Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Gift of Giving

A few weeks ago I read in the NY Times an article about a woman who decided to give $100 to a charity every single day for a year. That's a lot of money. Her story is inspiring because of what she describes as receiving from her donations. She learned about hundreds of non-profits she had never heard about, and got involved in changing lives, which in turn has changed hers.

We have always been a family that believes in giving, but still, we don't give enough, whether it be money or time or help or smiles. I don't have the time to investigate a new non-profit on a daily basis, but over the course of a week, I can find it. So, I'm trying to donate every week this year to a charity that will use the money wisely. Of course, our biggest donation goes to The Baby Alex Foundation. But, we can spare a few hundred bucks here and there for others.

We involve our kids in our charity work, in hopes of instilling in them both the value of generosity and an appreciation for what they have. We clean out toys and clothes together to donate, bake and sell cookies for our Thanksgiving turkey dinners, and now, we use birthdays as a chance to choose the charity and the amount to give. So, Alex turned 4 last week, and we discussed how important it is to give to people in need. One of my favorite charities is Heifer International, which uses the money donated to buy animals for families all over the world. Over the years, we have made an occasional donation to Heifer.

This year, we have instituted a birthday gift giving. Rather than get a present for your birthday, you get to give a gift to someone less fortunate. On Alex's birthday, we read through Heifer's website and after much discussion and thought, he decided he wanted to donate $50 to help buy a water buffalo. I upped the amount to $100, which bought half of one. He was extremely proud of himself, and talked about it all week. He didn't seem the least bit concerned that he would not get any gifts on his birthday (of course, we had chocolate cake and a dinner celebration), but more excited about what he had given. Izzy turns 3 this winter. We will do the same with her.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Myelination and Acquiring Skill

When Alex was born, doctors talked to us about a substance called myelin. We learned that it acts like insulation on nerve fibers. We asked some questions but remained confused, and then moved on to other topics of more pressing need at the time, like whether Alex was able to swallow and poop. That was 2007.

What we didn't realize was that breakthroughs in understanding myelin had only been around for a few years, and that the doctors probably didn't yet have answers to the questions we were asking. We also didn't realize that an understanding of myelin would be crucial to our approach to Alex's therapy. Fortunately, research we had done on the brain indicated that children can build new pathways (nerve fibers) in the brain for physical function. For example, if the area of the brain that controls the hand has been damaged, with repetitive use, hand control nerve fibers will form a new path around the area of the damaged brain.

With that in mind, we engaged Alex in repetitive motion, hoping that he might build new pathways around the damaged part of his brain. Even motions that Alex was unable to perform independently at first, such as lift his left foot, we practiced with him by simply using our hands to maneuver the foot. The same was true with swimming and the use of his left arm. In the early days, he was physically incapable of making a free-style stroke with the left arm, so we did it for him, lifting and stretching the arm in our hands. Now, he can do both actions alone. We thought that by feeling the movement, Alex would learn the action, which he did, but we couldn't exactly explain how this happened. We understood that new pathways had been established, but we didn't understand the importance of repetition in strengthening those skills.

The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle, explains elements of why Alex's repetitive motion, even when assisted, has grown into actual use. I have only recently stumbled upon this book, published in 2009, which is one of the best reads I have had so far on the brain. Coyle expertly explains the importance of myelin in acquiring skill. Myelin is a substance that wraps and insulates nerves, like electrical tape around an electric wire. What we thought we understood when Alex was born was that myelin wrapped nerve cells naturally, once, in childhood, and once wrapped they were protected, and if the nerve didn't exist at birth (because, for example, the brain cells had been damaged), then you lost out on your opportunity to form myelin. In reality, myelin continues to form throughout your entire life. As you practice a skill, myelin wraps the nerve cell, again and again, and the more myelin, the greater the skill. Myelin enables the nerve impulse to travel more quickly, and with greater strength and accuracy. Which is why, the more you practice a skill correctly, the more skilled you become. (And the more you practice bad habits, the harder they are to break.)

In Coyle's book, one of the important elements of practice is to focus that practice on fixing mistakes. He gives the example of a little girl learning to play an instrument. During one 6 minute session, she focuses intently on studying and slowly practicing the difficult parts of the music. Eventually she acquires the skill to play through it. He states that she made a month's worth of progress in just 6 minutes with focused practice that targeted the trouble spots.

Another interesting aspect of practice is that it doesn't always have to be original. Coyle uses Emily Bronte as an example. People once thought she was born a brilliant writer. In reality, she and her siblings began writing at an early age as a form of play. They wrote terribly, and often copied from other texts. But, because they worked so hard at their writing, and because they copied from texts with established literary discipline, they were acquiring skill.

And so with Alex, we have a greater understanding of why our physical manipulation of his body helped him learn the movement. We were assisting the myelination process. Until last week, we had been working with his left foot, trying to get him to pull his toe back toward his knee. Until last week, he was unable to even give it a twitch. But, we have been working it. This week, he did it. And then he did it again, and again and again. Then he did it 100 times. Now that we understand myelination, we will refocus our therapy and attack the disabilities with more patience, and hope.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

This Week's Value: Optimism

For about a year, our family has been trying hard to hold Sunday night family meetings. We sit around the dinner table and talk about the past week, our accomplishments and disappointments, and discuss the upcoming week. Every month or so we think of a new value to add to our value board, which is a white erase board hanging on the kitchen wall. When we started, we couldn't get our daughter to sit for more than 30 seconds, so we allowed her to wander off or snuggle in our laps. This year, she has turned a corner and is able to engage. Family meetings, which were once chaotic, are more enjoyable.

We re-organized how we discuss the values because it seemed that there was a lot of talk about them, but not a lot of internalizing how to use them. So, now we write on the white erase "Value of the Week: (value)". I let the kids choose which value they want to focus on. This week Alex chose "Optimism" and rationalized that because it was going to rain all week we would need to be optimistic that we can still have fun. At breakfast each morning we talk about the value and how we are going to incorporate it into our lives. By focusing on one each week, we hope the kids will gain a better understanding of the values and then use them.

Discussion around values (a word we stretch to include any action that makes our lives better, such as "participation", which may not be a value at all) lends itself to talks that are instructive, but not personally directed toward the kids. We play a game where we illustrate what a value means, usually by taking examples from our lives. For example, I will ask the kids which value I am describing when giving the following scenario: You go to the store and give the cashier $10 for some bread and she gives you $20 in return. What do you do? (they answer, and if they say they take the money and run, we remind them of what would happen to the cashier when her boss discovers the missing money, and ask them to answer again). When they answer, we ask them what value they just illustrated. The answer here would be "honesty".

As Alex works to overcome his limitations, and to find his natural talents, these values have become really important. When we started the value game, we didn't realize we were building a foundation that would influence his emotional state--we thought we were just encouraging our kids to be good people. Recently the value game has taken on greater meaning, because words like optimism don't only mean finding fun when it rains, but believing in something you can not yet see, like your future ability to hold a baseball bat, or wear a catcher's mitt. As Alex grows up, he has begun to lose some of his innocence and to make very adult statements like, "I'll never be a good runner. I fall all the time." Now I am able to remind him that just like when it rains, he needs to remain optimistic, because even if he falls he can still have fun, and still become a great runner. The value game has taken on real meaning, and not only for the kids. We can all use a healthy dose of optimism now and then.