5 Important Things To Teach Students About The Brain

We’re all used to the term ‘21st century’ popping up in education articles, social media, and even in school staff rooms. It’s become normal to refer to yourself as a 21st century teacher, teaching in a 21st century classroom, using 21st century teaching methods that are centered on your 21st century students. While this popular term has definitely become quite the buzzword, there has been a lot of progressive methods and ideology that has stemmed from it.

One excellent notion that has come from 21st century thinking/teaching is a desire to understand how our brains work, and to figure out what processes are driving our actions and emotions. It is now common practice for educators to graduate from their teaching programs having learned about how the development and function of the brain can affect their students’ experiences in school. While this knowledge was once directed more toward the psychological fields of study, it is now considered as vital knowledge in education as well.

What’s even more impressive about this trend is that it has become common to actually teach students, including our youngest ones, about how the brain works. The goal is not to overwhelm them with information that is beyond their ability to grasp, but rather to provide them with a simplified version of the information that can help them to better understand what they are experiencing. In essence, the hope is that by understanding their brains better, our students will be able to more effectively deal with their thoughts, emotions, and capabilities.

Does this mean that teachers need to integrate a huge unit on brain anatomy and function into their already rushed curriculum? No,.. but there are definitely some key points that will benefit your students more than others. Below, you’ll find five of those points to share with your students. Additional information on any of these topics can easily be found online.


On Stress

It’s no secret that our students are stressed, and some more than others. ‘Test anxiety’ is something that many of our students experience, and the panic that makes it impossible to think is quite real.

The biggest problem? The brain perceives danger where there really is none, and reacts the way it would in a life-threatening situation. While stress does cause your brain to become very alert, the flight, fight, or freeze response is not ideal in the classroom. Our ‘animal brain’ is not known for its mental prowess.

Yes, a certain amount of stress has been shown to be helpful to learning. This happens when a person is feeling in control of their situation. The problem lies in how out-of-control some of our students tend to feel in class. By teaching them about stress and how it affects them, you can help your students to understand what is happening to them – and that it is a normal reaction. A great idea would be to pair this information with stress-management techniques they can employ when they start to feel the anxiety building up in them.

Teachers should take note of this too! While our students are said to be more stressed than ever, the same goes for us as educators.

On Maturity

Actually, research has shown that the brain continues to develop until about the age of 25. Basically, many people graduate from university without their brain being fully matured. Does this mean that university students can’t think or act appropriately? Absolutely not! What is does mean is that we need to understand where are students are in their development, and have realistic expectations based on their abilities.

The last part of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex. Why does this matter to educators? It matters because it is the part of the brain that is responsible for allowing you to control your impulses and to plan and organize your behavior to reach goals. This is the part of your brain that is responsible for rational thinking.

The next time you can’t understand why a third-grade student seems incapable of reacting appropriately when provoked (despite your best efforts to teach strategies), this information may help you to understand what is going on. More than that, it can help your students to understand what is happening. Think of the value in explaining to teenagers that they are predisposed to risky behavior because of their brain’s reward system. You could make them think twice before acting!

On Reading

Did you know that the brain starts to get ready for reading from the time we are babies? All of those babbling sounds we make are the building blocks for phoneme awareness, which is an important part of learning to read well.

How does this relate to the brain? Well, we now understand that it is not the ear that understands how spoken words are broken up. The language systems in the brain are actually responsible for mastering this complex task. For children who started practicing their sounds and letters early in life these systems have been found to be more developed.

Struggling readers are not broken, but they tend to feel that way. By teaching our students how reading is learned, we can teach them that they are actually developing a part of their brain until they are ready to read. The fact that others are further ahead in their development does not mean that they can’t learn. In fact, a basic understanding of how our brains learn to read can help guide teachers in choosing their methods for helping students along their path to literacy!

On Sleep

In today’s world of busy schedules, electronics, and abundances of extra-curricular activities and homework, children are getting less sleep than they used to. While some of our students are getting enough sleep to keep their brain healthy, others are staying up too late and getting up before they’ve gotten enough hours of rest.

While we can’t control what our students do at home, the effects of sleep deprivation can easily creep their way into our classrooms. While sleeping, the connections between the left and right hemispheres of the brain are being built and strengthened. This is especially important for the developing brains of children, and is one of the reasons why they need to sleep longer than adults do.

Studies have also shown that the things we learn are stored in the brain while we are sleeping, meaning that children create knowledge as they sleep. The things that they have subconsciously learned during the day are transformed and stored during the night, which makes future learning easier. Prolonged periods of sleep deprivation can potentially lead to greater gaps between students’ progress, as some struggle more while mastering new material.

Why teach students about the importance of sleep? The obvious answer is that they may very well change their habits if they know how sleep affects their brain. The next time they want to stay up ‘extra late’, your words of wisdom might just ring in their ears!

On Hydration

We now know that even mild dehydration can negatively impact a student’s experience in school. While in this state, students can experience fatigue, increased anxiety, difficulty with concentration, and other undesirable symptoms. None of the effects of dehydration create optimal conditions for learning.

One problem we have is that our brain only tells us we’re thirsty when we are already lacking in hydration. Mild dehydration is considered a loss of about 1.5% of our normal water volume, while the brain only sends the message that we are thirsty once we have lost 1-2% of our water volume. This means that for many students, some of the negative effects on learning are already present when they feel thirsty.

By teaching our students about the importance of drinking enough water, we can help prevent the symptoms of dehydration and the impact that those symptoms have on our students’ learning. Scheduled water breaks, or allowing for water bottles to be kept in class (and encouraging their use), are ways to promote healthy habits for our students. Teach them to water their brain!


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  1. Benjamin

    June 8, 2014 at 9:28 am

    You forgot the most important one…diet (nutrition).

    • Jennifer Rita

      June 9, 2014 at 9:58 pm

      Not forgotten, just omitted! I went for a few of the less mainstream/well-known (but nevertheless interesting) facts, while keeping the post length in check. You are absolutely correct – proper nutrition is very important! :)

  2. Sam Naskis

    June 11, 2014 at 1:06 am

    Thank you for this clear and approachable report to share with students (and beyond). I think I will challenge myself to “live” each area by example for my students….and a boost to my brain (even though it is serving me well past year 25)!

    • Jennifer Rita

      June 15, 2014 at 1:53 pm

      Thank you, Sam! I love your idea of modelling some healthy brain habits for your students to follow! We should never underestimate how much more of an impact our advice can have when our students see us ‘walking the talk’. :)

  3. Meghan McKindley

    June 14, 2014 at 9:19 pm

    These are some of the most important lessons we can teach young (or adult) students. Understanding the brain helps people realistically assess themselves and make improvements.

  4. raiseyouriq

    July 1, 2014 at 7:52 am

    Great article. The brain never stops learning so we need to take care of it. Understanding how our brain functions and its needs should be a topic that is discussed far more.