Academic Challenges

Why learning to fail is as important as success

Dateline Portland, Oregon--Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: What happens when we raise kids who are not afraid to make mistakes or fail? Can we let our kids fail when we ourselves fear the stakes are too high?

Learning to fall down:

My most vivid memory of the first time I got on skis was of my ski instructor teaching us how to fall. Over and over again, we fell into the snow. It seemed to go on forever. I was impatient to speed gracefully down the slopes, and what we were doing made no sense to me at all. But then we started down the gentle bunny hill. And we started falling for real. I still didn’t get it then, but I sure do now—I’d learned to fall down, so I wasn’t worried about it happening. I knew I could fall safely and without dire consequences. You could argue that practicing falling made me less likely to, but I wasn’t ever a terrific skier so I doubt that is true. Practicing falling did, however, make me looser and more confident on my skis. It allowed me to focus on having fun and learning some skills.

I was raised in a time when school and the school day belonged to students and teachers. Parents were less likely to intervene when something didn’t go just the way it was planned. I was also fortunate to have a wise mother who knew age-appropriate challenge and struggle to be essential to growth. And she was on-point when things didn’t go the way I hoped they would. She sat me down one day after a particularly upsetting test at school and told me, “Honey, you’ll learn far more from the things that don’t go well than you ever will from the things you sail through.” She made me feel I was fine, and she made the process of growth so much less daunting because of her approach. She’s been right over and over again.

Learning to fail in today’s world:
I try to remember this when I see my own teen heading into a rocky patch. I try to recall that day—and the many other times and situations in my life where I have practiced falling down or taken real tumbles. I try to keep in mind that having difficulty and learning from failing is actually good.  

But I also recognize I was raised when college applications did not typically include a 4.0 GPA, let alone a GPA above that number. Parental pressures are different now. And our kids have somehow become a social mirror of our own success in a way kids of generations past were not. These things contribute to today’s parents having a harder time allowing natural lessons to occur in the lives of their children.

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But just a thought about raising kids who are not afraid to fail: If you can do so, you get something wonderful as a result—a kid who knows to try another approach when a first, or second, or even third effort fails. A kid who isn’t afraid to stick his or her neck out and try new things. A kid who’ll decide in her senior year of high school that she DOES want to be in some plays—and then get herself cast. A kid who’ll decide that he wants to buy a canvas and some paints and see what happens. Maybe he’ll discover a love of art that will be a lifelong passion. Maybe he’ll consider it an interesting experiment and leave it aside for something else, but he won’t be afraid to try for fear of not succeeding.

Failure, success, grit:
The other day I heard the story of how micro-surgical procedures were developed for the eye. Suffice it to say, it took the pioneer responsible for this bold discovery decades to get it right. He failed over and over again during those years. But every time he did, he learned something new about what he was trying to do—simplify cataract surgery. And now what was once a lengthy procedure requiring a hospital admission takes 20 minutes in an outpatient surgical center. That is grit and determination. That is a great example of someone who did not fear failure. 

Goal Setting

Dateline, Portland, Oregon--Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: Goal setting can feel like keeping a list of chores, but done right, it can help us feel successful, and assure we have time to relax.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

                                                Goethe

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When I was an undergraduate, I had this beautiful quote posted on the wall above my dorm room desk. And there is no doubt it inspired me—in fact It remains one of my favorite quotes to this day.

But where will boldness get you without a plan? Some potentially interesting places, to be sure…but maybe not the ones you’re intending!

I’ve just wrapped up my spring teaching semester—grades are in, my office is (somewhat) organized for fall, and I am looking forward to summer. How will I spend my time? I have patients to see and projects to tend to for the College and my family, but it would be pretty easy to drift along and get little else done. And yet, I have some bold plans…some specific goals for the months ahead.

This year for Christmas my daughter gave me the most beautiful planner I have ever seen. It is richly textured, the paper is fine, and it is laid out in precisely the way I like—week-by-week with a special column for notes. This planner has helped me indulge in my goal setting habit in style.

Once a week I sit down with my schedules—family, practice, college and personal. I begin by thinking about the main things I want to finish by the end of the week, and these things go on a list. Then I put obligations on my calendar—places where, if I didn’t show up people would notice. Next I build in time for myself—a lunch with a friend, a family event. After that, I take my week’s goals and think about what days might be best for what projects or parts of projects. On the calendar they go!

Setting goals is an important part of feeling successful and moving forward in life. For many of us, it is a difficult challenge. Some worry that it will be too time consuming, or make them feel trapped in obligation, or they fear they won’t accomplish what they hoped they would, and that would make them feel bad. For the last concern, I always tell people there is the next week, and the ability to break projects down into smaller component parts.

And a few reminders for us all

·         Setting goals helps us articulate what matters to us (and what matters to those to whom we are
       accountable).

·         Every time we check something off our lists, we get a little dopamine rush to the reward
       centers of our brains, and that feels good, and reinforces goal setting behavior!

·         Most important, setting goals down on paper helps us boldly stay on track—you wouldn’t drive
       somewhere new without Waze or Google Maps, think of your goal setting exercise as Waze for
       your life!

So this summer I have a number of personal and professional goals. I want to finish redoing the seat covers on our outdoor furniture. I am working on funding projects for Lewis and Clark’s Center for Entrepreneurship—that will be time consuming and a new area of endeavor, so I have blocked out a chunk of time each week to learn about institutional advancement. I have patients to see, some projects to oversee at my summer house, and the usual array of fun activities with friends and family. Armed with my lists, I know I’ve lots of free time, and a bunch of little dopamine rushes ahead!

I teach my students and patients to use a goal setting tool designed to help them break larger projects down to size and give them the big picture and the daily view. For many, this starts out as a chore, but for most it becomes unexpectedly freeing. I’d be glad to send you a copy of the worksheet I’ve designed for this purpose, just email me at ajwilcox@lclark.edu if you are interested.

 

 

 

Making a successful college transition

Dateline, Portland, Oregon--Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D: The college search is over. Now what? Some things to consider about the coming months as everyone waits for college admissions letters.

In the coming weeks yet another crop of high school students will be haunting their email inboxes for news from the colleges of their choice. Parents will be anxiously looking over their teen’s shoulders to see what’s ahead, while at the same time reviewing events of a lifetime. There are likely to be some sleepless nights for all parties. As both a college professor and a clinical psychologist I see this season from a number of angles. And this year, as the parent of a high school senior I have experienced it from a whole new perspective.

There are some things I know for sure: First, each year, literally millions of rising freshmen make it through the gauntlet of the college search and the application process to find themselves at a great school. Colleges are good at this—they know who is likely to find success in their classrooms and a fit in their co-curricular environment, and they use this knowledge to pick the students they will invite to attend. The vast majority of incoming freshmen are happy with their choice, and launch themselves into college with enthusiasm for the challenges that lie ahead.

Secondly, I know there are lots of opinions about what constitutes a “great” college. I am a firm believer that the best college doesn’t necessarily come with a brand name or ivy covered brick. What it comes with is fit, which depends entirely on your student. For a great meditation on this topic take a look at Malcom Gladwell’s chapter on choosing a college in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and The Art of Battling Giants. The gist of Gladwell’s thesis—most people thrive in a setting where they are challenged, but not so challenged that they feel less capable than their peers. Picking a college for its prestige is likely to backfire.

Finally, I know this is a transition for everyone—it isn’t just the rising freshman’s life that is changing. Parents, siblings, sweethearts and friends face transitions, as well.

Parents might find it helpful to keep some things in mind as their children prepare to leave the nest:

  •   As a loving and attentive parent you’ve worked hard to instill values and principles in your teen. Instead of spending the summer on a crash refresher course titled Everything that Matters, consider reinforcing your trust and conveying your belief in your rising freshman. She has spent years preparing for this transition, too.  Remind her how hard she’s worked.  Your faith in her will help her rise to this occasion. Your respect will help her turn to you when she needs advice and assistance.
  •  Remind your teen of the many times she’s confronted challenges and been able to figure them out, and how much she’s learned from things that haven’t gone exactly as she’s hoped. A person who recognizes that failure is a part of learning and growing is less fearful, more likely to try new things, more resilient, and much more likely to find success in life.
  • Recognize that your teen is at a point in life when his peers are central to his sense of self. Understand that this means he'll want to spend every waking moment with friends in the coming months—which means less time for you. This is not a statement about his love, it is a tribute to growing independence, and something to be celebrated.
  • Don’t get caught up in “lasts.” This tends to make things more an ending than a beginning for everyone. And honestly, it isn’t the last time you’ll visit favorite hiking trails, parks and restaurants. Your teen will be back! Try to think of special occasions as an opportunity to share a favorite place and one another’s company until you get to go there again.

At our house we are anticipating the coming year. There’s lots of talk about potential majors, international travel, dorm rooms and roommates, and whether or not down outerwear will be a necessity. And there’s also time to look back, to celebrate strengths and milestones and the resilience that comes with meeting challenges. This year, when I sit with the parents rather than the professors at my child’s college during Convocation I will be filled emotion, with longing and with hope for a bright, new future. I hope I’ll be as proud of myself as I will be of my teen-- and I will be, if only I can take my own advice!

The sleeping brain remembers: Memory consolidation during sleep

Dateline Portland, Oregon—Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: We all know sleep is important, and here’s another reason why: When you sleep, your brain takes fragile new memory traces from the day and consolidates them into memory.

Why we sleep:
Some say we evolved to sleep in the dark of night so that we wouldn’t accidentally injure ourselves or become a night predator’s meal. While that may be part of the story, our brains have learned to take advantage of the quiet time. Housekeeping takes place—glial cells clearing the neurotransmitter detritus of the day. We dream—a fascinating topic for another blog post. And we work to consolidate memory from the day.

Sleep and memory consolidation—the secret weapon of studying:

Once our understanding of memory formation was mostly theoretical. We couldn’t see it happen, but we knew that it did, and so we explained it in ways we could understand. Our human memory was described as something of a filing system. One place for the recollection of a birthday party, another for the names of US presidents, and so on.

But the arrival of increasingly sophisticated brain imaging techniques has helped us make exciting discoveries about memory consolidation, the brain and sleep. Our theoretical understanding has evolved as a result. 

Now when I teach my students about the consolidation of new memories, I can tell them with certainty that the hippoCampus is where new memories go to camp for the day. (Corny, I know.) These memory traces are fragile. There is no certainty they will be consolidated. These fragile memory traces strengthen and reach their final destinations in the brain while we are sleeping. 

Here’s how it works: Say you work hard to learn new information during the day and then spent the night in an fMRI, a sophisticated imaging machine that charts brain activity in real time. This is what would be seen. Your hippocampus would fire, a distant region of your brain would fire in reply, hippocampus fires again, then that region again, or perhaps another one or two or more would fire. This neural conversation continues throughout the night, allowing new memories become strong and move to their home bases in your brain. And bases is not a typo—aspects of each memory live in disparate places in the brain—it is not the tidy filing system we once conceptualized it to be.

How to optimize memory consolidation:
There are many ways to optimize memory consolidation, and most of those include conscious and effortful engagement with the material you are working to learn. Dig in to the information. Don't try to learn it all at once. Study it every day. Ask yourself questions, grapple with the answers. Write, ponder, teach someone else what you know. And at the end of each day, sleep. Because we now know new and fragile memory traces stored in the hippocampus strengthen and reach their final destinations in the brain while we are sleeping. 

Yet another reason to get a good night’s sleep:
What is the take home message here? This is another reason sleep matters. If you are getting less sleep than you need, you are shortchanging yourself in the memory department. Research demonstrates this fact.

We know students pulling all-nighters to cram for tests often do less well than their peers who study over time. They almost invariably have poorer memory of the material once the test is over—a real problem when you are working to deepen your knowledge in an academic discipline, and have foundational material that is necessary to know well in order to understand what comes next. We now understand the consolidation process that comes with sleep is an essential part of the memory formation process.

Could there be more efficient study time? I often encourage my students in the days before an exam to consider spending the last bit of time before sleep every night reviewing notes (on paper--not on a screen—read my blog post about blue light and sleep disruption to understand why). Their brains will work to solidify those notes as they sleep—a twofer!

This is another reason that “catching up” on sleep over the weekend appears not to be a real thing—we don’t make up sleep debt. And the opportunity to consolidate new material appears to be an opportunity lost if that night’s sleep is too short or disrupted.

Sleep perchance to dream? Sleep certainly to remember!

Screen use at night for work, studying or entertainment can disrupt your sleep

Dateline, Portland, Oregon, Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: Are you having problems with insomnia, your sleep disrupted by difficulty falling or staying asleep? The screens you use in the hours before sleep or take to bed with you at night could be part of the problem.

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Sleep disruption’s impact on well-being:
A good night’s sleep has become the unicorn of our age—we’ve heard the myths but have yet to catch sight of the magical creature. And sleep is a kind of magic, well worth hunting down. Just a few examples of what we are doing while we sleep will illustrate what I mean. During sleep, glial cells clean our brains of the day’s neurochemical residue, young bodies grow and all bodies repair muscle and tissue damage brought about by the day’s activities. Sleep regulates ghrelin and leptin, two hormones that are important to appetite regulation and the feeling of being full. Restful sleep allows us to wake refreshed, ready to meet the challenges of a new day. It is essential to mood regulation. Sleep is vital to health and well-being.

Disrupted sleep and screen use:
There are many things that can disrupt a good night’s sleep. A major culprit—one that is both the easiest and perhaps the most difficult to control—is screen time. Most of us have grown accustomed to constant contact—texts and Instagram photos come in with no heed to the hour of the day. Squeezing in just a few more email replies has become a nightly ritual for many, justified by a more controlled inbox, reinforced by a boss who replies in real time, or (for our kids) the anxiety that comes with 'needing' to respond to messages as soon as they come in. And available entertainment—the all-hours access to binge watching episodes of favorite shows has become a nightly ritual. These things have changed the terrain of sleep preparation for countless people.

The implications of these new rituals on sleep go well beyond squeezing in the last email reply or no longer having to endure the clever cliff-hangers that script writers once used to keep us in suspense from week to week. The ritual of actually leaving friends or work behind at the end of the day, and the discipline once supplied by network scheduling is now up to us as individuals. For many, staying up at night in front of our screens is the new normal.

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Your pineal gland:
Buried deep in your brain is the pineal gland. Small and mighty, this brain structure’s singular mission in life it to create melatonin, a hormone that makes us sleepy.  The pineal gland is deactivated by light. The turning on and off of melatonin is essential to the sleep-wake cycle of your circadian rhythms. The light spectrum provided by your favorite screens—phones, tablets or laptops—bathes your eyes in the bright light of a sleep disrupted night. It does so because the light travels through your eyes to your brain, which is not evolved to recognize that light as a Netflix episode or a book on an e-reader. Reading the light as daylight, your pineal gland shuts down melatonin production, and your brain gears up to get ready for a new day.

Clinical life in the age of technology:
As a clinical psychologist, I see the results of insomnia in my practice all the time. As a college professor and a parent, I am particularly concerned about a new source of sleep disruption. Text books and other online materials are becoming ubiquitous in 21st Century education. It is certainly less expensive to download an electronic copy of a book, and more of my college students are making that understandable economic choice all the time. My daughter’s high school made the decision to go entirely online for textbooks last year.  It is great on the back to have a tablet replace a dozen heavy textbooks. But as parents, we need to understand that teens and young adults are developmentally more likely to have sleep disruption. And in an unfortunate trick of nature, it appears this age group is even more sensitive to the impact of lighting on the pineal gland than are the rest of us.

What to do:
If you are having trouble with sleep at night, try putting down your devices in favor of a book or conversation. Don’t even allow electronic devices in your room for a while, to see if it helps your sleep. 

If you are a parent, making sure your kids keep screens out of their bedrooms probably feels like a losing battle. Serve as an example—they will learn by watching you. And talk with your kids about their pineal gland and sleep. It is unfair for a group that appears already to be perpetually sleep deprived to be unintentionally making things harder on themselves.

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My parents had a television in their room in the 1980’s. Why wasn’t this understood then?
Many of us remember going to sleep at night to the distant sounds of Johnny Carson or Jay Leno, and though it wasn’t nearly as common as it is today, many families did have televisions in their bedrooms. The difference between a television and a personal electronic device has to do with both the light spectrum, and the distance from your face. A television does not have the blue light spectrum, and across the room the light it does have had little or no impact on our pineal glands. A screen propped up on a pillow in your lap, more. The worst culprit is a smart phone—held close to your eyes, blue light spectrum, access to the universe—could there be a better recipe for disrupted sleep? Plus, when you finally do get to sleep, there is a high likelihood someone will ping you and it’ll start all over again.

Is there anything we can do to counteract the light source?
The best thing anyone can do is turn these devices off a couple of hours before sleep. This is increasingly difficult to do, especially for students who have come to rely on them for educational access. Plan your studies accordingly. If you have trouble with sleep, evening studying should be in printed form. Print from your tablet, study from notes, use a physical text. If you find you absolutely have to use your screen at night, turn the brightness down as far as possible—doing so will decrease its activating effects on the brain. And do everything you can to keep your phone, tablet and laptop out of your bedroom at night.