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Monday, January 14, 2013

The Teen Brain

“Oh, I forgot.” How many parents and teachers have heard that response from a teen after the frazzled question of “Why didn’t you make your bed?” or “Where is your assignment?” or Why didn’t you do XYZ like I asked!!? The answer is most likely, all of us. What is it with teens? Can we do something about it? They answers are complex, and yes we can do something about it, but we need to be patient.There is a reason.

courtesy of UCLA
If you look at the picture of the brain to the left, you will notice that the human brain matures from front to back. The back is where the more basic functions occur. The color purple indicates a time lapse of neural maturation from five to twenty years of age.  The last major area of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex (the right side of the image). This area controls higher-order functions (emotions, self-control). The adolescent brain is undergoing major changes, usually between the ages of ten and fifteen. 

According to neuroscientist Richard Restak he states “it is helpful to keep in mind that the adolescent’s failures in concentration, focus, motivation, and consistent effort result not from willfulness or laziness or God forbid, “stupidity,” but from poor integration of the frontal lobes.” 

 My advice on how to help counter this is my advice on how to improve anything you do, do it often. What the brain does best is what the brain does often. Dr. Restak's statement is not an overarching excuse for all teen behavior. We know when in fact our children are being stubborn or lazy. But there are times where the directives given by parents bounce off the child's auditory processors like a racquet ball off a wall. It never sticks. I've gently held my son's face in front of me while calmly telling him to take out the trash before we leave the house. I waited for his eye contact and verbal response of "OK Dad, I will take out the trash". As I place my arm over the car's headrest while backing out of the garage, I asked my son if he did what I requested. His clumsy and surprised look foretells his answer. "Are you kidding me?!" "Patience, patience, patience" I repeat this mantra while waiting for his hurried actions to get the task done. Sound familiar?

It gets better. It takes time, but yes, the brain matures and teens are able to better manage these tasks. Each year, as more connections are made and the rewiring of the adolescent brain starts to come to completion, you will notice a change.

One of the most important facts that runs through any literature on cognition and improving cognitive functioning is that the brain requires repeated (practice) input. If you wish for your child to improve his organization and focusing skills, then teach him. We as adults assume that youngsters innately know how to organize and plan. This is not the case. They need instruction, guidance and reinforcement. This will develop and strengthen pathways to help themselves.  Equally as important is to limit your child's extended idleness, specifically, long periods of time doing nothing but playing video games, watching TV or texting. This too will create and strengthen the areas of the brain that oversee these tasks. I'm not telling you to eliminate the activities from their lives, but as I stated before, the brain does best what the brain does often.

A final thought. It is important for teens, and anyone else for that matter, to realize that learning and practicing are not "easy". It requires concentration, frustration, repetition and motivation. Children need to understand that working hard at something does not mean they are stupid, weak or have a lack of talent, working hard is the norm and also the quickest method of improving.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Little Italy, Chinatown, and Irish Villages-Lessons to improve your classroom environment

There is a strong neurological and psychological need for people to feel at home and familiar with their environment. The neural connections created and strengthened by a cornucopia of smells, sounds, feeling, sights and tastes, as well as the energy over time has a profound affect on the immigrant in a foreign land. To alleviate this physical yearning by the brain and psyche, people who share common customs tend to gravitate to the familiar, hence the formation of micro-communities such as Chinatown, Little Italy and other urban and suburban confluences of cultures. People not only prefer to be amongst others who share similar interests but according to neuroscientists , the brain yearns for the recognizable stimulation of the senses. The absence of those stimuli are at the neurological root of homesickness. Being homesick is not an immature psychological response to an overindulged child or adult. It is a physical absence of the neural stimulation experienced by a person. When I was a young man traveling around the world, I would pack a few pillowcases that were washed in the detergent my mother used for our laundry. It was a small remedy, but comforting. It feels better to be in a place one is accustomed to. Maybe Dorothy Gale was right. There is no place like home.

The same must hold true for students who enter classrooms each fall, especially the younger ones. As a teacher, ask yourself, is this my classroom or our classroom? If your answer is the former, consider making changes. What objects are in the room that give students a sense of ownership beyond the essays stapled to the bulletin boards? Do the children feel that they are guests in their classroom or is there a sense of proprietary participation?

A good friend, who I will refer to as Mr. "C", and I started teaching fourth grade together in the 1990s. After a couple years he moved across the hall and started teaching the first grade. I visited his class the following fall. The walls, windows and students' desks were adorned with pictures and drawings of the youngsters' families, friends and scattered about were stuffed pets and objects. The instant any guest walks into their room, the visitor is greeted with a high-pitched chorus of "Welcome to rooooom one!"  Mr. C and his students spent ample time organizing the classroom environment into a place that is comforting and inviting, not only for guests, but for the students as well.

There are plenty of research articles to support and explain the connections and correlations between student performance and a healthy, organized classroom, but common sense works well too. Where would you want to spend six hours a day? Would it be in a warm, familiar environment, or a cold, sparsely-decorated room ruled by a monotonous palate for uniformity?

A few steps to make a great learning place-
1. Make the room inviting for students by having them decorate it with things from home.
2. Create a "WE" feel to the classroom whereby students are responsible for the physical condition of the space.
3. Make sure the students truly believe the room is theirs and not just yours. Ensure they take ownership. That means the teacher refers to the classroom as "ours" not "my".

The more the students feel at home, the more the brain builds synaptic connections and the better off the students will be. Students who feel safe and comfortable will allot brain functions to thinking and learning instead of stress reduction. Give it a try!