Doodling in the Margins, a back-to-school Editor’s Letter

Hello my dear Marshmallow Peeps!

September is here and once Labor Day has passed, I can safely say that most our kiddos have headed back to school. I can practically hear the collective audible sigh of relief from all of you. While it is true that it’s nice to have the kids in back-to-school-mode, it is always a tricky time for parents of kids who either have learning differences or social challenges. Despite the respite from all-day child care, it is a stressful time of year in its own way. Even prior to my days as a mom, I remember getting slight pangs of anxiety at the beginning of September in anticipation of a school year I was no longer obligated to attend! Go figure.

Throughout this summer, I was thinking about school quite a bit. Maybe it is because my daughter is now in 5th grade, a big transition year. Her last year of elementary school. Maybe it is that, plus the experience of going through some of my old school things (ranging from late elementary school through undergrad years) while visiting my parents this summer. Thanks Mom! Within 48 hours of my arrival, my Mom had me sorting through boxes in the basement, filled with assorted junk. Classic.

While going through this mess, I found a series of notebooks. Notebooks filled with course material outlines and thoughts, accompanied by a jarring amount of doodles that filled the margins of the page, and spilled out into parts of the actual notes. What struck me was how similar all the doodles were in theme. These notebooks ranged from 6th grade through college, and granted, the doodle quality got a bit more sophisticated, but other than that, these cartoony faces grimacing and sticking their tongues out peppered years and years worth of pages. Is there any sense to be made by these scrawlings of a madwoman? Perhaps yes and perhaps no, but it did make me think about how I process information, how I learn.

There have been a myriad of studies that link doodling and listening. According the these studies, doodling helps you pay attention. When you draw or doodle while listening to something like a lecture, your recall is much higher than if you do not doodle. The act of moving your hand allows just enough focus to keep your mind from wandering. Professor Lynda Barry at the University of Wisconsin regularly taught a class called The Unthinkable Mind, where students experiment with writing and drawing with focus on the basic physical structure of the brain. The course looked at creativity and the biological function of the arts. One thing she really insisted upon in her class was whenever the class was listening to people (classmates) read stories they had written, they had to draw while listening.

When I learned this, I felt somewhat vindicated about my doodling habit! But it also made me reflect upon how many children in the past (or even possibly in the present) were punished for doodling while working in class, punished for doing something that almost instinctively actually helped them pay attention. I can see the same goes for movement with my kiddo. Moving her body about (like how she can move when sitting on a yoga ball while doing homework, or when she gets to use a standing desk with a kick/ swing bar) helps her concentrate. It keeps a mind body connection going where otherwise the mind would disconnect and wander off. And how many times has she been told to sit down and sit still?

A developmental pediatrician once told me that behavior is communication. Now the key as parents and caregivers is to be able to patiently decipher what is being told to us through our kids’ behavior. One thing that I keep coming back to (so I don’t get overly impatient with my daughter, which is tough because I am not the most patient person) is the idea that challenging and different behavior can be evidence of creativity in action. Where would we be without those that think differently? (Cultural and socio-economic differences boost creativity. – this doesn’t work as a conclusion to your opening sentence thought)

So whether our kiddos may be quietly doodling in the margins (or sitting at full attention) we need to make room for them to be themselves and be respected by those who may think and act differently than they do. Creating latitude for our children to do their thing in the margins might just help them get where they are trying to go.

Wishing all your children a happy, productive, and safe school year!

In gratitude,

Anouck

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