When most people hear words such as “learning,” “smart,” or “memory,” they automatically think of the brain. In school, we teach “to the head” only, asking students to sit in chairs for long periods of time, listening and looking almost exclusively at abstract symbols, even when they are very young.
Very few people think the rest of the body has anything to do with academic success. But surprising results from brain research indicate that learning cannot occur without cooperation between the body and the brain.
Emotions and Stress
Because of the way the brain is wired, emotional states run our lives. Every activity in which your child engages is infused by his emotions. Emotions are constantly changing, and are easily influenced.
Emotions such as joy encourage brain cell development by releasing chemicals such as dopamine. When children are happy and calm, they learn and remember more than when they are anxious, tense or irritated. Your child’s brain releases dopamine in response to pleasurable circumstances such chocolate ice cream. But even more importantly, the brain releases dopamine in response to security, recognition, and success.
Dopamine travels to the front of the brain where it influences skills essential for learning. The frontal lobes of your child’s brain are largely in charge of critical skills such as paying attention, recognizing and discriminating critical features, decision making and judgment, all essential for intelligent behavior and school success.
Unfortunately, fear and threat greatly inhibit intelligent behavior. Circumstances that your child finds unpleasant and out of his control produce a stress state in the body. Chronic stress reactions release chemicals that reduce blood flow to the brain, cause atrophy of nerve cells, and impair memory.
Help your child succeed academically by encouraging him to focus on his strengths, stay positive about his ability to learn, and “dream big” about the future! And most importantly, develop and maintain a strongly supportive relationship between you and your child.
Motivation and Inspiration
Learners respond to challenging tasks, not to tasks that are too hard or too easy. If the work your child brings home is not “challenging,” you must work with her teacher to adjust the difficulty level of the work. This is a key to helping your child discover that she is a strong learner who can succeed in academics.
Learners with special needs have experienced much more failure and disappointment than other learners. They often suffer from learned helplessness—a disempowering belief that they are “stupid” and “can’t learn.” When your child repeatedly views her behavior as flawed, her future success is stifled.
When your child thinks about her failures, her inspiration is soured, her body releases less dopamine, and her opportunity to be brilliant is reduced. Therefore, as hard as it may be, direct your attention toward your child’s academic problem only long enough to find a solution, then turn your undivided attention to that solution. See your child as a successful and confident star. One of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child in terms of an academic mindset is to view her as a strong, successful student. Find every opportunity to notice your child’s academic strengths.
The same areas of the brain that deal with social situations—determining the moods and intentions of others—frequently process learning tasks. These areas include the visual centers of the brain, the frontal lobes, the areas of the brain that process other senses, and interpret emotions. Because of this, the social environment shapes your child’s brain in dramatic ways.
A brilliant researcher and scientist, Lev Vygotsky coined the term “zone of proximal development” to indicate that adults and more able peers profoundly influence a child’s learning and mental development through their interaction while completing tasks.
It is vital that these interactions be positive and productive. Working harmoniously with your child may be difficult, but it is a goal worth working toward because of the tremendous boost to your child’s intellect that comes from positive social interactions.
Parents must be careful not to “do too much” of their child’s school work. As important as the social interaction platform is, brain research is also clear that children must learn to rely on their innate skills and develop the conviction, by conquering challenging tasks, that they are competent learners who can handle any learning task.
Movement stimulates the growth of brain cells which are necessary for learning. It gives children the opportunity to explore the world and gather information that develops their intelligence. The brain requires feedback in order to learn and grow, feedback that comes from interaction with the environment. Movements allow children to express their knowledge and begin to tackle the next stage of their learning.
In particular, children who have learning issues benefit from regular movement. Try these activities before beginning homework, and at regular intervals while working.
Encourage your child to engage in cross lateral physical activity for five minutes every hour. Cross lateral movements engage hand and foot on opposite sides of the body. Most of these movements are more effective when done standing. The addition of rhythmic music provides a boost. Some cross lateral movements students enjoy are:
- Karate Cross Crawl: Kick while punching or chopping with alternate hand and foot (right hand chops while left foot kicks).
- Double Doodle. Draw a design with both hands simultaneously. Be sure the designs are mirror images of each other, rather than facing the same direction.
Most students remember new information better when they talk, write or draw. For those students who remember information best by writing, provide them with a white board and erasable markers or encourage them to write on paper. Allow your child to act out what has been read, build a model, draw a diagram or chart, sing or dance. Encourage your child to “teach” new information to others in the household.
Body’s Natural Rhythms and Preferences
The human mind is made for short bursts of focused attention. Therefore, frequent changes of pace are crucial to learning. The mind needs to reorganize and consolidate new information during non-learning periods.
The brain responds to novelty, so let your child change aspects of his study environment when they no longer stimulate him. For example, use different colored paper or pens, put up a poster or picture in the work area, and change it every month or so, or change the screen saver on her computer.
A child’s storehouse of background knowledge is the support system for new learning. Bolster your child’s supply of knowledge by taking trips, answering the relentless “why” questions, and having meaningful discussions about the nature of the world!
Unfortunately, most children are improperly nourished! In our busy, fast-paced culture, nutrition has taken a back seat, and children’s brains are paying the price. Brain-rich foods include complex carbohydrates such as whole-grains and non-processed cereals. Leafy green vegetables and fruits are essential, in addition to lean meats, nuts and omega-three fatty acids found in fish. If children’s diets do not include needed nutrients, research indicates that supplementation is very helpful.
Water is a key nutrient for the brain. Be sure your child’s brain stays hydrated by teaching him to drink enough water at regular intervals throughout the day, and not to substitute other fluids as his water allotment! A general recommendation is 8 to 12 glasses per day.
Factors such as seating, lighting and ambient sound have a profound effect on children’s learning.
Your child’s chair should allow your child’s shoulders to stay back and be at the correct height so that his feet touch the floor comfortably. Poorly supporting chairs restrict blood flow, cause fatigue and reduce concentration. Poor posture strains muscles and stresses the back. Some children concentrate much better when they sit on the type of inflatable balls that can be found through occupational therapy or sensory integration catalogs
Light has profound influences on the body. For example, ultraviolet light found only in natural sunshine, activates the production of Vitamin D in the body and the manufacture of melatonin which regulates body rhythms. Whenever possible, be sure your child has access to natural lighting, both by playing outside and by reducing artificial lighting in the home in favor of natural light. Study outside whenever possible.
Our brains can process an astonishing 20,000 bits of auditory information every second! During learning periods, reduce distracting noise such as that coming from artificial lighting, TV sets, or washing machines. If outside noise is a problem, hang drapes or wall hangings to absorb sound. Use “white noise” to soothe and focus your child. Good sources of masking noise are fish tanks; upbeat, instrumental music; and desktop waterfalls.
Learning occurs because a complex orchestration of bodily processes works cooperatively with the social and physical environment to cause a change in the nervous system! Learning isn’t just “in the head.” Learning is a team effort that plays out on a cellular level with all cells of the body playing their individual roles, and on the larger social level as the learner interacts with people and experiences that hold personal meaning.