Can Relational Skills Make You Smarter?

Is there a subject or class in school where your child struggles? Perhaps your son or daughter just cannot seem to grasp math, or that pesky science class is a thorn in the side. Maybe reading is the big hurdle. For me, my Achilles’ heel was writing. Yep, writing was my least favorite thing to do IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. Well, this is what I told my mother when I was growing up.

Whenever I came home from school with a writing assignment for English, dread consumed my thoughts and body. Just thinking about my homework put my stomach in knots. It is safe to say that I shed many tears before my writing assignment was due. In truth, I wasn’t a bad writer. I had a mental block about writing and, for whatever reason, writing did not come easily for me. I would become so deeply upset about writing that my thoughts turned muddled and jumbled. I lacked the clarity to focus on my assignment. The mounting anxiety put my brain in a tizzy; it was clear my brain’s emotional control center plunged into a disorganized state where I felt confused. I got lost in my fear and hopeless despair.

Last night I observed a similar pattern with Matthew, my seven-year old son. He was working to correct a math paper he messed up at school. My son misunderstood the directions, and this meant he wrongly answered the entire page of equations. It was not a good situation.

Matthew is a bright student who has a solid understanding of the math concepts taught in first grade. For whatever reason, he freezes up when it comes to math. We have a number of instances where I ask him to sit down and work on his math homework. He then proceeds to melt into puddle of cries and tears, complaining that he feels discouraged and frustrated. He often declares, “I can’t do this, I just don’t understand. I will never get this!” It is quite the scene. When this happens, I help him calm down and catch his breath. However, it frequently takes longer to get to the point where he is ready to work on his math problems than it takes him to actually answer the questions.

Just last night we were playing a game to help him work on his math concepts. At one point he encountered some confusion over the game. He quickly became frustrated. I worked with him to answer several questions and I explained the problem he was supposed to solve. We went around and around for a bit, but he could not understand the concept I was explaining to him. After about 20 minutes of interaction, I realized my brain’s relational circuits had shut down. I also noticed his were off as well. With a few brief exercises we were able to restore our relational circuits and in no time our relational brains were back online. At this point he grasped the concept he was stuck on, then he solved the problem. Hurray!

It was at this point I realized my son was better able to understand and solve problems when his relational circuits were active and working. “Wow! Why didn’t I realize this earlier?” I wondered to myself. When his relational circuits were on, his ability to understand directions and solve problems was greatly improved. When his relational circuits were off, his ability to grasp even the simplest of concepts was greatly compromised. Because Matthew has struggled with math on other occasions, the frustration of trying to solve a difficult problem quickly shut off his relational circuits. Once this happens, every attempt to help him understand something felt like beating our heads against a wall. Once his relational brain was working correctly, he could utilize his problem-solving skills to figure something out with a little bit of coaching. What a difference!

Upon this realization, I then helped Matthew recognize that his relational circuits were off and his brain was not working so well to solve problems. I pointed out, “Matthew, did you see what happened when your relational circuits came back on? You could quickly understand and solve the problem!” Upon hearing this observation, a big smile broke across his face and he was just as amazed as I was at this revelation. We both decide that we ALWAYS want to work on math problems with our relational circuits online.

As I look back on my childhood writing struggles, I can see that my relational circuits were obviously OFF when I was trying to complete my English assignments. While there were other factors at play, I am sure the process of writing would have been much more enjoyable if my relational brain had been operating as God designed it to work.

What areas are you unable to live to your potential because your relational brain is offline?

Are there any subjects that send your children into non-relational mode, and make homework feel like going to the dentist to have a tooth worked on?

I want to encourage you to try some intentional exercises to restore your relational circuits, and see if you notice a difference. Because some subjects can historically feel overwhelming, don’t be surprised if your relational circuits turn on then quickly go off again. You may have to repeat the restoration exercises several times in order to keep your relational brain online. In some cases, we need Immanuel’s peace and resolution where pain and big feelings cause our relational brain to go off.

You can view Dr. Jim Wilder demonstrating some of the relational circuit restoration exercises here. Read how our amazing friend and teacher, Shelia Sutton, uses this training with her students in the book, Joy Starts Here and see my previous blog, The Brain’s Relational Real Estate for more on this topic. Our colleague and friend, Dr. Karl Lehman, has more to say here.

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2 comments

  1. Hee-Choon Sam Lee says:

    Thank you for sharing your struggles with writing. How Good is our God for having resolved that block for us to now enjoy beautiful writing from you now!

  2. Sara says:

    I have found this to be true of myself as well. When I am feeling overwhelmed at work, a few RC exercises makes writing reports go a lot easier.

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