9 Mar 2012

Learning more about the brain

By Marie Powell

Learning about the brain might seem like something that's only interesting for neuro-scientists (photo by Dendroica cerulea via Flickr Creative Commons).

But the more we find out about the brain, the better off we are - or that's what Dr. Bruce Perry seems to say. I was lucky enough to attend one of his workshops recently, and he made it easy to understand how the brain works, and how we learn.

The workshop was geared to child trauma, but I think some understanding of the way the brain works can help in many other contexts. Perry's diagram of an inverted triangle divided into four parts is easy to understand: the bottom of the cone is the brainstem, and the top is the neocortex.

I'm simplifying it of course, but essentially, Perry reminded us that it's important not to ignore the lower areas of the brain (brainstem, diencephalon, and limbic), while we try to communicate through the higher levels (neocortex). For example, any time we learn something new, we go through stress, he says. Our ability to self-regulate, or pay attention, is affected by the lower areas of the brain. Demanding attention - through the neocortex - won't be as effective as planning to engage it from the bottom up.

Planning regulatory breaks in the day, for instance, will help us to pay attention more effectively all day long. Perry suggests rhythmic activities like dancing or music-and-movement. These activities work on the lower brain to help relieve feelings of stress. (I found a good example in getting up to walk to my car to plug the parking meter, and those "regulatory breaks" may explain why I got so much out of this workshop!)

Perry's theories make sense. We expect young children to move from one activity to another within any given hour. We build rhymes and rhythm and movement into great preschool programming like Mainly Mother Goose and Toddler Time to help them learn. Why do we forget the importance of these regulatory breaks as children grow older? Or even as we grow older?

There was a lot more to this workshop, of course. Some of this material can be found on the Child Trauma website Perry founded, at www.ChildTrauma.org. Scholastic also provides a section about him that will prove useful to teachers: http://teacher.scholastic.com/professional/bruceperry/.

Learning more about the brain can help us understand how best to approach and positively influence others, and I believe it's especially important for those of us who work with and write for children.

It's useful to think about how we learn, and visual images like the ones Perry uses can help make it easier to understand. Here's another image of brain mapping called "Knowledge Management," provided courtesy of Harold Jarche.

Marie Powell is the author of Dragonflies are Amazing! (Scholastic Canada, Grade Two Guided Reading, 2007).

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