Principal, Langdon School – Steven Feifer, D.Ed, and Douglas Toffalo Ph.D are leading experts on cognitive neuropsychology in their latest book, A Scientific Approach to Reading, which offers teachers and parents a firm understanding of how the brain learns to read and how teachers can prevent learning barriers.

Since I can remember I have heard students at all grade levels talk about their natural ability to be a logical or a mathematical thinker. They would say comments such as, “I’m good at math or my parents aren’t good at math and neither am I, or this is too hard for me.”  Somehow along they way they have decided that their brain either has the ability or does not have the ability for math. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a strong believer in Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. However, I also have read compelling arguments in research (Feifer). How can an elementary student already know they are not proficient in mathematics and never will be? The answer is, they can’t know. Here is where the teacher, the parent, and the school culture must come into play. What does prevent the long-term storage of math skills in the brain? Feifer talks about various reasons to why students struggle, have trauma, anxiety, executive functioning issues, learning disabilities and more. You can find the list in their latest books, “Integrating RTI With Cognitive Neuropsychology: A Scientific Approach to Reading”.  One that resonates with myself, is anxiety.  

Anxiety and Learning

“As Hopko, Ashcraft, and Gute (1998) noted, the central executive system lies particularly vulnerable in the anxious brain of a math student.  The central executive system serves primarily to suppress or inhibit any negative distractors that may have an adverse effect on problem solving.  If this mechanism is not functioning efficiently or perhaps is preoccupied by worrisome thoughts, the central executive system becomes consumed with directing cognitive resources toward more rudimentary flight or flight response” (Feifer & Toffal, p. 59).

Master teachers are aware of student anxiety because they are keenly aware of their student needs. However, today we still make the error of putting students in positions where a) we have not helped them deal with their anxiety (whether, social, emotional or academic), or b) we put them into situations where they need to perform under undue stress.

I remember taking a psychology class in university (1996) where our professor openly talked about how the exams will be tough to finish in the time he is going to give us. I found this intriguing as to why a professor would design such an experience; he continued to inform us that only the brightest will do well on the exam, and the majority will hit the bell curve. Do you think the anxiety level of my class went up at that moment? You bet. Though my experience is personal and may not represent the masses, let me tell you what happened. For each exam I put in countless hours of studying, I can remember being anxious and worried that I would not remember the hundreds of pages of information and lecture notes. In the first three exams, I achieve the bell curve. For myself, this was disappointing given the hours of preparation. On the fourth exam I decided to try something different, (partly due to frustration and partly due to curiosity), I chose only to review my notes and reading but did not take the time to memorize. I decreased my studying time by 80 percent. My “gut” was telling me my memory recall was being interrupted during the exam. Can you guess what happened? You guessed it; I achieved the same result, the curve. At this moment, I began to understand that my anxiety level was preventing my short-term memory recall from occurring. One might argue I did not spend enough time memorizing, or that I had a faulty study system, however, my other courses did not have this issue.

Students are at the whim of their thinking, social constructs, teacher comments, and the environment they learn in. Whether we are an adult in a university setting or a grade 4 student, effective learning requires us to be in an anxiety free classroom (Feifer & Toffal0, p. 66).

Helping Teachers 

Sometimes, adults will use forms of motivation that fall on the competition or manipulation side of learning. For instance, we use skill and drill with a timed response in many of our classrooms. I am not saying you can’t have a time limit, but the time is what we ask students to focus on, not skill of strengthening the neural pathways. Neuroscientists will tell you we must still have repetition for skill development to strengthen neural pathways, but this is not what I am referring to. Throughout Canada we see systems in Mathematics that promote speed recall where students are both leveled and pressured to perform under time constraints. We also see teachers using comments such as, “You should have learned that last year? I don’t have time to teach this again!”, “You need this for the next grade, you better get it right.”, “If you don’t learn this you will not be successful next year.”, and  “This is necessary knowledge; how can you not know this?”  Comments like these and more, do not motivate students; they create anxiety.  Students today are keenly aware of what is being said to them, and over time, they will begin to believe certain untruths about themselves, especially when they are confronted with failure due to the inability to recall learning while under stress or because it was learned under pressure.

6 ways schools can practically remove barriers:

  1. School-wide programs for classroom culture including practical techniques for dealing with stress and anxiety.
  2. Educating students on mental health, from the standpoint of how to have sound mental health and how to help others who are lacking it.
  3. CDA (Child Development Advisor) must have effective processes for guiding especially anxious students.
  4. Teacher training on both positive classroom culture and brain-based learning. (Given our learnings of the brain in the 21st Century, this goes without saying).
  5. Have an RTI system in the school to help students with areas of struggle, resulting in greater confidence.
  6. Jurisdictional support for students with high needs (top of the pyramid) for appropriate school resources.

Appendix:
Integrating RTI With Cognitive Neuropsychology: A Scientific Approach to Reading
Steven G. Feifer, DEd, and Douglas A. Della Toffalo, PhD

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