Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Truth About Video Games and the Brain: What Research Tells Us

February 9, 2012 by Bill Jenkins, Ph.D

We’ve all seen the news reports, but how do video games really affect the brain? The short answer is this: researchers are working on it. While a great many studies have been done, science has a long way to go before we fully understand the impact video games can have.

The brain is a malleable, “plastic” structure that can change and evolve with every stimulus we give it. Whether that stimulus comes from listening to Tchaikovsky, studying Spanish, training in karate, or jumping through the mushroom kingdom in Super Mario Bros. Wii, every single input can affect the wiring of the brain if the conditions are right.

In a December 2011 article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, six experts in neuroscience and cognitive psychology – Daphne Bavelier, C. Shawn Green, Doug Hyun Han, Perry F. Renshaw, Michael M. Merzenich and Douglas A. Gentile – offer their perspectives on frequently asked questions related to the effects of video games on the brain:

Are there beneficial effects of video games? Does evidence point to improvements in cognitive function? Given the wide variety of game types and the tasks they demand of the brain, this is an extremely complex and layered issue. Han and Renshaw cite studies indicating that game play may improve visual-spatial capacity, visual acuity, task switching, decision making and object tracking. In perception, gaming has been shown to enhance low-level vision, visual attention, processing speed and statistical inference. These skills are not necessarily general improvements in cognitive functioning, but specific skills transferrable to similar tasks. (Gentile)

Does playing video games have negative effects on the brain and behavior? On this issue, the jury is essentially unanimous: intensive play of high-action games has been shown to have negative cognitive effects. Merzenich references studies that indicate such games can create “listlessness and discontent in slower-paced and less stimulating academic, work or social environments.” Research has drawn connections between playing more violent games and an increase in more aggressive thoughts. Games with anti-social or violent content “have been shown to reduce empathy, to reduce stress associated with observing or initiating anti-social actions, and to increase confrontational and disruptive behaviors in the real world.” (ibid)

How strong is the evidence that video games are addictive? While strong evidence is mounting, research is proceeding but still incomplete. According to Han and Renshaw, investigations suggest that “brain areas that respond to game stimuli in patients with on-line game addiction are similar to those that respond to drug cue-induced craving in patients with substance dependence.” In addition, they state that gaming dependence has been shown to create “dysfunction in five domains: academic, social, occupational, developmental and behavioral.” While gaming addiction may differ from other types of addiction, it clearly appears to be a very real issue.

What should the role of video games be in education and rehabilitation? Again, if we come back to the underlying fact that any stimulus can change the brain under the right conditions, video games – a source of stimuli – certainly have a role to play in these areas. The question is, what stimuli are beneficial to which individuals, and how can we customize the gaming experience to give the learner or patient the stimuli that they most need at a given moment? Adaptive technologies that track a user’s responses and present follow-up material based on those response patterns, especially when wielded by an experienced educator or clinician, offer immense potential.

The last question these experts address is: Where is neuroscience headed in this field? Clearly, studies have shown that video games affect and change the brain, both for ill as well as for good. Some researchers, such as neuroscientist Paul Howard-Jones of Bristol University, are already experimenting with ways to harness computer gaming to enhance classroom learning. Future studies are likely to uncover both detrimental effects of video games and significant benefits of their employment as learning and rehabilitation tools.

“Because of their great didactic efficiencies,” says Merzenich, “and because of brain plasticity-based exercises can improve the performance characteristics of the brain of almost every child, these new game-like tools shall be at the core of a schooling revolution.”

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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

5 Tips for Talking to Children at Play

By Marissa Rasavong

As educators of young children, we are charged with weighty responsibilities, such as increasing students' vocabulary, facilitating purposeful play, and promoting social-emotional skills. Scary but true: What we say (and do not say) during play-based learning can make a big difference for our students. In our busy classrooms, it is easy to slip into communication patterns that are comfortable for us, but do not help our students grow and learn.

Here are a few tips for communicating with young learners at play:

1) Use words that students do not yet know.
The 2000 National Reading Panel demonstrated that children learn most words incidentally. Since our students spend many of their waking hours at school in play-based learning, early childhood educators have plenty of opportunities to strengthen students' vocabularies. Yet when we talk to young children, it can be tempting to stick to words that we think are easy for them to understand. We should fight this tendency: If we are not exposing our students to words beyond those they hear at home, they are not developing the vocabulary that will later prove useful to them as readers and writers.
We should use rich vocabulary as part of our everyday communication and instruction. It is never too soon to expose young learners to "big words."
Elevating our word choices can be as simple as choosing more sophisticated synonyms. Instead of saying, "Good job!," we can praise students with statements like "That is exceptional work!," "Excellent effort!," or "You persisted!" And rather than observing, "It’s cold today," we can talk about how "blustery" or "frigid" the weather is.
By casually using new words (and explaining them, when necessary) as students take part in engaging activities, we can help to build their vocabularies.

2) Ask good questions.
Play ought to be engaging for our young learners—but it is also an opportunity to promote higher-order thinking skills and independent learning. Then we ask close-ended questions (with one right answer in plain sight), we limit what our students can learn during play. Instead, our questions should encourage students to engage more deeply and reflect on their own learning.
When students are excited to tell us about the structures they have built, we can extend their thinking by asking, "What would happen if we moved this block?" or "How many blocks would we need to add, to make your structure taller than you? How did you know that?" Or, while one student is performing a task (such as sorting objects), we might ask another student, "Do you think she should put this piece in that cup? Why? Why not?"
Most of our questions throughout the day should be open-ended questions that give us more bang for the educational buck by pushing students' thinking. Even when we do ask a one-right-answer question, we can respond with, "That’s right! Tell me how you knew that!," rather than just confirming the student is correct.

3) Encourage problem solving.
It is easy to offer shortcut answers when difficulties arise. But what’s best for students in the long run is to encourage them to solve their own problems.
When a student tattles, we may be tempted to say, "Okay, I will talk to him." But we can instead ask questions like, "That sounds frustrating—what did you do?"
If a student says, "I can’t do it," our first instinct may be to instruct, "Do it like this." However, she will learn to think about her learning if we ask her to predict outcomes of other approaches: "What do you think will happen if ... ?"
Of course, such exchanges require patience: We must give students the time they need to solve problems.
Also, we tend to overlook the strategy of requiring "wait time" before problem-solving because we fear the loss of young children’s attention. However, this is still a valuable strategy to keep in our toolbox, when the situation and individual child’s characteristics allow for it.

4) Respond thoughtfully to student behavior.
Researchers have shown (and all experienced educators have witnessed) that a student’s ability—or inability—to regulate himself and affiliate with others can make or break his educational experience. While they are still young, students need to learn to focus on tasks, take turns, and persevere even when they are frustrated. What does this mean for us as early childhood educators? How can we communicate with students in ways that enhance their self-regulation?
The "personal message," a social guidance technique implemented by the faculty of the Child Development Laboratories at Michigan State University, is a scripted sequence that educators can employ to respond to students’ behavior. This sequence involves reflecting, reacting (and giving reasons for our reactions), and redirecting young children. By communicating in this way, we can help young learners understand why and how to follow rules—teaching them how to behave rather than just telling them to behave. The result? Children are intrinsically motivated to follow rules, even when adults are not present.
Here’s how the personal message might look in a situation in which a student has taken another student’s toy. One way to respond would be to say, "Share!" But consider what the student learns when we respond thoughtfully:
• "You wanted that toy, too." We begin by reflecting on the student’s behavior. By showing that we are listening and watching, we demonstrate respect for the student, which establishes a healthy groundwork for the conversation.
• "I felt sad because you took the toy without asking." We react to the student’s behavior, and give a reason for our reaction. This provides the child a chance to see their actions from the perspective of others and to understand why others might feel the way they do. Often, adults will give a rule without explaining why that rule is important, as if we expect students to be born knowing how to behave. Giving a reason is necessary to promote the student’s understanding of the consequence of their action (even if the reason has been mentioned before).
• "Friends take turns. Try asking if you can please have the toy." The final step in a personal message is the statement of the rule or redirection. The last thing we say should be what we expect the student to do or what they should do instead.
Implementing this multi-step process effectively takes practice and dedication. (After all, it is easier to just say, "Share!") But when we consistently respond in this way, students begin to regulate their own behavior—and when we see that, there’s a genuine sense of payoff!

5) Plan ahead to facilitate purposeful play.
Planning can help us choose our words carefully. As with any effective lesson, we should think in advance about our own roles in purposeful play: considering word choices, possible questions to raise, and our objectives for conversations with students. With reflection and practice, we can move beyond "comfortable" communication patterns to engage meaningfully with our students all day long.

Marissa Rasavong is currently the project facilitator of state-funded pre-kindergarten in the Clark County School District of Nevada. Marissa previously taught kindergarten and Title I pre-kindergarten at Robert Lake Elementary in Las Vegas. She is a member of the Teacher Leaders Network.

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Monday, February 13, 2012

Childhood dyspraxia: James' story

Autistic Girl Expresses Unimaginable Intelligence

A sharing from an autistic girl: "I am autistic, but that is not who i am. Take time to know me, before you judge me."

The Upside of Dyslexia

     (author of “Origins.” She is at work on a book about the science of learning.)
Published: February 4, 2012

THE word “dyslexia” evokes painful struggles with reading, and indeed this learning disability causes much difficulty for the estimated 15 percent of Americans affected by it. Since the phenomenon of “word blindness” was first documented more than a century ago, scientists have searched for the causes of dyslexia, and for therapies to treat it. In recent years, however, dyslexia research has taken a surprising turn: identifying the ways in which people with dyslexia have skills that are superior to those of typical readers. The latest findings on dyslexia are leading to a new way of looking at the condition: not just as an impediment, but as an advantage, especially in certain artistic and scientific fields.

Dyslexia is a complex disorder, and there is much that is still not understood about it. But a series of ingenious experiments have shown that many people with dyslexia possess distinctive perceptual abilities. For example, scientists have produced a growing body of evidence that people with the condition have sharper peripheral vision than others. Gadi Geiger and Jerome Lettvin, cognitive scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, used a mechanical shutter, called a tachistoscope, to briefly flash a row of letters extending from the center of a subject’s field of vision out to its perimeter. Typical readers identified the letters in the middle of the row with greater accuracy. Those with dyslexia triumphed, however, when asked to identify letters located in the row’s outer reaches.

Mr. Geiger and Mr. Lettvin’s findings, which have been confirmed in several subsequent studies, provide a striking demonstration of the fact that the brain separately processes information that streams from the central and the peripheral areas of the visual field. Moreover, these capacities appear to trade off: if you’re adept at focusing on details located in the center of the visual field, which is key to reading, you’re likely to be less proficient at recognizing features and patterns in the broad regions of the periphery.

The opposite is also the case. People with dyslexia, who have a bias in favor of the visual periphery, can rapidly take in a scene as a whole — what researchers call absorbing the “visual gist.”

Intriguing evidence that those with dyslexia process information from the visual periphery more quickly also comes from the study of “impossible figures,” like those sketched by the artist M. C. Escher. A focus on just one element of his complicated drawings can lead the viewer to believe that the picture represents a plausible physical arrangement.

A more capacious view that takes in the entire scene at once, however, reveals that Escher’s staircases really lead nowhere, that the water in his fountains is flowing up rather than down — that they are, in a word, impossible. Dr. Catya von Károlyi, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, found that people with dyslexia identified simplified Escher-like pictures as impossible or possible in an average of 2.26 seconds; typical viewers tend to take a third longer. “The compelling implication of this finding,” wrote Dr. Von Károlyi and her co-authors in the journal Brain and Language, “is that dyslexia should not be characterized only by deficit, but also by talent.”

The discovery of such talents inevitably raises questions about whether these faculties translate into real-life skills. Although people with dyslexia are found in every profession, including law, medicine and science, observers have long noted that they populate fields like art and design in unusually high numbers. Five years ago, the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity was founded to investigate and illuminate the strengths of those with dyslexia, while the seven-year-old Laboratory for Visual Learning, located within the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is exploring the advantages conferred by dyslexia in visually intensive branches of science. The director of the laboratory, the astrophysicist Matthew Schneps, notes that scientists in his line of work must make sense of enormous quantities of visual data and accurately detect patterns that signal the presence of entities like black holes.

A pair of experiments conducted by Mr. Schneps and his colleagues, published in the Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society in 2011, suggests that dyslexia may enhance the ability to carry out such tasks. In the first study, Mr. Schneps reported that when shown radio signatures — graphs of radio-wave emissions from outer space — astrophysicists with dyslexia at times outperformed their nondyslexic colleagues in identifying the distinctive characteristics of black holes.

In the second study, Mr. Schneps deliberately blurred a set of photographs, reducing high-frequency detail in a manner that made them resemble astronomical images. He then presented these pictures to groups of dyslexic and nondyslexic undergraduates. The students with dyslexia were able to learn and make use of the information in the images, while the typical readers failed to catch on.

Given that dyslexia is universally referred to as a “learning disability,” the latter experiment is especially remarkable: in some situations, it turns out, those with dyslexia are actually the superior learners.

Mr. Schneps’s study is not the only one of its kind. In 2006, James Howard Jr., a professor of psychology at the Catholic University of America, described in the journal Neuropsychologia an experiment in which participants were asked to pick out the letter T from a sea of L’s floating on a computer screen. Those with dyslexia learned to identify the letter more quickly.

Whatever special abilities dyslexia may bestow, difficulty with reading still imposes a handicap. Glib talk about appreciating dyslexia as a “gift” is unhelpful at best and patronizing at worst. But identifying the distinctive aptitudes of those with dyslexia will permit us to understand this condition more completely, and perhaps orient their education in a direction that not only remediates weaknesses, but builds on strengths.

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Developmental Coordination Disorder Often Misdiagnosed As ADHD

13 Feb 2012

Children showing difficulty carrying out routine actions, such as getting dressed, playing with particular types of games, drawing, copying from the board in school and even typing at the computer, could be suffering from developmental coordination disorder (DCD), and not necessarily from ADHD or other more familiar disorders, points out Prof. Sara Rosenblum of the Department of Occupational Therapy at the University of Haifa, whose new study set out to shed new light on DCD. "In quite a few cases, children are not diagnosed early enough or are given an incorrect diagnosis, which can lead to frustration and a sense of disability. It can even result in a decline that requires psychological therapy," she explains. 

A person with DCD suffers from childhood and throughout adult life. Unlike various illnesses or trauma, says Prof. Rosenblum, this disorder is expressed in the inability to control the process of carrying out a particular motor task, consolidate it in memory and repeat the same task automatically. "Simple tasks, such as closing buttons, tying laces, writing or riding a bicycle, which for healthy people become automatic, are difficult to carry out for people with DCD. When those children grow up, they are more likely to have trouble with temporal and spatial organization and have difficulty estimating distance and speed, which could prevent them from learning to drive successfully and even to ride a bicycle," she adds. 

Since the deficit is neural-based, meaning that it is founded in atypical brain activity, it is particularly difficult to diagnose in children. Going undiagnosed often exacerbates the individual's sense of frustration and shame, and they are therefore more likely to grow up to be introverted adults. The current study, conducted by Prof. Rosenblum andDr. Miri Livneh-Zirinski of Kupat Holim Meuhedet (one of Israel's public health plans), set out to identify DCD in children by means of a simple and noninvasive test of writing tasks. 

Two sample groups participated in the study: 20 children diagnosed with DCD and 20 children with no known symptoms of the disorder. Each participant was asked to write down their name, write out the alphabet and copy a full paragraph. The tasks were conducted using a special electronic pen and pad and a program developed by the researcher that shows objective measures that relate to the temporal and spatial characteristics of the writing, and pressure implemented on the pad. These measures can be analyzed with regard to motor, sensory and cognitive performance by taking note of elements such as in-air time per stroke, force of writing, and the time taken to write each letter. 

The study found that the two groups showed very different characteristics in various parameters. Those with DCD took up to three times longer than the other children writing each letter; they also held the pen in the air for longer; and they placed more pressure on the pad with the pen. According to Prof. Rosenblum, these results give further emphasis to the suffering that children with DCD undergo in the classroom and any time they are required to complete a writing task. 

"Children with DCD are 'transparent': they have no physiological or intellectual deformities, and in many cases, they are above average in their intelligence. But they are not able to complete tasks that require coordination between motor, sensory and cognitive functions. Our study comes to show how a simple everyday task can be used to diagnose individuals with DCD, and subsequently enable them to get the necessary treatment and guidance with occupational therapy," concludes Prof. Rosenblum. 

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Improved Behavior For Children With ADHD Taking Part In Physical Activity Program

19 Jan 2012
While children who suffer from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) struggle with hyperactive-impulses and have trouble maintaining attention, a recent study found that a structured physical activity program may help to improve their muscular capacities, motor skills, behavior assessments, and the ability to process information. This new exploratory study was released in the recent issue of the Journal of Attention Disorders (published by SAGE).

Authors Claudia Verret, Marie-Claude Guay, Claude Berthiaume, Phillip Gardiner, and Louise Béliveau enrolled ten children in a physical activity program that included a warm-up, aerobic activity, muscular and motor-skill exercises, and a cool-down. The objective of each session was to maintain moderate to high-intensity activity throughout each session as observed by a heart-rate monitor. 

"A main finding of this study is that both parents and teachers observed better behavioral scores in the physical activity group," wrote the authors. "This could mean that positive effects of physical activity may occur in different settings of the children's life." 

The authors monitored ten children with ADHD who were participating in the physical activity program three times a week and eleven different children with ADHD as part of a control group.

The authors wrote, "Considering the beneficial effect of physical activity participation on some important ADHD-related variables, schools and parents of children with ADHD should look to maximize opportunities for structured group physical activity in their children's life." 

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