In this episode of The Preschool Podcast, we connect with Dr. Shimi Kang, award-winning, Harvard-trained doctor, researcher, media expert, writer, and keynote speaker who specializes in how the mind works. Dr.Kang discusses the POD-based method of play and how educators and parents can incorporate POD-based methodologies into their teaching and parenting practices with young children.
The Dolphin Way and POD-Based Method of Play
POD is short for “play, others and, down-time” that connects to the dolphin, that live in pods. This type of play is correlated to the 3 brains and in the POD-based method of play, Dr. Kang and her team begin training with young children on the gut-brain. The gut-brain is related to breathing, mindfulness and, meditation. This helps children regulate their emotions and nervous system. After this first step is done, the heart-brain is next. This focuses on relationships. Lastly, the head-brain is engaged through play and trying new things, and learning through trial and error. Dr. Kang explains that her program is mainly exploratory, trial and error, and guidance from adults.
How Can Educators Incorporate these Methodologies into their Teaching and Parenting? Start with one element in the POD-based method of play. Consider starting your class with a mindful minute with your children to regulate themselves before starting your class. Invite children to breathe deep, close their eyes, listen to soft music or nature sounds, etc. This allows children to completely regulate their feelings and emotions before learning.
Differenterating Between Healthy and Unhealthy Tech
Don’t be a Jellyfish. Dr. Kang suggests when it comes to tech to be “dolphin-minded”. This means to be firm but flexible as opposed to a jellyfish that is too flexible and passive or a shark that may be too firm and authoritarian.
Be Highly Adaptable. What you may plan when it comes to tech and screentime may not go according to plan to planning for the worst or less than ideal outcomes is important based on each child’s needs.
Lay Out a Tech Diet. Just like we teach young children about food, we should teach children about tech- the pros and the cons! There is “healthy-tech” that leads to care, connect, or, create..think creating videos and photos, drawing, coding, robotics where the child is the leader. On the other end of the spectrum, there is “unhealthy-tech” that is usually passive watching where a child is mindlessly watching other people’s movies and photographs.
Consider Tech that Increases Serotonin. This could be video calling family members and friends, self-care such as breathing exercises and, community activism. All of these activities are known to increase serotonin and help children (and adults) feel better about themselves!
As of recently, we’re also seeing social health defecits with reducation of empathy and basic social skills in young children due to increased screen timeDr. Shimi Kang, The Preschool Podcast
Connect with Dr. Shimi Kang
Dr. Kang has shared with us several references including her post about 3 Ways to Rethink Student Education in Response to Covid-19 and 2 books, The Tech Solution and The Dolphin Way. Connect with Dr. Shimi Kang on her Instagram and YouTube for more free resources!
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Episode 266 transcripts:
Dr. Shimi KANG:
What do you guys want to learn? How should we learn this? If we want to learn about how a plant grows, let’s kind of collaborate together, brainstorm a little bit of a lesson plan and go out and do it.
Shimi, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you for having me on!
We’re delighted to have on the show today Dr. Shimi Kang. She’s a doctor, educator, parenting and mental health expert. We’re going to talk to her today about rethinking student education in response to COVID-19. Shimi, as we always do, let’s start off learning a little bit about you. Tell us about yourself.
Sure, yes. So, first of all, I’m a mom of three. I have a 15-year-old son, a 13-year-old son and an 11-year-old girl. My kids are amazing and yet exhausting. They have neurodiversity. My oldest son has ADHD and written output, and my daughter has pretty significant dyslexia. So, we are navigating parenting in this new world.
And with all the ups and downs and challenges, including COVID, my background is I trained as a psychiatrist. I did an M.D., my medical degree, and then specialized in mental health and psychiatry. And then I went further and specialized in addiction and how addiction works, which means a deeper understanding of motivation because addiction is a disease of motivation. And I ended up at Harvard Medical School doing research there.
And that’s where I got very interested in self-motivation. So, what really drives people towards behaviors. And from a neuroscience point of view, from a neurochemical point of view, I learned about dopamine and the drivers of reward. And that is really my life’s work as a researcher and doctor.
And later, I created one of the first programs in Canada – and one of few in the world – that address mental health and addiction behaviors in young people. And that program, I really advocated to have it go up to the age of 24, which was unusual at children’s hospitals. Usually they stop at 17, 18. But we know the brain continues its maturation until 24, at least.
So, that whole experience got me very close to young people and young adults who were transitioning through many stages of their lives and really going through those steps. And I became quite interested in parenting behaviors and how parenting is interacting with all this. And of course, the school, which is the other big area of life for young people.
And then after a while, I felt that I had this six months wait list and I was seeing people who had habits and perspectives. And they were coming to me with anxiety, depression, addiction. And I knew that if we could get them tools earlier in life, if we could get them tools about emotional regulation, social skills, trainings, cognitive tools of problem-solving, that would really be a game changer.
So, I started writing books in blogs and media to get the word out. So, the things I would say in my practice that I’m going to have to wait for, I started putting that in my books and blogs. I wrote my first book [which] was called The Dolphin Parent [A Guide to Raising Healthy, Happy, and Self-Motivated Kids], which is the science of parenting and self-motivation.
And then my second book is called The Tech Solution [Creating Healthy Habits for Kids Growing Up in a Digital World], as I was very concerned about how technology is impacting the developing brain, particularly the dopamine drives and addiction.
And I started a program called Dolphin Kids, which is really the dream of early intervention, primary prevention, giving tools to very young children. Our programs are in India, across Canada, and we teach young kids – as young as three – mindfulness, breathing, gratitude practice, social skills, how to say No in an assertive way.
And so, really, that’s where I want to put myself out of business as an adolescent child psychiatrist because I want to really give the tools and science-based techniques early. And that’s really my passion, that’s what’s driving me.
Love it. Can you tell us a little bit more about Dolphin Kids, and in particular the “POD”-based method of play, as you refer to it, and what that means?
Right, yeah. So, our program, Dolphin Kids, is called Future Ready Leaders. And all of our sessions include what’s called the POD-based learning. So, POD stands for Play, Others and Downtime. It’s an acronym that obviously connects to the dolphin – they live in pods. But really it is, it’s a correlation with what we call the “three brains”.
So, in neuroscience, we don’t consider [that] we don’t have just one brain in our head. We actually have a distributed brain in our body. There’s intelligence and sensory neurons even in our hands. But definitely the POD method addresses the first brain, which is the gut brain.
And so each program starts with some downtime, some emotional regulation. So, children do some breathing, they do some mindfulness; they may do meditation; they may do a visualization. But something to just regulate that gut brain that’s very sensitive to primal emotions of fear and insecurity. That’s why young kids and adults, we get nervous in our tummy. We get butterflies, we want to throw up. That’s the gut brain.
So, all sessions start with, that to make sure we’re in the right place because there’s no point in learning if you’re firing adrenaline and cortisol and [you’re] nervous and upset. Then we move to others. So, we do an emotional check-in, make sure everyone feels safe in the setting because children and all people are relational learners – they have to feel safe.
So, really building that relationships, not just like, “Oh, here is your instructor. Her name is Jane.” But more about Jane: What is Jane’s passions and interests? And why is Jane an instructor? And what are you going to learn? And everyone checking in and making sure that that emotional, that social connection is really strong because the heart brain, that’s where the other comes from, is we have 60,000 neurons in our hearts that are sensitive to our relationships.
And that’s why when we feel hurt by someone, we get a heart-ache. And that heart brain is so powerful, it releases oxytocin directly into our bloodstream, which is a powerful anti-depressant and hormone of bonding and love. So, we’ve got to take care of the heart brain.
And then after that, our sessions deal with the head brain. We play – the brain in our head loves to play and explore and try new things and learn through trial and error. So, the program is not instructive. It’s really exploration. We guide children, we don’t direct them. And so things like brainstorming. “Okay, so today is STEAMers [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics]. It’s a science program. What do you guys want to learn? How should we learn it? If we want to learn about how a plant grows, let’s kind of collaborate together, brainstorm a little bit of a lesson plan and go out and do it.”
And then we seal every session with some gratitude at the end – gratitude for the efforts that they’ve made, for the time they spent in really elevating their three brains, their intelligence, their social-emotional, cognitive intelligence.
So, it sounds like a lot, but it’s actually quite easy to do. We do even 50-minute sessions and it’s two, three minutes of downtime, breathing, mindfulness and five-minute check-in, emotional, social check-in, and then 25 minutes of play and brainstorming and then it ends with five minutes of gratitude.
The kids love it. They leave with tools that I believe will give them, be with them lifelong. And we teach them as much as we can based on the neuroscience. We have a character called Sparky who is the neuron in an app. And sometimes we include Sparky. And I can tell you more about him because that’s “healthy” tech to guide and help us out, too. So, we use, obviously, tech resources, as well.
Awesome. So, you mentioned it’s easy to do. How can educators and parents incorporate these different methodologies from this POD-based method of play into their teaching and parenting activities with young children?
Yes, absolutely. We know social-emotional learning is highly effective. The research shows that children feel better about themselves. They have better attendance; they are more engaged. Their grades go up. We also know that teachers feel better when they’re providing social-emotional learning because teachers – 60 to 70% of teachers – are chronically stressed. So, it gives them a time to unwind and reflect and connect. And the parent-teacher relationship also improves. So, it’s really a superfood of education right now.
And I think for teachers, just start with one thing. It’s sometimes hard to think, “I have to create a whole curriculum.” But even a mindful minute, starting your class with a mindful minute, everyone comes in and maybe the lights are a little bit low. You can light a candle if you’re allowed. But start with heads on the desk or maybe a screen saver of an image of nature with some sounds of nature.
And so as the children are walking in, there is a setting of relaxation. And then you can start your class saying, “Everyone, we’re going to do one minute of mindfulness. Close your eyes.” Or some breathing, “We’re going to regulate, we’re going to do just a a little bit of box breathing or rainbow breathing or three deep breaths.” That can start things. Or you can incorporate in the middle of the session, if things aren’t going well. There’s a lot of, let’s say, anxiety or hyperactivity and chaos. You can regroup that way.
On our Dolphin Kids website, we have free lesson plans for teachers and all age groups. And you’re welcome to use them and see. There’s so many exercises that keep it fun that can be incorporated into any classroom.
But I think a lot of teachers are already doing it in some form. It’s really about now being more intentional, more consistent and really advocating for it because, I hate to say it, but it’s kind of considered an afterthought in schools. Like, “Okay, after the math, science and everything is done, then we’ll do a little bit of emotional regulation work or social skills training.”
And really what we know fundamentally, these are the skills that actually carry children into adulthood that are required, the skills of adaptability, communication, collaboration and resilience training. So, we’re in a bit of an interesting time in history where I think we know it but we haven’t gotten to the implementation of doing it regularly.
Yeah, totally. I think we would all like to think, as our guests and listeners on the Preschool Podcast, that we understand that better than most, that those aspects are super-duper important. And it’s awesome to see that you’re doing the early intervention work at that early stage, which, again, we all know is so important.
You mentioned earlier that you’ve done some work on the technology side, as well. In your research, how is technology impacting children’s brain, body and behavior?
Yes, Ron. So, I have been interested in technology and in an interesting way, because, as an addiction psychiatrist, when I learned that software and devices were using dopamine algorithms and dopamine neuroscience to create something called persuasive design, that’s when I said, “Wow, this is actually…” it was scary, it was shocking. It was interesting that this neurochemical that really is the mainstay of addiction is such a prominent aspect of technology use and persuasive design.
So, there’s no doubt that technology, the devices our children are using, the programs, the social media are addictive. In fact, the World Health Organization declared Internet Addiction Disorder and Gaming Disorder as medical diagnoses. So, these are now medical diagnoses.
I see them all the time in my practice. I see kids who can’t get off their iPads or video gaming, families completely torn apart, disruption, school refusal and comorbid issues [multiple medical issues present in one patient] like depression and anxiety and body image coming forth.
So, we know that from a scientific point of view, we know that there’s several impacts. One is the mental health impacts, which I just mentioned some of them. Technology use has been linked to anxiety, depression, body image disturbance and addiction and perfectionism, as well. Now, gender is not binary, but we are seeing trends more in girls young girls and women with the perfectionism, which that in itself is linked to anxiety and depression.
There’s also physical health impacts. Just the prolonged sitting all day is highly stressful to our bodies. When we’re not moving, our nervous system asks us, “Why are you sitting and particularly sitting crouched over?” It’s like a posture of safety and stress. So, just the flection of the neck and that forward bend over the laptop is a stressful posture. The nervous system says, “Why are you in a cave not looking at anyone, crouched over? Is there a hurricane? Is there a predator?” And the fire cortisol, just based on the posture.
And then we have sleep deprivation and blue light exposure. The blue light we’re learning more about. But there is early indications that it’s impacting our circadian rhythms, the balanced rhythms of our body, which can regulate things like our sugar, diabetes and weight.
So, it’s really across the board. We’re also seeing social health deficits with reduction of empathy, social skills, basic social skills, looking at each other, talking to each other. And of course, in this pandemic, cyber bullying went up 800% because there was more screen time and certainly a lot more hate. It’s easier to lack empathy when you’re on a screen, versus in real life.
So, across the board, we’re seeing really significant impacts. And on a neurobiological level, we’re actually seeing disruption in the myelin of young children. Studies I put in my book, The Tech Solution, I talked about a New York University study, where they were able to show that there was disruption of the white matter of the brain of toddlers who were on screens.
And that is really profound. I can’t overemphasize how concerning that is because even major mental health issues like schizophrenia, head injury, we don’t see disruption in the brain tissue like that. It just doesn’t show up.
So, I think that we’re in this place where we’re learning more and more. But we have enough information to say we need some common sense guidelines and rules in the home and in classrooms around technology use. We can’t just say, “Oh, it’s here, what can we do?” We really have to give parents and educators the tools to guide children to the right direction.
Wow, you weren’t kidding when you said “scary and fascinating”. Sounds like a subject we’ll be spending a lot more time on the Preschool Podcast over time because lots of learning is happening there and very, very significant learnings by the sounds of it, as well.
Now, of course, children are spending more time on screens over the last 18 months or so with online and hybrid learning. How can educators and parents differentiate between healthy use of technology, versus stressful and addictive technology experiences?
Right, yeah. So, that really is the main message of the Tech Solution book, which is like, “Okay, we need a solution.” And I like to talk in metaphor. The Dolphin Parent book is a metaphor for the science of parenting. And I use dolphin as a way to explain that kids need play, they need social connection. Others, they need downtime, just like dolphins in nature.
Be curious, collaborative communicators. And don’t be a jellyfish parent, too permissive. And don’t be a shark or tiger, too hard. Be this firm but flexible middleground dolphin. So, that metaphor, I think, is the framework for how to parent around the area of technology. We can’t be jellyfish and just give up and say it’s everywhere, but we also can’t come very shark-y or authoritarian or tiger parent or helicopter, whatever you want to call it, because they are going to have access to it and then it will go underground.
So, [the] overall framework is to be an authoritative, firm but flexible dolphin parents, shoulder-to-shoulder, moving forward with your child together. And be highly adaptable because I have three kids and I have to have different rules and guidelines for all three of them based on their ages and their unique neural fingerprints.
So, within that context, then, you can lay out what’s called a tech diet. So, just like we teach kids about food, we start early. It’s repetitive, we don’t give up. We know that it’s very important. And we teach children that there’s healthy foods: your veggies, your protein. And that’s the mainstay of what we want to consume. There’s junk food like pizza and chips and a little bit is okay. And then there’s the really toxic food like the aspartame or the colored dye or gummy bears that are just what we want to avoid.
So, we can have the same metaphor with technology. They’re certainly healthy tech that is worth consuming. And I say this is any tech that leads to care, connect or create. So, technology that leads to creativity, meaning you’re making the movies and photographs and coding or doing robotics or doing interesting things in art or science. And the child is the leader, not mindlessly watching other people’s movies or photographs. So, any kind of creativity learning is part of healthy tech that releases serotonin.
Tech that leads to positive connection: so, like Facetiming [online video conferencing] your grandparents, community activism. Facetiming friends and having real conversations, that gives us oxytocin, that type of tech is more on the healthy side.
And then any tech that leads to self care, and there’s lots of things now with our mindfulness, breathing, gratitude, journaling. The Get Sparky app I just mentioned is an app designed for kids and parents to learn mindfulness techniques and connection techniques, scripts on how to deal with problems and play techniques on how to deal with things.
So, there’s lots of tech that is healthy, that’s endorphins. So, those are the ingredients of the healthy tech. You don’t need to know all the neuroscience, but I just want to say it is based on science.
So, guide our children should consume that. Avoid the junk tech, that’s those little hits of dopamine. A little bit of sugar or dopamine like the sugar in our diet is okay, not too much. So yeah, some video gaming, some mindless scrolling on Instagram, some of the silly YouTube – stuff in moderation, just like junk food, just like pizza and chips, okay, on a Friday night. But we don’t want to be consuming this every day. We don’t want to wake up and eat junk food, nor do we want to wake up and start looking at these videos, which many kids are doing.
And then avoid the toxic tech altogether. That’s cortisol, that’s any tech related to increase in stress. And that is certainly content like hate and cyber bullying. But also prolonged sitting and blue light exposure and sleep deprivation.
And so I know this is a younger age group, but for an older age group, in the Tech Solution book, I did very clearly call out pornography because that is where a lot of young teenagers are going, especially in the pandemic, to explore identity and sexuality. And that certainly is toxic and highly addictive, as well.
So, in general it’s just like food: consume healthy stuff. A little bit of junk tech is okay in moderation and avoid the toxic. I have a “tech plate” that you can put in your show notes, Ron, and some house rules for families, some very common sense house rules for family to try to get a handle on it all.
Yeah, I really, really like that diet analogy with the tech diet. It makes so much sense. And the “care, connect, create” as well is just quite simple to understand and certainly makes a lot of sense, in terms of a more healthy use of tech. And I can relate to that personally, too, with some of the tech usage that makes you feel more energized after and healthier, versus feeling like you’re losing energy and is somewhat demotivating. So, that’s really interesting to hear, I love it.
Any references or resources you can recommend to our audience related to these topics or otherwise, just about early-childhood development, whether that be another podcast or video or book or something that you think our audience would enjoy?
Yeah, for sure. On our Dolphin Kids website [www.DolphinKids.ca] we have a very robust resource list of resources, of podcasts, TEDx talks, under the categories of play. So, how play helps the brain, including the National Institute [For] Play. They have a great website [www.NIFPlay.org], under others and downtime with these new emotional regulation techniques. So, certainly feel free. And we have free lesson plans for teachers and parents. So, that’s www.DolphinKids.ca.
The other resource, I think super-important in the tech areas is Common Sense Media [www.CommonSenseMedia.org]. They do a great job in identifying and rating media for kids, [deciding] whether it’s age-appropriate or not. There is the Kelty Resource Center for Mental Health [www.KeltyMentalHealth.ca], which is here in Canada. It’s a fabulous resource based out of BC Children’s Hospital, kind of covering all kinds of mental health topics, anxiety, etc.
And I, of course, have a TEDx on adaptability, which is the key. It’s called “One Skill Equals Awesome Life.” And the answer is adaptability, which I think… it was interesting, before COVID, sometimes when I would present that to parents, they kind of knew adaptability was important. But they were also like, “Okay, but my child really needs to get through their math or their rowing.”
But now that COVID hit and we have had firsthand experience in how rapidly our world is changing, we are living in an ever-changing world, ultra-fast pace. So, the ability to adapt is a key skill for young people. And I go through the science of how that works, in that particular TEDx talk.
Oh, and another one is Stigma Free Society [www.StigmaFreeSociety.com]. It’s an excellent resource for parents and teachers. And they actually have young people go into classrooms or Zoom [online video conferencing] into classrooms for free to talk about their own experiences, maybe with things like anxiety or dyslexia. My daughter and son are actually both speakers on there. And it’s quite nice because young people are teaching young people. So, some great resources.
Yeah, those sound like wonderful resources. Thanks for sharing those. And if our audience wants to get in touch with you or learn more about your work, where can they go to get more information, Shimi?
Sure, my website is www.DrShimiKang.com, all lowercase, no punctuation. And so you can just [web search] me also, Dr. Shimi Kang. That’s where you can find me. I also have a YouTube channel where I provide short little videos on a lot of these topics. I have videos on technology, what is healthy tech, what is junk tech, what is toxic tech, how to understand it, how to guide it. Those I really recommend for parents to watch with their kids so that they can help them gain that framework of what exactly it is.
And I think a lot of kids are interested in their brain and neuroscience. So, all my work really is centered around neuroscience. And in that way I find especially [with] teenagers that might be resistant and say, “Oh no, I’m not going to meditate, that’s never going to work for me,” and then give them the science of how it works.
It’s like, “Well, you can release endorphins, which are pretty cool things. And there’s a molecule of bliss and peace. Who doesn’t want that?” Or how, let’s say, junk tech might be affecting them. And I talk about the dopamine pathways and how they can get hooked. So, my videos are short, they’re practical and they are based on science. And they’re on YouTube under just Dr. Shimi Kang, I have a channel.
Cool, very enlightening conversation. And I really appreciate the work that you’re doing. It’s really, really important, clearly, and is going to be increasingly important as tech and digital continues to play a role in our lives and in society. And our children are going to be exposed to that. So, some wonderful information here. Check out Dr. Kang’s website, at www.DrShimiKang.com. Thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today.
Thank you so much, Ron. Thank you for the work that you’re all doing. I always end with this kind of sense of urgency. And I truly believe in my work. And the research shows that our children are really, truly in crisis with the rising rates of anxiety, depression, addiction, disconnection.
And when we think of existential threats, we need to turn this around because we need these young brains and bodies and minds to deal with bigger issues like climate change, as well, and be those future-ready leaders. So, I’m so grateful for all of the pod out there – the educators, the parents, the podcasters like you – who are spreading this message because it is of vital importance right now at this moment in time.
Absolutely. Thanks for everything, Shimi, and thanks for that very urgent and important message.
All right, take care. Have a good day.