Monthly Archives: January 2018

Back to school blues: overcoming shyness 

This month, more than 3.5 million young people will start or return to schools across Australia.

For most young people this is a time of high excitement and energy. The long holidays are coming to an end and they are looking forward to seeing old friends, making new ones, and being a grade higher. But the excitement is often tinged with a hint of trepidation – “who will be in my class”, “will they still like me”, “what teachers will I get”? For some young people, these worries can dominate their life.

The good news is parents can help their kids through it.

What is shyness and social anxiety?

Shyness is a personality characteristic that exists on a continuum across the community from very low to the highest levels. When we use the term shyness, we are usually referring to the upper levels – up to 40 per cent of people describe themselves as shy. When shyness becomes very severe and starts to affect a person’s life, it can be diagnosed using the clinical term, “social anxiety disorder”. When diagnosed correctly, around 2.5 per cent of young people in Australia meet criteria for social anxiety disorder in a given 12-month period.

So, around one child in every typical Australian classroom will have this clinical disorder, and up to a dozen will be shy.

Socially anxious young people worry excessively about what others think of them and how they come across. They are very self-conscious and often freeze or become confused when they are the focus of attention.

Going back to school is the stuff of nightmares for these children. Some of the hardest experiences for a socially anxious young person will be found at school: meeting new kids, talking to authority figures, standing in front of a group, getting into trouble, and negotiating the hierarchies of the playground.

Shy youth can make good friendships, but usually have fewer friends than other kids. They are also more likely to be the targets of bullying. Many of these young people will be terrified at the prospect of going to school and the first few weeks will be especially hard.

Social anxiety can occur at any age – from kindergarten to the end of high school (and into adulthood). But it generally increases in the early teenage years, which is when most young people start to become more self-conscious.

Social anxiety is slightly more common in girls than boys. There is clearly a genetic aspect and parents of shy young people are often themselves slightly more shy than average. Aside from that, social anxiety cuts across society: it makes no difference whether families are rich or poor, from any particular cultural group, or married or divorced.

How parents can affect social anxiety

In our work at the Centre for Emotional Health at Sydney’s Macquarie University, we have found that parents can make a difference to their child’s social anxiety. This does not mean parents cause the problem, but they can help change it.

When their child is scared, a loving parent can think of nothing more important than protecting them. But excessively protecting your child and taking over, doesn’t allow them to learn through experience.

In one study we asked children aged seven to 13 to prepare a two-minute speech. For half of these children, we asked their mothers to help them extensively with speech preparation and more or less take over the task. The other half were told to only gently guide their child. We then asked the children to prepare a second speech by themselves and then deliver it to a small audience. Children whose mothers had taken over the speech-writing the first time showed more anxiety and tension when they delivered their second speech.

On the other hand, parents can help their child overcome social anxiety. We recently finished a large treatment study. The overall study was about treating all forms of anxiety (including social anxiety) and it looked at how we can step up the intensity of treatment when needed.

In the first step, parents of anxious children received a book explaining how to help their child and also spoke with a therapist on four brief occasions. After three months, 40 per cent of these children were completely free from their presenting anxiety.

How can you help your child?

A lot of it is common-sense and practical skills. Shy young people can be taught to think more realistically about the things that worry them. “They will think I’m an idiot if I wear that” can be challenged by asking “what would you think of someone wearing it?”. “Everyone is staring at me” can be challenged by getting the child to look around and count how many people are actually looking.

Shy young people should also be challenged to gently and gradually face their fears. For example, for a young person who is scared to speak to others, they could be challenged to speak to one or two “safer” kids every day for the next week. Then they could be asked to speak to a couple of slightly “harder” kids every day the following week, and so on.

Finally, if you find that you, as a parent, have a tendency to jump in and regularly help your child, try to get into the habit of asking yourself, “what would happen if I held back for a few minutes?”.

Extreme shyness and social anxiety can severely impact a young person’s life and can set them up for a future of missed opportunities. But we now have some good treatments and we are continuing to research new ways of helping these young people.

If you have any concerns about your child, seek the opinion of a qualified mental health practitioner.

By Macquarie University Department of Psychology Distinguished Professor and Centre for Emotional Health Director Ron Rapee.

Original article published by the Conversation as Back to school blues: how to help your child with shyness.



Learning to build a positive digital footprint

Rather than just teaching children about internet safety and reducing their digital footprint, we should also encourage them to curate a positive digital footprint which will be an asset for them in their future.

Today’s children are prolific users of the internet. Concern has been raised about the future impact of the digital footprints they are generating. While much discussion of this issue focuses on keeping children safe, little is known about how children manage their digital footprints.

While digital footprints are considered to be a liability, if managed well they can be an asset. Digital footprints can showcase identity, skills and interests. This is important in an era where employers “google” candidates to check their identity and verify their suitability. In this context, having no digital footprint can be as much of a disadvantage as having a poorly managed one.

The “Best Footprint Forward” project explored what children know about digital footprints. Focus groups were made up of 33 children aged 10-12 years from three schools in regional NSW. Analysis of the focus groups reveals children have strategies to keep safe online, but they need further guidance on how to build a positive digital footprint.

What children know and do about digital footprints

The project found, while children use the internet for a variety of purposes (such as homework, gaming, watching videos), communicating with friends was the most popular online activity.

The children knew what digital footprints were:

  • what you put online stays online
  • people could find you if you left identifying information, such as your address or full name
  • employers would check your social media.

They talked about password security, not putting personal details online (such as their name, address and date of birth), blocking people who harassed them, getting advice from parents, not clicking on anything silly, not posting pictures of their faces. They showed awareness of the potential consequences of their actions.

The implications of their digital footprint awareness led them to try to minimise theirs, to try to be invisible online. They mainly communicated with one another via Instagram, using it as a messaging service. All but one child had their account set to private, and very few posted photos. They used it just to talk.

While the children in the study had a high level of digital footprint awareness, they are only aware of this as a liability. Their responses did not include any discussion of the benefits offered by digital footprints. Their re-purposing of Instagram as a messaging service suggests a savvy and pragmatic approach to the problem of, in the words of one girl in the study, the “internet always keeping it”. Educative interventions should be designed to empower and protect children, to supplement their existing digital footprint management strategies.

How to teach for positive digital footprints

Children could be taught how to curate their online presence. That is, they could be explicitly taught not all they do online needs to be hidden. Curation is about knowing what to display publicly and what should remain private.

While it’s appropriate conversations with their friends not be public, children could be taught that digital artefacts which demonstrate their interests, achievements and skill could be both public and identifiable. School projects, awards, pieces of writing, and digital artworks are examples of suitable things to be attributed to them.

Teaching children to curate their achievements, skills and some aspects of their digital identity would help prepare them for the greater online freedom that will come with high school.

When should positive digital footprint education begin?

There are four reasons the two final years of primary school would be an ideal time to begin to teach children about positive digital footprints:

  1. they are lacking this information and were not aware a digital footprint could be a positive asset for their future
  2. children at this age are transitioning from predominantly game playing and video watching to more creative and generative uses of the internet and social media
  3. different parenting styles means not all children will get this information at home
  4. the strength of the cyber safety message they’re getting from schools suggests this knowledge could be built upon so children are given options about which online activities should remain invisible and which would be beneficial to have out there.

When asked what would you like to know about the internet, one girl in the study asked:

How can it change your future?

This gets to the heart of what’s at stake. Digital footprints can be an asset or a liability for children. Building on their knowledge by giving them guidance in curating a positive online presence could go a long way to help children shape their own future.

By University of Newcastle Education Senior Lecturer Rachel Buchanan

Original article published by the Conversation as Why children should be taught to build a positive online presence.


Study habits for success: tips for students

Right now, thousands of Australian school children are taking a well-earned break from the classroom. Long breaks like this help us clear our minds, but they can also provide an opportunity to prepare for the learning year ahead.

If you’re a student, this might mean thinking about your study habits. Here are some suggestions to help you learn as efficiently as possible.

Focus! And don’t multi-task

Our brains are impressive machines, but they can’t handle everything at once. There is simply too much going on in our sensory environment for us to digest. To be effective, we need to direct our attention to just one or two tasks at a time. That generally means no background music – it won’t help you learn.

Don’t be tempted to multi-task while you learn. When you do, your brain is actually trying its hardest to switch rapidly between tasks. But whenever you get distracted and switch focus, it takes minutes to settle back into the groove of studying. Minimise your distractions and focus your attention on the task at hand.

Sleep well, learn well

Learning isn’t easy, and being able to focus is important for digesting new information and understanding concepts. When you get a good night’s sleep, you feel fresh and attentive the next day.

Sleep is also critical for what happened the previous day. Extensive work in both animals and humans shows a crucial function of sleep is to re-process and consolidate what happened during the day.

For example, scientists have recorded brain activity patterns first while an animal learns a task, and again when the animal next sleeps. Remarkably, the patterns in sleep are strikingly similar to what is seen when the animal learns.

This replay of activity patterns during sleep happens in your brain too, hundreds of times each night. As a result, the connections between our neurons change, helping the patterns become embedded in the brain. In other words, sleep plays an indispensable role in storing our memories for the long-term.

Test yourself

The “testing effect” is a well-established phenomenon in learning. Essentially, we learn much better by testing our own knowledge than by re-studying material. So if you’ve got an exam coming up, don’t just re-read a textbook and highlight important passages.

Instead, test yourself by doing practice exams. The process of actively recalling information helps deeper learning take place, and it works even better if you can check whether your answer is correct.

You don’t have to wait until exam time to capitalise on the testing effect. As you read through a textbook you can give yourself mini-tests, trying to recall the major points of each chapter you finish.

Although researchers are still trying to figure out the brain mechanisms behind the effect, there is plenty of evidence for its effectiveness. When combined with spacing (below), practising recall is an efficient way to commit information to your long-term memory.

Space out (your learning)

Teachers and parents are always telling us cramming is the wrong way to learn, and for good reason. It just isn’t as effective as spacing your learning over days, weeks and months. This is known as the “spacing effect”.

Whenever you practise something, you give your brain the opportunity to strengthen the connections between neurons. The strengthening process is similar to how hikers trampling through a forest create worn paths over time. The more hikers, the more distinct the path, just like repeated practice helps lay down strong neural pathways to store memories.

Although the best spacing strategy isn’t known, we do know an expanding schedule is better than a contracting schedule. In other words, it’s better to review your course material after a day, then a week, then a month, rather than the other way around.

Use memory aids

If you learned music as a child, you probably remember one of the mnemonics for notes on a scale – for example “Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit” (E-G-B-D-F). Mnemonics like this make difficult things easier to remember. You can make up your own mnemonics for classroom concepts.

Another approach, and one frequently used by people in the World Memory Championships, is the memory palace technique (also called the “method of loci”).

Your “memory palace” is a place you know well, like your house, or the route you take to the bus stop. You fill this palace with the things you need to remember, and then you re-create a path that takes you past all of those items.

This technique relies partly on the fact that our hippocampus – the part of the brain where many memories are formed – is also crucial for navigation. Both anecdotal and scientific evidence show anybody can improve their memory using this approach.

Finally, analogies and metaphors can be great tools for learning. For example, I hope that by comparing memory formation to hikers on a forest path, you’ll be more likely to remember a bit about how our brains lay down strong memories.

You can create similar analogies in your own study, and if you combine it with good sleep, spaced practice, self-testing and undivided attention, you can take your learning to another level.

By University of QLD QLD Brain Institute Director Pankaj Sah

Original article published by the Conversation


Boredom busters can include a little learning

The hype and festivities of Christmas are over, the New Year has been rung in and children across Australia have been on school holidays for weeks – boredom is starting to bite.

With kids eager to keep their minds and bodies active over the holidays parents can struggle with finding activities and events to keep them entertained, engaged and happy.

Western Sydney University Mathematics Education Professor Catherine Attard says calls of boredom from holidaying children should signal to parents that their sons and daughters need some “physical or mental activity to keep them occupied and to vent energy, just like needing food to satisfy feelings of hunger.”

In an article for the Conversation, A/Prof. Attard says there are many problems with children complaining about boredom, from nagging to bad behaviour but most importantly “learning loss”.

Learning loss involves children literally losing skills and knowledge learnt during the school term while on school holidays through a lack of physical and mental activity.

A/Prof. Attard says at best children may learn nothing new over the holiday break, however, at worst they may lose weeks of learning from the previous year, according to many research studies. She says parents can play a key role in helping their children enjoy their holidays and maintain mental and physical stimulation by initiating activities.

Her tips to avoid boredom complaints include;

Encourage your child to read a book.

Research has proven that reading for pleasure improves reading attainment and writing as well as general knowledge, and community participation. Reading also provides insight into human nature and decision-making. If you don’t have books at home your child is interested in, take a trip to the local library and let them choose.

Play games with your children.

If you want to help maintain your child’s mathematical learning and keep them having fun, there are lots of simple games you can play. All you need is a deck of cards, a set of dominoes or some traditional board games such as Monopoly, Guess Who or Yahtzee.

If you want to help with spelling, try playing Scrabble or teach your child to do simple crossword puzzles. For those who like a challenge, chess promotes important problem-solving skills.

Get messy with some creative art.

If your child is feeling creative and you don’t mind a mess, let him or her paint, build, sculpt, design or invent. Creative art has been found to assist in children’s learning and promote well-being.

Play fun and educational video games.

If traditional activities don’t do the trick, there are always the digital alternatives. Research has found playing video games can have cognitive, emotional and social benefits. But it’s important to choose carefully.

Rather than choosing games that promote mindless violence or require little or no thinking, there are many educational games and apps that can help your child continue learning over the holidays such as Minecraft, Pick-a-Path, or MathDoodles. Many good apps are free and even if they’re not designed to be educational, they often involve problem-solving skills important in developing critical and creative thinking.

Take your children to the local park or playground.

The benefits of outdoor play during the summer holidays are significant. Science says holidays often result in weight gain among adults and children but there are also social benefits like improved self-confidence to be gained from interacting with other children.

If you want to add educational benefits to outdoor activities, play games that involve keeping score to help children maintain their mathematics skills. Younger children could go on “shape hunts” or “number hunts”, or you could play a game of I Spy to ensure there is mental and physical activity happening.

There are lots of other low-cost activities to support your children’s education. Going shopping can help your kids learn about financial literacy. Going to a museum or going hiking can teach children about history and nature.

Most importantly, all of these activities will keep your kids’ minds and bodies active, keep you sane and stress free, and stop the kids from saying “I’m bored”.