Left Brain, Left Behind?

Katharine Beals, Ph.D. and mother of three, talks with Scholastic Parents about how to help your left-brain child succeed in a world that champions right-brain traits.



Left Brain, Left Behind?

Does your child prefer to work alone rather than with others? Seem to be bright and intellectually active at home, yet frustrated and bored by school? Interact more easily with adults than peers? Have a tendency to lecture others? You might have a left-brainer. In her new book, Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School, Katharine Beals describes common traits of left-brain children, the difficulties they face in today’s right brain-centered culture, and how to help your own left-brained child learn more easily.

Scholastic Parents: What led you to write about left-brain children?
Katharine Beals:
 What initially inspired me were my three children and their experiences at school. I was surprised at how reluctant their teachers were to address their talents in math, and I started hearing other parents express the same concerns. As I began talking with teachers, I learned about the new Reform Math pedagogy and started noticing how ill-suited it is to the typical analytical math student. This made me take a closer look at current teaching trends in general, and I began to see how not just in math, but in all subjects, today’s classrooms conflict with just about every left-brain strength and weakness. And so I decided it was time to alert parents of left-brainers.

SP: Can you give a brief description of what you mean when you write about “left-brained” and “right-brained”?
 I’m not using these terms in the neurological sense, but in the everyday sense that has permeated our language via popular psychology. So by “left-brained,” I mean those who think abstractly and logically, analyze and systematize, process things linearly (or one at a time), focus on verbal rather than nonverbal communication, and prefer to work independently. And by “right-brained,” I mean those who think more holistically, apply intuition and emotion, process many things simultaneously, are sensitive to nonverbal communication and body language, and prefer to work with others.

SP: What are some of the ways in which education today is geared toward right-brain children?
 Students today spend more time working in groups, and less time working independently, than ever before. Even while schools are cutting arts programs to focus on academics, they are introducing an unprecedented amount of arts and crafts into academic subjects: illustrations, dioramas, cartoons, posters, etc. Throughout the curriculum, large-scale, open-ended, interdisciplinary projects are replacing focused problem sets and analytical essays. The analytic content of math and science has been drastically watered down, and foreign language classes now emphasize informal oral communication over mastery of grammar. All this favors the more outgoing, artistic students, especially those who shy away from rigorous analysis, and who think holistically enough to handle big, open-ended projects.

SP: How has the teaching of mathematics, in particular, become less and less suited to left-brain children over the past 20 years?
 Most left-brain children excel in math, but learn it best when working independently with pen and paper, and when topics come in a logical, linear sequence with just a couple of concepts or strategies at a time. The new Reform Math conflicts with all of this. It spirals around from topic to topic, covers multiple ad hoc strategies at once, and favors hands-on group activities over solo pen and paper exercises. Mathematically speaking, the assignments are far easier than the math problems most of us adults were assigned back in our day, but they require students to explain how they got their answers. Because many left-brainers can do simple math problems automatically in their heads, they’re often unable to come up with explanations that satisfy their teachers. They often don’t receive full credit, even if their answers are correct.

SP: How does this make things more difficult for a left-brain child, and what are some of the results a parent might see in his or her left-brain child?
 The left-brain child may end up bored and frustrated by the very subjects that once would have engaged him the most. He may not even realize how challenging and engaging math and science can be. Parents may wonder why a child who seems so mathematically and scientifically inclined at home is complaining that she hates her math and science classes. Because today’s grades tend to reflect in-class effort, attitude, oral participation, and whether or not you explained your answer and drew colorful illustrations, a left-brain child may also surprise his parents with mediocre grades. Also, because the standards for sociability are now so high—what with all that time children must spend working cooperatively with classmates—parents of left-brainers may start hearing from teachers about how unsocial and inconsiderate their children are.

SP: What types of psychological disorders are left-brain children sometimes diagnosed with? How do you suggest a parent deal with such a diagnosis?
 The more shy and sensitive of our children are sometimes diagnosed with “social anxiety disorder” or, for those who rarely speak up in class, “selective mutism.” For the more aloof and asocial, there’s the Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis. Criteria for Asperger’s are based largely on “impairments” in things like eye contact, body language, “appropriate” peer relationships, and “social functioning”—all of them fuzzy and open to interpretation. 

If your child is diagnosed, bear in mind that he or she might well have grown up label-free a generation ago, when disorders like “social anxiety” were more narrowly defined, Asperger’s syndrome didn’t exist as an official diagnostic category, and schools were less concerned with sociability than they are today. In a more traditional classroom setting, your left-brainer might be much more at ease and eager to learn and—bright, quiet, independent-minded, and self-motivated as she is—appreciated as a model student rather than branded with a social pathology. 

Because of this, another thing to consider is whether you can work the diagnosis to your child’s advantage. On the one hand, you might withhold the diagnosis in order to prevent your child from being pigeon-holed, keep your options open, and keep a potentially detrimental label out of his permanent record. This increases your chances of getting him admitted to a magnet or private school with more traditional, academically challenging classrooms. On the other hand, disclosing the diagnoses allows you to take advantage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and secure an Individualized Education Plan that will legally obligate the school to accommodate her in the classroom.
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