Brain Based Learning

by Marlene Resnick

Article #3 in our series on Parenting
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Marlene Resnick, M.A. is President of Parenting U International, an organization dedicated to helping parents and professionals work with children and families to do the best job possible. She is a parent who has been involved with parent education for over twenty years. You can order her book by clicking the link below:

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As someone who works with early childhood educators among whom the phrase Brain-Based learning is common, I forget that many people do not know what it means.

Brain-Based education means that we provide the best learning opportunities for each stage of the developing brain, as we understand it. How do babies and young children learn?

Many people equate learning for young children with academic skills such as reading and writing. However, in order to learn these skills, children have some benchmarks they must reach in order to be ready and receptive to developing literacy skills. There are certain windows of opportunity for some critical areas of development. This is because the wiring in the brain is connected to all the various domains of development. When these windows of opportunity are missed, there is no going back. For example, when a baby is born with cataracts, which prevents the eye from seeing, and corrective surgery is not done until the baby is 8 months old, that child will be blind even if the eye can technically see. This is because during infancy the stimulation of the eye triggers the connections in the brain. When those connections do not happen, the eye can't see and that window of opportunity closes.

When we talk about a Brain-Based approach to learning in infants, the first and foremost elements are human touch and human interaction. Babies need to be held, talked to, responded to, sung to, and played with. They need eye contact, which makes them feel connected and acknowledged. Affection, responsiveness and warm interaction are the watchwords. Babies also need the opportunity to learn to self regulate, meaning that we give them what they need to help them calm down. We provide quiet time and a soothing environment; we may hold them or rub their back; we may even position their limbs in a calming position. This is done by gently holding the arms together in front of the baby's body and holding the legs together, with the knees bent.

This position is especially effective for babies who have been exposed to cocaine in utero. These babies have a particularly hard time regulating their states, meaning they don't know how to calm themselves and may go from one extreme to the other very quickly. For example, they may go from a sound sleep directly to screaming, rather than slowly awakening and beginning to stir, starting to cry, and then escalating in intensity.

These babies are also often hyperextended. This means that their arms and legs are moving far away from their bodies. As you move the baby's limbs close to its body, the baby calms down. This is a simple illustration of how learning is mind-body. As the baby's limbs are organized in this calming position, the baby is quieted. When this is done over and over again, it learns how to position itself in order to calm down.

All stimuli are brain food to babies. How they are touched triggers specific hormones, what they see and hear trigger connections in the brain. When stress hormones are a big part of the daily diet, these chemicals actually change the structure of the developing brain. This type of development tends to increase impulsivity, and fight or flight responses in behavior.

Children learn with their entire bodies. This is why pre-schools are all about playing with other children. They are about manipulation of materials, and learning how to cooperate, how to control behaviors and master physical skills. An important goal is to inspire children to channel their natural curiosity into a lifelong love of learning. This doesn't happen with flash cards.

When parents ask questions like, "Why aren't you teaching my child to write?" the early childhood educator will explain that before children can write they need to develop the small muscles in the hand in order to hold a crayon or pencil correctly. They will need to develop the hand-eye coordination required to accomplish this task, and they will need to understand the relationship between sound and the written word.

Social and emotional skills are the work of the pre-school child. Those of us who work in pre-school centers often hear, "Use your words." This is because children, at this age, have just recently gone from being pre-verbal to verbal. When they get excited, they sometimes forget that they can say what they want; they don't have to cry or hit. Adults sometimes forget this as well.

Brain-Based learning is a process that utilizes the natural elements of brain development, as well as the natural windows of opportunity, that open wide during different stages of development. In addition, it requires that we understand the key principles of Brain-Based learning.

1. These key principles have been summarized by Renate and Geoffrey Caine in their book published in 1991, titled: MAKING CONNECTIONS, Teaching and the Human Brain.

2. Each brain is totally unique and develops on its own timetable.
3. Stress and threat impact the brain in many ways: They reduce capacity for understanding, meaning and memory. They reduce higher order thinking skills.

4. Emotions run the brain. Bad ones flavor all attempts at learning, while good ones create an excitement and love of learning.

5. The neocortex is strongly run by patterns, not facts. We learn best with themes, patterns, whole experiences.

6. We learn in multi-path, simultaneous style: auditory, kinesthetic, conscious and non-conscious. We do most poorly when we "piecemeal" learning into linear, sequential math facts and other out-of-context information lists.

7. Our memory is very poor in rote, semantic situations. It is best in contextual, episodic event-oriented situations.

8. All learning is mind-body. Our physiology, state, posture, and breathing all affect how we learn.

9. We need to feed the brain. Our brains are stimulated by challenge, novelty and feedback in our learning environments.

10. Ritual is a way for the reptilian brain to have productive expression. More positive and productive rituals can lower perceived stress and threat. The brain is poorly designed for formal instruction. It is designed to learn what it needs to learn to survive.

11. Our brain is designed for ups and downs, cycles and rhythms, not constant attention. The terms "on-" or "off-task" are irrelevant to the brain.

12. Most of what is critical to the brain and learning cannot be assessed. The best learning is often the creation of biases, themes, models and patterns of deep understanding.


How can we understand these principles that Renate and Geoffrey Caine have outlined regarding brain development and how that relate to literacy? To provide the necessary elements for laying the foundation for good literacy skills, keep these things in mind:


Everything takes place in the context of environment. A young child's sense of safety is critical for optimal brain development. Fear and threat should be absent, while a sense of challenge will help to excite and engage a child's attention.


Everything takes place in the context of relationships. Social skills, such as learning to cooperate, play and explore together, learning to share, developing friendships, learning to solve problems together, and negotiating conflicts peacefully all contribute to developing a frame work that nurture the ability to listen and to focus. Adults who care and who listen to children, teach them to care and to listen to others. Adults who model appropriate behavior teach children those behaviors. Adults who set limits firmly and with kindness, when children are out of control, help them learn self-control and respect for themselves and other.


Every environment and every interaction has an emotional quality. Children have powerful emotions. Adults who accept children's emotions, help them name their emotions and find appropriate ways to express them provide children with acceptable models of behavior and engender empathy. Remember, literacy skills are nurtured when a child has:

1. A basic understanding of the relationship between print and the spoken word
2. An excitement about learning

3. Comprehension and the opportunity to use new words .

4. An understanding of simple numerical concepts

5. An opportunity for artistic expression including: drawing, singing, dance and music.

Marlene Resnick

President of Parenting U International

* Marlene's book is available directly through and is posted in The Well, our on -line store.

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Editors note:

Marlene's segment is an opportunity for parents and professionals to explore issues regarding parenting and the challenges we all face in raising children. This series invites you to network, dialog, and problem solve on a number of topics. We look forward to your participation.

Dr. Stephen J. Bavolek, founder of The Nurturing Programs wrote: "Your book is terrific and is very compatible with the philosophy of nurturing."
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