For Mike Byster, learning in a classroom was always a challenge.
"I was so bored sitting in a desk with a textbook," said Byster, 54, a retired commodities trader who lives in Skokie. "Everyone remembers information differently and for me, I needed to have fun or I wouldn't pay attention."
Byster realized he was gifted with numbers but he also found patterns in words, making up games to remember the information — a trick he learned from his mother when he was a child.
"My mom used to take me grocery shopping and make up fun ways to memorize things," he said. "To memorize the Presidents, I would come up with sentences — 'George and Jeff made money.' So 'George' was George Washington, 'and' was John Adams, 'Jeff' was Thomas Jefferson, 'made' was James Madison, 'money' was James Monroe.'"
An average student, Byster continued to challenge himself with his learning techniques, helping him gain confidence by his teen years. Eventually he started teaching his tricks to others, and quickly realized he was on to something. (One trick in particular teaches kids how to figure out the last three digits on a parent's driver's license number.)
"I saw how empowered they felt when they realized they could do this too," he said. "Once you get warmed up, you don't want to stop."
In 1998 he started giving demonstrations to Chicago area schools for free, and by 2004, he quit his job as a commodities trader to teach his techniques full time. By 2008, he developed Brainetics — a system of games and exercises to help with focus, concentration, and problem solving skills. Now he travels the world, working with students, teachers and parents.
"I worked with a group of 4th and 5th graders in Japan on their multiplication," he said. "It usually takes a couple hours to train kids in the United States, but these kids did this in about 40 minutes, and this was through a translator…Other countries, in my experience, are much more open to teaching kids different ways to learn."
Here are Byster's tips to help your child embrace new learning techniques:
Find games in everyday tasks.
"Whether you're in the car or in the kitchen, you can come up with a thinking game that will be fun and help you learn more information. In my family, we've even made up a game for what people want on hot dogs. So my wife is COMB, which is cheese, onions, mayo and black olives," Byster says.
"When you're driving, try to make words out of the license plates. At a restaurant, try to make a game to memorize everyone's order. You can do this anywhere. It just takes some creativity."
Embrace your child's differences.
"When I was a kid I would get half credit because I would do things in my head and do things that my teachers didn't show in class. Even if I showed my work, it was marked down because it wasn't the way it was taught," he said. "Never stifle a kid's creativity. The kids who think differently are the ones who will grow up and change the world because they're the ones who are thinking outside the box."
Ditch the pen and paper.
"Everything I do with the numbers and the words or alphabetizing is in the mind. I'm not writing anything down. This is a much more powerful tool than doing the crossword or Sudoku or anything else that is right in front of you because it forces you to use new pathways in your brain."
Straight A's aren't the key to happiness.
"I did a presentation at a wealthy suburb and one of the heads in the math department told me one of the biggest obstacles they face with students is suicide because kids are under so much pressure to perform. I recently attended a freshman orientation and the principal asked the crowd, 'How many of you think you have a happy, successful life?' and most people raised their hands and then he asked, 'How many of the parents went to an Ivy League college?' and nobody put their hand up. He said, 'Your kids don't have to go to an Ivy League college to have a happy, successful life. Remember that.' And I wanted to get that guy's autograph after he said that."
Study in a relaxed environment.
"When you take a test, your mind takes you back to the last time you studied, so if you're helping your child look over the notes that last time, make sure you aren't stressed during that interaction. Make it an atmosphere where you're joking around, or eating a hot fudge sundae or something. If they're tearing out their hair that will come to mind when they're taking the test, and their performance will suffer."
Try the numbers game.
"When my son was 7, he asked, 'Dad, what's this number mean on the water bottle? 120507?' I said, 'That's probably the date it expires. Remember those numbers. 120507,' and then every day for the next six months, we added a number to it. It got to be 200 numbers long. So when he got to his freshman year in high school, he knew that when he was 7 years old, he could memorize a 200-digit number. So now, there's nothing that phases him. That gives him the confidence to succeed. And I really do believe that 90 percent of learning is confidence."
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