Hein Kaiser
Journalist
6 minute read
19 Jul 2021
3:34 pm

The science behind raising successful kids explained

Hein Kaiser

Failure should be the learning point of the experience when a child does not succeed at a task.

Picture: iStock

You cannot teach an old dog new tricks. That has been our truth for centuries but, it seems that recent progress in neuroscience is rapidly disproving this saying. Simply put, much of it is all in the mind. Neural pathways are created by our individual experiences, how we respond to daily life and whether we are positive or negative towards situations and environments. New thinking says that no matter what our life stage, it is possible to change or rebuild these pathways, and by doing so, change the way we respond to life. Parents can apply these principles in raising a child.

The mind is pliable and apart from self-development, there are also other things that can trigger a rewiring of the brain, like stress says Colin Northmore, neuroscience advocate and principal of online school Evolve.

“But then there are also desirable opportunities to trigger rewiring. And that has led to this whole concept of moving away from an understanding of the brains and the and the intelligence of someone as a fixed thing into something that is an ongoing growth process. And it is about having a growth mindset,” he says, adding that there are times when your brain goes through a natural rewiring process, particularly during adolescence.

Watch how a neuroscience approach can positively impact your child.

Understanding how your child’s mind works

“Imagine a highway in your mind,” says neuroscience coach Tanya Kunze, “much of the daily traffic becomes a pattern based on how you feel about the stimuli in your daily life, and due to your emotional reactions you will either send your thought for processing to the negative highway or the positive highway (neural network) in your brain.

“The more negative you feel the more cars (thoughts) you put on your negative highway, thus creating a negative world view. Now imagine if you just change the offramp and choose to rather look for the positive and be thankful for everything you do have, another words, change your focus and attitude, with repetitive practice, you will change your thinking from the ‘I can’t because’ amygdala or primal regions of the brain to the, ‘I can because’ prefrontal cortex part of the brain, engaging higher thinking,” she says, with relative practice, the right people around you, reading, listening to and watching enabling material, it is possible to change your mindset at any age.

“We are our brains interpretation of life, which is essentially a lazy organ. It takes the shortest route between points. If you have programmed yourself to be negative, your response will always be from that position, and your actions therefore counterproductive to success.”

Parents play a significant role in the wiring of the brain and a child’s future mindset. “Parents impact on the neural pathways of their children through the experiences that they offer their child, whether that’s a negative or positive, each of those experiences forms a pathway. From an educational perspective, the more varied, the more inspiring, the more engaging an experience of a child and the more the parents are active in the process, the better the outcome in terms of new information and discipline that creates more positive behaviour in a child.”

Kunze says that redirecting “where in your brain you think” is life changing. “We are all programmed from an early age to think a certain way, to react in specific manners with a set outlook on life.” This comes from the major influences on our lives at an early age. Parents and teachers primarily. “The education system has failed us in many ways and impacted the way we think about ourselves and our place in the word, and many times early development hangovers impede us from becoming our true selves later in life or achieving the best kind of success for ourselves.”

Should we be setting our kids up to fail?

Like Kunze, Northmore believes that the education system does children no favours when it comes to building positive self-image. This can take various shapes, most common is the pursuit of a “first prize” or academic excellence on a report card. “You are worth X percent,” says Northmore, a piece of paper that sets your worth at a point in time.

“What we find happens is that a child is more likely to succeed when they go through a process of saying ‘why didn’t it work last time? What will I do differently next time? And then actually get the opportunity to do that again and again and again.” This creates a daisy chain of self-worth issues, or a belief set in a child about how their value us measured. “I am much more interested in a mastery-based approach. So, what I am interested in is what should a child alone be able to do? And no matter how many times it takes a child to work on that, they should never be a point that you say we are now giving you your measurement, and this is all that you are worth.”

We are looking for failure, we want our children to fail. And that sounds weird coming from a principal,” says Northmore. “But basically, what we are saying is that failure is not a negative and should not be a negative experience. Failure should be the learning point of the experience.”

He adds that questions should be asked at that point, like “this result is interesting, but how can I do better next time, what do I have to do to get there”. It is not a time to negatively reinforce failure, but, as Kunze puts it, to “fail forward” towards a better or more productive future outcome.

How you say things impacts your child’s development

Northmore says that language, sometimes the addition of a simple word to a sentence, can make a major difference in setting a child up for better achievement. “There are two phrases I would encourage every parent to use with their children. The one is the word ‘yet’. Put it at the end of a sentence, like ‘you haven’t behaved well yet or you haven’t managed to get this mastered yet’.”

The second phrase I suggest is to say, “that is interesting”, adds Northmore. He cites an example. “How interesting that you got 20 out of 40 on your test. You just obviously have not learned it yet. What could you do differently to get a better mark next time? And what is preventing you from being engaged? Are your lessons not interesting?” Probing and engaging positively will engender a positive, learning mindset in your child.

We must focus on the action of learning, not the outcome. “It doesn’t mean to say that you need to be celebrating mediocrity. There is this kind of attitude that is prevalent that says, you know, well done, my child. You tried. OK, well done, my child. This is a fair starting point, but it shouldn’t be the final point of the conversation with your child.”

Northmore suggests that the conversation be swayed toward action. “It should be well done, my child. You tried. What are you going to do differently next time or are you satisfied with that outcome? What could you improve?”

 “When you don’t accept a child’s first effort but insist on their best effort, you start to unlock the potential of your child, you need to unlock that potential.”