The research shows that all children are capable of learning and succeeding in school and life. We have all the information we need to raise great human beings that are mentally-well, emotionally-balanced and self-confident but haven’t applied it. In this episode, we discuss:
- The state of mental wellness for children and what we need to do
- The importance of environment in a child’s well-being
- How we should redesign the educational system to better serve the children’s learning and development.
- The parents’ role in cultivating emotional resilience in their children
This podcast represents the opinions of Debra Berndt Maldonado and Robert Maldonado, PhD. The content here should not be taken as medical/mental health advice. The content here is for informational purposes only, and because each person is so unique, please consult your mental healthcare professional for your mental health questions.
Debra Maldonado 00:00
Hello, everyone. Welcome back to another episode of Soul Sessions. I’m Debra Maldonado, here with Dr. Rob Maldonado. We’re introducing a brand new series this month about mental health, which I think is really important, big crisis going on right now. We’re going to talk about mental health for children, mental health for women, mental health for men, and how it’s different. Also, what’s the future of mental health. The next four episodes, we’re going to dive into this topic. But before we get started today, I do want to remind you, if you haven’t subscribed to our channel, if you’re watching us on YouTube, there’s a little button here in the corner, you can click on it and subscribe to make sure you get every video we post on the channel. If you’re listening to us now on podcast services like iTunes or Spotify, make sure you subscribe to our channel as well. If you feel called, give us an honest review, we love to get those reviews as well, that helps bring more people to our show and spread the message. Today, the topic is how to raise emotionally-balanced children. But maybe you want to say something about this whole topic and why we’re covering it?
Robert Maldonado 01:44
We know children are an important topic, an important part of our culture, our world, because they are the coming generation, the people that need to bring new ideas and take over the function of the world eventually. We need to take care of them, we need to use what we know. We know a lot about the brain now. But it hasn’t filtered down to everyday work, where teachers can use it, doctors can use it, even psychologists and coaches can use this information. Not only that, the ordinary person, the parents that see “My kid is struggling, what do I do? How do I help him or her?”
Debra Maldonado 02:40
When you worked with a lot of the parents when you were a psychologist, you said the parent had a huge impact in between the sessions with the doctors and physical therapists, occupational therapists. The parents were with that child all the time. Educating the parent on how to help raise the child in a healthy way and understand what’s going on with them, what their challenges are, is so important. Hundred years ago, fifty years ago, people didn’t talk about this.
Robert Maldonado 03:18
We definitely have new challenges in our world, kids are getting it from all over. There’s global warming, there’s the pandemic going on, they had to miss a couple of years of school, the internet is bombarding them with corporate messaging, all these stressors are coming at them. But instead of talking about the problem, we wanted to offer you something different. It comes from this incredible research paper, once in a while people do meta-analyses that look at the overall research, what’s going on in the field of child development, brain science, and education, putting it all together and distilling the important parts of it.
Debra Maldonado 04:19
You don’t have to read all the research, you could just read the cliff notes. But even the summary can be challenging for people to read. There’s a lot of clinical language.
Robert Maldonado 04:33
That’s where we come in. We’re going to give it to you in ordinary terms to not only distill the information but also to interpret it. What does it mean for the possibilities moving forward? What kind of services can we develop? What kind of educational systems can we implement to help children be their best, be emotionally balanced, be resilient, and have a great life? This brief summarizes several initial lessons from contemporary research that have significant implications for those working to advance opportunity, equity learning, and child development in general. These are some of the major research papers that they looked at. One of them was drives of human development, how relationships and contexts shape learning and development. The second one was malleability, plasticity, and individuality, how children learn and develop in context. The third one, implications for educational practices of the science of learning and development.
Debra Maldonado 06:02
That sounds a little heavy, let’s distill it down.
Robert Maldonado 06:08
How they learn, how the brain develops, what is the potential inherent in the brain, and how best to apply learning therapeutic services to help children.
Debra Maldonado 06:25
We’re talking about all children, we’re not talking just about children that were diagnosed with some kind of mental health challenge. There’s a lot of ADHD, autism, learning disabilities like dyslexia. We’re talking about every child. Children have anxiety, every child has their challenges, every child is emotionally imbalanced sometimes, and even depression. They don’t really explore that. One of the things you told me is when you were working with children with disabilities, a lot of times they see the label as the disability, then they disregard all the other things, co-morbid study elements in their psyche, like depression, they don’t even think about those things, or anxiety, they’re thinking “Let’s focus on this one area.” When we look at our children, we have to see them as these little human beings that have feelings, can get sad, can get depressed, can have a lot of things that adults experience. Just because they’re playful and may not be able to articulate it— Is that the issue that the children don’t know how to communicate how they’re feeling?
Robert Maldonado 07:41
That’s a big part of it. Also, what we typically think of anxiety or depression doesn’t manifest the same way in children. They have very different presentation than the an adult would have. For example, depression in an adult, we all know what the presentation is. The person loses interest in pleasurable activities. They might have changes in appetite. They don’t want to eat or they overeat. Their sleep patterns are altered, they might not be able to get to sleep, or they sleep too much. And they feel depressed. Low energy, not really wanting to participate in life that much. Children have very different presentation, they might be aggressive, acting out. They might have eating and sleep problems. But again, it’ll present very differently. They might not want to go to bed when it’s bedtime. They might want to stay in bed too long.
Debra Maldonado 09:05
You say there’s some good news.
Robert Maldonado 09:10
This is what we know. This meta-analysis looks at a huge chunk of research from different areas, in different fields, and puts it all together. One of the main findings is that every child, no matter their background, has the potential to succeed in school and life.
Debra Maldonado 09:34
Before they would put kids that were less intelligent in the less intelligent group, and then the smart kids in the smart group. In our grade school, there were a smart class and the kids that were slower, not mentally slower, but just taking longer to get things. That’s almost like they can’t learn if they’re around other people that are stimulating, that can help. Or the teacher’s thought is “That’s as good as they get.” Maybe that’s the old school way of looking at intelligence and learning.
Robert Maldonado 10:13
The school systems, and kudos to all the teachers out there, all the educators, counselors that work in the school districts, we know you guys work hard, but the system, the bureaucracy of education, is detrimental to children’s development. It’s not really helping them become the best possible human beings they can become. Because it is antiquated, they base it on testing, on rote memory procedures.
Debra Maldonado 10:55
During the time of the Industrial Revolution, when more kids started getting educated, and the public system was brought, where everyone could get educated, not just the wealthy people, having free schooling from the government, the whole idea was to get them to work. It’s about creating discipline and learning basic skills, so they can go and have a job.
Robert Maldonado 11:20
It certainly was when I was going through. They would tell us “Stay in school, study, so you can get a good job.” Nothing wrong with that. But that’s not the aim of education. What we know about the brain and the mind from psychology, from neuroscience, indicates that there are better approaches to helping children learn, to tap into their innate sense of curiosity, their interest in the world, and to help cultivate their unique interest in the world. This goes back to Maria Montessori. Some of you have heard the Montessori school systems. In 1907, I think she started out as a physician, educator and teacher, she was way ahead of us, already thinking in terms of what does the individual child want to learn, how can she design something that taps into that curiosity? As children, we want to learn, we want to explore the world. What do they do in school? They damp that, they throw a wet blanket over that curiosity, that creativity, make you sit down, listen, learn the way we need you and want you to learn, so that you can pass the test. Not very creative and not very conducive to that natural learning. Maria Montessori’s schools are still around. Over 100 years later, people are still waiting in line to get their kids into these incredible programs. We definitely have role models already for how to create better educational systems. Piaget, the great, I think he was Swiss, clinical psychologist who really put the cognitive development of children on the map. If you look at any cognitive developmental psychology book, his name is prominent in there. His idea was that the best way to understand children’s reasoning and the development of the reasoning was to see things from their perspective. Again, you go back to very basic principles, you put yourself in their shoes. How do they learn? What do they want to learn? What are they curious about? You use those things to cultivate their mind.
Debra Maldonado 14:08
It’s like meeting them where they are. There was a lot of talk about it, when the royal kids were born, William’s wife went down on the children’s level to talk to them instead of leaning over. Everyone was like “That’s not royal, you shouldn’t bow to the children.” But there’s something about meeting them at their level. You told me many stories of working with the kids with autism, you telling the parents to go into their world versus forcing the kid in your world, and how effective that was.
Robert Maldonado 14:51
There are many therapeutic interventions that use this principle in psychology, it’s well understood, well-known, well documented that it works. Why it’s not applied in educational systems and more in other therapeutic settings — God knows.
Debra Maldonado 15:09
Also, you always say to talk to them like they’re an adult, don’t hide things from them, treat them like they understand more than you think they do. That’s another interesting concept that maybe people don’t realize.
Robert Maldonado 16:21
Piaget came up with understanding of object permanence. Some of you who have taken psychology or Psych 101, might have heard about this. Object permanence doesn’t develop until about 18 months of age. Before then, when an object is shown to the child, they want it, where they see it, they perceive it. But when it’s blocked, it goes behind something, to the child it just pops out of existence, it doesn’t exist anymore. Object permanence means that they understand that the object went behind something, it’s hidden from me, I can’t see it, but it’s still there. That understanding doesn’t kick in until about 18 months of age. After that, kids start to understand symbolic thought. Piaget was the discoverer of that, he worked with kids and created interesting experiments to test kids’ knowledge of symbolic thought.
Debra Maldonado 17:28
What’s an example of that?
Robert Maldonado 17:31
Symbolic thought means that you can think in terms of a symbol that means something in actual life.
Debra Maldonado 17:41
They take an object and it’d have a meaning to the child, a symbol. Something that belongs to a parent.
Robert Maldonado 17:51
For example, if I ask you “What is justice, can you point to justice?”, you can’t, there’s no object that identifies justice. But it’s a symbol of something that exists, this construct.
Debra Maldonado 18:09
Like saying “That wasn’t fair.” A lot of kids will say. There’s no object to point to, but there’s a concept that they’re starting to see. Then logical thought.
Robert Maldonado 18:22
Logical thought means you can make sense of things and cause and effect, and use reasoning.
Debra Maldonado 18:34
Is that when they start telling these long stories about “This happen, that happened”, going on and on and on? They tell you the whole story. Is it putting together a story, sentences, thought, understanding ideas? What age just do that happen?
Robert Maldonado 18:54
I don’t remember exactly in Piaget’s model where that comes in. But that’s the research he was doing. He was looking at when these things kick in in childhood, how kids acquire these skills. Then there was Erik Erikson, the stages of development we use in our training, often very useful in thinking about identity. Erickson’s idea was that as we grow, as we go through life, we start to develop, we always face these challenges. He thought of them as crisis points. It challenges us to come up with response somehow. All of a sudden we get to school age, now we’re thrown in with these strange kids. Our task, our challenge, our crisis might be “Where do I fit in? Where am I on the pecking order of hierarchy?”
Debra Maldonado 20:13
You’re graded, can you be effective in your work, you’re playing sports, are you able to put yourself out there and even initiate friendships when you’re that young.
Robert Maldonado 20:29
Back to the finding that every child, no matter their background, has the potential to succeed in school and life. This has to be one of the main principles that education and child developmental services are based on. Every child, no matter who they are, what their background is, should have an equal opportunity in the school.
Debra Maldonado 20:59
You saying they don’t right now, but they should? But the research shows they do have the potential, we should start treating people like that. If you have a child with a challenge, don’t count them out because of it. They have the same potential as their siblings who might not have this similar challenge.
Robert Maldonado 21:19
There was an important research experiment, where the teachers were told there was an advanced class of gifted and talented students, and a special needs class of students with learning disabilities. But they switched it. The experimenters told the teachers the gifted students had learning disabilities. They told the other teachers the students with actual learning disabilities were the gifted and talented students. They just sent them in there blind. Sure enough, the teacher that had the gifted students but had been told they were developmentally challenged, reported they were having trouble learning.
Debra Maldonado 22:18
Their test scores were also lower. Then the ones that were challenged but the teacher assumed they were gifted had higher test scores than they were getting before. It was an interesting projection of expectation. If you expect the least from your child, they’re going to fit that mold. If you expect the best, they can rise up. That’s the greatest role of a parent. When we were growing up, parents weren’t self actualized, a lot of them would put down their children, have punishment, be very critical. In a way that was the style of parenting back then, hardcore parent, you want the best for your kid, don’t talk back. Now we have to watch how we speak to our children in a way that’s more empowering, see them in our mind, even without words, see them as their potential.
Robert Maldonado 23:15
Expectation is a big factor. There’s also context. What the research shows is that the context, meaning the expectation in the classroom, the approach the adults, teachers take to those children creates a reality for them. The second one is no two young people learn in precisely the same way. Intuitively, people have known this for a long time, everybody has their different styles of learning. Howard Gardner came up with these different intelligences that we have. We don’t have just one type of intelligence, there are many. Some people are good at music, some people are good at understanding nature and working with animals. Other people are good at math or language. To narrow intelligence down to a set of math skills and language skills is a crime really, because you’re giving the message very early on to children that they are not intelligent, that they for some reason are not as intelligent as the next kid. Those things stay with the child for the rest of their lives, if it’s never corrected, if it’s never understood properly. No two children learn in precisely the same way. How can we integrate this principle into schools, into their services?
Debra Maldonado 25:15
In parenting too, when you’re teaching your kids, one child will learn a different way than another child, or have interest in different areas. You want to foster them, cultivate them if they’re interested in something.
Robert Maldonado 25:32
This comes from brain research. It says brain development and learning do not proceed in a straight line, neural connections uniquely zig and zag as they are created. The way I learn something is different than the way you learn something. It’s unique to your brain how you learn it, it’s unique to my brain. The implications for that is to think of people as individuals, not “Here’s the test, here’s the curriculum, we want everyone to learn it the same way, the same speed, and get scored the same way.” The third one is children’s ability to learn is strongly intertwined with their social, emotional, cognitive and physical needs. This concept is obvious to any teacher who has tried to teach hungry, anxious, or distressed children.
Debra Maldonado 26:41
This is where the mental health comes in, how the child’s intellectual development, and also emotional development can be impacted by different stressors in their life.
Robert Maldonado 26:57
It’s the concept that it takes a village. You can’t send everyone to school, to the same classroom and expect them all to come prepared, to be ready to learn the same material in the same way. Because they’re coming from different environments. If a child is hungry, if a child is coming from a chaotic home situation, if a child has to get up at five in the morning to get to the classroom, they’re not going to be able to absorb the information.
Debra Maldonado 27:34
Kids, even younger now, have personas of what is cool, what clothes are cool. Some children’s parents don’t have the money to give them a lot of variety of clothes, so they wear the same clothes over and over. There’s a social stigma to being cool or to be a certain way that causes a lot of social stress on the children as well to fit in or feel like they can be a part of a social group even. That causes a lot of stress, isolation, depression. If you go home to a chaotic household, you have no one to take care of you. A lot of times the teachers are the ones who actually step in and maybe give them the love and caring that they probably didn’t get at home. It’s such a huge thing to put on a teacher, but what a wonderful vocation to take care of these kids and be on the lookout for them.
Robert Maldonado 28:43
A lot of this research also goes back to Harry Harlow, back in the 50s and 60s, from the University of Wisconsin, my alma mater. His work showed these enriched environments, and by contrast, also the poor environments where kids don’t have access to books, to interesting toys, aren’t exposed to go into the museums, to go into zoos, even films. They don’t do as well of course as the kids that are exposed to these enriched environments, because it stimulates their brain development very early on, the brain just keeps on going. The more you feed it, the more it wants, the more information at once. The answer is, to be successful, education systems must consider and address the full range of children’s social, emotional, cognitive, and physical needs.
Debra Maldonado 29:53
The school counselors are the ones who take care of the emotional needs of the child.
Robert Maldonado 30:02
At many schools, yes. We work with a few school counselors, they do great work because they serve to catch those kids that are falling through the cracks.
Debra Maldonado 30:16
Helping the parent, counseling the parent on how to work with a teacher. The last one is environments, experience and cultures in a young person’s life are more influential than their genes. That is huge because a lot of people say “You’re only at this level of IQ your family has.” Limitations because of genetic and even some mental and physical illness passed down from genetics, disabilities, everything is genetic. Then this is blowing that out of the water. If you have the right environment, expose the child to culture and experiences that has such a big value, it’s what they talk about with epigenetics. You’re turning on new genes. Every child, no matter what background it is, has the potential. That’s the bottom line for this episode, we don’t want to box people, especially children, into a diagnosis and limit them, then have assumptions about what’s possible for that child. What if we approach children with no matter what they’ve received, there’s this really beautiful intelligence within them, that’s born with them, that could really maximize whatever they have in themselves, that can come out and live their life in a full, profound way. But you need to have people around you, the right environment, for that child to grow, just like the garden needs the right soil, the right amount of rain, the nutrients to keep in the sunshine. The children are little seeds that we need to help grow. There aren’t any bad seeds, they talk about that, “That person is a bad seed and can’t recover.” Even bullies, the kids that are hard to love, they’re usually sometimes depressed. It’s really asking the question “Why are they doing what they’re doing? Why are they not being kind? What’s that about?” A big thing is blended families now, with divorce and remarrying. Kids have different households they’re in, it’s very disruptive sometimes to their environment. What would you say is the best thing for a parent that is going through a divorce to keep their kids emotionally healthy and balanced?
Robert Maldonado 33:03
A lot of parents underestimate their children’s ability to understand complex emotional situations. Children, if you explain to them, of course, at their level, but if you’re open with them and explain that we’re going through this transition, these are the things that suck, these are the things that are possible for us, they do a lot better than if you hide that from them, if you try to shield them from what’s really going on. Because often they’ll imagine the worst instead of being clear as to what’s going on, what the challenges that we’re facing are.
Debra Maldonado 33:47
Any kind of challenge, whether it’s divorce, or some tragedy that’s happened, or change of schools, moving to a new school, or even just parent getting sick, there’s so many things that can happen, best friend moving away, these things that as an adult we see as little things, but to a child it can be the whole world. It would be best to ask the child how they feel, be open, keep that communication open versus assuming the child is fine, “If I don’t bring it up, I don’t want to trigger the child”, which is worse than actually being direct and saying how you feel about this.
Robert Maldonado 34:33
This one, of course, also goes back to that nature-nurture debate that’s still going on, whether it’s the genes or it’s the environment that creates the individual. In the past, and even today in many places, a child’s genes have been treated as their destiny. But genetics turns out to be less important to a child’s development than epigenetics, the science that studies which genes are activated by our environments and how experiences within these environments influence the way genes are expressed and shaped the physical and behavioral characteristics. It’s a two-way street. Epigenetics essentially says we are born with a certain predisposition inherited from our parents and great-grandparents. The environment we’re in determines a lot of what is expressed from that potential, or not expressed from that potential.
Debra Maldonado 35:54
If a child was born with genetical musical talent, but grew up in a culture where no one played an instrument, even in schools they cut their music program out, they never really held an instrument, that part will never be realized, because you need the environment to interact. The last one is the human brain is remarkably malleable and can be changed by strong supportive relationships and conditions they create. Across the young person’s lifespan, educators, mentors, coaches, counselors, peers, and family members provide those experiences for the children, that design and provide them an enormous influence, on a cellular level affecting each young person. It takes a village. Also, a parent should take responsibility for the environment in the household. Sometimes it’s better, if there’s a disruptive family member, someone who’s struggling with maybe alcohol or drugs, or someone not very conducive to a healthy environment, it’s better to get that person out than to have the child be in that environment. It’s sometimes a tough thing to balance if that’s your spouse. It’s about how you create a space for your children, but also, who your children are hanging out with and environments, after they leave the home, they are exposed to, because everything they’re exposed to is affecting them on a cellular level.
Robert Maldonado 37:47
This understanding comes in big part from neuroplasticity, or the discovery and understanding of neuroplasticity. This is a great understanding because what it says is that it doesn’t matter what you were born with, even if you’ve been injured, or you have some kind of genetic or learning disability or any kind of problem with your brain that stems from the nervous system, the nervous system can adapt, it’s flexible, it’s malleable, it’ll respond to proper environmental conditions. We can use the environment to correct or to help the child develop the skills they need to catch up or to express as much as possible of their intelligence.
Debra Maldonado 38:46
The bottom line is what resources parents have to help their children. A lot of people think, “I had the counselor at school, you can read books on it.” But also, one of the new growing ways is coaching. There are a lot of parenting coaches now, they’re not diagnosing your child or prescribing medication, but they’re actually helping you understand the psychological development of your child and what would be helpful for them. They’re not psychologists, but they’re definitely able to help the parent get in touch with their own self, because that’s going to translate to the child. The best thing you can do for your child is also to take care of yourself, to do some self-care increase, do your own growth work, become more conscious of your own patterns and reactions because you don’t want to keep carrying that to the next generation. Your kids learn from you, how you respond to stress, how you respond to a challenging situation, how you talk about people, they’re listening. If it’s a lot of projection and you have not faced a shadow yet, the child learns from you. They’re going to repeat that pattern just like you’re repeating the patterns from your parents. It’s a great way for the parent to take responsibility and break the cycle. There’s a lot of resources available now that doesn’t require a child to sit in a therapist’s office, you can hire a parenting coach, you can go to parenting workshops that are really helpful and empowering to look at the child as not broken, but in the potential based model, or philosophy.
Robert Maldonado 40:34
The best way to use this information is, first of all, to disseminate it to all adults, all teachers, all coaches, all therapists, to understand these fundamental principles, then to start to apply it. How can we look out for kids in our environment, how can we help parents apply some of these principles? How can we put pressure on politicians to pass those policies that will be implemented in the school system. So that we’re not ignoring this incredible knowledge and just letting it go to waste, but we’re applying it.
Debra Maldonado 41:23
Also offering emotional health for the children, not only just checking their physical health, weighing them, looking at their intelligence, but also how are they coping? How are their relationships? What’s going on emotionally with them? Are they anxious? A lot of schools now are bringing meditation, helping children meditate or do yoga in gym class, I think it’s a really good sign. We all need to know that no child learns the same way, that every child has a potential to grow equally, potential no matter what they’re diagnosed with or what their light in life is, everyone has an equal potential, and that the brain is remarkably malleable, that we can shape the brains of our young ones to be more effective, be more emotionally balanced, be able to cope with life in a more healthy way, have more honest conversations and closer relationships with the kids, so they can have healthy relationships with their friends, then eventually going into adulthood, bonding and having relationships and friendships as adults. The most important part is that social piece, if you’re not okay emotionally, or you don’t feel like you’re meeting the grade intellectually, you’re going to feel isolated, which is actually a cause of a lot of stress and depression in adults. We want to catch it early, help the child be empowered, not feel labeled with a diagnosis of a certain stigma that sticks with them and that’s all we see when we look at the child. Every educator, every coach, every mentor should look at people from their potential, not their label.
Robert Maldonado 43:13
So many problems we face today, the solutions are there already. It’s simply the will to put them into action and implement them.
Debra Maldonado 43:26
We thank all the teachers and counselors that do such a great job of carrying this information to the parents, we just hope the word is spread out more, making change in the government, in laws, helping young children have that resilience that they need, educating the parents on how to work with them. How to raise emotionally balanced children, the bottom line is see them as their potential. That’s the most important thing a parent can do, see the child for who they’re becoming versus their faults, their setbacks, their challenges. Seeing the child in their potential is the best thing you can do for any child. Very simple idea is see them as a possibility.
Robert Maldonado 44:25
Next time we’re going to be talking about mental health in women. After that, men and stigma.
Debra Maldonado 44:39
Also, how we can create a better, mentally healthy world as we move into this new frontier, post-pandemic, going into all the bigger challenges of the world.
Robert Maldonado 44:55
Also the role coaching plays in all this because coaching is becoming more and more popular, it has a different space than therapy, as well as different space than education. It has a unique role to play in helping bring all this information to society.
Debra Maldonado 45:20
We’ll see you next week. Have a wonderful week, get on the same level as your children, ask them some tough questions that will bring them closer and feel more connected to you in a more emotionally deeper way.
Robert Maldonado 45:37
See you next time.
Debra Maldonado 45:38