Brainy Teachers Create Brainy Kids

08/17/2017
LEADERSHIP
Dr. Joni Samples

My definition of “brainy teachers” is not what you might think. I’m not talking about the straight A student who becomes a teacher and wants his or her students to do the same. I was a straight A student! Teaching special education convinced me it was more important for children to connect to learning and to be who they are - than to get all A’s. It was a good lesson for me to learn.

Perhaps because of my work in special education, I became very interested in how the brain works and how that developing brain affects learning. What I have also come to understand is the huge influence parents and teachers have on that brain development.

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I mentioned in other SEEN articles what a huge influence parents have on their child and that parents truly are THE major role model. However, right   behind the parent, is the teacher.  That may be because we spend a huge amount of time with a child.

However, I’d like more to think it’s because we also care deeply about the child and his or her welfare and development. The brain, the emotional part of the brain, does pick up on that kind of interaction.

So let’s talk a bit about how we, as educators, affect the brain. Certainly we have an influence on the learning skills of a child. That’s what we’re trained to do, but just how do we affect that brain? Young children from infancy to around eight years old, preschool to early elementary, are like sponges. They are born with a hundred billion neurons in their developing brains all ready to fire and wire together to create memories and skills.

What we know of brain development in the early years, is that much of the neocortex of the brain is still developing abilities to think and process. Most everything learned is coming in through the senses and  feelings and emotions. If you’ve ever watched a toddler throw a temper tantrum, you’ll recognize the emotional outburst. You may also have watched that same child watch a butterfly without moving a muscle in silent concentration. Each of these experiences, and all others that a developing child goes through all the way to his or her adulthood, are creating neural connections in the brain.

Now if a young child lacks stimulation in an area, that potential for neuron development disappears and without use the neuron dies. An example was a household we were asked to visit of a preschool child. It seems the child had a very minimal vocabulary and didn’t know how to play with the toys provided in the preschool setting. On visiting the home, we found only one piece of furniture in the entire house—a TV. There were no beds, couches, not even a refrigerator. Needless to say there were no toys to play with. Therefore, the child really didn’t know how to play with toys and no wonder the vocabulary was almost non-existent. No stimulation, no brain development.

This is a rather dramatic story, but it does illustrate how important early stimulation is for a child’s brain.

Can a teacher help in a situation like this one? Absolutely! In fact in this kind of situation, as in many, the teacher is teaching not only the child, but the parent as well. If the parent isn’t reinforcing the child’s learning, the teacher’s job is a great deal harder. Why not help the parent and help the child and yourself at the same time?!

Children in middle to later elementary grades are more cognizant, using the prefrontal cortex more often to think and solve problems, so learning looks a bit more academically oriented, however we still need to keep all those neurons firing because that child is still learning and the brain is still developing.

Here’s where the teacher uses as many modalities as possible to reinforce learning. A child can see a new word on a page and perhaps even decode and pronounce it so it can be heard. Does the child have  a mental picture, an understanding of what that word means? Going back to my preschooler who I’m sure had no hair brush, if that child could sound out the words “hair” and “brush” there might be a meaning for hair, but not brush. There was no brush so no experience therefore no association in the  brain’s neural nets for brush. Teachers can help children interact and have hands-on meaning with words they might not see or connect with in their homes or their communities.

A personal example is one I remember growing up. In fourth grade, I remember sounding out the world y-a-t-c-h. I pronounced it ya-chit. My teacher corrected me and said it was a yacht. I had no understanding of the word at all. I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. Yachts were not very likely to be seen in the Valley of the Sun. Did I expect my teacher to take me on a cruise? No, I wish, but for my brain development, she could show me pictures in a magazine and today a video on the internet. My brain now has a connection to the word. That’s learning!

There’s more. Middle and high school students take on a whole different set of brainy circumstances.

We need more for that one, so I’ll leave it for another time. Check out the article titled, “Brainy Teachers Working with Brainy Parents” on the SEEN website for insight into how to combine brain development and learning.

Also, FamilyFriendlySchools.com is about to launch our inaugural set of online coursework to help school leadership, teachers, and parents build integrated relationships for high performance and learning. Visit us there for upcoming online coursework.
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Issue 19.1 | Summer 2017

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