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How to Succeed When School Returns to Normal

An in-person classroom at a middle school

Many people are concerned about what’s going to happen next year when school returns to normal. Remote learning wasn’t as effective as in-person school. Kids didn’t get enough social interaction. They’re calling this “the lost year.”

Cue ominous music.

I get where they’re coming from, and there are some legitimate concerns behind this worrisome line of thinking, which I will outline shortly, but there’s really no reason to panic.

The kids will be fine.

Kids are very resilient because their brains are so malleable.1 They adapted to pandemic life, and they’ll adapt to normal school when they get to return to it. Come to think of it, the ability to adapt to a rapidly changing world might be exactly what they needed to learn.

Classroom curriculum tends to be rigid only because it takes so much work to amend them. And because they remain more or less the same from year to year, they take on an air of timeless importance, set in stone like the Ten Commandments. But the truth is, we don’t actually know what today’s kids need to be learning because we don’t know what the job market will look like tomorrow. Artificial intelligence, robotics, biotech, and who-knows-what might radically change the way people live and work by the time this generation of students is graduating from college.2 So if kids didn’t learn enough of the good-old standard curriculum this year, that probably won’t have much of an impact on their future.

And kids did learn a lot this year. They learned resilience and mental flexibility. They learned that history and scientific progress aren’t done; they’re happening right now. They learned about civics by witnessing an election and the ensuing assault on our democratic institutions. Because of the Black Lives Matter movement, many students learned important aspects of U.S. history that don’t normally get covered in the classroom. They learned biology and medicine by witnessing the evolution of a pandemic and our response to it. Perhaps they didn’t learn as much from school as we would have liked, but they certainly learned a great deal from life.

Next year might be rough.

Okay, now that I’ve explained why everything’s going to be fine, I’d like to reverse course and do a little fear-mongering of my own. Just please keep in mind what I said earlier: There’s no reason to panic.

For many students, next year might be rough. Well, okay, this year was rough too. But next year is probably going to be rough in a different way. This year was challenging because of the inherent limitations of remote learning along with the emotional struggle of social isolation. But next year is going to be far more difficult academically.

The reason for this is simple: Teachers and districts aren’t going to rewrite the old curriculum. And when schools will return to some version of pre-COVID normal, kids are going to walk into next year’s classrooms lacking a great deal of what the curriculum expects them to know.

Extra Knowledge Gaps

Let’s look at high school math as a specific example of why I’m predicting next year might be rough.

They’re not going to rewrite the old Algebra II curriculum. They’re going to just return to the pre-pandemic curriculum. And the Algebra II curriculum is built on the assumption that you learned everything you were supposed to learn in Algebra I and Geometry. But if you finished Algebra I during the spring of 2020 and took Geometry during 2020/2021, you almost certainly didn’t learn everything you were supposed to learn.

Despite heroic efforts on the part of many teachers, the rapid transition to remote learning last spring and the limitations of remote learning during this school year meant that it was next-to-impossible to cover all the content. Normally, students miss a few things as they go through a math course, and they forget a few things along the way because the mastery path is a muddy slope, but this generation of students will have far more knowledge gaps than is typical. And since many concepts in Algebra II only make sense if you already know the underlying concepts from Algebra I and Geometry, many students will find next year confusing and frustrating.

a student frustrated because they have so many knowledge gaps

Of course, this problem isn’t exclusive to the high school math curriculum – it applies to all ages and to nearly all subjects. It’s especially problematic for subjects that are cumulative, like math and foreign languages, because each layer of new content is built on the old content, but it’s also trouble for subjects like science, language arts, and social studies. Broadly speaking, students in remote learning just didn’t learn as much as they should have, and they didn’t get enough practice with the skills they’re going to need in the coming years of school, such as reading, writing, critical thinking, and working in groups.

But isn’t everyone behind?

A good counterpoint to this argument is that just about everyone is in the same boat. Most students are more-or-less equally far behind. So maybe next year teachers will go easy on them. Or maybe there will be a wholesale adjustment of the old curriculum. But if that’s the case, we’ll just be kicking the can down the road – putting this problem off for a little while.

One thing that we can be fairly sure won’t happen is universities rewriting their curricula and lowering their standards. The University of Washington isn’t going to adjust its engineering curriculum to account for this generation’s knowledge gaps. They have a high standard to maintain. And nobody wants to hear their heart surgeon say, “Well, I mostly know what I’m doing. I did sort-of have a lost year back when COVID hit.”

So eventually there will be a reckoning. And the best thing for students’ long-term success is recovering that lost ground as soon as possible. If next year is truly as difficult for students as I’m predicting, many students will react to the challenge by slipping into a downward spiral of avoidance that will only make the problem worse. Avoiding this should be a top priority.

What are you going to do about it?

So given all that, you’re faced with a choice: Accept that next year (or the next few years) will be a struggle, or spend this summer doing something to make next year better.

Both options feel – and are – unfair. But this isn’t about who is “responsible” for the situation students are in; it’s about being response-able. Students have the power to take charge of their own learning and get caught up, and families have the power to support their children in that endeavor.

What can students do to prepare for next year?

Students who want to do their future selves a big favor can choose to devote some of their summer to practicing academic skills, such as reading and writing, and patching holes in their knowledge for courses like math and Spanish. For math specifically, here’s a guide to using Khan Academy to fill knowledge gaps.

a student practicing math

Note that I said some – not all – of their summer. They still need to go outside and play with their friends. In fact, they probably need that this year more than most. But there are a lot of hours in the day, so devoting one or two hours most weekdays to learning isn’t a huge sacrifice. This has always been a good thing to do during the summer, but this year it’s more important than ever.

What can parents do to support their children?

If this is something your child is actively choosing, you can support that choice by providing resources, like textbooks, workbooks, and school supplies. You can offer to enroll your child in a class or something like Kumon. You can schedule time with one of our tutors, so they’ll have one-on-one support.

If this isn’t something your child is actively choosing, you might sit down for an honest conversation about what next year could be like. However, there are several important things to keep in mind if you choose to do that:

  1. Don’t panic. (Given how much fear-mongering I just did, this bears repeating.) Expressing how worried you are about next year or calling this year “a lost year” is a huge mistake. I realize I’ve spent most of this article sounding the alarm about how much trouble students are in, but the reality is that children are very resilient because their brains are so malleable.1 They’re going to be okay. Their futures have not been flushed down the toilet.
  2. Meet them with empathy. As I said earlier, this past year has been very hard, and the situation kids are in right now is totally unfair. They need to know that you understand, and above all, they need patience and love.
  3. Make the academic support an offering. Summer learning is always better if you don’t force it upon your children. If you can get their buy-in, they’ll get way more out of it.
  4. Don’t plan it for them. Plan it together, with them (mostly) driving the bus. Give them the power to make choices. They probably won’t make ideal choices, but getting to choose will massively increase their motivation.

Lastly, parents can help their children prepare for next year by modeling the kinds of behaviors and mindsets that are helpful to students. Leading by example has always been important, but it’s more important than ever now.

We, as adults, need to model resilience. We need to handle the stress of this situation in healthy ways. We need to take good care of ourselves. We need to model being proactive. And we need to continue growing and learning if we want our children to do the same.

We don’t really know what next year will be like.

We don’t actually know what next year will be like because, well, it’s in the future, and the future is unknowable. Heck, there could be a fifth wave of COVID or some other unforeseen world-altering event that makes all this a moot point.

But rather than dwelling on whether we should be optimistic or pessimistic about next year, I’m of the mindset that we should do everything we can to help kids be ready to succeed when school returns to normal. If next year ends up not being a return to normal, or if it winds up being easier than I’m predicting it will be, then kids who’ve chosen to use the summer to get caught up will just be a little overprepared, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

There’s a decision-making tool I use for situations like this called “the principle of two errors.” Since we don’t know what next year will be like for students, there are two potential errors we can make: We could overprepare, or we could underprepare. Which error would you rather make?

1 Warner, Judith. “How to Help Your Adolescent Think About the Last Year.” The New York Times. April 11, 2021

2 Harari, Yuval Noah. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Random House, 2018.

Growth mindsets debunked? Not so fast.

Is growth-mindset science like a hot air balloon made of dandelion seeds blowing away in the wind?

The concept of a “growth mindset” is very popular these days. In case you’re unfamiliar, here’s a quick summary of the idea: Having a growth mindset means believing you can improve through effort and the use of effective strategies while having a fixed mindset means believing you are stuck with whatever abilities you have now.1

I introduced it here, with this blog several years ago. And I’ve followed up on that with numerous supporting posts, such as “Fix vs. Grow” and “Use It or Lose It,” and “The Brain is Like a Bunch of Muscles.”

Researchers have been studying growth mindsets extensively. Schools have been implementing growth-mindset interventions in a wide variety of ways. There are posters and YouTube videos encouraging kids to believe they can improve. And it has even seeped into the corporate world. I was once hired to give a presentation to a sales team about the importance of having a growth mindset.

But with popularity comes scrutiny, and with scrutiny often comes doubt.

It’s unclear whether or not growth mindset interventions actually work. It seems many do not.2 And research findings on the effects of having a growth mindset have been mixed: Sometimes growth mindsets seem to help, but other times they don’t seem to have any effect at all.2

If that were all you read about it, you might be tempted to throw the concept in the same wastebasket as learning styles – a concept that sounded nice but ultimately failed to hold up under scrutiny. However, I think there are good explanations for both of these issues, so before we jump to the conclusion that growth mindsets have been debunked, let’s dig a little deeper.

How Beneficial Is a Growth Mindset?

Carol Dweck is the Stanford professor who pioneered the concept. Both her initial research and much of her follow-up research has been promising, indicating that students with a growth mindset are more persistent on difficult problems and are more likely to choose challenging goals.1 Furthermore, in 2017, Dweck wrote the following in defense of her work:

A meta-analysis published in 2013 found 113 studies conducted by many authors and concluded that mindsets are a significant factor in people’s self-regulation toward goals. … Government data collected at a country level—all the 10th grade students in the country of Chile (over 160,000)—showed that holding a growth mindset predicted academic achievement at every socioeconomic level. Recently, the state of California, collecting data from over 100,000 middle schoolers, found that students’ mindsets were a good predictor of their test scores.” 3

But then a 2018 meta-analysis of studies encompassing nearly 400,000 students found only a weak correlation between having a growth mindset and higher academic achievement.2 So does this mean that having a growth mindset isn’t so valuable after all? Well, that depends on how you interpret these findings.

Just One Tool Among Many

One interpretation is that, while a growth mindset is probably helpful, it is not a cure-all for academic struggles. Really, this isn’t very surprising since there are numerous other factors that go into how well students do in school. In a great article about this, Carl Hendrick commented:

“An enduring criticism of growth mindset theory is that it underestimates the importance of innate ability, specifically intelligence. If one student is playing with a weaker hand, is it fair to tell the student that she is just not making enough effort? Growth mindset – like its educational-psychology cousin ‘grit’ – can have the unintended consequence of making students feel responsible for things that are not under their control: that their lack of success is a failure of moral character. This goes well beyond questions of innate ability to the effects of marginalisation, poverty and other socioeconomic disadvantage.” 4

In other words, the value of a growth mindset may be real, but it does not negate the significance of innate intelligence. Nor can it be a stand-alone remedy for learning differences such as dyslexia, slow processing speed, ADHD, or autism. Nor can a growth mindset, on its own, alleviate the disadvantages of poverty, undereducated parents, or inadequate schools. All of these factors are important to acknowledge and address.

Having a growth mindset is just one component of a broad array of tools and strategies that support student success. In other words, it’s part of a full-court press. In this view, we should still be trying to cultivate growth mindsets in students, but we should also be doing all sorts of other things.

Students need to be taught effective learning strategies, not just academic content. We need to encourage students to be resourceful, but we also need to provide them with actual resources: school supplies, textbooks, tutors, and well-funded schools. And praising students for working hard is good, but the message would be a lot more powerful if our society had a more level playing field.

Muddy Waters

Another reason the 2018 meta-analysis found only a weak significance for growth mindsets may point to a deeper problem with this kind of research. Collecting data on whether or not people have a growth mindset is simple enough – you can give them a questionnaire. And collecting data on their academic achievement is simple too – you record their test scores and GPAs. The trouble comes when you try to connect the dots between those two things.

You don’t know, for example, if a high school senior currently demonstrating a growth mindset had a fixed mindset up until his junior year. If that’s the case, his academic achievement might be low due to a decade of being a fixed-minded student, even though he has a growth mindset now.

But there’s another case that might be much more common and even more damaging to the data: Smart kids with fixed mindsets. They exist, and they can do very well in school despite having a fixed mindset. I should know; I used to be one of them.

Carol Dweck’s original research discovered that praising kids for being smart helped instill in them a fixed mindset. Well, guess what happens to a lot of kids who test into gifted programs or AP classes? They get told they’re smart. Sometimes they get told this explicitly by other people, and the rest of the time they get told this implicitly by their grades and test scores. Thus, a sizeable chunk of the data would be composed of students with both high academic achievement and fixed mindsets.

On the other hand, a student with say, dyslexia, might have a much harder time in school, but discover the value of hard work and good strategy. This student’s achievement would rank lower, but they would report a growth mindset on a questionnaire.

Taken in combination, these two archetypes would really muddy the water. This might explain why the study didn’t find a strong correlation between academic success and having a growth mindset, even though growth mindsets are helpful.

Psychology is a messy science. It’s very hard to study humans. A growth mindset is probably much better than a fixed mindset, all other things being equal. The trouble with studying humans is, all other things are never equal.

How effective are growth mindset interventions?

Another meta-analysis from 2018 seemed to show that growth mindset interventions aren’t very effective. Most of them either didn’t shift students’ mindsets, or they didn’t improve academic outcomes – sometimes both.2

This one makes perfect sense to me. My own transition from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset was not a quick one. It took a wide variety of inputs and experiences, and the shift was gradual.

Sure, I had a watershed moment because I happened to be struggling through this really hard jigsaw puzzle while simultaneously listening to the audio version of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset. But I also learned about neuroplasticity and neurogenesis from several different sources over the course of a few years, I took Learning How to Learn on Coursera, and I started watching self-development book summaries every morning. I learned about the 10,000-hour rule and the power of deliberate practice from books like Outliers and Bounce. I was working as a tutor and witnessing students’ growth on a daily basis. And I was personally growing academically and psychologically in major ways. All of this reinforced the idea that improvement is possible through effort and strategy.

Getting someone to shift from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset is no easy task. A two-hour seminar won’t cut it. Neither will reading an article and then doing a journaling exercise. The sort of interventions that schools can afford to implement are likely to be too small and too brief to be effective. And the same goes for the interventions done by psychologists on tight research budgets.

Furthermore, such interventions are not done in a vacuum. Kids might hear growth-minded messages at school, but then hear fixed-minded messages at home. And even if all the adults in a student’s life are growth-minded, they’re fighting against our culture, which celebrates talent, genius, and overnight success. They’re also fighting the norms of the school system itself, which tends to breed fixed mindsets through its very structure, as Carl Hendrick pointed out:

“One of the greatest impediments to successfully implementing a growth mindset is the education system itself. A key characteristic of a fixed mindset is a focus on performance and an avoidance of any situation where testing might lead to a confirmation of fixed beliefs about ability. Yet we are currently in a school climate obsessed with performance in the form of constant summative testing, analysing and ranking of students. Schools create a certain cognitive dissonance when they proselytise the benefits of a growth mindset in assemblies but then hand out fixed target grades in lessons based on performance.” 4

Ineffective Interventions

Another major problem with efforts to bring growth mindsets from the lab to the classroom is that, along the way, the message gets jumbled and degraded. The interventions, while well-meaning, are often poor representations of the true concept.

In an interview with The Atlantic, Professor Dweck referred to these representations as “false growth mindset.”

“False growth mindset is saying you have growth mindset when you don’t really have it or you don’t really understand [what it is]. It’s also false in the sense that nobody has a growth mindset in everything all the time. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets. You could have a predominant growth mindset in an area but there can still be things that trigger you into a fixed mindset trait. Something really challenging and outside your comfort zone can trigger it, or, if you encounter someone who is much better than you at something you pride yourself on, you can think ‘Oh, that person has ability, not me.’ So I think we all, students and adults, have to look for our fixed-mindset triggers and understand when we are falling into that mindset.

I think a lot of what happened [with false growth mindset among educators] is that instead of taking this long and difficult journey, where you work on understanding your triggers, working with them, and over time being able to stay in a growth mindset more and more, many educators just said, ‘Oh yeah, I have a growth mindset’ because either they know it’s the right mindset to have or they understood it in a way that made it seem easy.” 5

She continued:

“another misunderstanding [of growth mindset] that might apply to lower-achieving children is the oversimplification of growth mindset into just [being about] effort. Teachers were just praising effort that was not effective, saying ‘Wow, you tried really hard!’ But students know that if they didn’t make progress and you’re praising them, it’s a consolation prize. They also know you think they can’t do any better. So this kind of growth-mindset idea was misappropriated to try to make kids feel good when they were not achieving.

The mindset ideas were developed as a counter to the self-esteem movement of blanketing everyone with praise, whether deserved or not. To find out that teachers were using it in the same way was of great concern to me. The whole idea of growth-mindset praise is to focus on the learning process. When you focus on effort, [you have to] show how effort created learning progress or success.” 5

And she points out that it’s not just about praising effort rather than ability, it’s also about guiding students toward effective techniques and strategies, and praising them for using those.

“A lot of parents or teachers say praise the effort, not the outcome. I say [that’s] wrong: Praise the effort that led to the outcome or learning progress; tie the praise to it. It’s not just effort, but strategy … so support the student in finding another strategy. Effective teachers who actually have classrooms full of children with a growth mindset are always supporting children’s learning strategies and showing how strategies created that success.

Students need to know that if they’re stuck, they don’t need just effort. You don’t want them redoubling their efforts with the same ineffective strategies. You want them to know when to ask for help and when to use resources that are available.” 5

So what does work?

In addition to what Dweck just detailed, there are a couple of other ideas worth examining.

For one, students are more likely to shift toward a growth mindset if this goal is pursued by instructors indirectly. If I’m a student, and someone shows up at my school to teach me a different way to think about myself as a student, the message I’m actually going to hear from this speaker is, “You’ve been doing it wrong, and you need fixing.” Ironically, this is a very fixed-minded message. It’s not the speaker’s intention, of course, but that’s how corrective interventions are often interpreted. So what will I do when I hear this well-meaning speaker’s message? I’ll probably get defensive and reject it, or I’ll just tune it out. And the same reaction would be elicited by my teacher trying to coach me to have a growth mindset.

Carl Hendrick explains a better approach:

“Good teachers are like good actors, not in the sense that they are both artists, but in the sense that the best teachers teach you without you realising that you’ve been taught. If students get a whiff of being part of an ‘intervention’, then it is likely that the very awareness of this will have a detrimental effect. The growth mindset advocates David Yeager and Gregory Walton at Stanford claim that these interventions … should be delivered in a ‘stealthy’ way to maximise their effectiveness – miles away from the standard use of motivational stories, posters and explanations of brain plasticity. As they put it in 2011: ‘if adolescents perceive a teacher’s reinforcement of a psychological idea as conveying that they are seen as in need of help, teacher training or an extended workshop could undo the effects of the intervention, not increase its benefits.’ Pedagogy is not medicine, after all, and students do not want to be treated as patients to be cured.” 4

For parents, the takeaway here is not to teach your kids to have a growth mindset, but rather to subtly shift the language you use and model having one yourself.

Another thing that works is helping students actually experience the kind of success that a growth mindset can produce. In my experience, this can be done in areas where a student is adamantly fixed-minded, and the experience can be very powerful.

For example, let’s say I’ve got a student who is working through the concept of multiplying fractions on Khan Academy. They learn the method and do a series of number problems with little difficulty. We move on to multiplying mixed numbers, and again, it’s no trouble. But then we arrive at the dreaded word problems exercise. It’s the same math, but it’s couched in real-world scenarios that are each presented in a paragraph of text.

The student reads the first problem. It’s three sentences, all densely packed with information – some relevant, some extraneous. They write nothing down. They groan as if in agony.

“What’s going on?” I ask innocently, knowing full well what is coming.

“I’m confused! I’m just no good at word problems!” the student exclaims.

“Okay, can I show you a strategy that might make them easier?” I respond.

“Fine,” they reply with a tone that says, “This is not going to work.”

And then I simply have the student write information down as they read, pausing to write whenever necessary. Then, because they didn’t overload their working memory holding all of the information in their head, they’re suddenly not confused! They know exactly what to do, and they do it with ease.

“Nice job,” I remark. “It looks like you’re not so bad at story problems after all. You just needed a little strategy.”

Often, I leave it there and let them continue to experience that kind of success on the rest of the problem set. If they’re curious about why it works, I’ll explain the concept of cognitive load, and draw a cartoon brain to help drive it home.

The point is, I didn’t tell the student to have a growth mindset. I didn’t tell them to try harder and use strategies. I gave them an effective strategy and let them actually experience its power. Armed with that technique, their self-efficacy increases. Every experience they have like that subtly shifts them toward a growth mindset.

Carl Hendrick summed up the relevant research this way:

“You might think it is safe to assume that, once you motivate students, the learning will follow. Yet research shows that this is often not the case: motivation doesn’t always lead to achievement, but achievement often leads to motivation. … All of this indicates that using time and resources to improve students’ academic achievement directly might well be a better agent of psychological change than psychological interventions themselves. … [For example,] Teaching students concrete skills such as how to write an effective introduction to an essay through close instruction, specific feedback, worked examples and careful scaffolding, and then praising their effort in getting there, is probably a far more effective way of improving confidence than giving an assembly about how unique they are, or indeed how capable they are of changing their own brains.” 4

In other words, the best way to create motivation to engage in academics is to give them academic skills. Hard problems require mechanical solutions, as well as effort. Once you have the mechanical solution in hand, and you’re witnessing it work, you’ll be motivated to continue using it. Experience the value of skills and strategies firsthand, and you’ll come to believe in their power. Until you’ve really felt that success, you’re not going to buy into any sort of growth mindset instruction.

It’s hard, but it’s worth it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if just praising your child’s efforts rather than their intelligence was all you had to do? That sure would be an easy way to cultivate the gritty work ethic we’d like to see them have. But alas it’s not that easy. Cultivating a growth mindset cannot be done with a small or short-term intervention. It’s something you pursue incrementally, through numerous avenues, over many years.

We have to do many things, consistently, for a long time, including, but not limited to, shifting our language, changing what we value, supporting academic success, and leading by example. Meaningful change is slow and hard, but it’s worth it.

I said earlier that I had a fixed mindset when I was a student. And even though I did well in school, I did falter in a variety of ways because I had a fixed mindset. I switched from engineering to sociology after my freshman year of college. Ostensibly, this was because I didn’t like the engineering courses, but that’s not the whole story. They were difficult, and in order to succeed, I would have had to work hard. Things had always come easily for me, so I thought things were just supposed to come easily. Beyond academics, being a fixed-minded person also hurt my personal relationships, hindered my ability to take feedback at jobs, and kept me stuck in an unhealthy lifestyle for much of my 20’s.

Shifting to a growth mindset went hand-in-hand with improving my career choices, pursuing self-education, learning to take risks, and working hard. It helped me adopt healthy habits, such as eating more vegetables and less sugar, daily exercise, and meditation. It helped me increase my willpower and stop procrastinating all the time. And it helped me overcome depression and addiction.

So I know from personal experience that shifting to a growth mindset can improve your life in many important ways.  Growth mindsets have not been debunked. They’re just harder to instill than some would have you believe. Hard, but worth it.

As an academic coach, I know I have to be patient. When a student presents fixed-minded language, I can reframe it with growth-minded language. Or when a student shows me they’re afraid of making mistakes and failures – a classic sign of a fixed mindset – I can get them to have a positive experience taking academic risks. And I can keep teaching and modeling effective learning strategies in order to help them become more effective students. But I don’t expect any of this to create an instantaneous change. I just patiently keep at it, week after week, trusting that they will eventually shift in the right direction.

 

1 Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.

2 “Study finds popular ‘growth mindset’ educational interventions aren’t very effective.” ScienceDaily. May 22, 2018.

3 Dweck, Carol. “Growth mindset is on a firm foundation, but we’re still building the house.” Mindset Scholars Network. January 18, 2017.

4 Hendrick, Carl. “The growth mindset problem.” Aeon. 11 March 2019.

5 Gross-Loh, Christine. “How Praise Became a Consolation Prize” The Atlantic. December 16, 2016.

4 Surprising Brain Benefits of Crawling

Dear Readers,

All of our clients have one thing in common… they have been born. Yes, silly truism, but I bring this up for a reason. A few times a year I am approached by prospective parents who ask me, “What can we do to set our future child up for success?” I often explore the topics previously engaged in this blog. Today, however, I would like to have an expert who works with infants and toddlers much younger than our clientele speak more directly to those prospective parents.

Dr. Trish Gallant, DPT is a practicing physical therapist owner of Gallant Physical Therapy, a private practice in Queen Anne. She is a board-certified orthopedic specialist with extensive experience treating orthopedic and neuromuscular conditions across the lifespan. She has a passion for helping all her patients, even the youngest, lead active lives.

If the goal is to support the development of our child’s writing, reading, note-taking, and creative problem-solving abilities, Trish Gallant has some thoughts about one of the earliest skills a child can learn.

Enjoy,

Greg Smith

A baby crawling

Crawling is one of the earliest ways we move as humans. Who knew that the patterns we use to crawl are the same patterns we carry for other skills for the rest of our lives? In the last two decades, research has shown babies crawl later and later (and for less total time) than ever before.  Despite this, PTs and OTs will note that crawling is the most important milestone. We now understand that crawling in infancy and early childhood has a tremendous impact on four developing systems and should not be overlooked in lieu of other milestones.

1. Gross Motor + Preparing for Upright Posture

Crawling is a total-body workout that it’s no surprise that crawling activities are making their way into all the celebrity workout routines. The entire body during crawling must remain engaged (called “co-contraction”) so it makes for an easy and efficient workout at any age. The midline axis between the joints of the hips and shoulders should rotate opposite to each other. In infancy, this causes torsion in the baby’s spine leading to strengthening and modeling of the structures of the spinal column, preparing their spine for correct posture later.

2. Fine Motor + Function 

Crawling supports changes in your baby’s hands, including lengthening the long finger muscles, developing hand arches, and separating the hand into a skilled side (thumb and first two fingers) and a stabilizing side (ring finger and pinky). These changes prepare her to use his hands and fingers for endless fine-motor tasks like manipulating toys, writing, and tying shoes.

3. Vision

Crawling assists with the brain’s development of binocular vision, which means that the eyes can work together, which is necessary for correct visual processing- especially if you want to see without getting dizzy or a headache!  While crawling, babies first look into the distance to focus on an object and then back at their hands to start crawling.  This requires eyes to adjust and focus at different distances.  This further develops cooperation between brain hemispheres and helps the eyes with reading and writing, which later comes into play in the classroom setting.

4. Brain Development to Last a Lifetime

Most importantly, crawling allows us to create connections between both sides of the brain. This has implications from improving reading ability to sports performance. Motor nerve signals to the extremities originate in each side of the brain cortex and cross in the brain stem in an area called the corpus callosum to supply required motor activity to the opposite extremity. This means that when a baby crawls, their brains learn how to interchange this information very fast! What makes this incredible is that these same patterns, or neurological routes, are the same that later in life will be used to perform more difficult tasks, such as walking, running, passing one object from one hand to the other, or even taking notes in a class while listening to the teacher.

One of the most asked questions I get from parents is “When do we stop worrying about crawling and just move to work on walking?”.  My answer is a resounding, “Never!” I hope there’s room for me on the celebrity-workout train as well … because crawling is the exercise that keeps on giving.

To learn more about Dr. Gallant’s work, please visit GallantPhysicalTherapy.com or email trish@gallantphysicaltherapy.com.