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.

Digital News Sources for Students: A Companion to Investigative Journalism

Have I mentioned how much I love my job? This summer I had the opportunity to attend the Teacher’s College Summer Writing Institute in New York. Along with honing my craft, I had an opportunity to connect and converse with Cornelius Minor. (and although he compared our love of literacy and technology equaling a comparative job/education role, he is much, much smarter than I am and works at a Global level,,, but more about that in a later post)

Part of my duties this year include “coaching” (I use the term coaching loosely because I learn far more collaborating and reflecting with these 2 educators; Jen Paulsen and Megann Tresemer,  than I would solo) two 8th grade teachers that are implementing Lucy Calkins, Writing Workshop Units of Study. Currently, the students are writing as investigative journalists.

As the first sentence in this Unit of Study states, “Journalism is the literature of Democracy” (Mary Ehrenworth and Cornelius Minor). Investigative Journalism blends informative writing with narrative writing providing precise details and intentional narrative techniques. Students learn about the 5Ws found in Investigative Journalism (Who, What, When, Where, Why) refine skills in observations, details and craft, write their own pieces and push themselves to be better writers through the aide of mentor texts, instruction, and individual conferences with an expert teacher.

Today, after the weekly observation and reflective conversation, Megann and I were discussing the types of news sources current day students and adults read regularly. While we both acknowledge the role and preference of traditional print sources in many people’s lives. Megann and Jen work in a middle school which implemented a 1 to 1 educational environment this year, meaning that they gave every student a Chromebook to use in school and bring home with them every night. (So, with my 6 years experience of teaching in a 1 to 1 setting I was a perfect fit for this district).

Our conversation spurred a retrieval of digital  “News Sources” I have collected throughout the years providing a starting place for Megann and hopefully an addition to your own collection.

1. Newsela – A nonfiction site that is updated daily for with real-world news and differentiated by reading level. Students can become part of the global conversation!

2. Flocabulary Week In Rap – Fostering a love of learning in a mode that students love! Videos and Hip Hop keep students informed.

3. Kicker – Getting up to speed quickly and easily with the current happenings of the world. Accessibility for all readers on top stories!

4. 10 X 10 – Shared to me by my friend Erin Olson, 10X10 appeals to the visual learner. It is described as “an interactive exploration of the words and pictures that define the time.”

5. New York Times Learning Network Blog – A place for students and teachers to read, write, collaborate and share based off of the content in the New York Times!

Finally, don’t forget to collect and share student writing examples as well. Megann directed me to the high school’s online News Source called Tiger Hi-Line, a perfect, local example to inspire her middle schools students!