8 Brain-Friendly Practices for Middle School and High School Students

It used to be thought that brain development was complete by age 5 or 6 and reached adult-size and volume by age 10. During the last few years, brain research has found that the adolescent brain is still developing and the experiences a child has during the ages of 11 to 18 wires the brain and become “fixed” into their adult life. Meaning, what a child does during these years, the routines they establish, skills, attitudes, and coping mechanisms have direct consequences for their adult lives. 

“You are hard-wiring your brain in adolescence. Do you want to hard-wire it for sports, music, and math – or for lying on the couch in front of the television?”

Jay Giedd

Since a large percent of an adolescent’s waking life is spent in school, educators can have a profound impact on the brain development of their students. While it is true that we as educators have no control over home-life, peer pressure, and other outside influences; most education institutions have practices that are “brain-hostile” rather than “brain-friendly”. These would include such things as:

  • Zero-tolerance discipline policy
  • Emotionally flat classroom climate
  • Ban on social media apps in the classroom
  • More homework, tougher requirements, and a longer school day
  • Early start time for the school day
  • Public posting of grades, test scores, and behavior
  • Locking students into a set learning path
  • Elimination or shortening of study hall, physical education, and movement in class
  • Teacher-centered, lecture-based, textbook-driven curriculum

(Thomas Armstrong) 

Instead, educators need awareness of brain-friendly practices in which to align their instruction, strategies, and lesson design after. These practices provide educators with current brain research to support positive brain development in adolescents. 

8 Brain-Friendly Practices for Middle School and High School Students

  1. Choice – The opportunity to choose what they learn, how they learn, and how they demonstrate understanding. This brain maturation and practices in student-choice helps promote making less risky decisions and more sensible ones. Examples: Choice in books, Choice in product creation, Involvement in discussions and debates, Passion projects or Genius Hour. 
  2. Self-Awareness Activities – During adolescents, students are beginning to establish and articulate who they are. Self-Awareness activities allow exploration and expression of self. Examples: SEL Activities, Interest and Emotional Quizzes, Connect learning to personal lives, Meditation, Journals.
  3. Peer Learning – During adolescence, peers play an important role in development and self-esteem. It is important for students to have positive, meaningful interactions with peers through peer teaching, collaboration, and group work. Examples: Group projects, Peer teaching, Mentoring, Peer Feedback. 
  4. Affective Learning – With adolescents comes the full-range of emotions that are erupting and changing on a whim inside our student’s body. Instead of ignoring or punishing these emotional young people, affective learning includes strategies to address these occurrences head on and bring joy back into the classroom. Examples: Build relationships with students! Know their names, celebrate successes as well as negative feelings. Encouragement and Goal-Setting. Teachable moments. SEL. Social Justice and Discussions over controversial topics. 
  5. Learning by Doing – Having students sit for a whole class period while the teacher lectures only increases disdain for school and boredom. Get kids up and moving to not only increase blood flow, but also to increase executive functioning. Examples: Exercise or brain breaks, Drama and Kinesthetic while learning concepts and topics. Hands-on activities, Stations. 
  6. Metacognitive Strategies – Around the age of 11 or 12 students move into “formal operations” (Piaget) and start thinking about their thinking. Introducing mindsets, strategies, and critical thinking skills help students move beyond concrete learning to more abstract and are better able to form own opinions and challenge others. Examples: Inquiry Learning. Design Thinking, Evaluation and Analyzation of sources or views. Think Alouds. Heuristics. Goal-Setting.
  7. Expressive Arts – Robust creativity and artistic development occurs between the ages of 5-18, but during adolescence, students get fewer experiences in the arts, drama, music, etc. During this time, expressive arts allows middle school and high school students the opportunity to express thoughts and emotions in thoughtful and socially appropriate ways. Examples: Creative Writing, Visual Design and Art Classes, Choice to Demonstrate learning through drama and dance. Integrate video, gaming, and photography into learning. Include music to enhance learning.  
  8. Real-World Experiences – Provide students learning that not only connects to their life but also demands them to plan, think, organize, and make quick decisions mimicking the types of demands they will encounter throughout life. Real-world experiences also include civic life and their contribution to family, community and society. Examples: Volunteering. Apprenticeships. Service Learning. Community-Based Learning. Entrepreneur Learning. 

While not everything is known about the brain, research continues to provide all of us valuable information in which to inform our practices. As late as the 1990’s, many thought the brain stopped growing and full-capacity potential reached by age 10. While we now know this to be untrue, there are many things we currently do that goes against current research. It is time to align our instruction to what we know now and consider the 8 brain-friendly practices mentioned above. 

Source:Thomas Armstrong. The Power of the Adolescent Brain. 2016.

4 Brain-Friendly Practices in a Student-Centered​ Classroom

I SaidYes!!!

Adolescence is a vital time for our students. During the ages of 11 through 18, young people are making habits that last a lifetime. And since many of their waking hours are spent in school, it is important for educators to incorporate brain-friendly practices into their classrooms. These practices, when consistently incorporated, impact the whole child and help to develop habits of mind that will support students throughout their lifetime.

4 Brain-Friendly Practices in a Student-Centered Classroom:

  1. Choice – Provide choice! This simple concept is one that research shows not only increases reading achievement when a child chooses what they read, but also engagement when the choice is theirs to make. Move from teacher-centered to student-centered through choice, for instance, provide choice in content. With a learning objective as a skill in the writing process, student choice can be given in paper content. Or choice can be given in end product; why limit the demonstration of understanding to just text? Multimedia products are a perfect way for students to demonstrate understanding.
  2. Task Design – In a student-centered classroom, brain research can be applied to task design. Chunking information, using graphic organizers or guiding questions, connecting learning experiences to a larger concept are all brain-friendly practices that educators can incorporate while designing lessons or units. Our brain naturally identifies patterns, groups, and organizes items.
  3. Peers – Teaching others is a highly effective, brain-friendly practice and during adolescence, nothing is more important to young people than their peers. When students teach each other it boosts understanding to both partners and is often taught in a different way than a teacher could explain.
  4. Authentic – Brain-friendly practice includes authenticity in learning. Read, write, and create for real purposes instead of doing school for school’s sake. In a student-centered classroom, an example of authentic writing is Blogging. Through blogging, students share their voice with a global audience, a shift from the traditional, lone teacher.

Sources:

Thomas Armstrong

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