Want to Ace That Test? Get the Right Kind of Sleep

New York Times Motherlode

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Jillian Dos Santos studies at her home in Columbia, Mo. In 2013, she <a href="http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/03/13/to-keep-teenagers-alert-schools-let-them-sleep-in/">successfully advocated for a later start times at her high school</a>.
Jillian Dos Santos studies at her home in Columbia, Mo. In 2013, she successfully advocated for a later start times at her high school.Credit Dan Gill for The New York Times

Sleep. Parents crave it, but children and especially teenagers, need it. When educators and policymakers debate the relationship between sleep schedules and school performance and — given the constraints of buses, sports and everything else that seem so much more important — what they should do about it, they miss an intimate biological fact: Sleep is learning, of a very specific kind. Scientists now argue that a primary purpose of sleep is learning consolidation, separating the signal from the noise and flagging what is most valuable.

School schedules change slowly, if at all, and the burden of helping teenagers get the sleep they need is squarely on parents. Can we help our children learn to exploit sleep as a learning tool (while getting enough of it)?

Absolutely. There is research suggesting that different kinds of sleep can aid different kinds of learning, and by teaching “sleep study skills,” we can let our teenagers enjoy the sense that they’re gaming the system.

Start with the basics.

Sleep isn’t merely rest or downtime; the brain comes out to play when head meets pillow. A full night’s sleep includes a large dose of several distinct brain states, including REM sleep – when the brain flares with activity and dreams – and the netherworld of deep sleep, when it whispers to itself in a language that is barely audible. Each of these states developed to handle one kind of job, so getting sleep isn’t just something you “should do” or need. It’s far more: It’s your best friend when you want to get really good at something you’ve been working on.

So you want to remember your Spanish vocabulary (or “How I Met Your Mother” trivia or Red Sox batting averages)?

Easy. Hit the hay at your regular time; don’t stay up late checking Instagram. Studies have found that the first half of the night contains the richest dose of so-called deep sleep — the knocked-out-cold variety — and this is when the brain consolidates facts and figures and new words. This is retention territory, and without it (if we stay up too late), we’re foggier the next day on those basic facts. I explained this to my daughter, Flora, who was up until 2 a.m. or later on many school nights, starting in high school. She ignored it, or seemed to. Learning Arabic is what turned her around, I think. She wants to be good at it, and having to learn not only a new vocabulary but also a completely different writing system is, in the beginning, all retention.

“I started going to bed earlier before the day of Arabic tests, partly for that reason,” Flora said (when reached by text). “But also, of course, I didn’t want to be tired.”

And you want to rip on the guitar, or on the court, right?

Just as the first half of a night’s sleep is rich with deep slumber, the second half is brimming with so-called Stage 2 sleep, the kind that consolidates motor memory, the stuff that aspiring musicians and athletes need. This is not an excuse to sleep through Period 1. Rather, it’s a reason not to roll out of bed too early and miss the body’s chance to refine all those skills learned while kicking a soccer ball off the garage or practicing dance moves.

For an older, teenage student, these two learning stages of sleep offer something more: a means of being tactical about sleep, before an important test or performance. If it’s a French test, then turn off the lights at your normal time, and get up early to study. If it’s a music recital, do the opposite: stay up a little later preparing, and sleep in to your normal time in the morning. If you’re going to burn the candle, it’s good to know which end to burn it on.

What about math tests? I hate those.

Math tests strain both memory (retention) and understanding (comprehension). This is where REM sleep, the dreaming kind, comes in. Studies find that REM is exceptionally good for deciphering hidden patterns, comprehension, and seeing a solution to a hard problem. If the test is mostly a memory challenge (multiplication tables, formulas), then go to sleep at the usual time and get up early for prep. But if it’s hard problems, then it’s REM you want. Stay up a little later and get the full dose of dream-rich sleep, which helps the brain see hidden patterns.

“Mom, I’m tired of studying – I’m going to have a nap.”

By all means. Napping is sleep too, and it’s a miniature version of a full night’s slumber. An hour long nap typically contains deep sleep, REM and some Stage 2. One caution: napping can interfere with some children’s sleep schedule, and it’s important to make sure day sleep doesn’t scramble the full serving at night. But the central point is that a sensation of exhaustion during a period of work is the brain’s way of saying, “O.K., I’ve studied (or practiced), now it’s time to digest this material and finish the job.”

If a child can nap without losing a handle on his or her natural sleep rhythm, then let it happen.

The upshot is that, for any young student who wants to do better — in school, in sports, in music or even in the social whirl (yes, that’s learning too) — knowing the science of sleep will help them respect slumber for what it is: learning consolidation. Of the best and most natural kind.

Read more about sleep on Motherlode: On Sleep Research, My Children Didn’t Get the MemoWe Tell Kids to ‘Go to Sleep!’ We Need to Teach Them Why.; and ‘What Do Students Need Most? More Sleep.

Why are women leaving science, engineering and tech jobs?

fastcompany.com

WOMEN WORKING IN STEM FIELDS ARE 45% MORE LIKELY THAN MEN TO LEAVE WITHIN THE YEAR, AND IT’S NOT FOR LACK OF ENTHUSIASM.

Recent research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows U.S. women working in science, engineering, and tech fields are 45% more likely than their male peers to leave the industry within the year.

It’s not for lack of enthusiasm or passion. Of those women surveyed, 80% say they love their work, yet many still report barriers to getting to the top.

“Women entering STEM fields have a much shorter runway for career takeoff than women entering other industries,” according to the report. “To begin with, they’re starting later because of the time it took to get a Ph.D. That intensifies the ticking of their biological clock, which in turn pressures them to step up the pace of their research progress.”

Companies like Merck, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer have been putting programs in place to help balance out this pipeline of leadership. But a number of factors need to be addressed before the issue can be resolved.

A SENSE OF ISOLATION

As predominantly male fields, it’s no surprise a lingering old boys’ club attitude in the science, engineering, and tech industries isolates women. Surveyed women describe these as the “lab-coat culture” in science that encourages long unforgiving hours, the “hard-hat culture” of engineering, and the frat-like “geek workplace culture” of tech.

These environments tend to make women working feel out of place as a result. It’s that sense of isolation that may tend to prevent women from climbing up the ranks.

BIASED EVALUATIONS

Women surveyed also felt their performance reviews were biased, with 72% of U.S. women sensing gender bias at work in their evaluations. It’s a claim that has been well-documented elsewhere.

study of performance reviews in Fortune from 28 companies in the tech space found that nearly 88% of women received critical feedback versus 59% of men. The word “abrasive” appeared on women’s reviews frequently, while that word was totally absent from men’s reviews.

LACK OF SPONSORS

One of the most important paths to career growth is having a sponsor who can advocate on your behalf and help open doors for you.

The Center for Talent Innovation study found that 86% of women in the U.S. don’t have sponsors–a factor significantly holding women back from progressing to more senior level positions. What’s more, while 70% of women resist confronting their boss about a pay raise, 38% of women with a sponsor advising them would make the request.

LACK OF WOMEN MENTORS

One of the challenges the report found is women in high-ranking positions are less inclined to help women advance in their careers. This lack of senior women role models is one significant factor contributing to the lack of women at the executive level, says Jocelyn Goldfein, a director of engineering at Facebook. “The reason there aren’t more women computer scientists is because there aren’t more women computer scientists,” Goldfein adds.

Some companies are working to overcome such disparities. At Pfizer, for example, pilot program Leadership Investment for Tomorrow targets high-potential women and minorities at the middle-manager level by providing assessments, education opportunities, and mentoring. This program focuses specifically on managers at the mid-level, as this is the time they’re most likely considering leaving the company.

How Exercise Can Boost Young Brains

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Researchers studied participants in an after-school exercise program.
Researchers studied participants in an after-school exercise program.Credit L. Brian Stauffer

 

Encourage young boys and girls to run, jump, squeal, hop and chase after each other or after erratically kicked balls, and you substantially improve their ability to think, according to the most ambitious study ever conducted of physical activity and cognitive performance in children. The results underscore, yet again, the importance of physical activity for children’s brain health and development, especially in terms of the particular thinking skills that most affect academic performance.

The news that children think better if they move is hardly new. Recent studies have shown that children’s scores on math and reading tests rise if they go for a walk beforehand, even if the children are overweight and unfit. Other studies have found correlations between children’s aerobic fitness and their brain structure, with areas of the brain devoted to thinking and learning being generally larger among youngsters who are more fit.

But these studies were short-term or associational, meaning that they could not tease out whether fitness had actually changed the children’s’ brains or if children with well-developed brains just liked exercise.

So for the new study, which was published in September in Pediatrics, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign approached school administrators at public elementary schools in the surrounding communities and asked if they could recruit the school’s 8- and 9-year-old students for an after-school exercise program.

This group was of particular interest to the researchers because previous studies had determined that at that age, children typically experience a leap in their brain’s so-called executive functioning, which is the ability to impose order on your thinking. Executive functions help to control mental multitasking, maintain concentration, and inhibit inappropriate responses to mental stimuli.

Children whose executive functions are stunted tend to have academic problems in school, while children with well-developed executive functions usually do well.

The researchers wondered whether regular exercise would improve children’s executive-function skills, providing a boost to their normal mental development.

They received commitments from 220 local youngsters and brought all of them to the university for a series of tests to measure their aerobic fitness and current executive functioning.

The researchers then divided the group in half, with 110 of the children joining a wait list for the after-school program, meaning that they would continue with their normal lives and serve as a control group.

The other 110 boys and girls began being bused every afternoon to the university campus, where they participated in organized, structured bouts of what amounted to wild, childish fun.

“We wanted them to play,” said Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois who led the study.

Wearing heart rate monitors and pedometers for monitoring purposes, the children were guided through exercise that doubled as romping. The activities, which changed frequently, consisted of games like tag, as well as instruction in technique skills, such as how to dribble a soccer ball. The exercise curriculum was designed to improve both aerobic endurance and basic motor skills, Dr. Hillman said.

Each two-hour session also included downtime, since children naturally career about and then collapse, before repeating the process. In total, the boys and girls generally moved at a moderate or vigorous intensity for about 70 minutes and covered more than two miles per session, according to their pedometers.

The program lasted for a full school year, with sessions available every day after school for nine months, although not every child attended every session.

At the end of the program, both groups returned to the university to repeat the physical and cognitive tests.

As would have been expected, the children in the exercise group were now more physically fit than they had been before, while children in the control group were not. The active children also had lost body fat, although changes in weight and body composition were not the focus of this study.

More important, the children in the exercise group also displayed substantial improvements in their scores on each of the computer-based tests of executive function. They were better at “attentional inhibition,” which is the ability to block out irrelevant information and concentrate on the task at hand, than they had been at the start of the program, and had heightened abilities to toggle between cognitive tasks.

Tellingly, the children who had attended the most exercise sessions showed the greatest improvements in their cognitive scores.

Meanwhile, the children in the control group also raised their test scores, but to a much smaller extent. In effect, both groups’ brains were developing, but the process was more rapid and expansive in the children who ran and played.

“The message is, get kids to be physically active” for the sake of their brains, as well as their health, Dr. Hillman said. After-school programs like the one he and his colleagues developed require little additional equipment or expense for most schools, he said, although a qualified physical education instructor should be involved, he added.

Extended physical education classes during school hours could also ensure that children engage in sufficient physical activity for brain health, of course. But school districts nationwide are shortening or eliminating P.E. programs for budgetary and other reasons, a practice that is likely “shortsighted,” Dr. Hillman said. If you want young students to do well in reading and math, make sure that they also move.

A Cure for Hyper-Parenting

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CreditNatalie Andrewson

PARIS — I recently spent the afternoon with some Norwegians who are making a documentary about French child-rearing. Why would people in one of the world’s most successful countries care how anyone else raises kids?

In Norway “we have brats, child kings, and many of us suffer from hyper-parenting. We’re spoiling them,” explained the producer, a father of three. The French “demand more of their kids, and this could be an inspiration to us.”

I used to think that only Americans and Brits did helicopter parenting. In fact, it’s now a global trend. Middle-class Brazilians, Chileans, Germans, Poles, Israelis, Russians and others have adopted versions of it too. The guilt-ridden, sacrificial mother — fretting that she’s overdoing it, or not doing enough — has become a global icon. In “Parenting With Style,” a working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, the economists Matthias Doepke and Fabrizio Zilibotti say intensive parenting springs from rising inequality, because parents know there’s a bigger payoff for people with lots of education and skills. (France is a rare rich country where helicoptering isn’t the norm.)

Hyper-parenting is also driven by science. The latest toddler brain studies reach parents in Bogotá and Berlin too. And people around the world are breeding later in life, when they’re richer and more grateful, so the whole parenting experience becomes hallowed. Scandinavians complain of “curling parents,” a reference to the sport in which you frantically scrub the ice to let a stone glide across it. (In Norway, “we do not, for example, count goals in soccer for children under 12, because they should all feel like winners,” the producer said.)

Twenty-first century parenting isn’t entirely illogical. Rather than trying to eradicate it, I suggest a strategy of containment: Rein in its excesses, and keep it from getting worse. Based on my own research, an unscientific reading of parenting literature, and a sample size of three kids, here are some key things modern parents should know:

Babies aren’t savages. Toddlers understand language long before they can talk. This means you can teach them not to pummel you with carrots at dinnertime, making your life calmer (and your floor cleaner). “Expect more from your children, and they will rise to it. Expect less, and they will sink,” Emma Jenner writes in the book “Keep Calm and Parent On.”

Seize windows of freedom joyfully, without guilt. Remember that the problem with hyper-parenting isn’t that it’s bad for children; it’s that it’s bad for parents. Between the mid-1990s and 2008, college-educated American moms began spending more than nine additional hours per week on child care; this came directly out of their leisure time. The greatest insight to emerge from France since “I think, therefore I am” is that children’s birthday parties should be drop-offs. The other parents get three hours to go off and play.

Don’t just parent for the future, parent for this evening. Your child probably won’t get into the Ivy League or win a sports scholarship. At age 24, he might be back in his childhood bedroom, in debt, after a mediocre college career. Raise him so that, if that happens, it will still have been worth it. A Dutch father of three told me about his Buddhist-inspired approach: total commitment to the process, total equanimity about the outcome.

Try the sleeping cure. Most parenting crises are caused by exhaustion. Force yourself to observe the same nighttime rituals as your toddler: bath, book, bed. When you feel an adult tantrum approaching, give yourself a timeout.

Have less stuff. Messiness compounds the chaos of family life.

Don’t worry about overscheduling your child. Kids who do extracurriculars have higher grades and self-esteem than those who don’t, among many other benefits, says a 2006 overview in the Society for Research in Child Development’s Social Policy Report. “Of greater concern,” it noted, “is the fact that many youth do not participate at all.”

Don’t beat yourself up for failing to achieve perfect work-life balance. The French have national paid maternity leave, subsidized nannies, excellent state day care and free universal preschool, and yet they blame the government for not helping parents enough. We Americans have none of the above, yet we blame ourselves.

Teach your kids emotional intelligence. Help them become more evolved than you are. Explain that, for instance, not everyone will like them. “When a girl meets a new person, she often automatically strives to be likable, even before she has decided whether or not she likes the new person herself,” Rachel Simmons writes in her book “The Curse of the Good Girl.” “Tell your daughter to switch the order: Size up the person before you start worrying about what she thinks of you.”

Transmit the Nelson Mandela rule: You can get what you want by showing people ordinary respect. When Mr. Mandela heard that an Afrikaner general was arming rebels to prevent multiracial elections, he invited the general over for tea. The journalist John Carlin writes that Gen. Constand Viljoen “was dumbstruck by Mandela’s big, warm smile, by his courteous attentiveness to detail” and by his sensitivity to the fears of white South Africans. The general abandoned violence. Remind your kids that this technique also works on parents.

It really is just a phase. Unbearable 4-year-olds morph into tolerable 8-year-olds.

Don’t bother obsessing about what you think you’re doing wrong. You won’t screw up your kids in the ways you expect; you’ll do it in ways you hadn’t even considered. No amount of hyper-parenting can change that.

Pamela Druckerman is an American journalist and the author of “Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.”

Less-structured time in children’s daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning,

A study by Jane E. Barker, Andrei D. Semenov, Laura Michaelson, Lindsay S. Provan, Hannah R. Snyder, and Yuko Munakata 

Families often return to school reporting with a wistful, almost guilty pleasure that they achieved something rare and treasured during the holidays – down time. A new study that investigates the relationship between children’s time use and their developing cognition gives evidence-based encouragement to continue to offer less-structured time for children throughout the school year, as well. The study by University of Colorado researchers finds significant correlation between children who have some time to self-direct their activities and those with relatively higher executive functioning. This finding has meaning for families, and it goes some distance toward addressing parents’ questions about the optimal balance among school time, scheduled out-of-school time, and time for things like imaginative play, choosing a book and reading it on one’s own, or building a fort. Results showed that when children have more opportunities to choose what they will do and when, their capacity for self-direction increases. Educators, too, have an interest in steadying the scaffolding around the development of self-direction as it in turn correlates strongly to increased school readiness and academic performance. The results of this quiet yet complex study support thoughtful choices by parents and teachers.

Complete findings

Elizabeth Morley, The Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study, University of Toronto, Canada

Kids And Screen Time: Cutting Through The Static

Posted on  

NPR

September 30, 2014 

The walls are lined with robots and movie posters for Star Wars and Back to the Future.But this is no 1980s nerd den. It’s the technology lab at Westside Neighborhood Schoolin Los Angeles, and the domain of its ed-tech coordinator, Don Fitz-Roy.

“So we’re gonna be talking about digital citizenship today.”

Fitz-Roy is a mountain of a man, bald with just the hint of a goatee. Of the half-dozen students sitting in small, plastic chairs around him, any three could easily fit inside his shirt. And he’s trying to keep them safe — from the Internet.

He’s talking about the laundry list of athletes and actors these kids have seen, of late, making fools of themselves using social media.

He tells the students: “They say something online, and then suddenly they say, ‘I’m gonna delete this. No, I changed my mind.’ They didn’t mean to say that. And it’s out there.”

This class is just one example of WNS’ pretty radical technology policy — a policy that has second- and third-graders not just typing, but doing Internet research and computer programming.

Here’s the challenge: Much of it requires screen time.

The Screen-Time Experiment

And, with so much talk these days of bad screen time, what is good screen time? It’s a question that perplexes parents and educators alike.

One of the emotion photos used by UCLA researchers to gauge kids' ability to perceive emotion. Sixth-graders who spent five days at outdoor camp, away from their electronic devices, got much better at perceiving this young woman's happiness.

One of the emotion photos used by UCLA researchers to gauge kids’ ability to perceive emotion. Sixth-graders who spent five days at outdoor camp, away from their electronic devices, got much better at perceiving this young woman’s happiness.

Courtesy of Stephen Nowicki

We’ve heard the arguments, the warnings, the prescriptions. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids’ entertainment screen time be limited “to less than one or two hours per day.” And for kids under 2: none at all.

We recently reported on a study out of the University of California, Los Angeles. The short of it: Researchers found that sixth-graders who spent just five days at an outdoor camp, away from their electronic devices, improved remarkably at reading emotion in other people’s faces.

The experiment comes with lots of caveats. It was small (roughly 100 kids). And removing screens from the equation did not, by itself, improve these kids’ social skills. What likely led to the improvement was the fact that, instead of texting or gaming, the students were working together, face-to-face, constantly decoding each other’s expressions, voice tone and posture.

The take-home: Social skills require constant maintenance.

The good news, according to this study, is that we can improve those skills in relatively short order, with practice. The bad news is that screen time often comes at the expense of that vital face-to-face time.

Which is why what’s happening at one independent school in Los Angeles is so interesting.

Westside Neighborhood School

With kids from pre-K through 8th grade, WNS sits tucked into the shadow of a Home Depot in L.A.’s booming Playa Vista neighborhood. It’s close enough to the ocean that the air is more salt than smog.

When talking about screen time and kids’ access to handheld devices, Brad Zacuto, who heads the school, likes to use an old-fashioned analogy: “It’s like putting a child behind a wheel of a car. There’s a lot of power there.”

Think about how dangerous it was back when cars first hit the road, Zacuto says. No traffic lights or street signs. That’s where we are now, he warns, with kids and all this technology at their fingertips. “It’s here to stay. But at some point you have to teach kids how to drive a car responsibly.”

The storage box for seventh-graders’ cellphones.

Cory Turner/NPR

Zacuto’s tech policy begins with a few basics:

First, no smartphones till sixth grade. Even then, kids can bring them, but they have to check them at the front desk.

Second, engaging and educating parents: WNS makes them sign a commitment to limit screen time at home and to keep kids off of social media — again, until sixth grade.

Also, at school, no technology until second grade. “We choose to have our youngest children engaged in digging in dirt,” Zacuto says, “and building things and using their hands.”

Not just their hands but their eyeballs and brains, too: interacting with other kids face to face. Because they need lots of early practice relating, reading emotion and responding to it.

In second grade, Zacuto says, kids start using classroom laptops. They get some basic lessons in typing and word processing and their first taste of Internet research.

Which makes this a good time to go back to that tech lab and Don Fitz-Roy.

‘Star Wars Kid’

The idea behind Fitz-Roy’s digital citizenship class is to get kids thinking hard about the dangers of social media before they have Twitter handles or Facebook pages.

The kids gathered for today’s conversation are a little older than usual and have heard much of this before.

Thirteen-year-old Tom Zimmerman gets it: “One example: this one kid who was, like, in this room, and he had, like, this fake lightsaber, and he was acting really crazy. And it looked really stupid. And it was funny, but I’m sure that kid won’t want it in the future. But so many people have taken that video and put it on their channels that there’s no way of getting rid of it.”

That 2002 video — of one teen boy in a heated lightsaber battle with himself —has been watched millions of times, but the so-called “Star Wars Kid,” now in his 20s, says he was bullied because of it and had to leave school.

And that gives principals like Brad Zacuto not one but two big reasons to worry about screen time: 1) Because of what’s not happening — important face-to-face time; and 2) Because of what is happening — kids putting themselves out there in embarrassing and potentially dangerous ways.

Which, again, raises the question:

What Is Good Screen Time?

“It’s all about how things are used. And how much they’re used. And what they’re used for,” says Patricia Greenfield, who co-authored that screen-time study we mentioned earlier. She’s a professor of psychology at UCLA and has been writing about screen time for 30 years.

Greenfield offers this example of good screen time: asking kids to write an essay using the computer. Word-processing software can help with spelling and grammar, and kids can use the Internet for research. Here’s the key:

“You’re not substituting screen time for interaction time,” Greenfield says. “You’re substituting alone time with the screen for alone time with your paper and pen.”

Greenfield describes a kind of cost-benefit analysis: Is this screen time coming at the expense of face-to-face time? And what unique value does the technology add?

At Westside Neighborhood School, when kids use tech, they’re often still working collaboratively — and doing things they couldn’t do without it.

“We have a design class where they imagine a product,” Zacuto says. “They design it. And we have a 3-D printer where they then create it. I mean, there’s amazing things going on that’s preparing them for the world.”

Preparing Them For The World

By sixth grade, WNS students may have to check their smartphones at the door, but they get their own school-issued tablets with textbooks on them. Still, Zacuto insists, little valuable class time is spent simply looking down.

When sixth-grade social studies teacher Caitlin Barry gives her students time to read from the textbooks on their iPads, they often do it in pairs, encouraging each other to explore confusing terms or ideas. Some teachers even put short lectures online, for students to watch at home. The reason goes back to Greenfield’s cost-benefit analysis:

“It sort of flips the content,” Zacuto says. “I’d rather be spending my time in school with the teacher, with the kids — doing interactive, collaborative [things], using what we’ve learned.”

In other words: using screens at home to increase the time students spend working face to face in the classroom. It’s a delicate dance, preparing kids for both the Digital Age and the social world.

And it’s important not to sacrifice the latter for the former, says Yalda Uhls, who is a senior researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center@LA and co-author of the screen-time study with Patricia Greenfield. Especially in middle school, she says, when the balance of power in kids’ lives tilts away from their parents and toward friends.

“One of the reasons it’s so miserable,” Uhls says, “is because we’re trying to learn our place in the social world outside of our safe little haven at home.”

The more practice kids get reading emotion in voices and posture, the better they’ll be able to navigate the turmoil of early adolescence.

That kind of social learning just won’t fit in the palm of your hand.