Recharge Kids for Back-to-School Brain Boost
Now is a great time to reignite kids' passion for learning.
Posted December 16, 2019
Remember a time when you really looked forward to returning to school and were excited about seeing your friends again and anticipating opportunities to participate in new clubs, sports, arts, music, and annual big events? Even if those bubbles of excitement didn't last beyond early elementary school, you likely had them and so do your children. This is because of the brain employs clever programming to seek out favorable opportunities accompanying a fresh start. Our kids’ brains like what’s new. But why? The answer is simple: dopamine.
Dopamine is the brain chemical most associated with pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. When dopamine levels rise, so does one’s sense of satisfaction or pleasure. In addition, with increased dopamine, other beneficial mental processes also improve, including attention, positive mood, memory storage, comprehension, and higher-level thinking.
Most young children start school with a curiosity-driven passion for discovery, exploration, questioning, imagining, and creating. We've now learned that many of these drives are fostered by a dopamine release. When children follow their curiosity, especially with opportunities to make predictions and discover more about things they are curious about, they are rewarded with a provocative surge of dopamine pleasure and satisfaction. Repeated positive experiences initiated by curiosity, novelty, and prediction trigger the brain to release dopamine. Further, even just the awareness that there might be something novel and curious to investigate, initiates a positive response.
This means that when their brains become aware of the possibility of something new, interesting, or curious that interests them, a prerelease of dopamine sets up a positive state of expectation and motivation. You can take advantage of their brains' states of expectation and curiosity about things they look forward to when school resumes. These positive expectations can promote an optimistic outlook and even restore their younger childhood experiences of eager motivation. Here’s how.
Prime curiosity for coming attractions.
Stimulate curiosity and prediction for what’s ahead. Encourage interest in your children about topics they'll be learning during the next school term. Focus on those related to their personal interests and prime their brains by discussing these topics using curiosity and prediction. Curiosity-driven predictions and optimism especially promote a positive mindset to embrace and encourage sustained and motivated effort to learn and succeed.
The brain really loves its natural dopamine and becomes more responsive to topics of study as you preheat the dopamine response. Ignite your children's curiosity and predictions, but especially be an attentive and active listener to their experiences. Ask questions like: "When you think about doing science this term, what experiments might you do?"; "What projects do you think you'll get to do in robotics?"; and "You'll get to choose your own reading for your book reports this term. What do you think you'll want to read about?" Keep up their enthusiasm by checking in as the term progresses.
Inspire optimism for the new school term.
Optimism is another natural dopamine releaser. It makes sense (and works) to preset the brain with the dopamine boost that accompanies optimistic thinking. This allows an ideal motivated state for transitioning to a new task or learning (for example, the dopamine response increases attention, positive mood, memory, pleasure, perseverance).
The brain is wired for heightened interest and attentive focus when it foresees the pleasure of the dopamine reward response. If children's brains anticipate possible pleasure from learning and other school experiences, they will dedicate more effort to the learning or activity about which they are optimistic. Try these tips to make it happen:
- Summon up their memories about the good friends, advisors, principals, or coaches that will be there this term.
- Provide reminders (and photos, if available) about special school events they enjoyed previously that will be included this term.
- Encourage looking forward to participating in their favorite sports, arts, music, clubs, plays, or other activities resumed in the upcoming term.
- Endorse the new opportunities that will be available in the new term related to things they really like (e.g. robotics, more choice of projects or books, having "little buddies," getting to choose their seats in some classes or other things you can find out from other parents about their upcoming teacher).
- Visualizing a tennis swing or soccer kick primes the brain networks that control those actions. Similarly, a student’s visualization of success in challenging areas (or memories of previous successes) will increase their brain’s confidence that success is possible and thus motivate effort in the face of future challenges.
On the flip side, dark clouds of pessimism, discouragement, sustained boredom, anxiety, and frustration can accumulate in children after repeated negative school experiences. We now recognize that when the brain is stressed from fear, anxiety, being overwhelmed or embarrassed, it does not have the same access to its dopamine release system as an unstressed brain. If your children express any of these pessimistic thoughts for the school term ahead, counter that with some of the optimistic tips above. The goal is to reframe kids’ negativity towards school, as the brain relies on it. The interventions boost their dopamine responses, will help reset their expectations from negative to more positive.
Prepare for success in advance.
If organizing, keeping up, or planning ahead have been hindering your children from doing their best in the past, you can intervene before school begins. You'll reduce their stress and boost their confidence and skills by providing opportunities for them to use these executive thinking skills in activities of high interest.
For example, they'll build brain skills of analyzing, organizing, planning, and prioritizing by helping organize a trip, planning and cooking a family meal, or evaluating the advantages of a variety of new backpacks or computers for the new school term. If you plan to do some redesigning of their rooms, such as new paint, furniture, or poster-boards, have them participate in the choices so they will enhance their organizational skills as they prepare their rooms for the change.
Help them practice coping strategies.
You can also prepare them to learn more effective emotional management for stress if you guide them to practice self-relaxation strategies. If they have practiced calming breathing, stress-busting visualizations, optimistic thoughts, or other mindful strategies, these will be more readily accessible for quicker activation when falling into a high-stress state.
Your guidance will make a difference in preparing your child's brain for success and joy in the transition back to school. By enhancing their curiosity, optimism, and positive expectations for the new school term, you'll see anxiety and negativity decline as their confidence grows in their abilities. They—along with their brains—will look forward to the new opportunities awaiting them in the school term ahead.
Prepare for the day of return.
Planning for positive experiences actually releases dopamine and brings pleasure, even before the actual event takes place. To raise your children's optimism and positive mood, here are some preparations that may help them start the term with "great expectations":
- Refresh their hopes with a working space upgrade or new binder.
- Remind them of your positive attitude about their potential: “You can build the brain you want starting now!”
- Smile a lot, especially from your heart.