COLUMBIA — Author David Walsh spoke Thursday night to parents at Smithton Middle School about the ways in which brain science techniques can help make children more successful.
Walsh's presentation discussed several main points from his book, "Smart Parenting, Smarter Kids: The One Brain Book You Need to Help Your Kids Grow Brighter, Healthier, and Happier." He focused on early child brain development, the role of teachers, self-discipline, nutrition and regular exercise.
Walsh began the presentation by putting the audience on a train that took them from childbirth into adolescent brain development.
"The brain's first job is to keep us alive," Walsh said.
Walsh extracted laughter from the audience as he explained that things are easy and perfect for a fetus while it is still in the womb, but once it has to come out, that baby is not going to be happy.
The things the baby was used to experiencing — constant warmth, closed surroundings, consistent movement and a steady heartbeat — are no longer present.
A baby will cry and scream constantly after birth, since they now lack these things. Babies do not have the capabilities to calm themselves. That is where parents come in.
"I need people who are there for me. I need people who are going to give me attention," Walsh said, pretending to be the infant.
Fortunately, people will usually fulfill this role instinctively and rock babies to sleep and hold them close.
"Children who don’t get that (attention) lack in empathy," he said.
Infants only cry out for what they need. It's not until they reach around 18 months that they start to discover free will and challenge caretakers, he said.
Walsh went on to address the work teachers have to do in order to assure that students have the best learning experience. The brain only likes to think when conditions are right. There are three specific conditions that need to be met: novelty, curiosity and level of difficulty.
Novelty and curiosity fall closely together, assuring a child is interested in a specific subject, Walsh said. Things need to be presented in an appealing way.
Walsh emphasized the level of difficulty more. If something is too hard or too easy, people will disengage from the material. He used examples of math equations, one very hard and one very easy, to get the point across. Teachers and parents must hit a "sweet spot" to fully engage the child, which can be difficult with a large class.
"Any politician who says class size doesn't matter is an idiot," Walsh said, causing the audience to applaud.
Another point Walsh said he felt was important is the practice of teaching children self-discipline. If parents tell their children they can't have something only to give in a few minutes later, they are enforcing in their children's minds that complaining will get them what they want.
"Self-discipline is twice as strong a predictor of academic success as intelligence," Walsh said. "It's the kid's job to push the limits. It's our job to set the limits."
Walsh said diet and exercise are important in brain development as well. Eating right, such as cutting down on soda and eating the correct amount of fruits and vegetables, can allow the brain to have a more productive thought process. Exercise releases several endorphins that heighten brain activity, he said.
"Exercise is not only healthy for our cardiovascular health, but our brain health as well," he said.
Walsh asserted that any school considering eliminating recess might as well be "shooting themselves in the foot."
He also touched on the topic of electronics and their role in brain development. Kids are being raised with electronics constantly in front of them, he said. It desensitizes them from human interaction and cuts down on the amount of time they spend in motion.
Kids are now raised to have fun from the time they are infants, with videos such as Baby Einstein. When they reach the classroom, they are met with a real life teacher who is alien to them in the ways of learning. Children grow bored quickly and have a hard time paying attention far earlier than previous generations, he said.
The presentation was met with a large turnout, pulling in around 375 audience members, according to Bryon White, family and community partnership administrator at Central Missouri Community Action.
"It was very good and easy to grasp," said Gwyn Dudley, a parent in attendance. "You get out of it what you put in it."
Community Action is one of the 17 organizations in Columbia Cares for Kids and is involved in the "Week of Parenting With the Brain in Mind" events.