Brain Development and Learning by Nathan Mikaere-Wallis

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Notes taken during a professional inquiry session at Albany Senior High School on 25th November 2009.

Brain Development

The brain is designed as a tool for interacting with other brains. It lights up enormously when you have to interact with others. Doing 'dead man's behaviours' (sitting up, facing the front, not talking) doesn't light up much of the brain. The brain between 0-3 is very flexible and can adjust to respond to its environment. 70% of your brain is set by transcript genes. Harvard university study showed the income and qualification levels of a 35 year old can be determined by the number of words spoken to you from 0-12 months of age. Reading, writing, emotional control, empathy, humour, logic is all controlled by the frontal/meo cortex.

  • Brain stem (reptilian brain): fight, flight or freeze
  • Midbrain
  • Limbic system
  • Cortex

Stories and learning.

  • Literacy is a relatively new thing for the brain (stories have been part of human interaction for hundreds of thousands of years, writing is relatively new.)
  • Growth of the frontal cortex is relationship driven.
  • Those nurtured, survive best. The idea that we need to 'train' babies by teaching them not to cry and by letting them
  • Through history, for every one baby born there were four available caregivers
  • If leaving babies crying was a good thing, evolution would have rewarded humans for doing this. Endorphins would have been produced when babies cry. Actually the opposite is true. It's good for babies' brain development to be recharged with milk four times a night. What we've done for the last 100 years is try to meet our modern cultural needs rather than the babies' needs.
  • 82-88% of NZ children get their attachment needs met and turn up to school ready to learn. That means that the majority of our work needs to be done with the remaining 12-18%.

It's possible to develop only parts of the frontal cortex, such as being good at calculus but bad at empathising with people, or bad at humour.

  • Reading and writing are not the highest cognitive functions: empathy, humour, wit, logic. Don't shut down the class clown, use them for learning.

Perry's neuro-sequential model

90% of people in reading recovery are boys who are not the first born. Piaget says we will learn to read at about 7 when we're ready for cognition. Schools has pressured students into learning to read at 6, then 5, then below 5. Negative impacts of reading recovery are that students are told they are not good at reading during a really formative stage. Steiner schools, no one is allowed to learn to read until they are 7. When they do learn to read, they catch up with the other students in 6 weeks. More important than going onto reading recovery is to develop the disposition of learning. Growing confidence is more important than learning early The only correlated statistic with successful people is that they believed they were successful at learning. 90% of hot housed children have plateaued by 8 years of age. The only thing that marks them as different is that they have stunted social skills

0-6 months

Focus is on relationship building. The baby is designed to build attachment. 30 cm clear field of vision. Closeness to mother's heart soothes. heart to heart contacts. To ignore attachment at the expense of physical development does the opposite. Trying to force children to weight-bear before they are ready has the opposite effect. It's like the gardener tugging at the new shoots to speed up the crop.

6-24 months

The mid brain, the movement brain develops. Crawl, walk, opposing motor skills, pincer grip etc. ECEs shouldn't be trying to teach students to read. The social or emotional curriculum is more important. Freedom of movement supports learning. Baby traps limit movement and therefore limit learning: jolly jumper, play pen, stroller, car seats, highchairs, slings, safety sleepers. Can't learn while body is trapped because you are locked down in survival mode (brain stem). Baby on the floor exercises 100 muscles needed for walking, but in a jolly jumper only exercises 8 muscles, not all of which are used for walking. Gets in the way of walking.

24-36 months

Emotional development occurs. All of the emotions of an adult without any ability to regulate them. Adult skills are things like distraction; children don't have their cortex so adults have to be the cortex.

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Key points
  • Jellyfish: give in and allow the child to do whatever they want. This sends the message that the child can throw a tantrum and get whatever they like.
  • Brickwall: smack the child or abandon them in time out. The child won't learn, or it will take them far longer to learn. Brainstem and abandonment.
  • Backbone: empathise with the child, then teach them how to manage their emotions. In this country we think its catering to the child, but it actually teaching distraction.

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Case Study
What if a child asks for a biscuit 5 minutes before tea? How should a parent respond?
  • If it's a 5 year old: has enough of a cortex to “No but if you eat all of your dinner, you can have two.” Might not be able to tell you 5 minutes is 5 x 60 second units or than 2 is precisely double one. But does know that they win on the deal.
  • If it's a 2 year old: they don't understand logic, time or quantity, so therefore it won't work. Distraction.

  • Between 2yrs and 11yrs, the cortex comes on line; At 13 months and around 11 years old the brain experiences exuberance (sudden growth). Parents often notice when a child comes out with something perceptive. More babies self-wean at 13 months. Colostrum is brain babies gold. First 3 days, then again 13 months.
  • Somewhere between 11-20 the frontal cortex is shut for renovations. We also impose high-stakes assessment at precisely this age. Lose the ability to regulate emotions and lose some language skills. On average, your 15 year old is as not as good at controlling their emotions or seeing things from your point of view. An 11 year old could look at a 15 year old nutting out and say “What is wrong with you?”

The adolescent dip in behaviour is developmental, but it often generates conflict. Cognitive development is not linear. 5% of our time when we are over 26 we are more regulated by our emotions than our cortex. It's the opposite when we are teenagers. Corpus callosum in girls allows them to jump between right and left brain easily. Men can't do this easily. 6 lane highway, no traffic lights and no speed limits. Left: procedural, right: emotional. Men have a swingbridge that's a bit shaky. This is evolutionary, due to traditionally women looking after children which requires switching between left and right.

Gender and socialisation

  • If you put a baby into a room in a pink stretch and grow, the most common words used to describe it are 'beautiful', 'pretty' and 'cute'. People hold the head, carefully, delicately, lie baby over shoulder, nuzzling into neck, whisper to create intimacy etc.
  • If the baby is in a blue stretch and grow, they'll describe it as 'clever', 'brave', 'strong'. They will bounce it on its legs to strengthen them.

Women are taught emotional intimacy earlier and therefore develop cognitively fast. First thing that is said to a baby if it's dressed in yellow or white is 'is it a boy or a girl?' If it's a 3 month old, what difference does it make? To really be using your cortex, your brainstem needs to be calm Brainstem takes over whenever danger is threatened. Whenever we are threatened, we can't recall even the most basic information about ourselves. When your brainstem is aroused, your cortex can't function at the most basic level. Violence and trauma for children is damaging to learning. Survival brain has to be calmed before learning can happen. The closer the relationship, the easier it is to calm the brainstem. For most people, it is their mothers. The power of relationships, not only because we use most of our brain with others. If a student is scared of the teacher, doesn't feel safe, they not doing much learning. If a student doesn't feel safe through a whole year, they may end the year less intelligent than they started it.

Imagine the brain as a garden

When learning something new, a neural pathway is covered over with myolin; endorphins consolidate neural pathways. Need to do something 90 repetitions of myolin before we really know this. Learn things much faster when endorphins are present. If you're happy you learn better. Students in class, learning the periodical table and if a teacher comes in and shouts about a broken window, all students have their neural pathways stripped out with cortisol. Last 100 years we've been taught to be strict disciplinarians. What we're been taught is to release cortisol. Most young children can pick up stereotypes by age three. Most three year olds will know the stereotype of the school marm because this is the strongest image society has. Three things that release the most endorphins are (in order): singing, laughter and physical exercise. Movement and learning. Mid brain controls movement, but it also controls the function of the frontal cortex. Concentration cycle comes from length of gaze held by mother. Hormone that connects attention spans together BDMF. Same hormone that is released by physical movement. If a child is left to sit longer than 20 minutes, you have to rely on their original attention span. If we were setting schools up from scratch, we wouldn't get students to sit down, shut up and be serious, we would move, laugh and sing. Stories are fundamental to learning. Brains have been learning through stories for hundreds of thousands of years. Brain is mainly designed to listen to stories. Brain is designed to store five to seven pieces of information. Seven pieces of information in one stories can be remembered. The official, cold figure of learning is a relatively new idea. Dealing with behaviour.

Prosocial behaviour

Prosocial behaviour comes from sandpit. Physical/safety fears pushes students into brainstem. Cognitive training. All of our language tells students what we don't want.

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Case Study
Two children are fighting in the lounge when the parent returns from outside. Don't say “Every time I leave the room I come back and you're at each other's throats” This is teaching them to misbehave. 25% of the brain is made up of the parietal lobe which is designed to visualise spoken language. When you are told not to picture an elephant, you can't help it. Focusing on negative behaviour creates images of that behaviour in the minds of the students. If we see somebody doing something wrong, our normal response is to say something like “Don't stand on that chair” Don't releases cortisol. No, don't & stop also do. Cortisol undoes recent learning and also sends the brain down into the brain stem so no positive learning can take place. Change the language to “Hey, you need to sit down on the chair”. Describe the behaviour you do want, and have the parietal lobe picture it. Instead of saying “Don't fight” or “Don't hit” say “Use gentle hands”. You have to tell them what to do 90 times to lay down the new neural pathway.

“It'd be nice to come back into the room and see you looking after your little sister. Go and get her a drink and share the remote nicely with her” You have given them the image of behaving nicely. Nurture the cortex; don't scare the brainstem.

Cognitive training:

How should educators deal with conflict and problem behaviours?

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Key points
*Step 1: Calm the child down. Focus on their emotional wellbeing. They have to be calm first. No learning when you're not calm. Their wellbeing needs to be attended to. Emotional well-being too.
  • Step 2: Speak the child's language. Adolescents are mainly in their limbic system: 90% emotional/10% cortex, whereas people over 26 are 90% cortex/10% limbic. At this point, adults need to be adults. Emotional explosion as a result of relationship break up. What often happens with adults is that when the child is in the limbic brain, they often come over the top with cortex. What they should do is meet limbic with limbic before moving to cortex. If they feel like they have been listened to, they will then listen to you. 95% of the problems between parents and adolescents is a result of this mismatch.
  • Step 3: Look at the cognitive training required. The focus should be on learning the behaviour they need to use instead.

Getting behaviour right:

Building and not undervaluing relationships (saying you're only here to teach the ones who want to learn, you have a cruisy job and you're overpaid.) Limit transitions. Fewer lesson transitions; fewer teacher changes. Focus on prosocial behaviour. Teachers create the emotional atmosphere of a school, not the students. Mainly through language: naughty, bad, stop, no, don't fighting. If 90% of the words are describing positive behaviour, you'll create a much more positive emotional environment.

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