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Dr. Judy Willis’ RAD Teaching Connections from Neuroscience Research to the Classroom



by Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.

As a neurologist who became distressed by the epidemic of referrals I was getting to evaluate children for ADD, OCD, petit mal staring spell epilepsy, oppositional-defiant syndrome, etc. I investigated the potential source of this huge jump in referrals. The kids, when I evaluated them, usually didn't have any of these conditions. The cause, as I observed was in the change in classrooms geared to homogenized, sometimes "teacher proof" teach-to-the-test and overstuffed curriculum. I went back to university, got my teaching credential and masters of education and for the past 9 years have taught elementary and middle school, college and grad school. I now teach, write books, articles, and give presentations/professional development workshops about using brain research as a bridge to neuro-logical parenting and teaching strategies.

How Your Child Learns Best

BRAIN OWNER’S MANUAL LINK for parents: Teach your children they can change their brains and intelligence BRAIN OWNER’S MANUAL LINK

“ Dr Judy Willis and Goldie Hawn are Building Better Brains by Bringing Neuroscience into Classrooms”. Neurology Now: Publication of the American Academy of Neurology Cover Story

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Teaching “to” tests has dramatically changed the resources and curriculum in our schools. The focus is on the lowest-scoring students. The pressure to bring up test scores for these struggling students limits time for the kinds of individualizing learning that challenges all students to reach their highest potential, and teachers have less opportunity to encourage creative thinking and incorporate hands-on activities.

When education is not enriched by exploration, discovery, problem solving, and creative thinking, students are not truly engaged in their own learning. Because teachers are required to emphasize uninspiring workbooks and drills, more and more students are developing negative feelings about mathematics, science, history, grammar, and writing. Opportunities to authentically learn and retain knowledge are being replaced by instruction that teaches “to the tests.”

Neuroimaging and new brain-wave technology provide evidence that rote learning is the most quickly forgotten, because the information is not stored in long-term memory. As students lose interest in lecture-and-memorize classes, their attention wanders, and disruptive behaviors are a natural consequence. Even for children who are able to maintain focus on rote teaching, the disruptive responses of their classmates are encroaching more and more on teachers’ instruction time as they try to maintain order.


This is an exciting and pivotal time in brain research. Neuroimaging and brain mapping are being used outside the confines of medical and psychological study, and the resulting work has opened windows into the functions of the thinking brain. We now can view what happens in the brain as information from the senses is categorized and organized into short-and long-term memory—scans can literally show learning taking place!

I realized I could apply the growing body of research about how the brain learns best to develop sensible, scientific strategies to help improve students’ attitudes and academic success—“neuro-logical” strategies, as it were. After writing four books for professional educators I was asked by parents what they could do to help enrich their children's education in this time of mind-numbing, one-size-fits-all curriculum used to teach to the standardized tests.

Keep Alive Your Child’s Natural Enthusiasm To Learn

Children are naturally curious and have magnificent senses of wonder. They want to learn and explore. Often starting at age three or four, especially if they have older siblings, children look forward with great excitement to the day they start school. Once they begin, however, many no longer see it as a wondrous place. Children often begin to begrudge the time spent in school and resent having to do homework. How sad that is. It doesn’t have to be that way. Strategies that incorporate brain-based learning research can take children’s natural curiosity and enthusiasm and build upon them to enrich their minds and sustain their inherent love of learning. When you become active in your child’s education, you can supercharge classroom lessons to connect with your child’s individual needs, gifts, and challenges.

Learning can become active and include creative exchanges of ideas. You can bring life back into your child’s learning while helping her build the critical thinking, problem solving, and reasoning skills that are being sacrificed with a rote memorization approach to teaching. The school years are critical times in a child’s development of self and her relationship to the world. This is when your child gains access to a new compendium of tools she needs to understand and participate successfully in the world. After writing four books for teachers, I realized parents need their own access to valuable techniques and activities to enrich their children’s classroom experiences, keep alive their natural curiosity, and cultivate their enthusiasm for life-long learning. based

I wrote the book to provide specific suggestions for improving your child’s attention span, memory, higher-level thinking, and reasoning. You’ll also find practical information about how to evaluate the type of learner your child is, and which strategies are best suited for his learning-style preferences within each subject area. You will be able to help your child build academic skills, lower test-stress while increasing test scores, increase class participation, bolster weak spots to overcome challenges, optimize gifts, enrich talents, and, most important, reconnect with the joy of learning.

Tailoring Learning Experiences to Your Child’s Learning Strengths and Interests

If you are interested in the neurological background information upon which the strategies offered in this book are based, read Chapter 1. If you’re not as into science and prefer to move ahead, dive right in to chapter 2, The book describes the different styles of learning that children have, allowing you to identify your child’s best learning style and his particular strengths. You can then proceed to the subject-based chapters to find the strategies best suited for his learning needs and strengths. Chapters 3–12 provide ideas for tailoring learning experiences to your child’s learning strengths and offer “neuro-logical” strategies for each subject area and type of academic task, from vocabulary testing to essay writing. There are also suggestions for dealing with the more general problems of organization and motivation that are so critical, especially in view of the current classroom climate. Each chapter offers specific interventions and enrichments that you can match to your child’s individual needs and gifts to help build brainpower to its highest potential.

It is important that your child has fun and doesn’t feel that he is just doing more of the same work he just did for six hours in school. Observe his physical and verbal responses to see if an activity is right for him. Yawning, wandering attention, easy distractibility, looking at the clock, very short answers, or excessive doodling may indicate this is not the best activity for him. As you tackle activities together, look for signs that he is enjoying himself, and then watch for these in future activities. Relaxed engagement looks different in different children. Some indications can include pulling his chair closer to the table, speaking louder, making longer comments, and asking questions. After the activity, ask your child what he enjoyed. This will help you with future plans and help him recognize that he really did enjoy himself, so the dopamine-reward cycle will kick in when you do the activity again.

I also consult with Goldie Hawn for the Mindful Awareness curriculum developed by the Hawn Foundation for use in schools throughout the Unites States and Canada. You can learn more about the Hawn Foundation at their website.



For the most part, you already know the strategies, and probably use them successfully that are most compatible with how the brain learns best. Knowing the brain science about why these work helps you find new applications for your successful strategies and differentiate them for different learners.

The RAD lesson plan is one of my core strategy plans. You'll find it described in more detail on my website
Please share your RAD lessons with us all!

The R in RAD stands for Reticular activating system (RAS): All information enters the brain as sensory input. There are billions of bits of sensory information available every second, but only a few thousand can fit through this unconscious RAS filter. The RAS, in the lower part of the brain filters all incoming stimuli and makes the unconscious "decision" as to what sensory input is attended to or ignored. The RAS is almost identical in animals and humans. It is geared to survival and gives priority in sensory input that is novel - what has changed? First priority is to what has changed that could be a threat. Once that is assessed, the information that gets in are things that capture the attention of the RAS through novelty, physical activity, stimulation, attentive focus, color, surprise, etc.

Thus, once we create a non-threatening climate in our classrooms using a variety of stress reducing strategies, we can create activities, especially for lesson openers, that capture the focus of the RAS and have the potential to reach our students' highest, conscious, reflective brains - so learning becomes knowledge and permanent memory.

The A stands for Amygdala. This is a part of the brain's emotional limbic system that acts as a switch to send information to the reactive brain (if stressed) or the reflective higher cognitive brain. Children's emotional states determine which path information will take through the amygdala. Relaxed, alert students engaged in lessons that resonate with their interests, past positive experiences, and learning strengths promotes information flow through the amygdala to the higher cognitive reflective brain (prefrontal cortex). If students are stressed, bored, frustrated by lessons beyond their level of understanding or by lessons about things they have already mastered, the amygdala directs the input to the unconscious, involuntary, reactive brain. Here the only unconscious behaviors options are fight, flight, or freeze so no long-term memories are created. Those extra child neurology referrals I was getting for ADHD, staring spells, etc. were really the brain doing what it does with stress. These students were going into the involuntary behavior modes of fight (oppositional defiant syndrome and some ADHD), flight (ADHD), and freeze (zoning out, staring "spells").

The D stands for Dopamine. This is a chemical neurotransmitter that, when high, bathes the brain, and results in a sense of pleasure. Neuroimaging and chemical analysis reveal that when dopamine is high the person experiences pleasure and has increased attention, motivation, creativity, and perseverance. Scans reveal greater dopamine release while subjects are playing, laughing, exercising, feeling optimistic, being kind, showing gratitude, feeling proud of their achievements, and have some choice in how they will participate. Dopamine release is even increased in anticipation of a learning experience that has been found pleasurable in the past - through a dopamine-reward memory storage network. Remembering those positive experiences stimulates the same neural networks as the experiences themselves. So if you teach an engaging vocabulary lesson where you pantomime the words and the students select what you are doing from a word list - they'll love it, remember it from novelty and increased dopamine, and their brains will release dopamine when the see "vocabulary lesson" listed on the board for the day's activities!

The overall message here was that, in order for students to learn, they must be engaged in a relaxed and enjoyable way. Fear of participating and making a mistake in front of the class and boredom are two of the main reasons why students don't learn in the average classroom.

Let's share the lessons we think are RAD and I'll keep track of them for my next book about RAD lessons educators find successful. Who knows, it may become a subject for a neuroimaging study! You can blog in you lessons and the student response (perhaps why you think it was successful) and I'll send you details about its possible publication in my book, where you'll receive name credit as well as two copies of the books! Or, go to my website and email me and I'll send you a more detailed description of how to be part of this teacher-sharing-with-teacher project.

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