by Tom Shenk, taken from Virginia Education Association.
Unfortunately, I believe the answer to the question posed in the headline to this article is ‘Yes’. My study of recent brain research tells me that students today have more brain development issues than did children of past generations. If you’ve been working with children for more than 20 years, you may have seen this trend playing out in your classrooms. Even if you haven’t, consider these statistics:
- In 180, only 1 in 10,000 children was diagnosed with autism. Today that number is jaw-dropping in 1 in 88.
- ADHD diagnoses have grown 2000 percent since 1990.
These are just a few examples. If you do a little research, you’ll find the same dramatic increases in dyslexia, Asperger’s, Tourette’s Syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder, and other learning disabilities. One in 5 children today has some form of neurological disorder. Many attribute this to healthcare professionals being better equipped to identify disorders, to over-diagnosing, but I don’t believe that to be the whole story. A recent study found that those two factors account for only 40 percent of the increase in neurological disorders, which means the other 60 percent is real. The bottom line is that more and more of your students are entering your classroom with less-than-healthy brain development – and the trend is likely to get worse.
“That’s pretty depressing”, you may be thinking. “Is there anything we can do to change all that?” Luckily, I think the answer is also “Yes!” To understand how we might be able to help, we need to understand what type of environment nurtures proper brain development. I’ll explain in two steps.
For step one, travel back with me in human history to the period before we learned to farm 0 when we hunted and gathered our food. What was life like in those days for a society of hunter-gatherers? Did they eat differently than we do today? What did they do for fun? How much physical activity did they get? What kind of social life did they experience? How did children (and adults) learn new things? Compare your ideas to mine on the following list:
Hunter Gatherer Lifestyle:
- Recreation, Games
- Dancing, Singing, Instruments
- Storytelling, Conversation
- Art, Handicrafts
- Physical Activity, Hard Physical Labour
- Walked on average 12 miles a day
- High level of social interactions daily
- Cooperated to survive
- Mostly meats, fruits, veg, eggs and nuts
- Fresh foods with no additives
- Drank mostly water
- Natural Sunlight
- Fresh Air
- Regular sleep patterns from sunset to sunrise
- Real world, hands on experience while moving (work and play)
- Exploratory and experimental
- Self-directed and spontaneous
- Personal and emotional connections
- Often through stories
- 1 on 1 or small groups, mixed ages
- Very social: done while talking and interacting with others
- Through observation and looking for patterns in nature
- Naturally learned things when developmentally ready
For step two, brainstorm some ideas for this question: “According to brain research, what activities, experiences and environmental factors best stimulate healthy brain development?” Are you ready for the big ‘aha’ moment? Take a look at the next list. It’s a list of ‘stimulators’ that brain research shows is critical for proper wiring of the human brain.
Needs for Health Brain Development:
- Rich sensory environment
- Proper nutrition
- Proper hydration
- Proper sleep
- Low stress levels
- A safe, loving environment
- Exploration of emotions
- Hands-on experiences
- Self-directed exploration
- Music experiences
- Free play
- Imagination experiences
- Social interaction
- Personal connections to what’s being learned
- Learning when developmentally ready
Does any of that look familiar?! If you carefully compare these two lists, you’ll see it: We still have the brain of a hunter-gather!
How is that possible? We left the hunter-gatherer behind a very long time ago. Well, here’s a little known fact that will help explain how this is true. How much of our human history do you think we spent as hunter-gatherers? Let’s pretend that all of human history has been condensed into one year, with January 1 as the day when early man first came on the scene, and December 31 as the present. At what point do you think humans learned to farm during that ‘year’ of human history? February 7? November 24? July 13? You ready for the surprising answer? Here it is: If all of human history were condensed into one year, we would’ve learned to farm… yesterday, December 30! That’s right! We’ve spent 364 ‘days’ as hunter-gatherers and only 1 ‘day’ as farmers. That means that for the vast majority of our history, our brains had wired themselves to be most successful in a hunter-gatherer environment. So, our brains simply have not had a chance to adapt to modern life, especially the past fifty years as TV and computer technology have dramatically changed our lifestyle. Look again at the first list. How many children do you know that grow up in an environment like that? Not many, and I believe that’s why so many children are developing these brain dysfunctions. And the problem is probably even bigger. This lack of health brain development is most certainly affecting more than just the children who have been diagnosed with a learning problem. Talk to teachers and they’ll tell you that for every diagnosed student they teach, they have two or three more ‘weak learners’ for whom school is a constant struggle.
Allow me to support my hunter-gatherer theory with this amazing story comparing city and tribal children from Kwa Zulu, South Africa. The city children grow up much like children in the US, but the tribal children grow up in a veery different way. This is what their tribal environment is like:
The nuclear family is very close, and there is a very high level of social harmony in the tribe. Newborns receive lots of love and touch from all the adults, who take personal responsibility for all tribal children. As they grow, their time is spent carving, weaving, taking care of animals, painting, singing, dancing, gathering firewood, storytelling and playing creatively. All tribal members come together for evening meals, which are filled with conversation, tribal news, storytelling, and singing. Not surprisingly, they have no exposure to books, educational television, or educational technology.
And how does this hunter-gatherer environment affect the tribal children’s brains? Well, at the start of each school year approximately 10,000 city and tribal children are given a series of learning readiness tests. Check out these results:
- The two groups tested the same on two tests.
- City children outscored tribal children on one test only: close-up visual focusing.
- Tribal children scored far superior on 47 of 50 tests!
That’s pretty compelling.
New brain research confirms that our modern lifestyle is wreaking havoc on our children’s brains. Neurologists have discovered that ADHD, dyslexia, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Torette’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder, and many other learning disabilities all have the same underlying cause – imbalanced development between the two brain hemispheres. This imbalance is due to certain developmental genes not getting ‘switched on’ because the necessary movement and sensory stimulation is missing from the child’s environment. As a result, one hemisphere doesn’t develop fully. Whatever functions this brain hemisphere controls will then be weak, while the functions controlled by the other hemisphere will be normal or even above average. This discovery helps explain a phenomenon that has baffled teachers for along time: uneven skill development. How can a student be intelligent enough to solve complex maths equations, but not write a coherent paragraph? How can a child read words, sentences and paragraphs, but not comprehend them?
Knowing what we know about the hemispheres of the brain gives us the information we need to help these young people. First, we can now offer dramatic help to children with neurological issues mentioned earlier. By simply identifying which hemisphere is the weak one and then doing simple physical, sensory and mental exercises to stimulate the weak side, the brain imbalance can be resolved, and the symptoms of these disorders begin to resolve themselves. There are thousands of documented cases of children who have overcome their neurological issues in this fashion. This is big news!