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If your child hates school it is probably not his fault, nor that of his teacher, but rather it can be evidence that his brain is functioning appropriately. Healthy brains protect their owners from perceived threat. School today is stressful, often threatening, as a result of the high-stakes standardized testing that challenges students, teachers, and school administrators. There is so much information mandated as required “knowledge” for these tests (that determine federal funding), that for many children school seems more like a feedlot, force-feeding them facts without adequate time or resources to make them interesting or relevant.
Without the projects, group activities, to say nothing of the elimination of art, music, P.E., and often elementary school science, social studies, and even recess, why should a child want to be there? These classes and many enjoyable activities have been sacrificed so there is more time for the two subjects that are evaluated on those tests-math and English. Fortunately there are many wonderful, creative, and dedicated teachers, consultants, and administrators on the front line every day doing all they can to engage their students, without whom I cannot imagine how much worse things would be for the children in their charge.
The problem is worst when the district is required to stick to a rigid “teacher proof” curriculum that dictates tedious days of worksheets and nights of more of the same brain stuffing. In these cases the best teachers have less opportunity to use their skills to create the joyful, memorable learning experiences children need. The penalty for all of us is that the dropout rate has never been higher. For a child in high school now, it is more likely that his or her parents will have graduated than it is that the student will graduate high school. When surveyed as to the reason for the dropping out the overwhelming cry is BOREDOM. When asked what constitutes boredom, the two major responses are, “The material isn’t interesting” and “What we are taught has no relevance to me.“
From my perspective as a neurologist and classroom teacher, I see the blank faces, “acting out”, and zoning out and know that these are not the children’s choices. The brain evolved as an organ to promote survival of the animal and the species. Its first priority is to avoid danger. Our attention is hard-wired to alert to signals of potential danger. The most primitive parts of the brain are those that determine what gets our attention and what information gets priority entry into the brain. This attention system is essentially the same in humans as in other mammals. When the brain experiences stress that attention system is on autopilot seeking the potential threat that might be causing the emotional disturbance, and ignoring other sensory information such as lessons. Stress goes up with boredom and frustration in humans and animals. Animals restrained or understimulated “misbehave” with aggressive, destructive, and even self-mutilating behavior. The stress causes their brains to attend only to imagined or real threat. In that state behavior is no longer influenced by the higher, thinking brain. Stress takes control of the neural pathways that determine where information is processed and where behavior is controlled.‘
The same responses take place in the human brain. If children are stressed by boring lessons that have little personal relevance and by the frustration of not keeping up with the overloaded curriculum, their brains do what they are programmed to do. Input is diverted away from the thinking higher brain (the prefrontal cortex) and sent to the lower, reactive brain. In this situation, in humans as in animals, the involuntary behavioral reactions are essentially limited to three responses: Fight, Flight, or Freeze.
The reason I left my neurology practice and became a teacher was because I had a profound increase in the children referred to my practice because their teachers felt they might have attention or other neurological disorders causing them to “act out” or “zone out” in class. When I observed the joyless force-feeding of facts by teachers who were given the impossible task of cramming test material into these young brains, my heart went out both the students and their teachers. I joined their ranks, and made correlations between the neuroscience research about stress, attention, behavior, and memory, as I spent the past ten years in my classrooms and implementing strategies to promote the neuroscience of joyful learning.
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