The Impact of Neuroscience on Learning
Great teachers know that when learning is fun, students retain information better. Now neurological science is backing them up. The neurotransmitter dopamine is generated by the brain during pleasurable activities. When the educational environment is positive, supportive, and enjoyable, dopamine is released in the brain, and information presented during those times sticks.
The amygdala, by contrast, produces the same hormones triggered by the fight or flight response. Researchers have found that a moderate degree of stress heightens attention and awareness, and can lead students to pay closer attention. But there is a diminishing return.
If stress levels rise too high, cortisol and other stress hormones inhibit the brain’s ability to absorb new information and recall old information. Ever blanked on a test? That was stress hormones at work. Students in at-risk environments are particularly susceptible. Students with stressful home lives will experience this phenomenon more than students who only experience stress at school. Daniela Kaufer, an associate professor in the integrative biology department at University of California Berkley, notes that a classroom environment that produces moderate stress for one student may be more than another can handle. This means teachers must be attentive to student needs and adapt as necessary.
Identifying Learning Disabilities
Apart from stress, conditions such as autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and dyslexia may interfere with a student’s ability to learn. Unfortunately, despite advances in neuroscience and brain-scanning technology, many learning disabilities are difficult to diagnose. In their book The Learning Brain, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Uta Frith wrote, “Because there are as yet no biological markers for most developmental disorders, the diagnosis depends on reports and analysis of behavior. This is not a trivial matter and the assessment tools used are constantly being improved.”
Although teachers and school counselors may see signs of learning disabilities in students, they are not always equipped to make a full diagnosis. Parents therefore may need to seek out a learning disability specialist to have their child evaluated. The school may be able to provide a list of practitioners for parents to interview. Be sure that the professional you choose is licensed by the state to make such a diagnosis, and specializes in working with children in the same age range as your child.
The type of testing your child will undergo will depend upon what problems have been identified. Below are a few of the tests available to students suspected of having learning disabilities.
Autism: According to Autism Speaks, a specially trained medical doctor or psychologist is needed to administer a behavioral evaluation for autism. One such test is called M-CHAT, for Modified Checklist of Autism in Toddlers. It asks parents questions about a child’s behavior, such as whether the child mimics other people’s facial expressions or seems hypersensitive to noises.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Evaluation for ADHD will include a medical examination to rule out other medical conditions. Although an MRI cannot diagnose ADHD, a doctor may order a scan to rule out brain abnormalities as a cause of a child’s behavior. Psychological testing will be performed, and observations by parents and teachers will be compiled.
Dyslexia: A variety of tests are available to screen for dyslexia. One is called the Gray Oral Reading Test (GORT-5), which evaluates a student’s ability to read a text aloud and demonstrate comprehension by answering questions about it.
Dyscalculia: This disorder is to math what dyslexia is to reading. One of the tests available to assess student performance with number is the Woodcock-Johnson IV Math Fluency subtest. This test requires students to perform a series of mathematical functions in a given time.
Whatever may be holding a student back in school, whether stress or a learning disability, once a diagnosis is reached, the parent and school can work together to create an Individualized Education Plan, which will help the school accommodate that student’s learning needs. Communication between parents, teachers, and counselors is key to identifying problem areas and helping students overcome them.
Resources for Parents
For questions to ask a learning disability professional, see http://www.readingrockets.org/article/having-your-child-tested-learning-disabilities-outside-school.
For more information about learning disabilities, including available testing options, visit www.understood.org.
The Florida Department of Education has several publications regarding learning disabilities available at http://www.fldoe.org/academics/exceptional-student-edu/ese-eligibility/specific-learning-disabilities-sld
The Central Florida Parent Center offers coaching for parents in creating Individualized Education Plans for students: http://centralfloridaparentcenter.org/what-we-do/one-on-one-assistance-with-ieps/