Brain Research and the Classroom

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In the past decade, scanning and imaging technology has allowed researchers to directly observe brain activity, leading to enormous advances in our understanding of cognition.  In addition to yielding insights into how the brain works, these advances also allow health practitioners to assess an individual’s cognitive activity, processing patterns, and deficits.  This information, in turn, allows educators to more precisely identify issues that might impact learning and inform classroom strategies.  We can now directly observe and distinguish cognitive patterns associated with, for instance, ADHD, processing issues, trauma, and even transitory emotional states.

Because of this ability to more directly observe neurological activity, teachers can now implement customized, brain-based instructional strategies with a high level of confidence.  Advances in brain research have also helped dispel certain misperceptions about student performance.  We are now less likely to attribute classroom underperformance to laziness or a lack of motivation when, in fact, a neurologically based learning difference is the culprit.   This means that educators are able to replace blaming labels with a practical understanding of an individual student’s learning differences.

Following are some specific strategies that are validated by recent advance in brain research:

  • Safety: High-stress environments degrade cognitive function, so creating a classroom environment that is safe, structured, and predictable helps students learn.
  • Relational Instruction: Not only does a relational approach to teaching increase student’s sense of safety (see above) but it also improves cognitive engagement, multi-modal stimulation, and motivation; group learning with peers complements relational instruction.
  • Low Stimulus Environment: Reducing anxiety improves cognitive receptivity and processing; creating a low stimulus environment (removing all unnecessary stimuli) can reduce anxiety and improve learning.  However, this does not mean lowering academic expectations.
  • Repetition: Repetition is a simple but powerful way to teach both academic material and social skills.  Frequent reviews of classroom expectations, organizational tips, assignment parameters, schedule, and content create stronger neural pathways which, in turn, strengthen the student’s foundation for learning.
  • Experience: Experiential learning engages all of a student’s learning modalities—sight, sound, touch, social interaction—and allows the student to make personal decisions about how best to engage the material.
  • Break it Down: Brain research shows that breaking large tasks into their composite parts can help reduce anxiety and improve learning; teaching students to do this for themselves equips them with a critical lifelong learning skill.
    Agendas and Schedules:  Tying into the idea of a structured environment, teachers do well to provide their students with a predictable structure—i.e. one based on advance planning and driven by an agenda and predefined schedule.
  • Queuing Students: By queuing a student in real time to think about the whole process of learning, a teacher can foster meta-cognitive skills that help the student “learn how to learn.”  Questions such as, “what do you need to do now,”  “what’s the most important thing to next,”  and “how will you know when you’re done—what will it look like,” help students become more mindful of higher order concerns.
  • Check for Understanding: Merely asking a student “do you understand,” is likely to yield a dismissive “yes.”  Students should be encouraged to repeat instructions and important points via questions like, “what is the assignment,” or “what did I just say.”
  • Positive Reinforcement: Focusing on a student’s strengths and encouraging good efforts and successes goes a long way toward reducing anxiety and increasing motivation.
  • Teach Organizational Skills: Don’t assume a student knows how to use a binder, a folder, or a calendar.  Be explicit and concrete when teaching organizational skills to students.  Managing one self’s environment is a critical life-long skill.

Laurie Laird, M.Ed., is the education director for New Haven RTC, a residential boarding school and treatment program for adolescent girls with emotional and behavioral difficulties.  New Haven is part of the InnerChange family of adolescent treatment facilities.  Ms. Laird can be reached at Lauriel@newhavenrtc.com.