Brain growth in the early years


Liz DeCarlo

The Chicago Grammar School children created self-portraits on paper, then later sculpted 3-D self-portraits from clay. Learning often needs to be hands-on for younger elementary students.

Cindy Killips' second-grade class at Jefferson School in Elmhurst is talking burgers. Using a drawing of a hamburger, the children write the opening for their story in the top bun, while the bottom bun is the story's close. Killips holds up a hamburger to show them that while the top and bottom are similar, they're not exactly the same.

Next comes the meat of the story, and all the details, like the pickles, onions and tomatoes.

"I tell them to use this to write a story," Killips says. "Every time we write we use something like this to organize."

Killips combines many types of learning into one exercise-the auditory element of reading stories aloud, the visual element of organizing thoughts into a hamburger bun outline and the kinesthetic element of having children move around the room and read their stories to each other. In the many brain-based learning workshops she has taken, Killips has learned that using bright colors, combining visual and auditory instruction and allowing children to have snacks and water during the day create a better learning environment for young children's brains.

From kindergarten until the end of second grade, students are undergoing huge developmental leaps-beginning with learning to recognize letters and to match the sounds they hear and moving on to developing the ability to organize things they've learned into a story.

"This is the age of some of the best cognitive developments, where kids come to be able to think logically about concrete things. There's a lot of brain change going on," says Kurt Fischer, director of Harvard University's Mind, Brain and Education program. "That's why we start school, in this culture and in many others, between 6 and 8 years old."

Mastering reading

Children enter school with a mastery of oral language, something that is thought to occur naturally. Reading, however, is not a natural process and needs to begin with matching auditory sounds children are used to hearing with letters written on a page.

"There are a whole lot of areas where we need guidance [to learn] and written language is one of them," Fischer says. "Most kids need a lot of help with the decoding system, since it isn't a natural process.

"Twenty years ago, kindergarten was mainly a time for children to learn to socialize and begin working in the school environment. Now, it's common for 5-year-olds to concentrate on academics and face pressure to learn to read.'

Just because children this age are developing the cognitive ability to decode words, they don't necessarily have the ability to sit for long periods and learn to read. They have other developmental needs that must be taken into account for learning to be successful, including their boundless energy, short attention spans and still-developing memory skills.

"We've placed more expectations on kids. The ability to read has always been there (in this age group), but now we're seeing more forced reading," says Sharon Syc, assistant professor at Erikson Institute in Chicago. "Kids today are in a structured school, where teachers really have to look at children's ability to pay attention to tasks."

Today's increased emphasis on academics means schools have often eliminated recess, cut down on gym class, art and music and de-emphasized interaction in the classroom-but these may be just the elements that young children's brains need to be successful learners.

"We have a sense in a classroom that children belong in desks, and we tend to pull them out of group situations," Syc says. "But those things really ignore what kids need. Kids need movement. They need to have conversations with other kids and try out ideas."

Learning better means moving more

Brain research shows children's mental ability increases when they're given the opportunity to move around and to share what they've learned, a process by which they make the information their own by explaining it to others. The more pathways kids use to learn-verbal, visual, auditory, kinesthetic (movement)-the more ways the brain is able to store and connect the information. Understanding this is key to helping children retain information that might otherwise be forgotten by day's end.

At Lloyd Elementary School in Chicago, Principal Miryam Assaf-Keller emphasizes what she calls "reciprocal talk." When a teacher finishes reading aloud, she'll stop and tell her students to turn to their partner and share what they've just heard.

"They're interacting. They're making connections-to the author, to their home. It's a great opportunity for learning," Assaf-Keller says.

Because 95 percent of her students are Spanish-speaking, opportunities to share and interact are important.

Lloyd teachers are encouraged to use visuals, learning centers and project-based learning. Many teachers will record the vocabulary words on tape so the students can hear them while looking at the spelling list. The school also has invested in many books on tape.

"The teachers need the skills to figure out if a child is a more visual learner, then he needs more visual clues. For auditory learners, we need activities on tape to accompany the written," Assaf-Keller says. "Addressing all learning styles is very, very important to us."

Learning in many ways

All students, no matter what language they speak, need to learn in a variety of ways. The more engaged and interested the students are, the more likely they are to learn and to remember what they've learned.

Over and over again, experts interviewed for this series emphasized that learning must be meaningful. It's not enough to drill and practice; teachers have to tie curriculum to life experience. Without meaning, most information is not recorded in the brain's long-term storage system. Also, in today's constantly changing world, children need to be taught how to be learners, so that they can continually process changes as they grow.

"They need to learn how to learn and how to adapt skills to new situations because the world changes very quickly," Fischer says. "The curriculum needs to include manipulating objects mentally and physically so that they get it. For the broader understandings, you need to have this more active learning to produce more general knowledge."

Active learning made easy

Active learning doesn't have to be hard and it doesn't have to be fancy. It can be as simple as setting up a small store in a corner of a classroom where first-graders can practice counting money and reading labels.

At Chicago Grammar School, a private school in Chicago, founder and kindergarten teacher Phillip Jackson uses drama and art to help students apply what they learn. Jackson started the school last year to create a place where the brain research he'd been studying for years could be put into practice.

"The brain craves novelty and relevance. What we do has to be something that attracts the attention," Jackson says. "You can help put the meaning in for them, and you also have to do something with the information. Just hearing it or reading is not enough. There has to be some action connected with it."

As part of Chicago Grammar School's curriculum, kindergarten students wrote a play to accompany their reading of The Three Musketeers. They also decided to act out the play and chose their own character; together the class wrote the script. The children then drew themselves and how they would look in character, and created a three-dimensional self-portrait of themselves and their characters in Mexican red clay. The final step was performing the play for their families.

"It's not even that they necessarily needed to know the plot. This was a way to start understanding that stories have a beginning, middle and end, and a chance for them to flush out the characters," Jackson said. "They're able to make choices, which goes back to executive function (higher reasoning ability). If we're able to achieve the curriculum goals, what difference does it make if we use drawing and sculpture? This is about an orientation to learning-we want to create lifelong learners."

The Chicago Grammar School curriculum also takes into account the limited attention span and memory abilities of young students. Kindergarten students can retain two to three sounds at one time and they need repetition to learn the information. It can take from 17 to 40 exposures for children to remember the information, so Jackson limits what he teaches, and he has children repeat their 20-minute morning work in the afternoon.

"If you are dealing with several different things at one time, you've got to give accurate information to the kids in the first few minutes because that's what they'll remember. So I'm always paying attention that this first few minutes is the best time to get information in and do something with it," Jackson says.

Using art and music

Using art and music to help children learn is probably one of the most overlooked teaching tools in many schools, says Bonnie Benesh, a teacher of international workshops on brain-based learning.

"Children exposed to pitch and rhythm begin to understand mathematical formulas and kids see the connections-that's why a lot of good doctors are also good musicians, because there's a connection between art and science and math," Benesh says. "In some Asian countries, children are in art and music programs from the age of 3 to learn patterns and to prepare them for academics."

Teachers at Disney Magnet Elementary School in Chicago, which focuses on the arts and technology, are in a unique position to combine these elements. Each class has a two-week integrated arts curriculum once a year, where students in that grade attend the school's combined arts center. Every subject they learn, from language arts to science, is combined with an all-day arts program. Last year third-graders spent the week on the human body, and in the end created a carnival that included games like lung hockey in the pulmonary section.

Disney Principal Kathleen Hagstrom admits the two-week program is rigorous for teachers, who must design a creative, integrated curriculum, but she thinks the program also creates educational memories, something that's important for young children.

Because children in kindergarten through second grade are undergoing such huge cognitive developments, they need movement, action, music and art to assimilate what they are learning with their brain's development. Children in schools that use all these elements stand a better chance of retaining the information they're learning in their long-term memory.

"Research has shown that if I say something, you remember 10 percent, if I also show you a visual, you retain 20 percent," Hagstrom says. "But if we do a demonstration and a project too, you can have 90 percent retention of what you learn."

Energy drives education at Edison Elementary School

The first thing you notice about Elena Krzysik's classroom is the energy. The first-grade students rarely just sit and listen; instead they're jumping up to sound out words, using their entire bodies to make the sounds. Krzysik's energy level is as high as the children's as she pulls on a blue dragon hand puppet while teaching phonics.

Parent Jean Carlquist admits she thought Krzysik's classroom was a little chaotic at first glance, until she realized the method behind the movement.

"Elena's classroom was always very busy. Everyone's doing something different," says Carlquist, who has had three children in Krzysik's class. "And the fact that the district is studying brain research gives teachers the chance to experiment and try new things."

Principal Bhavna Sharma-Lewis supports the district's efforts to incorporate recent brain research about how children learn into the school day. "One thing we're doing a lot of is movement breaks, as well as snack and water breaks to keep the body fed and hydrated," she says. "No more of this sitting and being lectured at."

Most teachers at the school attend a three-day brain research seminar sponsored by the district, and continue to learn about brain research on their own. They use the "10-3-7" model of teaching, where they present to the students for 10 minutes, reflect for three and do an activity for seven minutes.

But Krzysik says she's not sitting around counting minutes. She uses the 10-3-7 model as a guideline and pays attention to how her students are doing.

"I'm very conscious of my audience and what's happening," Krzysik says. "We do a lot of: 'Turn to your neighbor and tell them what I just told you.' We also do lots of language-arts centers, and they're very open-ended and hands-on."

No more drilling

"When I went to school, it was a lot of drill and practice," Krzysik says. "With that in the back of my mind, I wanted to make sure my classroom was different."

For Carlquist's youngest and oldest daughters, learning required more than just reading and research; both needed movement and opportunities for creative expression. "In Elena's class, instead of just reading, they were able to learn the way they learn best," Carlquist says. "To allow them to learn something, create and blow off steam-that's powerful and it's nontraditional."

Using different teaching styles

Krzysik's teaching style also tackles numbers and math in a different way. Several years ago, Krzysik noticed that one of her students learned best when she could move objects, so she contacted the girl's parents and suggested touch math, a process of learning to add by touching points on a number card. Krzysik prepared laminated number sheets for the child and instructed the parents on how to work with their daughter, who was later formally diagnosed with a math disability.

And Krzysik takes into account all the social and emotional aspects of being a first-grader. Because a big part of first grade is learning to interact with others, Krzysik starts each morning and afternoon with class meetings. The children work on appropriate guidelines for classroom behavior at the beginning of the year (all positive, such as "I will be nice to others"), and any issues that come up are discussed at daily meetings. They sit at tables rather than desks so the children can interact throughout the day.

Parent Jenny Kopach found that Krzysik's "family style" approach to teaching worked well for her two children, who are now in third and fifth grade. "She emphasized sharing and openness-from show-and-share on the rug to sharing pencils and markers," Kopach says.

Beyond the traditional

Allowing children to interact, move around and make some noise throughout the day makes sense to Sharma-Lewis, even if it doesn't fit the traditional concept of children sitting quietly in rows of desks completing worksheets.

"A lot of what they talk about in brain research is common sense, such as incorporating movement or greeting the children every day," Sharma-Lewis says. "We have the state standards and curriculum we have to cover, but then the teachers have to figure out what's important and just teach that."

But teaching in this manner appears out of control to some of the more traditional teachers. "I don't know that you can just send a teacher to these [brain research] classes unless she has a core belief in how people learn. Some teachers need to be the sage on stage, but my philosophy is, 'I trust you as a learner and I will listen to you,' " Krzysik says. "You feel like you're giving up control, but you're not. I couldn't teach any other way."

Fast Facts Grades: kindergarten through fifth Enrollment: 330 Location: Elmhurst, part of Elmhurst Unit District 205 Principal: Dr. Bhavna Sharma-Lewis

Teacher: Elena Krzysik, first grade. Teaching for 15 years, graduate of Loyola University. Also has attended weeklong training seminars on brain research and how it applies to the classroom.

Overview: School district 205 sets its policies based on brain research that shows what's best for children.

What to expect

Children this age are egocentric; they need help to see other sides Friendships are fluid; their worst enemy this week can be their best friend next week Attention areas of the brain are still developing; kids generally can't follow multiple sets of directions until second grade Like to make choices, but within a structured environment Like knowing the routine and the ground rules Have boundless energy; need lots of movement Need unstructured time Can't deal with abstract ideas Often can't apply what they learned in one situation to a different situation Want to be best and first; by second grade can be very self-critical Often will consider fantasy real, until about second grade

Liz DeCarlo, who lives in Darien, is the calendar editor at Chicago Parent as well as the mother of Anthony, 12, Emma, 10, and Grace, 8.


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