By Lisa Carey, M.A., CILSE Education Consultant, and Lisa Jacobson, Ph.D., NCSP, ABPP
July 12, 2016
Neurodevelopment - how the brain grows and matures - is one of the most important areas of neuroscience for teachers to consider. The human brain starts to develop prenatally, but continues after birth into adulthood (Lenroot & Giedd, 2006). This growth is by no means linear, as the rate of brain development changes over the course of childhood and young adulthood. Thus the expectation that students would continue a steady rate of progression in cognitive development from elementary school through high school does not fit with what research has shown us about the brain.
There is a common neuromyth that all important brain development occurs prior to the start of formal education and that teachers are incapable of steering the trajectory of neurodevelopment. However, this misinformation masks the large impact high quality and developmentally appropriate education can have on the neurodevelopment of students. While experiences of infants and toddlers are extremely important to brain development, early childhood should be regarded as a sensitive period, rather than a critical period. Some skills may be easier to learn during the sensitive period, but it is possible to develop those skills at later points in time. For children who have experienced toxic stress, or grown up in less enriched and stimulating environments, a teacher’s understanding of development and use of developmentally appropriate "best practices" can make a difference in their trajectory (“Building the brain”, 2011).
The idea that student brains are “done” developing prior to starting school can be a dangerous myth. If student ability is pre-determined prior to entering school, then students with poor early childhood experiences have no chance at catching up. Taking this further, if students have no chance, what is the point of working hard to educate them? Luckily, this is not the case. Research in neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change due to experiences, demonstrates that teachers have the amazing ability and responsibility to shape their students’ brains through beneficial experiences. In fact, as neurologist Dr. Martha Bridge Denckla once said, “if you think about it, teachers shape more brains, and to a far greater degree, than neurosurgeons.” But, how do we ensure that we are helping students develop? Here are some key elements of neurodevelopment teachers should consider. In future posts, we will cover these topics more fully.
- Understand developmentally appropriate classroom expectations.
I was recently asked to visit a kindergarten classroom to observe several students engaging in disruptive behaviors. I sat and watched as a young teacher attempted to review phonics by showing students flashcards for 30 minutes while students sat still on the floor. Many students wriggled and looked around the room, some crawled around, and two boys got up and walked away talking loudly. Rather than addressing the boys who were disruptive, the teacher and I discussed how to make her lessons shorter, more interactive, and developmentally appropriate. Disruptive behaviors reduced dramatically. The teacher never had a course in developmental psychology or neurodevelopment and was unaware that the curriculum she’d been given had attentional expectations that were beyond her students’ abilities. Teachers need to watch out for mismatches between students’ development and curricular or teacher expectations. This can happen at any level. From expecting long stretches of focused attention from young children, to expecting middle school students to be able to stay organized before the areas of their brain responsible for executive functions have fully matured, we often forget to consider that our students’ difficulties may be related to their development. We are often tricked by the performance of certain outlier students. “Look!” we cry, “Shannon has done it! Why can’t the rest of them get it together?” This brings us to our next point.
- Be aware that some variability in development is typical.
Students are typically roughly grouped by age, based upon an arbitrary date of enrollment eligibility for each district. For the younger students in the class, fewer months of development makes a large difference. This is thought to account for one reason younger students within a class are more likely than their classmates are to be diagnosed with ADHD (Elder, 2010). Additionally, girls, on average (meaning not every girl in every case), develop more rapidly than boys (Lenroot & Giedd, 2006). By the time of school entry, girls can be as much as a year ahead of boys in terms of their brain development (Feldman, Greeson, & Senville, 2010). This means that using the behavior of the older girls in any given classroom as the expectation for the younger boys can be problematic. There is a wide range of what is considered “typical” development and it is a good idea to take into account age discrepancies among students. In order to address this natural variability, curricula, learning activities, classroom materials, and the learning environment should be flexible. Of course, some students may fall outside of this range of typical variability and would benefit from some specific interventions.
- Recognize the signs of developmental delays and encourage screening by experts.
For students who appear to be far behind their peers in terms of development, it is best to contact the school psychologist and conduct a screening. While media coverage has made many people aware of developmental disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) , there are many other causes of delays or learning difficulties (ADHD, for example).
- Know instructional practices that will assist in development of important skills related to academic and social outcomes.
One of the domains that develops throughout the course of a student’s academic career isexecutive function (EF). EF skills are highly correlated to academic success (Jacobson, Williford, & Pianta, 2011). Luckily EF skill development can be influenced by instructional methods used in curricula such as Tools of the Mind and PATHS.
Teachers are responsible for the academic growth of their students. In order to facilitate that growth, it is important to understand that brain development is a key component of cognitive, physical, and social abilities. When we set developmentally inappropriate expectations for students, we hinder their progress. By being aware of general ranges of development for the groups of students we are responsible for teaching as well as offering flexibility within our learning environment and instructional design, we can better meet students where they are and develop greater pathways of growth.
- 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 No. 11. Retrieved from www.developingchild.harvard.edu.
- Elder, T. E. (2010). The importance of relative standards in ADHD diagnoses: evidence based on exact birth dates. Journal of Health Economics, 29(5), 641–56. doi.10.1016/j.jhealeco.2010.06.003
- Jacobson, L. A., Williford, A. P., & Pianta, R. C. (2011). The role of executive function in children’s competent adjustment to middle school. Child Neuropsychology, 17(3), 255–280. doi.10.1080/09297049.2010.535654
- Lenroot, R. K., & Giedd, J. N. (2006). Brain development in children and adolescents: Insights from anatomical magnetic resonance imaging. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 30(6), 718–729. doi 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2006.06.001
- Paus, T. (2005). Paus 2005 Mapping brain maturation and cog dev during adolescence. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(2), 60–68.