Environmental Factors that Influence Learning

Nature or nurture?  Which has more impact on a child's potential for success?

This debate has waged on for decades but scientists now believe that environment is far more important to student success than genetics.

As an educator, this is GREAT news because it means that what we do makes a difference...everyday.  In other words, "High performing teachers overcome the deficiencies of low-performing students almost every time." (Ferguson, 98)

Someone once told me that effective teaching is not rocket science.  I agree...it's far more complicated.

One thing is for certain, the young brain is HIGHLY influenced by environment.  There are many factors that influence student success so let's take a look at the ones that matter most.

Relationships

First, learning is about relationships.  Relationships between the teacher and students, new content and old content and subject matter content and its application to the real world.  

A teacher who builds positive relationships with students decreases the affective filter, or level of discomfort, in the classroom and students perform better.  Teachers who make connections between old and new knowledge and tie both into the real world also have students who perform better.

Stress

A little bit of stress can be good as the body releases adrenaline to address it which in turn stimulates our brain to "fire on all cylinders," if you will.  

However, students who are in chronically stressful environments tend to have lower levels of aptitude, immunity, concentration and comprehension skills.  Why?  The young brain (3-20ish years old), as a result of the overly active amygdala, is especially susceptible to stress and has extreme responses to it.  

Most students can only do two things when stressed, act out or zone out. 

To prevent this negative behavior and combat stress in the learning environment, consider these ideas:  

*establish routines for certain activities and times of day so students know what to anticipate

*use visuals, project based learning, discussion, and pre-during-post comprehension strategies so students are able to learn new skills and put them into practice, which develops competence and confidence

*build positive relationships with students so they know you are for them, not against them

*clearly define and provide examples of how students can be successful in class by providing rubrics, assignment samples and opportunities for on-going feedback

*allow reflection and retakes for large tests and assignments so students can learn from their mistakes and have the opportunity to demonstrate how their proficiency levels increase, even when initially failed

Sleep

Students need 9-13 hours of sleep per night.  Period.  They average 6 hours.  

Sleep helps the brain to learn and process new information. It also aids in cell renewal, sugar metabolization, neural connections, immunity, logical reasoning, comprehension and fine motor skills.

Teach kids healthy sleep habits, such as eliminating caffeine and sugar after 12:00pm, lowering lights and noise in the evenings and eliminating technology for a few hours before bedtime.

Exercise

Experts recommend 2 hours of sweaty exercise per day for the young brain.  

According to Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules, "The three requirements for human life are food, drink and oxygen.  But their effects on survival have very different time lines.  You can live for about 30 days without food, about 7 days without water.  Your brain however, is so active that it cannot go without oxygen for more than 5 minutes without risking serious and permanent damage."  

He goes on to say, "Exercise does not provide oxygen and food.  It provides greater ACCESS to oxygen and food via stimulated blood vessels...that penetrate deeper into the tissues of the body.  The more you exercise, the more tissues you can feed and the more toxic waste you can remove.  That's why exercise improves the performance of all functions."

Teach kids the benefit of exercise; it actually makes us smarter.  Also, incorporate energizing brain breaks into your lessons so students see and feel how oxygenated blood flow helps them to concentrate and learn more.

Nutrition

Eating healthy foods allows our bodies to function at the highest level.  Processed and sugary foods cause inflammation that leads to decreased blood flow and slowed body functions, decreasing concentration and memory. 

Encourage students to eat lean proteins, fiber, fresh fruits and vegetables and drink plenty of water, at least half their body weight in ounces.  

The old adage, we are what we eat, is very true.

Laughter

The brain does not discriminate between fake laughter and real laughter.  Both times, the brain will release four "happy" chemicals: serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins.  

These chemicals help our bodies to increase blood flow, concentration, engagement, memory, T cell production and immunity.  These chemicals also decrease stress, anxiety, blood pressure, toxins and muscle tension.

Share funny stories and jokes with your students throughout the day and remember to laugh, laugh, laugh your way to increased success!

The young brain is HIGHLY influenced by environment.  

Everything we say and do in the learning environment has the potential to positively or negatively impact student competence, confidence and comprehension.  Be strategic and cultivate the positive and healthy learning environment our students need.  Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting, effectiveteachingpd.com

To learn more, check out these books:

Brain Rules, John Medina

Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning, Judy WIllis

Teaching with the Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen

The Primal Teen, Barbara Strauch