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Saturday, January 2, 2016

Working With Careless and Dreamy Kids: Part 1

This post draws from Roy Baumeister's research and is written for parents of children who...
(a) are dreamy (eyes go blank in Dr. Pet's class)
(b) scatterbrained (leaves worksheets, water bottles, pencil boxes behind in Dr. Pet's class)
(c) careless when doing Dr. Pet's worksheets
(d) careless when writing compos
(e) high potential and GEP kids facing high workload and undergoing high stress

Basically, it is for every child in Singapore lahhh...

Mental Energy Depletion
In psychology research, the term "ego depletion" is a highfalutin term for "the idea that self-control or willpower draw upon a limited pool of mental resources that can be used up."

I don't like the cheem term "ego depletion" so I shall simply call it "mental energy depletion".

Put simply, a child's brain has limited stores of mental energy. This pool of mental energy is like an iPhone battery, if it is depleted, the child stops thinking (the iPhone stops working). When that happens, parts of the child's brain goes into sleep mode LITERALLY. See HERE. The child is awake but key parts of the brain fall asleep.

The Role of Norepinephrine
In the brain, at optimum levels, norepinephrine increases arousal and alertness, promotes vigilance, enhances formation and retrieval of memory, and focuses attention.  Too much norepinephrine increases restlessness and anxiety. Too little norepinephrine?
- Your child's attention drifts.
- Your child cannot catch his/her own careless mistakes

See HERE for the research on norepinephrine (and attention).
See HERE the research on ego depletion (and various types of tasks involving the brain). In effect, all tasks (even as simple as checking for carelessness, involve the brain). Once ego depleted, the child no longer can exert mental self-control and even if he wants to pay attention, would start thinking about other things - his mind drifts.

Norepinephrine VS Mental Energy
A neuroscientist would say that a child who cannot pay attention is lacking in norepinephrine. This site HERE documents that ADHD children are treated with Ritalin which increase norepinephrine in the ADHD brain so that these children can focus. Ritalin also increases dopamine (the happy hormone). Guess what? The brain converts dopamine into norepinephrine.

A psychologist, like me, would say that the child is "ego depleted". Like I said, I do not like this cheemology so, as an English Teacher, I prefer to tell parents,

- "Your kid runs out of mental energy halfway through the compo. That is why the last page has so many more mistakes even though the compo was done with no time constraint."

- "Your kid had piano class just before Dr. Pet's class. Dr. Pet's class is structured to deplete mental energy. 15 minutes into the class, your child cannot focus."

Motivation VS Depleted Mental Energy (aka Depleted Norepinephrine)
When I first started out teaching English, I tried everything to motivate these children (who look stupid) but sometimes, when the conditions were right, would give me star quality work. I assumed (wrongly) that the child was not motivated. After all, motivation is my expertise and if you are expert with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Again and again I hit roadblocks when I tried to troubleshoot ...
(a) stupid looking kids with flashes of brilliance
(b) GEP and high-po kids who just kept on giving me sub-par work
... using motivational techniques.

Fortunately, I had some instinct to step back and see if I could crack these children from a different approach.

I realised that these kids WANTED to be focused. They WANTED to please Dr. Pet because the price  of displeasing me is expulsion and since classes are so fun, NONE of them want to be expelled. They really are motivated children. They simply could not help it!

Once I had figured that out, the next question was WHY could they not help it? Deep in the recesses of my memory, I remembered the notion of Ego Depletion. I locked onto this construct and started to read up. I then started troubleshooting these children with techniques aimed at
- increasing norepinephrine (aka mental energy)
- topping up norepinephrine (aka mental energy) at optimum intervals through the day
- preventing the depletion of norepinephrine (aka mental energy)

So, I devised some practical ways to help kids top-up on norepinephrine. I launched these strategies on the WORST kids (kids who needed 3 pairs of eyes [2 class facilitators and 1 peer] to bring them back on cognitive task). Luckily, the centre has enough manpower to afford 3 pairs of eyes on one child!

To my joy, both their ability to focus and their quality of work improved! For me, research is not convincing unless I apply its findings to real life and see the effects. Without true real life effects, all that research blather is useless.

This post is getting too long. Please come back to this blog to read Part 2 of this post which will detail the exact techniques to increase, top up and prevent.

Edited 5 January 2016
I have written up Part 2 HERE.


Malar said...

Petunia, I shall definitely come back to learn about it! ;)

Petunia Lee said...