As our children prepare for the first day of school this fall, they will fill their book bags with the usual paraphernalia; notebooks, pencils, and even laptops. What most of them won't bring to school is an understanding of the most important tool they are going use -- their brains.
As neuroscientists, we are dismayed that we do not give our students the most basic information about the care and use of their brains. Research reveals there are a number of things students can do to improve their performance in both academics and life outside of school. We're not talking about smart pills, expensive imaging or difficult procedures. We're talking about teaching what a student needs to know about his brain, so he can use it properly and perform well.
It all starts with attitude. Other researchers have found that students have one of two basic beliefs, or "mindsets," about their brains. They either believe their brain function is fixed and they're stuck with the capabilities with which they were born, or they can improve their brain function and accomplish harder tasks. The latter group takes risks, not fearing failure, because they know that learning and growth comes from failure. Even if they were not born with exceptional intellectual abilities, these kids tend to be more successful.
The good news is students can learn the "growth" mindset. Simply letting them know that learning improves with practice and training makes a measurable difference in performance. This belief works well for disadvantaged kids.
There's more good news. Students can improve brain function without a moment of additional study -- no extra books, computer drills or tutoring sessions. They need to make three simple lifestyle changes, each of which is based on findings from modern neuroscience.
First, sleep at least 8-9 hours every night. Sleep deprivation can impair learning as much as brain damage. When you sleep, the brain consolidates what you learned when you were awake.
Second, eat a breakfast with protein (even cereal with a generous serving of milk) to provide a sustained source of blood sugar, which is essential to alertness. This avoids the rush and crash of a high-sugar breakfast.
Third, move every day -- dance, walk, skateboard, whatever. Exercise leads to development of new brain cells and improves memory.
So why not just stop class, tell students what to do, and then give them a brochure to take home to their parents? Well, because there is much more to learn than these simple lessons. Change takes knowledge, motivation, time and practice, and the support of the home and community. It can't be done in 10 minutes, but it can be taught, aided by daily messages from parents, teachers and the media. It can even start well before the school years, if parents are taught the basics.
So why don't school curricula and parent training classes include training about the brain? Perhaps one reason is we scientists have not stressed enough the importance of brain health. If we did this, then educators could include brain information throughout the school environment, from academics to classroom behavior to extracurricular activities.
Also, schools are required to do high-stakes testing for the basic courses, and perhaps they feel there isn't time for something as unusual as teaching about the brain. We have a solution that should please everyone.
Most school systems are required to teach a health curriculum for all students. We think this is one place to include formal instruction about the brain. We can meet the mandated goals of these curricula while also teaching the basics of brain function and brain health. Almost every goal of current curricula relates in some way to the brain-- exercise, sex, media literacy or substance abuse. Because improved brain function leads to improved school performance, schools should be anxious to teach this lesson, and adopt such a curriculum.
Teaching students about brain health gives them some control over their own learning, is not expensive, and does not add to a school's burden. At a time when our educational system is in crisis, we need to change our mindsets and teach students about the most important tool they have -- their brain.
By Wilkie A. Wilson and Cynthia Kuhn
Wilkie A. Wilson is a research professor of prevention science at Duke; Cynthia Kuhn is a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology. Both are both affiliated with Duke's Center for Child and Family Policy.
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