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The Brains Behind Learning, Part 10

March 06,2013

by Gretchen Cruden

Perhaps I may be biased. Okay, I will openly admit I am beyond biased, guilty as charged and completely blinded by my own child on this one. Thea, my three-year old daughter, has the most gorgeous mane of blonde hair known to toddler-kind. So soft, so amazingly long and so, so very difficult to get a brush through without a major tantrum on both our parts. Have you ever been there? The mere sight of the brush brings on a crying jag in her that would challenge even the most stoic of moms. Every day the same arms-flailing fit. I began to feel like an executioner and it wasn’t even 7:00 a.m. What to do? My solution? Cut her hair of course; pixies are adorable!

But my husband comes from a long line of long-haired women. Wow, that did not come out right. But, his mother has hair down to the middle of her back and I am quite sure cutting our daughter’s hair would not be an option in his eyes. Cruden women have long hair. It must be a Scottish thing.

Thank goodness for Pavlov and thank goodness for asking myself the hard questions from the last article, such as, “am I prepared to attempt this task every day?” (Is there a tasty breakfast tidbit for her to be distracted by? A movie popped into the DVD for a moment? Or am I preparing these things with brush in hand and a squalling three-year old in tow?) What role am I playing in her angst? (Have I given up on the “soft” approach and thus, the wails of “It hurts!” before the brush has even been drawn from behind my back creating a self-fulfilling prophecy?) The answers to these questions helped guide my final solution, and no, there was not a Dorothy Hamill hairdo involved. But there was ‘mass extinction.’

In the field of psychology there is a term called extinction that has nothing to do with dinosaurs and everything to do with changing behaviors. Recall that classical conditioning is the process by which the brain rewires itself upon repeated exposure to stimuli to connect two unrelated experiences. Pavlov’s dog, Norka, would eventually salivate at the sound of a bell after the bell was rung repeatedly at meal time. Using the process of extinction, Norka’s salivating response to the bell was extinguished by repeatedly presenting the bell without the food.   

In our household, we needed some serious extinction and fast. Solution? I thought about my role in this situation, that we already had some pretty ingrained behaviors and actions that would require a lot of unlearning and quite frankly, I did not think she and I could continue on without a major change. And so I did it. I handed the brush of doom over to her daddy and let him take a crack at it. The extinction that occurred next was beyond phenomenal.

No longer is her hair brushed in the morning when she is most cranky, it is brushed and braided at night by her dad. He is a gentle sort. He talked her through the whole process as she sat perched on the counter and looked at herself in the mirror. When she was done, she hopped off the counter and said, “Thanks Dad.” That quick, that easy and that painless. The best part? The braid can stay in for a whole two days without a fight! Extinction at its finest!

Now, what does all this have to do with learning? The process of extinction is similar for physical behaviors (hair-brushing tantrums) as it is for mental behaviors (think of your teen’s face screwed up into the “Really, math again?” face).

We have been looking at learning situations that have gone awry in the last few articles and have asked ourselves the tough questions of what role we played in creating the dynamic. We have looked for solutions from our end of things and are now prepared to hand the metaphorical “brush of doom” off to our child.

Now, the benefit of working with a child older than a toddler in the throes of a hair crisis is that you can also engage him/her in the process of extinction. Begin with talking to your child about how he or she feels when sitting down to do the work. Does your child feel anxious? Remember, when the mind is stressed by a perceived threat (such as failure) it will release cortisol which will not only block the mind from actually acquiring new information, but will also send a chemical signal to the person that acts like Pavlov’s bell ringing and embed even more deeply the feelings of anxiety associated with the situation. Talking about the anxious feelings can help prevent the release of cortisol. 

Another reason to talk? Engaging your child in talking about him or herself actually releases dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter that is generated in the reward center of the brain. In a study done at Harvard University, people underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging MRI’s as they talked about both positive and negative parts of their lives. Regardless of the quality of the experience, dopamine was released when the person spoke about his or her own life and felt an immediate “mental” reward. Remember, part of the process of extinction is to remove the unrelated stimulus, which in this case is negative (anxiety). It is a bonus that the act of removing this anxiety is then replaced with a positive emotion as your child talks about him or herself. An even greater benefit is that dopamine acts much like a “save” button for the mind and the experiences your child has while this chemical is increased are actually more richly encoded in his or her memories. 

As you talk with your child about the work, listen carefully for phrases such as, “I just cannot do it,” “I am not smart enough,” and my personal favorite, “It is stupid,” as this really is meaning, “This is making me feel stupid.” All of these are easily recognized as negative statements to you, the listener. To your child, they are not simply negative thoughts, they are very real beliefs that loom as reality in the mind. In the field of psychology they are referred to as Automatic Negative Thoughts or ANT’s. They too are a conditioned response to the situations your child has experienced and need to be extinguished. But, how to do this? How do you stomp out the ANT’s?

Help your child explore these negative thoughts. Most importantly, help them recognize that they are even having these thoughts to begin with and that learning to stop these thoughts will GREATLY reduce the cortisol released in their minds as they prepare to learn. From there, guide them to the realization of the power these thoughts are having over them and work towards helping them see how untrue the thoughts are. Allow your child to again talk about him or herself again (that sweet release of dopamine ) and help them question the validity of their thinking. 

You may then help your child reframe his or her thoughts. “I just cannot do it” becomes “I just cannot do it using the same tactics I have tried so far. I need to try a new approach.” I am not smart enough” becomes “I do not have the skills I need yet to do this, but I can learn those skills and then tackle this problem. I am smart enough to figure out a way to do this.” Reframing your thinking reduces the cortisol produced and actually again increases the dopamine. It is a win-win.

Lastly, explore with your child how you could effectively change the learning environment to better suit your child. Would a different time of day be better for more analytical learning (such as math)? Would it be better to do this learning after a meal? Before a meal? With music? Without music? Is your child physically comfortable doing the work? Would a different place be more conducive to learning? Does your child need shorter sessions interspersed throughout the day? Does your child need longer sessions and not the pressure of time? In essence, what can you change physically about the learning environment that will serve to sever any past negative associations your child may have had with the learning experience? Decide these actions together and then do them.

Talking about the anxiety in a learning situation with your child, opening the door to hear your child’s thoughts and what he or she is telling themselves about their own learning are two powerful tools to extinguish associated negative feelings. Couple these actions with changing your own preparations of lessons, the venue in which you are going to do the lessons and your emotional responses to the situation at hand and you will be sure to be on a successful path of learning. 

As for me? I am ready to face tomorrow morning without a single feeling of dread now that the Great Brush Debacle of 2013 is firmly behind our family. Thank you Pavlov and the power of extinction! (And thank you, husband!)


A passion for learning and a desire to help kids be incredibly strong thinkers and remain joyful in their learning are the driving forces behind Gretchen Cruden's thirteen years of public school teaching at the middle and high school grade levels. She holds a BA in Education, a BS in Biology, an MA in Teaching and is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) and an NBCT Facilitator. Her background in science, coupled with her experience in education fuel an intense interest in the emerging field of neuro-education and its application to student learning.