“Using your knowledge of your children’s interests, past enjoyable experiences, and learning strengths to bridge their interest to school subjects will result in their improved attitudes, motivation, perseverance, and ultimately their increased confidence that their efforts will pay off”
Dr. Judy Willis, Board Certified Neurologist and Middle School Teacher
As a parent, you have probably heard your child come home from school and say the dreaded words, “ I hate school!” Perhaps you have gotten the milder, “I don’t like school” or “School is boring!” Like most parents, you probably cringe a little bit when they say things like that and wonder how you can get your child to enjoy school more and feel better about her days. Maybe it was just a bad day; maybe it is more. While we can all probably remember saying similar things at different times during our school careers, the Common Core standards, and prior to that “No Child Left Behind” mandate, have made many children and teachers feel like they are part of “drill and kill” learning and teaching first, and enjoyable learning and teaching second. In the “Psychology Today” article “What To Do When Your Child Hates School,” the aforementioned Dr. Judy Willis states that such a reaction is probably quite normal and healthy in a child. She says that there are many techniques a parent can use to turn this around.
Dr. Willis has a unique vantage point as both a neurologist and a middle school teacher. From her medical background, she talks about how such a reaction is a normal type of stress reaction for children to today. School has become more of a pressure cooker of an experience as opposed to days gone by, with mandates that are currently favored. This is coupled by many school districts that have eliminated or greatly reduced the “extras,” such as library, art, music, and physical education (other times even science and social studies), to focus in on math and English. Most children will perceive this as somewhat threatening and stressful. She says that a child saying they hate or dislike school, or find it boring, is quite indicative of this perceived threat or stress.
Fortunately, skilled and talented teachers do their best to make the most of the new mandates, by weaving in their own style and fun where they can. Unfortunately, this is not always enough to change negative attitudes. Yet weary parents, Dr. Willis offers some great ideas to bridge the brain gap between school and home.
Early on in her career as a neurologist, there was many times in which she would observe patients in the classroom. Their concerned parents thoughts that they were experiencing ADHD or another type of neurological problem, as their children would zone out in the classroom; be plainly inattentive; act out; and voice frustration and angst about school at home. Wanting to address this phenomenon with neurological understanding, Dr. Willis became a teacher.
In the article, Dr. Willis gets into the incredible synaptic events that occur in parts of the brain when learning happens. She also addresses what is happening when students enjoy learning and how the brain releases dopamine, t he feel good chemical, when this occurs. I will leave the full neurological explanation to the neurologist. What I can say is that Dr. Willis describes what parents should do at home to foster brain and true, enjoyable learning connections, but most importantly return the thrill of learning to a weary child. Parents need to help their children make personal connections to what they are learning. They need to make it relevant to them, so they are curious and enthusiastic about learning. By injecting, for lack of a better word, your child’s interests, past and present experience, and curiosities into say a lesson on the pioneers (an example she gives in the article) the subject become a live for them. In the brain, it returns learning from the lower reactive brain where more negatively perceived emotions come from, back to the higher thinking brain. The example and explanation from the article:
An example would be activating the memory of family camping trips to link with the new learning about the settlers traveling across the country in covered wagons. When you help your children link the new learning about the settlers with that long-term stored memory of family camping trips, the school-based social studies lessons grow more dendrites that carry information between neurons that hold the memories. Now, the neuroplasticity links are mental Velcro. When your children want to remember facts about the social studies lesson for a test, recalling the camping trips retrieves the associated information they need to answer the test questions.
As she states, repeated linking of related memories with new learning is brain glue. She offers further fascinating descriptions of what is going on inside the brain. Dr. Willis states that when parents help their children connect with what they are learning: “…The Velcro is now waiting in their brains and their neural circuits are prepared to grow the dendrites that will physically link the new information with their permanent memory circuits. These connections spur curiosity, desire to learn, and critical thinking skills”.
If parents want to build brain bridges, they need to play a more active role. It may help to have more of an understanding of the curriculum plans for the upcoming weeks. Parents will need to ask the teacher what they will be discussing in class. Parents need to be open and attentive listeners. They need to be ready for the chance to connect their children’s curriculum to their personal interests and experiences. The payout is so worth it for everyone’s sake, Willis states. A parent would agree. When a previously bored, anxious, or overwhelmed student suddenly lights up about school, what a return….