Neuroplasticity in the Fourth Grade: Umm, So, and Current Events

            Last year, I worked as a fourth grade student teacher at an independent school in Newton, Massachusetts. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my favorite classroom ritual, the daily sharing of current events, was an intense exercise in brain building and neuroplasticity. Alongside my lead teacher, I used current events as a time to not only inform my students of news around the world, but to improve their public speaking and abilities to relate to one another.

            Davidson and McEwan (2012) describe the important influence of a child’s early environment on the arborization of neurons and growth of neural networks in the brain. In my classroom, this environment was one of both challenge and support, growth and safety. My lead teacher and I pushed our students to think and act in ways that were years beyond their biological age, but well within their developmental grasp. It’s pretty amazing what kids can do when they have the opportunity. We supported them through difficult conversations about the church shootings in South Carolina, the rise of ISIS, and corporate greed in America.

            This type of environment, where children were encouraged to explore their limits within a safe space and the “context of relationships,” primed our students for neurological development (Cozolino, 2010). But this of all come across as pretty lofty; the day-to-day experience of building our students’ brains was far less glamorous than it sounds and much more difficult.

            Perhaps the simplest piece of our current events education was how the students were instructed to begin sharing. When it was a certain student’s turn to present, they had to stand up, face the class, and begin reading. If they started with an “umm” or a “so,” my lead teacher would make a buzzer noise. Badenoch (2008) would suggest that this buzzer noise was a novel stimulus in our students’ daily lives, a new experience capable of shaping both their behaviors and their brains. After the buzzer, the student would sit back down, and they’d have to wait before they had another chance to present. Unexpected? Yes. A bit harsh? Perhaps. But did it work? Absolutely. The combination of new environmental expectations, a little bit of stress, and repetition allowed our students to learn and grow.

            To this day, it is my belief that our students were, and still are, growing up in an era of digital communication and an overall de-emphasis on face-to-face communication. Their brains were wired toward “text speech” and informal patterns of speaking and relating to one another. These patterns, which our students used almost constantly, were strong and developed in their brains. Given what we known about neuroplasticity, this makes sense. The more our students said “umm” and “so, uh” before they started sentences, the more reinforced and tic-like the behavior would become.

            The conviction that we required during current events, on the other hand, was far from automatic. Neural pathways for direct and public speaking were, at first, weak in our students’ minds. Because of this, it was stressful to face the expectation of standing up and immediately beginning to present. This small amount of stress, as Cozolino (2010) suggests, would eventually help our students learn to share their current events.

            With time and repetition, our students began to show progress. One day, David, who was a notorious violator of the “ok, so” rule, was called on, stood up, and hooked the class with an opening question. The cumulative effects of months of my lead teacher’s buzzer noise had paid off; David had learned a new way to communicate, and his brain was better connected for it. The “hidden processing” of thousands of neuronal connections had bundled and become more efficient based on environmental stimuli (Cozolino, 2010), resulting in a new pattern of behavior.

            By the end of the year, our students had learned more than how to begin speaking in public. Instead, they’d learned how to communicate, gather, and share information. These skills are vital for students of all ages, and will only contribute to greater growth and development in the future.

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References:

Badenoch, B. (2008). Being a brain-wise therapist: A practical guide to interpersonal neurobiology. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Cozolino, L. (2010). The neuroscience of psychotherapy: Healing the social brain. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Davidson, R. J., & McEwen, B. S. (2012). Social influences on neuroplasticity: stress and interventions to promote well-being. Nature Neuroscience, 15(5), 689-695.

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