Imagine you are a 3rd grade teacher in a well-respected school district; you have a modern classroom with all the bells and whistles, a rigorous curriculum, and the latest instructional materials and technology. The principal is a well-respected instructional leader, and the teachers and staff have formed a collaborative and supportive learning community. Your district’s website trumpets a path to closing the achievement gap by raising standards, implementing a rigorous and challenging curriculum, and supporting highly qualified and competent teachers.
Now, imagine your class has several children who show little motivation to learn, are frequently disrespectful, and become easily distracted from the most basic task. You implement a series of instructional and classroom-management strategies and invite curricular and behavioral experts to observe and offer advice for improvement. With mounting frustration, you see your students’ negative behaviors continue.
As the Kennedy Forum—a convening of experts in the neurosciences, education, health care, research, and technology—affirmed in 2015, “Even the best teaching and curricula can have surprisingly little effect when a child’s cognitive and emotional readiness to learn is not adequately addressed.”
Adverse childhood experiences—including parents’ divorce, exposure to violence, mental illness of a caregiver, and the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—have an impact on the brain. Exposure to these conditions affect a child’s ability to learn, navigate social situations, self-regulate, and behave appropriately at school. According to analysis of 2011-2012 National Survey of Children’s Health data from the research center Child Trends, nearly half of America’s children are exposed to such environmental conditions.
The Kennedy Forum (of which I am a member) concluded that understanding the impact of these adverse experiences on learning and providing early-childhood brain-fitness interventions might be the key to narrowing the achievement gaps found in our nation’s most at-risk schools. Why, then, are so few of our early-childhood providers and teachers being trained to recognize these neurological indicators? Why aren’t our premier teacher-preparation programs training future teachers to apply brain-fitness interventions?
In response to these questions, the Kennedy Forum is now calling for a “Race to Inner Space.” Making brain health and fitness a national educational priority has the potential to unveil educational neurological discoveries that rival the scientific discoveries made during the Race to Outer Space program initiated by President John F. Kennedy in the 1960s.
The Kennedy Forum has identified several evidence-based interventions that every American school should incorporate into its curriculum: executive-functioning skill development, social-emotional learning activities, mindfulness training, and brain literacy. Medical advances in brain imaging are now allowing neuroscientists to see more clearly how the brain functions. These medical advances are poised to have an enormous impact on our education system.
Why aren’t our premier teacher-preparation programs training future teachers to apply brain-fitness interventions?
Executive-function skills are considered by many as the core building blocks of learning. Executive-function processes include such capabilities as memory, impulse control, focus, prioritization and planning, and goal persistence. In the past, these skills were rarely developed intentionally in schools. Teachers intuitively understood that certain activities improved student behavior and cognitive skills without ever understanding the brain science for why this was so.
For example, nearly every elementary school student has, at one time or another, played Simon Says, which requires participants to listen carefully and follow instructions. Through repetition, games like Simon Says, Dance and Freeze, and Red Light/Green Light can be used to reinforce memory, impulse control, and focus. Some school systems have already begun to pilot and explore curriculum and game-type tasks designed specifically to improve executive-function skills in pre-K and elementary school children.
Social-emotional learning activities help students understand and manage their emotions and relationships through self-awareness, self-management, and empathy for others. Responsive classroom programs and restorative-justice practices using communication circles with students have shown tremendous promise in improving classroom environment and culture.
Mindfulness training is often described as preparing students to “be in the moment.” Yoga and tai chi most often come to mind, but variations include breathing awareness, mindful walking or movements, and listening and visualization exercises. Mindfulness training teaches students to use “calmness” and other techniques to overcome stress, anxiety, depression, and aggression. Mindfulness training returns the brain to a receptive state of learning.
Brain literacy explains the anatomy of the brain, how it functions, and the factors that affect its neurochemistry. Understanding how the brain develops, how it processes information, and factors that inhibit its normal functioning are critical to both teaching and learning. Understanding the developmental capacity of the brain enables teachers to present appropriate material for various age groups.
Many school systems are finding creative ways to take these interventions from the drawing board into the classroom. In Maryland, for example, the Baltimore-based Kennedy Krieger Institute, where I am a member of the faculty and board, has made huge advances in the neurosciences and brain function through the use of brain-imaging technology.
For the past five years, the Institute has been taking these advances from theory into practice with a fellowship program for training a new generation of highly qualified educational leaders in special education and the neurosciences. After an interdisciplinary internship, the fellows go on to conduct professional-development programs for teachers and staff at all grade levels and return to work in a school system once the fellowship is completed.
Norwood Elementary School, a public school in Baltimore County, Md., offers an instructive model in providing social-emotional learning activities in its classrooms. Norwood (where I serve as an Education Advisory Team member) has implemented a restorative-justice program, which encourages students to participate in communication circles where they collectively talk about emotions, discuss inappropriate behavior, empathize with one another, and determine appropriate interventions. The program has been so successful that teachers in the feeder-system middle school will be trained to continue this program.
The Cecil County public schools in Maryland have partnered with the Children’s Guild, a nonprofit that serves students affected by trauma, to install three-dimensional, interactive hallway art that simulates the anatomy and neural pathways of the brain in several of its schools. These “brain paths” serve as an innovative teaching tool for students, educators, and families.
I urge all educators to join me and my fellow Kennedy Forum participants in championing brain health, beginning in early childhood and continuing throughout a student’s educational experience. I am calling on all educators to contact their local institutions of higher education to begin a conversation about training teacher-candidates in the neuroscience of the brain. And finally, I am calling on all educators to contact their elected officials to make Race to Inner Space funding a national priority.
A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2017 edition of Education Week as The Brain-Health Effect