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Touching Lives

Posted by admin on 15th September and posted in Book Club

Touching Lives

Bhavna R


Teachers play a pivotal role in a child’s life.  They are present in all spheres of the child’s world.  With Teacher’s Day right around the corner, we at PRAYATNA, Chennai, decided that we would highlight the importance of our mentors.  As a teacher you are expected to fulfill many duties.  Mere teaching is not just the sole purpose of an educator.


This book club our team decided to spell out some of the responsibilities of teachers.  We spoke about our favourite teacher and how he or she touched our lives.  While speaking, we stressed on how they performed an action that has earned them a special place in our hearts.  One of us recounted how her teacher’s reassuring grace helped her through dejection when she was denied participation in an annual day show.


Verbs denoting various expectations and duties of a teacher were put up on the board and they were explained through a reading of the book “If I were a Teacher”.  The books illustrations brought alive the purpose of an educator.


The kids at the book club were enthusiastic and spoke of their favourite teacher.  They explained why they liked him or her.  We learned from this that innovativeness is a quality loved by students.  Our kids seem to stress on this fact repeatedly while talking about their favourite teacher.  We touched upon another important fact as well that, teachers are humans too.  Their moods often affect how they react to people around them.  Children engaged in an interesting role play.  Roles were reversed and the children became the teacher.  They enacted how a teacher in a good mood and a bad mood would react to situations encountered in a classroom setting.  This brought out latent acting talents of the kids.


The book club wrapped up with the kids making a greeting card for their teacher.  The children left PRAYTANA excited.  They were keen to celebrate the efforts of their teachers on 5 September.


(Bhavna R is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

Globe Trotting

Posted by admin on 28th August and posted in Book Club

Globe Trotting

By Supriya

As the title suggests, this book club was inspired by the classic tale of Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne.  The session started with a skit wherein the scene where Phineas Gage makes a wager that he can traverse the world in 80 days was enacted.


The purpose of this session was to convey the idea that travelling has evolved over the ages.  In earlier times, travelling around the world was a herculean task.  However, advances in technology over the centuries have made it easier for us to navigate around the world in a shorter span of time.  To order for children to understand how we have progressed with regard to travel, we used a time line.  We traced this journey starting from the humble potter’s wheel to wheels of carriages to motor cars to airplanes.  During the book club, we also highlighted the various modes of transport on land, water and air.


For children to appreciate how much we have progressed, we asked them to estimate the time taken to travel between metros in India by road, rail and air today.  This activity was very interactive with each child wanting to have a turn.  Another interesting activity involved dividing the kids into three groups.  Each group was given a globe.  Their mission was to set an itinerary for a voyage across the globe.  They were asked to describe their route and modes of transport.  This game saw enthusiastic participation with one group in Egypt and another in London.


Keeping in mind the theme, the board depicted various modes of transport including animals, hot air balloons, ships, trains, helicopters and airplanes.  Travelling around the world widens our horizons as distances have shrunk and faraway places have become more accessible.  As a take-away gift, children were given a world map.  The world indeed has grown smaller with time.


(Supriya is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)


Can there be a

Posted by admin on 13th August and posted in Strengths

Can there be a bright side to trauma?

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

First published in Mint, 4 August 14

Receiving a cancer diagnosis, losing a limb, surviving a brutal terrorist attack, outliving a child—for most of us, these events signify heart-rending loss and overwhelming grief. Even though we shirk from even imagining ourselves in such calamitous situations, life, alas, is not so benign. At some point, we will find ourselves face to face with adversity. That negative life events typically cause immeasurable strain is recognized by both laypersons and mental health professionals; in fact, after a shattering event, some people develop “post-traumatic stress disorder” (PTSD), which is now a bona-fide psychological disorder. However, while some people succumb to the throes of anguish, others not only bounce back but also emerge stronger. Knowing that we may be positively transformed by trauma can help us see the other side of death, devastation and destruction. The term “post-traumatic growth” (PTG) was coined by psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun in the 1990s. In an article in a 2004 issue of the journal Psychological Inquiry, they define it as “positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances”. Interestingly, PTG does not merely mean a return to a person’s baseline level of functioning prior to the catastrophe; rather, it involves an enhancement of the person’s life, relationships or work. In their research, Tedeschi and Calhoun have identified five domains under which PTG typically occurs. After going through a shattering crisis, some people gain a “greater appreciation of life” and reorient their priorities according to their altered goals. Others may experience enhanced quality of relationships while some may tread on new life paths. A few people become stronger as individuals, while others feel renewed spiritually. The authors are careful to point out that “growth does not necessarily signal an end to pain or suffering”. Even though they do not yet have the evidence to support their counterintuitive claim, Tedeschi and Calhoun hypothesize that less resilient people may be more inclined to experience PTG as stronger people have the resources to cope with tragedy better. So, more vulnerable people may experience growth as a result of “their struggle with trauma”. Among this set, some who were extroverted and more open to new experiences prior to the trauma, are more likely to experience PTG. Having a supportive network of people also promotes growth. As most of us quiver at the mere thought of disaster, we may think that only a handful of trauma survivors can experience PTG, possibly those with extraordinary courage. However, research indicates that trauma can favourably alter the life of the average person. In 1987, MS Herald Of Free Enterprise, a passenger and car ferry, capsized shortly after leaving a Belgian port. In what was one of the worst maritime disasters in recent history, 193 passengers and crew died. For his doctoral dissertation, which he describes in his 2012 book What Doesn’t Kill Us, psychologist Stephen Joseph interviewed the survivors both right after the tragedy and three years later. Expectedly, many of them showed evidence of great psychological distress a month after the incident. But, after three years, “43% said that their view of life had changed for the better”. Even the more horrific catastrophes can serve as a catalyst for growth. In his 2012 book Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, And The Search For Identity, Andrew Solomon interviews Sue Klebold, the mother of Dylan who, along with his friend, perpetrated the gruesome shooting at the Columbine High School in Colorado, US, in 1999 that killed 13 people. Losing a child is unbearable, but being in Klebold’s position would make most people recoil and shudder. Yet, despite the severe shock, shame and social ostracism that Klebold endured after the tragedy, this mother feels a greater affinity to human beings. As she says: “When I hear about terrorists in the news, I think, ‘That’s somebody’s kid.’ Columbine made me feel more connected to mankind than anything else.” Closer home, a parent of a special child says in an interview that she emerged as a stronger, bolder person after coming to terms with her daughter’s diagnosis of autism. In addition to providing her daughter with all the supporting services and stimulation she requires, she chose to leave her husband in the child’s best interests, a move she would not necessarily have made if her child was typical. Further, she feels that by caring for a special child, she has become more accepting and empathetic towards people. She advises parents in a similar situation to stop feeling sorry and explore all avenues to promote the child’s development. Sagely, she urges them to also take care of their own needs and aspirations as unfulfilled parental desires are only going to impede a child’s development. Interestingly, one of the greatest testimonies to PTG was written even before the term was coined. Viktor Frankl’s memoir, Man’s Search For Meaning, first published in 1946, is a glowing tribute to humankind’s inner fortitude. Even as Frankl describes the gut-wrenching ordeals of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, he is able to discern dignity among decay and perceive beauty in bestial conditions. He writes that despite “the enforced physical and mental primitiveness” that characterized life in the camp, “it was possible for spiritual life to deepen”. He feels that as long as man has a purpose or a meaning that he attaches to life, he can withstand practically anything. While the guards stripped the prisoners bare, both literally and metaphorically, Frankl evocatively says, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way.” In his book, Frankl narrates a poignant anecdote. He was talking to a woman who was on the verge of dying in the camp. Despite knowing that death was imminent, the woman remained in good spirits. She confessed to Frankl that in her former life she had been spoiled and had not cultivated her spiritual side. Looking out of the window of her hut, she pointed to a tree, saying it was her only companion. She also admitted talking to the tree. Frankl first thought that the woman might be delirious or hallucinating. When he asked her what the tree said, she answered, “I am here—I am here—I am life, eternal life.”

(The author is Director, PRAYATNA.)



Heal the World

Posted by admin on 5th August and posted in Uncategorized


Bindu Patnala


This book club we read Ladder to the Moon by Maya Soetoro-Ng.  The book is a heart-warming tale of reunion between a grandmother and grandchild. The author, transported the children along with Grandma Anne and Suhaila, on a magical journey to the moon.  The session begun with an introduction to the concept of natural calamities and their effects, along with photos of each disaster.

The book focussed on events that have affected people across the world and reaffirms our common humanity reminding us that loved ones lost are always with us, and that sometimes we need only look at the moon and remember.  Grandma Annie along with Suhaila and the kids at PRAYATNA embarked on this magical journey to the moon where Grandma Annie encourages Suhaila to use each of her five senses to reach out to the rest of the world. Together they find people in trouble, trembling in earthquakes, trying to outswim tsunamis, and praying for peace.  Annie and Suhaila reach down from the moon to offer their solace and comfort as they bring these people up, making the moon brighter for all to see.

The teachers mimed the story as it was read.  The props used for the story were welcomed with giggles by the children, who found the thought of imagining a white sheet as the moon amusing.  The children were enthralled by the story.

Though children found the import of term “natural disaster” challenging, they understood it by the end of the book reading.  They enacted a role play of their own depicting the concept.  They made a sincere effort to showcase the affects, damage and chaos during a natural disaster.  Three groups depicted different disasters.

The role play was followed by a discussion of disaster management and how it helps in dealing with and avoiding risks.  Topics such as the kind of help that can be provided during natural calamities and what children can do to help the people in distress were touched upon.  Then were then told about organizations like WHO, UNICEF and Red Cross and the wonderful work done by these organisations towards society.

Children then came up with ideas such as donating money and clothes when asked what they could do as members of the society to help minimize the loss of people affected.   They were also told how they could make a difference with their gestures such as organizing a school fund raiser, or by conducting small community events such as bake sale, or organizing a walk or run.

The children were given message cards to take home, which said “Together We Can Make a Difference.” to send across the message that each one of us can make a difference, and together we make change.

(Bindu Patnala is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

Temper! Temper!

Posted by admin on 17th July and posted in Book Club

Temper! Temper!

Divya Suresh


Anger is an emotion that makes the best of us see red.  It manifests when one perceives threat to one’s basic boundaries or is provoked to retaliate.  It is as natural an emotion as happiness but is usually viewed as a negative one that must be brought under control.  There are different levels of anger that vary from mild anger that we may refer to as irritation to the most severe kind we may describe as fury or rage.


A lesson in anger management is what we at the PRAYATNA Book Club in Bangalore had in store for the children in the first session of our new term.  For this purpose we sought the help of Sophie, the main character of the book we had chosen called, When Sophie gets angry- really really angry by Molly Bang.  The book tells the story of a little girl named Sophie who had a bit of a problem controlling her anger.  So when her play gets interrupted, Sophie gets so wild that she wants to smash the world to smithereens and feels like she may explode like a volcano.  And so she leaves her home and runs away to the woods where she derives the calm and relief she seeks from the sights and sounds of the forest and soothing movements of the waves of the sea and the gentle breeze.  She then returns home in a peaceful frame of mind.


The Book Club board was done up with the picture of a volcano erupting with synonyms of the word ‘anger’.  We started off by asking the children about times when they got angry and what they did in those times to calm themselves.  We outlined the physiological reactions that anger sets off such as increased heart rate and blood pressure, and other reactions like feeling hot in the face, gritting one’s teeth, glaring and so on.  Role plays elucidating the constructive and destructive aspects of anger were enacted.


Following the book reading, we proceeded to discuss the different shades of anger that the synonyms on the board brought forth and helped the children form sentences to effectively bring out the shades of meaning.  To wrap up the book club session, we explained the importance of controlling one’s anger through the ‘Traffic Light Model’, developed by Roger Weissberg of Yale University.  Using this model, where red stands for stop, amber for think and green stands for act, children are taught to first assess a situation before acting in haste.


The children bid goodbye taking home with them traffic signals which we hope will serve as reminders to them to ‘Think before they act.’


(Divya Suresh is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

All Children Are Special

Posted by admin on 14th July and posted in Strengths

All Children are Special

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

(First published in Mint, 1 July 14)

-“You always give Atul the bigger piece.”


-“I know you like Mira more than me.”


-“Why should I always be the one who gives in?”


Most parents sigh in exasperation when their efforts to play fair with their children don’t meet with success. Typically, one child feels like the underdog no matter how much you try to parcel out your attention, love and support evenly.


Parental love may be immeasurable, but you have to exhibit it among other competing demands. As long as you ensure that all your children are loved and cared for, children usually take the all-rounder brother or the more talented sister in their stride. But what if one of them has special needs? Given that you would spend an inordinate amount of time and emotional energy in catering to the needs of the special child, how would you react when the other sibling accuses you of being negligent or remiss in your duty as a parent?


Family dynamics are complex and unique. And, contrary to what parents may want to believe, children are not created equal. Even in families where all the children fall under the “normal” spectrum, there is wide variation in terms of abilities, proclivities and personalities. Parents may swear that they don’t compare their children, but comments like “Rima is the patient one” or “David is the athlete” send a clear message. Ironically, in families with a special child, these inequities get both amplified and nullified as the siblings usually cannot be gauged by the same yardstick. Thus, a parent may berate Sheila, the typically developing eight-year-old, for getting her division sums wrong while lauding Kunal, the 10-year-old with Down’s Syndrome, for neatly printing his full name. By understanding the impact a special child has on a family, parents can take proactive steps to cater to the unstated needs of their typical children as well.


In a 2008 study published in the Journal Of Intellectual Disability Research, researchers in Western Australia interviewed over 300 parents of children with either Down’s or Rett’s Syndrome (the latter, a severe type of autism) on the effect of disability in siblings. Parents reported both benefits and drawbacks on their typically developing children.  Among the major disadvantages cited, parents bemoaned that they spent less time with the typical child as the special child demanded more attention. In addition, the family often had to forego socialization and other outings and adhere to a fixed routine. Often, parental stress from caring for the special child rubbed off on the non-disabled one too. And some parents felt guilty that their young child was already saddled with the burden of caring for his/her special sibling.


On the plus side, parents identified many advantages. They felt that their typically developing children were more tolerant of disability or difference and more compassionate than their peers. Most children also developed a heightened sense of empathy and were perceived as more mature and patient than other children their age. In addition to chipping in to care for the special child, these children also appreciated their own life to a greater degree and did not take their abilities and gifts for granted.


Share love, feelings

In her 2002 book, Special Siblings: Growing Up With Someone With A Disability, Mary McHugh provides an evocative first-person account of what it is like to grow up with a younger brother who is mentally challenged. Besides sharing her candid feelings, McHugh also interviews people who have a sibling with a disability. Often, children have ambivalent feelings about themselves and their brother or sister.


On the one hand, the child may resent a special sibling because he or she practically usurps all the parental attention and energy. But, at the same time, the child may also put inordinate pressure on herself to achieve stellar heights in order to “make up” for the disabled sibling, who may not reach conventional milestones. Interestingly, about one-third of the siblings that McHugh interviewed chose careers in the service professions, while many others either volunteered or were advocates for social causes.


In their 2012 best-selling book, Siblings Without Rivalry—How To Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too, communication experts Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish caution parents against casting children into roles, even if a child has special needs. Foremost, as children have differing needs, they advise parents that children do not have to be treated equally. Instead, they advocate treating every child uniquely.


Thus, when children are fighting over who got the bigger piece of cake, ask the children, “Is anybody still hungry? There are some biscuits in the tin.” Do not encourage comparisons by saying, “Both your pieces are equal.” When children accuse you of loving the sibling more, list out the unique qualities that you love in the child.

Secondly, children with special needs should not be viewed as “problem” children. Instead, parents may accept each child’s frustrations, appreciate what they can do and focus on finding solutions to navigate their challenges. This will help children to not cast themselves in either a “victim” or “perfect child” role.


Faber and Mazlish also recommend that each parent should spend some time alone with each child several times a week if possible. During this “special time”, make sure that you devote your attention to the child you are spending time with, without referring to the other child. In addition to bonding with the child, carving out this time communicates that you value each child for his or her individuality.


In her book, McHugh quotes Debra Lobato, a developmental psychologist, who encourages parents to debrief their typically developing child about the problems that their sibling has in an age-appropriate manner. Moreover, parents must also involve siblings in discussions on how long-term care can be provided to the special child after the death of the parents. As McHugh convincingly writes: “The most important factor here is how the parents react to a child with a disability.” If the parents adopt an optimistic world view regarding their special child, the rest of the family is likely to mirror the same positivity.


Aruna Sankaranarayanan is the founder and director of Prayatna, a centre for children with learning difficulties.



Performing Under Pressure

Posted by admin on 7th July and posted in Strengths

Performing Under Pressure

Aruna Sankaranarayanan

(First published in Education Plus, THE HINDU, 30 June 14)


Ratan is elated as he finally got an interview call from his dream company.  He was sorely disappointed a couple of years earlier when he was bypassed by this company during campus recruitment.  At last, he has got a chance to enter its hallowed portals.  He is fairly confident of impressing them with his credentials.  He is performing well on his current job at another reputed company and has made a number of impressive presentations.  In college, he was in the top 1% of his graduating class besides being a quizzer.  On the day on the interview, he strides in confidently wearing a full-sleeved collared shirt and tie.  But the moment the interviewer starts questioning him, Ratan’s mind freezes.  He is unable to articulate clearly what his current job entails.  Within seconds, he is fumbling for words and knows that his chances are doomed.


Sadly, Ratan’s poor performance is not indicative of his potential.  In fact, he is just the type of candidate the company is looking to hire.  Psychologist Sian Beilock who has studied the phenomenon extensively, defines ‘choking’ as “sub-optimal performance” under high pressure.  When a person who is capable of performing at a higher level and has done so in the past, plummets in a stressful situation, he has fallen prey to choking.  And while it can happen to any of us, we would like to minimize the chances of its occurring.


Beilock recommends that we not only practice for a high-stakes event, but that we also practice under stressful conditions similar to the actual event.  So, instead of simply anticipating the interviewer’s questions, Ratan could have asked his friend to fire a volley of questions like a formal interview where he has to answer crisply, without hemming and hawing.  By practicing under simulated stress, Ratan would have been more prepared to face the barrage of questions.  If you have to give a speech on stage, it is better to practice in front of an audience at home than to simply recite it to yourself.  The closer the practice conditions are to the real event, the less likely you are to choke.  This is one reason why schools and colleges have mock exams before the actual Boards.


Further, it helps to anticipate potential stumbling blocks and plan how you would circumvent them so that you do not trip up during the actual event.  In fact, Olympic swimming legend Micahel Phelps used to prepare to face any eventuality.  An article in the The Telegraph in 2012 describes how Phelps trained, almost foreseeing every conceivable calamity.  He used to even practice swimming blindfolded by darkening his goggles with a black marker pen.  This way, he attuned his kinesthetic awareness of every stroke and had to feel the wall as opposed to seeing it.  He says in the article, “It’s weird, sure, but we want to be ready for literally anything…”  And Phelps penchant for planning for every rainy day paid rich dividends during the Beijing Olympics.  During the 200m butterfly final, his goggles began filling up with water, impairing his vision.  But Phelps didn’t have reason to choke as he had practiced swimming in the dark and went on it win the gold and setting a new world record.


Another technique used by Phelps and long advocated by sports psychologists is visualization where an athlete imagines a positive outcome during a high-stakes event.  In fact, researchers have found that this technique can be used to quell queasiness during public speaking, an event that provokes butterflies in many people.  In a study published in Communication Education, Joe Ayers and Theodore Hopf found students who had visualized themselves making a cogent speech reported lower levels of anxiety compared to those who had done this exercise.


Many people, even those who are otherwise confident, are stymied by talking in public.  However, if you have choked while addressing a gathering, do not despair.  Confidence, like most other traits, can be cultivated and you might be humbled to hear of the story of a young Indian lawyer who ran out of the courtroom while arguing his first case.  Recounting this traumatic experience, the lawyer later wrote, “I stood up, but my heart sank into my boots.  My head was reeling and I felt as though the whole court was doing likewise. I could think of no question to ask.”  This very lawyer then went on to become a master orator who inspired and mobilized millions of Indians as Mahatma Gandhi.


Finally, you must remember that you don’t have to quell your anxiety entirely.  As the famous Yerkes-Dodson law states, performance actually increases with arousal up to a point.  So some amount of nervousness before an exam, debate or job interview may work in your favour, as long as you don’t cross the threshold to drown in your worries.



(The author is Director, PRAYATNA.

Old is New

Posted by admin on 3rd July and posted in Book Club

Old is New

Radhika Menon


The June session of the book club in Chennai celebrated the notion of “hand-me-downs.”  Each child was asked to bring something that was handed down to them by an older sibling, cousin or parent.  The kids streamed into the centre, holding objects, either big or small.  We started the session by asking children what “hand-me-downs” were.  Even though we live in very consumerist and wasteful times, all children said that they had received hand-me-downs sometime in their lives.  Then, the teachers surprised the kids by showing objects that were handed down to them.  One teacher wore a sparkling green necklace that was given to her by her mother who had inherited it previously from her sister.  Another teacher shared a tale of two dresses ended up as a teddy bear’s outfit.  The children then briefly explained what object they had got, who gave it and how valuable it was to them.


The book for this session was Ju’s Story by Paul Zacharia.  As the story was read, the teachers mimed the emotions and actions of the main characters.  The children watched and listened entranced to a touching story of a child from an impoverished background who rarely gets anything new.  All her clothes, textbooks, bags and stationery are bequeathed to her by richer kids.  The only things that Ju gets that are new are her notebooks, which she has to use very frugally.


After the book was read, we had a discussion on the joys of receiving old versus new things.  We wanted to convey the idea that old things also have value, be in the form of a story, a sentiment or a family history.  However, we also discussed why we like new things and what it would be like not to have anything new.


The book club also explored another theme that was sparked off by the book—the old-fashioned letter that is delivered by post.  The bulletin board displayed pictures and terms related to post.  In the Internet age, where it is possible to exchange information in a jiffy, we explained how post works and how people communicated in the days gone by.


Finally, kids were given post cards and asked to write or draw to themselves.  Most kids took great pains in composing letters to themselves.  We told the kids to await the post card in the mail.


(Radhika Menon is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

Linked Together

Posted by admin on 5th May and posted in Book Club

Linked Together

Chanchal Nair


The last book club session in March in Chennai up with lots of expectations.  The theme of this book club was ‘Linked Together’.  To begin with, kids were introduced to the beautiful forest of Sundarban, which is the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger through the words of a staff member.  We spoke about the mangroves of Sundarban and the biodiversity of the region.  The board was the cynosure of all eyes as it depicted a lush forest with tigers and antelopes.  The next activity ‘Guessing Game’ was a real eye opener as the children were asked to guess the population of India followed by the tiger population.  No one could guess that the difference between the number of people and tigers was so huge.  Moreover, the kids were dismayed when they were told there are only 1500 tigers in India and they are on the verge of extinction.


The next activity of the day was book reading.  We chose the book In Bon Bibi’s Forest by Sandhya Rao.  The story revolves around Sundarbans in Bengal.  Dokkhin Rai, a monster with striped skin, sharp claws and teeth, ready for the kill, terrorizes the settlements bordering Sundarban.  The locals live in mortal fear of falling prey to Dokkhin Rai’s hunger and anger.  It is then that Bon Bibi, and her brother Shah Jhongoli take it upon themselves to protect the people and other lives in the forest.  As the story telling began, the narrator’s voice and actions had the kids hooked till the end.  The story has taken kids through the mythology and the age old theme of human –animal harmony.  The book reading was followed by an engaging quiz.


The next activity was a discussion on the conservation of tigers and the importance of tigers in the food chain.  The session was made more interactive through a food chain game.  Kids were reminded that if the tiger is healthy the ecosystem will be healthy.

The last activity of the session was again a discussion on what we can do to protect these endangered species.  The book club concluded with a message of the importance of using the forest with a heart.   The children were given the masks of tiger, deer and plant as take-home gifts.


(Chanchal Nair is a Special Educator at PRAYATNA.)

One Step at a Time

Posted by admin on 29th April and posted in Strengths

One Step at a Time

First Published in Education Plus, The HINDU, 28 April 14

Aruna Sankaranarayanan


You return home from college with your head buzzing with all the things you need to get done.  Being the class monitor, you have to coordinate the logistics of the upcoming class picnic.  So you quickly post a note on your Facebook page asking your friends to sign up.  Before you start working on your Chemistry record book, you plug your iPod into your ears to listen to the song your friends were discussing this morning.  As you start recording your observations of the Chemistry experiment, your cell phone beeps.  Your friend sends an SMS asking whether you are coming for tuition.  You respond and then get back to your record book.  Within a few minutes, your mom calls saying that she will be late.  While talking to her, you quickly check your FB page for updates.  24 friends have responded.  You quickly send another message on What’sApp asking about the picnic.  You also text your friends saying the song is really cool.  You then get back to writing your Chemistry observations.


Sounds familiar?  In today’s wired world, we all engage in some form of multitasking, often without realizing it.  How many of us are guilty of reading an SMS while we are conversing with someone else?  Or, of checking FB updates during a boring lecture or shooting off a quick email while wolfing down our breakfast.  And, despite warnings to the contrary, people continue to talk on their phones while driving, even on two-wheelers.


How would you characterize the work habits of those who juggle multiple tasks with relative ease?  Efficient, competent and productive?  Or disorganized, disorderd and suboptimal?  We generally think of someone who does myriad jobs as being very productive.  After all, time is a scare resource and we would like to pack in as much as possible into every minute.  But contrary to popular belief, research suggests that multitasking may not be the best way to go about accomplishing our goals.  In fact, toggling between tasks actually compromises productivity rather than promoting it.


In a series of experiments published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, Professors David Meyer and Jeffrey Evans studied what happens when people switch between two tasks, such as doing math sums and categorizing geometric shapes.  The found that subjects lost time when they had to switch between tasks, and it took them longer to make the switch if the task was more complex or less familiar.  When we flit from task to task, our brains have to not only adjust to the fact that we are making the switch, but also activate the demands of the new task.  Thus, as we go back and forth between tasks, we may end up spending more time on them as opposed to completing one job at a time.


Communications specialist, Clifford Nass of Stanford University and his colleagues, compared the cognitive performance of those who multitask on electronic media regularly versus those who do not.  In all three experiments, the performance of high multitaskers was compromised compared to their serially-focused peers.  Thus, students who multitask often were poorer at ignoring irrelevant stimuli and were worse at remembering which items were repeated on a test.  Further, to the surprise of the researchers, the multitaskers were beaten even on a task that required switching between two sets of stimuli.  Ironically, chronic multitaskers were worse than others even at multitasking!  As Nass bluntly states in a interview in Stanford Report, “Everything distracts them.”


Even as you juggle between tasks, and flit from screen to screen, do you find that your ability to pay attention for a sustained period of time is diminishing faster than you would dare admit?  If you answered yes, you are part of a growing tribe of Netizens who find to difficult to concentrate on a single task.  Author Nicholas Carr aptly captures this phenomenon when he writes in his book, The Shallows, “the Net seizes our attention only to scatter it.”  The longer we shift and shuffle between Facebook, WhatsApp, Gmail and cricket scores, our brains get used to the instant but superficial gratification that the Net provides.  While every generation is more tech-savvy than the previous one, and is thus more prone to multitask earlier in their development, we may gradually lose other essential life skills like the ability to concentrate, deliberate and reflect.  MIT professor Sherry Turkle cautions us in her book, Alone Together, that multitasking provides us with a ‘high’ that deludes us into thinking we are being more efficient.


And, finally, for those daring souls who swear that talking on their mobiles is not an impediment to driving, the findings of Professor Brian Scholl and his colleagues will hopefully deter them from this highly unsafe practice.  In an experiment, they found that those who spoke on their mobiles while performing a task missed seeing an unexpected object in 90% of instances compared to 30% for those who were not talking on a mobile.  In the interests of both safety and efficiency, we need to curb our multitasking instincts.  Slow and steady is better than frenzied.

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