Stop. Listen to a song, podcast or have a conversation with a friend—for 30 seconds. That is about the length of time a child with severe attention issues is able to focus on any given piece of information coming from one sensory source at any given moment. Regardless of whether the time felt long or short, children today are required to not only pay attention, but comprehend and take notes on the important information being delivered through a primarily one-dimensional sensory source for at least 5 minutes, but many times 20 or 30 minutes at a time.
Sustained attention is the ability to direct ones attention to a specified source without losing focus despite potential distractors. Children and adults greatly struggle with sustained attention today; the environment no longer demands it and, in many instances reinforces, the opposite. From the 10-second news clips, to the demands on attention from multiple sources ranging from text messages, to email, to the never-ending checklist of tasks needing to be completed. The length one is expected to pay attention has significantly decreased in the digital age of instantaneous communication and access to information. However this change has not only affected the world of adults and adult occupations. It has infested itself down to the youngest of children. Dr. Straub discusses what Dr. Dimitri Christakis found in a Baby Einstein episode “A Day on the Farm”, seven scene changes occurred in a 20 second period of time compared to no scene changes in a clip of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Taken one step-further, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood was the only show that had no impact on children’s attention span later in school when compared to children who watched no TV. Dr. Straub theorizes this is because the show was designed to increase attention span by requiring the sole focus to be on one person. Other television series, including Baby Einstein and Sesame Street had a negative impact on attention spans in school-aged children. The theory behind this is known as the overstimulation hypothesis, which states, “That is, prolonged exposure to rapid image changes during a child’s critical period of brain development preconditions their mind to expect high levels of stimulation, which leads to inattention in later life.” While pediatricians and child development experts dissuade children from being exposed to television, computers, etc., these changing demands on attention can be found in other modalities. Toys that light up, blink, play songs, talk, move all at the push of various buttons are not effectively aiding children in improving his/her sensory processing, but rather decreasing his/her ability to focus on any given stimulus sources for more than 30 seconds. This short snippet of required attention is reinforced throughout a child’s early development.
Then school happens. Children are suddenly required to pay attention for 5-15 minutes with major distractors—wiggly bodies, children and adults talking, chairs being pulled out and pushed in, etc. If these same children have been exposed to children’s so called educational programs, smartphones, electronic toys, they have essentially been set-up to fail. Their muscle for sustained attention has not be developed and it has little if anything to do with ADHD; the pace of learning is simply too slow. Their brains have been wired to expect and therefore perform in a near opposite way for the first 5 years of their life; therefore, like most new tasks, one needs to practice in order to become successful. Children today, need practice at sustaining their attention. Oftentimes these students with weakened sustained attention are automatically labeled and sometimes mislabeled as having Attention-Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); however according to Dr. C. Thomas Gualtieri, et al “ADHD is not simply a disorder of sustained attention. Indeed, impairment in sustained attention is common to a certain extent to all children with psychiatric disorders. Neuropsychological studies of ADHD children and adults reveal subtle but clear impairments in several complex functional systems: Selective attention memory; reaction time and information processing speed; motor speed and visuomotor ability; and executive control functions, like set-shifting, inhibitory control, and working memory.” Therefore, since one can have sustained attention weakness without having ADHD; it is essential for educators to be well-versed in understanding executive function skills as well as the vast array of researched and identified disorders that emerge during childhood. Quick fixes such as medication may not always be the best answer, especially if the cause is has been wrongly concluded.
Before wrongly labeling every attention-deficient student, steps to strengthen the sustained attention muscle are critical. One way to effectively do this is to incorporate state changes intentionally throughout the lessons in order to allow students to set-shift before becoming disengaged with the material because the content is being presented without a scene change and/or utilizing only one sense. State changes for all intensive purposes provide that ‘scene change’ the brain has become programmed to expect. Attention spans for elementary aged students range anywhere from 4 to 6 minutes; mini lessons are targeted at 5 minutes; however can easily go up to 15 or more. These numbers are based on what is average or typical; therefore there will be students whose sustained attention can barely make it to 3 minutes. Steve Roninette defines state changes as, “continually switching the sensory focus from visual to auditory to body kinesthetic and back again. This keeps students’ attention and gives them the opportunity to learn more as they tap into all their senses.” State changes come in a variety of forms and can become integrated into the lesson to enhance a particular point. They can be kinesthetic in nature and unrelated to any lesson, in which case it’s best to use them between lessons. Examples include: Brain Gym Activities, simple yoga poses, wiggle or dance breaks. Dr. Gerard Evanski explains the scientific reason behind the necessity and effectiveness of state changes, “The human brain does not store energy. The brain needs a constant blood supply, which brings it oxygen and nutrients. Dr. David Sousa has said that blood tends to pool in “our feet and our seat” when we sit for too long. Many of my state changes for students are designed to also energize them, and get their blood full of oxygen and flowing to the brain.” While kinesthetic state changes may be the most energizing, they are not the only option. State changes can also be verbal or auditory and related to the content, and therefore should be incorporated into the lesson right before students typically tune out. Examples include: turn and talks, think, pair, share, or any form of verbal/auditory recap of the lesson content. State changes can also be more passive and simply change the way information is being presented to students. For example, showing a video to reinforce the topic that was just presented.
In addition to state changes, increasing sustained attention through sustaining attention is another way. Meditation or attending to guided imagery exercises offer a non-academic way to increase sustained attention while also decreasing the cortisol release and overall levels of stress. A study conducted by Dr. Stephani Sutherland at University of Southern California, found that mindfulness training and continued practice improved sustained attention when compared to no intervention or the practice of physical relaxation, whereas there was no difference between the two groups when measuring changes in concentration and inhibition of distraction. This shows that simple and easy to use interventions can be utilized in the classroom to target and increase student’s sustained attention.
Overall, the demands placed on people in the twenty-first century significantly inhibit our ability to pay attention for long periods of time; however, the very system that educates our children and many occupations in which those same children enter demand just the opposite—an ability to focus for a duration of time and internalize information despite distractors. Until one or the other changes. It is crucial to build in opportunities to help strengthen weakened or never developed abilities to attend. Most children simply cannot come to school ready-made with a skill that is not only not expected of them or naturally reinforced in their environment, but the exact opposite skill is being applied on a daily basis. If training and teaching does not occur for children during their school-day, like many other shifts in the field of education, this will be one more that sets up children for failure instead of success.
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Over the past decade, we have learned that for every student who is simple to understand or figure out, there are one or two who are a conundrum. Over this same decade we as separate and collaborative professionals have also discovered that the answer to these students’ needs being met is two-fold: 1. Education looks only at symptomology not etiology 2. Education fails to integrate disciplines effectively. Special education needs to stop being about labels and start being about the whole child.
Enter the practice of Execu-Sensory and Neuropedagogy. When we look at the child as a whole: brain, body and mind, we begin to understand that more than what teachers are taught in school is at play. Take child development, for example, this class may or may not be required to earn a Masters in Educations, especially if the focus is middle childhood rather than early or elementary. Yet, the brain is not done growing, literally, until the age of 19 or 20 and the prefrontal cortex continues to develop until the age of 25. Not to mention, the developmental surge that takes places during adolescence is akin to the one which occurs during early childhood. How then are teachers prepared to teach the ever evolving whole child if they lack the basic knowledge of brain development. The simple answer is they most likely cannot. The brain is a vastly complex system of electrical wiring and firing that is critical to understanding, given the goal is not only to teach, but teach effectively.
However for the purposes of this blogpost, we shall focus the discussion on the fundamentals of Neuropedagogy in practice with some aspects of Execu-Sensory components.
Structure of Neuropedagogy
Neuropedagogy in its most basic state begins with the executive function skills and the developing Pre-Frontal cortex. However when we attempt discussion with other educators, the typical response is, “Executive what in the where? Neuro?”
Understandable response, seeing as this predominantly European concept is commonly referred in the United States as Educational Neuroscience or Neuroeducation--or perhaps more commonly not discussed among educators at all. It was introduced during an educational summit in 2009 at Johns Hopkins University simultaneously with a “Learning and the Brain” wherein organizers and educators alike agreed there needed to be an interdisciplinary field that combines neuroscience, psychology and education to create improved teaching methods and curricula. It was bringing into focus new links between arts education and general learning, how learning physically alters the brain, and what goes wrong in students with learning disabilities.
Based on the experience and the research we have done on current classroom structures in New York City, we have found that the most effective use of Neuropedagogy was in three sections: Brain Element Neuropedagogy, Body Element Neuropedagogy, and Mind Element Neuropedagogy. The hierarchy of training is dependent on the prior knowledge of brain function, thus beginning the discussion with the brain was the most functional and useful approach. The body then and it’s organic processes were the next step in the training and understanding connections between innervation and control, and lastly the mind which not all fields of classroom instruction fully develop or are able to reach without the clear understanding of how the brain and the body encompass the physics of the mind.
To say the least, one would need basic brain to facilitate the body and change the mind.
The Brain Element Neuropedagogy
The most obvious reason to share information is for learning, and learning can only be achieved if there is sufficient brain function. In our practice, we lay the foundation for understanding the Central Nervous System (CNS) neurotransmission, the utilization of approximate brain mapping of the cerebral hemispheres, and raise awareness of the unmistakable impact of the digital society on the organic brain.
By organizing the hierarchy of understanding based on the processes involved from brain neurotransmission in each section of the cerebrum at any given time, we shed more light into the powerful effects of neuroplasticity, the endless ability for the brain to change itself. There are four that have been identified for learning: Acetylcholine (ACH), Serotonin, GABA, and Dopamine. Ultimately these are the communicators responsible in delivering the information to all the lobes, including the Pre-Frontal Cortex. The PFC is not currently recognized as a lobe; however, the role that it plays in learning and behavior have been measured via Executive Function Skills.
Many definitions for executive function skills exist and they all essentially make the same point. The National Center for Learning Disabilities defines executive function skills as,” mental skills that help the brain organize and act on information… [it is the ability to use] information and experiences from the past to solve current problems.” These skills are critical to understand because when they are weak or delayed in developing, they can mask themselves as an educational disability which may lay the groundwork for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) as determined by a mutlidisciplinary team. For example, let’s say a child is referred for an evaluation for special education services because he is showing consistent negative behavior, such as being unable to focus for more than a few minutes at a time, constantly calling out, and failing to complete homework, all of which lead to decreased academic gains. The child will most likely be mis-classified as having ADHD or a learning disability, which ultimately leads to inefficient or worse ineffective solutions. If the interventionists applied an interdisciplinary Neuropedagogical Approach, a different and more effective outcome may have played out.
WIth all of the Brain Element Neuropedagogy, one can proceed to appreciate understanding the Body and it’s unique processes.
The Body Element Neuropedagogy
In our modern society, people are perceived initially from the way they present themselves. Usually what is displayed from the external body is what immediately connects one person to the next. The body’s senses take in the physical and external world, neuronally process the input and in the cortex it’s given meaning.
From a learner’s perspective, the body is both intake and output. As interdisciplinary brain-based practitioners, we shed light into the Sensory Processing Systems, the limitless potential of a person’s Multiple Intelligences and Emotional Quotient (EQ), culminating on the influence of what we have managed to call the 3 External E’s (Ergonomics, Economics, and Environment). The body by itself is a complete sensory organ, however it has been proven by evidence-based practice that the seven (7) senses are the checkpoints of the body: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, movement and position in space. Research in this area was pioneered by Dr. A. Jean Ayres and current practitioners include Dr. Lucy Jane Miller and Carol Kranowitz all of who have contributed to the education and learning landscape. One simply cannot function by brain alone!
Multiple Intelligences Theory was pioneered by Howard Gardner, a developmental neuropsychologist,who played the violin well, wondered if a tool, aside from the Intelligence Quotient (IQ test), could be developed to measure additional attributes to determine a person’s complete intelligence. Another factor we considered was Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Quotient (EQ) as this too plays an important factor externally; even as the limbic system is brain centric in it’s processing of emotions, the manifestation on the outside is clearly body centric.
Education in the twentieth and now twenty first century tends to teach to two types of learners: visual and auditory. Yet, research has shown that multiple types of learners exist, not just two. Teaching methodologies need to start designing lessons, activities and classrooms not only for the typically forgotten or ever present kinesthetic learners, but for the quiet introvert and the shy extrovert and multiple combinations of them.
Simple modifications such as state changes, strategically planned brain gym breaks or yoga ball chairs have shown to improve the executive functioning skills of sustained attention and task persistence. Additionally, when inserting brief yet planned breaks of any type, students are given an opportunity to work on set-shifiting a skill in high demand in the modern digital-world. Modifications for the introvert include quiet spaces in the classroom or projects with an option to work alone. The shy extrovert, may benefit from group projects with assigned jobs. However, this type of differentiated instruction is believed to be fitting only to the special education population. The rest of these students, rather than adopting a label that may or may not fit, they are instructed to adapt their bodies to fit because that is what the ‘real world’ will expect of them. Meanwhile, that potential intelligence lays mostly dormant because teachers are not teaching to them, and were probably never taught how. Neuropedagogy recognizes the learning process that processes from a brain and proceeds into the body offers perspective and solutions to teaching with the body in mind.
The Mind Element Neuropedagogy
Of all of the Elements that we train, it is the Mind Element that is the most challenging to explore.The brain and the mind are used interchangeably in the realm of education; however, scientists have discovered that although they do seem to be influential of the other, the brain and mind affect each other in very different but significant ways. The psyche in psychology practice have also been associated with the mind, and pop culture usually uses the word mind loosely as choice or state of one’s mental being.
In referencing the brain, it is the material organic matter that has the physical manifestation of the neuronal processes while the mind is where consciousness and active thinking occur. However a thought may occur from consciousness which may alter the neuronal process that was intended to happen and vice versa. The mind discussion includes: theory of mind, the belief-desire reasoning in learners, and neuroplasticity in the habit loop, Behavior Modification and Habit Routine change that can have both positive and negative effects.
Neuropedagogy of the mind starts with the premise that the mind of a child is complex. The Belief-Desire Reasoning from H.M. Wellman’sThe Child’s Theory of Mind Mechanism shows just that. Thinking, perception, sensations, beliefs, cognitive emotions, physiology, basic emotions are all interconnected and simultaneously interacting to produce desires, intentions, actions and inevitably reactions. Actions are merely the tip of the iceberg to the ongoings of a child’s, and ultimately a learner’s mind. Educators who understand and teach with Executive Function Skills such as Metacognition, Emotional Control and Response Inhibition in mind, essentially have x-ray vision, which provides them the insight to ask the questions that will reveal the iceberg. Intention is marked by a WHOLE person, a product of perception, inception and conclusions.
Conclusion: The Neuropedagogy Synthesis
When science and education meet it is called Neuropedagogy, whose scientific aims are to learn how to stimulate new zones of the brain and create connections. The information that is presented here may appear overwhelming and less comprehensive in practice however it the changing the lens and perspective that allow best practices to occur, to remind those involved in direct service that people are not formulaic in their learning.
The Neuropedagogy synthesis demonstrates just that. One of our current partnerships, The Teaching Firms of America Professional Charter School in Brooklyn, New York applies these principles by tying choice and action to their basis in the brain, Theory of Mind, and most importantly, the brain has the ability to change. They empower their scholars to be thinkers and owners of their actions and choices by giving them knowledge from the world of neuroscience. Finally, the utilize the principles of Neuropedagogy to guide and inform their instruction, interactions and interventions. It is a common occurrence to hear students say, “I can change my brain.” From initial classroom set-up to end of day classroom clean up, they created and continue an atmosphere of curiosity and intellect, which always seems to start and end with the brain.
Careers in Education span from being a one to one teaching assistant, which may or may not require education beyond high school, to holding a doctorate in education with the hopes of changing policy, running a school or teaching future teachers at prestigious universities. The paths to becoming an educator therefore, are as multi-faceted–ranging from the vocational training as a one to one teaching assistant to trial by fire in teacher-certification or principal training programs. Many who enter the field, hold the ideals of wanting to change the world and to contribute to the education of the future generation; however, many of those same inviduals leave the field after a long and albeit arduous career, with little to no passion for the profession they entered or beliefs they had about changing the world.
Why the phenomenon? Our colleagues have narrowed it down to the lack of support overall, both in background preparation and in workplace coaching. No one from either area really says flat out to a teacher-to-be, guess what, your classroom is a mini neighborhood, and you are expected to be town policeman, mayor, judge and parent. Maybe it is time to add therapist and neurologist to this list; skills possessed by these individuals may actually benefit an educator’s craft.
Currently, the majority of the programs that prepare our teachers discuss education theory, history and pedagogy. Many programs have teachers spend an entire semester creating a unit plan of about 5 lessons, when in reality many teachers need to create multiple lessons for multiple grades or multiple subjects in any given day. In addition, they teach to learners ranging from gifted and talented to those struggling to learn–classified, diagnosed or otherwise.
If schools of education added a fraction of the courses required to graduate with a degree in a related therapeutic service, psychologist and neurologist, perhaps it would not only change the approach taken to teaching, but also preserve the mentality educators have at the beginning of the field when they finally leave the field. An even greater outcome is teachers would change the world, at least the world for the children who they had the privilege of teaching. This is the potential of neuropedagogy.
Neuropedagogy blends psychology, neuropsychology, neuroscience, school psychology, educational neuroscience and pedagogy into one, which results in a more complete understanding of the whole child in regards how children learn, how the brain functions and the role emotions play in both. Essentially, neuropedagogy explores the brain, body and mind of a child and takes all into account when teaching in a classroom. However, the first step in teaching from a neuropedagogical point of view is to understand the anatomical brain, the power of neuroplasticity, and what is happening in brains of struggling learners.
Some schools have begun teacher training programs that explore this very notion, Harvard offers a Master’s Degree in Mind, Brain and Education. Courses include: cognitive neuroscience, statistics, educational neuroscience, atypical neurodevelopment, applying cognitive science to learning among other more typical education courses. The Teacher’s College at The University of Columbia offers a Master of Science degree in Neuroscience and Education and the courses are similar to those offered at Harvard. Finally The School of Education at John Hopkins offers a Mind , Brain and Teaching Certificate. The School of Education at John Hopkins has started an entire neuro-education initiative, which aims to inform teaching practices about the the research from neurosciences and how it can positively impact teaching practices. Most likely more programs are out there and gaining steam; however, these programs are all optional specializations in schools of education, not required. Educators or other professionals enrolling in these programs most likely have an understanding and background in the role neuroscience plays in teaching.
It is not enough. This is a fundamental disconnect, which poses to lead to irreparable damage not only for the United States’s educational system as a whole, but for the ability of students to learn and learn to their optimal potential. Little understanding exists on the long-term effects of technology on developing minds, especially given the rate at which children are exposed to it in the 21st Century. Some doctors like Dr. Gary Small have begun studying the impacts. He has found less than positive outcomes on the development of essential executive functioning skills, which require a developed pre-frontal cortex and access to that cortex in order to employ them. Excessive exposure to technology threatens that entire process. Yet, teachers are expected to teach and children are expected to learn. How?
Teachers (and children for that matter) need to understand the brain and how that brain develops a mind and how both affect the body because all impact how a child learns, thinks, behaves and reacts. Take the Child’s Belief-Desire Reasoning developed by Dr. Henry Wellman, from The University of Michigan. This complex thought process occurs instantaneously, and provides a glimpse as to why understanding the brain, body and mind is essential to successful teaching.
Common Core (for better or worse) changed the standards for our children; yet the change occurred before equipping educators with the ability to meet those changes armed with the required knowledge. An education program would not be approved if they failed to teach lesson planning, educational theory, and areas of specialization–whether early childhood or advanced calculus. Neither should they be approved if they don’t teach teachers about the anatomy of the brain, how it functions, and how children learn.
The challenge therefore is to stop separating education from the very field it uses most. Education, meet Neuro.
When three quarters of our household were diagnosed, it suddenly explained a lot. And led to a million more questions. It redefined us and how we do things and so far.... things are better. Way better. Here is our journey, with all the things we're learning, in the hope that others might benefit too.