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A Head Start

Learning more about the brain could help teachers in the classroom.

One would expect that a heart surgeon would be familiar with how that organ works and a podiatrist would know a lot about feet. Plumbers know pipes, car salesmen know their vehicles if they are good at their job and fisherman believe they understand how fish think.

It is understandable, then, why experts increasingly think educators should have a better grasp of the organ they contend with every day – their student’s brain.

“We understand so much more about how the brain works – especially the brain of young people,’ says Adriana Galvan, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Brain Research Institute at UCLA who has spoken on the topic of brain science in young people and is one of the leading researchers on the topic. “Educators learn a lot as they deal with students each day, but it would obviously help them do their job if they better understood how the brain functions.”

She and other experts point out that it would improve their efforts to engage the various students in their classes  -- even helping them with study skills, which experts now know is an area where brain science has pinpointed strategies that work. (Some experts believe that misguided ideas about how the brain retains material leads teachers to encourage students and parents to use methods that are ineffective or even detrimental.)

A better understanding of how a young person’s brain works also can help a teacher prepare their lessons, experts says, getting to know the pace and variation needed – and where repetition or a vivid example will pay off.

And a better understanding of brain science can help with one of the most frustrating parts of a teacher’s job – student behavior. Child psychologist Mona Delahooke, author of a new book on using brain science to help improve behavioral challenges, doesn’t believe teachers have enough opportunity to learn about what motivates students.

“We are failing to help children with disruptive behaviors because our understanding and approaches are not consistent with current brain science,” she says.

She notes that 3.5 million students are suspended from U.S. public schools annually, according to the U.S. Dept of Education, and that preschoolers were suspended, too, at an alarming rate, according to the  Center for American Progress. Delahooke and others say such punishments rarely change behavior.

“Instead of focusing on eliminating behaviors, we need a new approach that considers the big picture while demonstrating that relationships are the key to helping all children grow and thrive,” Delahooke says.

There is a host of good material about new thinking regarding brain science and how we learn, but here are five quick tips about the way a child’s brain works that might be helpful for teachers.

The changing brain. Galvan says educators should first understand the brain is changing all the time – rapidly and differently in young people. It changes the most before the age of 20, when and is very different until we enter adulthood – and those differences make it hard for adults to understand how the younger brain responds. It is undergoing rapid change in early adolescence. It is important for educators to know that the brain is very different in school age kids, she says, and while they should be accountable they should also be understood, particularly their connection to reward seeking.

Study skills. When helping a student with study skills there are four rules that researchers say repeatedly that seem to help in their labs: space out study over days; have the right environment without distraction (students really can’t study while watching television); mix up the subject matter or alternate between old and new material; and test them about the material they have learned and have them explain it or somehow develop a deeper understanding of the material.

Lessons that work. In this case, logic may apply as much as sophisticated brain science. And experts say teachers often do get a lot of training about lesson plans that are effective. They obviously should think about the pace of the lesson, checking for understanding and providing the information in a variety of ways to consider different learning styles.

Behavior battles. Approaches that focus on managing surface behaviors aren’t necessarily grounded in current neuroscience and our understanding of emotional development, Delahooke says. She notes that if we oversimplify the motivations of students and believe they “can control themselves if they want” we aren’t likely to improve behavior. “When we shift to an approach that is grounded in neuroscience, we find that children’s challenging behaviors decrease because we are meeting their relational, emotional, and physiological needs.” She says teachers should try to understand what is motivating behavior – and learn about indications that a child is feeling stress or is have significant emotional concerns. Using rewards and consequences assumes a child is acting intentionally to get a response or avoid behaving or doing their work, she says.

In their shoes. Experts repeatedly say that empathy is key. Apart from understanding the science of a student’s brain, taking time to get to know each student’s individual circumstances is one of the best ways to be able to work with them – getting to know their patterns, responses, motivations and the environmental issues that affect them are all key. There is certain knowledge from the science of the brain that might be beneficial, but a teacher who combines an intentionally observant daily experience with young people with a willingness carefully try to appreciate them is perhaps in a better position to understand their brains than anyone.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (

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