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Is Today’s Lifestyle Hampering Children’s Brain Development?

By Tom Shenk

Unfortunately, I believe the answer to the question posed in the headline to this article is “Yes.”  My study of recent brain research tells me that students today have more brain development issues than did children of past generations. If you’ve been working with children for more than 20 years, you may have seen this trend playing out in your classrooms. Even if you haven’t, consider these statistics:

• In 1980, only 1 in 10,000 children was diagnosed with autism. Today that number is a jaw-dropping 1 in 88.

• ADHD diagnoses have grown 2000 percent since 1990.

These are just a few examples. If you do a little research, you’ll find the same dramatic increases in dyslexia, Asperger’s, Tourette’s Syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder, and other learning disabilities. One in 5 children today has some form of neurological disorder. Many attribute this to healthcare professionals being better equipped to identify disorders, or to over-diagnosing, but I don’t believe that to be the whole story. A recent study found that those two factors account for only 40 percent of the increase in neurological disorders, which means the other 60 percent is real. The bottom line is that more and more of your students are entering your classroom with less-than-healthy brain development—and the trend is likely to get worse.

“That’s pretty depressing,” you may be thinking, “Is there anything we can do to change all that?” Luckily, I think the answer is also “Yes!” To understand how we might be able to help, we need to understand what type of environment nurtures proper brain development. I’ll explain in two steps.

For step one, travel back with me in human history to the period before we learned to farm—when we hunted and gathered our food. What was life like in those days for a society of hunter-gatherers? Did they eat differently than we do today? What did they do for fun?  How much physical activity did they get? What kind of social life did they experience? How did children (and adults) learn new things? Compare your ideas to mine on the following list.

Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyle
 Recreation
 Games
 Dancing, singing, instruments
 Storytelling
 Conversation
 Art
 Handicrafts
 Physical Activity
 Hard physical labor
 Walked an average of 12 miles/day
 Social/Emotional
 Family/clan
 High level of social interactions daily
 Cooperated to survive
 Nutrition
 Mostly meat, fruits, veggies, eggs and nuts
 Fresh foods with no additives
 Drank mostly water
 Environment
 Natural sunlight
 Fresh air
 Regular sleep patterns from sunset to sunrise
 Learning
 Real world, hands-on experiences while moving (work and play)
 Exploratory and experimental
 Self-directed and spontaneous
 Personal and emotional connection
 Multi-sensory
 Often through stories
 1-on-1 or small groups, mixed ages
 Very social: done while talking and interacting with others
 Through observation & looking for patterns in nature
 Naturally learned things when developmentally ready

For step two, brainstorm some ideas for this question: “According to brain research, what activities, experiences and environmental factors best stimulate healthy brain development?” Are you ready for the big “aha” moment? Take a look at the next list. It’s a list of “stimulators” that brain research shows is critical for proper wiring of the human brain.

Needs for Healthy Brain Development
 Movement
 A rich sensory environment
 Proper nutrition
 Proper hydration
 Proper sleep
 Low stress levels
 A safe, loving environment
 Exploration of emotions
 Hands-on experiences
 Self-directed exploration
 Music experiences
 Dancing
 Storytelling
 Free play
 Imagination experiences
 Social interaction
 Conversation
 Personal connections to what’s being learned
 Learning when developmentally ready

Does any of that look familiar? If you carefully compare these two lists, you’ll see it: We still have the brain of a hunter-gatherer!

How is that possible? We left the hunter-gatherer lifestyle behind a very long time ago. Well, here’s a little-known fact that will help explain how this is true.  How much of our human history do you think we spent as hunter-gatherers?  Let’s pretend that all of human history has been condensed into one year, with January 1 as the day when early man first came on the scene, and December 31 as the present.  At what point do you think humans learned to farm during that “year” of human history? February 7? November 24?  July 13? You ready for the surprising answer? Here it is: If all of human history were condensed into one year, we would’ve learned to farm…yesterday, December 30!  That’s right! We’ve spent 364 “days” as hunter-gatherers and only 1 “day” as farmers. That means that for the vast majority of our history, our brains had wired themselves to be most successful in a hunter-gatherer environment. So, our brains simply have not had a chance to adapt to modern life, especially the past fifty years as TV and computer technology have dramatically changed our lifestyle. Look again at the first list. How many children do you know that grow up in an environment like that? Not many, and I believe that’s why so many children are developing these brain dysfunctions. And the problem is probably even bigger. This lack of healthy brain development is most certainly affecting more than just the children who have been diagnosed with a learning problem. Talk to teachers and they’ll tell you that for every diagnosed student they teach, they have two or three more “weak learners” for whom school is a constant struggle.

Allow me to support my hunter-gatherer theory with this amazing story comparing city and tribal children from Kwa Zulu, South Africa. The city children grow up much like children in the U.S., but the tribal children grow up in a very different way.  This is what their tribal environment is like:

The nuclear family is very close, and there is a very high level of social harmony in the tribe. Newborns receive lots of love and touch from all the adults, who take personal responsibility for all tribal children. As they grow, their time is spent carving, weaving, taking care of animals, painting, singing, dancing, gathering firewood, storytelling, and playing creatively. All tribal members come together for evening meals, which are filled with conversation, tribal news, storytelling, and singing. Not surprisingly, they have no exposure to books, educational television, or educational technology.

And how does this hunter-gatherer environment affect the tribal children’s brains? Well, at the start of each school year approximately 10,000 city and tribal children are given a series of learning readiness tests. Check out these results:

• The two groups tested the same on two tests.
• City children outscored tribal children on one test only: close-up visual focusing.
• Tribal children scored far superior on 47 of 50 tests!

That’s pretty compelling.

New brain research confirms that our modern lifestyle is wreaking havoc on our children’s brains. Neurologists have discovered that ADHD, dyslexia, autism, Asperger’s syndrome, Torette’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder, and many other learning disabilities all have the same underlying cause—imbalanced development between the two brain hemispheres. This imbalance is due to certain developmental genes not getting “switched on” because the necessary movement and sensory stimulation is missing from the child’s environment. As a result, one hemisphere doesn’t develop fully. Whatever functions this brain hemisphere controls will then be weak, while the functions controlled by the other hemisphere will be normal or even above average. This discovery helps explain a phenomenon that has baffled teachers for a long time: uneven skill development. How can a student be intelligent enough to solve complex math equations, but not write a coherent paragraph? How can a child read words, sentences and paragraphs, but not comprehend them?

Knowing what we know about the hemispheres of the brain gives us the information we need to help these young people. First, we can now offer dramatic help to children with the neurological issues mentioned earlier. By simply identifying which hemisphere is the weak one and then doing simple physical, sensory and mental exercises to stimulate the weak side, the brain imbalance can be resolved, and the symptoms of these disorders begin to resolve themselves. There are thousands of documented cases of children who have overcome their neurological issues in this fashion. This is big news!

Second, we now have a road map for prevention. Television and technology are fine in moderation, but if we can teach parents to create more of the healthy stimulation of a hunter-gatherer environment in their homes, we will likely see a significant decline in the number of new neurological disorders in the future.

The schools have a huge role to play as well. We can make our classrooms brain-friendly by mimicking a hunter-gatherer environment at all grade levels. However, we have a unique opportunity from pre-K through second grades that we can’t afford to squander. Recognizing that not all children will enter school with healthy, well-balanced brains, we could steal a page from the playbook of Denmark (the highest student literacy rate in the world) and Finland (the #1 education system in the world). Their students don’t start school until age six or seven, they don’t start learning to read until age seven or eight, and many children attend “Forrest Kindergarten” between the ages of 2 ½ and six. Forrest Kindergarten is non-academic. Instead, children run, climb and play creatively outside for four hours every day, rain or shine. They sing, dance, talk, explore and use their imaginations. By the time they reach school, very few of these children have learning problems. We could do the same. By dramatically reducing academics in pre-k, kindergarten, first grade, and possibly even second, we can make these formative years more like Forrest Kindergarten, giving all children three or four years of proper brain stimulation. This would also provide time to test all children for a brain imbalance and correct it. Can you imagine what the next generation of students would be like if every single child hit third grade with a powerful, attentive, emotionally mature, balanced brain?  Amazing things would happen for these children, their families, and society as a whole!
I believe students, parents, teachers, administrators, educational leaders and politicians are hungry for a new direction for education. Our national experiment with high-stakes testing is proving ineffective (Finland uses virtually no standardized testing). This time, as we set a new course, let’s not try something just based on someone’s theory. Brain research is giving us exciting new facts that have direct implications for education. Let’s listen. We also have the “facts” of successful education techniques from places like Denmark and Finland. Let’s listen. We can work together to bring about educational reform that actually works. Will you join me?

Shenk (, a member of the Portsmouth Education Association, is a former classroom teacher now teaching physical education. He was a 2012 Virginia Regional Teacher of the Year.

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