Six Ways Schools Are Using Neuroscience to Help Kids Learn

Schools around the world are incorporating neuroscience research into the school day, to help kids with dyslexia and to teach complex math skills

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© Randy Faris/Corbis

Scientists, teachers and policy makers increasingly recognize the importance of understanding how the brain works when developing learning programs for students. Across the globe, a number of schools are using principles of neuroscience to help students concentrate, regulate their emotions, retain information and more. In honor of back-to-school season, here are some of the neatest neuroscience-based learning projects we’ve heard of so far. 

Computer-based brain enhancement: New Zealand

On New Zealand’s North Island, the Korakonui School has launched a neuroscience-based program called Brain Gain to help students with learning disabilities, such as ADHD and dyslexia. The program has three parts.

The first part involves having the students use an online program called CogMed, which is designed to improve attention spans by enhancing working memory. Students spend time doing exercises that, with colorful graphics and names like “Asteroid” and “Space Whack,” feel like computer games, but are made to help practice things like remembering patterns and numbers. The second part of Brain Gain is a literacy program called Steps, another gamified online program designed to help students build the cognitive skills—visual recognition, auditory sequencing, kinesthetic memory and so on—necessary for reading well. The third part is yet another computer program, Fast ForWard, which utilizes neuroscience research to “exercise” students' brains, enhancing cognitive skills like memory and comprehension. According to anecdotal evidence from parents and teachers, Brain Gain, begun in April 2014, is already showing positive results. 

Using neuroscience to overcome trauma: United States

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Research shows that children who face traumatic stress early in life—child abuse or other violence, extreme poverty, food deprivation or loss of a parent—are often left with learning deficits, including impaired attention span, poor concentration and lack of self-control. When you fill a school with children from deeply disadvantaged backgrounds, it often creates a vicious cycle: stressed children are disruptive and difficult, teachers yell and punish, children become even more stressed and difficult and learning suffers.

Turnaround for Children, a New York-based educational nonprofit, uses neuroscience-based methods to mitigate the educational effects of these stresses, thereby breaking the cycle. Used in 86 schools around the Northeast, the Turnaround program seeks to make school “safe and supportive, predictable and fair.” Teachers are trained to reward positive behavior rather than call out students for negative behavior. Kids get plenty of one-on-one time with supportive teachers and counselors. When mental health issues are identified, they’re quickly addressed with trained professionals. In this calm environment, children’s brains are given the space to heal, and learning thrives. In schools using Turnaround for more than two years, math and reading scores have improved at double the rate of similar schools not using the program. 

Letting teens (and their brains) sleep in: United Kingdom

It’s well known that teens like to sleep. But it’s not because they’re lazy (or at least, that’s not the only reason!). Teens’ circadian rhythms are actually, on average, two hours behind those of adults. That means their brains don’t tell them to go to sleep until two hours later than their parents’. But school start times mean they still need to get up at 7 or 8 a.m. like the rest of the world. Now, Oxford University researchers are exploring whether or not later school start times might actually help teens perform better. More than 100 schools across England are participating in a four-year experiment, launched in 2014, wherein school doesn’t start until 10 a.m. Researchers will determine whether these students do better on their national exams. Will it work? Preliminary studies in the United States and United Kingdom suggest yes, but the findings from this particular study won’t be ready until 2018. 

Using neuroscience principles to help students calm down: Australia

Broadmeadows Primary School in Melbourne serves some of the Australian city’s poorest families. Yet the students at Broadmeadows get higher test results than students at nearby schools with similar demographics. Their results, in fact, are above the state average. The school credits this impressive outcome to a new neuroscience-based program created with the help of neuroscientists and psychologists. The program works on the principle that stressed brains don’t learn well. "You can't think when you're stressed, you can't learn when you're anxious and that's one of the primary principles of the neuroscience—if you don't belong and feel safe it interferes with your learning," neuroscientist Mimma Mason, who works with the school, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

First thing in the morning, students are fed a nutritious breakfast, which they may not receive at home, then head to an “emotion wall” to place their picture next to the emotion they’re feeling that day. This helps teachers recognize students who are having a rough day, so that they can intervene appropriately. Students are also given regular opportunities to exercise, which has also shown to help improve learning and emotional regulation. The impact on student behavior has been huge: in 2011, before the program was implemented, 96 children had to be removed from the classroom for behavioral issues. This past year, only one student was asked to leave. 

A brain-based breakthrough for learning math: United States

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Do you remember grappling with the concept of pi or infinity as a child, your brain balking at such seemingly impossible ideas? Based on new studies of how the brain deals with abstract mathematics, Stanford researchers have created a way to teach children about negative numbers. The researchers looked at how the brain’s natural ability to process visual symmetry could help solve math problems. They discovered that it was much easier for people to identify the midpoint between a negative number and a positive number if the integers' distances from zero were more symmetrical (ie, it would be easier to identify the midpoint between -6 and 8 than between -12 and 3). Based on this discovery, the researchers designed magnetic number boards with a hinge at zero, which allowed students to take advantage of their natural sense of symmetry to solve problems. Students who worked with these boards did better at math in general, suggesting they were applying their new way of learning to different ideas. 

Letting kids run around, for the sake of their brains: Canada

Copious research has shown a clear link between cardiovascular exercise and an increased ability to concentrate and retain information. Based on research by Harvard University psychiatrist John J. Ratey, eight Canadian schools are incorporating exercise into the school day in a new way. Instead of simply offering recess or PE, these school are giving students quick 10-minute exercise breaks every hour or so. Students can shoot hoops, toss a ball around in the hall, run on a treadmill or play Frisbee in the school yard. School officials hope the breaks will help prime students’ brains for learning. Students already say the breaks are helping them feel more relaxed and focused.