October 1, 2019

3 Reasons Why Neuroscience Should Be Important to Title 1 Educators

BY Amy Takabori

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), schools need to be more transparent than ever about how they use government funds. With higher accountability, administrators and school boards, especially at Title 1 schools, who want to make the most out of their funding should consider what neuroscience research can contribute to their programs.

“Wait a minute!,” you say. “What does neuroscience have to do with Title 1?” Below are the top 3 reasons why neuroscience should be part of the Title 1 conversation, along with corresponding action items for educators.

What is Title 1?

Title 1 (officially Title I) is a federal program that provides funding to K-12 schools with children from vulnerable populations, including those impacted by poverty or homelessness. To close the achievement gap, Title 1 funding can be used for supplementary reading or math instruction and for after-school or summer programs, among other resources.

High-poverty schools with 40% or more of the student population receiving reduced or free lunches are designated Title 1 schools and use their funding for school-wide programs. Other qualifying schools support specific students with targeted-assistance programs. Title 1 is the nation’s oldest and largest federally funded program and distributes over $15 billion annually to schools across the country.

Why should neuroscience be part of the Title 1 conversation?

When we discuss the urgent needs of children from low-socioeconomic (SES) families, we focus on state test scores, social-emotional learning (SEL), and adverse traumatic experiences (ACEs).

What we need to talk about more is neuroscience. Scientific research on the brain offers insight into effective strategies for educators teaching vulnerable students. Here are 3 reasons why neuroscience should be at the center of the Title 1 conversation.

1. The most important learning tool is the brain.

All learning happens in the brain. So, a better understanding of it allows educators to maximize learning for Title 1 students who need the most support.

In recent years an emergent field has combined the fields of education and neuroscience to make neuroeducation. Popularly referred to as brain-based learning, this area of study bases best teaching practices on scientifically validated principles.

There’s no room for error with Title 1 students. When they’re behind to begin with, they can’t afford anything less than the most effective, scientifically proven instructional models.

2. “Bad behavior” is the wrong diagnosis.

Imagine "Sammy" is walking down the hall at school when a kid taps him on the shoulder. Sammy swings around and hits the other student. Is Sammy a violent child?

It depends. Sammy has grown up with chronic stress because of ongoing maltreatment and household dysfunction, ACEs that are the most prevalent in low-SES homes. Based on this background, Dr. Martha Burns, a neuroscientist and leading expert on how children learn, makes the case that Sammy’s behavior is not inherent “badness,” but rather something similar to post-traumatic stress disorder.

In a recent webinar titled "Breaking Bad: Tackling Behavior Problems at the Core," Dr. Burns explains that poverty breeds toxic stress, which then overloads the brain’s stress response system with cortisol. That means Sammy is chemically on high alert and will respond more sensitively to events that might not be stressful to others. 

To adequately address behavior issues, we need to understand what’s happening beneath the surface with our Title 1 students. Research about poverty’s effects on the brain opens a window into students' needs.

3. Cognitive skills are the most foundational learning skills.

You can’t read a book before learning your ABCs. And at the most foundational level, what all students need in order to learn anything are cognitive skills like memory, attention, processing, and sequencing. In fact, researchers found in one study that working memory is the greatest predictor of academic success—even more than IQ.

Unfortunately, neuroscientists have found that cognitive skills and associated executive functions, such as self-regulation and goal-setting, are disproportionately weak among low-SES students relative to their more affluent peers.

The good news is that research also shows that students can develop cognitive skills and executive functions. The brain is plastic: it can be trained with targeted cognitive exercises. With the right brain fitness program, Title 1 students are not destined to lag behind their classmates forever.

What can educators do?

Don’t worry—you don’t have to be a scientist to apply neuroscience research to the day-to-day needs of a school! Here are 3 brain-based strategies for educators at Title 1 schools to support their students.

1. Learn about neuroeducation and brain-based learning.

Here are some resources for teachers and school leaders to learn more about the latest neuroeducation research and classroom applications that will help Title 1 students.

2. Treat students as their best potential selves.

Rather than viewing students through a deficit model, educators should foster a growth mindset—both in themselves and in their students.

Educators should also counterbalance chronically stressed students’ heightened fight-or-flight state by providing support, resources, and stability—not punishment.

Rather than simply disciplining students like Sammy, educators can recognize that these kids have been conditioned to act out by toxic stress. Mentoring these students and helping them see their own potential can lead to better academic performance and behavior.

3. Invest funds in skills that will go a long way.

Educators can invest Title 1 and ESSA funds on technology that provides the most efficient way for students to strengthen the cognitive skills and executive functions that are the bedrock of all learning.

But not all brain training programs are equal. To help educators choose the best brain fitness program, the nonprofit BrainFutures released a report that includes guidelines and the top 10 brain fitness and executive function programs that meet their rigorous criteria.

Fast ForWord, one of the programs that appears in the report, is a reading and language program designed by neuroscientists to simultaneously strengthen cognitive skills and reading skills. Title 1 schools in Louisiana, Missouri, and across the country have seen fast and enduring gains with Fast ForWord.

Cognitive training tools directly counter the neurological effects that are disproportionately experienced by children from low-SES homes, and they will equip students with lifelong skills.

***

There are inspirational educators at Title 1 schools across the country impacting children’s lives every day. Including neuroscience more in our Title 1 programs will can elevate that crucial work even more.

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