The problem is worst when the district is required to stick to a rigid "teacher proof" curriculum that dictates tedious days of worksheets and nights of more of the same brain stuffing. In these cases the best teachers have less opportunity to use their skills to create the joyful, memorable learning experiences children need. The penalty for all of us is that the dropout rate has never been higher. For a child in high school now, it is more likely that his or her parents
will have graduated than it is that the student will graduate high school. When surveyed as to the reason for the dropping out the overwhelming cry is BOREDOM. When asked what constitutes boredom, the two major responses are, "The material isn't interesting" and "What we are taught has no relevance to me."
From my perspective as a neurologist and classroom teacher, I see the blank faces, "acting out", and zoning out and know that these are not the children's choices. The brain evolved as an organ to promote survival of the animal and the species. Its first priority is to avoid danger. Our attention is hard-wired to alert to signals of potential danger. The most primitive parts of the brain are those that determine what gets our attention and what information gets priority entry into the brain. This attention system is essentially the same in humans as in other mammals. When the brain experiences stress that attention system is on autopilot seeking the potential threat that might be causing the emotional disturbance, and ignoring other sensory information such as lessons.
Stress goes up with boredom and frustration in humans and animals. Animals restrained or understimulated "misbehave" with aggressive, destructive, and even self-mutilating behavior. The stress causes their brains to attend only to imagined or real threat. In that state behavior is no longer influenced by the higher, thinking brain. Stress takes control of the neural pathways that determine where information is processed and where behavior is controlled.'
The same responses take place in the human brain. If children are stressed by boring lessons that have little personal relevance and by the frustration of not keeping up with the overloaded curriculum, their brains do what they are programmed to do. Input is diverted away from the thinking higher brain (the prefrontal cortex) and sent to the lower, reactive brain. In this situation, in humans as in animals, the involuntary behavioral reactions are essentially limited to three responses: Fight, Flight, or Freeze.
The reason I left my neurology practice and became a teacher was because I had a profound increase in the children referred to my practice because their teachers felt they might have attention or other neurological disorders causing them to "act out" or "zone out" in class. When I observed the joyless force-feeding of facts by teachers who were given the impossible task of cramming test material into these young brains, my heart went out both the students and their teachers. I joined their ranks, and made correlations between the neuroscience research about stress, attention, behavior, and memory, as I spent the past ten years in my classrooms and implementing strategies to promote the neuroscience of joyful learning.Schools Won't Get Better Soon so Parents Need to Be Brain Preservers
There is no sign that the standardized testing of far too much information each year will change. Funding remains tied to the results of these tests of rote memorization so that is the diet of your child in the classroom feedlot. Your challenge as a parent is to reconnect your children with the joy of learning. You can make a difference in how they relate to school and even reverse their brains' reflexive reactions. The key is to build bridges.
You can distress your child's automatic reaction to the boredom and frustration of school and homework by linking your children's positive emotions to their one-size-fits-all classrooms. You can enrich and expand your children's learning experiences and help them be more successful on tests and other school assessments. More importantly, you can revive the love of learning and discovery they had when they started kindergarten.
How to Build the Bridges for Your Child's Safe Passage Across Troubled Waters
The positivity recovery intervention you can provide is to connect you children's classroom studies to their interests to help them the find personal relevance that busts the stress and opens up the neural pathways to their upper, intelligent brains where true learning and creative thinking take place.
You can use strategies with your children at home to reverse school negativity and promote the mindset your children need to regain and sustain a positive attitude about themselves and school. With this outlook and reversal of negativity, their brains will be more receptive to attentive focus and memory making during class and when they do their homework.
The success your children will see from their effort will promote new neural pathways with which they'll respond to learning more efficiently and store what they learn in their long-term and memory so they will retrieve the information not only for the test, but for the challenges and opportunities that await them in the 21st century.
The key to this process is to connect your children to what they learn at school through their interests and past positive experiences so they will WANT to learn what they HAVE to learn.
Looking Inside the Brain
Neuroimaging studies reveal the real-time metabolic and structural changes in the brain that occur when newly learned information is retained in memory storage areas. We know from these studies that memory storage activity pumps up when the new information is related to prior knowledge, personal interest, and positive emotional experiences. The more memories in the storage bank, and the more strategically and frequently these memories are activated, the more neuron circuits there are to connect with and hold on to the new information.
In a similar manner, each time your children focus attention, this activation of their alerting and focusing pathways makes those neural circuits stronger and increases their attention focusing abilities. They will certainly need this strengthening of attentive focus if they are to actively learn from time spent on drill and kill activities at school and then come home with any attention left to devote to homework, especially with the lure their videogames, iPods, social networking, and television.
Practice or repetition, of these processes of active learning for long-term memory, is like exercising a muscle. The neuronal circuits involved become more developed because of their repeated activation through the process of neuroplasticity. Each time a memory is activated, especially when one memory network is activated in connection with another, related memory circuit, the networks become stronger, more accurate, and more extensive. Repeated linking of related memories with new learning is brain glue. The new information increasingly grows more linking connections (dendrites, synapses) each time the new and prior memory are used together for a new purpose.
An example would be activating the memory of family camping trips for your child to link with the new learning about the settlers traveling across the country in covered wagons. When you help your children link the new learning about the settlers with that long-term stored memory of family camping trips, the school-based social studies lessons grow more dendrites that carry information between neurons that hold the memories. Now, the neuroplasticity links are mental Velcro. When your children want to remember facts about the social studies lesson for a test, recalling the camping trips retrieves the associated information they need to answer the test questions. The added bonus is that because the camping memories are positive and long-established, the same permanence will extend to the facts they learn for that school unit.
Brains Keep Track of Effort that Does or Doesn't Pay Off
It helps motivate children exert effort when they believe it will pay off. The brain evolved for survival. Survival is served when the brain evaluates the likelihood that effort will produce payoff. The brain is wired to remember the outcome each time the brain evaluates a situation (challenging test question, confrontation by a classmate, choice of studying or playing, decision to pay attention to a lecture, whether to try out for a team) and predicts whether effort will pay off. There is a special structure in the brain that's only job is to squirt pleasure-evoking dopamine into the prefrontal cortex (the place where past memories are activated to make the prediction) when a prediction (choice, answer, social response, decision to put in physical effort, prediction that doing homework is a better choice than playing) is found to be an accurate prediction.
This accumulated information, about the predictions made and the results, is used by the brain in animals and humans, to evaluate new, similar situations when effort is called for. A fox that tried chasing a rabbit up a steep hill, exerting effort and using valuable energy stores in the chase, only to be outrun by the rabbit, keeps a memory of that prediction. The fox builds a memory network that the effort exerted failed to produce the predicted result. A few more such failed attempts and the fox's brain builds a more and more accurate memory network to better survive. It now uses that network to predict whether to exert effort based on previous experience relative to the steepness of the hill and distance from the prey. The fox now will not extend effort if this network predicts that chasing the rabbit up a steep hill is unlikely to be successful.
When children's brains develop school negativity, it is usually the result of the effort-preserving mindsets constructed by unsuccessful prior efforts. Through a past history of failed efforts-past efforts to sustain attention in class, do homework carefully, persevere at challenging classwork-that did not result in success, children's brains learn to automatically resist putting mental effort into subsequent similar activities.
Children who are quite intelligent can have difficulty with rote memorization. Yet, since that memorization is what is tested and perceived by students as valued, they develop the belief that their failure to sustain attention in class or to get high grades on rote memory tests means they are unintelligent and don't have the ability to succeed. That mindset is not only inaccurate, but when taken on by your child, means the positive effort-to-goal neural patterning becomes more difficult develop.Preheat Your Child's Memory Networks
Connect their brains to the topics the will be studying at school by looking at photos or videos of family trips, objects they own that were made in countries they study, read favorite stories that relate to topics in science, history, and math. The curiosity prompted by your reminders of their past experiences and current interests is a brain bridge ready to link with the information the must learn for school. The Velcro is now waiting in their brains and their neural circuits are prepared to grow the dendrites that will physically link the new information with their permanent memory circuits. Plus, they have the interest and positive mindset to WANT to know what they HAVE to learn!
Ask Questions: You'll further preheat the memory links to connect their interest to school work when you ask your children questions that help them personally connect these stories, past experiences, possessions, or their interests to the current or upcoming school topics. Stimulate curiosity in your children so they want to discover answers and solve problems. Their brains are attentive because they are personally interested in the answer to the question.
Stimulate curiosity in your children related to school topics and then work with them as they learn how to discover answers to their curiosity-motivated questions. You will not only be increasing positive school topic connections, but also help them develop critical thinking skills and other frontal lobe executive functions as they analyze information (from their memories, books, the internet, and from you) to answer their questions. Their brains are attentive because their curiosity generated their question. As they learn to focus attention on and evaluate which information is pertinent to answer their questions, they build their highest thinking skills such as analyzing, organizing, and prioritizing.
Thanks to your connecting school topics with their interest by engaging their curiosity, their brains get a jump start on information processing skills that will promote success in academic, social and emotional challenges and opportunities throughout their lives. When children are motivated by curiosity and interest to ask and then find answers to questions, their brains build skills of prediction, deduction, expanded thinking, analysis, and the ability to distinguish fact from opinion, make judgments, and support their own opinions or ethical beliefs. These are pretty great side benefits from promoting your child's curiosity about school topics and reducing school negativity.
Preparing to Be a Brain Coach
You may need the curriculum in advance from your child's teacher, but more likely the teacher will be required to follow the textbook in a strictly sequential manner. As long as you know what material will be studied in the next class unit, you can find ways to bring it into active discussions at home, in the car, or while waiting on line at the grocery checkout.
You might want to have a handy note card with a supply of open-ended questions that are good bridges to link your children's interests to many topics. These can be cues for how to relate things you experience together to school topics. If your child is interested in sports, a question on your list, "If you were the coach of a...team how would you use...to help your team win? The first blank would be their favorite sport or name of a favorite team. The second blank would be the related school topic (gravity, averaging, multiplying, vocabulary words, inventions, or qualities evident in characters from their school literature books).
If you children learned about taxation without representation in American history or percentages in math you can show them the grocery bill and ask their opinion of the tax added to the total. How was the number calculated? Can they estimate what percent of the total bill the tax represents? Is it fair to have tax?
If you child likes skateboarding and the city council voted down the proposed skateboard park there is the opening to discuss if the decision was fair. How does the current system work? How do these council members represent what you want? Should children vote? Should people who pay more taxes have more say in how tax money is spent? All of these questions can be linked to topics in history such as the Revolutionary War (taxation without representation), the Civil War, poll taxes, voting rights for former slaves and women-which came first and why?
Discussions you promote to bridge your children to their school work will serve as stronger memory cement if you are an active, attentive listener when they express their ideas or ask questions. This is not the time to split your focus. To keep them motivated, your children need to know you are truly interested in their ideas and opinions.Negativity Turns to Motivation
The knowledge gained from brain research, when applied to learning, can help you energize and enliven your children's minds. You can help them build life skills such as improved memory, focus, organization, and goal setting. Using your knowledge of your children's interests, past enjoyable experiences, and learning strengths to bridge their interest to school subjects will result in their improved attitudes, motivation, perseverance, and ultimately their increased confidence that their efforts will pay off.
Your interventions will help your children avoid the learning turn off to the challenges of today's fact heavy, meaning light curriculum. You will help them construct the brain circuits to become lifelong learners who can transfer and apply what they learn to real-world situations.
Their increased, attentive interest in the information they HAVE to learn becomes the motivation to connect to learning through personal interest to apply effort. The results will more than offset your planning and preparations. Smiles will replace groans and eye-rolls you use neuroscience to return to your child the joys of learning.
"Ask Dr. Judy" - About Your Neuro-Education Topics
If there are topics about which would like to read more that relate to the neuroscience of learning and the brain - from my perspective as a neurologist, former classroom teacher, and current author and presenter about how the brain learns, please include your questions as blog responses with the heading of “Ask Dr Judy” questions. Although I will not be able to address specific individual questions regarding learning problems for individual children, I will try to take on the topics of highest concern and interest about mind, brain, and education.
My area of specialty is using the neuroscience research I read and my years of classroom experience and parenting to make suggestions that connect the research with ways to optimize education and parenting for all children to achieve the highest joyful potentials. I do not focus on individual conditions, such as autism ADHD, or dyslexia, as these deserve responses from subspecialists. As this is a blog format, others may join in the conversation with their opinions and research that relates to the questions.
Link with free chapters of my just published book, Learning to Love Math: Strategies That Change Student Attitudes and Get Results, Insights From a Neurologist and Classroom Teacher
, ASCD 2010, that focuses on transforming children's attitudes from negativity to motivation in any subject, using math as a prime example.