Back to School Brain-Boosters

It might be hard to believe, but school will be here before you know it (or maybe your kids have gone back to school already!). In any case, here are a few brain-friendly tips to keep in mind as everyone heads back to the classroom.

Back to school learning tips from Therapeutic Literacy Center1. Use a pencil! In our digital age, it’s often easier to grab a keyboard than an old-fashioned #2 pencil. Even more so because tablets, laptops, and other e-devices are becoming central to the curriculum in many classrooms these days. But research shows that writing by hand is important for brain development in the younger population and continues to help commit new information to memory for the older students.

For the young developing brain, it’s very clear that the benefit of handwriting in comes simply from the act of drawing letters. Research has found that when writing, the brain develops important connections as it integrates sensation, movement control, and thinking. Brain imaging studies reveal that multiple areas of the brain become co-activated during the learning of writing and the act of writing, as opposed to typing or just visually observing the practice. (1)

For older students, current research findings show that “Verbatim note-taking, as opposed to more selective strategies, signals less encoding of content,” (2) In normal talk, that means people with keyboards were more inclined to mindlessly transcribe everything they’re hearing as they type in their notes, instead of using their own words to formulate and record meaningful concepts. However voluminous the typed notes may be, the additional content isn’t necessarily more helpful when it comes to recalling facts and relating concepts.

2. Playgrounds before paragraphs (and in between too!).  A little time playing before diving into homework can do the brain some good! Studies show that aerobic exercise increases activity in the bilateral frontal cortex, which is linked with concentration and decision making. Exercise also increases blood flow to the brain, which promotes the growth of new neural pathways for learning!

As your child heads back to school, it’s important to understand and remember that even though they’re another year older, they might not be able to complete everything in one sitting. Most people’s attention spans aren’t very long, so it’s important to take breaks while doing homework. For younger children, they may find that 15-20 minutes is as much as they can take before they’re ‘tired’ or wanting to move on to something else. Take a mind and body break for a few minutes and then come back. For older kids and grownups, sitting for too long without stretching or relaxing will make you less productive than if you take a break every so often. So unless you’re in deep concentration, or ‘on a roll’, then taking a 15-minute break every hour is a good rule of thumb.

3. Get your dream on.  We all know that children are happier tend to behave better when they’re well-rested.   Children 3-6 years old need 10-12 hours and 7-12 years need 10-11 hours on average.  Sleep gives kids the energy they need to make it through the school day, but it’s also the crucial time when memories are reinforced.  Recent studies are showing that sleep is even more important for children than it is for adults when it comes to learning. One study showed that children who were taught a new skill and then slept 12 hours made additional improvements overnight, while kids who slept 6 hours or less made no improvements overnight. This and other recent reports have provided a better understanding for why sleep is so important. Not only does the brain ‘cleanse’ itself during sleep by clearing toxic metabolic byproducts (3) but it is becoming clear why sleep is so much more important for a child’s learning than it is for an adult. (4,5)

4. Strawberries and Cream instead of Soda and Chips. A child’s body needs nutrition, not just food. And children have a higher metabolic rate, requiring more caloric intake than adults, so it’s vital that the calories they consume be nutritious. When nutritional needs are unmet because too many sugary and high-fat foods are replacing nutritious food, children will be unable to perform at age-appropriate levels. Their appetites may be sated but their bodies and brains are starved for essential nutrients. The best way to ensure they get the nutrition they need at home and as they head back to school is to provide them with readily accessible snack choices such as fruits, whole grain snacks, and dairy such as greek yogurt, cheeses and other whole foods – INSTEAD of the processed snack foods.  (6)

(1) Kersey AJ1, James KH. Brain activation patterns resulting from learning letter forms through active self-production and passive observation in young children.
Frontiers in Psycholgy. 2013 Sep 23;4:567:
(2) Ink on Paper: Some Notes on Note Taking:
(3) Sleep Drives Metabolite Clearance from the Adult Brain
Science 18 October 2013: Vol. 342 no. 6156 pp. 373-377:
(4) The sleeping child outplays the adult’s capacity to convert implicit into explicit knowledge
Nature Neuroscience 16 391–393 (2013):
(5) The Role of Sleep in Memory, Learning, and Health
(6) Nutrition for Children and Teens: