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Taxis, Busses & Rocketships: Harnessing Responsibilities to Build the Brain

by Lyn Waldeck

Recently I ran across a study from 2006 that presented what was labeled as “new” and exciting findings. Let me start by explaining why I placed the word “new” in quotations. I began as a parent on program and quickly moved into being a volunteer and then on to being a staff member. Early in my staff days one part of my job description was to speak at events on neuroplasticity. That was in 1992. To some of you who may not have even been born yet, that sounds ancient. Ancient until I point out that my information was coming directly from Bob Doman, who was teaching the same thing when he began NACD in 1976. To provide a little more perspective, his beginnings of this understanding started in his childhood, accompanying his father in the 1950s who had already spent several decades beginning the path of study which is now called neuroplasticity. In fact, when I forwarded the study to Bob without explaining my thoughts for application, his response was “so what is so new about this understanding?” Modern science, with all its ways to measure the brain, is now catching up with the idea that the brain does in fact develop and change based on input. The missing link is in understanding how to harness that understanding to CREATE change, rather than just crank out new studies to prove that brains are different based on the sum of the whole person and their life experiences.

In the study that I mentioned above, a small sampling of MRIs were done, half of which were on bus drivers and half of which were on taxi drivers. The findings showed that there were variations in the growth of the hippocampus between the two sets of participants. The hippocampus is an area of the brain understood to hold short-term memories and transfer them to long-term storage in our brains. The bus drivers were better at certain skills, whereas the taxi drivers were better at others. This is exactly as we at NACD would expect after decades in this field. 

The question would be how to harness the strengths of both sets when working with your children. The easiest part of the solution comes in terms of the bus drivers. On program you have a very defined list of specific and effective activities that have been tried and true, and are in constant stages of refinement, that need to be done consistently with the right frequency, intensity, and duration. We know that to build function, we need input that builds pathways to success—in essence, your program. Whether that is a processing activity, a speech activity, or a mobility exercise, you build the brain via that input. What can be more of a challenge is in how to effectively develop the advantages of those taxi drivers because that part of the day needs to be much more dynamic.

A good amount of the time we spend in evaluations is often dedicated to talking with parents about chores and responsibilities. Here is where we have the opportunity to work on a whole additional layer of development and therefore function. We believe strongly in conveying to our parents the importance of executive function. According to the Center of Developing Child at Harvard University: “Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully.” At NACD, we understand the importance of using our working memory activities alongside developing responsibilities, life experiences, and general knowledge to therefore achieve goals of efficient executive function. 

So, back to those chores, let’s think again in terms of the buses and taxi cabs. The bus is the easy ride. We start with everyday tasks like brushing teeth, emptying the dishwasher, putting away laundry, making the bed, etc. These, along with others, are the everyday components that need to be taught and then expected. Now let’s think in terms of the taxi cab. How many of you have thought to teach your child to change out the filter in the air conditioner, or to fix a running toilet, or to change a tire? Often this gets missed or just delayed. What about creating a child who notices what needs to be done, has the skill set to do it, and just takes care of it without prompts, reminders, or threats?

I often see parents start off in the right direction by teaching those initial bus driving chores. However, when this stalls out what happens is that the child can then eventually do these things in auto-pilot. The danger zone in auto-pilot is that the child can basically spend that time achieving a task while totally checking out. Being present is an important component to developing, being attentive and alert. Think of your own routines that you do not have to really think about. Right now as I type out the article, I might think, “Did I empty the dishwasher this morning?” Odds are pretty good I did, I do it every morning, but at this moment I don’t necessarily remember anything about doing it. Compare that to my son who right now is outside working on changing the oil in his car. If I ask him later, he will very easily remember what he did at the time. Why would he remember he changed his oil and I won’t remember if I unloaded the dishwasher? I was driving a bus, he was navigating a taxi. With your children, think of the difference between cleaning off a table and cooking the meal that went on it.

As you proceed forward in the wonderful journey of parenting, keep in mind: focus on both the bus and the taxi. Who knows, some day you may end up with an astronaut.

Reprinted by permission of The NACD Foundation, Volume 37 No. 3 , 2024 ©NACD

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