Brain power consultant offers tips for Tri-City parents and students

Diane Strandberg

The Tri-City News, August 26, 2010

Your teens and pre-teens may look angelic as they sleep away the summer morning hours until the clock strikes noon. But with just under a week before the first school bell of the 2010/2011 year rings, it's time to consider some strategies for ending the summer hibernation so students are ready for school, says learning skills specialist Terry Small.

Parents needn't worry; the kids don't need shock treatment. Instead, they need a slow but steady re-introduction to the schedules of school so their summer brains can adjust.

Small, a former high school teacher who has a son and daughter of university age and a boy in Grade 10, has had plenty of experience with teenagers. He says it's not unusual for teens to get out of their routines and balk or ignore the changes they will soon be facing as September approaches.

"During the summer break, patterns are developed that are very comfortable for teenagers. Gosh, who doesn't like sleeping in, spending time with friends and having a loose schedule. Just the very thought of shifting those activities into a new pattern that we call school and academic rigour is pretty shocking for a teenager's brain to contemplate."

Small, who is a sought after speaker on memory, study skills and boosting brainpower, says the brain is a malleable muscle that is adaptable to change. He believes students will make the transition - "new patterns emerge and we're back into school," he says.

There are, however, things parents can do to ensure a successful start to the school year. "The first thing is for parents to realize is that their role is critical and it doesn't change as the kids get older."

He advises cranking bed time back 10 minutes a night so that by the time school starts, students are more or less back into their regular sleep and waking regime. Physical exercise is a good way to get the brain active and Small recommends concentrating on nutrition and introducing "brain foods" that enhance brain activity.

For example, Small is religious about eating a good breakfast. He eats yogurt mixed with blueberries and walnuts with a sprinkle of cinnamon, and some whole grain toast, which he says are foods that fuel the brain. He once experimented with eating poor foods such as pop and a doughnut - "that's not uncommon for teenagers" - and found he was sluggish and made poor food choices later in the day.

"The difference was profound...If we don't eat a proper breakfast for reasons for lack of time or saving calories, what that does is it starts bad habits." The opposite is true when you eat a good breakfast. "You make better choices," he says, "there's compounding effect."

Don't be afraid to bring out the school supplies and talk about the new routines. Small says parents should have a conversation with their children about where and when they will do their homework; some will prefer a private space, such as in their room, while others will want to work on the dining room table.

Homework should be scheduled and marked on the calendar, just like an appointment. [This is saying] "now things have started. It's just small change, moving towards the school year," says Small, who teaches a 1.5 hour work shop on How to Get Better Grades in School.

It's not just students who have to get back into routine, parents do, too, he says, and they need to consciously consider the messages they are sending their kids. He said research has found the brain responds well to praise, but it has to be targeted praise. Telling students they are "smart and talented," simply instills arrogance, and then kids get frustrated when things don't go their way. Small recommends praising students for their hard work and perseverance when they stick to a problem until they find a solution.

"These two approaches help to develop two different mind sets. The first is I am what I am, it is what it is. {The second} is a growth mind set that sees the brain as being plastic... 'let's get smarter, I love challenge.' As you approach school, the two mind sets are quite different and the language parents use in praising can be huge."

Have a conversation about how the brain works and what makes it work better. Small has found students respond well to intriguing facts, and adults may find their children more amenable to change if they know what they are doing is good for their brain.

"Think of it as part of your ongoing education; find out about the brain, how to keep it sharp and how it learns best."

Studying for brain power

In his workshops, Small recommends studying techniques that recognize the strengths and limitations of the brain. Here are some of his ideas.

  • First impressions stick; students should make an effort to make a good impression in the first few days of school.
  • Get homework help immediately, especially for subjects like math where learning is cumulative. Don't be afraid to ask the teacher for advice.
  • Have a scheduled homework time and post it on the fridge. Also, previewing and reviewing classroom work benefits students just as it does for athletes who study their opponents and review their own games for success.
  • Set goals {I am going to get an "A" in...} write them down and review them; the brain will interpret the goals as cues
  • The brain responds well to questions and sensual experiences, write your notes as questions and answers. Review them by colour coding and read them aloud with a study partner to better retain the information; Active study is better than passive study.
  • Eat brain foods, such as: walnuts, almonds, blueberries, celery, cocoa, tomatoes, wild salmon, leafy greens, grapes, red or purple, flax (seeds or oil), tea
  • Take brain breaks every 11 to 20 minutes (Take your age and add two up until the age of 18. Time between breaks doesn't change with adulthood.) Stand up and move around.

For more interesting facts about brains, read Small's Brain Bulletins on his website (

How to Get Better Grades in School, Tuesday, Oct. 12, 7-8:30 p.. at Gleneagle secondary school. The cost is $45 for the whole family. To register, call Coquitlam Continuing Education, 604-936-4261.