Bones! (And 3 Tips to Help Your Kids Develop Healthy Ones)

Jim Gillen with skeletonIt’s the time of year when you can’t turn your head without seeing bones – in store displays, in front of homes, even in our yoga trainings!

One concept we explored a lot in our recent Yoga for Seniors courses is how yoga can improve bone health. That’s because exercise strengthens not only muscles but bones. A regular, properly designed program may in fact help prevent the falls and fall-related fractures that so often result in disability and early death. For exercise also improves balance, coordination and flexibility.

This is especially important for older adults who have been diagnosed with osteoporosis – a bone-thinning process that raises risk of fractures. The Surgeon General estimates that by 2020, half of all Americans over 50 will be affected.

The best way to prevent this from happening to others? Get our kids on the path to good bone health early!

3 Factors in Better Bone Growth & Development

Most of our bone mass is formed by late adolescence – and that’s it. We can’t add to it later. We can only keep from losing it as we age. It’s estimated that a 10% increase in peak bone mass in youth can reduce the risk of adult osteoporotic fracture by 50%.

So how do you increase it?

  1. Exercise

    According to the International Osteoporosis Foundation, children should engage in physical activity for at least 40 minutes each day for optimal bone growth.

    Weight-bearing exercises build bone density and mass, making them stronger and less vulnerable to osteoporosis later in life. Building bone density and mass is particularly important for young people aged 8 to16.

    Research has shown physically active young girls gain about 40% more bone mass than the least active girls of the same age. In girls, the bone tissue accumulated during the ages of 11 to 13 approximately equals the amount lost during the 30 years following menopause.

  2. Vitamin D & Calcium

    Eating for healthy bones means getting plenty of foods that are rich in calcium and vitamin D. Most kids do not get enough. Of course, milk, cheese and yogurt are obvious sources of calcium, but did you know that your kids can also get calcium from dark green, leafy vegetables such as kale and bok choy, as well as foods such as broccoli, almonds, tortillas, or tofu made with calcium? Many popular foods such as cereals, breads, and juices now have calcium added, too.

    While kids can get plenty of vitamin D from time in the sun – sunlight converts a cholesterol precursor in our skin to vitamin D3 – there are good dietary sources, as well: fatty fish, egg yolks, cheese, fortified milk and other dairy products.

    Along with vitamin K – found in dark, leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, avocados, meat, eggs and other foods – D helps the body to better absorb all the calcium it gets.

  3. Limit Soft Drinks & Caffeine

    As the NIH’s Osteoporosis and Related Bone Diseases National Resource Center notes,

    Soft drinks tend to displace calcium-rich beverages in the diets of many children and adolescents. In fact, research has shown that girls who drink soft drinks consume much less calcium than those who do not.

    But the problem is not just one of displacement. Soda consumption itself seems to detract from bone health. For instance, research out of Tufts University showed that regular, heavy cola drinkers had significantly lower bone mineral density in their hips – even after controlling for calcium and vitamin D intake. Why should this be?

    Phosphoric acid, a major component in most sodas, may be to blame for lower bone density, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and authors of the Tufts study like Katherine Tucker, PhD. Phosphorus itself is an important bone mineral. But if you’re getting a disproportionate amount of phosphorus compared to the amount of calcium you’re getting, that could lead to bone loss.

    Another possible culprit is caffeine, which experts have long known can interfere with calcium absorption. In the Tufts study, both caffeinated and non-caffeinated colas were associated with lower bone density. But the caffeinated drinks appeared to do more damage.

    The only skeletons that should be spooky are haunted house and Halloween décor. The healthy human skeleton, on the other hand, is a wondrous thing…even beautiful, poetry in motion:

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From the Archives: 3 Activities to Start the School Year Right

As a new school year gets underway, we re-post these tips from a couple years back to help you get the year off to a positive start…

Parents and teachers know how important establishing routines is for healthy child development, but the shift from summer fun to school schedules can be challenging.

Of course, “challenge” is just a different word for “opportunity.”

Here are three ways you can make the most of the opportunities a new school year brings and prepare kids for a successful transition to their new routine – some new ABCs:

1. Attend to the Basics
One of our most basic needs is the need for quality rest and sleep, especially children, who need significantly more sleep than adults (up to 12 hours for the youngest school age kids, 9 for tweens and teens). But according to the National Sleep Foundation, the average youth gets up to two hours less than the minimum they need each night to support learning, emotional regulation and physical growth. There are many reasons for this sleep deficit, including electronic media use, lack of exercise and irregular sleep patterns.

For young children going off to school for the first time, sleep can also be disturbed by the natural anxieties that can arise from such a milestone event. (Their parents’ sleep can suffer, as well!) This is one of the things Lynea had in mind when writing her new book, Good People Everywhere. A soothing story, it makes a great bedtime read, easing fears and nurturing awareness of – and gratitude for – the many caring people in their lives. You may even want to download some of the free activity sheets from Three Pebble Press, which provide more ways for your child to identify the good people they know and feel safe and secure in the world.

2. Bring the Body into Balance
We all know that most kids don’t get enough exercise. Add to this increasing academic demands, excess media consumption and reductions in PE and recess time, and we have the perfect storm for attention problems, behavior issues, obesity and other long-term health issues.

Adding movement breaks into a classroom’s daily routine is a well-known tool of master teachers and a well-documented brain-based learning principle. The Top Ten Routine from our book Yoga Calm for Children (and taught in our Wellness 1 course) was specially designed to help reduce children’s stress, develop self-regulation and attention, and encourage imagination – all in just 10 minutes!

If you’re a teacher, have your students take turns leading the Top Ten each day, and you will also build classroom community and reduce behavior issues. (Student-led poses and sequences are a hallmark of the Yoga Calm approach.) As one of our carpenter friends says, “Ten minutes spent sharpening your saw first makes your work easier and more fun!” Download a free copy of the Top Ten here.

Of course, the Top Ten can be done at home, as well – where kids can also get moving with our Kids Teach Yoga: Flying Eagle DVD. (It makes for a great theme-based environmental education class, too, inspiring children to move and to protect nature.)

3. Create Community & Compassion
With the constant distractions and influence of electronic media, setting norms of behavior and practicing face-to-face social skills are more important than ever.

The Communication Game – also in our book – is one fun way to develop prosocial behaviors, communication skills and compassion in both classroom and counseling settings. In pairs, one student expresses a typical experience while their partner practices important skills such as restating, reflecting feelings, asking questions, sharing their experiences, encouraging and empathizing. Download a free copy of the Communication Game here.

One of the variations we cover when we teach this activity in depth for our Wellness 3 course brings a dynamic element to this social/emotional learning (SEL): Have two pairs compete against each other and the clock while the rest of the class keeps score.

And don’t think there’s no academic benefit here. According to psychiatrist Daniel Goleman, SEL in the classroom has been shown to improve academic achievement.

Starting your school year off right with healthy habits and behavioral skills lends itself to more than just academic success but life success, happiness and health. Who says we can’t have it all?!

Image by The Consortium, via Flickr

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9 Tips for Helping Kids Deal with Events Like the Troutdale School Shooting

Within a day of last week’s shooting at Reynolds High School in Troutdale – just outside of Portland here and where some of Lynea’s colleagues work – several particular posts about it began cropping up on Facebook a lot. One was especially sad and sobering:


Though subsequent coverage has challenged that glaring number of 74, any school shooting is one too many. And when one happens, we say “never again,” and in our collective grief and anger, we do mean what we say. And then it happens again.

Unfortunately, this kind of violence – whether on school grounds or in shopping malls or office buildings or anywhere – has no simple solution. We need to address the complexity of the problem and understand the roots of this epidemic in our society. It is not a simple “guns or no guns” issue. There are many things contributing to these shootings.

As counselors, parents, teachers and educators, we need to work as a team to identify and address the underlying causes of the violence that is breaking out in our culture. Among those issues we need to understand and address:

  • Affordable mental health care for families.
  • Support in the schools, where counselors have been cut.
  • Contributing factors such as media violence, violent video games and isolation.
  • The unique needs and challenges boys face in our culture.
  • The stressful environments in our schools and workplaces.

We also need to help children find appropriate ways of releasing anger and tension – and to develop positive habits. This requires time, effort, resources and, above all, commitment. Acquiring skills and solutions is a long-term, ongoing process. Just as our problems with a violent culture did not emerge overnight, neither will a positive, strong, affirming and nurturing alternative.

Even so, we still have to deal with the fact that we live in a world in which such violence routinely occurs. Events like the Troutdale shooting can make the world seem a much scarier and more threatening place than it is in our day to day existence, especially for young children. They want and need a sense of safety and security that events like these – and our reactions to them – seem poised to snatch away.

We must address these in the here and now. In the interview below, Lynea offers advice to parents and other adults for helping the children in their lives deal with traumatic events, followed by her previously posted top 9 tips:

  1. As much as possible, stay calm. Don’t go into a hyper-alert state.
  2. Answer their questions directly but don’t elaborate. Adults often tell more than a child is ready to hear or able to understand. Answer only the question they ask, then wait to see if they have more questions.
  3. In her counseling work with children, Lynea often explains that there are many ways to get sick: Some people get sick in their stomach or lungs or heart; some get sick in their minds. When people have an illness that affects their minds, they don’t think well. It’s sad for everyone when this happens. The child may ask how someone can get an illness in their mind. You can say that we don’t always know, but if we take good care of our bodies, minds and hearts, we can help prevent it. You can also tell them that there are many doctors who are helping people heal and that we continue to find new ways to help people who get sick.
  4. Acknowledge their feelings of sorrow and confusion, then remind them that people are strong and resilient, and that right now many good people are helping those who are hurt. Most of the time we can prevent bad things from happening, but sometimes we can’t. What we can do, always, is help people heal from these events.
  5. Tell the children about specific ways people are helping: people who hold prayer vigils, our president sitting and crying with the families affected…. There are even people who have brought food to the parents of the man accused of the shooting, because they are in pain, too. This is how we help each other heal.
  6. It’s ok for your child to see you cry. You can tell young children that you are washing the sad feelings out of your heart. You can tell older ones that crying is one of the ways our bodies help heal us. It’s important, though, to let your children know that you are strong and don’t need them to take care of you. You can model how to have compassion and sorrow, and also be strong. In fact, people who release their emotions are healthier than those who bottle them up.
  7. Limit the amount of time you watch the news or talk about the event. The news is often reported with a tone of emergency, and children pick up on this. It can frighten them.
  8. If you talk about the event in front of your children, spend as much time speaking about the healing efforts as you do about the tragedy. Choose calming, grounding activities to help your child come back to a feeling of safety.
  9. The questions may keep coming for several days or even months. You may see young children acting out the scenario in their play. This is how they process. Allow the play and continue to remind them about the healing efforts. If your child seems unable to be comforted, seek help from a professional counselor.
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Less Screen-Time = Healthier Kids & More Family Fun!

dad and son on trampolineYou hear a lot about the problems that come from kids spending too much time fixated on screens – obesity, poor and insufficient sleep, behavioral issues and all the rest. What you don’t hear so much is evidence of the benefits from guiding kids’ interactions with technology and media.

Enter a study recently published in JAMA Pediatrics – the first of its kind in that it measured changes over time and looked at parental monitoring, as well. Here’s how psychologist Katherine K. Dahisgaard described it in a recent post on

In their study, Douglas Gentile, PhD, and colleagues looked at a group of third, fourth, and fifth graders who were enrolled in an obesity prevention program. They were screened on total screen time use and – most importantly – amount of parental monitoring of that screen time. “Parental monitoring” was defined in the study as a combination of how much a parent limited screen time as well as actively discussed the content of anything that was viewed with their child.

The children were measured on a host of other variables, including media violence exposure, school performance, social wellness (defined as frequency of observed prosocial and aggressive behaviors toward peers), and physical wellness (defined as both amount of sleep and Body Mass Index). The children were followed for one school year and then these same things were measured again.

Upshot of the study? Parental restriction and discussion of their children’s media use predicted more sleep (which in turn predicted lower BMI), better school performance, more prosocial behaviors and fewer aggressive behaviors.

Screen-Free Week logoThese findings are the perfect prelude to this year’s Screen-Free Week, which kicks off on Monday, May 5. A project of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, this international celebration encourages children, families, schools and communities to refuse the distraction and separation our screens so readily provide. It’s a time for people to come together and do the things that help children build good relationships and social skills, problem solve and creatively imagine, learn through play and human interaction – things that media and tech’s easy allure can distract us from.

This is about more than just kids’ media habits. Our own have an impact, as well. As child development specialist Dr. Jenny Radesky has noted, when we fixate on our screens instead of our children, the children lose out in profound ways. This is because kids’ learning comes mainly through face-to-face interactions.

“They learn language, they learn about their own emotions, they learn how to regulate them,” she says. “They learn by watching us how to have a conversation, how to read other people’s facial expressions. And if that’s not happening, children are missing out on important development milestones.”

There are other losses, as well. Dr. Nancy Carlsson-Paige describes this powerfully in a recent article on “Technology in Our Children’s Lives”:

Quite a few years ago, I began noticing how easy it was for parents to turn to screens in challenging moments with their children. This first hit me when I saw a little girl who was in tears over saying goodbye to her good friend and her mom offered her a TV program to watch. Now today, there are almost endless opportunities to quiet our kids with entertaining games, apps, and screen time. But when we do that, are they missing out on the chance to feel, to argue, to sit in silence, to listen, to be?

Screens can occupy, distract, and entertain children for sure; the appealing game or show really “works” in the short term. But harmful habits set in early on both sides: for the child, learning to look outside of oneself for happiness or distraction in tough times; for parents, learning to rely on screens instead of our own ingenuity to soothe and occupy kids.

“Even when things are going well,” says Dr. Thomas Cooper, an expert on media ethics and culture at Emerson College, screen distractions

prevent us from bonding and celebrating those moments because we say, “Hey, I’ll talk to you during the commercial,” or “Come back when this show is over,” or “Don’t you know tonight is my whatever it is night?” So the bonding that could take place doesn’t get the quality time and doesn’t have the room for nourishing and depth.

Again, it’s not that technology or media in general are inherently bad. At their best, they can open undreamt of horizons. But we can also give tech too much credit. Like anything, it has its limitations. For instance, as Carlsson-Paige astutely notes,

What children see or interact with on the screen is only a representation of things in the real world. The screen symbols aren’t able to provide as full an experience for kids as the interactions they can have with real world people and things. And while playing games with apps and computers could be considered more active than TV viewing, it is still limited to what happens between the child and a device—it doesn’t involve the whole child’s body, brain, and senses. In addition, the activity itself and how to do it is already prescribed by a programmer. What the child does is play according to someone else’s rules and design. This is profoundly different from a child having an original idea to make or do something. For example, my granddaughter Isabella decided recently to make a house at a city park for a little caterpillar she found there. She spent over an hour finding building materials (sand, sticks, leaves) and creating the tiny house. To make the house in the first place was Isabella’s idea—her invention. How to make it, the materials to use, the design, the process were all up to her. With an inter active screen game, the deeper, more creative aspects of an activity such as these are not within the child’s control.

And this points back to one of the most beautiful things that can come from screen moderation: a flowering of creativity and healthy development of emotional intelligence. Speaking in the same interview as Dr. Cooper above, parenting expert Kim John Payne shares his observations of how children can thrive with a “media diet.” It’s a passage worth quoting at length:

The thing I’ve noticed, more directly to your question, is that the children of these low or no screen – by screen meaning computers and TVs, Game Boys, the range of screens from small to large – tend to be more creative in their play. They are very slow to be bored. Boredom is not a thing that comes up at all because there’s a creative spark in these children that is not used to being passively entertained. That’s one piece that I notice.

kids playingThe other piece I notice is that they’re very personable. They want to engage in conversation with other children and adults. I’ve noticed, and I’ve made a very careful observation of these things, that their attention spans are very good. They tend to be able to focus very well and bring their attention to bear where they choose to bring it to bear, which to me is a vitally important thing about raising a child. It’s to have that attention. They tend to have a very good impulse control because they haven’t been served up a diet of if you want it you can get it and get it quickly.

They have good impulse control, but one of the key things I’ve noticed is that they’re very empathetic kids. They’re kids who are popular in their peer groups. This is surprising because you would think that children raised without TV and computers would not have much to offer when they stand among their peers when talking about television programs or video games. But actually what happens, and I’ve observed this first-hand on many occasions, is a kind of media compensation – I call it media flashback conversation, like an acid flashback where kids just have to detoxify and get it out of their systems. They talk and they babble, and they don’t really listen to each other. They stand there and text each other and play with their mobile gadgets. Usually about five to ten minutes in, that starts to wane. Then the kids who are media free turn to the other kids and say, “What shall we do?” This is because these kids always have something ready on the tips of their tongues, “Okay, so why don’t we build forts? Why don’t we play ‘Catch the Sand?” They offer many, many suggestions that they have.

These are the kids – and I’ve noticed this interestingly – whose parents come to me and ask, “Well, you know if I cut out screens for my kids, won’t they be ostracized by the group?” So I’ve watched this because I wanted to be very clear about that and not give any advice that would be helpful. I’ve watched it, gosh, over twenty years now. What I see is that these are the ones who are enduringly popular. If you’re struggling at school or you’re being bullied, or something is happening, do you want to go to a child – well you want to go to a kid who can listen, who is creative, who is fun to play with. They’re the ones who are sought out, and they’re the ones who have really good, long-term friendships. It’s very, very interesting.

Resources for Screen-Free Week

How do you plan on observing this year’s Screen-Free Week in your home, classroom, office or clinic? Share your ideas in the comments!

Images by Jeannie Fletcher &
SpirosK photography, via Flickr

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Helping Kids with Attention Issues: We Can Do Better – Tips & Resources

stim_salesJudge by rising rates of ADHD diagnoses and medication prescriptions (quintupling over the past 12 years), it would seem that we’ve really got a national epidemic at hand.

Or do we?

A recent New York Times article reveals some disturbing news:

The rise of A.D.H.D. diagnoses and prescriptions for stimulants over the years coincided with a remarkably successful two-decade campaign by pharmaceutical companies to publicize the syndrome and promote the pills to doctors, educators and parents….

* * *

Behind that growth has been drug company marketing that has stretched the image of classic A.D.H.D. to include relatively normal behavior like carelessness and impatience, and has often overstated the pills’ benefits. Advertising on television and in popular magazines like People and Good Housekeeping has cast common childhood forgetfulness and poor grades as grounds for medication that, among other benefits, can result in “schoolwork that matches his intelligence” and ease family tension.

A 2002 ad for Adderall showed a mother playing with her son and saying, “Thanks for taking out the garbage.”

So maybe it’s no surprise that stimulant prescriptions for children skyrocketed from 600,000 in 1990 to 3.5 million today. ADHD “is the second most frequent long-term diagnosis made in children, narrowly trailing asthma.” The creator of one of the most used tests for ADHD has described these prescription trends as “a national disaster of dangerous proportions.”

roger_griggsEven Roger Griggs, the pharmaceutical executive who introduced Adderall in 1994, said he strongly opposes marketing stimulants to the general public because of their dangers. He calls them “nuclear bombs,” warranted only under extreme circumstances and when carefully overseen by a physician.”

These experts advise that stimulants are for classic ADHD – a legitimate disability that impedes success at school, work and in personal life. Historically, an estimated 5% of children have classic ADHD.

Still, it’s worth looking at what else we can do for them, as well as those who just have trouble sustaining and shifting attention or controlling their impulses (a more typical child development issue).

ADHD vs. ADHD-like Behavior

In our course ADHD: The Mind-Body Connection, Dr. Jeff Sosne notes that our home and school environments can actually set the stage for behavior that looks like ADHD but isn’t.

steamFor instance, consider the demands for attention made on children in overly structured lives. There’s increased academic pressure and heavy homework loads, even at the K-5 level. There may be afterschool obligations such as sports, music, tutoring, church and service groups, or lessons of some sort. While such activities may be pursued for personal pleasure or enrichment, they’re just as often used to sweeten a youth’s “resume” for later schooling.

The resulting stress easily leads to distracted or “wild” behavior, as children find it harder and harder to conform to such demands.

Diet, Sleep and Exercise

Much can be accomplished through making sure the child eats right, gets enough exercise and adequate sleep, and has opportunities for unstructured play.

According to Dr. Sosne, we see a big reduction of symptoms when these basic human needs are met – whether the child actually has ADHD or not. Children become more able to learn practices that can help them improve their ability to focus, pay attention and self-regulate. These, in turn, support ongoing healthy habits, for through them, kids are nurtured into mindfulness, including awareness of their bodies and what their bodies are telling them.


Practicing and developing eye contact, listening and waiting skills are a few of the 10 key strategies Dr. Sosne teaches parents and children through the recreational therapy classes at his clinic and in his PSU course for teachers and therapists.

Here’s an example of one such activity, an extra from our Kids Teach Yoga: Flying Eagle DVD:

Outdoor Time for Attention Fatigue & ADHD

walkSubstantial research has shown that “symptoms” of ADHD-inattention and impulsivity-are reduced after exposure to natural views and settings (Kuo & Faber Taylor, 2004).

According to Kaplan, natural environments assist in recovery from attention fatigue, in part because they engage the mind effortlessly, providing a respite from having to deliberately direct attention. Thus, the sense of rejuvenation commonly experienced after spending time in natural settings may in part reflect a systematic restorative effect on directed attention.

Yoga Calm’s co-founder, Jim Gillen, observed this same response in the 1990s when working with at-risk and “ADHD youth” in the collection of environmental data as part of his National Science Foundation program: “Our youth data gatherers consistently showed fewer of the attention problems in natural areas than where reported in the classroom.”

Jim’s observations, along with Lynea’s Outdoor School experience and Leah Schuyler’s eco-psychology background, led to the development of their Yoga Calm environmental education curriculum. You can learn this curriculum and its unique interdisciplinary approach in their April 12-13, Love, Knowledge and Action course.

More Tips & Resources

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4 Tips for Implementing Yoga Calm in Your School

by Lynn Hernandez, school principal and Certified Yoga Calm Youth Instructor

Class Up Mtn

After attending Yoga Calm training last February I was so excited about the possibilities at my school for both students and staff.  I knew that these mindful movement activities would help students develop self-confidence, self-regulation strategies and positive social and emotional skills. I was also aware that new professional development ideas could get lost a few weeks after the training because of classroom and school demands.  As an administrator, I wanted to make sure that Yoga Calm activities had a chance to make a difference.  Here are some things that I found to be successful in the implementation of Yoga Calm in the classroom:

  •  Commit to doing Yoga Calm daily:  Establish a routine and make it part of your daily plan.  If you make sure students are part of the plan, they’ll never let you forget or allow you to replace it.  In our fourth grade, each student has a “classroom job.”   Two Managers of Wellness lead the class in Yoga Calm routines each morning.  One of our second grade teachers has students do the same routine each day after coming in from recess.
  • Find a buddy:  Ideally, you were able to attend training with someone else in your school.  Continue to share ideas, routines, struggles, questions and celebrations.  If you work in different grade levels, perhaps you can be “buddy classrooms” and get together to do routines/activities together.  Each of our primary classrooms is paired with an intermediate class.  Buddy rooms get together to teach each other their routines. If you attended training alone, share the information with a like-minded colleague.  Invite them to be a part of the Yoga Calm experience.
  • Invite other staff members to your classroom when you teach a Yoga Calm routine or social/emotional activity:  The psychologist, social worker and special ed teachers who support struggling students can learn from you and may offer some additional ideas.  Ask your principal to come in and observe.  Not only can they offer direct support to students by incorporating some of the techniques you demonstrate, but they may also offer to send other staff members to training once they see the value of Yoga Calm in classroom/school behavior.
  • Track data, like the increase in time students are able to attend to independent reading or writing. Or try doing routines regularly before any assessments, and gather data about test scores and student perceptions about how they felt before a test. Keep track of those students who begin to use Yoga Calm techniques independently when they know they need to take a break. Has the implementation of Yoga Calm in your classroom resulted in fewer students having to leave the room because of behavior issues? Track it, and prove it makes a difference

It’s up to us to create an environment where students can thrive. Yoga Calm empowers staff to get creative in building a calm, caring and thoughtful classroom community.    By committing to its implementation, it can make a difference in student learning and emotional growth.  Good luck as you continue the journey.

LynnHernandez Lynn Hernandez has been an educator for over 20 years. For the past ten years she has been the principal of Diamond Path Elementary School of International Studies in Apple Valley, Minnesota. She attended Yoga Calm training in February 2013, and that June became a certified Yoga Calm Youth Instructor. In 2013, Lynn brought Kathy Flaminio, the Yoga Calm National Training Director, to present at her school. So far, thirteen staff members have attended training, and teachers and other staff throughout the building are regularly implementing the strategies they have learned.

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What Is Your Call of Duty?

What’s going on with our boys?

fightThese days, I’m asked this question a lot by parents and teachers alike. This school year alone, I have done more staff trainings and have been asked to observe and assist teachers more than ever before with respect to boys’ behavior issues. Hyperactivity, aggressive behavior, obsession with video games, inability to focus…the list seems to grow longer every day.

The causes are many – something we address in our Boys and Coyotes course – and discussed frequently by professionals, but one that comes up time and again are video games.

This fall, I’ve been making a point when I teach Yoga Calm in public school classrooms to ask children directly about their video game play. What I’ve heard has been sometimes alarming, such as second and third grade boys expressing their love of graphically violent games like Call of Duty.

Not familiar with the game? Neither was I. So I looked it up:

The cavalier nature of this trailer – regular-looking teenage boys blowing up things to the fun and lively music of Frank Sinatra – is disconcerting, even disturbing. What kind of message does a 7 or 8 year old take away from something like this?

One thing they think is that the violence doesn’t matter if they’re killing monsters – the gist of another Call of Duty spin-off. “It’s not a big deal, Mrs. Gillen,” they say. “We’re just fighting zombies!” But these aren’t the vintage, B-movie zombies you might remember from your own childhood:

I recently showed these trailers to a group of adults, and a few of the teachers turned their heads, unable to watch, it was so disturbing. I asked them to notice how their bodies felt after watching. “Disgusted,” they reported, “like I want to throw up.”

And that was after only two minutes, I said. Imagine how young minds and hearts must feel after a half hour of this.

“Or two hours!” one teacher remarked. “Some of my students are playing these games for two hours a day.”

Another said, “No wonder these boys have trouble sitting in the classroom.”

gamersWhile violent games bring unique impacts and challenges, violence isn’t the only problem. Saga-type games can consume attention, as children get hooked on beating each level. I consistently have kids reporting that they’ve stayed up until two or three in the morning because they want to “get to the next level.” Such games exert a powerful hold over children, their emotions, imagination…

And that’s part of why the American Academy of Pediatrics is ringing the bell about media consumption and addiction. They recently issued new media guidelines for kids – and they couldn’t be any more straightforward:

  • Children should be limited to less than two hours a day of entertainment-based screen time – unless they’re younger than two. In that case, they should have no screen time at all.
  • Kids should not have TV or Internet access in their bedrooms.
  • Parents should watch TV and movies with their children and monitor Internet usage.

Of course, parents are up against some powerful forces themselves – namely, the manufacturers, marketers, retailers and the like who put plenty of money and muscle into making sure consumers stay hooked.

As psychologist and media expert Dr. Doreen Dodgen-Magee suggests in a recent post on her plugged in blog, stirring up excitement over each new game release – and creating bigger profit bonanzas each time – is just the beginning. While sales figures may be “staggering,” she says, they do

nothing to address the number of hours which will be spent attempting to master the game in these first few days of release. in addition, games such as this are immersive and stick with players. long after they leave the screen, the game is still occupying important regions of players’ internal dialogue and thought. those who attempt to be counter cultural or who cannot afford to give in to the frenzy will spend plenty of emotional capital consoling themselves (understandably…the social pressures are great).

Indeed, investment in the present media and digital universe is more than monetary. We pay with ongoing emotional investment in the games, movies, shows, music and such, not to mention the growing sense that our gadgets are extensions of ourselves. Take away someone’s iPhone and it’s like you’ve taken away a part of their Self.

If it can be like that for us as adults, how much more so for children?

Yet it’s important to be clear that the problem isn’t necessarily with screens or even the media itself (though as above, plenty of content is certainly problematic). As Dr. David Walsh notes in his excellent book Smart Parenting, Smarter Kids,

The proliferation of electronic screens and digital technologies in our kids’ lives, including video games, TV, cell phones, and the Internet, present both opportunity as well as risk for our kids. [Some find] ways to maximize the benefits of these digital technologies (no doubt receiving a fair amount of guidance and help from adults in their lives), while [for others’] twenty-four seven digital connectivity was creating anxiety, obsessive behavior, and lots of conflict. All these kids are good kids, with parents who care about them. But raising kids in the digital age sometimes feels like navigating without a map, in a landscape filled with both treasure, and trash. [emphasis added]

The answer, however, is not to go screenless – something that may well be impossible by this stage of the current technological revolution. The key, rather, is to be both knowledgeable and mindful about how we use them (we’re role models, whether we like it or not) and how we raise our kids to use them. Rules and limits lovingly provided help children learn how to use media and technology responsibly.

For just as we want them to be tech-savvy, we also want them to be socially- and emotionally-savvy, as well, developing positive, healthy, real world, face-to-face relationships with family, friends, colleagues and all other humans with lives their own lives intersect. (This is something we’ve blogged about before – for instance, here and here and here.)

At this time of year, as new tech toys and media enter your children’s lives in the form of holiday gifts, there’s a perfect opportunity to create family guidelines you can all agree to (if you’ve not already done so). Some tips to get you started:

Fight image by Aislinn Ritchie,
gaming image by sean dreilinger, via Flickr

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