Faculty Interview: Dr. Mark Mahone

tags: Center for Innovation and Leadership in Special Education Linking Research to Classrooms: A Blog for Educators

August 2, 2016

Lisa Carey, education consultant at CILSE, talks to Dr. E. Mark Mahone about child neurodevelopment and considerations teachers should have in light of what we know about the brain.

LC: What do you think is the most important thing for teachers to know or keep in mind about neurodevelopment?

MM: All behavior and learning is really dependent on brain development (neurodevelopment). These developmental skills unfold over time and include academic and social skills, language, motor skills, reasoning and problem solving, as well as other higher order cognitive skills we call executive functions. All of those skill areas contribute to academic success and are dependent on neurodevelopment.
Throughout school, children are “moving targets” when it comes to neurodevelopment. They’re changing and growing very rapidly. What we see in the classroom in terms of learning and behavior is really a function of the interaction between their own neurodevelopmental progress and the supports and challenges in their environment.
In short, I think  the two big take-home messages are as follows:

  1. Children are developing rapidly during the school years. Their brains are rapidly evolving and being shaped during the time that they are in school—especially in the primary grades.
  2. We can shape brain development. Through instruction, the environment actively changes the way children’s brains develop. Teachers help shape the way children’s brains develop by the instruction that is provided (what kind, how much, how presented), and also by the way classroom supports are provided—especially for children who have academic difficulties.

LC: Are there any things going on in the world of education that aren’t supportive of healthy brains or go against the neurodevelopment? Are there things educators are doing that are not appropriate?

MM: We know  there are some things in the average child’s environment that are not good for healthy brain development. Some of these things happen outside of the school setting, and some occur within the school setting. We know that the following are not good for brain development:

  • not getting enough sleep
  • poor nutrition
  • exposure to toxic and chronic stress
  • not having an opportunity to have a full range of physical activity and exercise
  • not being exposed to a wide range of cognitive activities that go beyond reading, writing, and mathematics (e.g., physical education, arts, and music—all of which are really fundamental for brain development.

We also know that supportive environments, i.e., those that are nurturing for children and those that provide adequate sleep, nutrition and exercise facilitate brain development. To the extent that these things are available for students as a part of the curriculum, schools will support brain development. To the extent that these things are not available, it will create challenges for brain development and ultimately learning.

LC: If teachers take a more developmental view of their students, how can they use that lens to enhance the teaching and learning that goes on in their classrooms?

MM: I really think that all people who work with children should consider themselves developmentalists—especially teachers. Being a developmentalist means that you never just look at a child at a single point in time. Rather, you consider where the child is in the course of his or her overall development. As I mentioned before, brain development occurs in the context of all the things that are happening around you. That means teachers need to know what is appropriate in terms of “normal development” for children. What are normal developmental expectations for children to be able to do within the classroom? Can children actually do what it is you are asking in your classroom or have you set them up for frustration and failure? These expectations include academic work, social skills, and behavioral control, as well as things like the demand for length of attention span in their work. When classrooms require skills that are beyond the developmental of the children in the class, it is more likely those children will show frustration and behavior problems.

It is also important to remember that what is “developmentally appropriate” changes over time. For example, an average 6-year old is not going to be able to sustain attention for as long as an average 8-year old. So I think the first thing teachers really need to have a handle on is what are appropriate expectations for those ages and make sure that the curricula do not set out unrealistic expectations for learning and behavior in the classroom.

The second thing I think is important to realize is that there is a range of within “normal” for children’s development. So what is “normal” for an average 6-year old may vary quite a bit and have a wide range. There is a wide range of what we consider “average” - and that can mean that children within a classroom can vary widely in their attainment of skills and still be within the “normal” range for an expectation. And what does that mean? That means that the classroom, the curriculum, and the materials all need to be adaptable to the range of skills within the classroom. And that’s just within the group people consider their “average group”. We then have to realize that as many as 15-20% of children may have needs that qualify for special education services. Since most of those children are also educated in the general education classrooms, these classrooms need to be set up to accommodate an even wider range of skills.

LC: Thanks for that great response. I know that in many places around the country, more attention is being given to student variability. More schools and teachers are using flexible materials and learning environments to address that range of variability you mentioned.

MM: Can I add something about the differences between boys and girls?

LC: Sure.

MM: The other really important point to remember, especially in the younger grades, is that boys and girls, on average, develop at different rates. Most elementary school teachers will tell you that it’s the girls who develop earlier than the boys. The girls develop earlier than the boys in terms of many important skills for school, including language skills, social skills, and motor skills. Additionally, many of their reasoning skills develop earlier than boys, and that is because their brains develop and mature more rapidly in early elementary school years than boys’ do.  The difference can be fairly dramatic, such that in the preschool and early elementary school grades, it can be a year or more difference between boys and girls. It is important to recognize that these typical differences often occur within a single classroom.

LC: Why is this important?

MM: Because expectations for typical 6-year old girls and boys may be the same within the classroom, tasks may be more difficult for the boys, but too easy for the girls. It’s another piece to the variability puzzle. Girls may be able to do more and that doesn’t mean that the boys are behind or in need of additional services, it just means teachers need to be flexible and keep this variability in mind. This is especially important because there is a tendency to pathologize boys’ behavior when we compare them to girls. This is even more likely for students who are young for grade. These younger students are more likely to be labeled as having ADHD because teachers and parents forget to take into account age and gender. We need to keep all forms of variability in mind and be accommodating to the whole range of students within the classroom.

LC: So to summarize, teachers need to take a developmentalist view of child behavior and learning and assume variability as the norm (rather than the exception) within their classrooms.

MM: You got it!

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