How Context Impacts a Brain’s Ability to Learn

It is so amazing to me how a brain associates places with either good or bad experiences - or how returning to a particular place instantly throws one into a particular state of mind. When I was little, we lived overseas and Mom taught us school. While I was able to learn to read without many hiccups, math and I were not friends! Under my mom’s regime, if I missed problems, I had to fix them all. Most days it took as long for me to get my arithmetic paper done correctly as it did to do all the other subjects combined.

Given my early non-expertise in math, it was pretty interesting that when we returned to the States just as I was to begin eighth grade, I was so far ahead of my classmates that I was seated with another girl in the back of the classroom to work through a “special book.” I was enrolled in a boarding school for high school. 9th grade Algebra I didn’t cause me any problems. I was still far enough ahead that I was able to daydream through most of class, and skated by, making B’s pretty consistently.

Imagine my chagrin the following year when I had Algebra II in the same classroom with the same teacher, and I discovered that the moment I entered the room, I slipped into the familiar daydreaming mode that had come to be associated in my brain with that location. Reality set in. I had to work hard to kick the daydreaming habit; I was not going to pass Algebra II unless I stayed in complete focus during class.

Provide a safe place for students

In the past several years, I have had occasion to think about location and how it impacts a brain’s performance. While teaching Title 1 groups, I had the chance to talk quite a bit with individual students about their own habits, and what contributed to their success or failures in the regular classroom.

My room was located in a corner of the school building where two hallways intersected. There were big windows to the outside with a view of field and trees, a cozy kidney table, and two walls of whiteboards with a great supply of colored markers for the kids to use. Bulletin boards held student work, and we kept charts with stars for each group that came into my room. It was a cozy, safe place, and students performed beyond expectations. 

In that particular room, students felt safe to venture out and take risks because they had an ample safety net. We raised the bar for achievement to 100% on quizzes, but we also had an agreement that if a student did not make 100% on the first try, he or she could elect to study a bit more and come back during lunch for a retake. Surprisingly enough, every student in 3rd grade and up who did not make a 100% on their first try asked to come back. There were even times when a child made a 100% first time, but asked to retake the quiz anyway, just to prove he could do it again!

Prepare them to venture out

One thing that worked so well in our room was engaging each student in conversation about what was going on in his/her thinking when doing school work. The children learned to pay attention to how they were feeling or to what they were thinking when they did particularly well or when they failed again. Kids can be their own best allies when they learn to pay attention to their thoughts and feelings.

While the classroom teachers were satisfied that their students were learning while in my room, some grumbled a bit over the fact that the kids were still coming to me for their quizzes. “If they can do the work, they should be able to do it in my classroom” was the feeling. There was also an idea circulating that if the student failed in their room, likely we were giving too much help in my room. By mid-year, one 4th grade teacher requested that her students stay in her classroom to take their next quiz. Of course I agreed. At lunch, however, four distressed boys rushed into my room, extremely upset that they had failed their quiz in class.

I knew the boys were prepared, knew they should have scored a 100%, but also suspected what had gone wrong. I wanted them to think through what had happened. First I asked the boys to sit down at the kidney table and I gave them the quiz again. They each scored 100%. They were gratified, but still upset. So I asked, “What were you thinking about when you were taking the quiz in your classroom?”

Three of the boys just shrugged their shoulders, but the fourth one articulated very succinctly what had happened. “I got my paper. Then I looked around and thought, ‘I’m going to have to pass my paper up the row when I am done and everyone is going to see how awful I did.' Then suddenly my brain got fuzzy and jumbled and I couldn’t remember anything.” This explanation illustrates so clearly how our emotions can hijack our thinking ability. I explained to the boys what was going on. They associated being in the regular classroom with past failures and their fear of failing was self-fulfilling. Armed with this new understanding, what remained was to work on thinking new thoughts.

How we can help right now

One thing we can do to help children overcome negative emotions around learning is to change the environment as much as possible. Even if the location is in the same room as before, you can make the environment new and safe by moving the children's desks or letting them sit on bright pillows on the floor with clipboards to write on. 

Provide a lot of security, warmth, and scaffolding as they begin to relearn. Rather than viewing the extra support as “cheating,” let’s view it as supporting children while they learn to overcome their fear of failure. If we can take the time to remove any possibility of threat, the children will once again be able to focus on thinking about the work at hand. I read somewhere that for every negative comment a person hears, they have to hear 50 positive ones to counter the power of that one negative comment. If this is true, only imagine how much positive support a child needs who has been labeled with a disability!

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