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School Environments that Support a Healthy Brain

We know from the last two decades of neuroscience research that a healthy brain is essential for humans to thrive. We know through research that our brains are in a constant state of change based upon our our environments, interactions and experiences, and, they continue to change throughout the course of the human lifespan. As a state-based organ, our brain’s functioning is dynamic, rather than static. Our brains require steady inputs like food, sleep, play, and downtime, in order to function optimally. Remember the last meltdown your child had right before eating that cheese stick – or its equivalent – the fuel that helped their brain get back on-line?

When we pay attention to the brain and its needs, we help create the conditions for deep, joyful learning for children and adolescents. Schools collectively have had difficulty keeping pace with our changing understanding of the brain and its needs, which is problematic given the amount of time that children spend at school. Once understood norms – children seated in desks listening to a teacher lecture, for example – are now called into question as we understand that active environments support higher rates of memory.

Classrooms and schools that support a healthy brain have a few common characteristics:

    1. Movement and fitness are an essential part of the schedule. We know through research in programs described in Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, that children who have movement and exercise as a central part of their day have better cognitive functioning, stronger memory, and the ability to self-regulate, among many other benefits. At Baker Demonstration School, children are engaged in yoga, dance, swimming, physical education classes throughout the week, and most importantly, the ability to move around in a classroom and play at recess, are key to keeping a child and adolescent’s brain functioning optimally.
    2. A Growth Mindset is actively taught. Gone are the days when genetics governs our understanding of the capacity of the brain. New research of the brain’s’ plasticity has inspired new thinking: the brain needs difficult, challenging material in order to grow. As a child’s brain continues to develop, so grows their ability to manage ambiguity, complexity, and abstraction. Those difficult math problems are no genetic fault of the family that “can’t do math”, rather they are the fuel to keep a child’s brain growing. The important work of Stanford’s Carol Dweck illustrates that children who have an understanding of how the brain works, have more resilience in the face of academic challenge.
    3. Great relationships are primary. We know that stress, so normalized in our culture, can have a harmful effect on a healthy brain if the stress is excessive and consistent over time. We also know that consistently caring relationships decrease toxic stress. Learning happens best when child or adolescent stress is regulated and their relationships are positive and engaging. The bonds between a child and a teacher together build the bridge for a child to walk out into innovative, new territory without excessive anxiety or fear.
    4. A culture of active inquiry is pervasive. Stress is reduced when individuals have a greater sense of autonomy over their lives. Being actively engaged in a task rather than passively receiving information allows for deeper understanding and engagement. Schools with a practice of emergent, rather than static curriculum, are responsive to student inquiry and curiosity, building a space for skill building with content that matters to its students. In addition, when children are given agency in the learning process and are able to deeply engage in the questions and curiosities that matter to them, it increases their internal motivation and overall engagement.

Happy is the child and engaged are the students who are a part of classrooms and schools where the brain’s needs are actively considered.

Editor’s note: Carly Andrews is the Head of School at Baker Demonstration School for students in preschool through 8th grade. Baker is located on the border of Evanston, in Wilmette, and is nationally recognized for educational excellence. To find out more about the dynamic learning that happens every day at Baker, please visit bakerdemschool.org or call 847-425-5800 for a personal tour.

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