The Fundamentals of Neuropedagogy




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Over the past decade, we have learned that for every student who is simple to understand or figure out, there are one or two who are a conundrum. Over this same decade, we, as separate and collaborative professionals, have also discovered that the barriers to meeting these students’ needs is two-fold: Firstly, education looks only at symptomology not etiology, and secondly, that education fails to integrate disciplines effectively. Special education needs to stop being about labels and start being about the whole child.

Enter the practice of Execu-Sensory and Neuropedagogy. When we look at the child as a whole: brain, body and mind, we begin to understand that more than what teachers are taught in school is at play. Take child development, for example, this class may or may not be required to earn a Masters in Education, especially if the focus is middle childhood rather than early or elementary. Yet, the brain is not done growing, literally, until the age of 19 or 20 and the pre-frontal cortex continues to develop until the age of 25. Not to mention, the developmental surge that takes places during adolescence is akin to the one which occurs during early childhood. How then are teachers prepared to teach the ever evolving whole child if they lack the basic knowledge of brain development? The simple answer is they most likely cannot. The brain is a vastly complex system of electrical wiring and firing that is critical to understanding, given the goal is not only to teach, but teach effectively.

However for the purposes of this blog post, we shall focus the discussion on the fundamentals of Neuropedagogy in practice with some aspects of Execu-Sensory components.

Structure of neuropedagogy

Neuropedagogy in its most basic state begins with the executive function skills and the developing pre-frontal cortex. However when we attempt discussion with other educators, the typical response is along the lines of: “Executive what in the where? Neuro?”

That’s an understandable response, seeing as this predominantly European concept is commonly referred to in the United States as Educational Neuroscience or Neuroeducation – or perhaps more commonly not discussed among educators at all. It was introduced during an educational summit in 2009 at Johns Hopkins University, wherein organizers and educators alike agreed there needed to be an interdisciplinary field that combines neuroscience, psychology and education to create improved teaching methods and curricula. It was bringing into focus new links between arts education and general learning, how learning physically alters the brain, and what goes wrong in students with learning disabilities.

Neuropedagogy however went further than neuroeducation. The European definition of neuropedagogy is when science and education meet, and whose scientific aims are to learn how to stimulate new zones of the brain and create connections. It is targeted at stimulating the brains of all types of learners, not only those with students who have learning disabilities. Dr. Judy Willis – a practicing neurologist who made a conscious transition to the classroom as an educator – feels that there needs be research about the brain’s neuroplasticity and the opportunities we have as educators to help students literally change their brains. To become a teacher without understanding the implications of brain-changing neuroplasticity is a great loss to teachers and their future students.

Based on the experience and the research we have done on current classroom structures in New York City, we have found that the most effective use of neuropedagogy was in three sections: Brain Element Neuropedagogy, Body Element Neuropedagogy, and Mind Element Neuropedagogy. The hierarchy of training is dependent on the prior knowledge of brain function, thus beginning the discussion with the brain was the most functional and useful approach. The body and its organic processes were the next step in the training, to understand the connections between innervation and control, which not all fields of classroom instruction fully develop or are able to reach without the clear understanding of how the brain and the body encompass the physics of the mind.

The Brain Element Neuropedagogy

The most obvious reason to share information is for learning, and learning can only be achieved if there is sufficient brain function. In our practice, we lay the foundation for understanding Central Nervous System (CNS) neurotransmission, the utilization of approximate brain mapping of the cerebral hemispheres, and raise awareness of the unmistakable impact of the digital society on the organic brain.

By organizing the hierarchy of understanding based on the processes involved from brain neurotransmission in each section of the cerebrum at any given time, we shed more light into the powerful effects of neuroplasticity, the endless ability for the brain to change itself. There are four that have been identified for learning: acetylcholine (ACH), serotonin, GABA, and dopamine. Ultimately, these are the communicators responsible in delivering the information to all the lobes, including the pre-frontal cortex.

The role that the pre-frontal cortex plays in learning and behavior have been measured via executive function skills. Many definitions for executive function skills exist and they all essentially make the same point. The National Center for Learning Disabilities defines executive function skills as “mental skills that help the brain organize and act on information… [it is the ability to use] information and experiences from the past to solve current problems.”

These skills are critical to understand because when they are weak or developmentally delayed, they can mask themselves as an educational disability which may lay the groundwork for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) as determined by a mutlidisciplinary team. For example, let’s say a child is referred for an evaluation for special education services because he is showing consistent negative behavior, such as being unable to focus for more than a few minutes at a time, constantly calling out, and failing to complete homework, all of which lead to decreased academic gains. The child will most likely be mis-classified as having ADHD or a learning disability, which ultimately leads to inefficient or worse ineffective solutions. If the interventionists applied an interdisciplinary Neuropedagogical Approach, a different and more effective outcome may have played out.

Now, let’s add a layer of dynamic complexity to neuropedagogy. Neuroscience has looked at the brains, personalities, strengths and weaknesses of people born after 1986 and compared them with brains, personalities, strengths and weaknesses of people born before 1986. The studies show a significant difference between the two. The over-arching difference: access to the digital world. The first group is digital natives; the second digital immigrants. Digital natives have brains that have weakened pathways for interaction, decreased activity in anterior cingulate gyrus and medial orbital frontal cortex, increased isolation, aggression, passivity, loneliness, etc, increase in cortisol due to excessive brain fatigue, decreased hippocampal size. Digital immigrants, the ones who have the capacity to hand down life experiences effectively via examples and who can communicate thoughts personally are ones who are usually comfortable with familiar technology and shy away from change in that department. They have been found to have faster PFC circuitry as they have had abilities to strengthen neuronal circuits with numerous life experiences, including delaying gratification.

With all of the Brain Element Neuropedagogy, one can proceed to appreciate understanding the body and its unique processes.

The Body Element Neuropedagogy

In our modern society, people are perceived initially from the way they present themselves. Usually what is displayed from the external body is what immediately connects one person to the next. The body’s senses take in the physical and external world, process the input, and in the cortex it is given meaning.

From a learner’s perspective, the body is both intake and output. As interdisciplinary brain-based practitioners, we shed light into the Sensory Processing Systems, the limitless potential of a person’s Multiple Intelligences and Emotional Quotient (EQ), culminating on the influence of what we have managed to call the 3 External E’s (Ergonomics, Economics, and Environment).

The body by itself is a complete sensory organ, however it has been proven by evidence-based practice that the seven senses are the checkpoints of the body: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste, movement, and position in space. Research in this area was pioneered by Dr. A. Jean Ayres and current practitioners include Dr. Lucy Jane Miller and Carol Kranowitz all of who have contributed to the education and learning landscape. One simply cannot function by brain alone!

Multiple Intelligences Theory was pioneered by Howard Gardner, a developmental neuropsychologist who wondered if a tool, aside from the Intelligence Quotient (IQ test), could be developed to measure additional attributes to determine a person’s complete intelligence. Another factor we considered was Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Quotient (EQ) as this too plays an important factor externally; even as the limbic system is brain centric in its processing of emotions, the manifestation on the outside is clearly body-centric.

Education in the twentieth and now twenty-first century tends to teach to two types of learners: visual and auditory. Yet, research has shown that multiple types of learners exist, not just two. Teaching methodologies need to start designing lessons, activities and classrooms not only for the typically forgotten or ever present kinesthetic learners, but for the quiet introvert and the shy extrovert and multiple combinations of them.

Simple modifications such as state changes, strategically planned brain gym breaks or yoga ball chairs have shown to improve the executive functioning skills of sustained attention and task persistence. Additionally, when inserting brief yet planned breaks of any type, students are given an opportunity to work on set-shifting a skill in high demand in the modern digital-world.

Modifications for the introvert include quiet spaces in the classroom or projects with an option to work alone. The shy extrovert, may benefit from group projects with assigned jobs. However, this type of differentiated instruction is believed to be fitting only to the special education population. The rest of these students, rather than adopting a label that may or may not fit, they are instructed to adapt their bodies to fit because that is what the ‘real world’ will expect of them. Meanwhile, that potential intelligence lays mostly dormant because teachers are not teaching to them, and were probably never taught how. Neuropedagogy recognizes the learning process that processes from a brain and proceeds into the body offers perspective and solutions to teaching with the body in mind.

The Mind Element Neuropedagogy

Of all of the Elements that we train, it is the Mind Element that is the most challenging to explore. The brain and the mind are used interchangeably in the realm of education; however, scientists have discovered that although they do seem to be influential of the other, the brain and mind affect each other in very different but significant ways. The psyche in psychology practice have also been associated with the mind, and pop culture usually uses the word mind loosely as choice or state of one’s mental being.

In referencing the brain, it’s the material organic matter that has the physical manifestation of the neuronal processes while the mind is where consciousness and active thinking occur. However, a thought may occur from consciousness which may alter the neuronal process that was intended to happen and vice versa. The mind discussion includes: theory of mind, the belief-desire reasoning in learners, and neuroplasticity in the habit loop, Behavior Modification and Habit Routine change that can have both positive and negative effects.

Neuropedagogy of the mind starts with the premise that the mind of a child is complex. The Belief-Desire Reasoning from H.M. Wellman’s The Child’s Theory of Mind Mechanism shows just that. Thinking, perception, sensations, beliefs, cognitive emotions, physiology, basic emotions are all interconnected and simultaneously interacting to produce desires, intentions, actions and inevitably reactions. Actions are merely the tip of the iceberg to the ongoings of a child’s, and ultimately a learner’s mind. Educators who understand and teach with Executive Function Skills such as Metacognition, Emotional Control and Response Inhibition in mind, essentially have x-ray vision, which provides them the insight to ask the questions that will reveal the iceberg. Intention is marked by a whole person, a product of perception, inception and conclusions.

Conclusion: The Neuropedagogy Synthesis

ESNP’s Unique Neuropedagogy SynthesisThe information that is presented here may appear overwhelming and less comprehensive in practice, however it’s the changing the lens and perspective that allow best practices to occur, to remind those involved in direct service that people are not formulaic in their learning.

The Neuropedagogy synthesis demonstrates just that. One of our current partnerships, The Teaching Firms of America Professional Charter School in Brooklyn, New York, applies these principles by tying choice and action to their basis in the brain, Theory of Mind, and most importantly, the brain’s ability to change. They empower their scholars to be thinkers and owners of their actions and choices by giving them knowledge from the world of neuroscience. Finally, they utilize the principles of Neuropedagogy to guide and inform their instruction, interactions and interventions. It is a common occurrence to hear students say, “I can change my brain.” From initial classroom set-up to end of day classroom clean up, they created and continue an atmosphere of curiosity and intellect, which always seems to start and end with the brain.

Image via Tom Wang / Shutterstock.

Sara Naegele, MSEd and Dechantal Montano, OTR/L

Sara Naegele, MSEd, is a consultant with 10 years of collective educator experiences from being a Teaching Assistant (Children of Working Families), Special Educator (District 75), Learning Specialist (Cornelia Connelly Center). She holds dual certification, from the New York State Department of Education in Children with Disabilities (Grades 5-9, City University of New York) and Early Childhood Education (Birth-Grade 2, Long Island University). For more information go to esnpconsulting.com. Dechantal C. V. Montano, OTR/L, OTRP, has been practicing as an Occupational Therapist for 16 years both internationally and in the United States. She began her career in Pediatrics opening a specialized full day experiential clinic for students with Multiple Disabilities, Autism and Learning Disabilities from ages 1.5-21 years in the Philippines, combining principles of A. Jean Ayres Sensory Integration Therapies with Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (Mindworks Early Learning Center, The QTherapy Center) for 2 years until Red River Rehabilitation, Inc. in Oklahoma invited her to the United States to begin an outpatient Sensory Integration based center (The Rehab Center). For more information go to esnpconsulting.com.
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