Mental health: the new top priority

Mental health: the new top priority

Kai Humphrey, 9, has been learning from home for more than a year. He badly misses his Washington, D.C., elementary school, along with his friends and the bustle of the classroom.

“I will be the first person ever to have every single person in the world as my friend,” he said on a recent Zoom call, his sandy-brown hair hanging down to his shoulder blades. From Kai, this kind of proclamation doesn’t feel like bragging, more like exuberant kindness.

But when Kai’s school recently invited him back, he refused. That’s because his worry list is long, topped by his fear of getting COVID-19 and giving it to his 2-year-old sister, Alaina. She was born with a heart condition, Down syndrome and a fragile immune system. To her, the disease poses a mortal threat, and he is her protector, the only one who can make her giggle breathlessly.

Kai also worries about being separated from his mom, Rashida Humphrey-Wall. His biological father died in 2014, and she remains his rock, his mama bear and occasional taekwondo partner. He sometimes visits her bedside in the middle of the night just to check on her.

This pandemic has been stressful for millions of children like Kai. Some have lost a loved one to COVID-19, and many families have lost jobs, their homes and even reliable access to food. If that stress isn’t buffered by caring adults, it can have lifelong consequences.

“Children have had extended exposure to chaos, crisis and uncertainty,” said Dr. Matt Biel, a child psychiatrist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

But there’s some good news for children like Kai: Educators across the country said their top priority right now isn’t doubling down on math or reading — it’s helping students manage pandemic-driven stress.

“If kids don’t return to school and get a lot of attention paid to security, safety, predictability and reestablishing of strong, secure relationships, (they) are not gonna be able to make up ground academically,” Biel said.

To reestablish relationships in the classroom — and help children cope with the stress and trauma of the past year — mental health experts say educators can start by building in time every day, for every student, in every classroom to share their feelings and learn the basics of naming and managing their emotions. Think morning circle time or, for older students, homeroom.

At Irene C. Hernandez Middle School in Chicago, teacher Lilian Sackett starts off each day by checking in with students, then diving into a short lesson on mindfulness and other social-emotional skills.

“We need to allow the students to share their experiences with the pandemic and to give them that safe space (to) talk about it,” Sackett said.

What’s more, she said, children can benefit a lot from just a few minutes each day of classwide calm. When she found out her students love Bob Ross and his tranquil, televised painting lessons from the 1980s and ’90s, Sackett decided to work him into their morning routine.

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Why you’re having a hard time reading your coworkers’ emotions lately

A critical way we maintain relationships is by being in tune with others—reading facial expressions, interpreting emotions, and responding. But this has been tough over the last year. We haven’t seen each other as much, so we may be out of practice. Moreover, mask mandates have been integral to public health but affected how we read emotions. The eyes may be the “windows of the soul,” but over the last year or so, we’ve learned, eye contact alone doesn’t tell the whole story.

This is to say communicating feels different when portions of our faces are covered. But in the same way we are coming back from the pandemic, we can also renew our appreciation for the facial expressions and body language signs that helped build relationships and rapport. In particular, smiling has intriguing implications. Challenges of reading emotions

Even in the best of circumstances, reading facial expressions is tough. Computer experts have even struggled to develop an algorithm that does it successfully. And despite the fact that facial responses are innate and automatic, the average person is often wrong about how they interpret expressions, or they are unaware of them. In addition, people interpret facial cues based on their own unique perspectives, which introduces even more variability into the process.

Our interpretation is also dulled when we can’t see a whole face. This is true when we’re wearing masks, but also when we’re wearing sunglasses and when we see faces from a distance or through a brief glance. A study by the University of Wisconsin found children struggled to identify expressions. When faces were covered with masks, they correctly identified sadness only about 28% of the time, anger 27%, and fear 18%. How to successfully sync up

Reading others’ expressions allows us to empathize and relate to the people around us. And human connection is critical to our well-being. We are hardwired to connect with others. In fact, a study by the Basque Centre on Cognition, Brain, and Language found when people were in conversations with others, their brain waves mirrored each other. In addition, we have an instinct to mimic facial expressions, which helps us experience and identify with others’ feelings, according to a research by the University of Wisconsin . We crave relationships, and seeing and interpreting signals from each other are important ways we form bonds.

There may also be a genetic component to the way we relate. According to research from Northwestern University , people’s ability to quickly recognize emotions was partly based on genetics, and those who recognized others’ emotions also expressed their own emotions more quickly; consequently, there is a reciprocal relationship between expressing and interpreting emotion. More research from University of Birmingham shows the […]

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Twenty-six studies point to more play for young children

Twenty-six studies point to more play for young children

What if one of the answers to reducing inequality and addressing mental health concerns among young children is as simple as providing more opportunities to play? A growing body of research and several experts are making the case for play to boost the well-being of young children as the pandemic drags on—even as concerns over lost learning time and the pressure to catch kids up grow stronger.

Play is so powerful, according to a recent report by the LEGO Foundation , that it can be used as a possible intervention to close achievement gaps between children ages 3 to 6. The report looked at 26 studies of play from 18 countries. It found that in disadvantaged communities, including those in Bangladesh, Rwanda and Ethiopia, children showed significantly greater learning gains in literacy, motor and social-emotional development when attending child care centers that used a mix of instruction and free and guided play. That’s compared to children in centers with fewer opportunities to play, especially in child-led activities, or that placed a greater emphasis on rote learning. This is important, the report’s authors noted, as it shows free and guided play opportunities are possible even in settings where resources may be scarce. “Play can exist everywhere,” said Bo Stjerne Thomsen, chair of Learning Through Play at the LEGO Foundation. “It’s the experience. Testing and trying out new ideas…It’s really about the state of mind you’re in while playing.”

The report found that play enabled children to progress in several domains of learning, including language and literacy, social emotional skills and math. The varieties of play include games, open play where children can freely explore and use their imaginations and play where teachers provide materials and some parameters. The findings suggest that rather than focusing primarily on academic outcomes and school readiness, play should be used as a strategy to “tackle inequality and improve the outcomes of children from different socio-economic groups.” That also means opportunities to play should be considered a marker of quality in early childhood programs, the authors concluded. Stjerne Thomsen said the authors have not defined an ideal amount of play as they believe it can be embedded throughout the day. More importantly, he added, is that teachers are trained to facilitate free play and guided play opportunities. “Play is often defined as recreation…not serious or practical,” said Stjerne Thomsen. Instead, many schools are focused on academic skills and standardized assessments, he added.

The findings of the report, which echo years of related research on the emotional physical and cognitive benefits of play, are notable considering that in America access to play spaces is lacking in many lower-income and rural communities. That became more noticeable during the pandemic when outdoor […]

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Prof Narayanan's Research Teaches AI To Find Anyone's Emotional State By Voice

Prof Narayanan’s Research Teaches AI To Find Anyone’s Emotional State By Voice

Human voice is a rich medium with which we not only communicate our wants and needs and intent but it’s also a very special way of expressing our emotions and identity in emerging times where AI is increasingly becoming part of our lives, people want to use that to interact with other digital systems not only for transactional purposes, such as asking about weather, but more so as a social companion for elderly Human speech is rather special as it carries information about our intent, emotions, identity and several other data, like our health state A true AI system, therefore, should not only recognise the intonational properties of human speech, the words we speak and the way we interact but also take into account the nonverbal cues It’s almost like a painting, where we mix different basic colours to create a landscape with different possibilities.

Shrikanth Narayanan is a Professor at the University of Southern California and an interdisciplinary engineer-scientist with a focus on human-centered signal processing and machine intelligence as well as informatics with speech and spoken language processing at its core.

A prolific award-winning researcher, educator and inventor, with hundreds of publications to his credit, his work translates to using speech and audio to identify mental health and wellness issues, analyzing the health and stress level of workers and developing AI tools for understanding how stories are told in film and TV from a social lens. Flickr So sit back, plug in your headphones, tune in to your favourite lo-fi channel and read on this interesting conversation that we had with Professor Narayanan.

What do we understand about voice as a medium of communication in the age of AI?

Human voice is a rich medium with which we not only communicate our wants and needs and intent but it’s also a very special way of expressing our emotions and identity. And spoken language in humans is particularly remarkable. It allows us to easily communicate all our thoughts, ideas and desires through voice; and in emerging times where AI is increasingly becoming part of our lives, people want to use that to interact with other digital systems not only for transactional purposes, such as asking about weather, but more so as a social companion for elderly and learning systems for children. Representative image While today’s AI like Echo, Siri and Google Assistant does an outstanding job of word recognition and analysis, its dependence on speech alone is an inherent limitation–it, kind of, seems mechanical. When can we have an AI system that is truly capable of sensing and reacting to a user’s emotions?

Human speech is rather special as it carries information about our intent, emotions, identity and several […]

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How to Build a Culture of Inclusivity Starting With Your Kids

How to Build a Culture of Inclusivity Starting With Your Kids

I’m a parent of three children, ages 8, 10, and 13, with mixed identities. We’re Brown first- and second-generation Americans descended from Indian and Pakistani immigrants.

As a result, I’ve been keenly aware of how my kids are relating to their identities as they engage in their own paths of self-discovery.

Each has grappled in their own way with understanding how they “fit” into their surroundings. They code-switch and accentuate aspects of their identity like race, family background, and family culture to better assimilate in their communities.

When we traveled around the world as a family for a year, we all got a lot of practice in code-switching techniques. In each country, we accentuated the aspects of our identity that helped us assimilate, to be included by the community as one of their own instead of transactional tourists.

For example, in the 4-plus months that we traveled through Central and South America, we leaned into our Spanish-speaking skills and brown skin to facilitate friendships with locals.

In Cuba, we were proud when we were mistaken for Cubanos and relished an Indian shopkeeper’s delight when our bargaining language switched from Spanish to Hindi.

We loved feeling like locals but were aware of our differences, a balance that kept us culturally humble and hungry to learn.

The feeling of inclusion is powerful, yet it’s easy to take for granted when you’re used to it. Perhaps the best way to capture the power of inclusivity is to remember the painful feeling of its opposite.

Recall the hurt of realizing you weren’t invited to the birthday party or weren’t welcome to sit at the “cool” lunch spot at school. Remember those moments when you weren’t let in on the secret or didn’t get the “inside joke” that others shared?

Exclusion stings. It makes us feel like we are the “other.” We aren’t extended the acceptance, approval, and empathy afforded to those who are included.

In addition to the feeling of exclusion, we can look to science. Research tells us that social relationships affect a number of health outcomes, including physical and mental health.

A sense of belonging makes us feel that we aren’t alone, increasing our ability to cope more effectively with hardships. In other words, the stronger the connections and ties are to the communities we’re exposed to and identify with, the more resilient and empathetic we are likely to become. Here’s the catch. If we find inclusion and a sense of belonging only in like-minded people, we perpetuate implicit biases and discrimination. Put another way, creating “inclusion” through the act of excluding others falsely empowers a few while harming the larger community. For instance, the concept of patriotism hinges upon whether someone […]

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Adolescent Brains Are Wired to Want Status and Respect: That’s an Opportunity for Teachers and Parents

Adolescent Brains Are Wired to Want Status and Respect: That’s an Opportunity for Teachers and Parents

Credit: Alison Seiffer Here is a parable for our time: There once was an adult who wanted to encourage eighth graders to eat healthier food. The adult designed a lesson plan full of nutritional information—why fruit and vegetables are good for you, why junk food is bad for you, and so on. A similar approach had worked with younger children. But the eighth graders declared the intervention—and, if we’re being honest, the adult—boring. They carried on eating junk food, some of them in greater quantities than they had before.

Versions of that story play out in real life all the time, although the age of the adolescents varies, and the goal could be anything from reducing bullying or depression to increasing engagement with math. With discouraging regularity, researchers find that what works with younger children is no longer effective with adolescents. Eighth grade seems to be the inflection point.

If we thought more carefully about what it is to be an eighth grader, however, down to the level of changes in the brain, our parable could have a happier ending. Thirteen-year-olds are concerned with status and respect—these kids do not want to feel patronized by adults. In a study published in 2019 in Nature Human Behaviour, instead of nutritional information, researchers showed more than 300 eighth graders in Texas investigative reports revealing that food company executives use unhealthy ingredients, target young adolescents in their marketing, and won’t let their own children eat their products. The students were outraged and began to see healthy eating as a way of taking a stand against being manipulated. For the next three months the students made healthier snack purchases in the cafeteria. And in a follow-up study, the researchers found that the students, especially boys, with higher levels of testosterone (a marker of pubertal maturation in both boys and girls) were most likely to respond well to the intervention. Advertisement Over the past 15 years neuroscience has dramatically changed our understanding of the structural and functional changes in the brain during adolescence, which runs from around the age of 10 all the way into the mid-20s. It is a time of rapid brain growth and neuronal fine-tuning when young people are especially sensitive to social cues and rewards. More recent research has focused on how the adolescent brain interacts with the social environment. It shows that social context and acceptance strongly influence behavior. Adolescence might even constitute a sensitive period for social and emotional learning, a window of time when the brain is uniquely primed by neurochemical changes to make use of social cues for learning.

A growing group of researchers and clinicians see these neuroscientific findings as a chance to do things differently. When a […]

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