From the Lab to the Learner
These experiences and differences in brain maturation, however, do not determine a child’s outcomes. Educators have tremendous power to influence positive brain changes every day. Here are a few ways to improve outcomes for your students:
1. Feed the brain. School meal programs and physical education set the brain up for success. Nutritious meals can boost a child’s focus, attention, and memory. Physical exercise also promotes good blood glucose levels, oxygen intake, and levels of brain-related growth factors which benefit the brain and subsequent learning.
2. Build relationships. Teachers who form positive relationships with students can diffuse stress. A positive relationship with just one adult at school can turn toxic stress into tolerable stress, which improves a child’s ability to learn.
3. Supplement instruction with neuroscience-based interventions. Teachers can measurably increase students’ learning by building their cognitive capacity. Neuroscience-based interventions such as the Fast ForWord program target cognitive skills such as memory, attention, and processing speed, as well as language and reading skills. By working from the bottom up, using the principles of neuroplasticity, these programs remediate the underlying difficulties that keep struggling learners from making progress.
4. Give students intensive practice. Deliberate repetitive practice creates and strengthens connections in the brain. Relevant skills must be identified, isolated, and then practiced through hundreds if not thousands of trials on an intensive schedule. Technology-based programs can be particularly useful, as they can adapt to each child’s level and provide as much or as little practice as needed in each skill.
5. Provide timely rewards. The brain secretes helpful neuromodulating chemicals like dopamine and acetylcholine when it gets rewarded. These brain regulators help lock in learning. Thus, to boost learning, brain exercises should immediately reward correct responses (e.g., with entertaining animations) rather than at the end of a block of trials or on a trial-and-error basis.
The brain is a malleable, experience-dependent structure. There are many ways educators can mediate the influence of negative factors, such as poverty or toxic stress, on children’s learning and achievement. By improving children’s brain development and function, we can help them overcome language and reading problems that not long ago were considered insurmountable.
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