Tag Archives: teachers

True Stories: At 12:30 PM

This is the start of a new section in our writing…we want to share what we have found in our professional travels to be poignant, humorous, or strange. Others may just be plain appalling or sad, however whatever the case may be, they are share-worthy.

This piece we will call “At 12:30 PM.”   Under control

Second grade students walk four flights of stairs from recess to get to their floor. Their classroom is two double-doors down from the 4th floor entrance; I stand waiting by their doorway. I hear familiar chatter, and one distinct voice screaming, “But, but, but HE PUSHED ME.”  I shake my head, it’s a boy we will call Jack.  Jack is in a room with two teachers, an Integrated Co-Teaching setting. One of them, who we shall call Ms. Sophia, says to Jack, ” Would you stop touching him! I don’t want to hear it!” Jack of course pleads and begs for her to hear him but she proceeds to the front of the line and signals the class to start rolling into the classroom. All 26 of them are here today, present, chatty from lunch and recess, and are not looking forward to ELA (English Language Arts).

HUUUUMPHHHHH! ” Jack cried. ” He wrinkled his forehead and stomped into the classroom. He folded his arms and then walked toward Liam, and without cause, pushed his back. “HUUUUUUMPPHHHH!

“What is your deal?” Liam screamed and then pushed him back. I stood up from my chair where I had begun to work with Madelyn as I was anticipating a mini brawl. “JACK, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” Miss Sophia shrieked as she was heading toward his direction. At this point I had reached Liam and held him in a bear hug, whispering, “Let it go, buddy, let it go, ” over and over till I could feel his body calm down.

It was 12:40 PM; I glanced at the clock. Before Miss Sophia could reach Jack, he had stomped and marched to another student, “GET OUT OF MY WAY!!! HUMMMPHHHH!” This time, he pushed Madison, a girl who was no-nonsense and potentially able to take him herself if she had the opportunity. Madison didn’t say anything and instead, stood where she was, turned around and pushed him back with all her might.

STOP! Oh my God! Madison you know better. You can’t follow what Jack does.”

“But he did it first. I was just standing there.”

The classroom paraprofessional, Miss Harper, at this time had overheard the ruckus and came over to Madison, “What’s the matter, huh? Go calm down. You know better. Here’s your paper. Have a seat.”

At this point, I had walked Liam to his chair, and he was calm, focused and ready to begin the ELA work. I glanced at the time, 12:46 PM. Sigh. This class has rough transitions up from lunch almost everyday; wish there was more that could be done to get them calm enough to settle in… As I was thinking these thoughts, I walked back to my seat by Madelyn. She had begun to make sense of her writing sheets, which were spread all over her shared desk.

YOU ALWAYS SAY THAT! You never keep what you say! ” and with that scream I looked up and saw pencils flying from outside the door into  the classroom. That was Luke, another one of the students who came up later than the rest of the class, and who was accompanied by the other ICT teacher, Miss Mackenzie. “Luke, I don’t understand. What happened? We had a good talk downstairs, and I explained to you…”


“Hey, wait, calm down, I do listen to you, what do you mean I don’t listen to you…”

Luke decided to walk to his corner bookshelf and threw whiteboard markers that were lying on the floor. One of them hit his classmates leg, however it didn’t faze the classmate.  He simply kept on working on his ELA sheets as if nothing were happening in the room. The noise level at that point would be a 5 out of 10, fluctuating easily to an 8.

Miss Mackenzie bent down to where Luke was at, and proceeded to talk to him in a calm voice. His face appeared distraught and inconsolable, however no tears flowed. He walked up and out of the corner and ran out of the room; Miss Mackenzie immediately ran after him.

“Aria why are you up? Did I not tell you to stay in your seat? This is independent work!”

“But Miss Sophia, he’s bothering me!!! I told him to stop and he won’t!!”

Miss Sophia, mind you, was unable to mobilize herself momentarily as she was ensuring that Jack was sitting at his desk working. The only way this could be accomplished was for her to sit beside him, for at least 15 minutes. Aria continued to scream at the classmate who was bothering her and then, tears started flowing her face, “I HAVE NO FRIENDS!!!

My eyes locked Miss Sophia’s and she blurted, “Can you believe my life right now?” I sighed and attempted to refocus on working with Madelyn when Aria ran toward the desk we were working at, tears streaming down her face. When she was finally in front of me she said, between sobs, “When am I going to be on YOUR LIST??? I want you to pick me up!!”

Calmly I replied to her, “Aria it is not up to me. I don’t make the list, your school does. But tell you what, you can join us when we are done working on our packet.” Madelyn at this point was irritated that her writing time has been interrupted, and that she even had to write in the first place. Miss Harper, who had been working with a different group of students, called out to Aria from where she was sitting, ” ARIA, ARE YOU SERIOUS? Wipe those tears and get over here! Don’t bother them; they’re working and so should you. Where is your packet?”

I looked up, 1 PM. It was time for me to move on to the next classroom. Another day in the second grade room of 12:30 PM.

'Your classroom management techniques work in practice but not in theory. That worries me.'

Children (Both Big and Small) Learn What They Live

Children Learn What They Live

By Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph.D.

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.

If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.

If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.

If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.

Many children spend more waking time in the presence of their teachers, than their parents and caregivers.  Therefore, it may be a safe assumption that children growing up in the twenty-first century are learning what they live based on their school experience–their teachers–just as much (maybe some cases more) as they are from their caregivers.  While teachers have been taught about behavior management, best practices and given scripts for curriculums, not many are required to take college courses on developing executive functioning skills or more specifically character. Yet, they may be responsible for a large part of character development for the students they teach on daily basis.

In recent years, this is become quite obvious as there has been the push for character education to return to school curriculums and the creation of character report cards that grade children on the development of their character. This is a useful tool if character is being taught, modeled and monitored throughout the semester.

If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.

If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.

If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.

If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.

While the intent of these two movements are originating from different sources; they are sending a similar message: children today are not naturally developing and/or aware of their character. The former was in response to the increase in bullying and ostracization of students; the latter was the rude realization that while schools were producing high school graduates capable of earning a high school diploma and acceptance into college; these same students were not only struggling once they reached college, but were dropping out.

Enter Dr. Angela Lee Duckworth. Her research uncovered that grit and self-control are better predictors for academic achievement than IQ, socio-economic status (family income) among other factors. Her research states that “Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals (Duckworth et al., 2007). Self-control is the voluntary regulation of behavioral, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005; Duckworth & Steinberg, in press). Her definitions for grit and self-control mirror two concepts found in executive function skills: goal-directed persistence and response inhibition. However, regardless of what they are called, the fact remains that these skills appear essential to success; yet adolescents today do not possess these traits upon graduation from high school and pay for it dearly. So some critical questions remain: Can anyone possess these characteristics or skills? How does one acquire them? Who is ultimately responsible for “teaching” them?

If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.

If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.

If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.

If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.

If viewed from an executive functioning perspective, the answer to the fist two questions is relatively straightforward. Yes, anyone can possess them; some people appear to demonstrate more natural strengths or abilities in particular skills than others, but strategies to strengthen or accommodate areas of weakness exist and yield successful outcomes. The last question is more difficult to answer.

If viewed from a character perspective, researchers and the U.S. Education System answer the first two questions in a similar fashion. Anyone is capable of possessing these characteristics. They are acquired through direct instruction, modeling, and life experience. They also offered a straightforward answer to the third question: it is the responsibility of both schools and parents to teach character.

What happens then, if teachers themselves have never been taught or simply demonstrate a weakness in the character traits they are expected to teach and model? Or what happens if parents and teachers view these skills through different lenses?

If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.

If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.

If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.

If children live with fairness, they learn justice.

Mostly likely, that is happening right now. Character traits like grit and self-control may or may not be taught in schools and in homes. If they are taught, perhaps they are taught differently which leads to children experiencing mixed-messages and putting a hybrid of the two into practice. This may work for some, but for others it leads to dropping or failing out of high school or college. The origins of character education are synonymous with an academic education. Character education changed in the 1960s and 1970s when the focus shifted to the process of making moral decisions versus the content of morality. It has now reemerged in the past decade most likely as a result of the publicized findings on college success rates of KIPP Academy students and theories as to why it was so low.

Yet, the re-introduction of the curriculum does not mean the mastery of skills by those expected to teach it. If teachers haven’t been taught, are never asked to self-reflect and evaluate their own areas of strength and weakness the result inevitably is they don’t know what they don’t know. So, how can they teach it?

The oversimplified truth is they can, just not effectively. It has been shown that children not only learn what they live, they live what they learn. Teachers are children all grown up; they too now live what they learned. And they can only be expected to teach what they have been taught. Maybe it is time to share the focus on how we teach our children with how we teach our teachers.

If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.

If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.

If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

Special Education: Redesigned and Redefined

BFyjIO4CMAAXatbWhen a bright eyed and idealistic teacher walks into the classroom, she does not have any pre-conceived notions that the mission statement of the school will be vaguely if at all reflected in the daily battle called teaching. The act of teaching is a juggernaut of sorts: between the principals, the administrators, the board members, and/or the politics — that it may feel like a fluke if the teacher maintains sight of the student, or if the student can honestly say that the teacher is, well, teaching.

Now, add a dash of one, or maybe three of the 13 special education classifications in the mix of students in a classroom of 28 to 30 students. This teacher may or may not have any background knowledge on educational disabilities, best practices for children classified with these disabilities; however it is a safe assumption that within this classroom of students, those who are not or cannot conform will stand out. And by the year’s end, the previously idealistic teacher may be anything but. Additionally, she may have fallen into damaging stereotypical thinking and labeling because she was never given the opportunity or education to think differently.

Most education professionals are aware of the studies that reveal teachers’ negative bias toward students labeled as having a learning disability. These studies have concluded that teacher’s rate behaviors more negatively, put less effort into educating these students and recommend them less for gifted education, even when given evidence of giftedness. Unfortunately, the why behind this occurrence is relatively easy to answer. Despite the progress at the federal level for children with disabilities since the 1970s, the stereotypes associated with the Special Ed label remains engrained in the general public as well as general ed mindset. Gaining access to a free and appropriate public education has done only that. The doors have been opened and the children welcomed in. Yet, the question begs to be asked: “are these students being taught?” Perhaps it is not the students we should be labeling as disabled or unable to learn, but rather the schools and the education system as a whole.

L30009e5et’s take a snapshot of the current system: schools invest thousands of dollars in curriculums that align to the common core standards, which tout an increase reading and math proficiency. Yet these curriculums are changed yearly because student scores do not increase at the expected rate. Some schools banned use of textbooks and teachers, who have been supposedly taught how to teach are also now expected to create curriculums or piece together a decade worth of rejected curriculums oftentimes for either multiple grades or multiple subjects. And within this disorganized system, children who struggle to learn within a traditional classroom, for reasons neuropsychologists are still trying to determine, are expected to adapt and learn in the same way, at the same rate with the same retention as their typically developing peers. Administrators and teachers alike, are allowed to overlook this since their academic background never afforded them an opportunity to learn nor required it of them. Yet the perfectly typical students with atypical brains become the ones punished for this oversight. Not only do teachers have decreased expectations, which leads to decreased effort; being labeled as special ed is shown to have a negative impact on self-esteem.

Taylor et. al found that students with generic special education labels had significantly lower self esteem compared to children with specific labels such as dyslexia. Furthermore, there was no difference in self-esteem between those identified and labeled as dyslexic to those without a special education and/or disability label. The authors concluded that children with a general label “offers very little in the way of an explanation for the child’s academic difficulties and because targeted interventions are not as available for those with a less specific label” This shows that it is the lack of transparency, discussion, effective interventions given to children with non-specific learning disabilities that play a major role in decreased self-esteem. Additionally, it was noted that there was stigma from peers more often associated with classroom labels of resource room and special class than the label of a generic or specific disability.  These conclusions indicate that environment, misconception, lack of discussion, transparency, and inclusion building measures within a community are to blame for decreased self-esteem, ridicule and teasing among students with disabilities, not the disability itself.

This reinforces the notion that schools and the education system are disabled and disabling those students who learn differently. Ideally, teachers and students alike would be equipped and well versed in what ilabeling-kidst means to have a disability, the strengths and weaknesses associated with that disability and strategies in which that student can overcome barriers within academic institutions in order to find success. However, this is next to impossible when teachers are not required to learn more than simple terminology associated with educational disabilities such as IEP, learning disability, and maybe related services. In 2013, 13% of school-aged students in public school were classified as having a learning disability. That means 4 students in a class of 30 will have an IEP and receive special education services of some sort. However, there are typically students who have not been identified or whose parents do not want them classified and receiving services specifically because of the stigma associated with it; therefore, it is safe to assume that approximately 1out of every 5 within a class of 30 students will have some form of a a disability. Yet, the teacher in the general education classroom is not required to have any prior knowledge about the disability, how to teach effectively to students with that given disability or even what supports that child might need; those responsible fall to the special education teacher of the Special Education Support Services Teacher who is typically with the student for about 5 hours a week. The additional 25 -30 hours, the student is left to his or her own devices in how to mange.

In no other profession, would a business that provided an qualified employee on average 13 – 17% of the time be considered “appropriate” to meeting the needs of the business or consumers. Yet, under the current law, for students with disabilities placed in inclusion classrooms, this is considered just that. Perhaps it is time to stop dis-abelling students and start enabling our education system by educating educators to actually teach to the brains, the bodies and the minds of the learners in their classrooms. This would of course require general education teachers to take courses about educational classifications, differentiation, and special education law, but all teachers to demonstrate proficient knowledge in the developing brain, body and mind including neuroanatomy, neuropsychology and cognitive psychology to name just a few. It is time to enable not only students, but teachers and administrators, by un-labeling teachers as general or special education and in turn removing the stigmatizing labels from students. No education should just be general; in order for all students to achieve their true potential, all education should be special and built on a scientific and wholistic foundation of knowledge. 

So until the time schools either have an alleviated pressure to pack classrooms to the maximum capacity, and/or the testing rigor is substituted with individual performance aptitude (similar to portfolio based measurements), the sting of bias and the risk of a child’s learning falling through the juggernaut remains at large.

Metacognition is to Mindfulness (Not Everyone Can Always Teach…)

Big buzz words, both of them in the title of this article. One featuring a significant process of the Pre-Frontal Cortex, and the other, affectation of awareness from the entire brain, based upon the driving of the Pre-Frontal Cortex. However, let’s simplify the language of Metacognition and veer away from the “thinking about thinking” cliché (albeit that is what that is, the repetitive use of the definition is overused).

Meta (after, or beyond) cognition (conscious mental activities : the activities of thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering) is that ten second delay before the thinking is decided upon as the last answer or decision. It is the pulling yourself out of your own awareness to look at the process that is involved in your own thinking: from the first suggestion of an idea to the last decided action. Metacognition then is the conscious mental activity that is after or beyond the activities of thinking, understanding, learning and remembering.

The Metacognition Phase
The Metacognition Phase

It’s what we commonly refer to as THINKING ON YOUR FEET. When you rely on the automatic responses of behavior that you tuck in the memory bank for the ‘rainy days’ and successfully combine these responses without reference to a specific technique or to a pattern, you have successfully practiced the art of metacognition. Most of us use the metacognitive process in its basest sense that its application is usually muted.

Labels, both rigid and tailored to testing have been directing the voice of education. Plotting one’s education based on the ability to test versus improving the quality of the inquiring mind has recently been winning the battle of what standards should look like and what ‘schooling’ should seem to be in the eyes of a successful community, and in the grander picture, what the world expects of a citizen belonging to a particular first-world geographical location. Teaching to the BRAIN inside the human being has been scoffed in skepticism and propaganda by purists of testing protocol, and worse, by those who insist that the BRAIN is a static piece of software that can only evolve in, well, the dog-eat-dog thriving situations to effectively learn (forgetting that the BODY is attached to it, inconveniently).

And yet, there are those who do acknowledge that there is a BRAIN that echoes its decisions on the shadow called a MIND (which apparently is highly controversial for those who have either no imagination, philosophical inclinations, or even quantum physical understanding of cause and effect). The MIND is not simply an artistic, metaphorical description of romantics or serialists.

The In-Between Phase: Anticipation From Metacognition to Mindfulness
The In-Between Phase: Anticipation From Metacognition to Mindfulness

Mind (the part of a person that thinks, reasons, feels, and remembers) fulness (the eventual quality or state of being full). Mindfulness then is inherently a state of consciousness. Although awareness and attention to present events and experiences are given features of the human organism, these qualities can vary considerably, from heightened states of clarity and sensitivity to low levels, as in habitual, automatic, mindless, or blunted thought or action (Wallace, 1999).  Therefore, Mindfulness is the eventual quality, state or part of a person that thinks, reasons, feels and remembers that is full.

Conscious activities of thinking lead to filling up the state of a person that thinks, feels, reasons and remembers. Conscious and purposeful filling, which is aimed at harnessing powers of understanding from genetic, evolutionary biological cognitive methods, now contrast with teaching-to-test. Conscious and meaningful activities where learning is matched with the learner’s natural aptitude while harnessing multiple abilities of learning.

Teaching with the Meta-Mind process is the ideal, not necessarily realistic. The Teacher, broken as Teach (to cause or help a person to learn how to do something by giving lessons and showing how it is done) -er (person or thing belonging to or associated with something) fulfills this process with such subconsciousness if you ask him or her the process of the real teaching, they would have to pause and trace the Meta of how they begin. And when there are words to describe this magical process (taking away the paperwork load and the political requirements), the Teacher’s Metacognition  begins with an idea, a seed, a stage either theatrical, comical, empirical or thoughtful. The Teacher  is actively immersed in the conscious mental activity that is after or beyond the activities of thinking, understanding, learning and remembering.  The preparation for every scenario entails an almost see something-say something proactiveness; student temperament will never be the same in spite of the occurrence in the exact classroom, having the exact community of students, and/or support through the same rules and regulations. Only homeostasis remains similar as learning experiences are emotionally, memory-dependent.

The students come, the dance begins of giving and taking…sometimes with upstarts and hiccups; however, with the arsenal from the Teacher’s Meta phase, the learning is curved to where it momentarily docks. After the last word on the subject, the wards attach the knowledge to a memory base, perhaps a mnemonic one for future reference. And the Teacher? He or She goes into the Mind phase: Mindfulness of students sharing, discovering, uncovering and maybe not fully comprehending what just had happened in the minutes before with the topic at hand. The Teacher in this phase enters into that eventual quality, state or part of a person that thinks, reasons, feels and remembers that is full.

The Mindfulness Phase: Is  it the Silhouette or is it the Canvass?
The Mindfulness Phase: Is it the Silhouette or is it the Canvas?

How then can the teacher be unreasonably requested to match the learning of a subject that is not only too cognitively complex for the developing brain of the current roster he or she is given, but also when there is a predetermination of the worded script, the presentation of the activity or knowledge base, and/or finely trimmed boundaries they are unable to be flexible with? How is that called common core really a commonality? The Meta-Mind cycle is interrupted, the learning process is artificial, and citizens are not created, rather parrots with haphazard training preparation for the competitively overflowing sea of professional niches. The Teacher ceases to have a democratic role in the abilities and skills he or she thought was hired to use in the classroom; amazingly, all that’s needed to do this newly reinvented job are professionals with paper pedigree to continually beat down their passion or dedication…unless the latter is just a bad dream someone decided to share with us.

Please allow the teachers to teach again. Respect the Meta-Mind Process of Learning.

Is it Negative Behavior or ADHD Sensory Overload? An Educator’s Quick Reference

How many times have students been pigeon-holed into the category of displaying bad or negative behavior when opposing class work or during transitions from a state of play or break back to the classroom and vice versa?

When the body appears like this during an overt meltdown:

What May Look Like This May Actually Not Be...
What May Look Like This May Actually Not Be…

The Brain Actually looks like this:

The Amygdala and Hypothalamus Fired Up in Fight or Flight State
The Amygdala and Hypothalamus Fired Up in Fight or Flight State

The Emotional Brain that is highlighted are two specific parts of the limbic system, the amygdala and the hypothalamus. The amygdala controls the brain’s ability to coordinate many responses to emotional stimuli, including endocrine, autonomic, and behavioral responses. Stress, anxiety, and fear are primary stimuli that produce responses. Mediation by the amygdala allows control among the stimuli.

The hypothalamus plays a significant role in the endocrine system and are effected by the amygdala. It is responsible for maintaining your body’s internal balance, which is known as homeostasis. This includes the  heart rate, blood pressure, fluid and electrolyte balance, appetite, sleep cycles and is the key connector between the endocrine system (glands and hormones) and the nervous system.

Now we are painting this picture of the brain developing at a functionally optimal manner; without aberrations from either genetic means or environmental factors. However, when faced with students who have underlying imaging differences in brain imaging due to the said factors and manifest a type of negative behavior that can easily be mistaken and categorized as a regular tantrum, the subtle elevations in amygdala and hypothalamic responses are now pushed to abnormally erratic levels in these brains.

For example, take the Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Brain in comparison to the Normal Brain:

We see clearly that the shape alone of the cerebrum of the ADHD brain is not elongated or similar to a normal brain’s saddle

Imaging of the Normal Brain in Contrast to the ADHD brain
Imaging of the Normal Brain in Contrast to the ADHD brain

type shape. It is oblong and with heavy concentration on temporal and occipital real estate versus the butterfly formation of the normal brain. What is also fascinating is the corpus callosum (where part of the amygdala and hypothalamus are housed) is lighter in the ADHD brain. What that means is that there is no clear path of communication between both hemispheres as compared to that of a normal brain. The blues indicate calm sections of the brains and the greens are considered to be the brain in an even keeled state, balanced and not in fight-flight mode.

Here’s also an image of a person with and without ADHD medication:

Brain Chemical Responses with Adderall Versus Without Adderall
Brain Chemical Responses with Adderall Versus Without Adderall

With Adderall, the brain is utilized in full functional capacity, the chemical connections between neurotransmitters is efficient and there are little if any underutilized processing areas. When Adderall is wearing off, the results are unimaginable: the only sections  of the brain that have any residual function left are the orbitofrontal area of the Pre Frontal Cortex (responsible for sensory integration and some decision making), and spotty areas across the 4 lobes. What is fascinating to mention here is the loss of Adderall effects are from back to front of the cerebrum.

These images provide a very clear picture of the typical versus atypical brain, especially the differences between one with ADHD and one without.   If ony it were that easy as a classroom teacher to distinguish a student with ADHD from a student with  sensory overload.  The list below is not as ‘yellow’ and ‘red’ as the brains above, but hopefully it will provide clarity and a concrete direction for you to take in order to best meet the needs of your students.

First, it crucial to note that boys and girls with ADHD display different symptoms; therefore, they are distinguished below.  Second, students with meltdowns as a result of negative behavior, will most likely present with similar symptoms; therefore, it is an undertaking for teachers to take quantitative data on the targeted behaviors. Forms like the one below:

TRUE ABC Chart For Objective DATA Collection
TRUE ABC Chart For Objective 5 Session DATA Collection (click for printable image)


  • Fidgety while sitting
  • Talk nonstop
  • Constant motion, may include touching items in their path
  • Difficulty sitting still
  • extreme impatience
  • Always “bored”
  • Lack verbal filter

    Sensory Overload or Negative Behavior?
  • Interrupt others’


  • Spacey
  • Unfocused
  • Inattentive
  • Trouble with organization
  • Forget directions
  • Forget or incomplete homework
  • Lose or misplace papers, books, personal belongings
  • Much Less Likely
    • hyperactive
    • impulsive

For students with ADHD, these symptoms as well as sensory overload meltdowns will be manifested consistently throughout the day across environments, unless the student is highly engaged in a preferred activity. Students presenting with negative behaviors will have meltdowns at specific yet intermittent periods of the day or throughout the day as will be shown in the ABC Chart above. For example, when the medication is wearing off, one may see a spike in ADHD symptoms in any combination. Once you can answer when, where, how long and make valid hypotheses as to why students are displaying the behaviors below, you should be able to have a pretty strong understanding as to whether your student is having a meltdown because of learned negative behaviors or as a result of having an ADHD brain on sensory overload.

Kindergarten Debate: Hand-Writing or Assistive Technology for Students Growing Up in Common Core

Limbic System Development
Limbic System Development

The typical picture of grade to developmental level progression when it comes to fine motor skills suggest that one starts with a four finger grasp before differentiating into pincer, tripod, and lateral pinch finger grasps. Just as gross hand motor skills are expected to be mastered prior to any initiation of fine motor finesse, fine motor skill hierarchy also has a period of latency and skill building.

Upon entry into socialized and organized peer grouping (pre-school), handedness is not yet determined however the traditional methods of encouragement are put in place to prepare the population for Kindergarten. Multi-sensory methods of cream and paint brushes fill the day of positive experiences to encourage the use of both hands in a structured form of expression.

Then Kindergarten begins: less play, more tabletop activities, more periods, and certainly lot more structured writing. A student in this day and age in Kindergarten is expected to be able to write their first and last names neatly, able to write 2-3 sentence essay on pictures that they drew, and be able to color within the lines by the end of the school year by about 80% accurately.

According to the CDC, 5 year old children should be able to perform the following Cognitive Skills below as appropriate to their developmental level:

Cognitive (learning, thinking, problem-solving)
  • Counts 10 or more things
  • Can draw a person with at least 6 body parts
  • Can print some letters or numbers
  • Copies a triangle and other geometric shapes
  • Knows about things used every day, like money and food

According however to Common Core Standards, Kindergarteners should be able to do the following writing tasks:

Kindergarten Writing  Standards

Text Types and Purposes

  • W.K.1. Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book (e.g., My favorite book is…).
  • W.K.2. Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic.
  • W.K.3. Use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to narrate a single event or several loosely linked events, tell about the events in the order in which they occurred, and provide a reaction to what happened.

Production and Distribution of Writing

  • W.K.4. (Begins in grade 3)
  • W.K.5. With guidance and support from adults, respond to questions and suggestions from peers and add details to strengthen writing as needed.
  • W.K.6. With guidance and support from adults, explore a variety of digital tools to produce and publish writing, including in collaboration with peers.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge

  • W.K.7. Participate in shared research and writing projects (e.g., explore a number of books by a favorite author and express opinions about them).
  • W.K.8. With guidance and support from adults, recall information from experiences or gather information from provided sources to answer a question.
  • W.K.9. (Begins in grade 4)

Looking at the comparisons from both sectors, it is clear that the demands expected from a Kindergarten child in the classroom are above the cognitive writing capacity developmentally that a 5 year old can handle.

Or is it? Are these realistic expectation from a 5 year old’s sensorimotor system who’s limbic system is connected mainly to the frontotemporal sections of the prefrontal cortex and the Broca’s speech areas with minimal connection to the interior of the corpus callosum?

The color of connected brain clusters encodes t values. 3D visualization on the most right panels reveals clearly that cingulate gyrus part of cingulum (cgc) connects MPFC and PCC and cingulum hippocampal part (cgh) connects PCC and MTL for both neonate and adult brain
The color of connected brain clusters encodes t values. 3D visualization on the most right panels reveals clearly that cingulate gyrus part of cingulum (cgc) connects MPFC and PCC and cingulum hippocampal part (cgh) connects PCC and MTL for both neonate and adult brain

Based on the study, “Microstructure, length and connection of Limbic tracts in human normal brain development,” published in Frontiers Journal (http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnagi.2014.00228/full), the study follows the deveopment and attached structures of the limbic system developmentally in the brain from birth to 25 years old.  All included children, adolescents and young adults were healthy subjects free of current and past neurological or psychiatric disorders. Right-handed were reported for all children who showed clear handedness. For young children, besides earplugs and earphones, extra foam padding was applied to reduce the sound of the scanner while they were asleep. They found that Memory, emotion, and motivation functions are related to limbic tracts and important for survival. It is vital for limbic tracts to become well myelined earlier than other tracts, especially those projected from frontal and temporal lobes (Baumann and Pham-Dinh, 2001).

They also discovered that although the overall shape of cgc is relatively stable throughout development, extra cgc growth can be observed in its anterior part close to prefrontal cortex (Figure 2). Relative increase of cgc length is probably related to its growth in the prefrontal region. Functions of prefrontal areas are involved in planning, decision making, and moderating social behavior that develop during late childhood and adolescence (e.g., Gogtay et al., 2004). Significant lateralization has been found for all DTI metrics of cgc-L/R and cgh-L/R with age and gender as covariates. his lateralization was associated with higher microstructural integrity on the left side of limbic tracts. Lateralization of DTI metrics of cgc and cgh may be related to unique functions of the left side of human brain such as language (van Veen et al., 2001). Exclusive right-handedness of the recruited subjects may also play a role. These findings are consistent to previous DTI metric measurements of cingulum (Gong et al., 2005;Verhoeven et al., 2010)

In plain English, what the study is saying is that the younger the brain, the lesser the pre-frontal cortex connection there is by the limbic system. It is the limbic system that allows any memory that is attached to a regulatory system (including motor memory) that enhances automaticity of movement such as that of fine motor skills. It also suggests that the system connects more effectively in the parieto-occipital areas, which house the majority of the sensorimotor processing and visual processing.

It then supports the CDC developmental data of what cognitively is expected of a 5 year old: with a still present instinctual need for regulation of pain, temperature, emotions innervated significantly more than that of the prefrontal cortex or the parieto-occipital complex, the coordination potential of a 5 year old’s hands are simply not the best gauge on whether they will be unable to utilize a writing tool or not in the long run. What that also means is that even if the academic demands indicated as a standard for the grade level are used aa a measure for their success, the developmental and imaging data will not agree with the current standards of achievement.

Perhaps then, we need to sit down with neuroscientists when we decide as a nation to adopt and revamp an entire educational curriculum. Educators educate; however, they need to know the brain they are educating. The marriage between education and neuroscience is long overdue.

Learning to Test or Testing to Learn?

The focus on reforming education in the twenty-first century has lead to a near obsession with standardization. We have standardized  curriculums, tests, grading, participation, essentially the entire learning process. Yet with this  shift to standardization, we have failed to meet the basic standard of a school, which is a place children come to learn. Pacing calendars, pre-packaged curriculums with differentiated tracks, cookie cutter bubble tests are teaching our children to be ready for a test, one that will rank not only their individual performance against a national standard, but the school’s performance as well. However, this test ultimately seems to prove only one thing, how well a student can take a test.


Unfortunately the test heavy focus of education reformation has annihilated a tried and true strategy for learning: testing. Teachers give summative tests at the end of the unit; they provide a study guide a few days before the test, tell students to study and perhaps hold a study session in class. However, according to How We Learn by Benedict Carey, that is not how we learn best if the goal is for information to be retained. We best learn and retain information when we systematically review learned information based on time to test and when we study by testing our knowledge of the information.

Dr. Melody Wisheart and Dr. Harold Pashler found this study interval to be most optimal for retention:


Time to Test

This table provides guidelines for either students or teachers to review material in order to increase retention at time of test. Using this information, teachers and students can intentionally plan study sessions to increase student’s retention of the material. Teachers can  revisit material learned at the beginning of the unit at the first interval and continue to add new material to subsequent study sessions until time of the test. By building in time to review material, teachers are teaching students how to study and providing them opportunities to review material in an effective way. This method is to increase retention of information and works best for facts, definitions, dates,mathematical equations etc.

Testing not studying is the answer to learning. Teachers often design pre-tests to determine what students know and what upcoming lessons need to focus on. However, pre-tests serve an even greater objective: they start the learning process of the material being test, evenwilson-train-the-brain-istock if the student guesses on every single question.  Dr. Robert Bjork found that after a simple experiment with his introductory psychology class that students performed 10% better on questions related to pre-test questions when taking the final exam than on questions with no similar equivalent on the pre-test. Students have the possibility of improving test scores by an entire grade with the addition of a pre-test. Furthermore, testing as a study strategy decreases the illusion of fluency, which tends to occur when students read notes or the text book multiple times as a way to study. Dr. Henry Roediger  theorizes that it forces the brain to do something more challenging that visually or auditorally process information; this additional effort increases the strength at which it is stored and later the ability at which is can be retrieved. Essentially, testing acts as a novel opportunity to learn and store the information; therefore, it becomes stored in a new way in the brain, connecting to other related facts thus strengthen storage and recall.

Testing needs to be re-branded in our classrooms. It can occur through a variety of ways (i.e. conversations with peers, family, other teachers, games, projects, and traditional paper/pencil tests), but  the focus needs to be taken off the final score and placed on the value of knowledge gained, whether that reveals the student knows all of the information in the unit, or she needs to spend more time ‘testing’ her knowledge, to she recalled all of what she knew before and more.

If we start testing to learn, the learning to test will naturally follow.


Text Used in this post: How We Learn: the surprising truth about when, where and why it happens. Benedict Carey. Random House, 2014.