George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Practice Makes Perfect

For many students, the brain isn't a hot topic of conversation. This is especially true for younger students who are still trying to understand the world around them, and are still far from developing physiological self-awareness of the very thing that gives them that self-awareness.

But helping students develop "brain literacy" doesn't have to be a matter of dry science pumped full of confusing jargon. Understanding the brain can be empowering for students as they recognize their ability to strengthen it each time they use it. As a teacher, you can emphasize how using the executive functions, both in the classroom and outside of school, increases their strength for academic success. Practice makes perfect!

To reduce anxiety about new "stuff" in the classroom -- whether related to Common Core State Standards, struggles with reading, or something else entirely -- you can find opportunities to emphasize students' ability to literally build the brains they want. Remind them that, when they turn in a story, demonstrate a science principle in a skit, or even raise their hand to respond to a question, they grow more dendrites and add new layers of myelin to their axons. To them this may sound gross, but it's actually good news. By activating these brain networks, they continuously use their executive functions as they apply new learning. Like a muscle, the brain responds to interaction and activity.

Much of this kind of thinking starts with an awareness of the brain itself, and how it functions.

Helping Students Understand Their Brains

One way to help students begin to understand their brains is by explaining specific types of executive functions -- or "brain actions."

  1. You can support this instruction by explaining which executive functions will be activated during a unit, and how. Then invite students to describe the executive functions they believe they activated in the day's lesson, homework, assessment or even interaction with apps, friends or social networks.
  2. Be specific. Remind them how the math word problem they worked on strengthened their organizing and prioritizing, which resulted in more dendrites in their brain's connections.
  3. Describe how the multiple types of history documents they evaluated built their networks of reasoning and deduction, and added more myelin to the axons in those brain highways.

Through your words, diagrams and pipe-cleaner representations of the neuroplastic response, students' confidence in their executive functions will increase, along with their comfort and pleasure in their growing independence and self-awareness.

Building Student "Brain Literacy"

A second grade class could have an "Executive Function of the Week." After introducing a new function and giving an example, you could invite students to offer their own examples. The emphasis here should not be on a formal definition, but an understanding about how they have applied and increased their capacity.

Other examples for elementary students might include:

  1. Judgment
    • What is a fair way to take turns when six students want to play 4-Square, a two-person handball game?
    • What do you say when a friend is being mean to another classmate?
    • How do you respond differently when a two-year old sibling, a new puppy, or an older brother damages your toy?
    • Which library book do you select when you like three and can choose only one?
    • How much paint of each color should you take for your table group's project?
  2. Priority
    • Which television programs do you most want to watch for your hour of TV?
    • Which of your favorite stuffed animals should you pack for vacation when there is room for only two?
    • Should you take full notes during a lecture or jot down key words to fill in later from a book or with a classmate?
  3. Organize
    • How do you sort your music on playlists?
    • How do you find and sort art materials for others?
    • How do you organize your classroom desk materials?
  4. Analyze
    • What strategies are best when playing a card or video game (independently and with others)?
    • Is something your friend said about monsters in their closet true? How can you find out?
    • Which your favorite video games can you complete? Which might be too easy or too hard?
    • What does a new word mean based on context clues?
  5. Cognitive Flexibility
    Cognitive flexibility and emotional self-control both support students' capacity to be more responsive to corrective feedback and learn from mistakes (rather than reacting to them as further evidence of the futility of their effort).
    • How do you react when a substitute teacher does things a different way?
    • How do you adapt when disappointed by changes in family plans?
    • When you don't get your first choice of the topic you want to write about, how do you find things you like about one of the other choices?

A Growing Awareness

Just as students are aware of the health of their teeth, limbs or senses, they can also develop a recognition of how their brain functions, specifically which executive functions they use and when. This kind of visibility can help students build a powerful awareness of their own thinking patterns, and how "school" and "play" are not always so different at the brain level. It can build confidence, reduce stress, and keep them cognitively primed for learning, while also increasing their "fluency" with very basic neurology -- which may not be as crazy as it sounds.

My next blog will examine ways to gradually increase activating executive functions across all levels of academic instruction and assessment. The plan builds upon progressive successes that will reveal students' incremental progress as they achieve new challenges.

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Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

YES Annja - very important point that all brains are different and we must not get caught in any more neuromyths (left/right brain; critical periods; only use 10% of the brain, genes limit potential). The neuroscience research regarding executive functions suggests that there is not one network for each EF - e.g. not one tract for judgment and another for reasoning. Activating/using any of the EFs appears to work via neuroplasticity to strengthen the network of interconnected neurons that direct this brain CEO system in the prefrontal cortex. For students to do anything the most important element is motivation and that is certainly promoted by connecting with their individual interests, goals, and strengths.
Keep igniting,

Annja's picture
50 years of specialized teaching in six countries - Estonian-Canadian

But you are using words like "suggests" and "appears"... ( I need to read more on this topic.) A graduating IB student I had in an International school 13 years ago was a relevant case - a brilliant over-achiever who was eventually diagnosed with an executive function disorder (or difference?). This suggests to me that we don't all have the same "type" (or "number") of executive functions? And using that two-dimensional diagram of one brain "appears" to perpetuate the myth that every brain is THIS brain... So... if the child is unable to articulate the kind of thinking you propose, s/he can assume there is something wrong with his/her brain?

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

Agreed, multidimentionality is valuable in individuals and in instruction. The executive function of cognitive flexibility promotes another set of equally valuable executive functions. The activation of different executive functions supports the development of the entire network. The variation in EFs means equity for a variety of learners and strengths when educators seek out and promote those strengths.

Shenice's picture

Brain-based learning is very intriguing and I found your article to be very interesting. I feel that it is extremely empowering for people and students to understand how their brain functions and processes information. It is a part of the self-reflection that we as humans must do in order to learn and grow for the future.

Richard D. Turner's picture
Richard D. Turner
I am an Instructional Designer

Reading your blog was very interesting and I agree with the concept of having children wanting to grow their brains. After reading your blog I had the idea of making a poster such as the picture above the blog and have the children select a portion of the brain with a spinner and then use teaching techniques which stimulate that portion of the brain. Kids could spin multiple times on the same topic and thus receive multiple variations of the lesson. An example would be a memory game on the lesson for the temporal lobes, a visual presentation for the occipital lobes, or have the students discuss the problems and how the were solved when the frontal lobe is selected.

Judy Willis MD's picture
Judy Willis MD
Neurologist/Teacher/Grad School Ed faculty/Author

Richard- your idea about engaging students in selecting the lobe of the brain and learning about what it does as they benefit from the multisensory learning is great. You can expand it to homework if on some evenings students can have a choice of which lobe they use as practice such as doing something in writing, animation, diagram, video, etc.
keep igniting,
Judy Willis

Jan Newman's picture
Jan Newman
Educational Therapist for grades K-12

I am an educational therapist working with students in a K-12 school setting. Just this past year I have been encouraged to converse with my students on a weekly basis about the developing brain and to be specific in identifying cognitive functions. I have truly seen the impact with some of my students. They are not only more confident, but they are also more consistently exercising those functions we have discussed. One example is attention to making comparisons. I find that I am frequently praising them for doing that automatically and for initiating other executive function skills as we work together. I have not been as consistent with the younger students (k-3), but after reading your article, I am inspired to take your practical suggestions and apply them with all of my students. I am eagerly anticipating the outcome. Thanks for making the brain talk simple and giving great practical examples.

Annja's picture
50 years of specialized teaching in six countries - Estonian-Canadian

For the last decade - ever since digging for an understanding of brain differences in children - I have introduced the concept of variability in brain function to my students. We start by making fingerprints and comparing these to realize that something as small as that can be unique to each individual. From that, we go on to MRI photos of the human brain and realizing just how complicated an organ that is - the possibilities are limitless. Even the youngest of children (4and 5) get the idea. No one is good at everything. This technique created much more mutual respect than any I'd ever used. Instead of saying "Tom is dumb", kids said "Tom has trouble with reading." Ability became specific to skills and generalized "intelligence" was no longer an issue. I suspect there is as much variability in "executive function" as there is in every other area. My perceptions are obviously the result of working with "LD" kids all these years. Nothing wrong with teaching to the specific executive functions as long as we recognize variability within those and avoid translating inability to a notion of "generalized intelligence".

Jan Newman's picture
Jan Newman
Educational Therapist for grades K-12

The results you've seen with young children's attitudes are inspiring. We need to reach out to even the youngest among us with this message about our unique nature.

Susan Chen's picture

My students know the importance of a healthy diet. They know which foods to eat for strong bones and teeth. They can tell you a good source of vitamin A and why you need it. They have repeatedly received nutrition lessons from both their teachers and their parents. They do not have an equal understanding about their brain. Their general assumption is that there is nothing that they can do about their brain's ability. I aim to read more about the brain in order to build my students' brain literacy.

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