Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Working with Youth at Risk

Some time ago, I trained as a volunteer coach with a charity called Youth at Risk.

Youth at Risk is a groundbreaking charity, dedicated to making a positive and lasting change to the lives of disaffected and vulnerable young people.

To say that I found my training challenging, especially after years of working on my own as a freelance writer and journalist, would be an understatement. However, the experience of being taken so rigorously outside my comfort zone stood me in good stead when it came to working with the students on the charity's Coaching for Success programme. I knew exactly how they felt when being challenged in this new way! And it was really exciting to watch their "light bulb moments" as the issues that they were struggling with clarified, and they started to identify some of the habits and attitudes that were getting in the way of being able to make the most of their education.

These were bright, lively kids, but some of the choices they were making - always going into a reaction, rather than a response; adopting the sorts of "masks" and behaviours that prevented them making progress; constantly blaming others for their lack of success rather than taking responsibility for what they could do to make a difference; not allowing the possibility of engagement with anyone who might champion them and support their goals - it was riveting to watch the trainers open up areas of insight and self-awareness that created the possibility for some real, positive change.

Our job, as volunteer coaches, is to do the follow-up work. To make a commitment to regularly meet with the students to whom we are assigned, helping them identify their goals, and work out the steps necessary to make progress.

Small steps, big changes.

Sometimes it would mean working out homework schedules that would fit in with their domestic commitments. Sometimes it would be talking through handling anger, and the choices made in response to provocation - this was really important for some of the young men who could potentially make choices that might put their lives at risk. Sometimes it would mean helping to plan an approach to a not-very-interesting coursework assignment. Sometimes it would mean talking through a disciplinary incident at school, or a personality clash with a staff member or other pupil. Sometimes it was about the importance of eating breakfast - or, at least, a banana! Basically it was their agenda, but within the context of creating a more successful approach to reaching their goals.

There is no doubt, too, that all the students I have worked with have taught me a lot: never to make assumptions about what's behind their "mask"; never to assume that you know better than them about their lives; never to underestimate their ability to find a way in or out of a tricky situation! Or spontaneous acts of kindness, like offering me the last carton of fruit juice.

It's a two-way process, this learning thing, and that's what else we share.

Jamie Oliver proved right...

The proportion of 11-year-olds in Greenwich, south London, who did well in English and science rose after Oliver swept "turkey twizzlers" and chicken dinosaurs off canteen menus in favour of creamy coconut fish and Mexican bean wraps, according to a study of results in the south east London borough.

The number of "authorised absences" — which are generally due to illness – fell by 15% in the wake of his 2004 Feed Me Better campaign, brought into the nation's sitting rooms via the Channel 4 series Jamie's School Dinners.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Finding flow...

We all are capable of reaching that state of effortless concentration and enjoyment called "flow." Here, the man who literally wrote the book on flow presents his most lucid account yet of how to experience this blissful state.


The benefits of water

By the time you feel thirsty, you are already dehydrated – and this can affect your concentration.

Your brain is 80% water, and relies on being well hydrated for its connectivity – it works best when well lubricated! – and dehydration can reduce both concentration and mental performance.

Kids are particularly affected by this. A study carried out by paediatrician Dr Terry Brocklebank at Leeds University in the UK, in 2002, showed that children’s ability to do arithmetic was impaired even if they were only 1-2% dehydrated – which is not even enough to register a feeling of thirst.

Symptoms of poor hydration can include tiredness, headaches, reduced alertness and less ability to concentrate. Mental performance, including memory, attention and concentration, deteriorates progressively as the degree of dehydration increases.

So much so that, in 2008, the UK’s Expert Group on Hydration published their recommendations in a report, Drinking in Schools.


Recommended fluid intake is 1.5 to 2 litres a day. This doesn’t have to be just water, but bear in mind that some caffeinated fluids – coffee and colas – can have a diuretic effect, actually increasing your output.

So hit that tap, and drink a glass of water.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Can T'ai Chi help you concentrate?

Not only are external noises a distraction, but the internal “chatter” of our minds may be equally difficult to ignore or switch off.

What can we do to help concentration? How can we manage the internal noise of our thoughts, that may intrude on our ability to focus?

The art of anything takes study, observation and practice, but in the abstract this can be tricky. So it’s useful to consider activities that might help. Activities that utilise the mind/body connection to your advantage.

Focusing on any sort of physical activity – from digging the garden to swimming – forces you to use your brain to use your body, however automatically you think you are doing it. You can take this a step further by deliberately choosing a physical activity that is designed to create a mind/body link and also to extend the challenge.

Like T’ai Chi. Sometimes referred to as a “moving meditation” it takes study, observation and practice. What’s great is that it’s something you can do whatever your age – from three to 90 – there’s nothing to stop you working with a teacher, creating your own practice, and benefiting from the physical and mental rewards.

Physically, T’ai Chi improves muscle tone, co-ordination,flexibility, strength, circulation, blood pressure, and breathing. It is also a martial art, so this physical activity also focuses, sharpens and consequently quiets the mind – poised and ready for whatever it needs to do.

Clearing the slate, as it were, allowing your brain the chance to concentrate more easily.


Friday, 19 March 2010

Take a walk

It seems that the natural environment is good for your attention and memory, according to research published in Psychological Science. Carried out by professor of psychology and neuroscientist John Joindes, and graduate student Marc Berman, at the University of Michigan, they looked at the impact of urban and natural environments on the way our brains work.

A group of volunteers were tested for memory and attention. Then half were sent for a walk around town while the other group were sent for a walk around a nearby arboretum.

Then they tested their memory and attention again, and these tests showed a 20% improvement in those who had gone on the rural, rather than the urban, walk.


It has something to do with what's called Attention Restoration Theory. We all utilise two kinds of attention: directed attention is when we pay attention to something because we need to - like work, or school, or something else that takes a lot of concentration (we eventually tire, often lose focus, and need to take a break) - and involuntary attention, which captures your attention simply because it interests you.

“The idea behind the theory is that if you’re in an environment that’s rich with inherently interesting stimulation, it’s going to activate the involuntary attention and allow the directed attention to rest,” says Marc Berman.

But why doesn’t an equally interesting urban walk work?

"When you’re walking in an urban environment you need to be careful that you don’t get run over by a car,” says Professor Joindes. “You have to be careful that you don’t bump into somebody walking down the street."

In other words, when you walk through an urban environment, your brain is still in directed attention mode. You need to be vigilant. You can't allow your mind to wander, you need it to ensure your safety.

Freed from this by walking in a natural environment enables involuntary attention to kick in, which allows your mind to rest, says Berman. After this the brain works better because it's refreshed, so we are more able to concentrate, focus and retain information.

But what if you can’t go outside? The researchers did a second experiment where participants quietly looked at pictures - some looked at pictures of the natural environment, some looked at pictures of urban environments. As with the walks, when the pictures were of nature, scores went up, but volunteers who looked at pictures of urban scenes showed no improvement.

What can you do to help yourself?

· Bring nature inside – plants, flowers, pictures of rural scenes – surround yourself with views of nature

· Take a walk in the park – literally. If you live in a city, get off the pavement and walk amongst trees in the park

· In the summer, aim to spend more time outdoors – working, if possible, but socialising, eating and walking

· Outdoor exercise – forget the gym, walk in the outdoors, choosing rural or near-rural areas, take up gardening, or even nature photography

Thursday, 18 March 2010

The Life Book... Concentrating on getting more out of life

Sometimes we make promises to ourselves about how we are going to rebalance and get more out of life...
Sometimes we need a little help.

The Life Book by Nina Grunfeld will help you do just that.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

New technology - a good servant or a bad master?

In 1969, when the first stirrings of the Internet began, no one could have imagined its impact. The mobile phone started to make its presence felt at the beginning of the 1970s, and so began the creation of a whole lot of new possibilities and a possible marriage between the two.

Now, we have connectivity like never before, from the four corners of the world to our own front room, accessing information and each other in a way that our parents would have once thought impossible.

It’s opened up many great possibilities, from working remotely to allowing small, sustainable business to start up in developing countries. Today, you can be reached any time, virtually anywhere, by just about any and every one. Day or night. Day and night. There is no reason to ever be unavailable, ever again.

Is this a good idea?

It depends. There’s no doubt that the mobile phone, for example, has been of great benefit. The BlackBerry creates opportunities to receive emails remotely, without having to be tied to an office desk. The laptop can be taken anywhere. The 3G iPhone, with all its Apps enables us to tap into a wealth of information from cooking to monitoring the money markets. Information, at the touch of a finger, from a gadget that weighs less than a pack of cards.

And for a wealth of interruptions, distractions and possibilities for procrastination, you need look no further.

So here’s the catch. It may be that getting into the habit of being constantly available, constantly aware, constantly connected, could be getting in the way of concentration. New technology needs no downtime and, by extension, it’s easy to believe that neither do we. That we can multi-task, juggle, and switch back and forth with impunity.

But just because you can, does it mean you should?

Monday, 15 March 2010

The "five more" rule

The “five more” rule is a very simple, but effective, aid to concentration…

Whenever you feel like quitting – just do five more – five more minutes, five more exercises, five more pages, five more sums, five more verbs – and build on it.

The “five more” rule is effective because it pushes you beyond the point of frustration and helps build mental endurance. It’s also a form of training as well as being a way of getting something accomplished.

The “five more” rule is a manageable amount and can be built on. It creates its own reward so it’s satisfying, and it’s a way of sustaining concentration.

Concentration is an act of endless practice; the occasional effort that becomes a habit.

Give it a go, and see how much more you can achieve.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

What is the art of concentration?

Put simply, art is the product of human creativity. In this context, the art of something – be it medicine, conversation, or concentration – is a skill improved upon by study, observation and practice. It becomes a product of that personal creativity and application.

We may understand how the brain works and what it needs to concentrate. We may also have quite a clear idea of what we habitually do to prevent it from concentrating!

Those are the facts. We can now choose whether to apply this knowledge – and that is when it becomes an art.

The art of concentration is to apply the knowledge we have of ourselves – our abilities, our personality types, what works for us, and what we do to prevent ourselves from concentrating, and what we could do to create a better chance of concentrating – through study, observation and practice. It becomes an active choice, and something we can have control over.

Some people may find that the art of concentration comes more naturally to them than to others, but it’s probably just as much a learnt skill for them as it is for the rest of us. They may just have learnt it more readily, perhaps because of their personality type, their style of learning, or their motivation – whatever it is, they have found it and are benefiting from it and the rest of us can, too.

Teachers often write on school reports – must learn to concentrate better – implying that through study, observation and practice, we can all learn the art of concentration.

And we can.


Monday, 8 March 2010

Are you tired but wired?

Finding it hard to switch on may be because you are finding it hard to switch off.

Chronic lack of sleep means that all those awake hormones – adrenalin and cortisol – are going into overdrive to compensate for lack of down time. Persistent reliance on your own reserves rather than taking time off to recuperate means that your body gets used to feeling wired. Feeling wired begins to feel normal – except you also begin to feel jangled, irritable, and less able to concentrate.

But it’s a vicious circle because, once you’ve reached this state of hyper alertness, fuelled by an excess of hormones, it’s really hard to switch off.

But it’s important to recognise these early signs of physical adaptation to what is a pattern of chronic stress, because in the end, being constantly on ‘red alert’ begins to affect not only your capacity for concentration, but also your health. Insomnia may be the first obvious sign, which further compounds the problem. The more tired you become, the less able you are to sleep.

In the short term, we cope. In the long term, it is very stressful physically and emotionally and damages our ability to concentrate and function well, and our relationships and health.

Six steps towards alleviating this problem and enhancing your ability to concentrate:

· Reduce distractions – turn off your mobile, iPod, email alert, music. It will feel odd at first, but stay with it – aim to do one thing at a time without background stimulation

· Focus on your breathing. Calm your inner body and you will help calm your mind. This takes practice

· Go for a walk outside, even if it’s for 20 minutes around the block during your lunch break. Some fresh air, natural light, physical exercise – these all help to break stressful patterns

· Factor in some regular, but calming exercise three times a week – no pumping iron at the gym – walking, yoga, t’ai chi, swimming – for a minimum of one hour. No iPod, just focus on what you are doing physically so you can reconnect your mind and body

· Eat nutritiously and regularly and cut out caffeinated drinks altogether for the moment – that’s tea, coffee and colas – and other artificial stimulants

· Clear your bedroom of TV, computers, music systems – it should be your calm refuge, designed for sleep: peaceful and dark. Go to bed and get up at a regular hour to re-set your sleep/wake cycle

Sunday, 7 March 2010

The myth of multitasking

Now let’s be clear here, there’s multitasking and there’s multitasking.

Listening to the radio while washing-up, driving or knitting can be classified as multitasking, as can walking and chewing gum, but it’s the sort of multitasking that constantly interrupts the brain’s ability to process information that’s really at issue here.

The myth is that we can multitask and still be proficient at learning a new skill or new facts. Truth is, while the neuroplasticity of our brains makes it possible to multitask, it comes at a cost.

By constantly switching back and forth between tasks that are concerned with visual processing and physical co-ordination, we distract the brain from its ability to utilise the higher centres of learning and memory.

"Multi-tasking adversely affects how you learn," said Russell Poldrack, UCLA associate professor of psychology and co-author of a study published in 2006. "Even if you learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialised, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily.”

"The best thing you can do to improve your memory is to pay attention to the things you want to remember," Poldrack added. "Our data support that. When distractions force you to pay less attention to what you are doing, you don't learn as well as if you had paid full attention."


So while it’s perfectly possible to, say, write a report, do your maths homework, or revise for an exam while checking emails, conversing on MSN, or sending and receiving text messages, the constant interruptions mean that although you can probably get the work done, you won’t remember much of what you did 24 hours later.

With constant interruptions, it takes longer and is less effective. Concentrate well, and you probably only need to do it once to remember something. Constant distractions probably mean you will – in the long run – waste time, having to do it over and over before it “sticks”.

Your brain can do what you ask of it perfectly well, as long as you don’t keep on interrupting it while it’s doing it.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Study shows older brains become more vulnerable to distraction

A series of memory tasks, carried out by three different age groups - 20-30 years, 40-60 years, and 65-87 years - while using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), showed different patterns of brain activity between the age groups, and that we become less efficient at ignoring distractions as we age.

So what can you do? By being aware that we are more easily distractible as we age, we can take steps to ensure that we focus more attentively when we want to concentrate, whether this is to help us learn something new, or to retain information better.

"Older adults should try and reduce distractions in their environment and concentrate on one task at a time. It may be as easy as turning down the radio when reading," says senior Rotman Research Institute scientist and lead study author, Dr Cheryl Grady.

It's also important to remember that what's good for the body, is also good for the brain - regular exercise, nutritious food, enough relaxation and sleep, adequate mental stimulation - all of which will enable the brain to function as well as possible in spite of possible age-related differences.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Does concentration deteriorate as we age?

One of the things that make it easy to concentrate is novelty. To a baby, his toes are a novelty - what are they? what do they do? why are they there? - and babies can be transfixed for hours, or until the next novelty comes along. Certainly, the novelty of our toes wears off sooner or later.

The older we get, the more used we are to what happens in life, and the less novel it is. The first time you take a bus as a child, it’s an exciting event. The more times you do it, the less interesting it becomes until, over time, it’s just a routine backdrop to your life and you hardly register it.

So, day-to-day events hardly warrant the sort of attention we originally gave them. We can do a whole sequence of things with hardly a thought. Then we leave one room to collect something from another, and realise we’ve forgotten what we came for. Help! Is our memory deteriorating?

Sure, the most notable psychological feature as we age is short-term memory impairment and lengthening of response time, so we take a little longer to retrieve and process information. But remove the differences that these two factors contribute to tests based on vocabulary, general information and well-practised tasks, and results show negligible differences between older and younger adults.

What’s more likely is that you've got out of the habit of concentrating on what you were about to do – because most of the time with routine tasks you don’t have to.

So, time to get back into the habit of concentrating. Time to stop multitasking and asking your brain to juggle six things at once. Time to concentrate.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Does lack of sleep affect concentration?

In February 2010, BBC's Newsround, a children's TV programme, published the results of its sleep survey. One thousand children, aged nine to 11 years, completed a questionnaire on their sleep habits. Most said they went to bed around 21.30, but up to a quarter said it was 22.00 or later. Half of them said they weren't getting enough sleep.

Scientists and health experts have linked a lack of sleep to problems with concentration.

This is hardly surprising. Lack of sleep is quite physically stressful to the body. To compensate, we produce more stress hormones - adrenalin and cortisol - and these give us a boost over the short term. But persistent levels of these hormones can make you feel a bit jumpy - much like an excess of caffeine - and this reduces the ability to concentrate.

We all need enough deep, slow-wave sleep, so that the brain moves into Delta wave pattern, the sleep that restores us physically as well as mentally. For children, of whom we demand such a lot during the school years, this is especially important.

So much so that Glasgow City Council is asking a sleep counsellor, expert Nikki Cameron who works with Sleep Scotland, to work in four of its secondary schools.

Advice will include winding down schedules before going to bed, relaxation activities, and removing TVs and computers from bedrooms.

"Sleep is important for emotional and physical wellbeing, and for learning, because that is when memories are processed and the brain can store the learning," says Cameron.

They also cite research from the University of Minnesota that found A-grade students had, on average, 15 minutes more sleep a night than those achieving mainly B grades.

The same probably applies to the rest of us. If you want to concentrate better, make sure you're getting enough sleep.