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Stress and the Human Brain

Stress and the human brain

Why are there more patients coming to my office with complaints of memory problems? Great question, and the typical answer is stress! In the course of human development, our brain developed the acute stress response that promoted survival when we were being chased and threatened by large animals—and it uses the same stress response to react to stressful events in everyday modern life.

A stressor triggers the amygdala in our brain that sets off the alarm bells for the body to prepare to fight or flee. Norepinephrine floods the brain generating a state of hyper focus, the pituitary sets off the adrenal glands and adrenaline cascades through the body. This causes the lungs to expand for more oxygen, the blood flow to increase to large muscles, digestion and reproduction to halt, and processing speed to increase. We are prepared to fight for our survival.

If this beneficial response to life-threatening stressors does not shut off appropriately, it becomes a chronic response that can damage the structure and function of the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampus is the neighbor of the amygdala and the critical structure for memory and new learning.

The body generates steroid hormones known as glucocorticoids when under stress, and over time these hormones can do structural and functional damage to the hippocampus. This is the reason why chronic stress can cause memory problems. It is common, for example, to see memory deficit in those with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

The good news is we do have some control over our perceptions and our body’s ability to regain a balanced and relaxed state.

In my practice, I spend time working with patients to first explain with pictures the neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of stress and the brain. This provides a visual to the person. We then identify what the stressors are in the person’s life that are setting off the alarm bells in the brain. Using visualization, relaxation, meditation, and self-talk the person can connect with their amygdala and cool the alarm bells by triggering the “rest and digest” system, also known as the parasympathetic nervous system.

Consider the following tips as a means of cooling the amygdala, thereby promoting hippocampal function and enhancing memory:

  1. Practice daily breathing exercises with deep inhalation (this will set off the stress response) and equally deep exhalation (this will set off the relaxation system). This should be done for three to five minutes twice daily.
  2. Engage in quiet self-talk to help guide your brain to remain calm with emotional equilibrium. You have the power through self-talk to minimize the brain’s tendency to react with panic. By making the process conscious, you will be able to identify your own stress triggers and to work on avoiding the stress response.
  3. Learn how to meditate and to gain mindfulness, as this will free you from conscious and subconscious distraction.
  4. Engage in daily exercise with moderate exertion. Blood flow to the brain can help emotional stability and information processing.
  5. Increase your fish intake to 8 ounces weekly, as the Omega-3s are wonderful for cognition and emotional functions of the brain.
  6. Work on being in the moment and enjoying those you love. Life will always be stressful, unless we do not perceive it that way.

Paul Nussbaum, Ph.D., is a board-certified clinical psychologist specializing in neuropsychology. He is a Fellow of the National Academy of Neuropsychology and American Academy of Clinical Psychology and an adjunct Professor in Neurological Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.  Learn more about Dr. Nussbaum at:  www.paulnussbaum.com or email him at:  drness@me.com.

Related Reading:

Of Rats and Men: How Stress Affects the Brain

Modeling Healthy Choices: Three Habits for Optimal Brain Health

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Preventing Summer Brain Drain with Dr. Martha S. Burns

Summer brain drain Martha Burns

One of my favorite webinar presenters here at Scientific Learning, Dr. Martha Burns, recently gave a webinar called “BrainPro:  Preventing Summer Brain Drain.”

Dr. Burns covered a number of points related to learning and retaining information

  • How learners can benefit from current research in 3 areas: 
    • Psychology – the benefits of teaching to a child’s style of learning
    • Neuroscience and Technology – using neuroscience-based technology to individualize instruction to meet the needs of each individual student
    • Education – providing standardized content to learners across the US
  • The science of how the brain learns.  The human brain has thousands of networks that work together and help us to do a lot of different things. Pathways in the brain get stronger and stronger with use.   The more we do something, the better we get at that activity.  The stronger the pathways in the brain, the easier it becomes for the child to learn and retain information. 
  • Early difficulties in reading. If a child is struggling with phonological awareness, memory, vocabulary or comprehension, it may indicate a learning difficulty. The cognitive abilities of memory, attention, processing, and sequencing that are foundational to language can be exercised with the BrainPro program.

Following Dr. Burns, we heard from Jenny, a parent from Florida who had her teenage daughter use the BrainPro program to help her pass the FCAT (the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test).   Her daughter has a very high GPA and takes AP and Honors classes, but had difficulty in passing the FCAT reading test two years in a row. After she went through the BrainPro program, she took the FCAT for the 3rd time and passed with a near perfect score on the test.  

View the webinar to for more detail and visuals about how the brain learns, and find out how the BrainPro program can help learners stay sharp over the summer break.

Related Reading:

Antidotes to Summer Brain Drain (Part 2): 5 Ways to Pull the Plug on Learning Loss

Leigh Ann’s Story: Making a Difference in Children’s Lives

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18 Ways to Encourage Students to Read This Summer

Summer reading

It’s that time again. The end of the school year is rapidly approaching, and everyone is thinking about summer—especially students. It can be hard enough to get students to read within the structure of the academic year, so how can you encourage your students to read during the summer break?  Here are some things to try:

  1. Let students know that all kinds of reading count – graphic novels, magazine articles, websites, and ebooks on mobile devices – and that they should read what they enjoy.
  2. Talk about a book that you absolutely loved or that changed your life in some way.
  3. Ask students to bring books they liked into class, along with a note card explaining why.  Display the books and cards around the classroom so students can browse.
  4. Sponsor a class-wide or school-wide book swap.
  5. Provide URLs to online reading lists at websites like www.readkiddoread.com and guysread.com.
  6. Have each student put together a personal reading list of four or five titles to complete over the summer.
  7. Find something good to say about any book on a student’s reading list. Never say a book is bad, wrong, too hard or too easy.
  8. Have students compile their individual reading lists into a class reading list and post to the school website.
  9. Create your own summer reading list and post it for your students to see.
  10. Talk to your class about why people read – e.g., acquiring historical knowledge, entertainment, learning about other people’s experiences and perspectives.  Ask them what they like about reading.
  11. If you have a classroom blog or wiki, post thought-provoking passages from books   along with the book title and author.
  12. Keep your class blog or wiki available to students over the summer so they can share their reactions to books they’re reading.  Don’t forget to add updates about your own reading.
  13. Show students how to keep a reading journal, and discuss how keeping one might help students decide what to read next.
  14. Communicate with parents about the importance of setting expectations for reading every day.
  15. Encourage every family to get and use a library card.
  16. Let students know what your local public library has planned for summer.
  17. Give students access to the online Reading Assistant program at school or home for extra guided oral reading practice to help build fluency.
  18. Let students know that reading will actually make their brains work better.

Related Reading:

Antidotes to Summer Brain Drain (Part 1): Tips and Tools for Fun Math Skills Practice

Antidotes to Summer Brain Drain (Part 2): 5 Ways to Pull the Plug on Learning Loss

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How to Rekindle the Love of Learning

Rekindling the love of learning

When searching for an expert on learning look no further than the crib. The infant brain is innately curious and without assistance, quickly begins to apply strategies for learning that help to make sense of the world around it.  No one worries that a baby will be too lazy, uncooperative or unmotivated to learn; they know nothing of the sort.  We are born with a built-in desire to acquire new information and will do so without fear of making mistakes or failing [i].  It’s this type of discovery that stimulates our natural love of learning and allows us to explore life in enriching and meaningful ways. 

Yet with such a strong impetus for learning, research demonstrates that a lack of motivation to study and learn is widespread among youth in the United States, and that love of learning declines steadily from third through ninth grade [ii].  A number of views suggest that the structure of school (i.e. required attendance, school-selected topics/curriculum, and constant checking on student’s progress) assumes that children are not natural learners, but must be compelled to learn through the efforts of others.  These structured approaches may in fact inhibit learning because they can avert a child’s natural curiosity, enthusiasm and intrinsic motivation

So how can parents and educators help rekindle the love of learning? Incorporating these 5 strategies into your daily activities with students is sure to help.  Not only are they important drivers for effective learning but they help to convey appropriate expectations for both you and the students.

  1. Modeling - Show that you’re a learner too. Children need to be exposed to your own learning initiatives.  Talk about professional development, conferences and public events you’re involved with.  Invite students to be part of them and then further seek their input about its value in the classroom.
  2. Trust - Make connections to your students’ lives.  Show genuine interest in their well being.  Children know when you’re fake or factual and may not hesitate to call you out.
  3. Respect- Listen to your students and value their thinking.  Invite students to explore new topics and provide opportunities to investigate in a variety of ways.  Focus on each student individually; they’re eager to receive attention and will do almost anything to reciprocate your acceptance.
  4. Feedback - Reward and celebrate students’ achievements with frequent, positive feedback and encouragement.  Try to avoid extrinsic rewards as they can undermine the students’ motivation and may prompt students only to perform when a reward is given.
  5. Novelty - Create motivating learning experiences through passionate instruction.  If you aren’t enjoying the class, neither are they.  Step into character and act out a scene; the value of learning is worth more than the cost of your brief humiliation.

 

 

References:

[i] Alison Gopnik.  “The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind”. William Morrow & Co., 2000

[ii] Deborah Stipek and Kathy Seal.  “Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning”.  New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2001

Related Reading:

The Making of a 21st Century Educator: 5 Ways to be a Better Teacher in Today’s Classroom

Teaching with Poverty in Mind: How to Help At-Risk Students Succeed

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Free Webinars on Brain Health and the Science of Learning – Register Today!

I’m pleased to announce two upcoming live webinars on learning and brain health.  As usual, there is no charge for these webinars, so please register today and join us to get the latest from the brain experts!

Dr. Paul NussbaumBrain Health Across the Lifespan

On June 6, you’re invited to learn about “Brain Health Across the Lifespan” with our returning guest, Dr. Paul Nussbaum.  While years of science maintained that neurogenesis does not occur in adult humans, current research indicates otherwise. If the human brain can generate new brain cells in adulthood, an entire new frontier of discovery and opportunity emerges.  This webinar is at 10am PT (1pm ET). 

Dr. Nussbaum is a board-certified clinical psychologist specializing in neuropsychology and a Fellow of the National Academy of Neuropsychology and American Academy of Clinical Psychology. 

Dr. Marty BurnsThe Science of Learning

On June 18, Dr. Burns will be back with “The Science of Learning,” a webinar about the potential of neuroscience to profoundly impact education. Educators are just beginning to discover how differences in brain organization underlie different learning capacities, and how altering the organization of the brain can dramatically increase the ability to learn.  The science of learning has guided the development of targeted neuroscience-based learning technologies to enhance underlying memory, attention, processing and sequencing abilities and proven to quickly and efficiently accelerate learning in many student populations at all grade levels.  This webinar is at 9am PT (12pm ET).

Dr. Burns is a neuroscientist who specializes in the development of language and the brain, current research on how the brain learns and factors affecting learning, and how understanding the science of learning can change our perceptions of what goes on in the classroom. She is Adjunct Associate Professor at Northwestern University and a Fellow of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

 

Related Reading:

Modeling Healthy Choices: Three Habits for Optimal Brain Health

The Reading Brain: How Your Brain Helps You Read, and Why it Matters

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Implicit vs. Explicit Instruction: Which is Better for Word Learning?

Word learning

As educators, we are constantly faced with the question of how we can best present material so that it is optimally “learnable” for the different students we are trying to reach.

There is considerable evidence both for and against self-directed and exploratory learning, so there is a great opportunity for neuroscience to examine the ground-level differences between these and more traditional methods of instruction and how the brain reacts to each. One of those differences is the subject of current investigation: the divide between explicit and implicit instruction.

By explicit instruction, we mean teaching where the instructor clearly outlines what the learning goals are for the student, and offers clear, unambiguous explanations of the skills and information structures they are presenting.

By implicit instruction, we refer to teaching where the instructor does not outline such goals or make such explanations overtly, but rather simply presents the information or problem to the student and allows the student to make their own conclusions and create their own conceptual structures and assimilate the information in the way that makes the most sense to them.

Which is more effective?

One study out of Vanderbilt University recently looked at this question as it applies to word learning. In this study, principal investigator Laurie Cutting and her team examined 34 adult readers, from 21 to 36 years of age.

The subjects were taught pseudowords—words that are similar to real words but that have no meaning, such as “skoat” or “chote.” Then, through both explicit and implicit instruction, subjects were taught meanings for these words. (In the study, both of these pseudowords were associated with the picture of a dog.)

The goal was to gain a clearer understanding of how people with different skills and capabilities processed short-term instruction, how effectively they learned, and how those differences looked physiologically in the brain.

In the end, the subjects were all able to learn the pseudowords. But, through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers learned that something deeper was actually taking place: subjects previously identified as excellent readers showed little difference between how they processed explicit vs. implicit instruction. Average readers, on the other hand, showed through their fMRIs that they had to work harder to learn through implicit instruction; for them, explicit instruction was the more effective method.

Granted, the study did focus on a group of adults, not school-age learners. Still the Vanderbilt team’s preliminary results support the idea that, even in group situations where all students have roughly the same degree of previous experience, prior reading ability might be an important element to consider when choosing an instructional approach.

 

 

For further reading:

Amy M. Clements-Stephens, April D. Materek, Sarah H. Eason, Hollis S. Scarborough, Kenneth R. Pugh, Sheryl Rimrodth, James J. Pekar, Laurie E. Cutting. Neural circuitry associated with two different approaches to novel word learning. Developmental Cognitive Science. Volume 2, Supplement 1. 15 February 2012. pp. S99-S113.

Related Reading:

The Curious Mind: Interest, Drive, and the Road to Academic Success

Language and the Reading Puzzle: 5 Steps Towards Fluent Reading

Subscribe to this blog to get new blog posts right in your inbox and stay up to date on the science of learning!

  

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Creating a New Culture of Teaching and Learning with Alan November

21st century technology

"Creating a New Culture of Teaching and Learning" is a Scientific Learning webinar presented by Alan November, proposing that educators make the most of today's "small world" by turning classrooms into global communication centers and collaborating with fellow teachers and students from all over the world.

November's ideas about a new culture of teaching and learning are plentiful, as are his suggestions for further research. In this webinar, November proposes a pathway to a 21st century educational paradigm that is centered around information, collaboration, and empathy.  Here are just a few of his thoughts on the subject:

Information

Schools ought to abolish their "technology planning committees," which focus on "stuff" (wires, boxes, hardware).  Alternatively, educational institutions should simply understand technology as the "digital plumbing" that works hand in hand with what November calls the "real revolution": the large amounts of information that flow through technology.

Collaboration

The educational experience can and should be supercharged with true collaboration. Collaboration can take place in the classroom itself, such as when certain students are tasked with the daily documentation of classroom activities via collaborative note taking, videography, and photography. Or, collaboration can take place across thousands of miles if teachers take the time to find classrooms in other parts of the world that are willing to work with a partner classroom on a given project. For example, a classroom in the US studying the American Revolution partnering with a classroom in the UK studying the same thing could help learners understand and respect differing perspectives.

Empathy

When he asked the CEO of HSBC Bank in England what the most important "21st century skill" is, November received the surprising reply, "empathy." Empathy, the ability to identify with others and value their perspectives, is a crucial life skill in today's small world, for both students and teachers. Empathy helps teachers build relationships with educators in various parts of the world and encourages young people to become fearless global communicators who are able to work with anyone.

More than once during his presentation, November states that he hopes his ideas are "good enough to critique."  He clearly sees the ideas he proposes as a jumping-off point for further exploration and conversation about how to make the most of our era's hyperconnectivity.

No matter where you are in today's small, small world, you’ll want to check out the entire webinar…and you can.  Click here.

Alan November is an international leader in education technology known for his compelling thought leadership.  He passionately challenges teachers and administrators to harness 21st century technology and create learning opportunities to prepare young people for an open, connected, and engaged future.

Related Reading:

How to Motivate Students: The Psychology of Success

5 Reasons Why Your Students Should Write Every Day

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My Favorite Teachers: Mrs. Bandy and Dr. Gerald Canter

Favorite Teachers

Neuroscientists recognize the importance of teachers. Teachers are probably the only professionals that deliberately and strategically build brains. Dr. Stanislas Dehaene, the author of Reading in the Brain and The Number Sense, has published research demonstrating how literacy education alone augments our visual-spatial and language skills. Yet, many don’t appreciate how difficult teaching is or how it impacts our lives. When any of us considers influential people in our lives, people who shaped our sense of self or modeled future success for us, a special teacher is often on our list. Favorite teachers are often those who do three things for us: make us feel smart, take us under their wing to develop what they see as special skills, talents or abilities, and model for us how to proceed to realize our goals.

My list of special teachers contains two who meet those criteria. My first was Mrs. Bandy. She was my first and second grade teacher (I was very lucky to have her for two years). I was a middle child in my family, third out of four children, and as such my parents were very busy trying to help my older siblings get through high school and into college and take care of my little sister. As most middle children who read this blog can probably identify with, I learned to demand little and “get along.”  I knew how to keep quiet.  But, when I entered school I did not have a great deal of confidence.

Mrs. Bandy made me feel very special and took me under her wing. Reading was not easy for me so she put me in my own reading group. I wanted to be one of the “Busy Bees” but she told me she thought I might like different books than those they read (even though I noticed we all read Dick and Jane). It wasn’t until years later that one of my classmates told me that “The Busy Bees” had all the ‘smart’ kids. But at the time I thought they must all envy me because I got a reading group of my own.

I think the episode that sticks out the most as an example of the way Mrs. Bandy made me feel smart is the day we were playing Charades during share time. That day we were acting out fellow classmates instead of the usual book or movie title. I had no idea what I was supposed to do so when it was my turn I got up and just acted very flustered. Rather than be critical Mrs. Bandy laughed whole-heartedly and said, “That is so clever! You have acted out yourself!” I left school that day feeling very clever indeed and held on to that memory for many years.  By cheering me on when it was obvious I was bewildered, she helped me recognize that it is good enough to just give something a try, even if you are not certain what is expected. To this day, no matter where I am, no matter what challenge is put before me, I hear myself saying, “just try.” It doesn’t matter if I am the best, or smartest or fastest. What matters is that I give everything my best effort. And today, as a teacher myself, I try to model her approach and applaud all of my students as much for their effort as for their accuracy.

I had to wait almost twenty years for my other favorite teacher. Dr. Gerald Canter was a college professor of mine during graduate school at Northwestern. I took three courses from him and he mentored my Ph.D. dissertation. He was a brilliant lecturer, very dynamic and engaging. He inspired me in many ways. First, I tried to emulate his teaching style. But more important, I think, like Mrs. Bandy, he made me feel smart and competent. He encouraged me at every step.  In his courses, unlike many professors who gave multiple choice tests, Dr. Canter gave essay tests.  He did not use test readers but he personally read every test carefully and took the time to make thought provoking and stimulating comments.  His comments helped me to become a critical thinker and improved the cogency of my writing. Dr. Canter later provided strategic guidance during my professional life. He alerted me to teaching positions he thought I should consider, helped me conduct research, write journal articles, and develop effective teaching skills. All he ever asked of me in return was that I do the same for young students when I became established. I have tried to live up to his expectations my entire career.

The best teachers guide, inspire, encourage and provide us with a love of learning. Ah yes, and they build brains. How fortunate we are to have had a few marvelous teachers pave our way toward a successful adult life.

 

 

Related Reading:

5 Ways To Be A Better Teacher In Today’s Classroom

Teaching Children to Read

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Categories: Reading & Learning

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No-Cost Education Webinars with Michael Horn and Dr. Virginia Mann – Register Today!

Join us this month for two no-cost, live webinars as we welcome back popular presenters Michael Horn and Dr. Virginia Mann!

At-risk studentsDisrupting Class

On May 17, you are invited to “Disrupting Class” with Michael Horn, author of Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and cofounder of Innosight Institute. The theory of disruptive innovation describes how products or services that offer simplicity, affordability, and convenience transform a market that was previously dominated by complicated, expensive, and inaccessible products or services.  In this webinar, Michael Horn will describe how online learning is disrupting our notion of a classroom and how it offers the possibility of moving toward a student-centric learning system that is much more focused on different people's distinct learning needs. This webinar is at 11am PST (2pm EST)

At-risk studentsReading English as a Second Language: Some Challenges and Solutions

On May 23, please join us for “Reading English as a Second Language: Some Challenges and Solutions” with Dr. Virginia Mann, professor of Cognitive Sciences at the School of Social Sciences, University of California, Irvine. Dr. Mann will discuss the differences between English and other writing systems, the need for early immersion in English if English language learning is going to be optimal, the importance of phoneme awareness and phonological processing, and the challenge of morphology.  Dr. Mann will also look at English Language Learners who have problems with reading and who suffer from some of the same phonological problems that English speakers do, showing how the Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant products can help them succeed in school. This webinar will take place at 12pm PST (3pm EST).

 

 

Related Reading:

Language and the Reading Puzzle: 5 Steps Toward Fluent Reading

Why You Should Read With Your Child

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Categories: Education Trends, English Language Learners, Reading & Learning

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3 Tips for Encouraging Verbal Communication in Young Learners

Encouraging verbal communication

“It is now well accepted that the chief cause of the achievement gap between socioeconomic groups is a language gap.”

- E.D. Hirsch, 2003

Research shows that children from rich language environments start off their academic career with a definite advantage over their peers.  In one study with 280 1st grade students, results indicated a strong connection between language skills and later academic performance.[i]   Another study found that “children who are provided a wide variety of experiences and opportunities to talk, tell stories, read storybooks, draw, and write are generally successful in learning to read and write.”[ii]

How can parents enhance the home language environment to help their children succeed?

Here are a few simple ways: 

  1. Talk, talk, and talk to children.  Engage them in meaningful conversation, and help them “use their words” to interact with other children.  Help build their vocabulary by using words they may not recognize.  Adding unfamiliar words to conversations can pique a child’s interest in learning additional words and discovering how to use them in conversation. 
  2. Read to young learners.  Regularly reading a variety of texts to children—stories, poems, factual books about animals and the natural world—can expose them to countless new words.  It is even more fun by taking turns.  If your child has started to read, one day you can read to him; the next day, he can read to you.  Pre-readers can “read” a picture book out loud.
  3. Teach your young students the joys of music!  Through learning new songs and singing, children can have fun while learning new vocabulary.  The rhythm of music provides cues that can help children pronounce multisyllabic words more easily, and because young children don’t have to worry about pronouncing every new word correctly when singing with others, they can build their confidence.

It’s never too early to help children appreciate the usefulness of language, the power of communicating effectively with others, and the joy of words.  Every word spoken and every word read is truly a gift to a young child.  

 

 

References:

[i] Elements Comprising the Colorado Literacy Framework:  III. Communication Skills, Including Oral and Written Language. (2010). Colorado Literacy Framework. Retrieved April 26, 2012.

[ii]  Kastner JW, May W, Hildman L. Relationship between language skills and academic achievement in first grade.  Percept Mot Skills. 2001 Apr;92(2):381-90.PMID: 11361297 

Related Reading:

Adding ten minutes of reading time dramatically changes levels of print exposure (PDF)

The Speech and Language Connection: The Nursery Rhyme Effect
 

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Categories: Family Focus, Reading & Learning, Reading Assistant

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