Taking Responsibility for Personal Brain Care (Part 2)

This article continues the idea of introducing a student to the practicalities of caring for their own brain so that they learn how to take personal responsibility for what goes on inside their head. Once the concept of brain care is seen as something to watch out for, students are in a position to appreciate more readily the idea of taking responsibility for their own learning processes.

In this series about Effective Strategies and Tools for learning so far, we have included; students fully appreciating how they learn, identifying their personal strengths, and knowing how to support optimum brain health.  Last time, we covered the scientific reasons for drinking plenty of water and eating plenty of protein, to provide the necessary motivation if students are going to consider changing their habits in relation to what they eat and drink.

In this second part of the discussion about brain care, we look at two further habits that can impact on attainment. It is worth repeating here that I always insist on a learner asking me ‘why’ I am recommending a certain course of action. Who of us is going to do something just because someone else says we should? It seems to really help motivate students if they understand the full benefit of making a change, and taking responsibility for doing something about it for themselves.

We tend to think of exercise as something we do for the sake of our physical fitness, but it has a huge impact on brain power too! This can be a real problem, partly caused by the way in which we deliver lessons in secondary education, where students are sat down all day and no longer rush around the playground at break times. As the day wears on, their brains can get more and more sluggish, not through laziness, but because the room no longer contains sufficient oxygen for clear thinking.

This is particularly true in a full classroom with closed windows. Classes come and go all day, depleting the oxygen in the room each time. A simple solution is to open the window wide for a couple of minutes as classes change over, or at break times. Students may complain about the fresh air momentarily in colder climates, but will be more alert during the lesson! We are however looking specifically here at how students can take more responsibility for their own brain care, so I usually discuss with them exactly how exercise impacts on the brain.

We recall how they feel after running round a track or playing football, emphasising that the heart is beating faster and the lungs are breathing more deeply. But why? Because the muscles in the legs are being called upon to work harder than usual and therefore require more oxygen for the respiration process that produces the extra energy needed. The lungs are triggered by the body to breathe more deeply and pick up extra oxygen, whilst the heart is triggered to beat faster so that the oxygen gets to the muscles quicker.

So, what does this have to do with the brain? Well, the brain is a huge consumer of oxygen, so it thrives when all that extra oxygen is flowing through the bloodstream during exercise. Not every student has access to that level of timetabled exercise, but just walking around in the fresh air during breaks will help set up a learning brain for clearer thinking throughout the day!

Maybe the toughest of these strategies for young people to impact on for themselves is the amount of sleep they achieve. So many of the young people I work with are not sleeping well, which can be the result of trauma, some other environmental factor, or stress directly related to school. It may be that they need emotional support in order to gain better sleep patterns, but for some there are more obvious changes they can make if they are interested in academic progress. Again, understanding the impact that sleep has on what we can achieve, helps put a young person more in charge of their own destiny. So, when I tell them that getting enough sleep will help them to concentrate, by now I hope that they will automatically ask me ‘why’?

Later in our booster sessions a child or young person will learn more about their sub-conscious brain and how it can hinder academic progress, but for now, I introduce it as the part of the brain that does not sleep. The conscious part of our brain is what goes to sleep, which is why we become unaware of our surroundings and are not fully ‘conscious’. This however, is just what the sub-conscious brain (literally ‘under’ or ‘below’ consciousness) has been waiting for. It can take over, and start dealing with all the ‘input’ for that day.

We are taking in information the entire time through our five senses, even though much of it we are unaware of, as it usually gets filtered to prevent overload. (Some individuals with Asperger syndrome  struggle with an overwhelm of information that does not get filtered for them, creating a great deal of stress). Whilst we are asleep, the sub-conscious brain is able to ‘sort’ and categorise information, deciding where it belongs in relation to what we already ‘know’, and ‘filing’ it in the correct place. When we wake up, our head should be clear for the new day’s input!

Ever tried staying up all night? How clear was your head the next day? It helps a student to consider why sleep is necessary and work out if there is something positive that they can do personally to improve their sleep habits. It will depend how much they care about doing well in school, but students who understand that they have some level of control are more likely to think about reducing screen time before bed, going to be earlier, and having a wind down routine that helps them to sleep.

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