10 Facts About Your Wacky Brain

Tuesday, September 27, 2016 - 08:00
  • Kristina Birdsong

A Fun Way to Learn About Your Incredible Brain

With new techniques like neural imaging, brain factsscientists are learning incredible new things about the brain that we could never have observed ourselves. Some of these are good news, some are a bit strange, but all of them are food for thought. Below, we've listed 10 cool facts about your brain, and translated these into kidspeak for your younger pals. Don't miss the punchline in #10. Enjoy!

[Click here to download these in PDF form to use with students.]

Fact #1: Your brain contains half a galaxy of tiny computers.

Our brains have anywhere between 86 billion and 100 billion neurons – the cells that transmit signals throughout the brain. This is about half the number of stars in the Milky Way.

In kidspeak: When you look up at the sky at night, you see___? There are millions of stars. Your brain has millions of tiny computers. These little computers, called neurons, are working to help you learn all day, every day.  

Fact #2: Your brain is constantly creating neurons.

While you are developing in the womb, your brain is growing neurons at about 250,000 neurons per minute. After you’re born, this slows down, but you will continue to create new neurons throughout your life.

In kidspeak: Your brain grows the fastest when you are a baby in your mother's womb. 

Fact #3: Your brain is always reprogramming.

Each of these billions of neurons is connected to thousands of others that either work together to perform the same function or are associated in some other way. And these connections are continuously being created, rerouted, or removed in response to how you engage your brain. If two brain regions are repeatedly activated at the same time, the neurons in them will form more connections, making the association easier and faster in the future. Otherwise, they will form separate networks and take longer to be activated together.

In kidspeak: The more your practice something, the easier it is for your brain to do it! It needs practice, practice, and more practice.

Fact #4: Your brain is an energy hog.

Your brain contains 400 miles of blood vessels and uses about 20% of your body’s energy and total oxygen intake. And all those neurons firing generate up to 25 watts of electricity – enough to power a small lightbulb.

In kidspeak: Your brain uses a lot of energy - enough to power a small lightbulb!

Fact #5: Your brain hates diets.

At first glance, your brain seems to contain a lot of wasted space – about 60% fat or 73% water. But these are actually crucial for all that energy use. Dehydration of just 2% impairs your attention and memory and brain cells starved of energy will begin to cannibalize other brain cells, which is why you need nutrition and rest for your brain to work at its full potential.

In kidspeak: Your brain needs water. If you are just a little bit dehydrated, you won't be able to learn as well. Keep your diet healthy and drink enough water!

Fact #6: Your brain regions are both specialized and versatile.

You may have been told that certain parts of the brain control certain activities. But this division of labor is not set in stone. Many of our mental processes involve multiple brain regions working together, and when one part is damaged, others can take over its job. Even some patients who had half their brains surgically removed were able to function without major changes.

In kidspeak: Think of your brain like a bunch of puzzle pieces. Every piece does lots of different things - and even if you remove some of the pieces, it can still work just fine. 

Fact #7: Your brain can control time.

Our perception of time is the result of our brain receiving multiple signals and organizing them in a way that it can process. More signals – especially unfamiliar ones – take longer to organize, which is why moments where you are experiencing something new or intense can feel longer. So you can make time pass slower for you by putting yourself in unfamiliar and interesting situations – almost like living longer just by doing new things.

In kidspeak: When you do new things, your brain thinks time is passing by more slowly. When you are having a fun day, it might feel like your day is going by slowly. Can you think of a time when things felt that way?

Fact #8: Your brain may stop growing, but it never stops changing.

It’s true that your brain stops growing in overall volume and mass at a certain point, usually around the age of 18. But the physical structure of your brain – the density and relative size of different regions – keeps changing throughout your life.

In kidspeak: By the time you're 18 years old, the size of your brain stops growing. But it keeps changing forever - getting better at the things that you will do as an adult, like parking on a steep hill, but worse at things you might do more of when you're a child, like hula-hooping! What do you think is important for your brain to practice now? What about when you're an adult? 

Fact #9: Stress can reshape your brain.

Being stressed isn’t just unpleasant – it can actually affect your brain development, killing neurons and neural connections and preventing new ones from forming. Avoiding stress when possible, and learning healthy strategies for managing it isn’t only important for your mood, but your mental functioning as well.

In kidspeak: When you're having a bad day, maybe because you got in an argument with a friend or you had a bad dream, your brain has a harder time learning. You can take a deep breath or talk to your parent or teacher about how you feel, and get back to learning. What other ways can you help your brain feel happier?

Fact #10: YOU have the power to change your brain.

No matter what you do, you’re constantly reshaping your brain by learning and doing things, even when you’re just going about your normal day. But it’s not just about the contents of your brain – you can also change how well it works. By engaging different brain regions at the same time and making neurons fire together, activities like working out, meditating, learning a language, playing a musical instrument, or solving puzzles can form new neural connections, permanently rewiring your brain to work more quickly and efficiently. For learners whose brains may not be wired efficiently for reading, this is critically important to know: neurons that fire together wire together. With regular, varied, motivating practice, your brain's superhighways can be built for reading.  (Fast ForWord software has been shown to rewire the brains of struggling readers!)

In kidspeak: You can help your brain build all those "tiny computers" (called neurons) for reading, writing and all learning.  YOU have the power to change your brain! 

 

5 Don’ts (and Do's!) for Brain Awareness Week

Tuesday, March 8, 2016 - 08:00
  • Kristina Birdsong

“We have learned more about the brain in the past five years Brain Awareness Weekthan during all of human history combined,” said Charlie Rose in a TV series on the brain.  Brain Awareness Week (starting March 14!) is a great time to reflect on the impressive progress we've made and to take time to explain this to the learners in your life.

But while the increase in our understanding of how the brain works has yielded a wealth of information, correctly interpreting and translating it into effective educational approaches often remains challenging. Brain Awareness Week provides an opportunity for you to tackle these challenges by engaging students with activities and events that raise awareness of the research and what it means for them. Here are five do’s and don’ts that will help learners feel good about what’s in their heads.

Don’t be overcomplicated. Do keep it simple.

Neurobiology may seem like a subject that’s complex even for college students, but it’s full of amazing facts that can be grasped even by young children. The point is not to comprehensively explain how the brain works, but to get them excited about its massive potential. Use tidbits like the brain’s billions of neurons and trillions of synaptic connections along with diagrams, illustrations, and multimedia content to grab their attention and encourage them to ask further questions.

Don’t buy into myths. Do explain potential.

New scientific research takes time to become embedded in the public consciousness, and much of what’s still considered common knowledge about the brain is based on information that’s either outdated or was never correct to begin with. Students may have been exposed to myths such as the idea that whether they are ‘left-brained’ or ‘right-brained’ will determine whether they are good at math, or that intelligence potential is inherited at birth and remains constant throughout one’s life. Educators need to work with students to dispel these sorts of preconceptions that can serve as obstacles to learning.

Don’t ignore individual challenges. Do know your audience.

Particularly when working with children from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is important to be aware of the unique challenges they face and the toll that such circumstances can take on their cognitive processes. Eric Jensen’s CHAMP model provides a useful framework for working with such students, outlining a set of mutually-reinforcing skills that can be strengthened and developed through specially-designed exercises and learning software.

Beyond particular skills and activities, a positive and reassuring learning environment is crucial to increasing the chances of success. This includes recommendations such as avoiding direct  or punitive commands and hierarchical language, instead making students feel like they are part of a joint effort. Students should also be given ample opportunities and suggestions to rectify undesirable behavior through proactive positive contributions.

Don’t create new myths. Do focus on progress.

In the process of debunking old myths, we should be careful not to create new ones. As concepts derived from recent brain research have begun to enter the educational mainstream, common misrepresentations risk reinforcing the same educational obstacles they were meant to overcome in the first place. For example, as researcher Carol Dweck has noted, many educators have recognized the importance of having a ‘growth mindset’ in theory, but in practice seem to treat it as a fixed quality rather than a goal to be actively and consistently pursued.

Similarly, findings that students can benefit from making mistakes have at times led to a wrongheaded approach where students are simply praised for effort with no regard for results. While it is important to keep students motivated, the ultimate aim is for them to learn from their efforts and shift from unsuccessful strategies towards those that yield tangible progress – which will serve as further encouragement in turn.

Don’t be abstract. Do make it concrete.

While it is important for students to understand that our brains are capable of forming new connections, learning new patterns, and improving their processing and sequencing potential throughout our lives, it’s not enough for them to simply absorb this as an abstract piece of information. The key factor for students to grasp is their own agency – the fact that they can actually shape this process through their thoughts, attitudes, and actions. In other words, students should not only become aware of the brain as an organ with amazing abilities, but to realize that this incredible apparatus is theirs to use and improve.

 

10 Facts About How Poverty Impacts Education

Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - 08:00
  • Kristina Birdsong

facts about povertyEducation reform has been a hot topic in recent years, and leaders across the political spectrum have championed measures such as increased testing and results-based evaluation of teachers and school districts. But one of the most pervasive problems affecting public schools is rarely discussed as an education issue at all. With the recent news that a majority of K-12 students in the Southern and Western United States now live in low-income households, it is time to take a serious look at how poverty affects education.

Here are 10 surprising facts you may not know about poverty and its impact on children in our schools:

1. Disadvantaged even before birth.

Cognitive capacity is not just a matter of genetics, but can be strongly influenced by external factors like prenatal drug use, environmental toxins, poor nutrition, and exposure to stress and violence. All of these are more prevalent in low-income households, and affect cognitive development from the prenatal stage through adulthood.

2. Less verbal exposure.

A famous 1995 study by Hart and Risley demonstrated that by the age of four, children from poor households hear 32 million fewer spoken words than their better-off peers. More recent research has shown that quality of conversation differs as well. Parents with higher education and income are more likely to engage children with questions and dialogue that invite creative responses, while parents in poverty often lack the time and energy for anything more than simple and goal-oriented commands.

3. Poor sense of agency.

Children growing up in poverty often experience life as a series of volatile situations over which neither they nor their caregivers have any control. Thus they fail to develop a conception of themselves as free individuals capable of making choices and acting on them to shape their lives, instead reacting to crises that are only magnified by their poor ability to plan ahead or reflect. This doesn’t just affect educational success – studies have shown that a low sense of control over one’s life has major health impacts in all areas, regardless of finances or access to healthcare.

4. Low executive function.

Executive function skills such as impulse control, emotional regulation, attention management, prioritization of tasks, and working memory draw on a limited supply of mental energy. But the day-to-day insecurities of life in poverty interfere with these functions by releasing stress hormones that direct energy away from them towards more basic survival mechanisms. Regular exposure to these stresses in childhood can inhibit early development of the neural connections that enable executive function, leaving children with both academic and behavioral problems.

5. More demanding environment.

In past decades, the availability of well-paid unskilled jobs created a virtual cycle that allowed families to enter the middle class within a generation as uneducated factory workers raised stable families and sent their children to college. But in today’s knowledge-based economy, moving out of poverty is far more complex. With more competition for unskilled work and a minimum wage that has not kept up with inflation, attaining economic independence requires more education, planning, and interpersonal skills – precisely the areas in which low-income individuals are disadvantaged to begin with.

6. Comparisons are misleading.

Education reformers often point to the disparity in test scores and grades between the US and other industrialized countries as a sign that differences in educational approaches are the deciding factor. Yet when the data is broken down, it turns out that American children of affluent families do as well as their foreign peers. What drags down the US average is the fact that its poverty rate is higher than in many other wealthy nations, and more firmly entrenched.

7. It’s getting worse.

Today, low-income students are four and a half times more likely to drop out of high school, and even those who are academically proficient are far less likely to complete college. The gap in SAT scores between wealthy and poor students has grown by 42% in the last two decades. And financial stability has become less attainable even for college graduates, with only one-third of adults under 35 forming independent households.


Looking at the above factors paints a dire picture. The reality for many families in poverty is an intergenerational pattern where unstable and stressful early childhood environments lead to poor academic readiness and behavioral issues, culminating in higher dropout rates, crime convictions, and teen pregnancies. Yet the situation is not hopeless if certain sensible recommendations can be implemented.


8. Targeted intervention.

Instead of pushing nationwide testing and higher standards across the board, education reform should focus on school districts in poor neighborhoods with targeted investments designed to counteract the effects of poverty on educational achievement. In addition to preschool and extended school hours, their scope can be broadened to include health care and nutrition support, as well as parental training and mentoring programs to improve household stability.

9. Brain plasticity works both ways.

Just as inhibited neural development in early childhood can have a negative cumulative effect in later stages of life, the trend can be reversed with neural interventions that simultaneously build up multiple elements of executive functioning, allowing them to reinforce each other. By training memory, attention, processing, and sequencing abilities, computer programs like Fast ForWord have successfully improved reading and math results at multiple elementary schools with high poverty rates. In addition, programs like Reading Assistant can boost student’s print exposure, which helps compensate for reduced exposure to verbal language and print at home. And though some critical windows for intervention occur in childhood, the brain continues to develop long after, with many adults showing significant improvement in executive function after completing brief regimens of logic games and reading exercises.

10. Smart design.

Whether they target children or parents, programs must be implemented in a way that takes into account the difficulties their intended beneficiaries face with executive function. Flexible scheduling, simple instructions, more incremental steps, reduced paperwork, and minimal penalties for participation lapses can go a long way towards increasing engagement and successful completion.

Conclusion

Today more than ever, education remains the key to escaping poverty, while poverty remains the biggest obstacle to education. Harnessing the growing body of neuroscience knowledge in an effective and practical way is the key to breaking the vicious cycle. It is important to emphasize that children of poverty do not have broken brains or limited intelligence.  They have brains that have not matured, which can be quickly changed through neuroscience interventions like Fast ForWord. These students have tremendous potential to succeed with the right combination of education and interventions.

Find out more about how Fast ForWord targets the areas of the brain impacted by poverty.

 

For further reading:

Public education’s biggest problem keeps getting worse

Using Brain Science to Design New Pathways out of Poverty

Path out of Poverty:  Education Plus Neuroscience

 

13 Questions About The Build English Fast Solution

Tuesday, September 15, 2015 - 08:00
  • Carrie Gajowski, MA

Build English Fast with ELLs

Are you faced with more English language learners in your class, school or district? You may not know that Fast ForWord® is the top-ranked intervention for English Language Development on What Works Clearinghouse. Our unique Build English FastTM solution incorporates the power of both Fast ForWord and Reading Assistant to accelerate English language development. In one of our most popular webinars this year, Dr. Martha Burns fielded the following questions from educators like you!  Click here to view the full webinar.

Q: What is the best age for teaching a second language to benefit the development of the second language?

A: Birth to seven is generally the time when it is easiest to learn and become proficient in a second language. However, that period of time is extended in people who are bilingual, such that bilingual people can learn additional languages extraordinarily well, even at older ages. It seems that just being exposed to two languages when you are young makes your brain more flexible for learning languages in general.

The general rule is that the best time to learn an additional language is before age seven -- but that rule can be broken by lots of different things, including bilingual proficiency.

Q: Does the Fast ForWord program help with native language delays?

A. The Fast ForWord program helps build the whole language network in the brain.  In doing so, it improves the brain’s ability to process language and thereby can help the development of both the native language and any second language (such as English).

Q: What about special needs students who are second language learners?

A: The Fast ForWord program was originally designed for use with children with special needs but has been found to be extraordinarily effective with ELL students. The original group of study participants included students with developmental language problems of one kind or another that could be associated with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, and specific language impairments. All these groups of children benefited from the Fast ForWord program. The only caveats are that the child needs to have language skills in their native language of at least a three-year-old, and the child must be able to use a computer or iPad with headphones.

Q: What age range is the Fast ForWord program good for?

A: For English language learners, the program can be started as early as age five.  There is no upper age limit for program use.

Q: What about kids without basic literacy?

A: Students can benefit even if they are not reading in either their native or their second language. Two of the products that are particularly appropriate for English language learners (Fast ForWord Language for students in elementary schools and Fast ForWord Literacy for students in secondary schools) focus on sounds and oral language, and have no written letters.  These are appropriate starting points for students who are not yet literate.

Q: Is there progress monitoring and data to support the program?

A: Yes. A great strength of the Fast ForWord program is the ability of educators to monitor each student’s strengths and weaknesses. Every grammatical error the student makes is recorded, as well as every error in speech sound discrimination, vocabulary, or listening/reading comprehension.  Each student’s responses on every item are included in a report.

Q: Is there a pre-test that can be administered to know where to begin?

A: When the program is used in a school setting, there is an assessment called Reading Progress Indicator that typically runs automatically when students initiate use (although it can be turned off during enrollment).  This assessment evaluates a student’s early reading skills and determines whether the student has a reading discrepancy.  Coupled with the student’s current grade level and education classification, this determines where in the program the child should start.  As long as the auto placement option has been selected, the program will place the student at that point and continue to move them onto the next product within the Fast ForWord program as appropriate.    

Q: Does it work on all modalities – reading, writing, listening and speaking?

A. The Fast ForWord program and Reading Assistant software work directly on reading, speaking and listening. Although there are no actual writing exercises that use pen and paper, research has shown improvement in writing. For information on this specific research, please see the blog post on our website "Building Better Writers (Without Picking Up a Pen)" by Dr. Beth Rogowsky.

Q: Is this a program people can access at home or just at school?

A: You can access the Fast ForWord program at home or school. The three ways through which the program can be accessed are:

  1. School district that is using the Fast ForWord program;
  2. Clinical professional who is trained on the Fast ForWord program and using it, such as a speech and language pathologist.  Trained professionals can be found on the Search for a Provider page; or
  3. Fast ForWord Home online service, which combines the Fast ForWord program with the services of a professional consultant. Learn more about Fast ForWord Home.

Q: Can this program be compared to other ESL programs?

A: Many other programs teach language through sentence structure. A student sees a picture and hears a word or sentence that goes with the pictures. They do not have specific training in speech sound discrimination by itself. The Fast ForWord program complements these other programs by developing some of the necessary foundational skills, including the ability to discriminate between sounds and the ability to identify specific phonemes. 

Q: Is the Reading Assistant program helpful for strengthening literacy?

A: Yes, the Reading Assistant program is a literacy product. Students start working with real text leveled around mid-first grade. Initially, students have the stories or the content read to them while they look at a printed page and see the words and phrases highlighted as they are read by the computer. The students then read aloud the text themselves. In order to use the Reading Assistant program, children must be able to correctly read 25 words per minute.  For students who use it, Reading Assistant is a wonderful tool for building fluency, reading vocabulary, and comprehension.

Q: How many minutes do you need to use the Fast ForWord program to get the most benefit?

A: ELL students, who have average native language skills, should use the products at least thirty minutes, three times a week. For students whose native language skills are not at age level, the minimum is thirty minutes, five times a week. These protocols are appropriate for both the Fast ForWord Language (elementary school students) and the Fast ForWord Literacy (middle or high school students) products and can be completed in anywhere from 12 to 27 weeks based on the abilities of the student and whether the students use the  products thirty minutes for three or five days a week.  Students can also use the products for more minutes each day, and thereby reach completion in fewer weeks.

Q: If a child starts in the Reading Assistant program at the first grade level, does it adjust to match the student’s level as he/she does the activity?

A. The Reading Assistant program has many different levels of difficulty, becoming more difficult as students progress.  In order to use the software, students must be able to correctly read at least 25 words per minute, which corresponds to a mid-first grade reading level.  However, difficulty ranges up through high school with content that aligns with the interest and content material for the corresponding grade levels:  K-3, 4-5, 6-8, and 9-12. 

Not all students start at the same level.  Teachers can select the appropriate level of reading for each student, or students can take the Reading Progress Indicator assessment and be automatically placed in to the appropriate level of the Reading Assistant program.

 

 

Path Out of Poverty? Education Plus Neuroscience

Tuesday, July 14, 2015 - 08:00
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Key PointsNeurological implications of poverty on kids

  • Children raised in poverty are exposed to millions of fewer spoken words at home
  • Income level negatively impacts cognitive functions
  • There are links between family income and memory and attention
  • Poverty is associated with chronic stress which can have a toxic effect on brain architecture
  • Computer games designed to target the skills that are impacted can turn around some effects of poverty

How family income impacts children neurologically

Poverty impairs the brain’s ability to develop and learn. Perhaps as toxic as drugs and alcohol to a young child’s brain, poverty not only affects the development of cognitive skills in young children, but it also changes the way the brain tissue itself matures during the critical brain “set up” period during early childhood.  We have known for decades, since Hart and Risley’s seminal research published in 1995, that children who come from homes of poverty are exposed to millions of fewer spoken words in the home environment by the time they enter school than children who are raised in homes where the parents are professionals. Neuroscientists have recognized that human brain maturation is experience-dependent and one of the most important times for experience to mold the brain is from early childhood through the elementary school years.  It goes without saying that the less language a child is exposed to the fewer opportunities the brain has to develop language skills. But language function in the brain is not the only casualty of poverty; there are many other cognitive skills that are affected by low socioeconomic status.

Kimberly Noble, an Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Education at Columbia University Teacher’s College, has been studying the effects of poverty on many aspects of cognitive development and brain structure for over a decade. As early as 2005, with M. Frank Norman and Martha Farah, she published research on the relationship between socioeconomic status and specific cognitive functions. Her findings show that children who come from homes of poverty have limitations in a range of cognitive skills, including the following:

  • Long and short term (working) memory
  • Visual and spatial skills
  • Executive functions like self-control
  • Ability to learn from reward

What is the link between brain development and household income?

More recently, Dr. Noble and Elizabeth Sowell, Professor of Pediatrics at The Saban Research Institute at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, have found compelling links between family income and brain structure as well, especially affecting those areas of the brain important for memory and attention, regions essential for academic success. In a recent article in the journal Nature Neuroscience they reported that increases in both parental education and family income were associated with increases in the surface area of numerous brain regions, including those implicated in language and executive functions. Family income, however, appeared to have a stronger positive relationship with brain surface area than parental education.

What causes the correlation between poverty and brain development?

The reasons for the effect of poverty on brain development are complex. Elizabeth Sowell has asserted that family income is linked to factors such as nutrition, health care, schools, play areas and, sometimes, air quality, all of which can affect brain development. Others, like Jack Shonkoff and Pat Levitt of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child at Harvard, have emphasized the role of stress in brain development.   Stress is associated with the release of the hormone cortisol which, in the short term, activates the body to respond to problematic situations.  With chronic stress, however, the authors review research which indicates the sustained cortisol can have a toxic effect on brain architecture.  

How can educators help reverse these effects?

As educators, the new research begs the question, “Are children raised in poverty doomed to educational struggle, no matter how well we teach?”  The answer, fortunately, is that neuroscience has not only clarified the problems caused by poverty but provides solutions as well.  In a recently published report titled “Using Brain Science to Design Pathways Out of Poverty”, Dr. Beth Babcock, CEO of Crittenden Women’s Union, argues that because those areas of the brain affected by the adverse experiences of poverty and trauma remain plastic well into adulthood, neuroscience research offers promise for coaching and other methodologies that can strengthen and improve brain development and function.  In her report, Dr. Babcock advocates, in part, for the use of "computer games” designed to, “improve memory, focus and attention, impulse control, organization, problem solving, and multi-tasking skills [that] are now widely available and beginning to create positive outcomes” (page 13).

The Fast ForWord programs, designed by neuroscientists at UCSF and Rutgers and tested for over a decade in many school districts with high poverty rates around the nation, have been repeatedly shown to increase academic performance in school districts with high levels of poverty. Read about the inspiring results at Highland View Elementary School, Hattie Watts Elementary School, and J.S. Aucoin Elementary School.

The beginning levels of the Fast ForWord programs (Fast ForWord Language  and Fast ForWord Literacy) target attention, memory, processing and sequencing skills – core cognitive skills essential for learning.  The later level programs (Fast ForWord Reading Levels 1-5) add specific technological instruction in reading comprehension, spelling, phonological awareness,  and decoding while also building in components to continue to build attention and memory skills.  

Research-proven: increased reading skills & neurological changes

Neuroscience imaging research  conducted at Stanford and replicated at Harvard with students who exhibited reading disabilities and used the Fast ForWord programs for six weeks indicated not only significant improvements in reading skills on standardized testing, but also neurological changes in areas of the brain critical to reading success.

The Reading Assistant programs, designed to improve oral reading fluency, incorporate speech recognition software to provide students with a one-on-one patient reading tutor/coach. Especially effective for students of poverty who may have little opportunity to read independently to an adult at home, Reading Assistant first provides a fluent oral reading model of every grade appropriate passage to be read, then, while the student reads aloud into the computer, the program corrects the student’s oral reading errors as they occur in real time. 

Summary: education is the key!

Poverty is toxic to the developing human brain and thereby endangers academic success. Education offers the key to a path out of poverty.  However, increasing class sizes and limitations on teachers’ time to individualize instruction, especially in school districts with high poverty rates, limit the ability of teachers to be as effective as they might if they could work with students individually. Furthermore, even the best curriculum does not include courses to improve attention, memory or other underlying cognitive functions compromised by lives of poverty. Neuroscience now offers not only an explanation of the problem but low cost solutions that can change the brains of all students to enable learning so that teachers can then do what they do best: teach!

References: 

Babcock, E. (2014) Using Brain Science to Design Pathways Out of Poverty. Crittenton Women’s Union Report

Hart, B. and Risley, T. (1995) Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Noble, K., Norman, M.F., Farrah, M (2005) Neurocognitive correlates of socioeconomic status in kindergarten children. Developmental Science 8:1, pages 74-77.

Noble, K. et al. (2015) Family income, parental education and brain structure in children and adolescents. Nature Neuroscience. Published online 30 March

Shonkoff, F., Levitt, P., Bunge,s. et. al. (2014) Excessive Stress Disrupts the Architecture of the Developing Brain. National Scientific Council On The Developing Child, January.

 

4 New Research Findings About Autism

Tuesday, April 21, 2015 - 08:00
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

Autism AwarenessWith approximately 1 in 68 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the United States, millions of families are looking for research progress in this area. For Autism Awareness Month, we’ve compiled 4 of the latest research findings.

1.  Autism is in the Genes

One of the most exciting recent developments in ASD research stems from large, genome-wide studies that have identified genes and genetic mutations that may contribute to ASD. Two such studies have uncovered 60 genes that have a greater than 90 percent chance of contributing to ASD among 500 or more genes associated with ASDs overall  [Ronemus et al, (2014) Nature Reviews Genetics 15, 133-141].  More investigation is needed to dig deeper into the roles of these genes and how they affect the developing brain, but those data are emerging.

For example, a recent review of the genetic research published by Michael Ronemus and his colleagues has specified de novo mutations (that is, new mutations) in 12 genes that show strong causality of ASDs among boys.  In another recent study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, the authors reported on the impact of the gene CNTNAP2 on brain function. CNTNAP2 is associated with ASD and has been implicated in impaired language and thinking abilities. Scientists performed functional magnetic resonance imaging scans to compare brain function in carriers and noncarriers of the genetic risk factor. The study demonstrated that the nonrisk group had significantly lower activity in the medial prefrontal cortex during a task requiring processing of reward information. Additionally, there was increased and more diffuse functional brain connectivity in carriers of the genetic risk factor. Although higher connectivity may seem like a good thing, it may actually reflect an inefficient, immature profile of brain functioning. New research just published this month identified a gene that is very important to the development of neurons in utero, CCNND2, associated with ASD in girls found in families in which two or more females are diagnosed with ASDs. [Turner et al., (2015) Loss of δ-Catenin Function in Severe Autism. Nature 520, 51-54)].

2.  Problematic Brain Pruning May Contribute to ASD

To understand exactly how these genetic mutations affect brain maturation, neuroscientists are also investigating what happens differently in the brains of children who have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum.  From this perspective, researchers have begun investigating how the process of brain cell pruning may go awry in children with ASD. Pruning is the process by which a brain weeds out unimportant connections and strengthens the important ones, based on experience. In a recent report published in Neuron, the scientists reported that ASD may be associated with higher levels of a molecule that may impair the ability of brain cells to get rid of dysfunctional cell components.

3.  White Matter Fiber Tracts Differ in Children with ASD

Another area of investigation of brain differences in children with ASDs has investigated white matter tracts,  the superhighways of the brain  that allow efficient information transfer between brain regions. Scientists at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill studied the development of white matter tracts in infants who later went on to be diagnosed with ASD. They found that at 6 months of age, infants with ASD had higher fractional anisotropy (FA) in key white matter tracts. FA is a measure of the directionality of white matter fibers, with higher FA signaling better microstructural organization. However, those infants with ASD had a slower change in FA over time, such that they had much lower microstructural organization by 2 years of age. This suggests that the trajectory of white matter development may be abnormal even a few months following birth in those who go on to receive an ASD diagnosis. In simple terms, the superhighways of the brain are not working as efficiently in children with ASD as they are for typically developing children. 

4.  Early Intervention Helps!

Scientists using the Early Start Denver Model (ESDM), a behavioral intervention, previously showed that this treatment significantly improved IQ and language abilities in toddlers with ASD. Researchers also investigated whether the intervention changes brain functioning. They used electroencephalography to assess electrical activity in the brain during a task involving looking at faces versus objects.  Children who completed the ESDM intervention had faster neural response and higher cortical activation when looking at faces compared to objects. Those who received treatment as usual (a common community intervention) showed the opposite pattern.  Additionally, higher cortical activation during face-viewing was associated with better social behavior. This suggests that the ESDM intervention may cultivate brain changes that result in higher IQ, language abilities and social behaviors.

Together, these exciting findings highlight the excellent work that is being done by scientists around the world to combat autism. From understanding the impact of individual molecules on brain cell structure to constructing more effective interventions, researchers continue to answer important questions about autism and give loved ones hope for the future of ASD care.

Further Reading:

Loss of mTOR-Dependent Macroautophagy Causes Autistic-like Synaptic Pruning Deficits

Early Behavioral Intervention Is Associated With Normalized Brain Activity in Young Children With Autism

Dozens of Genes Associated with Autism in New Research

Altered Functional Connectivity in Frontal Lobe Circuits Is Associated with Variation in the Autism Risk Gene CNTNAP2

Differences in white matter fiber tract development present from 6 to 24 months in infants with autism

The role of de novo mutations in the genetics of autism spectrum disorders

Related Reading:

Understanding Autism in Children

Ben's Story:  Intensive Intervention Helps a Young Boy on the Autism Spectrum Succeed

 

How Learning A New Language Actually Rewires the Brain

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 - 08:00
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP
English language learners know that mastering a new language is mentally taxing. Until recently, however, less was known about what actually happens inside the brains of those learning a second language. New research findings reveal that the brain undergoes a powerful reorganization in bilingual individuals.
 
Impact of Phonological Competition on Thinking Abilities
In a recent report from the journal Brain and Language, researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Houston studied brain activity of monolingual and bilingual participants. In particular, the researchers were studying a phenomenon known as phonological competition. This is the process through which we determine what word is being spoken, meaning that effective resolution of phonological competition is critical to language comprehension.
 
Our brains engage in phonological competition thousands of times each day. When listening to spoken English, auditory cues from the beginning of a word -- for example, “p-r-o” -- lead to activation of several possible target words (“process,” “project,” “progress,” etc.). Each of these possible targets competes for selection. As more auditory information is received, the competition becomes lower as the correct word is selected.
 
On a neural level, previous research suggests that each of the possible target words are activated in the brain at the same time. The brain must suppress the incorrect items to allow the correct word to be selected. Although both monolingual and multilingual individuals do this, people who know more than one language have more potential words to suppress. For example, someone bilingual in Spanish and English has significantly more words beginning with “p-r-o” to compete for selection (“progreso,” “pronombre,” etc.). Thus, bilingual children become great at suppressing incorrect information when presented with several competing choices. This translates into stronger cognitive control in math, logical reasoning, and other areas of functioning.
 
Novel Research Findings About Brain Structure in English Language Learners
The brain is plastic, meaning that it changes its structure and function in response to learning. Learning a new language is associated with increased brain volumes in the left parietal lobe, which is the brain’s language center. Additionally, in line with the improved cognitive control observed in bilingual people, areas of the brain that control attention and the ability to ignore distracting information also grow in size.
 
In conjunction with studies looking at the size of certain brain regions, researchers use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify brain activity during a task. Functional MRI is a method of measuring the amount of blood flow to a brain region while a person performs a particular task. More blood flow is thought to reflect greater activation in that region compared to the rest of the brain. This allows researchers to identify which brain areas control certain abilities.
 
In fMRI studies, bilingualism is associated with increased activation of a network of regions throughout the brain, including the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes. This includes the brain’s language centers, which grow larger in response to learning a new language. The network also includes regions thought to help with executive control, which allows the brain to reduce interference between the two languages being activated at a given time.
 
Interestingly, bilinguals show lower activation than monolinguals in the anterior cingulate cortex and left superior frontal gyrus, regions associated with executive control. This lower activation reflects improved efficiency in bilinguals; their stronger executive control abilities means that they do not need to exert as much cognitive effort to complete a task. Thus, they are better at choosing which language to use and which to ignore during a specific task.
 
Similarly, a study examining neural activity in native English speakers who learned Chinese for six weeks scanned the brains of participants before and after their language learning. The investigators focused on network-level differences in brain activity, which reflect the exchange of information throughout numerous brain areas. They found that successful learners had more integrated brain networks than non-learners, particularly in language-related regions. More integrated brain networks translate to faster, more efficient flow of information. This means that bilingual individuals may have structural and functional brain differences that make it easier for them to process new information. 
 
What This Means for Instructors of English Language Learners
  • English language learners aren’t necessarily slower than their monolingual counterparts (and may actually be faster!). In the study published in Brain and Language, there was no difference in reaction time between monolinguals and bilinguals. Although educators sometimes perceive that English language learners take longer to master certain tasks, this may not be the case. Bilingualism may actually make the brain more efficient at complex tasks, particularly those that involve ignoring irrelevant information.
  • Increased executive control may translate to other domains of life. Numerous studies have shown that bilingual people have stronger executive control compared to monolinguals. In fact, they show larger brain volumes and more integrated brain networks in areas associated with executive abilities. This may translate to other classroom areas. For example, when presented with a math word problem that contains pieces of irrelevant information, a bilingual child may be better at ignoring distractors and finding the correct answer. English language learners may also tune out classroom distractions more effectively than their monolingual counterparts. Studies have found robust effects in which bilingual individuals outperform monolinguals across verbal and nonverbal tasks.
  • Successful language use transforms the brain to a greater degree. When it comes to English language learning, the quality of education matters. An experienced educator is likely to achieve better results. Students’ successful learning results in significantly better efficiency of language networks in the brain. These efficient brain networks also improve functioning in other areas of life. This highlights the importance of investing in good educators and training programs for English language learners.
  • Learning a new language results in lifelong changes to the brain. This area of brain research is relatively young, but evidence suggests that the brain changes resulting from learning a new language may last a lifetime. Thus, fostering strong abilities among English language learners may translate into a lifetime of higher cognitive control. 

 

Further reading:

Learning a Second Language:  First-Rate Exercise for the Brain

Related reading:

Educating ELLs:  4 Trends for 2015

5 Things You May Not Know about ELLs

 

Inside the Brain of a Struggling Reader [Infographic]

Tuesday, September 16, 2014 - 21:45
  • Hallie Smith, MA CCC-SLP

When a child struggles to learn to read, we often look to social or economic factors, access to books, or the home environment for an explanation. While each of these factors can play a part, treatable brain differences are often part of the equation.

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Inside the Brain of a Struggling Reader [Infographic]

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Neuroscience-based interventions like the Fast ForWord program create specialized learning conditions that can rapidly improve reading and cognitive skills in struggling readers. These interventions work because the brain can actually reorganize itself, changing its internal wiring in response to learning. This ability does not “turn off” after infancy as once thought, but remains active throughout our lifetime.

Many struggling readers who have fallen behind or thought it was “too late” have overcome their reading difficulties. The journey to proficiency starts inside the “plastic” brain.

Related reading:

Dyslexia – How Far We’ve Come!

The Neuroplasticity Revolution With Dr. Norman Doidge

 

Keep Learning This Summer - Four Must-Watch Webinars for Teachers

Tuesday, June 10, 2014 (All day)
  • Alexis Hourselt

Must-Watch Webinars

School’s out for summer! While it’s a great time to relax and reset before the start of the next school year, it’s also a great time to catch up on professional development.

This summer, check out some of our most popular webinars on topics to help your students.

Comprehension: Going Beyond Fluency

Although fluency is important for reading success, it is not sufficient. Students must also actively work to make meaning out of the texts they read. In this webinar, Dr. Timothy Rasinski shares some of his favorite approaches for helping students engage in texts meaningfully and productively. Watch now.

How the ELL Brain Learns

What does the latest research reveal about the ELL brain? In this session, Dr. David Sousa provides an overview of how the young brain acquires the first language, and then looks at how trying to learn a second language affects brain development. Learn about the challenges that ELL students face when learning both conversational and academic language simultaneously and explore ways to help them. Dr. Sousa also debunks some misconceptions about ELLs and English language acquisition. There are some surprises! Watch now.

Use Brain Science to Make Dramatic Gains in Special Ed

This session features Dr. Martha Burns and special guest Kelly Winnett of Blount County, AL. Dr. Burns shares the latest research on the brain and learning (especially in students who struggle) and Mrs. Winnett shares how the Fast ForWord program has helped her students in special education make tremendous growth (AYP!) - in some cases moving learners from non-readers to readers and from non-verbal to verbal. Watch now.

New Science of Learning for Your Struggling Readers

Dr. Martha Burns discusses the ability of neuroscience to profoundly impact education. Hear how the science of learning has guided the development of breakthrough technologies to enhance underlying memory, attention, processing and sequencing abilities in struggling students. Watch now.

Related reading:

Summer Learning Programs, ELLs and the Achievement Gap

How to Create an Effective Summer Learning Program

 

How to Tell When Neuroscience-Based Programs are Well-Developed

Tuesday, March 25, 2014 (All day)
  • Martha Burns, Ph.D

 5 key elements to look for in brain exercisesNeuroscience-based programs

I am sure you have noticed that there are many technology programs out there that claim to “build,” or improve your brain function. Every week I receive emails from companies advertising brain  games that promise to train attention and memory skills. You may have wondered, do “brain games” really work? A recent article in The New York Times entitled "Do Brain Workouts Work? Science Isn't Sure," actually asked that very question as well.

How would a memory brain game that I purchase from a website be different from a card or board game like “Concentration”? How is an attention game different or better than the concentration required to read a good book or play a card game that requires focused and sustained attention to cards played or discarded each round? Do good old fashioned paper pencil activities like crossword puzzles help with brain function? How about Bridge or Chess? Does watching Jeopardy on Television help your memory? Wouldn’t any challenging video game help us with attention if we had to stay focused for long periods of time to get to a new level?

The answers to the above questions are all “yes, to some degree.” The brain is the only organ of our body that changes each day based on our experiences. And if we do any activities that challenge memory or attention for extended periods of time it will likely be beneficial for improving those capacities. If I play bridge, for example, many hours a week, I will likely get better at the game and boost my short term (working) memory as well. But, neuroscientists who study brain plasticity, the way the brain changes with stimulation (or lack of stimulation), have determined there are ways to enhance the beneficial effects of brain exercises to maximize the efficiency and positive outcomes so that children or adults can specifically target some capacities over others in a short period of time. And, controlled research is showing these targeted exercises have benefits on other brain capacities as well.

So, for example, researchers have shown that when seven year olds do a simple computer-based exercise that targets working memory for just a few minutes a day for a few consecutive weeks they show improved working memory (we would expect that) but also improved reading comprehension compared with children in their classrooms who received reading instruction but did not do the working memory activities (Loosli, 2012). Or, aging adults in their 70's who did computer-based processing speed exercises a few minutes a day for six consecutive weeks so they could do things like react faster when driving showed improvements in processing speed (again we would expect that) but also in memory when compared to adults who did other exercises but not the processing speed exercises, and the improvements lasted for ten years without doing additional exercises (Rebok, 2014).

The question, then, is what are the critical active ingredients neuroscientists have found that need to be "built-in" so brain exercises effectively build targeted skills compared to the benefits we get from just using our "noggin" in everyday activities? And, more important, how is a parent or consumer to get through all the hype and determine which brain exercises have the important design features shown to be effective?

Fortunately, neuroscientists who have thoroughly researched this have published excellent summaries in respected scientific journals.

Here are the key elements to look for in brain exercises:

  1. High & low - Exercises are most effective when they include challenging high-level tasks (like exercises that require a high degree of speed and accuracy) while also including low-level exercises that improve our ability to perceive similar sounds or images more distinctly (Ahissar et el, 2009). We might call this the Sherlock Holmes effect - you must see the details clearly to solve difficult problems.
  2. Adaptability - Exercises should increase or decrease in difficulty based on how you perform so they continuously adapt to your skill level (Roelfsema, 2010).
  3. Highly intensive training schedules - The relevant ‘skills' must be identified, isolated, then practiced through hundreds if not thousands of trials on an intensive (ie, quasi-daily) schedule (Roelfsema, 2010).
  4. Attention grabbing - In order to maximize enduring plastic changes in the cortex, the learner must attend to each trial or learning event on a trial-by-trial basis.
  5. Timely rewards - A very high proportion of the learning trials must be rewarded immediately (rather than at the end of a block of trials or on a trial-and-error basis) (Roelfsema, 2010).

So, parents may ask, ”This sounds fine for making our average brains work better but what about my child who has been diagnosed with a learning disability or other issues like autism spectrum disorder?” According to Ahissar et al. (2009), for our children (or adults) with learning issues, distortions or limitations at any level will create bottlenecks for learning and the changes we want from brain exercises. But, according to the authors, if the exercises have sufficient intensity and duration on specific sets of activities that focus on lower-level (perceptual) and middle-level stimuli (attention, memory and language) tasks, brain changes will enhance higher level skills and learning will be easier and more advanced.

So for parents, or anyone wanting to understand which brain exercises are worth the investment of valuable time and money, a rule of thumb would be to avoid products that advertise themselves as "brain games" - because that is what they probably are. Rather, seek out programs or products that contain "exercises" that focus on specific high and low level skills like language, reading, memory and attention, and those who have research evidence to support their value when used by children like yours.

References

Ahissar, M., Nahum, M., Nelken, I., & Hochstein, S. (2009). Reverse hierarchies and sensory learning, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364,285–299. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2008.0253

Loosli, S.V., Buschkuehl, M., Perrig, W.J., & Jaeggi, S.M. (2012). Working memory training improves reading processes in typically developing children, Child Neuropsychology, 18, 62-78. doi: 10.1080/09297049.2011.575772

Rebok, G.W., Ball, K., Guey, L.T., Jones, R.N., Kim, H.Y., King, J.W., . . . Willis, S.L. (2014). Ten-Year Effects of the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Cognitive Training Trial on Cognition and Everyday Functioning in Older Adults, Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 62,16-24. doi: 10.1111/jgs.12607

Roelfsema, P.R., van Ooyen, A., & Watanabe, T. (2010). Perceptual learning rules based on reinforcers and attention, Trends in Cognitive Science, 14, 64–71. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2009.11.005

Vinogradav, S., Fisher, M., & de Villers-Sidani, E. (2012). Cognitive Training for Impaired Neural Systems in Neuropsychiatric Illness, Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews,37, 43–76. doi: 10.1038/npp.2011.251

Related reading:

Brain Fitness Is Not A Game

Dopamine and Learning: What The Brain’s Reward Center Can Teach Educators

 

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