin  
I love it. I love it. So that kind of leads to the the, I guess, obvious question, I always start with an obvious question. I don't know why. But we talked about cognitive learning, and the importance of it. So let's just kind of start with what is called cognitive learning and what kind of skills are involved. 

Betsy Hill  
So cognitive skills is the term so the cognitive processes, there are a lot of different terms. But the word cognitive is really about learning and thinking and cognitive skills are the processes our brains use, to take in information from the outside world. To organize it, store it, retrieve it, process it, make sense of it, make decisions with it, retrieve it later when we need to do it. So it's the, the, all those mental processes that involve things like various attention skills. There's a special group of cognitive skills called executive functions. A lot of people are hearing that term later because these skills are so important in the learning but in everyday life, and there would help us organize and manage ourselves and get our work done. And then other things like visual and auditory processing processing speed. When we work with families, we work on 43 cognitive skills, so it's not just a simple Oh, you're either done Mmm are smart, you know that thinking has just no longer even relevant, because there's so many different processes that are involved. And they all have to work together. So these are really the foundation for learning when we have a solid foundation, then we can build, then we can learn to read, learn to write, learn to do math, all the rest of the curriculum, as well as be more socially competent, you know, to have the ability to organize ourselves, keep track of our selves, and all that kind of thing.

Steve Altishin  
Kind of makes me think of my garden and work in the yard, I work way too hard. And I come in and everything hurts. And it's like, my muscles in my back hurt my muscle in my arm hurts. And I kind of feel is it kind of like that, that all these things? You talked about attention, visual, auditory? Are they located, like in different parts of the brain? Does this kind of like massaging and the whole brain kind of a deal you're talking?

Betsy Hill  
Yeah, a little bit. Some of these processes happen in more discreet areas of the brain. But a lot of it's distributed all over the brain. And it's the overall brain connectivity, and the ability of all these things to work together, that is really, what is the most correlated with intelligence. And that's something people have always been looking for, where does this little piece sit, and where does that little piece sit at the best prediction is whether you can get all of these pieces working together. So sometimes it's sort of like, you know, when you have departments in a company, that are all, you know, really, really good, and they're all working really well, except they're not working together. And so one does something and then it drops, and the customer never gets that product, or whatever it might be. And the same is true of our brains. So we have to, we can, we often work with kids who are really, really smart. And every kid is really smart in some way. But that is just as not working together. And so when we can get that to happen, then just learning becomes easier, is sort of like, you know, your your yard work will be a little bit easier, and you won't come in as uncomfortable and as in need of that massages you do.

Steve Altishin  
You talked a little bit about the higher order of executive functions. And is that something that you can work at to get better?

Betsy Hill  
Absolutely. So when I talk about higher order executive functions, it reads a lot, the list reads a lot like 21st century skills. So if, if you may have heard that, but it's like things like planning, collaboration, communication, just how you organize and work with others, all of those kinds of things. And those require that the unit to know a lot of things, but to also have these various cognitive skills. So if you think about it, what we do in the workplace, or what we do in school, and you look at something like cognitive flexibility, which is one of the three core executive functions, but plays a big role and all of the others and cognitive flexibility means that you can shift gears and adapt and take a different approach when you need to when things change, or when your first approach to something doesn't work. And if you think about what that is like in you know, in the workplace, not everything works, right the first time, or the first plan you have doesn't accomplish it, or the, you know, the first product to market is not necessarily the best. And that process of learning from that experience and iterating. And going through it again, which is the essence. I mean, that's what Apple has done so magnificently in their product development is they, they learn from putting things out in front of us, and we use it and we tell them about how we experience it and then they do the next generation. And it's really all of us are like that, if we you know, and you mentioned growth mindset earlier, that's really the essence of growth mindset is that you're not going to necessarily get it right the first time growth, a growth mindset is the mindset that somebody has when they understand that intelligence isn't fixed, that it can be developed. So all of these things, our ability to to analyze and to think higher order thoughts and to be critical thinkers and to be collaborators, all of that we can strengthen first of all by strengthening these underlying skills, the foundation and then by working on on those others improve how we can do those.

Steve Altishin  
Am I right in assuming that you can improve everything, because I remember growing up it was always you were either a language arts person, or you are a math person, and you know, the left and the right side of the brain and all of that kind of stuff that sort of like, okay, you're gonna be this but not that. I take it that's not necessarily right?

Betsy Hill  
No, that's not necessarily right. We all have cognitive strengths and weaknesses that we can say quite confidently as to whether you're a language arts person or a math person, it turns out that many of these skills apply to both. So for example, in working memory, working memory is one of another one of the executive functions, it's how we hold information in our minds, while we think about it, when I'm reading, and taking in pieces of information, and holding them in my mind, I'm comparing it to what I already know, which is how I comprehend something and how it makes sense. That's working memory. All of that happens in working memory. If I'm in a multi step math problem, and I'm trying to figure out first I have to distribute and then I have to regroup, and then I have to do whatever it is that I do in math, that's working memory, even basic counting. If you think about if I asked you to count the books in your office, would take you a little while I can tell from looking behind you. But it would, you would have to keep track of which ones you've counted where you are in the sequence, which ones you haven't counted, that's also working memory. And so that's how all of these play into. And so when we struggle with reading, or math, it's not as simple one on one correlation, where we say, oh, that must be the culprit, we have to dig deeper, because we're not going to be able to figure it out, otherwise.

Steve Altishin  
Let's kind of move now to something you had talked about follows this, I think, in my brain it does, is that there is I don't know, maybe a disconnect between the concept of understanding how you learn and how you teach. And, and teaching isn't necessarily learning. And does that mean really are? Can that mean that, that, you know, we just can't let everything be in the hands of the school, we need to be in there too. 

Betsy Hill  
Absolutely. So there's a lot of teaching that goes on. All round every, all the hundreds of 1000s of schools that there are in the millions of teachers and the 10s, and hundreds of millions of students that are out there. But it's still the case that only about a third of students are reading proficiently at grade level in fourth grade. So there's obviously teaching going on without learning going on. And we also know that learning goes on no matter what kids learned a lot of things during COVID may not be what the teachers wanted them to learn, but they learned a lot of things. We put a lot of emphasis on teaching. And long time ago, when I was in the high school classroom, teaching foreign language, I knew my material, I knew what they had to learn, I could explain it in the way that I understood it. But I didn't necessarily have anything in my toolkit when my students struggled, because I didn't know how they learned. And so you know, when I think that we put a lot of emphasis on teaching, and teaching is important. But if there's no learning going on, it doesn't matter how much teaching is going on. And I think that one of the things that's really important is to change concept or change the way we talk about teaching. Because it's not just presenting material. What it really is, you're my job as a teacher, this is how I look at it is to create an environment and an experience in which learning can happen. So I don't even need to know what I'm teaching necessarily, as long as I can create that environment and then experience that lets students build that understanding and those connections for themselves.

Steve Altishin  
The impact of increasing your cognitive functions, skills, that reaches out to more than just book learning in schools, doesn't it? It kind of can reach out to your whole life and how you deal with life.

Betsy Hill  
Right. So all of these processes are not just about how we do when we're sitting in the classroom, they how we do everything. So we go back to working memory, which we talked about in the context of math, and we talked about in the context of reading, you know, what's happening now in our conversation is you're listening and you're thinking about it, and you're coming up with another question and that's happening in working memory as you're pulling out pieces of information you may have experienced or read about or something from your own experience. And and that's what I'm doing to I'm thinking about your what the question you're asking me and I'm thinking about the to parents who might be listening and what might be, you know, really helpful information for them. And all of that is going to guide what I'm talking about and what I'm sharing. So and that's just, you know, simple example, when we just are hit, you know, you're talking with your friends, do you want? Do you want to go to the pizza place or the hamburger place? Well, you got to think about that. And that's in working memory. And then you got to take into account whether you think your friend who's asking you really has a preference. And you can't do that unless you can process all that kind of information.

Steve Altishin  
Is there a way to strengthen them? Is there a working memory, you know, peleton machine, something.

Betsy Hill  
There is cognitive training tool. And it's, it's sort of like cross training, which peloton also is, in some respects. So, for many, many years, people have known about how to do this in a clinical setting where you would go and you'd work with a therapist, and it might be a speech pathologist, it might be a vision developmental expert, it might be an occupational therapist. And what we have been working on and have been doing for the last almost 20 years, is taking that previous 40 years of work that was done in the clinic and put it in on a computer basically, in video game technology. So with the right kind of cognitive training, you can improve your cognitive, not just your cognitive skills, but then in a way that also leads to improvements in academics. And in a something like a 12 to 14 week period, you can experience kids can often experience two to three years cognitive growth, and as much as a year or two of academic growth. Wow. So this is life changing. This is truly life changing, and it takes kids who ever been struggling, and that just don't get it and kids that feel discouraged. And, you know, I'm stupid, I can't get this, I just don't even want to try. And parents see this all the time. If you have a struggling child, you know, exactly what that looks like and what it feels like. But that's not determinative. That's not the end of the story. You know, we're not we don't just come into the world with a certain amount of it, we can build it far more than most people realize.

Steve Altishin  
You just used, somewhere in your brain, a piece of memory that answered the question. I was, you know, kids are struggling. So you don't have--it can be everybody who can learn. And you talked about one point, a term that I have not heard before, neural plasticity. I think I got that right, and how that pertains to learning. What's that about?

Betsy Hill  
So neuroplasticity is the term that the neuroscientists use to mean simply that the brain can change. Our brains change, they're constantly changing. And the plasticity part is when they refer to that things, they're talking about the 85 billion neurons in our brains, and the fact that they can connect and reconnect and reconfigure their neural networks that are that embody learning, basically. And it's what allows us to change our minds is what allows us to learn new vocabulary. It's, you know, we, we used to think we didn't learn very much after a certain point in time, but that is not the case. So it's much easier when we're younger, no question about that. But we're never too old. And so, you know, we work with adults, we work with teenagers, we recruit people in their 20s to do the same kind of cognitive training might take a little longer, a little more effort, you know, then when you're in third or fourth grade, when it's convenient, really dramatic. Yeah. That's That's what neuroplasticity is. It's just that we can change our brains. 

Steve Altishin  
Yeah, that reminds me again, this weird how our brains work. Indira Gandhi, I remember a quote of his which was, 'Live like you're going to die tomorrow. Learn like you're going to live forever.' And it said sort of don't stop learning thing, which I think is really cool. Let's get into kids with with some issues, maybe anxiety issues, could be some cognitive development issues, you know, maybe dyslexia I mean, those kinds of things. And this process you're talking about, help them let's say learn to read.

Betsy Hill  
Yeah, we all have cognitive strengths and weaknesses and For some, there are some real stumbling blocks for for a lot of us there are stumbling blocks, even for those kids that are doing well in school, Stephen, I don't know, you probably know some of these but kids who really work hard and they get good grades, they spend hours and hours and hours on their homework. And it just takes them on a really lot. And then their families never see them, because they just it takes them so much effort and work to keep up. And then you have kids who have a label, it might be dyslexia, it might be developmental disability delay, it might be a learning disability, it might be ADHD, it might be autism, it might be a whole, there's a whole string of labels. And what labels do for you is really two things, it gives you access to medication, if you need it, you can't have medication unless you have a diagnosis. And it also gives you access in many situations to services in school combinations and those kinds of things. But it doesn't actually tell us a whole lot about how that child learns. And what we see over and over again. And we work with kids with labels and kids without labels and kids with developmental display delays. And it's pretty amazing what can be accomplished, where you get kids who are reading and writing and doing math and thinking and coming up with just very often they're very creative kids. So there's there's the improving it part of it, there's also empowering kids to understand what their learning strengths are. Because they all we all have them. And sometimes in school, we focus on what kids can't do, as opposed to what they can do. And the what you can do, and helping them use those, giving them the right kinds of strategies and supports can be just very, very empowering. And then, and you mentioned anxiety. So a lot of kids have anxiety, because learning is so challenging, and big, they feel they can't keep up, or somebody's getting something everybody's getting something quicker than I do. And so anxiety can be, you know, very often a result of, of academic challenges or school challenges as well as other kinds of things. So it's not the only reason, but when you're learning more easily than you're willing to take on more challenging tasks, it's not so intimidating. You're, as we hear kids, you know, oh, I just have more cabinets, I can raise my hand in class. Now. You know, that's, that's a very different experience for a student because it gives them the confidence in a lot of ways. It's sort of the opposite of anxiety when you when you have that confidence when you know you can learn. And when you know you can approach those learning situations with the right tools. And it's easier, it's, it's a lot more enjoyable, it's a lot more fun.

Steve Altishin  
Let me ask a question about, since we are a family law firm, and we see lots of lots of people who are co parenting and whose kids are struggling. They're anxious because of the divorce not being in the same family, their childhood trauma going on, especially if the parents aren't working together. What can parents do? What can they do to help put their kids in the best position to improve their cognitive skills and learn more?

Betsy Hill  
So I would say the first thing is to recognize that both parents are going to have probably opinions about how their children learn. And they may be right and they may be wrong. And if but there's, you're not going to figure it out by having an argument about it, you're not it's not a subject of debate, what you can do is to have a child do a cognitive assessment, which will tell us how they learn. So we'll know whether their verbal or their visual memory is stronger, we'll know how they best understand things. We'll know how strong their executive functions are. And then it gives us a basis to have a conversation without the emotion, both as parents and with kids, and especially if you've got kids who are at least you know, I say by age 10, certainly by 1112 and teenagers. Having helping them understand why they may be having struggles and that what they can do about it and that this can be that those skills can be strengthened. Takes all that it's not like I'm stupid, or I'm not trying a lot of times teachers and our and our parents can assume well, you just need to try a little harder, but that may not be the issue and then it's someone When parents really understand that there's, it's like everything else, when there's a common base of understanding, and when you've got facts to deal with, then you can actually have conversations about how to be most helpful.

Steve Altishin  
And it sounds like this at least is an issue with co-parents, that there can be a fact a truth. That is there are you know, they can be said that can be opinions about a million different things. But this one is one that they that there is, in fact, a way to find out what actually and truly is the factual situation. So I really like yeah, we just blown through a 30 minute just blown through it. Stuff like that. But what I'll do is I'll start with a couple things is first, is there something that someone's watching and their kid they recognize a kid is having maybe struggling and something, one word of wisdom sort of thing, or something that that if you leave here remembering something, remember this.

Betsy Hill  
I think the important thing is to understand that when kids are struggling academically, there's a reason for it. And it's usually not curriculum and instruction, it's suited, there's something else going on. And so and when you know that, and can identify it, and you can work on that you can transform lives, you can change what it's like in school, and you can change what it's like for them in everyday life. And there's just it's a tremendously helpful message. So that's what I hope people will take away.

Steve Altishin  
That's wonderful thing to take away. Well, it is time to go. But before we go, I would also ask if people want to get in contact with you, can you tell them how they can do that?

Speaker 3  
Yeah, so the book is available on most online booksellers, Amazon and Barnes and Noble and other online booksellers. So people can access that there. And our website is trove of information. It's mybrainware.com. There's a free cognitive rating scale that parents can use to start to get an idea about where their child's cognitive strengths and weaknesses are. So that's a great place to start. And lots of other info there, too.

Steve Altishin  
I love it. I love it. Well, Betsy, thank you so much for sitting down today, to talk about the importance of a child's cognitive readiness to learn and identifying their skills and working together to use what we talked about, you know, to have their child develop a growth mindset. So thank you so much for being here today.

Betsy Hill  
Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.

Steve Altishin  
A pleasure for me, too. And thank you, everyone else, for joining us today. If anyone has any further questions on today's topic, we can get you connected with Betsy, you can connect with her yourself. And until next time, stay safe. Stay happy, be well.

Outro:
This has been Modern Family Matters, a legal podcast focusing on providing real answers and direction for individuals and families. Our podcast is sponsored by Pacific Cascade Legal, serving families in Oregon and Washington. If you are in need of legal counsel or have additional questions about a family law matter important to you, please visit our websites at pacificcascadelegal.com or pacificcascadefamilylaw.com. You can also call our headquarters at (503) 227-0200 to schedule a case evaluation with one of our seasoned attorneys. Modern Family Matters, advocating for your better tomorrow and offering legal solutions important to the modern family.