Our Neurological Explanations of Everything

March 01, 2019

It seems we seek neurological explanations for almost all the struggling that children encounter.  That is, we seem to be comforted that there is a neurological dysfunction at the core of a child’s struggling.

Given that the brain is the central engine driving all behavior this is understandable, but I think it takes us away from a more practical mindset.

Remember, most skills, traits or abilities shake out along a continuum over the bell-shaped curve.

So, if I have 100 young 8 year-olds in front of me who have never played formal basketball before and I ask them to shoot a few foul shots, as well as demonstrate their layup skills, my guess is that there will be about 25% who will be viewed as “naturals,” you know those who look quite skilled without having had any formal training.  Then, there will be the next group down the curve, the 25% who will be seen as “pretty good.”

On the other side of the curve are those who are the mirror opposite side of the “naturals” or the “pretty goods.”  These are the children whose basketball skills are not natural –  that is when you watch them shoot a foul shot or take a layup, they aren’t looking so good.

What do kids in this group need if they are going to continue to play basketball?

They need someone to demonstrate the basic skills involved (“Here’s how you do it”), such as foul shooting or taking a layup.  Once the skills have been identified, they need to be practiced over and over to greater levels of mastery.

If the child needs extra practice than expected, I don’t think the coach would be seeking neurological explanations – “Gee, I wonder if he’s got “Basketball Deficit Disorder” or I wonder if he is “Basketball Disabled.”

I don’t think he’d be counseling the parents to go seek a neurologist.

It’s not that different within the school realm for virtually all of the skills we can identify, from reading, spelling and writing, to executive functioning and even learning to cope with frustration (which is a skill).

For example, take James, a disorganized, swirling 12 year old who is making his parents crazy by his inability to get his work organized.  The skill of organizing does not come naturally to James and she teaches it to him explicitly.  Working with a tutor, she explicitly talks to him about the “skill of getting organized.”  She shows him how to set up folders and teaches him to put specific papers in marked folders.    They practice this skill repetitively over a number of months until James does it more independently.

Contrast this approach to a more neurological explanation.

Effectively, the explanation would be something like the following:

“Your child has a disorder…a disability. It’s rooted in a portion of his brain that likely does not work so well.” (Perhaps said, more delicately than that.)

There really would be only one direction one could go (that, is the CVS pharmacy).

The discussion of practicing the skill of organizing to mastery would likely not be a part of this analysis.

Takeaway Point

Identify the skill deficit.  Find someone who is adept at teaching the skill to your child.

Be patient.

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All comments (2)
  • AnaB
    March 05, 2019 at 5:39 pm

    This makes article me feel sane. Thank you. We used to beg our son's IEP team to address his missing skills when all they had […] Read MoreThis makes article me feel sane. Thank you. We used to beg our son's IEP team to address his missing skills when all they had to offer were ADHD screening tools and what we call "accommodation stew". We were forced to find private dyslexia tutoring and occupational therapy services to help him. When his school started to take credit for the improvement in data we decided to homeschool so he could focus on what really worked to address the skill deficits. I wish his former team would read this and digest it. Read Less


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