What’s Going on in My Kid’s Brain?

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 18 │What’s Going on in My Kid’s Brain?

Tuesday, April 21, 2020



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Show Notes

Brandi Kenner

Sometimes you can’t help but wonder, what is my kid thinking? While it may seem like our kid’s actions and reactions are random and unpredictable, you can discover a lot when you dig into the science of learning. We spoke with Dr. Brandi Kenner, senior consultant at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, about how a child’s brain works. She shared essential information for understanding your child’s responses and helpful strategies for teaching them how to manage their emotions and behavior.


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LaWanda: Welcome back to another episode of Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm your cohost LaWanda Toney, Director of Strategic Communications at National PTA.

Helen: And I'm Helen Westmoreland, Director of Family Engagement at National PTA. This week we're tackling a topic that many families may be wondering about. What in the world is going on in my child's brain? What is my kid thinking? Why on earth are they doing what they're doing?

LaWanda: Helen I've been wondering about this a lot myself lately, especially now that I'm home with my seven year old. Now don't get me wrong, I love spending this extra time with my child and my family. But this pandemic has allowed me to really sit down with my son and get to learn him and also kinda how his brain works.

Helen: That's right. There is no better time than now to uncover how our children's brains are developing and the science behind it all. Families are now switching gears to various forms of homeschooling, crisis schooling, distance learning, putting their kids in other people's care so they can go to work. And we found that people are asking what's developmentally appropriate? What should my child be doing if they're not in school? Today, Dr Brandi Kenner is going to help us unpack all of this.

LaWanda: Dr. Kenner is a Senior Consultant at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, where she has also served as the Director of Research and Implementation. Previously, Dr. Kenner was the Chief of Research, Innovation and Learning at the Atlanta Speech School. She's also the founder of the Globe Academy, a dual language charter school in Georgia.

Dr. Kenner's areas of expertise include cognitive development, language and literacy acquisition and social emotional learning and literacy. She earned her PhD in psychology, cognition and development from Emory University. She's also a mother of three.

Helen: Dr. Kenner, welcome to the show. It's wonderful to have you.

Brandi Kenner: Thank you for having me. It's a pleasure.

Helen: So, we want to get started learning a little bit about you. What makes you so passionate about the science of learning?

Brandi Kenner: Sure, so as you mentioned earlier in my intro, I have transitioned through many roles beginning with a classroom teacher in elementary and middle school settings and I taught both general ed and special education. And then I went on to found schools and programs and have been a nonprofit executive. And then ultimately my research interests transitioned me out of educational psychology and special education in to cognitive and developmental psychology. I’m really passionate about the science of learning because it's one of the fields that allows us to really shine light on some critical solutions to issues that we're facing in the education sector broadly. What I learned throughout my training and career is that often folks in the education space are not talking to those in the human development and learning spaces and vice versa. If we can kind of combine the worlds of basic science and human development and learning with all of the richness of educational practice and intervention and all the great work that's going on in that camp as well, then we really can find some solid solutions to a lot of the issues we're facing.

LaWanda: Dr. Kenner you mentioned educational issues. Can you explore that a little bit more? Like what do you mean when you say educational issues that we're facing?

Brandi Kenner: Sure, so I think broadly about kind of systemic issues that we all know we face as a country around equity and access to resources and all of that. But also, if we go more granular in terms of just educational practice, there is a huge research to practice lag as I mentioned. And one really good example is if we look at the literacy space, which I'm very passionate about, language and literacy is one of my primary research areas. And, we see huge lags and disconnects in the length of time that the science of reading and how we construct a reading brain has been known and accessible to scientific and academic communities. But not so much so in educational practice and there are a variety of factors that I think get in the way of this. From, you know, things that are outside of schools control to just lack of understanding and teaching the level of teacher prep programs and on and on.

But those research to practice lags really impact every aspect of the educational system. And so. We have kind of the vaccine, so to speak, for eradicating illiteracy. It's been around for years, but unfortunately, it's often distributed by race, ethnicity, and zip code, and not applied equitably or accessed equitably throughout our country. And so we see huge gaps in our NAEP reading scores. For example, with only 36% of, children at fourth grade reading proficiently. And then those statistics get even more grim if we break down subpopulations, like students of color or those who receive free and reduced lunch or English language learners. It’s just a huge, it's a huge issue. From my lens, understanding both the educational world and the science of learning and development worlds. I really see huge promise in terms of connecting those two worlds... And worlds and giving educators access to the science so that it can be applied in real time.

Helen: So it sounds like there's some mismatch between what we know about how a kid learned to read and what they're, how they're actually being taught.

Brandi Kenner: Yeah.

Helen: You also mentioned that one of your areas of expertise is language acquisition, and we were fortunate last season to have Doctora Lorena Mancilla do an episode with us in Spanish about ESL services and how families can navigate that. I'm very passionate about that too. We're raising our daughter  bilingually at home. Could you give us a little bit of insight on that, too? Like what's going on in kids' brains as they're learning new languages and, and what should you then see in the classroom?

Brandi Kenner: Absolutely so this is, I'm also passionate about this area, hence the dual language immersion school that I started years ago. But one of the things that is also very exciting about second language learning is that is another cognitive skill., so to speak, that we know actually obliterates the gaps that we see and literacy acquisition with socioeconomic status as a factor.

So when you put children of all socioeconomic backgrounds in a dual language immersion setting or a setting in which they're learning multiple or two languages, then we see those effects of socioeconomic status disappear on literacy acquisition and part of what's happening is that when children are learning more than one language, especially at an early age, which is really critical for it to happen early in development. Their brains start forming different, what are called, lexicons which is kind of where we hold the vocabulary and language and words of different languages and meaning. And so when that happens, you're exercising a lot of flexibility or plasticity in the brain. And we know that dual language learning, typically children who are in dual language settings have higher IQ than their monolingual peers. And they also tend to, just  see the world through much more diverse lenses, which makes sense if you think about the fact that there are words and phrases and expressions that exist in some languages that don't even exist in other languages. And so it really allows children from an early age to understand difference and really be able to empathize with others and their experiences and how they're seeing the world because language is such a huge part of how we perceive the world around us.

LaWanda: I know that everyone is kind of homeschooling, crisis schooling, distance learning right now, but as we think about the future and we think about our kids returning back to school.

What can parents do to be advocates for the science of learning in their community?

Brandi Kenner: The first part of that is parents having an understanding of the science of learning themselves, and they don't have to go out and get a PhD or, you know, go to grad school to understand there's some very basic tenets around whole child development and what we know is good for learners. So, for example, we could turn to theories like social cognitive theory, which tell us that learning happens in a context of social interactions and experiences with others and the environment around us. And so that puts a huge responsibility on the adults in that child's immediate ecosystem, whether it be family, schools, community, et cetera. Having an understanding, even of like the social nature of learning and how every moment is truly a learning opportunity. And you know, again, going back to the language piece, leveraging every moment to push in tier two and rich vocabulary and act those out... Those really good open-ended questions that are going to provoke critical thinking and exercise our executive function skills around planning and executing, and all of that, are some very simple things. And I think that the more that families become aware of what good learning should look like, then they can advocate more in their schools and systems around the type of pedagogical norms that they want to see and expect.

And then leadership styles that are going to support teachers and being able to act upon those pedagogical stances.

Helen: That's helpful. Could you elaborate a little Dr. Kenner, on what those practices do look like, whether it's at home as many parents are home now, trying to figure out how to keep their kids engaged in something aside from the work they're trying to do.

Like if you could boil it down to like a couple of things, you know, two or three things -- we should be doing more of this and less of this, right? If we're really being responsive to what research shows is a way kids learn.

Brandi Kenner: Absolutely, that's such a good question. We should definitely be doing more talking and listening with our children, and that’s like Jack Shonkoff, at the Harvard Center on the developing child, refers to as those serve and return interactions where it's pretty much like a tennis match.

Like I serve you the ball and you hit it back and it ke

LaWanda: I know that would be helpful for a lot of parents right now, especially during this time and after. Speaking of COVID, how does affect the brain, especially in children?

Brandi Kenner: That is such a good question. Broadly stress impacts each of our brains in the same way in terms of the areas of the brain that it's impacting. But what we know is in children, it can have much more damaging effects because the brain is still so malleable and it's still going through with these critical periods of development, and it actually can start impacting as early as utero. Hormones that are produced by stress are very damaging to our bodies and to our brains. And particularly stress is hitting the prefrontal cortex, which is known as our thinking center, and is responsible for all that executive functioning and our decision making and planning, et cetera.

And then also, there's the interior cingulate cortex, which we commonly call the  emotion regulation center. If you think about children and them already being in a place where they don't necessarily have the same hold on their emotions that an adult can have. This is why we might see some of the acting out behaviors. Or internalizing, because the other thing that is impacted is our amygdala in the brain, which is kind of the fear center. And that's when we see the fight or flight responses. [00:18:07] And the reality is regardless of whether the behavior we're exhibiting is fight or flight, neither response allows the brain to be open to learning and reasoning. And in fact, all learning will start shutting down when we're in those modes. And it's pretty much these behaviors of, you know, either externalizing and acting out or really internalizing and shutting down. Stress has a huge impact and I think we're all, adults and children, experiencing a great deal of stress, just even from the unknown, let alone those who are being impacted directly by this disease. It’s really important that we're gentle with each other, with our children, with each other, with our colleagues, because we're all kind of functioning in a space of many traumas right now from day to day. Even the uncertainty and not knowing what's going to happen from day to day is a traumatic experience in of itself because, as humans we like patterns and prediction and to be able to have some sense of control around our little worlds around us.

Helen: I can really identify with that. Cause I think that, you know, when you get in that survival mode, it's really hard to actually snap out of it even as an adult. And, you know...

Could you give our listeners a little bit of advice. I'm If you see your child going into that survival mode, whether that's throwing a tantrum or fighting or acting out or, avoiding, I think you were talking about what are some different things as parents you can do to help them get back in a reasoning learning mode?

Brandi Kenner: There are differences, obviously, in terms of developmentally where your child is, but in general, some of the things that work across the board is like letting it go and not getting in power struggles. I think sometimes as parents we want to solve it right then and make it be done and sometimes, we just have to let it go and do some planned ignoring where it's not, not ignoring in a malicious sense. But just saying, okay, my little one or big one needs some space and time right now and I'm just going to ignore this tantrum and let it go. And it's okay to say things like, you're not going to disrupt the rest of the family and, you know, act out and be mean to everyone else.

So you need to take some time, go to your room and calm down and we'll talk about this later kind of thing with an older kid and, in more, you know, developmentally appropriate ways with your little ones. You can also say, okay, I'm going to let you kick it out and we'll talk about this when you're ready. But, it's not good to get in power struggles with kids because what happens is you just keep escalating and they'll escalate and then you escalate and they escalate and it just keeps going... It becomes a battle of the wills.

Helen: And they usually win.

Brandi Kenner: They really do. Cause we get tired and break down. And so, at this point, it's really good to acknowledge like, okay, they're probably going through their own many stresses right now. They're having to adapt to a whole new way of learning and being right now in their day to day during the week, and we're all trying to adjust, and so the same ways that adults are feeling uncomfortable in needing to adjust, children are too. I mean the good thing is that children are very resilient in general.  The more we can kind of allow those, natural ebbs and flows to work within them and not get into the power struggles of how they go about it, the better. But at the same time, it is good to have boundaries and structures and that's some of the things that can help at home is kind of creating schedules and routines and many structures throughout your day even if it's like we're going to eat lunch at this same time every day, and you know, we're going to have this as part of bedtime routine every night. Or something that you do as a family every evening. Just something to give that sense of predictability and structure during a time that's so unpredictable and unsure also helps to alleviate a lot of stress in kids.

LaWanda: Well, that's really good Dr. Kenner. I think I need you at my house to be the voice of reason.

Brandi Kenner: Well let me tell you we are all in this together. I have three children of my own and a big blended family with three other children, and so we, it's much easier when you're talking to others than when you’re at own house. We all struggle with it, trust me.

LaWanda: I want to switch gears just a little bit and talk about what activities can families do to help our children exercise their brains while we're home outside of schoolwork, but not really letting them know that we're kind of exercising their brain. What should we do?

Brandi Kenner: So CZI has actually compiled a huge resource space, from experts and partners and practitioners all throughout our connections. And, the link can be found at the CZI website, which is chanzuckerberg.com. And then if you go up to the top of the main website, there's a newsroom link and the top banner. This is a bank of all types of resources, both technology and non-technology base, which is really important during these times because we know that there are about 12 million or so children who don't have access to broadband right now at a time where remote learning is kind of essential. So, we also just released a big grant to try to alleviate some of that load and burden around the lack of access to internet. The grant was given to education superhighway to partner with schools and districts, and they're going to be providing strategies for extending internet connectivity to students from underserved communities who need access for distance learning due to the Covid-19 related closures. Then the other thing, in addition to those activities and resources, I kind of mentioned earlier, but I can't impress enough the importance of just really leveraging this opportunity to push in those language interactions and taking time to read. And asking those open-ended questions and really provoking that critical thinking right now because we just want to keep our children's brains sharp and engaged and active throughout the day. I think it's also important to think about physical activity because we know it's so important to keep oxygen and blood flowing. And so even if you don't have a huge backyard, just doing stuff in the house, like a dance contest or jumping rope or anything to keep them active and creative, you know, not being afraid to lay out some random materials and make some abstract art project or something. Cause to your point, it's not just about academics and especially right now we've just really, there's almost irony in it there being something like the COVID-19 crisis to really force people to focus on what's important and what really does develop the whole child. When you kind of strip away all the high stakes testing and all of the things that we're not going to be able to lean on in the coming months, what's left is like that whole child and what they really need.

LaWanda: Yeah, I agree. That's great. Thank you.

Helen: Dr. Kenner, we want to thank you again for making time for us today and for shining some light on all of what's going on behind the scenes in our kids' brains in this crazy time. But, but in general too, and I know we've talked about a lot, so we want to give you one last opportunity.

If parents could walk away with one big takeaway from today's conversation? What's the, big thing that they can start applying today?

Brandi Kenner: I would say for them to take away that they really are one of their child's most important teachers, and especially at a time right now, and I don't mean teacher in terms of like reading, writing, and arithmetic, although those things are very important.

But in terms of the time that we're all being given to really develop a whole child and be at home with our children for the most part. Except for, unfortunately, those who are more essential workers and are working crazy shifts, but whoever children are at home with, whether it's parents, other loved ones, just the importance of knowing that we are the models right now, and that everything we're doing, they're watching and observing and learning from us. And so if we can go into our days and nights with intentionality, set up some good routines and norms and expectations, have rich conversations throughout the day, we will all come out on the other side of this probably pulling out skills and developing our children in ways that we wouldn't have otherwise had an opportunity to do in the traditional ways in which school was rolling out prior to this crisis.

Helen: Thank you. Those are great parting words of inspiration. Are there any other resources either you want to be sure to highlight for parents so that they could check out? Including your own social media handles, if they want to follow you to learn more?

Brandi Kenner: Sure. So, my website for the organization through which I consult is called Choice Filled Lives and the website is just choicefilledlives.org. And then there is also a really good free resource of learning activities with the Atlanta Speech School, which is the organization where I served as Chief of Research and Innovation for many years. There's a website called the Cox campus and they have recently launched actually a free and universally accessible preschool program, where the teachers of the preschool and the Rollins Center for Language and Literacy, which is their professional learning arm is, is having daily preschool classes and interactions and modeling some of the many like literacy and language based strategies that are out there.. So that's another really good resource in terms of tangible strategies and activities that parents can tap into, particularly for the preschool through like third, fourth grade groups.

LaWanda: That's awesome. Thank you so much, Dr. Kenner for sharing your resources and sharing your time with us today.

Brandi Kenner: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

LaWanda: That wraps up today's episode, but before you go, be sure to check out our website notesfromthebackpack.com and follow our hashtag #backpacknotes to stay in the know. Thanks for tuning in.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.