Parenting Playbook to Support Learning

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Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Dec 9, 2023

By Katherine Martinko

When it comes to raising kids, much attention is given to developing skills that promote academic achievement in a school setting—things like memorizing science facts, improving reading ability, and doing computation. While certainly important, Dr. Cristine Legare would like parents to start paying more attention to what she calls “process skills,” or “soft skills.” These are abilities like creative problem solving, hypothesis testing, and persevering in the face of struggles. The better kids get at these skills, the better off they’ll do in the real world.

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Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and a researcher whose work has appeared in more than 100 scientific journals. Dr. Christine Legare, is also Director of the Centers for Applied cognitive science. One area of her research focuses on the role of the mind in facilitating learning, creating and imparting culture. Dr. Legare’s area of expertise includes international education, cognitive science, and global public health. Dr. Luke Air joins us today from Austin, Texas. Thank you so much for being here.

Thank you so much for having me, I look forward to our conversation.

And such an interesting line of work and research that you’re in with respect to learning and how children learn. And we want to really talk to you about some of the basic tools that parents you believe should have in their arsenal when it comes to the back to school playbook in terms of how their child is learning.

Right. Sounds great. Happy to talk about that.

So what are some of those tools, some of the tools that I would highlight are?

Well, there are a range of tools that span things like the types of capacities that are going to promote learning new material learning, challenging new material, persevering in the face of obstacles. So some of these are cognitive. Some of these are social and emotional. There’s a whole suite of capacities that promote academic achievement, and a lot of the a lot of the capacities that get the most attention things, you know, things like focus, and learning how to do computation, or learning how to improve your reading skills, or memorizing more science facts, for example, tend to get a lot of attention. But I think a lot of the process skills or sometimes they’re called soft skills, things like creative problem solving, hypothesis testing, persevering in the face of maybe some frustrating challenges are even more important. And I think these are these are really the places that parents can provide additional practice and support for their children.

So why do you believe that those process skills, perhaps don’t get the attention that you think they deserve?

So good question. It’s not that educators don’t realize this are important and don’t value them? Certainly they do. I think that a lot of traditional school curricula focuses much more on discrete and measurable content. And there’s a number of reasons for that. And certainly building up your knowledge base is important. But I think a lot of what children end up doing in school focuses disproportionately on memorizing new information and building up that knowledge base. And I think there’s a lot of, there’s a growing interest in practicing the types of skills that are readily generalizable outside of the classroom, as you’re supposed to be preparing for the world. And so a parent can provide a lot of opportunities to take process skills that are that many don’t receive quite as much emphasis as they maybe ideally could, in the classroom, into spaces outside of the classroom.

So let’s talk about process skills, then, as they relate to elementary school students, and how specifically parents of that age group of students could better support their child learning those process skills.

Sure, so maybe one really concrete example would be children’s museums. So children’s museums and other informal learning spaces that are clearly meant not just for children, but for families to learn with their children. These environments are ideally suited to the type of more open ended exploration that I think is, is perfectly suited to process skills. So if you think about a children’s science exhibit, where maybe you’re learning how to build simple machines, with pulleys, going with your child there and having a more open ended challenge, where you identify a goal and work together in collaboration, to figure out how the parts fit together, and why some parts might not fit together. How do you troubleshoot and come up with new ideas when maybe something isn’t working? need quite as expected and how to persevere when maybe it’s a bit frustrating when things don’t work together immediately, because that can be frustrating for a child, and for adults in some cases. So these are the sorts of open ended exploratory spaces that builds creative problem solving, troubleshooting, and also some of those socio emotional skills, perseverance, and yeah, persisting in the face of frustration.
Let’s take that same concept of process skills development by parents for their children, and apply that to the adolescent teenage age group. What does that look like? And how can parents better support them?

So socio-emotional development is certainly does not stop in adolescence, I think this is it received a lot of attention in early childhood, for obvious reasons, important reasons. But self regulation, for example, the ability to direct your cognitive and emotional energies into achieving goals that often require multiple steps, setting sub goals in order to achieve a larger goal. It’s exactly the sort of activity that adolescents need a lot of practice with, and focusing their attention in the face of quite a lot of distraction, for example. So one of the things that parents can do with adolescents is, you know, talking to them about their interests and their goals, and the sorts of things that they would like to learn how to do the things that are suited to their unique interests, and figuring out ways that they can learn in collaboration with their families and with their parents. So given some lessons are very interested in choice. They’re very interested in practicing their own agency, and applying that agency to learning new things, not just educational activities overtly associated with school, but things that respond to their interests in a kind of more holistic, broader way. And harnessing maybe hobbies, for example, in structured ways that allow them to practice self regulation, and even some creative problem solving. So the harnessing their interests, I think, is very, very useful, makes it more interesting and engaging for them to.

You know, it’s so interesting, because when you use the word hobby, it’s almost a word that we rarely hear anymore. Those of us of a certain age group really love the word hobby like myself. But, you know, now I feel like a lot of parents, and certainly I can be include myself in this category, have gone the way of structured activities for kids, whether it’s team sports, or something else. What is your thought on that in terms of helping kids understand developing process skills in that environment?

Yeah, that’s a terrific question. There are pros and cons of all different types of activities. So team sports are tremendously valuable. They promote all sorts of different, you know, everything from I hand coordination, to teamwork, to good sportsmanship, a great example of something that promotes physical and motor and cognitive and socio emotional development. So a huge fan of team sports. That said, there are a lot of there’s a lot of other activities that are useful for children that provide some of the same benefits, but some unique benefits having to do with learning an instrument, or learning how to construct machines, understanding kind of the physical causal processes associated with machinery and that kind of thing. But it’s also nice to have space for children to be to be unstructured, and to follow their own interests, and even to be a little bit bored at times. And one of the things that worries me a lot about social media and the omnipresence of screens, is that we are we don’t have we can always be stimulated by these kinds of devices. And children are more and more stimulated not just by this, but by a growing number of activities. So having at least some space for a child to be up their mind to be free and open enough to be alone with their thoughts, to process their emotions to think through their, maybe their day, and how things are going. I think some of that, just downtime to process, I think is really helpful. And I think children have and adults have much less of that than we used to.
Let me ask you with respect to where learning and how learning takes place these days. As certainly technology has completely shifted that around, in many ways, you know, the classroom is no longer the only place that learning occurs. And I wonder what, how would you characterize the general impact of these changes and of these different platforms and modes of education, on how kids are learning?

I think that there again, there are always trade offs. So there are many wonderful things about technology. They provide children with access to information they didn’t used to have. But they also constrain the sorts of experiences that children have, because it’s, it’s certainly the case that the classroom has never been the only place that children learn, alright, children have always learned in children’s museums or running through the forest, or having a picnic with the family, or spending time at the lake, feeding the birds, that sort of thing. So it is the I think the the challenge with technology is that it is increasingly encroached upon those sorts of more organic spaces that families have traditionally spent time in with their children. And more and more, they have moved towards these electronically mediated experiences, which are not always solitary, but are often solitary. So these educational learning platforms do provide an opportunity to connect with people on the other side of the world, or on the other side of the city, or with children on the other side of the world, the other side of the city. So there can be an opportunity for connection, but they also can be quite isolating. And it is not uncommon to see a whole family interacting with technology, alone, and yet in the same room. So I think being mindful of best practice and using these technologies, but also putting putting a limit on them. So there is time to connect very directly in in ways that are not mediated by screens.

As somebody who researches this topic, who is a psychologist, all the different things that you do, I wonder, you know, when you look at the pandemic, and its its impact on how kids are learning, and the fact that parents for at least two years have had a direct front row seat on how that learning is taking place. What do you think the impact of that has been on kids and how they learn now having parents understanding how a lot of that learning is taking place in school?

Well, I think that, on the more positive side, this did this did provide parents an opportunity to spend more time with their children to learn a little bit more, or maybe a lot more about the content of what children are being exposed to in, in classrooms. The trick with the recent experience with technology is that you can’t decouple technology from what was in fact, a very scary and traumatic experience for many people. So the experience of technology and the experience of learning together, there were positive aspects of that. But it was also a very unnatural period of social isolation. So yes, children are spending time with their parents in the context of these screens. But there were many, many stressors. In the backdrop of that, or, you know, that were happening at the same time where children weren’t interacting with their peers in the same way that they normally would. parents weren’t interacting with their peers, with their extended family. So I think there’s such a mixed bag associated with that particular timeframe, I think that would have looked differently the if we could pull apart the the learning experience, part of it from the pandemic, part of the experience, I think maybe it would have looked quite, you know, quite a bit different. Another complication here is that we were thrown into this with really no preparation, and kind of scrambling to figure this out together. So I would say the, the whole context of that was tremendously suboptimal. And the fact that so many parents were able to be flexible enough to kind of figure this out, is quite commendable. But at this point, I think stepping back and thinking okay, what about that what what are the positive learning aspects of that? What are the the silver lining lessons that we can take from that, now that we have returned to some, you know, to normalcy to some extent. But yeah, I think there’s a lot of processing that people are, are doing.

When you talk about a playbook for parents with respect to supporting how their child is learning, why do you believe it’s important for a parent to even have a playbook?

I think that there’s thinking about parenting as having a toolkit being equipped with a great variety of different sorts of tools to support your child in flexible ways. I think that’s very, very helpful. Because children have a variety of different challenges, and lots of different things, opportunities, but also challenges pop up all the time. So the more tools a parent has in their toolbox, the more they can flexibly respond to what the child might need, at any given point be based on challenges with particular type of content or subject matter. There are different challenges associated with different ages, right, where some of the challenges that adolescents face, children in early or middle childhood, don’t face and also vice versa. Though, a toolkit that is responsive to the age of the child, to the unique challenges that a child might have, to their unique personality, and interests, I think all of those be able to adapt to all of those different variables is very, very helpful. Because children are not one size fits all, every child is a unique and precious organism as their own gifts and their own challenges. So having a diverse toolbox, toolkit allows parents to really support their unique child.

When you look at the curriculum, depending on the age of the child, then you look at the process skills that you’ve described. And you look towards the future and the jobs of the future and the 21st century skills that we’ve all heard about, you know, collaboration, teamwork, things like that. Can you paint a picture for us in terms of the impact of knowing these process skills on that scenario, as we continue to move forward?

Yeah, great question. There’s been a lot of coverage, or concern about how best to develop these 21st century skills. And the reality is the economy has changed. And the types of skills that a lot of employers expect, are exactly the sorts of things we’ve described creative problem solving. And those are the sorts of skills troubleshooting hypothesis testing, that require often very active hands on exploration of more open ended problems that often are solved in collaboration with other people. Do you think about, you know how the software industry works or many industries, it’s not solitary memorization by individuals, which is what a lot of schools spend a lot of time requiring students to do. They are, you know, it’s collective, open ended troubleshooting and problem solving, and trying multiple, you know, trying something iterating on that getting feedback, getting ideas from multiple people, solving problems, where you know, there isn’t, there’s really no precedent for it. Right? There’s constant new technology and the development of, of new solutions to problems. So the more experience children get with activities of that sort, the more familiar they’re going to be with that, the more empowered they’re going to be, the more confident they’re going to be in the face of uncertainty. Right. So the way a lot of a teaching occurs in in schools, certainly, traditionally, is that problems are given to children, and a rubric for how to solve that problem is also provided to the child’s right. That’s not how, as it turns out, problem solving works in the world. Employers don’t pay you to solve problems they already have solutions to, as it turns out, they’re gonna expect you to come up with those solutions. So the more we support children, and as it turns out, children are curious. They’re interested in solving problems. They’re interested in discovering new things. So harnessing that natural curiosity and openness to working together and collaboration. The earlier we start with this, the the better and parents can absolutely practice that sort of thing with their children, right. There’s so many different ways that you can think about problem solving in the world and hands on experience. and working together. And I think the more parents do that, in collaboration with, with teachers, it’s not the teachers that don’t think these are valuable, right? You know, they have a number of different constraints they’re working working on. But again, the more collaboration there is, in developing these skills, as early as possible, the better.

There will be parents who watch or listen to this interview and say to themselves, boy, you know what, I didn’t really do that when my child was, you know, Qaeda, Qaeda nine, let’s say, or, you know, I wasn’t really paying attention, I just thought it would be taken care of by the school. And now they they’re listening and thinking, Well, you know, what, I better get on top of teaching process skills, what would you say to that parent who perhaps is a little late to the game?

Well, it is never too late. And my guess is that for those parents, there are many ways, in fact, they have supported process skills, just didn’t really realize it or didn’t have the terminology for that. So there’s, again, learning to cook with your child, practicing new recipes, all of those sorts of things involve things like process skills, when maybe a recipe doesn’t work out the way that you anticipated, trying something new, and, you know, evaluating the outcome based on systematically controlling for adding different ingredients of different amounts, there’s a process skills. So I think in more thinking about the learning process, in in much more inclusive, everyday sorts of ways to spending time with your child, doing activities together, almost always involves process skills, and spending time outside of the classroom in, you know, I mentioned, children’s museums, I work with Thinkery, in Austin, Texas. And there’s just an endless opportunity to learn in, you know, in exhibits in open unstructured ways. But cooking recipes together, going on a walk in the forest and identifying different, you know, plants, getting a guidebook to discover plants in your environment, or birdwatching. You know, really tailoring these kinds of activities to things your family enjoys, that’s going to be the most exciting and rewarding for everyone. There are really an infinite way, a number of ways that you can deepen process skills at any point, in ways that fit your family’s interests. This is nothing that requires spending a lot of money or buying special things just involves getting in touch with your child’s interests, and having fun together in learning context, and there’s just so many options for that.

Professor Legare is there any aspect of this particular area of research that you’ve conducted, that has really struck you, as you are a parent yourself? And now looking at it through those eyes and that perspective, when you look at process skills, and how you support your child’s learning anything there that really, you know, you found surprising yourself?

Well, I I’ve certainly been struck by all of the different ways that self regulatory abilities impact a child’s development. So there’s, there’s been a lot of attention to things like delay of gratification or inhibitory control, these more kind of overtly cognitive skills are, you know, deeply related to educational attainment, achievement, you know, all sorts of different achievement related metrics in school and then even after school as children go into college and enter the workforce. So thinking about all the different ways that the development of self regulation can be supported in the schooling context, but also outside the schooling context and giving children an opportunity to practice controlling their attention, practice harnessing their working memory, focusing on the, you know, focusing on planning, focusing on identifying sub goals, to achieve a particular goal, following through persisting in the face of obstacles. These pay off the development of these skills pay off at every single point in development. And children of different ages need different sorts of support, but it is absolutely never too early to give children practice doing this, because it is a very whole child approach to socio emotional development, cognitive development, even physical development. Practicing a sport requires persevering over time learning how to throw a ball and catch it. You think about you know, something like a sport, there’s lots of different ways, even in very early childhood, that children can begin practicing that getting fine motor control, practice persevering when learning how to throw that ball exactly where you want, it doesn’t happen the first time you throw it, that it’s, you know, supporting children in these self regulatory abilities from an early age equips them with resiliency, with confidence, with the recognition that, even if I can’t do it, now, I will be able to do it at some point, if I continue to practice and I continue to invest in it, and not setting up an expectation that if there’s not immediate mastery, that’s okay. That’s for complex skills, there’s not going to be immediate mastery, many complex skills require many years of investment and taking pride in making progress towards mastery is just as a point as important as that sort of final achievement.

There are many parents who will say to themselves, you know, what, I don’t want my child to have to go through that I want to try to limit the amount of suffering, anxiety, negative, whatever that he or she is put through, what could you say to that parent, in terms of why that might not be an optimal approach in touch in teaching children process skills?

I love that question. And it’s actually something I feel very powerfully about. I think that there’s many things to keep in mind, I completely resonate with the desire to shield your child from frustration and disappointment. The problem with that is that life is full of frustration and challenge and disappointment. And optimal thriving is about how you react to those experiences, and how you persevere in the face of obstacles. And children need child appropriate practice at persisting in the face of frustration or challenge. If children don’t get opportunities to practice that it’s like a strength, right socio emotional strength, if you don’t give children an opportunity to practice that, when they eventually do come, you know, very front and center with these challenges. They’re not equipped to handle them, and often are, they’re more likely to give up or to feel that, oh, there’s absolutely no way that I can manage this, when in fact, they can manage it, they just need some practice. So giving child appropriate opportunities to strengthen resiliency is the best gift that you can give your child and not giving children that opportunity doesn’t give them an opportunity to to build self confidence. You can’t love your children into self confidence. Self competence is earned. And it’s earned through taking on challenge being courageous enough to take a risk and persevere in the face of that challenge. So true competence requires practice. And you’ve got to give children that practice it is absolutely the best thing that you can do for a child.

Lots of food for thought Dr. Christine Legare, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, so appreciate your time and your perspective today. Thank you.

Thank you for having me.


Dr. Legare is a researcher and professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She spoke with Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, about how parents can help develop more of these process skills in their own children. One example she gives is that of children’s museums, which she says are ideal settings for hands-on learning. “Maybe you’re learning how to build simple machines with pulleys… You identify a goal and work to figure out how the parts fit together, and why some parts might not fit together… These are the sorts of open-ended exploratory spaces that build creative problem solving, troubleshooting, and also some of those socio-emotional skills [like] perseverance.”

Other activities could be cooking together, going for walks in the forest, spending time outside the classroom, or getting a guidebook to discover plants and birds. Castelino points out that the idea of “hobbies” almost sounds outdated these days, when so many kids participate in structured activities. While Legare is a “big fan” of team sports, she agrees that unstructured time (and even boredom) are crucial for kids to develop optimally.

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Screens undermine this, too: “One of the things that worries me a lot about social media and the omnipresence of screens is that … [we] can always be stimulated by these kinds of devices.” Kids need space for their minds to be free and to be alone with their thoughts.

Process skills prepare kids for future jobs, where collaborative problem solving will be more useful than following step-by-step procedures.

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Legare believes that children thrive when given opportunities to practice controlling their attention and harnessing their working memory, to focus on planning, to identify subgoals to achieve a particular goal, and to follow through in the face of obstacles. Kids who grow accustomed to doing these things will see huge payoffs down the road.

For those parents who feel inclined to shield their child from the inherent challenges of these lessons, Legare says, “You can’t love your child into self-confidence.” It has to be developed through conscious exposure to risk and struggle.


Related links:

cristinelegare.com

liberalarts.utexas.edu


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