Brain Science and the New School Year: A is for AMYGDALA.

Are you ready for the new year? Brain science has lots to teach us about how to capture and hold the attention of our students. Let’s start with some basic brain science:
• Classwork and homework information must pass through the amygdala before it goes one of two places.
o The lower brain is reactive and the response is fight, flight or freeze (NOT the best circumstances for valuable learning).
o The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the more reflective “thinking brain” where one finds conscious thought, decision making, and judgment (this is the goal).

Some of the many situations that can trigger the amygdala to ignore “teacher” information while it’s busy handling fear, worry, or anxiety could be:
• Hunger
• Fear of being wrong
• Embarrassment
• Test-taking anxiety
• Boredom
• Frustration
• Feeling overwhelmed
• A social concern
• Problems at home

A way to stop the anxiety in its tracks could be to start every class with 2 minutes of the entire class, including the teacher, closing their eyes and breathing deeply and slowly. This is also a good practice to add before any assessment. (If you’re looking for more ideas, look at posts, or take a class, on mindfulness meditation.)

There are also tools to capture the attention of the amygdala so that it wants the information to go straight to the PFC. Some strategies that inspire curiosity and a desire to obtain more information include:
• Changes in voice, appearance, color or size
o Vary fonts sizes, styles and colors on handouts
o Make use of a suspenseful pause when speaking
o Highlight important information on handouts with a bright color
• Wearing hats or other clothing to attract attention
o Dressing as a character from the time period being studied
o Have some clothing from that time period and have students wear those items when answering questions
• Adding movement or music to a lesson
o Walk backwards when discussing subtraction or negative numbers
o Play a song that relates to the lesson

Finally, establishing achievable challenges will prevent stress by avoiding boredom and frustration. To create this situation, a teacher should provide:
• Structured goals
• Frequent feedback
• Positive reinforcement
• Scaffolding for students to move from one level of knowledge to the next

Teachers will recognize these suggestions as a place to get started, and can then use the ideas as a springboard for new and different ideas. Implementing these types of strategies will not only make your classroom more exciting for your students; you will enjoy teaching more, yourself.

Get carried away! It will be a trip of a lifetime!

Have a great school year.

Dr W

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