Research into neuroscience and brain power is among the most fascinating due to its impact on education. And when it comes to young learners, strategies for optimizing brain development are essential for educators and parents.
Young students up to age 5 are uniquely poised to absorb an incredible amount of information, and while their brains are growing and forming at rapid rates, they also need to feel secure and calm to optimize positive brain development, said Pam Schiller, a curriculum specialist and freelance author specializing in early childhood education, during an edWeb webinar.
Educators and those who work with young children likely use most of the following 10 strategies, Schiller said, and each strategy is easy to implement or augment. All of these strategies can help educators optimize learning and development in young children.
“Singing does so many things for the brain,” said Schiller.
Singing helps young students manage transitions from one space or activity to another, increases oxygen, and enhances memory.
Endorphins released from singing help young students remember information and pay attention.
Lyrics, rhythm, and meter sync the brain to patterns, and singing can be used to illustrate concepts in subjects such as English/language arts and math.
2. Ensure emotional safety
“We’re really great at ensuring physical safety … but we don’t stop and think as much as we should about emotional safety,” Schiller said. “Brain research tells us that we can’t learn when we don’t feel secure or safe.”
When someone is threatened, worried, or concerned, the human brain focuses all of its attention on addressing that concern. This means that when children are dealing with other issues, their ability to learn decreases.
“We want to make sure, each day, that children feel emotionally safe,” she said.
One way to do this is by asking each student to place his or her picture in a “safe box” during morning class activities, and then emphasizing to children that their classroom is a safe place where everyone feels comforted.
3. Employ calming strategies
Adults are better able to cope with stress, and many don’t understand the impact it has on children.
“When we are stressed, we have many ways we take care of our stress–but that’s not the case for young children,” Schiller said.
She advised educators to think of children’s ages in terms of months instead of years. A 3-year-old becomes 36 months, which doesn’t seem like a long time to have been on the planet, she said.
“What we do know, from research, is that children actually carry more stress than we do. Much of what kids come into contact with each day is brand new,” she said. “Helping children reduce that stress is part of learning. You don’t feel emotionally safe when you feel stressed.”
Children can take deep breaths to relieve stress, as they pretend to smell a flower and blow out a birthday candle, for instance.
Calming strategies increase young children’s learning potential and also help reduce behavioral conflicts.
4. Keep it simple
“This is just so important. We overstimulate pretty much every child we come in contact with,” Schiller said.
The brain receives between 25,000 and 42,000 bits of information per second, and much of that information is visual. Creating uncluttered classrooms is a big step in ensuring children are not visually overstimulated.
Providing too much information at one time is a big source of overstimulation.
“When we give information, we need to give a resting period,” she said. “The brain needs time to think, reflect, and process that information.”
5. Pay attention to attention span
A child’s attention span is equivalent to 1 minute for each year of age, multiplied by 3.
This means a 3-year-old child can pay attention to something for 3 minutes, and as that child’s brain develops, it should eventually grow to be able to pay attention to something for 9 minutes, Schiller said.
The brain tends to wander every 20 minutes or so, and it can do this up to three times before it needs a break. A typical adult can sit in an hour-long meeting before that adult’s brain will reach exhaustion.
“Any time you exhaust someone’s attention span, the brain has a very hard time, so you begin to retain only about 20 percent of what’s being said,” Schiller said. “Shorter lessons for younger children encourage information processing.”
6. Focus and reflect
This is where educators tend to fail most frequently, Schiller said.
“At the end of information delivery, there needs to be just a moment for children to reflect, think about what they’ve learned, and think about how they’re going to use that information.”
Just like singing, laughing makes children feel good and increases their endorphins, said Schiller.
It also enhances emotional safety and gives students a sense of community.
“Don’t forget to introduce humor in your classroom,” she said. “Children’s humor is different from ours–think about child-sized humor and ways to laugh in the classroom. Joy is such an important part of early childhood, and it’s such an important part of processing, for the brain.”
8. Use colors and aromas
Yellow is the optimum color for learning, because the brain is at its most alert when stimulated by the color yellow.
Aromas such as peppermint and cinnamon make the brain alert, while lavender and chamomile calm the brain. After checking for allergies, educators could put peppermint into Play-Doh, for instance, to stimulate students’ brains.
“Children’s senses are about five times more magnified than an adult’s,” Schiller said. “That’s very important. For the first five years of life, the senses are on high alert.”
9. Provide repetition
Schiller noted that repetition strengthens neural connections, creates quicker access to information, and makes learning permanent.
Repetition, then, is “crucially important to the brain.”
During a first experience, neurological communities create wires prompted by the experience. The next time the experience occurs, the connections grow stronger, moving from “dirt road” connections to “highways and superhighways.”
When educators offer information, they should repeat it often, such as asking students if they remember lessons learned the previous day.
Because children process information differently than adults, they need repetition to help cement learning.
“Young children don’t develop an internal dialogue to help them process information until about 5 1/2 years old,” Schiller said. “Adults solidify what we learn by talking to ourselves internally. Young children solidify by verbalizing something to you. When they ask you a question, ask them what they think. They’re connecting those pieces.
10. Base practice on the Windows of Repetition
“This is probably one of the most crucial pieces,” Schiller said, referring to windows of repetition, or windows of opportunity.
Windows of opportunity are based on scientific research and illustrate the age ranges for specific domain development and brain wiring.
“Neurological scientists tell us that we all come into the world and we wire the brain in domains–not in academics, but in domains,” she said. “The window that opens and allows us to begin wiring that is birth itself… Positive experiences during these windows will result in positive outcomes.”
These experiences wire the brain, and repeating those experiences strengthens brain wiring.
This article was featured on eSchool News on October 1 2014 and was written by Laura Devaney, managing editor for eSchool News.