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Welcome back to the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast, for Brain Fact Friday and episode #129.
In this episode, you will learn how to lessen the impact that COVID-19 has had on our mental health, well-being and learning by understanding:
✔︎ What brain research can teach us about new ways to position learning for our students.
✔︎ Tips to re-build our student’s brains after the impact of the Global Pandemic.
✔︎ The importance of motivation, learning and the brain.
✔︎ Why neuroplasticity is the most important change in the understanding of our brain in the past 400 years. (Norman Doidge, MD).
Welcome back, I'm Andrea Samadi, a former educator who has been fascinated with understanding the science behind high performance strategies in schools, sports, and the workplace for the past 20 years. If you have been listening to our podcast, you will know that we’ve uncovered that if we want to improve our social and emotional skills, and experience success in our work and personal lives, it all begins with an understanding of our brain.
We also know that “mental health is brain health”[i] and that research demonstrates that “students who receive social, emotional and mental health support achieve better academically. School climate, classroom behavior, on-task learning, and students' sense of connectedness and well-being all improve as well”[ii]
As May is Mental Health Awareness Month, it’s clear that mental health disorders are a worldwide concern, magnified with the effects of the Global Pandemic. Here in the United States, 4 in 10 adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder…up from 1 in 10 adults who reported these symptoms from January-June 2019”[iii] before the Pandemic, and we know that “young adults are already at risk for poor mental health”[iv] but these statistics, along with some comments from some of the educators I speak with often got me wondering “What will be the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on the mental health of our students in our classrooms, let alone the havoc it’s created in the workforce.”
Since leaving the corporate world in 2012, I have been focused on creating content to help students and educators implement social and emotional skills, character education, practical neuroscience and leadership,[v] with a focus on well-being, but the recent changes in our world have got me thinking:
- What are the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on our students’ well-being? How has wearing a mask every day impacted their self-image, their self-esteem, and confidence levels? What will happen to those students who struggle (or are still struggling) with Distance Learning? What are some solutions to these questions that we can implement to bridge the gap that was created with this Global Pandemic?
I don’t think I’ll be able to solve everything here in this episode but it’s a starting point. What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear from you with what issues you are facing in your schools and workplaces in different parts of the world, a year after the global pandemic.
These questions bring us to this week’s brain fact Friday, and a reminder from our last episode where we reviewed Dr. Daniel Amen’s book, The End of Mental Illness, that we are not stuck with the brain we have. We can change our brain and change our results. Whatever impact the Global Pandemic has had on our student’s social, emotional and cognitive thinking in our schools, or on those in the workplace, I strongly believe that this impact will not last forever, especially with the application of brain science to guide us through this time.
For this week’s Brain Fact Friday
DID YOU KNOW THAT:
“Nature has given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself?” –Dr. Norman Doidge, a Canadian distinguished scientist, medical doctor, a psychiatrist on the faculty of the University of Toronto and Columbia University in New York, and the author of The Brain That Changes Itself[vi] (that has sold over 1 million copies) and The Brain’s Way of Healing[vii] said that.
Dr. Norman Doidge is one of the researchers who put Neuroplasticity on the map (meaning that neurons, the building blocks of the brain) are changeable (plastic) which means that our brains “can change their structure and function through mental experience alone” and he believes this to be “the most important change in the understanding of our brain in 400 years.”[viii]
How Can this Idea of Neuroplasticity Help Us in Today’s Classrooms?
Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain That Changes Itself is full of case studies of people who have experienced chronic pain, Parkinson’s disease, TBI, autism, ADHD, and even Blindness, train new parts of their brain with focused thought and movement alone. If our neural pathways can be re-wired and strengthened in these case studies in this book, as well as in The Brain’s Way of Healing, (his most recent book) how can we use this information in today’s classrooms to help with our student’s well-being? Understanding how our brain’s works is a crucial next step for accelerating learning in our post-pandemic classrooms, with a goal of lessening the learning loss that may have occurred in the past year.
3 TIPS TO ACCELERATE LEARNING IN TODAY’S CLASSROOMS:
- Think of New Ways to Position Learning: With the Brain in Mind
Chapter 2 of The Brain That Changes Itself features a fascinating story about a woman named Barbara Arrowsmith who was born with learning challenges. Tests to her brain revealed that she had extremely strong areas with her audio and visual centers, but her spatial reasoning was weak. Barbara was determined to find ways to improve her learning and found a study by Mark Rosenzweig[ix] using rats that helped her to understand the neuroplastic nature of her own brain.
This study showed that rats in a stimulating environment had “an increase in neurotransmitters, a heavier brain, and more blood flow to the brain”[x] Once Barbara saw that the rats could change their brain, she began a series of mental exercises to help her to strengthen the areas of her own brain that were weak and with time, she brought her deficiencies back up to a normal level. There’s more to the story, but I found it fascinating that Barbara Arrowsmith was able to overcome her learning challenges using mental exercises and strengthened the parts of her brain that were weak. She later opened the Arrowsmith School in Toronto[xi], where she used many of the techniques, she used on herself, with her students. With this case study in mind, can you think of ways could you use Barbara’s story to help students in your classroom?
IMPLEMENTING THIS IDEA IN THE CLASSROOM:
Whatever challenges your students have faced the past year, remember that our student’s brains are resilient and with practice, repetition, and a stimulating environment, they will continue to learn and make academic gains like Barbara did.
I’ll learn more from Barbara and the school she has built, but it’s clear that many students would benefit from knowing what areas of their brain need more work to identify these weak links. This is exactly why looking at your brain is so powerful instead with instruction that just repeats the same thing over again, missing an opportunity to target learning and instruction.
- Strengthening Neural Pathways in the Brain: Priming the Brain to Learn
We know that Mark Rosenzweig’s rat experiments inspired Barbara to improve her learning, but they also taught her that “animals raised in enriched environments—surrounded by other animals, objects to explore, toys to roll, ladders to climb, and running wheels—learn better than genetically identical animals that have been reared in impoverished environments.”[xii]
Our learning environment matters our brains will grow in the right environment. Doidge mentioned in postmortem examinations, “it was shown that education increases the number of branches among neurons. An increased number of branches drives the neurons further apart, leading to an increase in the volume and thickness of the brain.”[xiii] Which brings us to the question, “Is a bigger brain better?” and a Stanford neuroscientist would say that “some studies claim the answer is yes” to this question.[xiv]
IMPLEMENTING THIS IDEA IN THE CLASSROOM:
This has been a challenging one this year, with many students still using distance learning[xv], and it’s not easy to have control over your students’ learning environments, when many students are doing the best that they can, with their individual circumstances. Take a look at what the dendrites in the brain look like without stimulation vs stimulation, and most teachers I know get excited about this concept. Our students brains have been impacted in the classroom, and when they leave, they will continue to grow and expand from the lesson that you have taught them. Their brains will expand, and yes, you helped to build a stronger, smarter brain.
- The Importance of Motivation:
We did cover the importance of motivation in the workplace on episode #127 “How Our Emotions Impact Learning, Memory and the Brain”[xvi] with a reminder that the motivation network of the brain is driven by your instinct and curiosity which is one of Jaak Panksepp’s Core Emotions (Panksepp was an Estonian neuroscientist who mapped out 7 emotional circuits in the mammalian brain (the hindbrain) with play being one of them.
Panksepp identified another emotion called SEEKING that keeps us moving forward, engaged in new and interesting activities and work throughout our lifetime. If you think your students have lost motivation for their work, it’s time to look or like Panksepp would say, SEEK something that their brain will find new, and interesting, that will bring them JOY. This will engage them at the brain level.
Doidge found that “when animals were motivated to learn, the brain responds plastically” and stimulating the brain makes it grow in almost every conceivable way.
IMPLEMENTING THIS IDEA IN THE CLASSROOM:
Keeping the focus on the joy of learning in difficult times will allow our students’ brains to do what they do naturally—learn and grow. Making sure our students and children at home are motivated to learn is the first step in engaging them at the brain level.
Reviewing our brain fact for the week “Nature has given us a brain that survives in a changing world by changing itself” makes me think of the possibility that exists within each of us. I know this past year has revealed many changes for all of us, all over the world, but the science clearly says that our brain has the ability to survive in an ever-changing world.
Next week I will be speaking with a TBI survivor who has rebuilt her brain to create an incredible life, helping others to do the same. See you next week, and I hope this brain fact has given you some new ideas to look at our students, colleagues or families, and see the power behind neuroplasticity, and the ability for our brain to adapt and change on its own…which I would agree with Doidge to be the most important change in the understanding of our brain in 400 years.
See you next week!
[i] The End of Mental Illness: How Neuroscience is Transforming Psychiatry and Helping Prevent or Reverse Mood and Anxiety Disorders, ADHD, Addictions, PTSD, Psychosis, Personality Disorders and More by Dr. Daniel Amen March 3, 2020 https://www.amazon.com/End-Mental-Illness-Neuroscience-Transforming/dp/1496438159
[iii] The implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use Published by Nirmita Panchal, Rabah Kamal, Cynthia Cox, and Rachel Garfield Feb. 10, 2021 https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/
[vii] Dr. Norman Doidge The Brain’s Way of Healing Jan. 26, 2016 https://www.amazon.com/Brains-Way-Healing-Discoveries-Neuroplasticity/dp/014312837X/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=the+brain%27s+way+of+healing&qid=1620322327&s=books&sr=1-1
[ix] Animal research on neuroplasticity (Rosenzweig and Bennett, 1961) https://www.themantic-education.com/ibpsych/2018/12/10/key-study-animal-research-on-neuroplasticity-rosenzweig-and-bennett-1961/
[xiv] Ask a Neuroscientist: Does a bigger brain make you smarter? May 24, 2014 by Kendra Lechtenberg https://neuroscience.stanford.edu/news/ask-neuroscientist-does-bigger-brain-make-you-smarter
[xv] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #77 with University Professors and Authors Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey on “Delivering High Quality Distance Learning” https://andreasamadi.podbean.com/e/university-professors-and-authors-doug-fisher-and-nancy-frey-on-developing-and-delivering-high-quality-distance-learning-for-students/
[xvi] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #127 “How Our Emotions Impact Learning, Memory and the Brain” https://andreasamadi.podbean.com/e/brain-fact-friday-how-emotions-impact-learning-memory-and-the-brain/