As our children prepare for their first day of school next month, they'll fill their knapsacks with the usual notebooks, pencils and even laptops. What most of them won't bring to school is an understanding of the most important tool they're going to use - their brains.
As neuroscientists, we're dismayed that we don't give our students the most basic information about the care and use of their brains. Research reveals there are a number of things students can do to improve their performance both inside and outside the classroom. We're not talking about smart pills or expensive imaging. We're talking about teaching a student what he needs to know about his brain, so he can use it properly.
Students can improve brain function without a moment of additional study - no extra books or tutoring sessions
It all starts with attitude. Other researchers have found that students have one of two basic beliefs about their brains. They either believe their brain function is fixed and they're stuck with the capabilities with which they were born, or they can improve their brain function and accomplish harder tasks. The latter group takes risks because they know that learning and growth comes from failure. These kids tend to be more successful.
The good news is students can learn the "growth" mindset. Simply letting them know that learning improves with practice and training makes a measurable difference in performance. This belief works well for disadvantaged kids.
There's more good news. Students can improve brain function without a moment of additional study - no extra books or tutoring sessions. They need to make three simple lifestyle changes: (1) Sleep at least eight to nine hours a night. Sleep deprivation can impair learning as much as brain damage. When you sleep, the brain consolidates what you learned when you were awake. (2) Eat a breakfast with protein (even cereal with a generous serving of milk) to provide a sustained source of blood sugar, which is essential to alertness. This avoids the rush and crash of a high-sugar breakfast. (3) Move every day - dance, walk, skateboard, whatever. Exercise leads to development of new brain cells and improves memory.
So why not just tell students what to do, then give them a brochure to take home to their parents? Well, because there's much more to learn. Change takes knowledge, motivation, time and practice, and the support of the home and community. It can't be done in 10 minutes, but it can be taught, aided by daily messages from parents, teachers and the media.
Because improved brain function leads to improved school performance, schools should be eager to teach this lesson.
So why don't school curriculums include training about the brain? Perhaps one reason is we scientists haven't stressed the importance of brain health. If we did this, educators could include brain information throughout the school environment. Also, schools are required to do high-stakes testing for the basic courses, and perhaps they feel there isn't time for something as unusual as teaching about the brain. We have a solution that should please everyone.
Most school systems are required to teach a health curriculum for all students. We think this is one place to include formal instruction about the brain. Almost every goal of current curriculums relates in some way to the brain - exercise, sex, media literacy or substance abuse. Because improved brain function leads to improved school performance, schools should be eager to teach this lesson.
Teaching students about brain health gives them some control over their own learning, is not expensive and doesn't add to a school's burden. We need to change our mindsets and teach students about the most important tool they have - their brain.
Wilkie Wilson is a research professor of prevention science at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and Cynthia Kuhn is a professor of pharmacology and cancer biology. Both are affiliated with Duke's Center for Child and Family Policy.