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Developing a "Learning Brain"

By Jennifer Fogarty, communications content manager
“There’s no one thing you can do that will make your child awesome,” says Professor of Psychology at James Madison University David B. Daniel, Ph.D. “Every experience is shaping the structure of the brain. The brain is always changing, at every age.”

On Monday, September 18, WeCare guest speaker Dr. Daniel visited campus to present on the science of learning, what neuroscience can teach us about how children learn, and the conditions that may optimize teaching and learning efforts both in and out of school.

Below are the takeaways on developing a learning brain:
  • Nutrition and sleep are key to learning. We’ve all heard this, but it’s worth a reminder. They’re the fuel that is used to make the brain happy. Sleep washes toxins out of the brain and consolidates memories, which helps with learning.
  • Stress. We’re all different in how much stress we need or how much is too much. Children try to adapt to stress, whether it’s high or low stress. When the brain is constantly under stress, it’s never given time to return to the baseline, so it acclimates to a high level of stress, which becomes the norm. The new baseline is heightened stress—one that stresses out the entire system. Stress takes away some of the knowledge processing because the brain operates with stress in the background. A little stress is healthy, but too much stimulation will shut down learning.
  • Safe places for intellectual (and physical and emotional) exploration. Don’t make everything high stakes because it affects children’s ability to develop the skills to succeed. Children need safe places to explore without judgment and to make mistakes. You want good people, not just good students.
  • Downtime that is mindful or playful. Play is very important. Sports is not the same thing as play. Downtime doesn’t include computer use or playing games on the phone, either. We have to remove the brain from input for downtime. It means doing something that doesn’t engage higher cognitive processes to allow the brain to do the work of situating knowledge and creating networks and reinforcing them. Children need off-task time to optimize on-task time. Mindfulness is an example of focused downtime. What are good downtime ideas for children? Data shows spending meaningful time with family and friends, going for a walk, coloring or doing the dishes are good downtime activities. Strategic downtime is essential to powerful learners.
  • Orientation towards learning. Every child is curious about something, which can be leveraged and applied. If a child wishes to excel at something, he or she needs to first be supported through the process of failing or not being as good at it. This allows children to struggle through it over time, which requires effort, more work and more intensity. Once they’ve got it figured out, their brain will automate the process. Do you remember first learning how to drive a car? It took a lot of concentration and studying for the test. It may have even caused some anxiety. Now, we all do it without thinking.

WeCare is a consortium of San Diego area independent schools formed to present renowned speakers for parent and student communities.
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