brain

Debunking Classroom Neuromyths

Written by Saskia Kwan, M.Ed. Knowledge Translation Program Lead at Ontario Brain Institute

Toronto, Canada

hand-biology-arm-muscle-human-body-brain-14176-pxhere.com (1).jpg

Public interest in brain research has increased over the past decade. We are slowly gaining a better understanding of how the brain works, and its implications in everyday life. Importantly, what we learn about the brain has implications in education, as the brain is crucial for learning and teaching. Unfortunately, brain research can often be misunderstood, misinterpreted, or exaggerated. We call these misconceptions neuromyths.

 

Similar to urban myths, neuromyths sound believable and logical, but their origin can rarely be pinpointed, and they lack any credibility. Despite growing scientific evidence refuting them, neuromyths have persisted and made their way into our homes, classrooms, and everyday life.

Here are some popular neuromyths, and why we should refute them.  

1.     Myth: Students have preferred “learning styles” (e.g. visual, auditory, kinesthetic) and learn best when taught through that style.

In reality: There is no evidence that teaching to a student’s specific “learning style” leads to improved learning. While students do differ from each other in their learning, decades of research have failed to provide any proof that matching a specific mode of teaching to a specific student leads to better learning and school achievement. Rather, we should match the style of teaching to the content and offer multiple different ways for a student to engage with the content. Imagine trying to learn algebra exclusively through an audiobook, because you were labeled an “auditory” learner!

 

2.     Myth: People are “left-brained” or “right-brained”, either using the left rational and analytical half of the brain more often or using the right creative half of the brain more often.

In reality: Research shows no evidence to support the idea that we favour one side of our brain over the other. Although there are some differences between the two sides, we are constantly using both sides of our brain. In fact, the two sides of the brain are heavily connected and continuously exchanging information back and forth. There are some functions that rely more heavily on one side of the brain over the other, for example areas crucial for language are usually (but not always) on the left side of the brain. However, these side “preferences” have largely been exaggerated for other functions. We know very little about complex functions such as creativity and rationality, and even less about what areas of the brain are crucial for these functions.

 

3.     Myth: You only use 10% of your brain.

In reality: You use your whole brain. Through brain imaging techniques that have allowed us to visualize brain function, researchers are able to see that the various areas of your brain are constantly engaged and active. Researchers have a long way to go to understand how the whole brain works, but there’s no research to suggest that the average person uses less than their whole brain in any given day, and absolutely no research to suggest we are only using one-tenth of it! It is also worth noting that using our whole brain doesn’t mean we can’t learn something new. Your brain has the incredible ability to learn, adapt, and change throughout your lifespan by altering connections and pathways between brain cells, a concept called neuroplasticity.

If you believed these neuromyths, you are not at fault. Neuromyths have become so prevalent they appear in books, movies, and even teacher preparation courses. But we must fight against them, because decisions based on myths can hinder a child’s learning and development. Although well intentioned, these neuromyths end up limiting our young learners from all they can do.

 

 

 

Autism Spectrum Disorders: An introduction for parents and teachers

I receive many questions from parents inquiring about Autism so I thought it would be important to inform parents and teachers about this topic. Here is some info on Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

What are Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)?

https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/aut.html

https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/aut.html

Autism Spectrum Disorders are complex brain-based disorders. ASD consists of such a wide spectrum that each person is uniquily affected. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention characterize ASD as a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. There is nothing different about someone’s physical appearance that differentiates them from someone without ASD. Nonetheless, people with ASD may communicate, interact, behave or learn differently from others. Cognitive skills (learning, thinking and problem-solving) vary greatly from person to person. One individual with ASD may have high levels of intellectual functioning, while another might have severe intellectual challenges.

What causes ASD?

Researchers have yet to pinpoint the cause(s) of ASD. Researchers do know that ASD stems from a disruption in brain development caused by a combination of genetic components and environmental components, however, they are not sure how. To date, a number of genes have been identified as having a role in ASD, making the puzzle even more complicated for researchers.  When the brain is developing in the mother’s womb, many environmental factors, such as maternal infection, can interfere with brain development. A disruption in the environment can alter a gene and therefore change how the brain is developing in the womb. Also, taking vitamins during pregnancy are important for many reasons including making sure iron levels are not low. 

What are the signs and symptoms?

Signs of developmental delays can be seen within the first 18 months of life. While other children (25%-40%) can have near-normal development and begin to show signs of delay only after the age of 2 (Amaral et al. 2008, Trends in Neurosciences).  When it comes to ASD, early diagnosis and intervention ARE KEY. It is important for parents to know the developmental milestones starting from birth. Although not all children develop at the same rate, there are still some important milestones they need to meet, therefore, if a parent can detect them quickly it can help quicken the possible diagnosis of an ASD. This could also help start treatment more quickly as well, which is critical for ASD. One interesting area of research is a group from University of Rochester Medical Center that is training parents not only on the milestones but on what to do if certain milestones are delayed.

Some signs include:

  • Not babble by 12 months

  • Not responding to their name by 12 months

  • Avoiding eye contact

  • Delayed speech and language skills

  • Does not point or respond to pointing

  • Flaps hands, rocks body or spins in circles

For a full list of symptoms please visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website

What happens to the brain when a child has an ASD? 

Brain scientists have shown that there are early brain changes that occur in the period in which autistic behaviours are first emerging. Changes such as brain volume overgrowth (Hazlett et al. 2017, Nature). They have suggested that there is an increase rate in brain growth before the age of 2 (Hazlett et al. 2011, Arch Gen Psychiatry), but the reasons behind this growth are not well understood. Given that ASD are characterized by 3 core areas including: social impairments, communication deficits and repetitive behaviours, many areas of the brain have been implicated (see picture below). These numerous symptoms make it difficulty to study the brain. 

On the other hand, some parts of the brain are smaller in individuals with ASD. Areas such as the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in emotions, and the hippocampus, which is invloved in long-term memory (Bauman and Kemper. 2005, Int. J. Devl Neuoscience). 

Brain areas that have been implicated in the mediation of the three core behaviors that are impaired in autism: social behavior, language and communication, and repetitive and stereotyped behaviors. Amaral et al. 2008, Trends in Neurosciences.

Brain areas that have been implicated in the mediation of the three core behaviors that are impaired in autism: social behavior, language and communication, and repetitive and stereotyped behaviors. Amaral et al. 2008, Trends in Neurosciences.

Speech and language in children with ASD.

I would like to thank two Speech-Language Pathologists, Stephanie and Maria-Lisa. Below you will find some information they provided on speech and language in relation to ASD.

1) What is the role of a Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) in working with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)?

Speech and language therapy is a central part of treatment for children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). While SLPs cannot diagnose autism, they are often one of the first points of contact, as communication difficulties are typical in children with ASD. However, seeing as though autism is not limited to communication difficulties, a multidisciplinary team is needed to diagnose the disorder. Parents are an integral part of this team!

2) How does ASD affect speech communication and social development?

The signs of autism are often noticed before the age of 3 and some children may exhibit signs of future issues within the first 18 months. In relation to speech and language, children with autism can demonstrate difficulties in the following areas:

Social skills
- some early signs may include reduced eye contact, having difficulty playing with others, difficulties transitioning from one activity to another, and trouble sharing interest on an object with another person, known as joint attention.

Communication skills
- some early signs include difficulty using gestures such as pointing and waving, trouble following directions, difficulty understanding and learning new words.

3) What is the best time to begin speech and language therapy with children diagnosed with ASD?


The sooner the better! Early intervention is key. All children diagnosed with autism do not demonstrate the same exact profile, therefore, as SLPs, we continually assess and manage the best way to provide therapy that is both individualized (focusing on the child’s areas of need, their interests and most importantly their strengths) as well as interactive and fun! Parents and educators are highly encouraged to actively participate in the intervention process so that it can carryover to the child's daily life.

Students with ASD.

We need to consider that every student with ASD is unique. Individualized Education Programs (IEP) also need to take this into account. Language abilities, learning styles, behaviour and attention need to be assessed on an individual basis and incorporated into their IEP. Most importantly, their learning environment needs to consider their sensory needs, behavioural needs as well as language needs. Although some students with an ASD might be similar to the class in terms of cognition and knowledge, other needs can make it difficult for them to learn. Please keep in mind that while some students with an ASD might be advanced in cognitive abilities, others might have severe cognitive difficulties. You can refer to this guide for an elaborate document on Effective Educational Practices for Students with ASD

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

 

  • Voice volume: A student might have difficulty knowing when to speak softly or loudly. Some teachers might use verbal cues to help a student learn to manage this, but this might not work with a child with ASD. Using a visual cue to guide them might help. Click here to see a “control-o-meter” example. You can even use this meter for physical proximity and place it on their desk for others to learn more about them as well. (See picture above)

  • Verbal instructions: Keep it short and simple. Break instructions down into smaller steps.

  • Eye contact: Do not insist on eye contact, especially if they are not comfortable with this.

  • Collaborative planning in addition to an IEP: Given the complexity of ASD, it is important to incorporate educators, parents and other professionals (Speech -Language Pathologist, psychoeducators/behaviour specialists, learning experts such as from the Curious Neuron team) that work with the student to create a collaborative learning plan for them.

  • Assisted technology: Being able to type things out might help a student with note taking, group work, or even communicating with others.

  • Fixations: A student with ASD might become fixated on an object. Use this to your advantage to help motivate them in learning activities. If they are fixated on an object in class, you can have them change parts of a problem solving question to include the object. For instance, if they really like the figurine of a Dr. Seuss character on your desk, change the names in their homework to that character.

  • Daily schedule: Does the student need visual or verbal reminders of their daily schedule? Environmental changes (homeroom to gym class, class time to lunch), a change in teacher and so on, might be difficult for them. Let them know in advance and provide them with reminders (i.e. pictures of recess, lunch time, the next teacher they will see, a bus etc.).

  • Sensory issues: Does the student react to noise levels in their surrounding? Does their behaviour change if someone is too close to them? Most students with ASD will have some sensory issues, although the issue might vary greatly. Some might not like it when others approach them or are too close to them, while others might want to keep touching people and objects. You can use a visual Meter such as the one here, to help with this issue. You can provide them with headphones if the class is doing some group work and it gets loud. If they have a need to touch objects, find some tactile stimulation that you can leave at their desk.

  • Adapting to social situations: To help a student understand a social situation, a Comic Strip Conversation could be a way to help them better understand it through visual representation.

  • Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles (see link below): The UDL framework, which is defined as a set of principles for curriculum development that give all individuals equal opportunities to learn (CAST, 2012), requires educators to provide students with multiple means of representation, multiple means of action and expression, and multiple means of engagement. This approach may help include a student with ASD.

  • Feedback and encouragement: Give lots of positive feedback and encouragement. Make sure you don't focus solely on their challenges, but on their talents as well. Also, just like with all students, comments such as "good job!" are too vague. Provide specific comments such as "I like the colors your selected for your painting" or   "You were really organized this week and I noticed you didn't forget your assignment at home".  

Control-o-meter for voice volume or other behaviour (click on pic for link)

Control-o-meter for voice volume or other behaviour (click on pic for link)

What we should all know about concussions.

Written by Cindy Hovington Ph.D. Founder of www.curiousneuron.com

Montreal, Canada

brain-mind-psychology-idea-hearts-love-1370218-pxhere.com.jpg

I had the pleasure of studying concussions for the first 2 years of my doctoral degree. After working at the Montreal NEURO, I learned that concussions can potentially be quite devastating. A hit to the head can either have no effect or can take months and even years to recover from. I have gathered some info that is important for all of us to know. Most importantly, when can we go back to work, school or a sport we play?

What happens to the brain when you get a concussion?

Concussions, or mild traumatic brain injuries, are caused by a direct or indirect blow to the head. When you sustain a hit to the head, the brain jolts inside your skull. The brain is soft and floats in a liquid (called cerebral spinal fluid) the surrounds it. This liquid protects your brain and stops it from smashing into your skull every time you move or fall. However, if the hit is hard enough, the brain pushes through this liquid and hits the skull. The same way that you can bruise your arm or leg, you can "bruise" your brain. The only problem is that when this happens to your brain, certain brain functions can be impaired. You can lose your memory, have diminished concentration, get dizzy spells, have poor balance and much more. 

What are the signs and symptoms of a concussion?

A person can have many concussion symptoms. These symptoms are called Postconcussive Symptoms. They can experience a headache, fatigue, nausea, sensitivity to light, and cognitive symptoms such as problems with memory, concentration, planning and organizing. Most people are not aware that after a concussion they can also develop psychiatric complications such as anxiety, depression, and irritability. 

More signs and symptoms:

  • Difficulty remembering new information

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Feeling dizzy

  • Balance problems

  • Sleeping more or less than usual

  • Feeling tired and having no energy

  • Feeling down or sad

Symptoms can show up immediately after the concussion or even a few hours or days later. It is important to monitor the symptoms. Make note of when a symptom begins and when it ends. You will need this information for your doctor. As mentioned, they could last for a few hours or as long as weeks/months. 

Is there a test that confirms you got a concussion?

658px-MRI-Philips.JPG

Unfortunately, doctors and researchers need to rely mostly on a person's description of their symptoms to confirm if it is indeed a concussion. Technically, you can't "see" a concussion or its severity with any brain scanner (unless the hit to the head caused internal bleeding in the brain), but concussion research is starting to show us that even if someone does well on cognitive tests (attention, memory, and planning seems ok) when you have them do  (fMRI), they are able to see less activation in the concussed brain. fMRI is when you have to perform tasks in an MRI. Rather than just looking at pictures of the brain, with fMRI you can see which parts are being activated during a task such as a memory activity). 

Doctors will use the Postconcussion Symptom Scale to assess the presence of your symptoms and determine the severity of the concussion. 

How does one recover from a concussion?

Recovery is VERY important. Recovery from a concussion means DOING NOTHING. Let me repeat that...DOING ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!! The brain needs to rest, the only way it can heal is by doing nothing. Pop quiz...is watching TV doing nothing? Nope. Is going to work or school doing nothing? No. Is reading a book doing nothing? Nope, sorry! All these activities require the brain to work and function and are therefore not considered rest. You don't want it to function, you need your brain to relax. This is the most difficult part of recovery. Especially for children, but I can not emphasize enough how important it is. How long should you do this? The general rule of thumb is that you rest until the moment all of your symptoms are COMPLETELY GONE. Then you can slowly return to work or school. However, let your symptoms guide you. If you sit in front of a computer or sit in the classroom and your nausea/headache/or any other symptom returns, you need to go back to resting again. 

If you play sports, you need to wait longer and the process for return to play is much slower. Once your symptoms have all stopped, you slowly start your sport again but one step at a time (click on the link "return to play" above to get details). If any symptoms return when simply running, you go back to the start line.  I understand that this can be difficult for athletes, but the consequence of sustaining a second blow to the head when the first concussion has not healed can be devastating. A second concussion that occurs when the first was not healed yet is called Second Impact Syndrome

Recovery can be longer in older adults, children, and teens. Moreover, if this is not your first concussion, recovery may also be slower. (See info below on repeated concussions). 

Is it the same in adults and children?

Researchers are starting to look into concussions that occur in children. Most symptoms are similar in children and adults, however, the extent of consequences in children remains largely unknown. Although you might think that a child's brain heals faster given their age, it is actually not the case in concussions. Since their brain is developing, it is very vulnerable to injury and the brain can take much longer to heal. An interesting study from Montreal showed that fMRI could also be a valuable tool when assessing concussions in children. Also, although concussion symptoms might be gone, studies have shown that a child's cognitive symptoms could still be present and could cause difficulties in school. 

What happens to professional athletes who get repeated concussions?

 

Multiple concussions could cause symptoms to stay much longer and can cause cognitive deficits (memory, attention or planning difficulties). However, researchers are still trying to understand the true impact of repeated concussions. They are studying various sports that have high risks of concussions such as boxing, football, hockey etc. For instance, several medical groups have asked for the discontinuation of boxing. Why? Its primary goal is to hit the opponents head and this can result in the Punch-Drunk Syndrome. The more you get punched in the head, the higher the release of certain chemicals in the brain. These chemicals have been linked to Parkinson's-like symptoms. 

Hope you learned a thing or two about concussions! Feel free to ask a question in the comment boxes below (you need to click on the title of the newsletter to see the comment boxes). 

 

Resources: 

http://www.concussionmtl.com/resources.html

http://www.cdc.gov/headsup/providers/return_to_activities.html