Knowing details of how the brain works will benefit us and our children as we apply simple strategies to enhance their learning beyond their expectations.
The day is dawning….
..It is about 6.30am and our brains are slowly gaining consciousness; it takes a few minutes. After a great night’s sleep, we and our children are getting ready for an exciting day ahead!
We have just woken from a regular period in our lives where surges of chemical transmitters that connect brain cells (neurons) cause a targeted cell to become either activated or dormant. A neuron that is activated will cause a knock-on effect at an incredibly high speed. The transmitter at work during our wonderful hours of sleep, acetylocholine, is organised (as daytime transmitters are) to spray across clusters of neurons as well as simply connect neurons.
We go through cycles of 5 different stages of sleep. The 4th stage is the deepest of all and it is when we experience rapid eye movement. Researchers have told us that not only does the brain re-organise learning during a normal night’s sleep, but that when we are in our deepest sleep stage, any learning we encountered shortly before we fell asleep is actually strengthened in our memory locations of the brain when we hear an external voice repeat the information to us out loud.
As teenagers, our children want to stay up late and get up late and the hormone melatonin is causing this tendency. Unfortunately, schools that start the day early are actually causing sleep deprivation and daytime tiredness. (Carskadon, Woltson, Acebo, Tzischinsky and Seifer, 1998) The brain at this stage of development is going through enormous structural change and teenagers need to sleep to manage what is happening in their brain; this is when the brain organises and stores new learning.
Memory Map Creation
7- 9 hours of sleep is required per night, and in all of us, messengers in the brain travel down neurons to junction points. When these neurons are connected at these junctions, they produce structural proteins which strengthens our memory and perhaps doubles our chances of remembering. During slumbertime, the brain decides which memories to strengthen and which to forget or eradicate.
Breaking our Fast!
“Eat” is often the first word my son tells me first thing in the morning. However, the 7 or so hours of sleep has caused an element of dehydration and the brain is screaming to be hydrated. In the cooler mornings I drink some herb tea, otherwise a large glass of water with a squeeze of lemon is the gift I give to my brain and body each morning. The brain is composed of 73% water, and so we need to keep it hydrated in order to continue normal functioning and development. 8-12 glasses per day is recommended for all ages.
OK it’s ‘eat’ time! Fruit follows with perhaps a smoothie containing seeds (essential enzymes) with some oats thrown in for me. My son prefers granola with maybe some grapes in the mix, it’s healthy, it’s brain food and very importantly, it’s quick!
Time to leave…. whether we’re walking our children to school or driving them, some fresh air and exercise first thing in the morning benefits our brains enormously. During exercise, oxygen gets carried to the brain and the brain experiences exercise as we exercise our more obvious muscles. This is also excellent grounding for our children who have sensory issues. If we are driving our children to school, as I do, we might provide them with some exercise before we leave. My son loves his small trampoline, dancing, spinning, stretching and loves to copy my deep breathing. When we go to the car, he enjoys pulling and pushing the door open and closed; this all benefits him with his sensory needs.
Additionally, his school involve him in Sensory Circuits every morning and P.E. twice per week.
Our children walk into their classroom, and a few changes need to be made in order for effective learning to take place. Firstly, their emotional states need to be tuned into positive learning states. (See my blog on why my son’s emotions are my priority). Secondly, the children need to feel secure. That means, there are no threats from any other children or indeed adults. This covers, bullying at all levels, humiliation and a fear of these occurances. They need to feel autonomous with the other children in the class and a skill of the teacher is to ensure s/he creates this environment before s/he starts to teach.
As teaching begins, the brain starts to release chemicals that arouse anticipation, engagement, excitement and motivation. As the teacher primes the children for the topic, the brain is receiving these signals and continues to release chemicals and neurons start to fire, creating neuronal assemblies at its best.
Multi-sensory teaching is the most effective way the brain receives information and if the emotions are involved, all the better. The three essential elements of learning are 1) seeing 2) hearing and saying and 3) understanding the meaning. These three inputs stimulate three different areas of our brain: the Visual Cortex at the back of our brain, the Auditory Cortex at the side of our brain and the Anterior Central Lobe. All these areas must have strong connections with each other in order for memory to be laid down and then the ability to retrieve them.
Dr Lane’s A.R.R.O.W. Programme using the learners own voice involves all of these elements and together with other techniques that stimulate learning, the programme heightens and accelerates learning in all abilities of children. The average and above average child needs only a few hours working on the programme to soar their literacy skills above and beyond normal expectations. The struggling learner will progress with just a few extra hours additionally developing their self-esteem and confidence as well as concentration.
The bell rings, yay, it’s finally lunch time and those hungry brains need food!
I provide a packed lunch for my son to ensure he gets a nutritional and filling lunch. About 40% of his lunch cosists of complex carbohydrates like brown rice, whole spelt pasta and less often rice noodles. The rest consists of vegetables such as peppers, broccolli, carrots or courgettes or a comination of these. I may also sprinkle some seeds or lentils to bulk the protein content. (Both quinoa and spelt pasta have very high protein content). I may also add nutritional yeast (vitamin B), raw garlic (to strengthen immunity), raw onion or organic soy sauce with a generous drizzling of organic virgin olive oil.
As with all children and adults with special needs, they tire quite quickly and so nutritional snacks and some rest between meals and focused learning is actually essential for memory processing; and to generally revive lagging batteries. Hello, we all need to follow this advice as we need to takecare of ourselves too right?
Why the Brain Needs Certain Nutrients?
Good nutrition is claimed to be the most important during the early years of brain development. Our food needs to provide the nutrients necessary for learning. They are: proteins, fats, complex carbohydrates and sugars. Trace elements are also vital, and include iron, boron, selenium, vanadium and potassium which all ensure improved concentration.
What specific foods are good for the brain? If you are panicking at this point because your child refuses to eat vegetables, or any other healthy foods, please don’t. Supplements are a sure way to get those all essential nutrients into their system.
So, here goes..
Vitamin A found in orange vegetables supports learning and memory. For faster brain connectivity, brain cells need a coating called myelin, and this is found in protein, iron and selenium. Students with diets lacking vitamin B12 have been found to have reduced learning ability. In addition, too much dietry fat and generally unbalanced diets can impair cognitive function. If we ensure that over a few days children are eating the following, distributed between their meals and snacks throughout the day, we are assured their brains are adequately fed.
Leafy green vegetables, lean meats, nuts, salmon and a range of other vegetables including the orange coloured ones are top of the list. Many vegetables are best eaten raw. Fresh fruits, whole grains such as brown rice, cereal and pasta are all important additions. Vitamins contained in many of these foods (A,B,C, and E), are critical for brain maintenance, protection, vision strength and memory. Essential fatty acids, especially omega 3 and 6, play a vital role in the development and function of the brain and eyes as well as memory.
Our brains have been working hard for half a day.
Look out for part two covering how social interaction, music, happy times, affection and tomorrow all impact our brains!