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Introverted Students in the Classroom: Nurturing Their Hidden Strengths

student introversion

When it comes to dynamic, busy environments, today’s school classroom is one of the busiest. Most teachers must manage upwards of 25 learners, sometimes 30 or more, and help them all move together towards specific learning goals. In such environments, academic ability is only one part of the equation determining a student’s ability to function and succeed.  The rest depends to a significant degree upon aspects of temperament, such as whether the learner is an introvert or extrovert.  

Extroverts – simply because they are outgoing, social, and talkative – tend to be more visible to their teachers and classmates. They shine brightly. They are often natural leaders and may be the first ones to raise their hands and speak up with quick answers. While such a desire to interact is an excellent asset, it can also result in responses that are not fully thought through. The extrovert might be the first one to enthusiastically jump into a project, but may do so before gaining clarity on direction and goals. But when it comes to staying energized to learn, interacting with others gives them a real, palpable boost.

But what about introverts?  Because they can be quiet in a bustling group setting, they may not be as visible to their teachers and classmates.  However, they bring much to the table. In fact, the introverts’ perspective has the potential to bring quiet leadership and methodical perspective to the classroom dynamic that – if we’re not tuned in to it – can go untapped. The more we can understand their outlook on the world, the more effectively we can implement strategies to nurture their strengths.

Often described as having sensitive temperaments, introverts need to find comfortable ways into stimulating social situations. In classrooms, such students take their time to get acclimated to new settings or new people. They might not speak up in large discussions, but they work well on their own and often excel in small groups. Unlike extroverted individuals, introverts recharge by taking quiet time to process their experience away from the group.   Their reflectiveness can be a significant strength, taking learning deeper.

According to neuroscience researcher and psychoanalyst Marti Olsen Lany, Psy.D., there is a biological basis for the differences between introversion and extroversion. She explains that the dopamine that our brains produce in situations like parties tends to give extroverted people a pleasurable feeling. In introverted people, on the other hand, the same stimulation can create a sensory overload. 

Is one type more common than the other? Education Week reports that 50 percent of us are extroverts and 50 percent are introverts – an even split. Thus, the essential question for educators to consider is how can we help harness the hidden strengths of both kinds of students in the same learning environments?

So, how can we best support all students – introverted as well as extroverted – in the classroom?

  • At the beginning of the year, make it a goal to get to know each student individually to develop a feel for where they land on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.
  • Plan for a flexible classroom environment that allows introverted students the space they need to get acclimated to the group.
  • Without singling anyone out, explain to students the differences between introversion and extroversion to help foster self-awareness and allow each individual to take better charge of their own learning. 
  • Balance classroom time between large groups, small groups and independent work to create multiple environments where both kinds of students can think, learn and express themselves effectively.
  • Place an equal value on interactive discussion and thoughtful independent work.

Although our culture values extroversion, introverted students cannot simply change the way they experience and interact with the world. As educators, we need to learn to recognize them and to focus our energies on seeing their strengths, so that we can teach them to harness and cultivate their abilities. In doing so, we will help our introverted learners develop the self-confidence and self-knowledge they need to successfully pursue their dreams.  And that’s a benefit for all of us. 

 

 

For further reading:                      

Raising an Introvert in an Extrovert World

Studies Illustrate Plight of Introverted Students

Don’t Call Introverted Children ‘Shy’

Related reading

Creating Safe Learning Environments: How Classroom Management Influences Student Performance

Building Your Child’s Self-Confidence

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Categories: Reading & Learning

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Teaching Metacognition: The Value of Thinking About Thinking

Teaching metacognition

Research performed in the past few decades has demonstrated that we can improve reading skills by teaching students “metacognitive strategies.” By metacognition, we refer to enhancing one’s awareness of “what one believes and how one knows.” (Kuhn, 2000).  In other words, the more we can teach students to be actively thinking about thinking as they learn, the more effective their learning will be.

In fact, we can teach students to become what Marcia Lovett of Carnegie Mellon University calls “expert learners.” According to Lovett (2008), teaching metacognition involves three specific processes:

  • Teaching students that their ability to learn not only changes, but that they can affect how that ability develops,
  • Teaching them how to plan for success and set goals, and
  • Giving them lots of opportunities to monitor their learning and adapt their own learning strategies

According to Lovett’s research, an experimental group of students who used metacognitive strategies more strongly believed themselves to be effective learners, demonstrated greater motivation to learn, and achieved better academic performance than the control group. (2008)

What exactly do such metacognitive learning strategies look like in the classroom? Diane Dahl, in her blog post at The Educator’s PLN, shows how these ideas can be implemented in any number of ways, many times by simply tweaking existing instructional strategies. Here are a few recommendations based on her list.

  1. Give goals. Before a lesson begins, give clear goals for what they will be expected to learn from the experience.
  2. Pose questions. Posing questions before, during and after reading or instruction will help students to focus on the key points they should be learning.
  3. Offer opportunities to summarize and retell. Have students summarize or retell what they have read or heard. As they do this more and more, they will learn how to more effectively identify central ideas.
  4. Give self-monitoring strategies. Give students strategies for being aware of their own learning. For example, practice having students make a quiet “a HA” sound when they understand an idea or a “hmmm” sound when they don’t. This will help both teacher and students to know when a topic needs more attention.
  5. Engage the five senses. As students experience a text – whether they are reading it silently or out loud or it is being read to them – have them imagine using all five of their senses to experience the text. In their mind, what do they see, hear or smell? What does it feel like on their skin?

While it might be easiest to imagine implementing these kinds of strategies in reading instruction, they can be adapted for teaching any subject. The idea is simply to get students to be consciously aware of, and take charge of, their own learning. The more we can do that, the more effective we will be as teachers.

References:

Teaching Metacognition

Instruction of Metacognitive Strategies Enhances Reading Comprehension and Vocabulary Achievement of Third-Grade Students

Metacognitive Strategies for Reading Comprehension

Related Reading:

Deliberate Practice: How to Develop Expertise

The Question Formulation Technique: 6 Steps to Help Students Ask Better Questions

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How to Support Social Development in Young Children

Social development

As early as first grade, a child’s social skills are a compelling predictor of his future success both in and out of school.  Like any developing skill, burgeoning social skills require support, practice and repetition.  The desired behaviors are learned and taught through a variety of accumulating experiences stemming from the earliest years of childhood, between birth and age 6, when children grow and develop faster than during any other stage in their lives. 

Children rely heavily on adults and other caregivers to help them acquire social skills and establish pathways for meaningful learning.  To that end, researchers have found that when children are provided with positive and caring experiences in these early years, the connections in the brain for feeling good and learning are strengthened, self-esteem and confidence rise, and children are more equipped to cope with life’s challenges. 

So whether you’re a parent or an educator, the following strategies will help promote social development in young children, while helping them learn to use their own minds:

 Model Appropriate Social Behavior

Take advantage of everyday routines to “show and tell” children what your expectations are for appropriate behavior—for example, how to greet someone new or how to share a toy during play.  By talking about what you’re doing as you’re doing it the child will better understand how to manage the situation and replicate it, even when you’re not there.

Support Self-Esteem

Positive self-esteem is critical to healthy social development.  Make it a point to compliment children on their behavior, how they look, and progress they have made toward goals.  When you acknowledge these attributes, children learn how to perceive and act upon their feelings in a healthy way.

Build Problem Solving Skills

Problem solving is a skill that employs reasoning, creativity, inhibitory control and decision making.  Because children do not have fully mature executive functions, they are prone to making mistakes as their abilities emerge and the frontal lobe develops.  Exploring solutions to problems by asking children “What would you do?” or offering alternative strategies will help them develop effective reasoning skills and mental flexibility.

Encourage Exploration

Infants and young children explore their environment through movement and interaction.  As a child develops confidence and control over her body in motion, she becomes more and more eager to venture into the world around her.  Aid her natural curiosity by organizing activities that promote safe exploration, both at home and while out.  Examples include asking children for help while preparing a meal or tasking them with finding an item at the grocery store.  When you gradually extend opportunities to be involved with more complex activities, children will rise to the occasion.

Play! 

Time spent playing with children can be one of the best investments you make in their educational future.  One of the easiest ways to help children develop socially is by the simple act of playing.  Joining in play builds relationships in a climate of fun and puts you in a great position to teach skills for sharing and cooperation, introducing concepts like winning or losing, and it also gives children a chance to learn about more subtle social cues, like body language and vocal intonations.  So don’t be afraid to turn up the music for a little song and dance, put on a puppet show, or pull out some favorite board games and have fun! 

References:

Bierman, K.L., et al., Promoting academic and social-emotional school readiness:  The Head Start REDI Program.  Child Development, 79(6), 1802-1817, 2008.

Katz, Lilian and Diane McClellan. Young Children’s Social Development: A Checklist. World of Education. March 26, 2012.

Knitzer, Jane and C. Cybele Raver. What Research Tells Policymakers About Strategies to Promote Social and Emotional School Readiness Among Three- and Four-Year-Old Children. National Center for Children in Poverty. July, 2002.

Peters, Zrinka. Support Social and Emotional Development – Through Play! Education.com. March 26, 2012.

Supporting Social Development. Best Beginnings: Alaska's Early Childhood Investment. March 29, 2012.

Related Reading:

Building Your Child’s Self-Confidence

Recognizing Emotions After Brain Injury: Re-Learning a Critical Social Skill

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

curiosity in learning

Good grades and high achievement test scores are very real portals to success in life. Given the weight society grants such measures in evaluating individuals for everything from college to graduate school to entrance into the professional world, we cannot ignore the essential role of these traditional measures of success.

But that’s tradition; does the science support the idea that intellect and academic mastery ensure later success? What are the true determinants of triumph in school and life? Traditionally, intelligence and effort have been the two traits identified as the golden keys to future achievement. Still, there is a third variable that has long gone under-analyzed; in their 2011 paper, Von Strumm, Hell and Chamorro-Premuzic posit that yet another “pillar” of the mind must be taken into consideration: curiosity.

Back in 1963, Fiske and Butler stated that ability test scores measure what a person can do at a given time, whereas personality scales “provide a measure of what a person is most likely to do” in the future. (Fiske and Butler, pp. 258-259)  This difference is fascinating, and one which we all too often fail to differentiate when working with and evaluating our students.

In their research, Von Strumm, Hell and Chamorror-Premuzic reviewed and analyzed multiple studies that investigated the relationships between academic performance and intelligence, as well as those between academic performance and personality traits such as curiosity. They found, among other results, that the combined effects of curiosity and effort equaled the impact of intellect on academic performance. In other words, their analysis played out scientifically what Dewey suggested back in 1910: “The curious mind [is] constantly alert and exploring [and] seeking material for thought, as a vigorous and healthy body is on the qui vive for nutriment. . . . Such curiosity is the only sure guarantee of acquisition of primary facts…” (Dewey, 1910, p. 31)

For educators, the implications of such conclusions represent a refreshing perspective on both how we perceive our students’ abilities and how we imagine and implement strategies to nurture their success. All too often, we fall into the trap of seeing our students and evaluating their performance in terms of their intellectual abilities.

But what if we could see them just as well for their possibilities? What if we could focus our gaze ahead and perceive their potential in those areas of knowledge that they were most hungry to pursue?

Because of brain plasticity research, we know that through finding strong existing neural pathways and thought patterns, we can connect them to the creation of new thought patterns; we can use existing strengths to cultivate new ones. For example, a child might not have excellent math skills, but a deep curiosity for space and the solar system. If we can use that passion for outer space to introduce mathematical concepts, the child is more likely to successfully learn those essential skills.

With this knowledge on our side, if we can tap into and cultivate our students’ curiosity, we can help them turn their immediate educational obstacles into opportunities, as well as help them to establish habits of mind that will serve them long into their futures after that last exam has come to a close.

For further reading: Von Stumm, Sophie. Hell, Benedikt. Chamorro-Premuzic, Tomas. The Hungry Mind: Intellectual Curiosity Is the Third Pillar of Academic Performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science 6(6) 574–588.

Related Reading:

6 Steps to Help Students Ask Better Questions

Using the Power of Optimal Timing to Improve the Brain’s Ability to Learn

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5 Things Every Parent and Educator Should Know About Early Childhood Brain Development

Early childhood brain development

Earlier this week, Dr. Martha S. Burns took webinar participants on a tour of the brain and its development from birth to four years of age.  Since then, I’ve found myself considering and re-considering much of what I learned from her presentation, including the following memorable facts:

  1. Four-year-olds are better at solving novel problems than many adults.
  2. Young children have “open” attention, which takes in a lot of detail from the surrounding environment, while adults have more focused attention, which means that they notice details that are perceived to be relevant and ignore those that are considered unimportant.  
  3. Every language has nursery rhymes for children who are two to three years old.  The rhymes help children build phonemic awareness and learn about characteristics of language, such as rhyming and syllable structure.
  4. Young children learn language capacity by interacting with adults.   It’s the interacting part that’s important; television cannot replace the adult as language teacher.
  5. Lack of experience with other children can contribute to cognitive delays.

These facts barely scrape the surface of Dr. Burns’ visually rich and informative presentation, which begins with an overview of brain anatomy, brain function, and developmental timelines and ends with a caution against some popular “educational” products for young children.

To learn more about early childhood brain development, including how to build attention, number sense, problem solving and social skills in young children, view the recorded webinar.

Related Reading:

What does the Marshmallow Experiment Tell Us About Self-Control?

Toddler Vocabulary Development: Shopping With Your Child

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What Does The Marshmallow Experiment Tell Us About Self-Control?

Marshmallow experiment

What is the mark of a good student? Is it innate intelligence? Is it attention span? Is it drive? Studies show that a major contributor to success might be as simple as having self-control. Take, for example, the marshmallow experiment.

Place a single marshmallow in front of a four-year old. Tell them they can eat it now or wait 15 minutes and have it along with a second marshmallow.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Walter Mischel of Stanford University performed this very experiment with over 500 nursery school children. What percentage do you think was able to control their impulses and hold out for marshmallow number two? In the end, fewer than one in three children were able to wait it out for the two marshmallows. At four years old, they simply had not developed the ability to delay gratification required for the challenge.

Paired with recent follow-up studies with 155 of the same individuals, the marshmallow experiment has come to shed fascinating insights on the inner workings of motivation and gratification, and how the two contribute to future success in school and life.

In the end, these studies have shown that children who were able to resist that first marshmallow were also more likely to be able to “avoid substance abuse, maintain a healthy body weight, and even perform better on the SAT than peers who couldn’t resist temptation.” In another study by Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania, self-control was a better predictor of academic success than IQ.

Self-control: Innate or teachable?

Given the proven connection between self-control and life success, the question arises: Is it possible to develop tools that help people enhance self-control?

As it turns out, self-control is the result of processes in two parts of the brain. Our rational thoughts, such as “If I wait, I get the second sweet,” take place in the pre-frontal cortex. More urgent decisions take place in the more primitive ventral striatum. Decisions like these that connect to deeper desire and reward depend on the environment around us. In this second case, the thought process might be, “Gee, that marshmallow sure looks soft, sweet and yummy, and I really want it. Right now.”  Research has shown that the rational thoughts can often be derailed by the primitive limbic system; this is no surprise, given the importance of these systems to the survival of our species over the eons.

So, can we strengthen the ability of the rational side to win out over the impulsive side? One solution might just lie in helping young people change how they focus on the environment around them, such as helping them differentiate between “hot” and “cool” cues.  The limbic system deals with “hot” cues, activating emotions like impulse, anger, sadness, happiness and satisfaction. On the other hand, “cool” cues are processed in the frontal lobe and activate cognitive systems that control functions like planning, problem solving, working memory and reasoning. Returning to a variant of our marshmallow experiment, studies have shown that students who were coached to focus on “cool” attributes like color or shape were better able to resist temptation than those who focused on “hot” cues like taste.

Toward impulse-control interventions

Research is now underway to figure out how educators can better harness some of these insights into the power of impulse- and self-control to help students better achieve success. At the KIPP Academy School in New York, the marshmallow experiment has been used as a way to initiate discussions about self-control with 6th graders and help them make better, more rational decisions.

Ultimately, the ability to produce concrete strategies and tools that help students learn to control their impulses will depend upon the results of investigations that are still in the works. But eventually, if we are taking the research to heart, success will likely follow.

For now, if your students seem a bit impulsive from time to time, a chat about marshmallows might be just the thing to get them thinking.

Further Reading:

Study Reveals Biology Behind Self-Control

Related Reading:

Tips for Teaching Positive Behavior

Building Your Child's Self-Confidence

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Building Your Child’s Self-Confidence

Vocabulary development

As parents, we want our children to have confidence but not conceit.  That is, we want our children to monitor the outcomes of their behaviors realistically, to be polite and considerate of others, but retain a sense of self that is positive and assured. I believe the mistake parents often make is thinking that constant praise of a child is the route to self-confidence. It is an easy mistake to make, especially in a society in which so much emphasis is placed on making our children feel loved and building feelings of self-worth.

I, like most new parents, constantly praised my oldest child for everything she did from swinging at the park without falling to reading a stop sign as we drove to preschool. But the problem with that is that excessive praise may create unrealistic expectations for the child when they are in the “real world” where people do not praise them all the time. I did not realize that for my daughter this was creating tremendous pressure to be successful at everything she did. Conversely, some children who hear constant praise at home may feel confused or dejected when others are not as enthusiastic about their feats and develop a fear of failure.

A young client of mine, whose mother worked very hard to build self-confidence in her children by praising them continuously, developed a host of voice problems associated with stress in elementary school.  I have worked with other children who developed a “need” for constant praise that affected their ability to enjoy competition if they could not win.

Since a large component of human brain maturation involves increased self-awareness and improved capacity for self-monitoring of behavior, parents have the opportunity to be instrumental in helping a child develop this advanced skill. By encouraging self-appraisal that is realistic while avoiding being overly judgmental, parents help their child build confidence. 

Instead of constant praise, parents can try to use praise more naturally to encourage behaviors the parent believes are worthwhile or beneficial. Statements like, “I like the way you shared your toys today” or “You seemed to be having a lot of fun on the climber, do you feel like you are getting better at that?” may help a child learn to value effort and progress as well as to self-evaluate.

It is important to remind ourselves that to adequately develop the ability to monitor our behavior we have to understand mistakes as well as achievements. It is very difficult for a parent to watch a child fail at something, but as adults most of us are well aware that some of the best lessons we had as we grew up came from our failures, as rough as they may have been at the time.

Building your child’s self-esteem ultimately will help them succeed in endeavors both in school and in life.  One of the most important jobs for parents is to help your child successfully through life’s challenges and successes, help them feel good about themselves along the way, and learn to accept mistakes as an opportunity to do better next time. 

Related Reading:

Ok, So You Made A Mistake. But Look What You Learned!

Shaming Some Kids Makes Them Aggressive

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Six Reader-Selected Posts in Honor of Our 2nd Blogaversary

Second blogaversary post

It’s hard to believe, but it’s been two years since Dr. Bill Jenkins, Dr. Martha Burns, Sherrelle Walker, and a host of staff bloggers launched the Science of Learning blog.  In those two years we’ve learned a lot and had a ton of fun while creating posts we hoped you would find valuable.

In honor of the occasion, we’d like to share some of our readers’ favorite blog posts to date.  Here are just a few of the posts that readers have told us they’ve liked best: 

Kathy recommends: How Learning to Read Improves Brain Function

“As an adult literacy tutor, I was fascinated to read Stanislaus Dehaene's research showing that students who don't learn to read may experience severe difficulties with other forms of instruction as a result. This underscores the critical importance of funding such programs as Second Start Adult Literacy in Oakland, a city with a high level of adult illiteracy. And, fact-based research like this gives us a more powerful defense than emotion-based anecdotes, as we fight to protect city and state literacy funding. Thank you, Scientific Learning!”

Jennifer recommends two posts:

The Question Formulation Technique: 6 Steps to Help Students Ask Better Questions

“In a learning environment that tends increasingly towards 'teaching to the test,' our nation’s students are losing the skills crucial to a lifetime of knowledge acquisition.   Without good questions we cannot find good answers, good solutions, or grow good thinkers. This article outlines a tested method for teaching children how to go about formulating a complex and well thought out question.”

School Gardens: Sowing the Seeds of Experiential Learning

“School gardens are an invaluable interdisciplinary learning tool that gets students out of the classroom and allows them to use classroom knowledge in a real world scenario. A school garden acts as a place to learn, test out theories, and acquire life skills, as well as providing a space of beauty and an object of school pride.  In my time as a garden educator, I found the bounty of opportunity to teach in the garden near limitless, and believe that all children should have the opportunity to see what they can discover in the garden.” 

Teresa recommends two posts:

The Magical Combination of Love and Limits: Tips for Teaching Positive Behavior and Kindergarten Math Readiness and the Cardinal Principle

“All of the blogs have good information for parents, educators and caregivers, but the one I like the most is the one about love and limits. I think this post is applicable to all children.  The math readiness post is a close second, as I did not know about the "cardinal principle." If more parents knew about the information in the love and limits article, we would have happier and more well-adjusted children.”

Linda recommends: Bringing Learning to Life in the Classroom: Technology for 21st Century Schools

“I've got my backpack ready to take a 3-D field trip in learning!  This mode of education sounds incredibly exciting for students.  The sky will be the limit for learners who become engaged in this technology. Thank you Scientific Learning from a retired Maine Elementary School Counselor!”

Thanks so much for your readership and feedback.  We are already hard at work on more high quality posts for the new year, and are looking forward to sharing them with you.

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Creating Safe Learning Environments: How Classroom Management Influences Student Performance

Safe learning environments

Think back to your grade school days. Did you ever experience a class where a bully ruled the roost? Were you ever bullied yourself?  Did you ever have a teacher who frightened you or who made you feel bad for underperforming? Or was there simply a disruptive class clown who constantly broke the classroom rhythm the teacher was trying so hard to create?

To varying degrees, all of the above situations can create what we might consider an unsafe learning environment. The teacher must take unquestionable ownership of the classroom, but do so in a positive, caring, constructive manner. The class succeeds or fails on his or her decisions and management of the entire learning experience.

Why is managing that classroom and creating that safe environment where learning can happen so essential? In her article on the value of safe learning environments, Lora Desautels, Ph.D., reminds us that during adolescence, the part of the brain that controls emotional responses—the amygdala—develops faster than other centers of the brain while the prefrontal cortex, a center for logical thought and rational response, develops later. Thus, our students are more effectively wired for emotion than logic. Their systems are primed to react to situations with feelings and they have not yet fully developed the ability to apply logical thinking to keep those feelings in check.

It follows that the stimuli within and surrounding the learning environment can have great effects on these emotional responses and can serve to either support or impair the learning process. The bully, the clown, and the teacher can all have a profound effect on how well a student learns.

So what can we as educators do to bring down the levels of stress in our classrooms and make sure that our learning environments are safe places where optimal learning can take place? How can we create spaces that keep the emotional responses as positive and free of stress and anxiety as possible so that we can most effectively engage fresh young minds?

Rebecca Alber has written a wonderful list of twenty ways to create a safe learning environment for Edutopia, which I highly recommend. Her advice for educators includes building community, setting clear boundaries, smiling and laughing a lot, and getting to know each individual student, as well as allowing them to get to know something personal about you. She says we should sit with our students. We should keep our expectations for student performance and behavior high. And we should incorporate art and music into the day.

I agree with Alber’s top twenty. I find it wonderful that she strikes a balance between creating a space that is fun and welcoming and full of laughter, but also one where expectations are set and failures become learning opportunities. All of them can do wonders when it comes to creating a space where students can let go of their stresses and anxieties and free their minds to absorb all the wonderful learning we have in store for them.

In the end, the responsibility for implementing these kinds of principles and removing the stressors that can impair learning lie with us, the educators. Creating that safe learning environment is a multifaceted challenge that, when done well, allows students to flourish.

Related Reading:

Tapping the Source: Finding and Using the Innate Student Passion for Learning

Inspiring Students to Dream, Learn and Grow

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Modeling Healthy Choices: Three Habits for Optimal Brain Health

Brain habits

Isaac Asimov said, “The human brain…is the most complicated organization of matter that we know.”[i] And it’s true.  Our amazing brains are both a product of biological evolution and a reflection of the world around us.

First, the stuff of the brain – grey matter, white matter, fluids, blood vessels – is made up of nutrients from the plants and animals we consume from the world around us.

Second, in terms of brain function, our interaction with our environment has a major impact on both brain structure and brain health. Extensive and ongoing research into “brain plasticity” has proven that everything we experience, everything we see or touch or hear, creates a perception that changes the wiring of the brain itself.

Given that our brains are a product of evolution (which is outside of our control) and environment (which is only partially under our control, and often less than ideal), how can we keep our brains as healthy as possible, from birth all the way through old age?

The pathway to optimal brain health comes from the small choices we make every day. By making healthy choices on a regular basis, and particularly by turning those choices into habits, we can help our brains stay healthy while also helping the young people in our lives learn positive self-care skills that can last a lifetime.

Here are three important steps everyone can take toward optimal brain health:

  • Eating more healthy foods and minimizing unhealthy foods. Eating foods that provide nutrients to build healthy brain tissues is essential. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, avocados and nuts, along with foods high in potassium like bananas promote brain function. Also, lowering our intake of sodium can reduce blood pressure, a factor that can, if left unchecked, lead to stroke.
  • Engaging in regular physical exercise. Like every other organ and tissue in the body, the brain needs healthy blood flow to function at its highest possible levels. Physical exercise helps improve and maintain cardio vascular health, allowing the body to efficiently and effectively deliver oxygen and nutrients to the brain. But it can do more for us. In students, educators have reported physical exercise resulting in less disruptive behavior, higher self esteem, less anxiety and greater attentiveness. Dr. John Ratey of Harvard University describes exercise as “food for the brain.”
  • Giving your brain practice in the activities you want it to be good at. The neural pathways that our brains create over time, as we have said, are a direct result of the stimuli that we receive. That’s why through practice and training, a child can work to shape their brain into that of a great musician or mathematician or martial artist. At the same time, we must remember that negative input also affects our wiring. For example, excessive amounts of watching television and playing video games has been shown to have concerning chemical and biological effects, such as the suppression of melatonin release, elevated blood cholesterol and an increased chance of coronary heart disease – and these effects should be taken into consideration as we make decisions about how we spend our time.

The brain might be the most complicated organization of matter we know of, but that doesn’t make it difficult to keep healthy. By learning to choose the right foods, the right activities, and the right input, we can each take control – at any age – of building the brains we want. 

Children can begin learning to make good choices from the earliest ages, but it is up to parents and teachers to model these healthy habits of mind.  

Yes, that means you.

References:

[i] J. Hooper and D. Teresi. The Three-Pound Universe. Macmillan Publishing Company. 1st edition 1986.

Related Reading:

Lifelong Learning and the Plastic Brain

5 Paths to Brain Health: Tips from Dr. Paul Nussbaum

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