In almost every school district, we see behaviors that are detrimental to both the students exhibiting the behavior and those around them. These behavioral issues interfere with learning because they are disruptive or consume class time. Be it inattention, hyperactivity, impulsivity, or even aggression, these behaviors often are attributed to attention-seeking, acting out, or expressing boredom. But rather than repeatedly dealing with the symptoms, we should be asking what are the foundational issues behind these behaviors? What if we could address the problems causing those behaviors?

The influence of reward and effort on behavior

If we ask teachers what underlying capacities are required for student achievement, they might say listening skills, the ability to pay attention to classroom instruction, the ability to retain new information, and the motivation to learn. Motivation is key to the success of almost anything we do in our daily lives, and it involves a trade-off between reward and effort. Our decisions to act rely on the anticipated value of a future reward (benefit) and on predictions of the mental and physical resources (costs) that must be exerted to gain this benefit.

In a February 2019 article published in Trends in Neurosciences, Mark E. Walton and Sebastien Bouret examined the relationship between dopamine and effort. Dopamine, a neurochemical produced in the brain, is centrally involved in reward-guided learning and motivation. Walton and Bouret found that the dopamine system is much more sensitive to potential benefits than potential costs, even when the weight of anticipated reward and effort on behavior are equated. So, not only does dopamine increase when we expect a reward, but this incentive has a greater influence on our behavior than expected effort does.

For students, this means that improving academic performance will increase their anticipation of a reward and decrease the expected costs. It is the expectation of being rewarded that provides the motivation and incentive to put in the effort to do well in school. For example, if a student knows she has a good chance to earn an “A,” she is more likely to complete assignments on time and study for tests. On the other hand, if a student usually earns “Cs” and knows that no matter how hard he works or how much time he puts in, the best grade he could hope to get is a “C+”, he is probably not going to be as motivated to complete every assignment or study as diligently for tests. In his mind, the anticipated reward is not worth the effort.

What we have learned from this research is that academic achievement tends to improve a student’s emotional investment and behavior, not the other way around! This is why we often see that good students are motivated to be good students and that poor students are not motivated to work as hard. This stems from the limbic system, which is the “emotional brain.”

The emotional brain and the long road toward maturity

The emotional brain has been forged by evolution to function differently in a child than an adult. It serves as the core of the reward system, especially in children and adolescents.

In the brain, the parietal, occipital, and temporal lobes all receive information from the environment. The frontal lobe acts on the world. The prefrontal lobe enables us to override emotions as we mature, so we can function rationally and be organized and purposeful. In the neuronal communication system, fiber tracts enable one neuron to connect with another. Stimulation drives maturity, and these tracts mature at different rates. The fiber tracts that connect the emotional system at the bottom core of the brain to the prefrontal lobe are the latest to mature.

In a June 2015 article published in Scientific American, Jay N. Giedd explained that teenagers are more likely than children or adults to engage in risky behavior because of this mismatch between the hormone-fueled limbic system and the prefrontal cortex, which keeps a lid on impulsive actions. Development of the limbic system, which drives emotions, intensifies as puberty begins and matures over several years. However, the prefrontal cortex does not approach full development until the 20s, which leaves an imbalance during the interim years.

In this article, Giedd also stated that the most significant change taking place in an adolescent brain is not the growth of brain regions but the increase in communications among groups of neurons. Greater networking—with more and stronger connections—brings maturity.

The good news is that teachers change students’ brains all day, every day. So, they are continually helping students build the networks that will make their brains more mature.

How poverty and stress affect the brain

There is also research on other factors that may lead to issues with student behavior and learning. Over a decade of research indicates that income level does not impact intelligence. However, poverty and stress can negatively impact cognitive functions.

In a 2015 article in Nature Neuroscience, Kimberly G. Noble and colleagues described compelling links between family income and brain structure, especially in regions of the brain associated with language, reading, executive functions, and spatial skills—regions essential for academic success. The largest influence was observed among the most disadvantaged children.

Stress can also have a major effect on brain maturation. While a little stress can be stimulating and beneficial, stress that is ongoing and unremitting is toxic—and it can be toxic at any age. As Clancy Blair explained in a September 2012 article in Scientific American Mind, stress may be sabotaging success in school and its effects are especially potent for children in poverty.

The brain is an experience-dependent organ; it gets better at what it does most. During the fetal and early childhood periods, the neural circuits for dealing with stress are particularly malleable or “plastic.” For children who are exposed to toxic stress, the regions of the brain involved in fear, anxiety, and impulsive responses may overproduce neural connections. The brain regions dedicated to reasoning, planning, and behavioral control may produce fewer neural connections. This wear and tear increase the risk of stress-related physical and mental illness later in life.

Extreme exposure to toxic stress also changes the stress response system. It responds at lower thresholds to events that might not be stressful to others. It also activates more frequently and for longer periods than is necessary, like revving a car engine for hours every day. All of this can translate to highly impulsive behavior, increased aggression, or what may appear to be a lack of self-control or poor listening skills. In essence, the student is on high alert at all times, which can be problematic in a classroom, even with our youngest learners.

In a January 2016 article in Pediatrics, Manuel E. Jimenez and colleagues examined associations between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) in early childhood and teacher-reported academic and behavioral problems in kindergarten. ACEs include several types of child maltreatment and household dysfunction. The study found that experiencing ACEs in early childhood was associated with below-average academic and literacy skills and behavior problems in kindergarten.

So, what can we do?

For children who do not progress academically or who are constantly in trouble, school is not a positive experience. We know that many students act out behaviorally to detract attention from the fact that they are struggling academically. These negative behaviors and disruptions interfere with their learning—and often, their classmates’ learning—and take time away from classroom instruction. This puts these students even further behind, and the cycle continues.

Here are a few things that school districts can do to turn things around for the students who may need our efforts the most:

  • Focus on social and emotional learning (SEL)
    According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. An understanding of SEL is essential, especially when we are working with students who have a history of trauma, toxic stress, or a lack of progress from other interventions.

    Core SEL competencies such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making are critical to academic achievement, and they are just as important as the content we teach in our schools. Further, more than two decades of research show that SEL leads to increased academic achievement, improved behavior, and a positive return on investment. Thus, SEL should be a vital part of classroom instruction in every school.
  • Consider the adolescent brain and forget the “get-tough” tactics
    Research shows that there are many cognitive differences in the adolescent brain. For example, the adolescent brain prefers decisions that provide an immediate reward. Impulsivity is strong. Inhibitory control is weak. Emotions and social influences impact decision-making.

    Adolescents also are very vulnerable to adverse experiences and stressors in their environment. Anything that arouses emotion—such as social rejection or a disagreement with a parent or teacher—can lead to irrational thinking. This is why it is important to phrase goals in terms of incentives or advantages, rather than penalties, to help students learn to reinforce goal attainment.

    In a February 2018 Nature Neuroscience article about the study of individual differences in human adolescent brain development, Lucy Foulkes and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore reported that two brain regions that mature differently are those associated with executive functions (such as working memory, attention, and processing speed) and oral language. In children from middle- and high-income families, these areas of the brain are stable or improve. In children from low-income families, these areas show a decline from ages 5 to 18. So, not only are these areas not maturing, they are actually decreasing their volume because they are not being used.

    Further, as Scott O. Lilienfeld and Hal Arkowitz reported in their 2014 article, “How to Turn Around Troubled Teens,” research reveals that get-tough tactics may worsen rates of juvenile delinquency. This is because these tactics create even more stress, which interferes more with the brain’s ability to mature and respond.
  • Help students build self-regulation skills.
    Research indicates that two of the best methods of building self-regulation — and combating the effects of poverty and toxic stress — are improving working memory and attention. The good news for educators is that these skills are trainable, even for students who come from high-poverty or high-stress environments or who have a high number of ACEs.

    Neuroscience-based interventions can supplement the work of teachers in the classroom by specifically targeting and building those regions of the brain known to be important for learning. The Fast ForWord program, for example, is an evidence-based intervention that prepares the brain for reading and learning by improving the cognitive skills that are weak in struggling learners—such as memory, attention, and processing speed—and it provides personalized, intensive practice on a wide variety of language and reading skills. MRI and efficacy studies of students who have participated in the program have demonstrated significant gains in reading skills and underlying cognitive skills as compared with children with no intervention, even among students at the secondary level. Research in schools and clinics shows that educators see improvements in classroom behavior, as well.

    When we build these underlying cognitive capacities, students can better benefit from their classroom instruction. Further, when every student is capable of listening, paying attention to, and remembering what they are taught, this makes teachers’ jobs easier, too.
  • Use technology to help teachers work smarter, not harder
    Brain research that has helped us understand the effects of teaching has also looked at chemicals in the brain that drive neuroplastic change. We know from this research that both teachers and technology can revamp students’ skills and take advantage of built-in chemical motivators to drive student learning.

    Research also shows that repetition is essential for learning; it assures mastery and efficiency with the content. Further, for struggling learners, instruction and practice must occur with enough frequency and intensity to drive brain reorganization. With computer-based or online exercises, for example, we can quickly deliver the high intensity and frequency of intervention required, such as hundreds or thousands of repetitions in a short period. It is this deliberate practice that creates and strengthens connections in the brain.

    Novelty is important to learning as well. If a teacher presents information that is new, exciting, and interesting, this stimulates noradrenaline and dopamine. Similarly, novelty that is built into online exercises, characters, levels, and rewards can stimulate these brain chemicals, too.

    Dopamine released during carefully timed and structured reinforcement increases the likelihood that a stimulus-response pattern will be retained permanently. This reinforcement can come from a teacher or from online exercises that reward every response in a timely way with novel and variable reward signals. As described earlier, when students have an expectation of being rewarded, it increases dopamine. Dopamine is what drives the prefrontal lobe to do the hard work that needs to be done.

    Attention is enhanced when neuromodulators like acetylcholine and norephinephrine are stimulated through educational interaction that is engaging with some novelty. A teacher who is dynamic and makes the content fun and interesting or an attention-grabbing video can stimulate acetylcholine and norephinephrine. Teachers can even enhance attention by such commonplace procedures as maintaining eye contact, moving around the classroom, and interacting with students.
  • Create positive, caring relationships and environments
    A child who has lived in a state of fear and anxiety has likely developed a significant fight-or-flight response. Psychologists have found that access to at least one supportive adult in a child’s environment can markedly reduce the effects of toxic stress. A caring and positive relationship with an adult, such as a teacher or coach, can compensate to some degree for the negative behavioral consequences of a stressful home environment. A school, too, can provide a haven as long as the child feels safe and respected.

Building and changing brains

Research shows that ongoing student behaviors may be masking other issues that not only cause discipline problems but also academic deficits. Research also shows that all children can achieve, even those who begin at a disadvantage. Teachers build and change brains every day; that is their main goal. By driving changes in the brain and providing a high-quality education, we can help children break out of the cycle of poverty. With cognitive skills training and support, we can help them override their emotions and become motivated, goal-oriented problem solvers. We can show all students that they are capable of learning and achieving academic success. This expectation of academic success will motivate them to put in the effort to lead to more success.

Neuroscientist Martha S. Burns is the author of more than 100 journal articles and multiple books on how children learn. She is an adjunct associate professor at Northwestern University and serves as the director of neuroscience education at Scientific Learning.

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