Third-grade crossroad

Teachers try to make the most of brain development as students move beyond learning to read


Heather Cunningham

I remember spending most of third grade at my desk. While I don't recall exactly what I learned, I do have memories of being captivated by the motes of dust that floated around me, visible in the sunlight. Researchers would say that I wasn't making enough connections-a mistake that many teachers today, armed with knowledge of brain research, are not willing to make.

One such teacher is Janet Triner, who keeps her third-grade classroom at Hoover-Wood Elementary in Batavia energized to make learning engaging. During a geography lesson, students are out of their seats and singing a catchy rhyming song to help them memorize the position of the continents. Standing in front of a world map, they speculate about what parts of their body match each continent: left hand North America; nose to Europe; right hand on Africa.

A peek into the minds of third-graders is this month's slice of Chicago Parent's five-part series on brain development. Each part tackles recent research in cognitive development for a different age group, coupled with firsthand accounts of teachers who are putting this new knowledge to work in their classrooms.

Triner says she uses brain research principles to guide all her teaching practices. "Information is sent to the brain through the senses. The more pathways you engage, the better the chance that it will be retained. In this exercise, we are activating our vision by looking at the map, hearing the names of the continents in song, singing it with our voice and engaging in motor activity, all at the same time."

Third grade is more than just a step on the grade-school ladder-it is a shift in the educational system. And it is important that what is learned in that grade sticks in a student's mind.

Children in third grade have new skills at their disposal. "For a long time, cognitive scientists have seen significant changes occur in students when they hit third grade," says Barbara J. Leys, director of the University Training Programs for the Academy for Urban School Leadership and adjunct professor of educational psychology at National-Louis University. "They are able to think more abstractly, take on the point of view of another person a little bit easier and are also ready to tackle more concrete operations."

Because of this, teachers and administrators often up the ante. Math, science and social studies become more complex, and instead of focusing on learning to read, students are expected to read to learn in all of these areas.

"By third grade, around 70 percent of the kids will know how to read for comprehension, and to do so well, but the 30 percent that don't are oftentimes in trouble for the rest of their school career," says Pat Wolfe, a former teacher who now is an educational consultant in Napa, Calif., and author of the book Brain Matters: Translating Research into Classroom Practice.

Combine that with the need to learn cursive handwriting, manage long-term projects and tackle increased homework, and it is easy to see how for many third-graders, the change can seem cataclysmic.

Brain power, peer preference

Triner helps students deal with these challenges by teaching them how their brains work. Along with information on what is good brain food, the importance of sleep and how to "trick" the brain into filing information, she shows her students pictures of the brain mapped with veins and explains that it uses glucose and oxygen at 10 times the rate of other organs.

Students talk about ways they are feeding oxygen to their brains-walking laps on the playground before recess, power walking through the school when it is cold and practicing deep breathing exercises.

"I love teaching this to the children because then they have power," says Triner. "They can't just say that 'I'm not smart,' because that won't fly here … they know what they can do to make their brains work better."

Laurie Musielak, whose son Matthew is in Triner's class, says such lessons have changed the way he thinks. "The lessons of healthy eating and the importance of good foods to the body will stick with Matt because she [Triner] is so enthusiastic and passionate," Musielak says. "I guarantee he will never look at a snack with partially hydrogenated oil the same way again."

Triner says it's all part of the job. "I think that in the past many teachers would instinctively do things that were brain-friendly because when they did it, it worked," she says. "Now we have information that validates that process and offers a scientific reason why."

Experts say that third grade is the year when children begin to intensely compare themselves with their friends, as peer pressure begins to take root. "They become acutely aware of who is in what group," says Ed Dulaney, project director at the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Their awareness level on every angle becomes more acute, and even though we do everything to prevent it, in third-grade kids understand cliques."

Leys says this offers perfect opportunities for teachers to take advantage of the third-grader's desire for a group dynamic in a positive way. "Kids work better together at this age, but they also need to be taught the group process," she says.

Dulaney says good teachers will make sure that groups change all the time. "One time, you may break groups up by ability, another time in a way that targets a specific topic, another day it may be random, or split up by gender," he says. "This helps the kids understand that in the classroom the playing field is going to be leveled almost every day. It eliminates some of the speculation over who is the smartest and who isn't."

Still room to grow

Unfortunately, by third grade, gifted programs, as well as programs for children in special education, are often set and are rarely reviewed for change during the remainder of a child's elementary school career.

"There is a feeling in the academic arena that by third grade, before fourth grade, when most national testing begins, that we have a pretty good picture of how a child learns and that the picture is set," says Eric Jensen, author of the book Teaching With the Brain in Mind, and president of the Jensen Learning Corp. in San Diego. "But this does not match what we know about the brain.

"We need to quit labeling kids early on, because we are learning that things can constantly change," says Jensen. "Most research shows that throughout childhood, the brain is more susceptible to change than we ever thought possible."

Experts say that no matter where students fall in the ability spectrum, educators need to take advantage of the developmental advances of third-graders to teach them in the way they are going to learn best. They advise teachers to do away with long, dry lectures and eliminate sterile learning environments in favor of making students partners in learning.

Sue Sokolinski, a third-grade teacher at Alice Gustafson Elementary in Batavia, agrees. "In our classroom we use the 'think, pair and share' method many times every day," she says. "Today I had all of the kids on the rug, and we were reading about measurement and the metric system," says Sokolinski. "Several times I paused and said things like, 'Stop and think about a time when you saw your mom or dad measure something. Now pair up and share your ideas about that with a partner.' "

This technique reinforces concepts in the brain and makes them personal, which research indicates is also likely to help students retain knowledge.

Sokolinski says taking that approach works. "A lot of teachers are hesitant to allow real group involvement because they are afraid that it will be difficult to bring the kids back to focus," she says. "But when you give them a chance to talk about what they are thinking, you literally direct the learning process-and they are going to better understand, retain and generalize that information."

Don't sweat the test

The last challenge for third-graders is testing. While they may not be taking standardized tests this year, they are preparing for them. "There is a real pressure to get them ready," says Leys. "But giving kids information the year before to get ready for tests that they will be given next year is not teaching to the way they need to learn.'"

Still, many teachers are doing it, says Leys, largely pushed by state standards and district expectations. "At 4, we are pushing our kids to read for kindergarten. In first and second [grade] we are preparing them for third grade, and at third grade for what is to come. Aren't we ever teaching them for what they need to know now?" she asks.

One of Leys' own mentors phrased the "prepare for testing early" mentality this way: "She said, 'Just because I know they will have a broken arm in the future, and will have to deal with it, doesn't mean that I break it for them now,' " says Leys.

Wolfe wholeheartedly agrees. "Because of the emphasis on high test scores in most districts, teachers are under enormous pressure to push … namely from a community that wants to see those high scores," she says. "But the best schools realize that you can get good test scores from creating real understanding. If you focus on getting students to understand what they learn, rather than simply drilling test material, the scores will take care of themselves."

The importance of social and emotional learning comes into play in the classroom

Students were treating each other terribly at Benjamin Franklin Middle School in Ridgewood, N.J., and administrators knew that something had to change.

"They put a social and emotional learning program in place to deal with issues of teasing and put-downs," says Maurice Elias, professor of psychology at Rutgers University in New Jersey and vice chair of the leadership team of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning at the University of Illinois at Chicago. What happened next surprised everyone.

"It had an unintended consequence," says Elias, who reports that the entire climate of the school took a positive turn. "Students began coming to school early because they wanted to spend time with the staff. The message is that if kids feel that there are people at school that listen and care about them, they really want to be there."

And while they are there, research says, they learn better. Studies have found that emphasizing positive social behavior in the classroom is linked to better intellectual outcomes and performance on standardized achievement tests. And the 2003 nationwide review "Safe and Sound: An Educational Leaders' Guide to Evidence-Based Social and Emotional Learning Programs,' led by Mary Utne O'Brien, discovered that 83 percent of schools that have implemented high-quality social and emotional learning programs have since made academic gains.

Still, most social and emotional programs are focused less on test scores and more on building the life skills, such as self-awareness, self-regulation of emotion, self-monitoring, empathy and perspective, and social skills in handling relationships.

Emotions impact learning

While more schools are recognizing the importance of social and emotional learning, Ed Dulaney, project director for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning and former principal of Hinsdale Middle School, says too many still lag.

It is the collaborative's mission to get more schools on board. Without proper training and attention, emotions can hinder learning in the classroom because a child's focus is elsewhere.

"Often, kids' brains are not ready to learn, because emotionally they are distracted. … They are not processing or integrating [information] in a way that allows them to retain it," says Elias.

This makes sense to experts such as Barbara J. Leys, director of the University Training Programs for the Academy for Urban School Leadership and adjunct professor of educational psychology at National-Louis University. "Especially if children are under chronic stress, their systems get triggered quickly, and they can't concentrate as easily and have difficulty remembering things-once those stress chemicals are running through their bodies, it is hard to stop those reactions," she says. "But if we can help them to be aware of that and plan for possible solutions ahead of time, we can counteract it."

Those who think children shouldn't have a lot to be stressed out about may need to rethink their position. "There are pretty compelling evidences that between 9 and 15 million kids suffer from some kind of significant stress factor," says Eric Jensen, author of the book Teaching With the Brain in Mind and president of the Jensen Learning Corp. in San Diego. "It can cause some kids to become hyper-vigilant, which looks like attention-deficit disorder, or go the other way and become hypoactive and disconnect from the school experience."

Jensen says most schools have yet to factor in the effect of stress on how kids learn. "Prolonged stress, or distress, inhibits the creation of new brain cells. Anything we can do to help make the classroom a less stressful place to learn is going to enhance brain function."

One school's success

Students at Cossitt Avenue School in LaGrange may not be immune to the impact of stress Jensen describes, but they are given the advantage of being part of a school committed to social and emotional learning.

"I truly believe the academic connection is there," says Principal Mary Tavegia. "If they are comfortable in school, they are ready to learn."

Cossitt Avenue School, with 620 kids in kindergarten through sixth grade, was the first of School District 102's five schools to adopt a social and emotional learning program. "We realized that our schools were not as warm and caring as they could be," says Tavegia, noting the reason for the pilot program's implementation. Ten years later, Cossitt's social emotional program is still in place and has yielded improvements across the board, especially among boys ages 11 and 12. It has been adopted by the three other elementary schools and the junior high school in the district.

Tavegia believes Cossitt's success has had a lot to do with the intensive staff development that is part of the program. "As adults, we set the tone for our schools, as well as the climate, so first we had to come to an understanding of child development and of social and emotional development," she says.

"We operate our classrooms using a class meeting process, so that students learn how to communicate with one another and learn social intelligence, how to make eye contact, accept another's opinions, take charge and communicate," says Tavegia. The students themselves are given ownership on how some subjects are learned: If they are required to read a book, the group may decide together to report about the text through painting, rather than writing.

Relationships are also a focus-both between school and student and students and their peers. "Building a child's sense of belonging to their school is key to a child's academic achievement," says Tavegia. "If they feel bonded with the school and those in it, they are more likely to achieve and stay in school."

At a school where students come from very different backgrounds, including affluent neighborhoods, a residential children's home and a domestic crisis center, teamwork is heavily emphasized. Cossitt achieves a sense of community through a variety of team-building exercises, including a cross-age buddy program that pairs older children with younger students to complete curricular work that benefits both groups.

"The little kids aren't afraid of the big kids and big kids have grown kinder because of it. They have a responsibility," Tavegia says.

And although the school is in a district that has always shown high academic achievement, Cossitt discourages comparison and competition between students.

Visitors to the school won't come across bulletin boards broadcasting the school's top-performing students. "We stress performance, achievement and standards of quality work, but we are not about posting scores. We took down star charts that listed who got the perfect spelling test or the highest test score." Gone also are tangible rewards for schoolwork and competitions such as spelling bees.

What may surprise people is that Cossitt's social and emotional program does not take up additional class time. "It is not like, 'Now it is 2:15 p.m. and time to sit and do our social and emotional learning,' " says Tavegia. "It is who we are and what we do every day. It is embedded into our school curriculum."

Literature and social studies lessons can be sprinkled with discussions about the motivations of the character in a book or a group in history. "We might use it to examine a problem and talk about how they think a person involved felt in order to encourage them to develop perspective and a sense of empathy … or ask what they might have done in the same situation," says Tavegia.

Experts say social and emotional learning becomes part of a school's culture and can be introduced with any subject. And overall, Elias says schools like Cossitt likely strike a different tone than many from the moment the students arrive.

"The whole mood begins when the kids come in the door," he says. "Kids come with all kinds of different moods, but when they are greeted warmly and caringly by name and by an adult … as opposed to being expected to immediately get down to business, it makes a difference."

Bumps in the road

While schools that support the social and emotional learning concept may sound idyllic, children's emotions and behaviors can be messy. "We need to recognize that every student needs some sense of hope about being in school, even if they struggle in a particular area," Elias says.

He tells the story of a program in Israel, Until the Last Child, which takes children who are having the most difficulty in class, either academically or behaviorally, and assesses their multiple intelligences to uncover specific strengths.

"When they find a kid's strength they find an opportunity in the school day to exercise that strength," says Elias. "When they don't behave well during the day, they lose the opportunity to engage in that strength. After all, think about it, what is a detention really? For many, it can be a reward or a relief. But taking away something that a child is invested in is a different story."

After one such assessment, an aggressive boy was trained to serve as a greeter for adults who visited the school. "He became the best greeter," says Elias. "After that, when he would have trouble with aggression, he would be told, 'We want you to be able to greet, need you to, but can't let you if you fight with other students.' The whole relationship between the boy and the school was turned from adversarial to helpful."

Too often, educators lock other children out by labeling a few as the "best" in a certain academic area. "The reality is that we don't have enough heaps for everyone to be on top," says Elias. "Kids get the idea without being told that they are not good at something."

Perhaps worse, so do his or her peers. "If that child is always on the bottom of the pile, both that child and all of his friends know that he is the kid that doesn't get it," says Leys. "But if we require all of them to do things in different ways, each child might be a star in some areas."

Still, teachers interested in boosting the social and emotional learning of their students might have to go beyond science and math to find where a child's true gifts lie. "There are many pathways to life success, and all kids need to have a sense of value," says Elias. "That means that if you are not good at math and reading, it doesn't mean you are worthless … it may just mean that you haven't found that thing that you are really good at yet."

Parents' help

The number of schools focusing on the importance of social and emotional learning is growing, but that may not make a difference to parents if their own kids' schools aren't among them.

"Seek out your child's guidance counselor or psychologist first," says Elias. "It can be very difficult for parents to try and correct a teacher's behavior, and I don't always blame the teacher for being defensive to it-they are professionals. Nevertheless, if your child is not getting what they need, you need someone more objective to help you."

Even if a child's school is not on the social and emotional learning bandwagon, school guidance counselors or psychologists should be.

"After you have addressed it with them, wait and see what happens … parents need to be patiently impatient and expect that they will pay attention. If nothing is happening, the next step is the principal's office," Elias says.

In the end, experts say administrators, teachers and parents need to work together to make sure learning is not just something that impacts what kids think, but what they feel and how they interact with others.

"We need food but don't eat constantly-and that is the same for emotional intelligence,' says Elias. "If we give recognition and appreciation, it is digested and then the next day they may need some more-but they don't need a constant supply."

Heather Cunningham is a mom and writer who lives in Batavia and writes frequently on health and parenting issues.

Kids Eat Chicago

Copyright 2017 Wednesday Journal Inc. All rights reserved. Chicago web development by liQuidprint