When I was growing up, there were a lot of things we didn’t know about the brain and how it functioned. In fact, we knew so little about it that we often did a lot of things that negatively impacted our learning. For instance, pulling all-nighters before an exam was a norm, perhaps even expected if you cared enough about doing well in your exams (never mind the fact that we now know you are better off getting a good night’s rest before the exam than burning the midnight oil). It was also typical to stop all other activities – no music, sports or extra-curricular activities (unless they were part of your final year subjects) – so we could concentrate on studying for those vital transcripts that would dictate our options for future career paths.
It was in ignorance that we did a lot of things that were really derailing us from achieving the goals we were so desperate for. Now, we know better. Helping our children succeed in school isn’t only about which special programs and extra classes we can enrol them into so they can get the one-up on their peers, it is also about creating a positive environment and ensuring that our children are well – physically and emotionally. If we are truly interested in the academic success of our children, we also need to ensure that we meet their needs for optimal learning.
These are some annotated notes from a talk at our school recently on unleashing the potential in our children by understanding the importance of wellness from a neuro-scientific perspective. If we want our children to reach maximum potential, we need to make sure that these needs are attended to…
Sleep to Learn
This is why all those late nights were so bad for our academic performance…
- slower thought processes
- difficulty forming logical conclusions to problems
- difficulty learning new tasks
- difficulty making novel connections
- lack of imagination
- lack of focus
- blurred vision
- slurred speech
It can be so significant that the lost of one hour of sleep a night can make a sixth grader function at the level of a fourth grader. The bottom line: if your child isn’t sleeping enough, academic performance suffers.
Hydrating the Brain
We need to make sure our children are drinking enough water because 75% of the human body is water. If the body is not adequately hydrated, it affects their ability to keep their attention focused, it impairs short-term memory and the recall of long-term memory, and it compromises their ability to perform mental arithmetic.
Feed the Brain Right
Like any other part of the body, the brain requires nutrients and energy for optimal functioning.
Top 5 Brain Foods:
- Oily Fish – Omega 3 is essential for development and maintenance of brain tissue
- Blueberries – protects short term memory loss
- Pumpkin Seeds – Good alternative source of Omega 3 for vegetarians
- Chocolates – may help sharpen the mind and boost short-term cognitive skills
- Avocado – helps blood flow to the brain which is important for staying alert and focused.
Related: Nutrition – Boosting Brain Power
Take Brain Breaks to Improve Learning Potential
This is why we should not encourage our children to quit their sports and other extra-curricular to devote their focus on their studies…
Taking breaks from studying is good for the brain – especially when the breaks involve physical activity. The following image shows EEGs of the brain’s neuroelectric activity during a test after 20 minutes either sitting or walking. The group that sat for 20 minutes have more blue areas indicating a dip in neural resources devoted to focus, while the group that went for a walk have heightened attention and faster information processing.
Sense of Purpose
Encourage kids to develop their own passions and interests because that joy and enthusiasm they have will transcend their learning experience. Having a positive motivation for learning has a positive effect on the brain. It triggers the release of chemical messengers in the brain which in turn increases executive function and attention.
High achievers without a sense of purpose are more prone to depression, anxiety and suicide, while those with a sense of purpose were more positive, motivated and stronger learners. – Edutopia
It is important to teach our children how to manage stress because a stressed brain cannot learn.
Stress impacts memory and learning. During periods of stress, we are more forgetful and we have greater difficulty retaining information. Stress also sabotages the neural pathways of the prefrontal cortex (higher brain function) which carries out the executive functions – self-control, impulse control, memory, and reasoning – which are vital for successful learning.
One way to help children learn to manage stress is to teach them to practice mindfulness. Here’s why:
- Mindfulness soothes the nervous system.
- Mindfulness activates the “rest and digest” part of the nervous system.
- Heart rate slows, respiration slows and blood pressure drops – this is called the relaxation response and it is restorative.
- Research by neuroscientists has shown that as we continue to meditate, our brains physically change – the amygdala (the threat system of the brain) shrinks and there is increased activity in the areas of the prefrontal cortex that help regulate emotions, subsequently reducing stress.
MRI scans show that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala, appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress.
As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker.