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Shaping Brain Development: Considerations for Teachers

By Lisa Carey, M.A.T. and Dr. Lisa Jacobson

There is ample evidence that experiences shape the networked connections of the brain (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2011; Denckla, 1996; Kolb & Gibb, 2011). While the brain retains its plasticity throughout life, it is particularly malleable in children and adolescents. Given this information, you start to see why Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Dr. Martha Denckla is quick to point out that “teachers shape brains.” That’s right--the classroom you design and maintain, the lessons you craft, and the relationships you build within the classroom all contribute to shaping the brains of your students.  That’s a lot of power in our hands. How do we wield it wisely?  The first thing we need to do is understand the brains we are shaping. So where do we start? 

Think developmentally.

What do pediatric neurologists, neuropsychologists, and cognitive neuroscientists all have in common?  They think about brains from a developmental perspective.  That means they always take into consideration the fact that the brains they are studying aren’t static.  This also means considering possible disruptions to development.  It is important to consider that your students’ brains are in the process of developing. Experiences that push students to the edges of their ability, but not beyond, are powerful in helping them develop new skills (Diamond, 2012).

Surprisingly, researchers found that 47% of the teachers they surveyed did not know the brain continues to develop and learn throughout childhood(Dekker et al., 2012).(Dekker, Nikki, Howard-Jones, & Jelles, 2012).  This means that many teachers may not be considering their students from a developmental perspective.  It is important that educators consider their students to be moving targets when engaging in the process of instructing and assessing.

Consider variability.

Now that we’ve established that students’ brains are in a continual state of development, it is important to remember that growth and development are not perfectly linear, and that great amounts of variability in timing and pace exist within the population.  Just take a moment to consider the various heights and sizes of your students.  Some of them have hit growth spurts early, while others seem small for their age.  Student brains are similarly maturing at different rates (although not necessarily in correlation to the length of their legs). While students may be grouped into classrooms by age, it is not in keeping with what we know about neurodevelopment to expect all students to cognitively mature at the same rate. For that reason, it is important to offer an array of environmental and instructional supports for students. 

Also keep in mind that some of this variability in development is predictable.  On average, young girls’ communication and self-regulation skills mature at rates faster than their same age male peers (Mahone & Wodka, 2008; remember “on average” does not mean in every case!). If you compare these skills in one of the older girls in your classroom with one of the younger boys, you will most likely find a wide disparity.  At times this disparity may look like disability, but it is really just a predictable variability within the student population who might have as much as a one-year difference in their chronological ages, or even more if a student has been retained or skipped a grade. In addition to sex differences, variability comes in many other predictable forms. The Universal Design for Learning framework does an excellent job of helping teachers think about variability as they plan and construct lessons that address variability with intentionality.

The brain is in the body.

Westerners use the phrase “mind-body connection” pretty frequently.  We also separate health and mental health.  This use of language indicates our perception of the brain – we see it as separate from the body.  However, our brains are in our bodies. More importantly, they are our bodies (Damasio, 2005). Your heart pumps blood because your brain tells it to, your hand sends pain impulses to your brain and you respond by removing your hand from a hot surface because your brain tells it to do so.  We need to be physically healthy for our brains to be at optimal capacity.  Promoting movement and teaching children about sleep hygiene andproper nutrition are important for cognition and brain development (Diamond, 2012). Movement breaks during class aren’t just for the students who can’t sit still; they are purposeful times for getting the body moving in order to enhance the brain’s wellbeing (Diamond, 2012). 

Emotion and cognition aren’t really separate.

The limbic system is often referred to as the “affective network” or the “emotional center of the brain.”  This central part of brain’s interior is associated with threat response, recognizing rewarding and positive sensations and experiences, fear, and emotional responses.  But, to view this section of the brain as separate from other areas is to misunderstand how the brain works. While the brain has regions highly associated with certain tasks, this does not mean that these regions work in isolation (Damasio, 2005). In fact, most sensory information is filtered through the limbic system prior to processing by the higher order integrative or cognitive aspects of the brain.  This means students are constantly determining how they feel about learning, at both a conscious and unconscious level, prior to and while participating in your classroom (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007).  Situations that are threatening, stressful, or emotionally harmful negatively impact the functioning of the prefrontal cortex (the brain region associated with executive function) and harm a student’s ability to use inhibition control, working memory, or flexible thinking (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2011; Diamond, 2012). Therefore, creating a safe, friendly, and supportive classroom and class culture isn’t just a nice thing to do, it is a best practice for enhancing students’ ability to perform at their best, and by extension, to achieve good grades.

As you now can see, teachers shape brains. They robustly contribute to the cognitive development of students on a daily basis.  As Dr. Nancy Grasmick, former Maryland State Superintendent and current Co-Director of the Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, stated, “we are in the business of cognitive development, why shouldn’t we know all that we can about the cognitive neurosciences?”  By learning all that we can about the brains of our students, we ensure that our instructional practices can be leveraged to have the greatest possible positive impact on students’ lives.


Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. (2011). Building the brain’s air traffic control system: How early experiences shape the development of executive function. Working Paper 11. Retrieved from

Damasio, A. R. (2005). DeCartes error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain (2nd ed.). New York: Penquin.

Dekker, S., Nikki, C. L., Howard-Jones, P., & Jelles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevelence and predictors of misconceptions among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 1–8.

Denckla, M. B. (1996). Executive function in a developmental context: Application of Clinical Measures. Developmental Neuropsychology, 12(1), 5–15.

Diamond, A. (2012). Activities and Programs That Improve Children’s Executive Functions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(5), 335–341.

Immordino-Yang, M. H., & Damasio, A. (2007). We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education. Mind, Brain, and Education, 1(1), 3–10.

Kolb, B., & Gibb, R. (2011). Brain plasticity and behaviour in the developing brain. Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 20(4), 265–76. Retrieved from

Mahone, E. M., & Wodka, E. L. (2008). The neurobiological profile of girls with ADHD. Developmental Disabilities Research Reviews, 14(4), 276–284.

The Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education (CILSE) is currently accepting applications for its 2017-2018 fellowship cohort, designed for special education teachers with master’s degrees in education, as well as leaders in related disciplines within school systems (e.g., school, psychology, speech/language pathology). If you are interested in applying, visit the CILSE fellowship program application page or contact Kimberly Anderson (, 443-923-9252) for more information.

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