Neuroscience Informed Practices
When I started my educational therapy journey, I came across some reading materials about the structural and functional differences in dyslexic brains. At that time, I had five years of full-time teaching experience in China and the USA, with a master’s degree in education from an Ivy League university. However, I was barely exposed to neuroscience. It got me thinking. Dentists study teeth, and car engineers study engines. How come educators don’t study brains? Ever since then, one of my professional goals has been to equip myself with neuroscience knowledge to become a better educational therapist and teacher for all learners.
In this article, I share some concepts I’ve learned in neuroscience and how I apply them in my educational therapy practices.
The first part of this word, “neuro”, means neurons, the nerve cells that are the building blocks of the brain and nervous system. The second part, “plasticity” means the capacity for being molded or altered. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience.
“Students are constantly in the process of rewiring their brains—and how this happens will be influenced by the actions of the teacher. Furthermore, this is true for all students, the high fliers and ‘just fine’ students as well as those with learning challenges” (Whitman & Kelleher, 2016).
This concept has given me a new lens to view teaching and learning. Since every child goes through the schooling period only once and their brains are going through intense development during this period, I see the urgency to make neuroscience informed decisions as an educator.
One of the changes I made is to teach the most important concepts at the beginning of the session. I learned from the book Neuroteach: Brain science and the future of education that “What students will recall most is what takes place in the first part of the class and what students will recall second most will take place in the closing minutes of class” (Whitman & Kelleher, 2016). The following graph shows that the degree of retention is the highest at the beginning during a learning episode.
Primacy Recency Effect. Reproduced from How the Brain Learns by David A. Sousa from Neuroteach: Brain science and the future of education.
The concept of neuroplasticity has also given my students a lot of hope and reinforced the growth mindset. When I showed my students the brain images below to demonstrate how brains can change after reading intervention, I saw sparks in my students’ eyes. Talking about neuroplasticity with students has instilled in them the belief that they have the ability to rewire their brain to become better learners and higher-achieving students.
Brain activation profiles picture from the journal article Dyslexia-specific brain activation profile becomes normal following successful remedial training (Simos et al., 2002)
I learned about the concept of integration from Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, a pioneer in the field called interpersonal neurobiology. According to Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, “For the brain, integration means that separated areas with their unique functions, in the skull and throughout the body, become linked to each other through synaptic connections. These integrated linkages enable more intricate functions to emerge—such as insight, empathy, intuition, and morality. A result of integration is kindness, resilience, and health. Terms for these three forms of integration are a coherent mind, empathic relationships, and an integrated brain”.
In the book The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child's developing mind, the authors, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel and Dr. Tina P. Bryson, used layman friendly language to explain the integration of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, as well as the integration of the limbic system and neocortex. I will also be using the same language in the following paragraphs.
Left and right brain picture from The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child's developing mind.
Dr. Siegel and Dr. Bryson called the left and right hemisphere of the brain the left and right brain. The integration of the left and right brain results in clarity and understanding. Kids are able to use both the logical left brain and the emotional right brain as a team.
One strategy I learned from the book is “Connect and Redirect”. When a student is upset, I first connect emotionally with the student, right brain to right brain. Then, once the student is calmer and more receptive, I bring in the left-brain lessons and discipline. It sounds like a no brainer that a calm brain listens and learns much better than an upset brain, but sometimes it’s easy to forget the roles emotions play in learning.
Upstairs and downstairs brain picture from The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child's developing mind.
Dr. Siegel and Dr. Bryson referred to the neocortex, the part of the brain involved in higher-order brain functions such as planning, as the upstairs brain. They referred to the limbic system, the part of the brain that deals with emotions and memory, as the downstairs brain.
Integrating the upstairs brain and downstairs brain means to “watch for ways to help build the sophisticated upstairs brain, which is “under construction” during childhood and adolescence and can be ‘hijacked’ by the downstairs brain, especially in high-emotion situations” (Siegel & Bryson, 2011). As we all know, the frontal cortex which controls executive functions does not mature until the mid 20s. Executive function skills of children and adolescents are still developing and they are easily compromised by emotions sent from the downstairs brain.
One strategy I started using is “Engage, not enrage”. In a high-stress situation like a student refusing to write an essay assignment, instead of insisting they have to do what they are told, I would ask questions, discuss alternatives and even negotiate. Maybe the student is confused about the prompt but too proud to admit it, or the prompt reminds them of some unpleasant experience. I would never know without engaging in a conversation with the student. Nor could I avoid similar situations in the future if I enrage the student.
Another strategy that has worked effectively for my students is “Move it or lose it”, which means to have a student move their body when they lose touch with their upstairs brain. Stretching, taking a walk in the hallway, doing push ups, etc. are all great ways to get students back to a more regulated state.
The concept of integration taught me to co-regulate with my students. Co-regulation is to “support students as they regain emotional composure as well as teaching them skills that will help them stay balanced and regulated more easily in the future” (Siegel & Bryson, 2018).
Retrieval practice is “a strategy in which bringing information to mind enhances and boosts learning” (Agarwal, n.d.). This strategy has been proved effective by neuroscientists such as Paul Howard-Jones and Mariale Hardiman, and cognitive psychologists like Jeffrey D. Karpicke and Janell Blunt (Whitman & Kelleher, 2016).
When I was a teacher, my Do Now activities used to be some worksheets just to keep my students busy during the first five minutes of a lesson, so I could take attendance and get ready for the class. Since knowing the effectiveness of retrieval practice, I have redesigned my Do Now activities to be reviewing questions such as listing the elements of fiction you learned from last class. I am now much more mindful to include more frequent, formative, low-stakes assessments of learning.
“Spacing is a powerful strategy that boosts learning by spreading lessons and retrieval opportunities out over time so learning is not crammed all at once. By returning to content every so often, students’ knowledge has had time to rest and be refreshed” (Agarwal, n.d.).
Quizzes and tests can be very anxiety inducing for my students. As an educational therapist, I believe it’s important to teach study skills. I explicitly teach how to study for quizzes and tests. I show my students videos of experts explaining retrieval practice and spacing in student friendly language. Many students find it surprising to hear that re-reading notes or textbooks is not as effective as they thought. We then brainstorm retrieval practice they can do such as asking a parent to quiz them, using websites such as Quizlet, making a mock quiz or test, etc. I also ask my students to make a plan to space out their review sessions and write down the plan on their planner or calendar.
The Healthy Mind Platter
Picture from The yes brain: how to cultivate courage, curiosity, and resilience in your child.
As much as I want all of my students to be good learners, I also want them to be healthy and happy human beings. The seven daily activities listed in the healthy mind platter make up the full set of “mental nutrients” that every brain needs to function at its best. I teach this concept to my students hoping that what I teach serves them beyond school.
My students are asked to share what feeds their brain. Students share books they enjoy, as well as podcasts, puzzles, sports, outdoor activities, etc. because all of these feed our brain. Not all students enjoy reading, some students who used to be intimidated by book sharing are now actively sharing podcasts, audiobooks, and games they love. I’ve even heard my students advocating for more mental breaks saying “downtime is important for my brain”.
Before I became a special education teacher and an educational therapist, I was a general education teacher and thought special education had little in common with general education. On my educational therapy journey learning how to serve neurodiverse learners, I’ve realized that the so-called special education knowledge applies to general education too. The neuroscience knowledge I’ve learned is one of the examples. I hope all the teachers and professionals, whether they work with neurotypical or neurodiverse learners, can utilize neuroscience to inform their practices.
About Interpersonal Neurobiology. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.drdansiegel.com/about/interpersonal_neurobiology/
Agarwal, P. K. (n.d.). What is retrieval practice? Retrieved from https://www.retrievalpractice.org/why-it-works
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child's developing mind. New York: Random House.
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2018). The yes brain: how to cultivate courage, curiosity, and resilience in your child. First edition. New York: Bantam.
Simos, P., Fletcher, J., Bergman, E., Breier, J., Foorman, B., Castillo, E., & Papanicolaou, A. (2002). Dyslexia-specific brain activation profile becomes normal following successful remedial training. Neurology, 58(8), 1203-1213. doi:10.1212/wnl.58.8.1203
Whitman, G. & Kelleher, I. (2016). Neuroteach: Brain science and the future of education. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.