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Most of us who spend time with kids know that good social skills are a must for navigating life. Some child development experts report that children who spend excessive time in front of screens are not developing the social skills they need to effectively handle interpersonal relationships.
One reason is that they aren't getting the same practice in two-way conversation as children of previous generations; their time is given instead to engaging with a device that doesn’t reciprocate. That’s a problem, because kids need to learn how to initiate a conversation, listen and respond appropriately, and deal with the uncomfortable pauses and conflicts that sometimes arise when interacting with real people.
Children who depend heavily on devices may use them to avoid the discomforts of social interaction by, say, checking every few minutes for text messages or retreating into a video game while waiting for dinner to be served at a restaurant.
For some, the dependence has gone so far that pediatricians have coined a new term for it: “screen addiction.”
A Keystone Skill
Attributing life success to good social skills is nothing new. Nearly 80 years ago, Dale Carnegie’s bestselling How to Win Friends and Influence People outlined a “self-improvement” plan based on social skills that are still considered highly relevant today. His advice included tips on how to:
Carnegie recognized that social skills are life skills – and so did his readers, who have purchased more than 15 million copies since the book was first published.
Today, educators are also recognizing the central importance of social skills. With the awareness that academic skills alone are not enough, many schools have begun introducing Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs as a core component of the curriculum. And many parents, recognizing that their children could use some help, are welcoming and even requesting such programs.
The High Cost of Poor Social Skills
Parents and educators are right to be concerned. Underdeveloped social skills can keep kids out of the running for the kind of opportunities that move them ahead. Consequences of poor social skills include:
Good social skills help children:
When little kids are given devices to soothe them, or older children are allowed to retreat into the safety zone of texting, there’s a lot they miss out on. They don’t learn how to handle boredom. They don’t learn how to read other people’s subtle social signals. They don’t reach out to others as much for comfort or support – one of the ways that we build close connections and community.
The consequences are greatest for those who are most at risk. It’s the kids who are already uncomfortable interacting socially who are most likely to turn to screens as an avoidance mechanism, while children with strong social skills tend to use their devices to increase and further social connection.
Is All Screen Time Bad?
There doesn’t seem to be much question that kids are spending too much time on electronic devices. A 2010 report by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that children 8 - 18 years of age are getting as much as 5 - 8 hours of dedicated screen time each day. But it turns out that screen time may not always be bad for social development.
There’s growing evidence that children who engage with different types of media develop 21st century skills that connect them to the world and other people. Participating in virtual worlds and video conferencing with family and friends can benefit social skills and support play. Texting and instant messaging may also make it easier for teens to initiate offline friendships – despite the toll it takes on family time at the dinner table.
Management & Self-Regulation
In a fast-paced world where tech is here to stay, it’s up to parents and educators to teach and model some essential 21st century skills related to the use of screen time in everyday life:
Are you teaching your children or students these important skills? According to the Kaiser Foundation report, up to half of parents don’t set or enforce rules about screen time. It’s something to think about.
Bindley, K. (2011). When Children Text All Day, What Happens To Their Social Skills? Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/09/children-texting-technology-social-skills_n_1137570.html
BMJ-British Medical Journal. (2012, October 9). Curb kids' screen time to stave off major health and developmental problems. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 5, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/121009112138.htm
Elements Behavioral Health. (2012). Screen Addictions Can Cause Children to Lose Social Skills. Retrieved from http://www.addictiontreatmentmagazine.com/addiction/internet-addiction/screen-addiction/
Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds. Menlo Park, CA: Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Retrieved from http://kff.org/other/poll-finding/report-generation-m2-media-in-the-lives/
Koutamanis, M., Vossen, H.G.M., Peter, J., & Valkenburg, P.M. (2013). Practice makes perfect: The longitudinal effect of adolescents’ instant messaging on their ability to initiate offline friendships. Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 6, 2265-2272.doi:10.1016/j.chb.2013.04.033
National Association of School Psychologists. (2002). Social Skills: Promoting Positive Behavior, Academic Success, and School Safety. Retrieved from http://www.nasponline.org/resources/factsheets/socialskills_fs.aspx
The Children’s Media Foundation. (n.d.). Parents’ FAQs on children’s use of media. Retrieved from http://www.thechildrensmediafoundation.org/parent-portal
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When students at ACS Cobham International School (UK) got iPads, Richard Harrold saw an opportunity. As an assistant principal at the lower (elementary) school, he had been hearing glowing reports from other educators about students seeing remarkable gains when using iPads. Were the gains real? And was the effect due to something special about the iPad, or were students just responding to the newness of the technology?
Harrold decided to find out. With the help of his school’s “Project i” team, he launched a formal study with 1st and 2nd graders to see if they would experience the same increases in engagement and understanding that he had been hearing about from other educators.
Harrold's study confirmed the benefits of iPads in schools:
More generally, results indicated that:
The effects discovered were more than a reaction to a fun, new “toy.” In fact, to ensure that their results were not due to a honeymoon period, the team delayed the study until learners had been using their iPads for a full eight months.
These findings are exciting, especially for learners requiring intervention. Struggling students can be harder to engage and may have trouble enduring learning challenges. Giving them the opportunity to use an iPad-based intervention can motivate learners to persevere and achieve.
In a time where “grit” is getting a lot of attention as a key indicator of future success, anytime that perseverance goes up – as with iPad use – educators would be wise to take notice. But don’t rule out the appeal of classic technologies. Early-grade learners would still rather read a bound book than an ebook on iPad.
Harrold, R. (2012). Measuring the Effect of iPads in the Classroom. The International Educator. Retrieved from: http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/74482139/measuring-effect-ipads-classroom
Harrold, R. (2012). The iPad Effect: Leveraging Engagement, Collaboration, and Perseverance. The International Educator. Retrieved from: http://www.tieonline.com/view_article.cfm?ArticleID=100
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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. Below are the key elements to look for in brain exercises:
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.
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
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For many teachers, the words “flipped classroom” are nothing more than a synonym for having students watch pre-recorded lesson videos at home and then do related assignments – formerly homework – during class time. There’s no doubt that that is exactly what the flipped classroom typically looks like on the surface. But when flip teaching is done right, what matters is that it uses time differently and more effectively, in ways that can profoundly benefit all learners, including students with learning disabilities.
The flip teaching model:
Extends the learning day.
The ability to extend instructional time is a huge benefit for learners who grasp new concepts more slowly, or who aren’t able to process information as quickly as it’s presented. With flipped learning, they can rewind and re-watch a video as many times as needed until they understand the material – or perhaps until they understand what they don’t understand so they can get help in that area the next day.
Makes precious teacher time more available to students.
With instruction now happening at home on students’ time, teachers have more time to observe students as they apply what they have learned. As a result, teachers have more opportunities to watch students at work, so they can better identify student learning challenges and support struggling students with differentiated activities or targeted intervention.
Levels the playing field.
Flipped instruction puts students with learning disabilities on more equal footing for effective classroom participation. Learners who formerly may not have immediately grasped their teacher’s in-class instruction may now feel empowered to contribute to classroom discussions and ask informed questions instead of worrying about “looking dumb.”
The Naysayers and Their Challengers
Critics of the flipped classroom approach to blended learning say that access to videos can be a problem, especially in communities with a large number of learners from low-income households. Students may not have a computer or internet connection at home, may have to share already-limited computer time with other family members, or simply may not have time at home to watch lessons for the next day. The concerns are valid, but one visionary school is demonstrating that they can be overcome.
Clintondale High School, just outside of Detroit, is the first U.S. high school to move to a flipped model of learning school-wide. With a large population of economically disadvantaged learners, the school dealt with access concerns head-on by making extra time available in computer labs during the school day for learners who need it. One student who has limited time at home because of a long bus commute watches most of his lesson videos on a smartphone as he rides home from school. In just a few years, standardized test scores have gone up and the school’s failure rate has dropped dramatically from 52% to 19%.
Clintondale’s teachers note that the process is not as simple as just rearranging where and when direct instruction takes place; it’s essential that teachers get on board with mastering the technology and creating great lessons and learning activities. That way, students can get the most from every moment they spend learning and teachers can get maximum results for the time they spend creating content and supporting learners in the classroom.
Where Gen Ed & Special Ed Meet
A big boon for schools that move to flip teaching is that general ed technology can do double time as assistive technology for special ed. It’s a benefit for everyone, helping to reduce technology expenditures, the cost of managing technology, and the time that teachers spend adapting to learners’ assistive devices.
Still, flipped classroom veterans warn that setting high behavior standards for students is a must. Students need to know how they are expected to use their time at home and at school, and what specific behaviors will enable them to achieve their learning goals. Some students with learning disabilities may need additional help allocating their time and using it effectively. But when teachers, students, and parents are all on board, flipping has the potential not only to move more students to proficiency, but also to take more students beyond proficiency to the desired goal of mastery.
For Further Reading:
The Common Core standards are considered challenging for general education learners - and they’re meant to be. But given that challenge, many educators wonder what it means to hold special education students to the same standards. These are students, after all, who have already been performing well below grade level on standards that in many cases are weaker than the Common Core standards that replace them.
Meeting High Expectations Under the Common Core
How are educators expected to get these underperforming students to proficiency with the Common Core standards? A document on the Common Core State Standards Initiative website, “Application to Students with Disabilities,” outlines the supports and accommodations required for special educations students, including:
The Standards-Based IEP guides instructional planning for students with learning disabilities. It outlines an individualized learning experience matched to student needs and appropriate accommodations, and sets annual goals aligned with grade-level academic standards.
Instructional Supports & Accommodations
Instructional supports and accommodations that must be provided students include:
Qualified Teaching & Support Personnel
Students must receive high-quality, evidence-based instruction and support, delivered by qualified teachers and specialized instructional support staff. Some experts predict that the role of special education teachers will grow under the Common Core as they support general education teachers in understanding how to scaffold their teaching to fit the needs of different learners.
There are parents and educators who argue that holding students with learning disabilities to the same academic standards as general education students is unrealistic and unfair – for reasons of ability or practicality. Some parents of students with severe cognitive disabilities, for example, prefer that their children focus on life skills over academic skills, reasoning that life skills are more valuable for their children in the long run.
Others are more concerned about accurately measuring the performance of students with learning disabilities than they are about the standards themselves. For one thing, special education students may require 30 to 40 more days of instruction than general education students to learn the same material. If all students have the same number of instructional days, special education students would likely find themselves being tested on material they had never been taught.
Then there’s the added challenge of agreeing on a common set of accommodations, such as assistive technologies that could be built right into the tests. Some experts argue that students need to able to use the equipment they're accustomed to using every day in the classroom rather than encountering unfamiliar technology at test time when the stakes are high.
Computer-adaptive tests are also a concern because they adjust the difficulty of questions based on how a student performs on previous questions. The feature is intended to accommodate the full range of learners taking the test, but special education advocates worry that students with learning disabilities may end up being served questions below their grade level if they have a string of a few incorrect answers.
So, while the new PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments are being designed up front to accommodate special education students – rather than having accommodations tacked on as an afterthought - many educators remain skeptical.
Raising the Bar for Special Education
Many educators see the implementation of the Common Core standards as a historic opportunity – at last – to give students with learning disabilities access to the same academic rigor and high expectations as mainstream students, as mandated by IDEA.
Only time can tell how special educations students will fare under the Common Core. As with any large-scale shift in K-12 education practices, there are loud and persuasive voices on both sides of the issue and a lot of folks in the middle who are simply moving forward with the adopted standards and aren’t sure how things are going to turn out.
But at Scientific Learning, we know – because we’ve seen it again and again with our own eyes – that the majority of students with learning disabilities are capable of much more than they and others realize. Committed educators, a correct diagnosis, and an appropriately targeted intervention can be all that’s needed for dramatic learning gains.
Application to Students with Disabilities, Retrieved from: http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/se/cc/
For further reading:
Teaching persistence in the classroom is an important part of setting up learners to succeed. Students who have mastered persistence are able to work through challenges, deal constructively with failures and adversity, and achieve the goals they have set for themselves.
It’s a lot like running a marathon. The runners who make it to the finish line are the ones who persist in showing up for practices and trainings, learn to anticipate slumps and pace themselves, engage in positive self-talk during tough times, take steps to effectively prevent and treat injuries, and adjust expectations to fit reality – even if “finishing” means having to crawl the last mile.
Like a runner who has not trained to run longer distances, learners can’t persist in their learning if they haven’t developed the stamina they need to keep going when things get tough. Teaching persistence depends on first developing student stamina as a way of conditioning learners to handle sustained effort.
To help learners build stamina and persistence, it’s important to create the right learning environment:
Help Learners Develop a Growth Mindset
Learners need to know that they have the ability to grow and change, and that effort is the key. Praise them when they focus their efforts toward specific, clearly defined goals. When you say things like, “Those extra 10 minutes of reading each day are paying off – you are decoding unfamiliar words much more easily now,” you help learners make the connection between effort and achievement. The goal is for learners to become intrinsically motivated to engage in effortful learning now and in the future.
Push a Little Bit – and Know When Enough is Enough
Sometimes learners just need a little bit of encouragement to get past a hurdle. A few supportive words, like, “Think of how good you will feel when you finish those last two addition problems and you know you did the whole worksheet all by yourself!” can make all the difference. On the other hand, a learner may need to know that it’s okay to take a break and come back to a particular task when he’s feeling less frustrated. In that case, it’s important that the learner really does come back and complete the work to get the experience that he truly can “do more” when he persists.
Most learners love to hear personal stories from their teachers. Telling your learners about your weekend plumbing project that didn’t go as planned – and how you got through it and completed it – is a great way to help learners see that everyone feels like giving up sometimes. It also models for them how to overcome those feelings and reach a goal – without coming off as preachy.
Teach Positive Self-Talk
Some learners need a lot of help knowing what to say to themselves to stay motivated. If a learner’s typical internal dialogue consists of statements like, “This is too hard,” or “I don’t know how to do this,” it may come as a revelation to discover that there are other options. Giving learners specific wording, like, “I know I can do this if I keep at it,” or, “If I’m really stuck I can ask a friend or my teacher for help,” can begin to change the way they think and act when faced with a challenge.
Let learners know that you have high expectations and that you have confidence that each and every one of them can meet those expectations. Be sure they have access to the tools they need to be successful, and that they know how to use them.
Make the Most of Technology
Online tools like the Fast ForWord program can help learners make the connection between effort and achievement. The Fast ForWord program gradually builds learner stamina for enduring increasing degrees of cognitive load. The exercises develop reading and language skills at the same time as they boost memory, attention, processing, and sequencing ability. It gives learners immediate feedback on their performance and automatically adjusts the difficulty level for just the right degree of challenge. Fun reward animations help learners see when they have achieved a goal to help them stay motivated.
Call Out the Brain
It’s never too early – or too late – to teach your students about how the brain learns. Introduce the concept of brain plasticity – the idea that the brain changes in response to how it’s used – as a way of reinforcing the idea that learning is achieved through focused, sustained effort. Help them understand that every brain is capable of making dramatic changes and leaps in learning.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Students learn persistence in the same way that they learn sight words or multiplication tables – through repetition. Strategies like modeling persistence, connecting effort to achievement, and pushing students to do a little more than they think they can aren’t a one-time deal. But when repeated over time, the cumulative effect will likely be increased stamina, improved persistence, and intrinsic motivation for ever greater learning.
For Further Reading:
A brand new year certainly has a way of getting us thinking about the future. The holidays are behind us, the first term of the school year has wrapped up or soon will, and New Year’s resolutions beg for action. It’s a natural time to look forward.
So why not get out our crystal ball once again and look into the future of education? What trends are predicted for 2014?
The inclusion of listening standards in the Common Core heralds a new focus on listening instruction in the classroom. The Common Core raises up listening as a literacy skill, giving it equal weight to the more traditionally emphasized reading, writing, and speaking.
In 2014, teachers will spend more time demonstrating what listening “looks like;” explaining what students should be doing with their eyes, ears, and bodies while listening; directing learners to notice when they haven’t been listening; and measuring how well learners apply what they’ve been taught.
More schools are shifting toward project-based learning as a way of increasing engagement and creativity in the classroom. It’s not a matter of simply marking the end of a lesson or unit by making a book or a diorama; instead, project-based learning engages students in meaningful, long-term projects that are themselves the learning experience.
Fourth-grade students might conceive, coordinate, and run their own semester-long weekly farmer’s market. They then learn as they go – how to market their goods, how to anticipate what will sell, how to total a purchase and make change, and what it feels like to accomplish all that and contribute the cash earned back to their classroom or school.
Davis, M.R., (2013, June 11), Computer Coding Lessons Expanding for K-12 Students. Education Week, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from http://www.edweek.org/dd/articles/2013/06/12/03game-coding.h06.html
Fairbanks, A.M., (2013, May 20). Digital Trends Shifting the Role of Teachers. Education Week, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2013/05/22/32el-changingrole.h32.html
Lynch, M. (2013, November 22). Future Trends in K-12 Classroom Management and Discipline. Education Week, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/education_futures/2013/11/future_trends_in_k-12_classroom_management_and_discipline.html
Murphy, A.P. (2013, October 29). Ready to Learn? The Key Is Listening With Intention Annie. MindShift, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/10/ready-to-learn-the-key-is-listening-with-intention/
Schwartz, K., (2013, January 2). What Project-Based Learning Is — and What It Isn’t. MindShift, Retrieved December 9, 2013, from http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/01/what-project-based-learning-is-and-isnt/
Schwartz, K., (2013, October 14). Five Research-Driven Education Trends At Work in Classrooms. MindShift, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/10/five-research-driven-education-trends-at-work-in-classrooms/
Vangelova, L. (2013, November 13). Subverting the System: Student and Teacher as Equals. MindShift, Retrieved December 5, 2013, from http://blogs.kqed.org/mindshift/2013/11/subverting-the-system-student-and-teacher-as-equals/
A friend of mine once described her brain as a washing machine, tumbling and tossing the requests and information that hit her at work from every direction. Many people I know feel the same way—overwhelmed by the onslaught of knowledge and to-dos that accompany the always-on smartphone era.
The situation is not that different for most kids these days, with high expectations in the classroom, fewer opportunities to unwind with recess and the arts, busy social calendars, and a seemingly limitless supply of extracurricular activities—like circus arts and robotics—that weren’t available to previous generations. That’s unfortunate, because research shows that time off-task is important for proper brain function and health.
The idea that the brain might be productively engaged during downtime has been slow in coming. Because of the brain’s massive energy consumption—using as much as 20% of the body’s energy intake while on-task—most scientists expected that the organ would default to a frugal, energy-saving mode when given the chance.
Recently, however, brain researchers have discovered sets of scattered brain regions that fire in a synchronized way when people switch to a state of mental rest, such as daydreaming. These “resting-state networks” help us process our experience, consolidate memories, reinforce learning, regulate our attention and emotions, keep us productive and effective in our work and judgment, and more.
The best understood of these networks is the Default Mode Network, or DMN. It’s the part of the brain that chatters on continuously when we’re off-task—ruminating on a conversation that didn’t go as well as we’d hoped, for example, or flipping through our mental to-do list, or nagging us about how we’ve treated a friend.
Many of us are culturally conditioned to think of time off-task as “wasted” and a sign of inefficiency or laziness. But teachers and learners can benefit from recognizing how downtime can help. In addition to giving the brain an opportunity to make sense of what it has just learned, shifting off-task can help learners refresh their minds when frustrated so they can return to a problem and focus better.
The Productive Faces of Idleness
Sleep is the quintessential form of downtime for the brain. All animals sleep in some form, and even plants and microorganisms often have dormant or inactive states. Sleep has been shown in numerous studies to play a major role in memory formation and consolidation.
Recent studies have shown that when the human brain flips to idle mode, the neurons that work so hard when we’re on-task settle down and the surrounding glial cells increase their activity dramatically, cleaning up the waste products accumulated by the neurons and moving them out via the body’s lymphatic system. Researchers believe that the restorative effects of sleep are due to this cleansing mechanism. Napping for 10-30 minutes has been demonstrated to increase alertness and improve performance.
Teachers might consider reminding parents of the importance of adequate sleep for learning in the classroom – especially if learners are visibly sleepy or have noticeable difficulty focusing in class. As many as 30% of K-12 learners don’t get enough sleep at night.
AWAKE, DOING NOTHING
Idleness is often considered a vice, but there’s growing evidence that there are benefits to “doing nothing.” Electrical activity in the brain that appears to solidify certain kinds of memories is more frequent during downtime—as when lying in the dark at bedtime—than it is during sleep.
Meditation is another way of giving the brain a break from work without fully surrendering consciousness. Research has shown that meditation can refresh our ability to concentrate, help us attend to tasks more efficiently, and strengthen connections between regions of the DMN.
Experienced meditators typically perform better than non-meditators on difficult attention tests, and may be able to toggle more easily between the DMN and those brain networks that we use when we’re actively on task.
There’s evidence as well that the brain benefits from going offline for even the briefest moments—as when we blink. Every time we blink, our DMN fires up and our conscious networks take respite for a moment, giving the conscious mind a bit of relief.
It’s not uncommon to experience a sudden flash of insight while engaged in mundane activities like doing a crossword puzzle or cleaning the house. There’s a famous anecdote about Archimedes, a prominent scientist in classical Greece, solving a problem in just this way.
Archimedes needed to determine whether the king’s new crown was made entirely of the gold supplied to the goldsmith, or whether inferior metals like silver had been mixed in—and he had to do it without damaging the crown. He puzzled over how to solve the problem, without luck. Then, as he stepped into a bathtub one day and saw the water level rise, he realized in an instant that he could use the water’s buoyancy to measure the density of the crown against a solid gold reference sample. He conducted the experiment and found that the crown was less dense than the gold sample, implicating the goldsmith in fraud.
Scientists who research “unconscious thought” have found that activities that distract the conscious mind without taxing the brain seem to give people greater insight into complex problems. In a study of students who were asked to determine which car would be the best purchase, for instance, the group that spent their decision-making time solving an unrelated puzzle made better choices than the group that deliberated over the information for four minutes.
Brief windows of time spent on routine, mundane activities in the classroom—like feeding the class pet, putting books back on a bookshelf, or rearranging desks—can give learners a much-needed break from the sustained concentration required for academic time on-task.
Standing Up for Downtime
With so much to do and so little learning time in a school year—fitting in downtime is easier said than done. But take heart. Even closing your eyes, taking one deep breath, and exhaling can help to refresh the brain and takes practically no time. Offering more downtime in moment-sized bites might be just the thing for keeping ourselves, our students and our children on schedule and giving our brains that little bit of freedom to turn off for just a minute.
Holiday breaks and vacations are a perfect time for all of us take a break. I’ll be finding some time to unplug, unwind, and turn off. Will you?
2004 Sleep in America Poll. (2004). Retrieved December 8, 2013, from http://www.sleepfoundation.org/
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I am often asked about how to appropriately monitor student progress in relation to interventions. Progress monitoring is a key feature of Response to Intervention (RTI), and in fact, there can be no RTI unless we are monitoring the extent to which students are responding to our intervention.
How do we monitor the progress of school’s overall RTI efforts? How can we be sure that our coordinated, systematic supports on behalf of students are resulting in positive outcomes? What would the indicators be? Many schools express confusion about the best measure to use. I feel that the confusion relates not to progress monitoring but to how targeted the intervention is.
The Right Intervention
The best intervention is a targeted intervention. Yet we find that interventions are too frequently broad in nature and that they often address symptoms instead of causes. When the specific cause of reading difficulties is a challenge with multi-syllabic phonics, for example, providing general reading support is too broad an intervention. Similarly, providing support for adding fractions with unlike denominators is not an appropriately targeted intervention when the cause is difficulty related to finding equivalent fractions. I encourage teams to target interventions as specifically as possible on the causes of difficulties.
When interventions are appropriately targeted, the type of progress monitoring process to employ will be clear. If multi-syllabic phonics interventions are provided, monitor student improvement in decoding multi-syllabic words. When interventions are provided for multiplication or finding equivalent fractions, monitor student improvement in these areas.
Creating a Plan
When monitoring the progress of RTI efforts, start by revisiting the specific areas of student need that were targeted.
We know that RTI and the practices associated with it are among the most research-proven strategies a school can engage (Hattie, 2011). But just implementing RTI-based practices is not enough. We must ensure that RTI is resulting in improved student outcomes.
Just as with any school initiative, monitoring the progress and success of RTI is essential. Schools should identify what will be measured, how it will be measured, and when it will be measured before getting started. Once these measures are defined, questions about progress monitoring can be more easily resolved, and the real work of RTI can begin with confidence for success.
There’s a tug of war going on in American schools, a tension between learners’ developmental needs and the academic rigor required to meet challenging educational standards. In the classroom, where standardized assessments are the driving force of the day, the developmental realities of learners are often overlooked and shortchanged—and it’s something we ought to be talking about.
Signs of a Struggle
My co-worker’s son, Eli, is a case in point. As a kindergartener, he was expected to sit cross-legged with his hands in his lap on an 18” x 18” carpet square for 30-40 minutes of circle time each morning—something he was often unable to do. His teacher regularly reported home that Eli needed to improve in his ability to sit still, and the enthusiasm he had for school in September quickly waned.
His mother discussed the situation with her child’s pediatrician, who replied that Eli’s difficulty sitting still was a developmental stage that was perfectly normal for a five-year-old boy. The doctor also noted that Eli was expending so much energy trying to sit still that he was probably not able to attend to what he was supposed to be learning.
Eli’s parents transferred him to a different school the following year where he was assigned a teacher who designed her learners’ activities with their developmental needs in mind. For example, she gave her socially focused first-graders many opportunities to work with other learners in pairs or groups. Eli’s motivation skyrocketed, and in addition to performing at the top of his class academically, he began describing himself as a person who liked to be challenged.
Meeting Learners Where They Are
With so much to accomplish each year, and so little time, it’s no surprise that considerations around learners’ developmental stages often take a back seat to the focus on academic rigor. But as Eli and his parents learned, a standards-based curriculum isn’t likely to be effective if students are developmentally unable to attend to the material as it’s presented.
Some educators are calling for a renewed interest in child development and a move toward creating more developmentally appropriate classrooms for young learners. What might classrooms look like if developmental considerations were given greater weight? Here are just a few possibilities:
The Original Common Core
Long before we had the Common Core Standards, we understood that there are developmental stages that children step through as they move toward adulthood. Although children progress through them at different rates and there can be considerable overlap between stages, the stages are predictable for most children.
Learners bring their entire developmental selves to school each day, not just the cognitive components that are reflected in their standardized test scores. Classrooms that don’t take standards and developmental considerations into account aren’t likely to move students as far ahead as they need to go to stay on track.
Educators may find that aligning communication styles and classroom activities with their learners’ developmental stages results in less time spent on discipline and more time on task. Loosening the reins a little by adapting to learners can support the more “serious” work of building the cognitive skills that matter so much in meeting today’s standards.
Wood, C. (2007). Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14. Turners Falls, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.
Eccles, J.S. (1999). The Development of Children Ages 6 to 14. The Future of Children, 9(2), 30-44.