STUDENT WELLNESS: INCLUDE BRAIN WELLBEING

05/18/2016
FAMILY ENGAGEMENT
With Dr. Joni Samples

In looking up information on student wellness, much of what I find on the Internet is all about healthy eating, social and emotional growth and physical activity. All of which I applaud and am grateful for considering I have four children of my own. I certainly wanted them to go through our school systems being supported in all of those aspects of wellness. Recently, however, as I’ve thought more about the topic of children’s wellness as well as gotten much deeper into the brain research that’s being done around the world, I would have to add something to student wellness about their brain’s wellbeing.

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Neurons in the brain fire and wire together and they remember words. They can learn a second  language as well. A younger child can switch between the languages with ease if they are used at home and he hears them regularly.

When I mention the brain, most of us as educators would go immediately to the academic brain — how well a child can read, do math and solve problems. In this case, I’m not focusing so much on the academic brain when we’re discussing wellbeing. I’m thinking more about how a child interacts in school with peers, what frightens him or her, how well he adjusts to changes in schedules, and what happens at home when there are big events going on like a new baby in the house. Does he get the support needed to be the complete, whole person he is or are there glitches in the system? Glitches can create an imbalance that affects the brain and a child’s development.

Brain wellness begins at home in the early years of a child’s development. Is the household calm most of the time or is there a great deal of stress? How does a parent actually parent? How does a child react in situations that are uncomfortable? What is said to help the child over a big hurdle? From birth to age two, a child has developed 1000 trillion neuron connections. Sounds like an impossible number doesn’t it? That’s an awful lot of potential and that potential needs to be fostered. By age 10, the neurons in his brain have begun to be pruned. In other words if those neurons aren’t stimulated and used they will disappear.

An example of neuron development might be the ability of young children to learn language. They learn their own native language by hearing it and having it reinforced. Neurons in the brain fire and wire together and they remember words. They can learn a second language as well. A younger child can switch between the languages with ease if they are used at home and he hears them regularly. How easy is it for you to learn a language today? Sure, it’s possible, but it takes work because we have to create new neurons and practice using them. Young children have them already in existence. It’s not work. It’s not hard. The neurons are there.

Brain wellness ages infancy to 10 is about taking care of what is already there, encouraging children to create, be artistic, learn, interact, and use all those neurons that already exist. Our job is more to create an environment where those neurons can flourish and be stimulated. Once they’ve been pruned for lack of use it’s harder to recreate them.

Home and school would work well together to foster these environments for learning. School, preschool to elementary, is a great place to try new adventures, learn to read, and solve those problems. Home provides the security and safety to take those new found skills and expand them, use them in everyday situations and know that each skill he’s learning is valuable.

Since we’re educators, let’s take reading. A child learns to read words at school and comes home to read a book to his dad at night. A child learns fractions and helps mom bake cookies using the measuring cups to get the fractions right in the ingredients the recipe calls for. With each activity neurons fire and wire and continue to function. All this firing and wiring of neurons in positive and healthy ways makes for Brain Wellbeing.

A child gets a new puppy at home during the summer and spends time housetraining, feeding, going for walks and loving his new pet. When school starts again, he’s ready to share his experience. You can also bet he’ll be more empathetic with his friends after learning how to take care of his puppy. That’s more Brain Wellbeing.

In a school or home without such support, a child’s neurons aren’t stimulated and eventually die. I recall a situation in which we were asked to evaluate a child for special education services. He was four and not talking, not interacting, not playing with toys. The preschool was asking why. When we went to the home we could see some of the problem. There was not one stick of furniture in the home other than a TV. No toys. No appliances. No beds. No stimulation. The neurons were there, but not being activated. In a few years working with this child was going to be a huge challenge, and think of what life would be like for the child. This child or any other who does not receive stimulation and nurturing of neurons will have a tough time in school and eventually adulthood. So does the child who is being stimulated but in negative ways such as in a situation of abuse or neglect.

We as parents and teachers really are the key to a child’s wellbeing, especially a child’s Brain Wellbeing. Having said that, I would suggest that we start with our own Brain Wellbeing. What have you done for yourself today? How do you keep yourself brain-fit? What do you tell yourself everyday — that you’re a great, wonderful person or do you run yourself down? Would you run a child down? If the answer is no, change your thinking. Change the dialogue in your head. It will make a difference in the neurons you fire and wire.

I have added Brain Wellbeing to our list of factors to be considered when we are looking at the wellness of a child. Now that you’re taking care of your brain, how will you support a child’s brain today?

Dr. Joni Samples is the Chief Academic Officer for Family Friendly Schools (www.familyfriendlyschools.com). Dr. Samples is a former County Superintendent of Schools, Director of Special Education, teacher, mother of four and the author of six books on Family Engagement. Today she provides workshops and materials for schools and parents to support a collaborative effort resulting in better, more supported learning for children.
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