Build a Better Brain

–Delana H. Stewart

anatomy, brain, human anatomy, body sculpture, digestive systemOf my huge stack of education books to read this year, I just finished Teaching with the Brain in Mind by Eric Jensen.  The author gives an easy to understand explanation of how the brain works and how to interpret brain research. He also provides educators, parents, and students with interesting and supported information on what improves learning and what does not.  Here are some thoughts and some quotes from this excellent resource:

  • A developing brain needs an education that “encourages the exploration of alternative thinking, multiple answers, and creative insights” (p. 16).
  • Traditional ways of doing school “narrow our thinking and options” (p. 16).

How are kids different today (p. 18)?

  • Kids eat less natural foods and more preservatives, chemicals, and additives.
  • They take more medications and are exposed to more drugs.
  • Many are raised in single parent families with fewer resources.
  • Kids spend less time playing physically and playing outdoors, and they spend more time doing sedentary activities like watching television and playing on computers or computer games.
  • They receive less motor and sensory stimulation in the first five years of life.

When does school readiness begin and what effects does this have on the brain (pp. 19-21)?

  • It begins in the womb, with most brain cells being produced during the 4th-7th months.
  • What a woman eats as well as avoids affects the infant’s developing brain.
  • Reduce stress during pregnancy.
  • Emotional intelligence develops early, and “an infant’s relationship with its primary caretaker often determines whether the child develops learning problems.” A troubled or stressed relationship causes glucose to be consumed rather than “used for early cognitive functions.”
  • Children need nurturing, caring handling and connections during the first year of life in order not to become “emotionally corrupt.”
  • “If parents understood the developmental opportunities in the infant’s brain during those months, they might change their decision about who’s minding their baby.”
  • Children today often do not receive enough stimulation necessary for school readiness.
  • Soon after birth, the brain begins to shed unneeded or unused cells and connections.
  • The talents, abilities, and experiencing we give our children in their first few years of life (beginning with conception) customize their brain.  And, the things they do not get to experience also greatly determine what they will be able to do or not do when they are older.
  • Development of motor skills in the first few years affect reading, writing, attention, memory, and sensory development.
  • Jensen quotes Restak regarding the effects of rocking on an infant’s brain, and how it causes infants to develop their vision, hearing, and weight gain more rapidly.

Language Development and the brain (p. 23)

  • Dyslexia and stuttering are often related to a stressful pregnancy.
  • Parents who talk frequently and use adult vocabulary with their infants develop children with better language skills. Reading to our infants and young children also greatly impact this development.

Daytime Sleepiness in children (pp. 24-25)

  • Teenagers’ bodies have a delayed accumulation of oleamide (a natural drowsiness-inducing chemical). This causes their body clocks to have a more natural bedtime of midnight and wake-up time of 8 a.m. Jensen says, “They should be able to get to sleep earlier, but they can’t.”
  • Jensen suggests school start times as follows: Elementary—7:30 a.m., Middle and high school—9:30 a.m.

How Food Affects the Brain and Learning (pp. 25-26)

  • Simple carbohydrates that most American school children eat are insufficient for basic learning and memory (not to mention optimal).
  • For optimal learning, we need more fruits and vegetables and complex carbs.
  • Food allergies that are prevalent today can also cause behavioral and learning problems.
  • Best brain foods are: leafy green veggies, salmon, nuts, lean meats, and fresh fruits.
  • “Vitamin and mineral supplements can boost learning, memory, and intelligence.”
  • Calpain, from dairy products such as yogurt and milk and from leafy greens, cleanse synapses in the brain and dissolve protein build-up, allowing the brain to work more efficiently.
  • Dehydration can cause poor learning.  “The brain is made up of a higher percentage of water than any other organ.” Lack of enough water causes loss of attention and lethargy.

Note: See the chart on p. 27 of Jensen’ on what parents can do from birth to 60 months to prepare children emotionally, visually, auditorily, musically, physically, and through good nutrition.

How Environment Affects the Brain (pp. 30-33)

  • A negative environment adversely affects the brain, so start by removing threats, embarrassment, finger-pointing, unrealistic deadlines, humiliation, sarcasm, and bullying.
  • Exercise (repeat motor learning) increases the density of blood vessels in the brain.
  • Environment can change a person’s IQ “as much as 20 points up or down.”
  • Jensen quotes one neuroscientist’s study showing that autopsies on graduate students had 40 percent more connections in their brains than the brains of high school dropouts.
  • “Frequent new learning experiences and challenges (are) critical to brain growth.”
  • In the early school years, our children’s brains learn fastest and easiest; therefore, it is necessary that their brains receive “stimulation, repetition, and novelty” to prepare them for later learning.
  • Novelty alone is not enough, it must be challenging and require interactive feedback.drama, caesar, play, boy reading lines
  • “When we feel valued and cared for, our brain releases the neurotransmitters of pleasure: endorphins and dopamine.” This can often occur in cooperative learning environments.

Providing Enrichment for the Brain (pp. 34-40)

  • For cell development in the auditory cortex, parents ought to read to their children at least as early as 6 months of age.
  • Language learning should take place prior to puberty because after puberty important connections have almost disappeared.
  • Schools should expose kids to “larger, more challenging vocabularies and to foreign languages by age 12.”
  • Parents and teachers reading to children provide an excellent source of increasing vocabulary.
  • Writing also helps develop vocabulary, and children’s brains can more easily learn cursive than print.
  • Motor stimulation is essential not only during elementary school but still highly beneficial during secondary schooling years.
  • Motor stimulation should not just occur during PE or recess, but we should “expect students to use their bodies for kinesthetic learning in the academic classes.”
  • “The single best way to grow a better brain is through challenging problem solving. This creates new dendritic connections that allow us to make even more connections.”
  • Simple, concrete problem solving can begin at age 1 or 2.
  • Between ages 4 and 7, the right hemisphere experiences a spurt of dendritic branching.
  • Between ages 9 and 12, this occurs in the left hemisphere.
  • The brain is ready for complex abstractions between ages 11-13.
  • Students need to be exposed to a variety of approaches of problem solving (“on paper, with a model, with an analogy or metaphor, by discussion, with statistics, through artwork, through demonstrations”).
  • Interestingly, the answer to a problem is not what enriches the brain, however, the “neural growth happens because of the process.”
  • The brain needs to be stimulated by hard problems to solve regardless of coming up with the answer, not by easy problems with correct answers.
  • Science experiments, building projects, puzzles, word games, real world problems  and hypotheticals are excellent ways to develop the brain.
  • Arts and music and movement should not be optional but should be a critical requirement for learning.
  • “Boredom is more than annoying for teens—it may be thinning their brains!” The good news is that the shrinkage can be reversed in 4 days.

What affects the brains ability to pay attention (p.48)?

  • Choices in content, timing, partners, projects, process, environment or resources hold attention much better than directed teaching with no student input, or working alone.
  • Relevant, personal topics related to the family, community, or life stages hold attention better than impersonal, out of context materials given only for the purpose of a test.
  • Engaging, emotional, energetic, physical lessons with learner-imposed deadlines and peer pressure hold attention better than passive, disconnected, low interaction, lectures or seatwork.
  • Balance novelty and ritual. Novelty grabs attention, while ritual provides structure ofor low stress.
  • Read pp. 48-51 of Jensen’s book for information regarding ADD.
  • Read pp. 55-61 to understand the effects of stress, threats, and the development of learned helplessness.

How emotion affects the brain (pp. 74-81)

  • “Our emotions are our personalities and help us make most of our decisions.”
  • “Teachers who help their students feel good about learning through classroom success, friendships, and celebrations are doing the very things the student brain craves.”
  • Having students set goals and explain why they want to reach those goals gives them the energy needed to accomplish them.
  • Use journal writing, discussion,, sharing, stories, and reflection time to engage students emotionally and personally.
  • “Good learning engages feelings.”

Movement and the brain (pp. 82-89) girl on rope, boy on rope, rope swing, swinging, playing in yard

  • Playground games that involve balance, turning, spinning, coordination, swinging, rolling, and jumping stimulate the inner-ear and help our brains to regulate incoming sensory data.
  • “The part of the brain that processes movement is the same part of the brain that’s processing learning.”
  • Sensory integration therapy is often used with children who are autistic or brain-damaged or have other learning challenges. Studies have shown that “autistic children have smaller cerebellums and fewer cerebellar neurons.”
  • Many teachers find that productive play helps students to learn more easily.
  • Students involved in dance activities saw an increase of 13 percent in 6 months in their reading scores. The dancing involved “spinning, crawling, rolling, rocking, tumbling, pointing, and matching.”
  • Infants deprived of touching and physical activity “may not develop the movement-pleasure link in the brain.” These children may become violent.
  • Exercise “fuels the brain with oxygen” enhancing growth and improving connections.
  • Daily physical activity greatly improves academic performance and attitude.
  • “Give a school daily dance, music, drama, and visual art instruction in which there is considerable movement, and you might get a miracle.”
  • Having fun “decreases stress and improves the functioning of the immune system for three days after the fun.”
  • “Sensory-motor experiences feed directly into (children’s) brains’ pleasure centers.”
  • Teachers should not leave it all to the music, art, and PE instructors, but should learn to incorporate movement in the regular classroom through stretching, role-playing, games, goal-setting walks, etc.

The Brain’s Memory and Recall Ability (pp. 99-112)

  • Calcium deficiency is linked to memory-loss. A chemical found in calcium improves alertness and attention.
  • Adrenaline can lock up memories.
  • Lecithin (found in eggs, salmon, and lean beef) contains a substance that boosts recall.
  • Recall is boosted when the learning is acquired under the same state as the recall (sad, happy, stressed, or relaxed).  Studies have been done showing that even something as simple as if you eat chocolate when learning and then eat chocolate again when being tested, then you will recall more.
  • We often remember or recall things based on location. When asked what we had for dinner, we first think about where we were last night. Likewise, this process can cue the brain for recall. Try studying for each part of a chapter in a different location. Then when you need to recall information from that chapter for a chapter test, your brain stored it in chunks based on location.
  • Anything learned physically and hands-on will improve the ability to recall that information.
  • Rhymes, mneumonics, semantics, music, and discussion all enhance memory and recall.

For more tips, check out Eric Jensen’s book Teaching with the Brain in Mind. It is available from for about $23 or $15 for the Kindle edition.

An online study guide for this book is available for free from the publisher:,-2nd-edition-by-Eric-Jensen.aspx

Find out more about the author, Eric Jensen on his website:


Note: Check out what one mom did to help her kids’ brains develop better:


Do cell phones affect the brain? Read what Quantum of Knowledge has to say:

Here’s a funny illustration about “upgrading” your memory:

Here’s a scientific article about a man who had such a vivid and excellent memory that he couldn’t forget:


See also:

DIY: Get Your Brain in Gear–Do Something!

Can Exercise Improve My Memory?

brain, Education, Homeschool

17 thoughts on “Build a Better Brain

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  14. Thanks for the info! I teach junior high Latin and Spanish, and I think this will help me with my lessons…I’ve noticed a lot of the things mentioned in the article, such as using movement, songs, memory games, really improve the students’ ability to recall information. And I like that it was pointed out that the brain enjoys stimulation and working to solve hard problems, regardless of a solution being reached.
    Really interesting read. Thanks.

    • I am glad you enjoyed the review of Jensen’s book. There are some other articles on my blog regarding language learning and bilingualism that might also interest you. Thank you for the referring article on your site. 🙂

  15. Hi, and thanks for the plug!
    I have the third installment of the saga coming up in the next week or two. I hope sooner rather than later. 😉

  16. This sounds like a really interesting book. I am fascinated with neurobiological approaches to learning and parenting. I shall have to see if I can get hold of a copy from our local library.

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