5 Ways to Use Rewards in the Classroom


My first year of teaching, I was all about bribery; I had no problem stocking an endless supply of bulk mixed candy bags, so long as I thought it could help my students learn.

Though the Starburst and Twix caught their attention, I had mixed feelings about using rewards in my classroom. Like many teachers and parents, I wanted my students to take the right steps—like completing their homework, answering review questions, and organizing their notebooks—for themselves. But if my 9th graders were having trouble linking their short term actions to their long term goals, I reasoned, what was the harm in using a couple of fun-sized treats to ease the way? Was I sending the wrong messages about the reasons for doing work? What about healthy eating? And weren’t grades in themselves a kind of reward system, anyway?

Soon enough, bribery fell by the wayside. Instead of relying on tangible rewards to get things done, I could count on my classroom culture and partnerships with families. Still, the occasional promise of getting to pick a prize did make for more riveting review days.

What I didn’t know was that there is rich knowledge on motivation and learning that can tell us when rewards are most useful, and when they’re a distraction or waste of effort. Of course, science isn’t designed to tell us exactly what rewards are appropriate in the classroom, but there’s now enough evidence for teachers, schools, and communities to make an informed decision.

Here’s what we know about how offering concrete, tangible rewards tends to affect behavior:

  1. To make rewards more enticing, offer them ASAP.

Rewards can be effective at changing decision-making and behavior, and it’s a no-brainer that rewards are more effective when they have a high value.

However, a surprisingly important part of this value calculation is when a reward is delivered. The phenomenon of assigning less value to future rewards is called “delay discounting.” Some research suggests that rewards offered immediately are processed using a separate neural system than those involving a time delay.1

So if a powerful reward system is what you’re after, choose something students want and minimize the time between the effort and the gain. The promise of an end-of-year pizza party may be too distant to convince students to work harder now.

  1. When it comes to rewards, be careful what you wish for.

Because rewards are generally effective at producing more of what’s being rewarded, it’s important to be thoughtful about deciding what to reward.

Cognitive scientist and popular book author Daniel Willingham uses this example:

When I was in fourth grade, my class was offered a small prize for each book we read. Many of us quickly developed a love for short books with large print, certainly not the teacher’s intent.2

A reward system based on producing a quantity of work may do little to improve the quality of work,3 and some suggest that it may even incentivize students to sacrifice quality.

  1. Need to learn something boring? Rewards can help.

In one study, offering money improved people’s memory for the answers to trivia questions—but only for uninteresting questions.4 Also, this was only the case after a time delay. On average, people remembered the answers to interesting trivia questions at a similar rate whether or not they were offered money.

This suggests that tangible rewards may be valuable in boosting performance when it comes to learning boring items—but not if the learner is cramming.

Though this hypothesis remains untested, the authors of the study suggest that this may be due to the time it takes to complete a well-known memory stabilizing process. This process requires communication between the midbrain, a part of the brain where reward-related neurotransmitter dopamine is produced, and the hippocampus, an area of the brain often involved in learning and encoding new information). The authors propose that communication between these reward and learning regions might explain their results.4 

  1. In some cases, offering rewards for doing something can reduce the likelihood of it recurring.

We’ve known for decades that in some circumstances, receiving rewards can lower intrinsic motivation, or how much you’re driven to do something based on internal factors (like preference or passion). In a 1973 study, some 3-5 year old children were told that they would receive a certificate for drawing, others received a surprise certificate after drawing, and a third group received no certificate at all.5

Later, when given free access to drawing materials, the children who were told beforehand about the reward spent less time drawing than the others.

Surprisingly, when an anticipated reward goes away, people don’t just revert back to whatever they were doing before. In some cases, they’ll perform the rewarded behavior even less.

This is called sometimes called the “undermining effect” (or sometimes the “overjustification hypothesis”). And it’s particularly true for behaviors that people were motivated to do in the first place. Basically, it suggests that if there’s something you like doing and want to do anyway, working for a reward might reduce how much you do it. 

Recently, researchers have examined this phenomenon in the brain using fMRI.6 In one study, participants played an enjoyable game in the scanner. One group was told they’d be rewarded with money for playing well, while another group was told they’d receive a bonus based on how well someone else played.

Later, both groups played the game in the scanner a second time without bonuses. When scoring in this round, the group whose own performance was previously tied to money had decreased blood flow (suggesting less neural activity) in the striatum and midbrain as compared to the control group. The striatum and midbrain are both thought to be involved in processing reward feedback. Based on these findings, the researchers suggest that initially playing for money decreased the perceived value of scoring in the game.

  1. It’s possible to “undermine the undermining effect” 7

How does the undermining effect work?

Some scientists think that being rewarded for a behavior partially “overwrites” our original motivation. This would suggest that the 3-5 year old children in the study (described in #4) started out believing “Drawing is something I do for fun”. Working for a reward then partially overwrote that motivation with “Drawing is something I do for certificates.” Changes in underlying motivation are thought to be partially responsible for changing how people behave.

One strategy for protecting against the undermining effect might be to actively “overwrite” the motivation with something durable to encourage students to persist even when rewards have vanished.

In one study, giving 3rd-5th grade students a personally-relevant reason to do a tedious handwriting activity (without the promise of a reward) was associated with greater time spent on the activity when they were no longer rewarded.7 This personal reason came in the form of complimenting the students with a trait label either before or after the reward. The researchers said to the students,

You know, I thought you’d say you wanted to do this handwriting activity because you look like the kind of [girl/boy] who understands how important it is to write correctly, and who really wants to be good at it.7

While the limitations of this approach are still unknown, the researchers noted that this was a bit ironic: instead of undermining motivation with a reward, they were able to undermine the reward with motivation!

How should we use rewards in the classroom?

Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham makes three suggestions for educators when it comes to using rewards in the classroom2:

1) Consider possible alternatives.

2) Use rewards for a specific reason, like conquering the times tables or motivating a student who is no longer willing to try.

3) Have a defined ending that limits how long the incentive system is in play.

Willingham suggests that it makes sense to develop tangible reward structures toward concrete learning goals, like learning the multiplication tables, the elements of the periodic tables, or the events on a historical timeline. When the reward system ends, students might stop engaging in the rewarded behavior—but if it comes at a point when they’re ready to move on anyway, it’s not a problem. When they’ve learned the material and the reward structure ends, the class can move on to more complex, interesting questions that rely on this basic knowledge.2

On the other hand, it might not make sense to use tangible reward structures for teaching lifelong habits. Willingham points out that implementing long-term reward structures cost a lot of time and energy, and the rewarded behaviors tend to stop when the rewards stop. This is not to recommend against responding to positive habits, but to find other ways to do so, like praise.2

In the end, rewards are a complicated and much-debated topic. They can be effective at shaping behavior. But some find their use to be deeply problematic. And, as Education Week teacher and author Justin Minkel points out, rewards are a lousy substitute for cultivating a profound love of learning.

That said, science adds a perspective that can help educators reflecting on how and when they’d like to use rewards—if at all.


References & Further Reading

  1. McClure, S. M., Laibson, D. I., Loewenstein, G., & Cohen, J. D. (2004). Separate Neural Systems Value Immediate and Delayed Monetary Rewards. Science, 306, 503–507. [Paper]
  2. Willingham, D. T. (2007). Should Learning Be Its Own Reward? [Link]
  3. Jenkins, G. D. J., Gupta, N., Mitra, A., & Shaw, J. D. (1998). Are financial incentives related to performance? A meta-analytic review of empirical research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83(5), 777–787. [Paper]
  4. Murayama, K., & Kuhbandner, C. (2011). Money enhances memory consolidation–but only for boring material. Cognition, 119(1), 120–4. [Paper]
  5. Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28(1), 129–137. [Paper]
  6. Murayama, K., Matsumoto, M., Izuma, K., & Matsumoto, K. (2010). Neural basis of the undermining effect of monetary reward on intrinsic motivation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(49), 20911–6. [Paper]
  7. Cialdini, R. B., Eisenberg, N., Green, B. L., Rhoads, K., & Bator, R. (1998). Undermining the Undermining Effect of Reward on Sustained Interest. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 28(3), 249–263. [Paper]
  • Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M.. (2001). Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again. Review of Educational Research71(1), 1–27. [Paper]

Fiction in the Classroom: Can Stories Foster Empathy?


In our global, hyper-connected world where we are constantly exposed to others’ perspectives, empathy is often designated as a critical ability to possess in the 21st century. From strangers crowdfunding projects for others to activism for equity to Twitter wars or cyberbullying, social media in particular illustrates the best–and the worst–of us. Empathy, or lack there of, is all around us.

But in our fast-paced lives where school curricula seem to focus more on skill acquisition than socio-emotional learning (the skills and attitudes necessary to understand emotions and interact with others), how can we foster empathy in our classrooms?

Recently, various studies in the field of cognitive neuroscience have investigated the relationship between empathy and reading fiction as a way to foster this kind of socio-emotional learning.

So, what does the research say? Can fiction foster empathy?

Empathy and Theory of Mind: Understanding others

Empathy, in educational contexts, has become one of these buzzwords that are difficult to define. It relates to an individual’s ability to understand, feel, and respond to others’ emotions. Simply put, it’s about “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.”

In the research literature, empathy has traditionally been divided into two types: cognitive empathy, and affective empathy1.

Affective empathy refers to the type of empathy that we are often most familiar with. It means being able to respond appropriately to someone else’s emotions. It happens when we are affected by someone’s emotional state. (Note that “sympathy” is more about a feeling of caring and compassion vs. projecting oneself into the other person’s situation). For instance, being moved by a friend crying because of a breakup and feeling their pain because we have been through a similar situation before, would be an example of affective empathy.

Cognitive empathy, in turn, is the ability to understand others’ perspectives. Oftentimes, cognitive empathy is referred as Theory of Mind (or “ToM”). Theory of Mind is the ability to project or imagine what is going on in other people’s minds. Simon Baron-Cohen, who has worked extensively in the field of ToM development, described ToM as the capacity to “infer the full range of mental states (beliefs, desires, intentions, imagination, emotions, etc.) that cause action. In brief, having theory of mind is to be able to reflect on the contents of one’s own and other’s minds.”2 Imagine that a coworker is sad over the loss of a pet but you have never owned one yourself. While you might not feel sad with her, you can imagine how she must feel.

In other words, empathy as a construct encompasses ToM (making inferences about others’ mental states, intentions, or beliefs) as well as affective cognition (responding to others’ emotions).

The neural source of empathy

Some researchers suggest that cognitive empathy (or ToM) and affective empathy both rely on networks associated with making inferences about mental states of others. Using brain imaging techniques to study healthy subjects, they used pictures and video designed to elicit either a ToM or affective empathy response. Their results show that these two constructs may be associated with overlapping but distinct neural networks. The research suggests that both ToM and affective empathy rely on networks that are associated with making inferences about other people’s mental states. However, responding to these inferences in an empathic manner requires networks involved in emotional processing3.

Similarly, a 2014 study showed that we may rely on two different empathy systems, one that is emotional, and one that is cognitive. Like prior research, they explained that these processes are served by separate, yet interacting brain networks. That is, a balance of both networks (the cognitive and the affective) is required to form appropriate social behaviors4.

So, how can we, as educators, facilitate the development of empathy in the classroom?

Interestingly, research has also shown that our ability to interpret the behavior of real-life people can also be applied to fictional characters. Why? Because reading fiction focuses on the psychology of characters and their interaction with their social environment. And because authors leave details out, we are often forced to fill in gaps in order to understand them. Filling these gaps implies using our Theory of Mind to “see” things from their perspectives and to feel for them.

Can reading fiction make you more empathetic?

Several studies from cognitive science have highlighted the link between empathy and reading fiction. Below are a few brief summaries of selected findings that I find particularly interesting:

Title:The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience5.

What they did: These researchers explained that fiction literature is often disregarded in psychology research because it is usually considered as entertainment. While this particular article is conceptual in nature, the authors have conducted multiple empirical studies using brain imaging methods (like fMRIs) to support their arguments (which can be found here).

What they found: They counter-argued that narrative fiction’s role is the abstraction and simulation of social experience, resulting in empathetic growth.


Title: How does fiction reading influence empathy? An experimental investigation on the role of emotional transportation6.

What they did: Here, researchers showed that participants who read fictional stories and felt transported into the story increased their empathy levels.

What they found: The study showed that when fiction transports the reader, it can influence readers’ empathy.


Title: Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind7.

What they did: In this highly publicized study, researchers presented experiments where different groups read either literary fiction, non-fiction, popular fiction or nothing at all. They were then tested on their ToM abilities. (Note that they define literary fiction as texts that actively involve readers and challenge their thinking).

What they found: They showed that reading literary fiction led to better results in ToM, compared to non fiction and popular fiction.


Title: The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice8.

What they did: These researchers conducted studies with different groups of students to test whether reading Harry Potter could improve empathy and reduce prejudice.

What they found: They found that story reading is a great strategy to improve attitudes toward out-groups (i.e., groups different than one’s own).


Empathy in the classroom

So, what does this research tell us about increasing students’ empathy in the classroom? While more research is needed to better understand these mechanisms, I believe there is enough consensus to conclude that fiction is an important tool for mastering this essential skill.

According to Zunshine (2006) in Why We Read Fiction, fictional narratives are a good cognitive exercise for training our ToM because they help us keep track of who thinks, wants, and feels what and when in a story9. The studies mentioned above concur with her argument.

While these statements may seem intuitive to a lot of educators, particularly to ELA teachers, school curricula and standards don’t always reflect socio-emotional learning as a priority. Instead, non-fiction often takes precedence over fictional literature. While non-fiction certainly has its place, it’s important that we understand the unique benefits of fiction and protect its role in preparing our children to become the sorts of adults we want to see in the world.

If we take the research on the power of fiction seriously, we may be able to construct facilitative discussions and activities around the stories that even further enhance their utility. By combining fiction reading with other ToM promoting activities, we may be able to have a lasting impact on how students see themselves with respect to others. Though more research needs to be done on the topic, you can imagine the potential value of these devices for teaching about complex yet important social situations, like bullying and race (see sample books here), without making any children feel singled out. While many teachers already take advantage of these devices, hopefully the growing research validating their usefulness will be a valuable tool in protecting and extending this classroom practice.

Where do you see the place of fiction in school curricula? How do you foster empathy in your classroom? Share your thoughts in the comments below.



  1. Smith, A. (2006). Cognitive Empathy and Emotional Empathy in Human Behavior and Evolution, Psychological Record, 56(1), 3. [Paper]
  2. Baron-Cohen, S. (2001). Theory of mind in normal development and autism. Prisme34(1), 74-183. [Paper]
  3. Völlm, B. A., Taylor, A. N., Richardson, P., Corcoran, R., Stirling, J., McKie, S., & Elliott, (2006). Neuronal correlates of theory of mind and empathy: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study in a nonverbal task. Neuroimage, 29(1), 90-98. [Paper]
  4. Dvash, J., & Shamay-Tsoory, S. G. (2014). Theory of mind and empathy as multidimensional constructs: Neurological foundations. Topics in Language Disorders, 34(4), 282-295. [Paper]
  5. Mar, R. A., & Oatley, K. (2008). The function of fiction is the abstraction and simulation of social experience. Perspectives on psychological science,3(3), 173-192. [Paper]
  6. Bal, P. M., & Veltkamp, M. (2013). How does fiction reading influence empathy? An experimental investigation on the role of emotional transportation. PloS one, 8(1). [Paper]
  7. Kidd, D. C., & Castano, E. (2013). Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science, 342(6156), 377-380.
  8. Vezzali, L., Stathi, S., Giovannini, D., Capozza, D., & Trifiletti, E. (2015). The greatest magic of Harry Potter: Reducing prejudice. Journal of Applied Social Psychology45(2), 105-121. [Paper]
  9. Zunshine, L. (2006). Why we read fiction. Columbus: Ohio State UP. [Book]

Further Readings & Resources

  • For more on the link between ToM and autism, here is a great interview on Autism Speaks of Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen, researcher in ToM and autism.

Gaining STEAM: Where Art and Science Meet


It is no secret that American students’ math and science standardized test scores don’t break any records1,2. In 2012, the US scored below average for developed countries in math and close to average in science. We also know that many of the most pressing problems facing us today and in the future, from halting climate change to combatting terrorism, require science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) mastery and innovation. For this reason, educators and policymakers continue to increase their emphasis on STEM education.

Students’ time in school is finite, so spending more time learning to program or construct electrical circuits often means spending less time reading literature and engaging in arts, as these activities are often considered less practical. This STEM myopia can also be problematic, as those “less practical” fields may impart critical thinking and creativity3, perseverance, teamwork, and commitment4 in ways that STEM fields may not.

This understanding has prompted the STEAM movement, dedicated to incorporating the arts into a STEM educational framework.

I had the opportunity to talk with Nan Renner, a researcher at UC San Diego’s Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence (CREATE). Nan’s work is focused on how we learn by interacting with the world – using language, objects, environments, and other people. With an initiative called the Art of Science Learning, she directed an Incubator for Innovation in San Diego to bring community members together to seek creative solutions for the water crisis in the region. She also teaches undergraduate courses in Cognitive Science. One course is called Distributed Cognition, a class that expands how we think about thinking to include our bodies and social and cultural contexts. Another is Cognitive Ethnography, a project-based research course that encourages students to understand human cognition through observing and analyzing behaviors. Collectively, her work is an exemplar for STEAM proponents, demonstrating not only a seamless integration of sciences and arts, but also working towards making STEAM a natural part of education.

What is STEAM, really?

Defining STEAM as simply the integration of arts with STEM fields is an oversimplification, especially for those of us who have been raised on the distinctions between the subjects. Traditionally, students learn science in science class and art in art class.

How could these very different subjects be combined?

There are some obvious ways to integrate them: students can use physical materials like clay or styrofoam to make models of cells or the solar system, and they can learn songs about concepts like Avogadro’s number. But Nan pointed out that we should think more broadly about what arts really are when trying to make education more “STEAM-y.” Instead of always incorporating art per se, we can incorporate an artistic spirit into STEM lessons. Art encourages and requires exploration, an emotional engagement and sense of ownership, and flexibility, all of which are key ingredients for success in science. For this reason, these same attributes should be components of STEM education.

Factor 1: Exploration

When we take a paintbrush to a canvas, a bow to a violin, or our eye to a camera lens, we are exploring. We explore the world around us, our bodies, and the media that we’re using to create the art. At an abstract level, it is this exploration that STEAM advocates promote for science classrooms. The goal of science is to predict and explain phenomena in the world, and that can’t happen without exploration.

To illustrate the value of exploration, Renner told me about the Hands On Lab, a mini science course for high school students held by CREATE at UCSD. Students learned about molecular self-assembly by creating and exploring bubbles and observing how dish soap alone could move boats across water. They also used microscopes to examine cells from fruits and vegetables, comparing and contrasting cells from the tougher outsides to the fleshier insides. By getting their hands dirty (or wet), students were able to explore the scientific principles in an unstructured way, freely experimenting with contrasts and causality. These activities create a foundation that students can build on once they learn more structured scientific terms and processes for explaining those phenomena.

Factor 2: Emotional Engagement & Ownership

Another key feature of art is that someone (or some people) created it. Regardless of whether the piece of art is a knitted scarf, a Broadway musical, a digitally rendered graphic, or a gourmet meal, the artist becomes emotionally invested in the project, leading to a strong feeling of ownership. Children especially are often rightfully proud of their artwork. These feelings of engagement and ownership are crucial to science as well, and they were central to a series of workshops also held at UCSD called Informath. Educators who participated in Informath gathered for workshops with the goal of creating professional development programs that brought art and math together to enhance learning. They received materials like paper strips, straws, and pipe cleaners, and after “playing” for a little while, had arrived at intriguing ways to teach concepts like fractals, recursive relationships, and geometric proofs.

Using the materials to make their models meant that those sculptures were now theirs – not only did the educators own the finished products, but they also owned the processes they had taken to arrive at them. As in the Hands On Lab, the lessons that the teachers created at Informath fostered ownership and engagement through a personal exploration process.

Extensive research on Self Determination Theory has focused on uncovering the social-contextual conditions that enhance individuals’ motivation and development5. One of these conditions is autonomy, which can be facilitated by granting students choices so that they have ownership over their exploration processes and means for expressing what they have learned6. Science lessons that revolve around art and exploration will introduce ownership into the classroom, instilling motivation, curiosity, and deeper understandings.

Factor 3: Flexibility

Flexibility is yet another hallmark of art. When you’re in a musical ensemble or a theater troupe, for example, you need to be constantly aware of the whole, and adapt so that you fit in. Likewise, scientific exploration requires this constant awareness of how new pieces of information fit into existing knowledge frameworks and the willingness to alter hypotheses or procedures as new information is accounted for.

These traits are central to the Incubator for Innovation, a project that Nan was involved with through the Art of Science Learning. In San Diego, the incubator’s focus was on the mismatch between supply and demand for water, a challenge chosen by public vote. The Incubator participants included scientists, artists, educators, and students who were invested in the problem. The teams learned arts-based techniques that they used to continuously come up with ideas, test them, and communicate about them. Iteration was a crucial component of the incubator: as teams tested their ideas and continued to learn about what did and did not work, they continually improved their innovations.

Similar incubators took place to address problems of access to fair and equitable nutrition (in Chicago) and new transportation solutions (in Worcester, MA). In 2016, a traveling exhibit will showcase the projects that came out of all 3 incubators and emphasize the importance of bringing creativity to science and innovation. Collaborating, iterating, and incorporating new information into prototypes are all crucial components of the incubator that drive home the importance of flexibility for innovation and success.

Creating a STEAM-ier classroom

A few times during our conversation, we circled back to a resounding theme: The most crucial part of STEAM is integration. Nan pointed out that “when we engage in real-world problem-solving, the disciplinary boundaries fade into the background. We blend and merge creative and critical thinking, representing ideas with words, metaphors, numbers, images, forms. We can be inquisitive and thoughtful about what these different modalities offer, in education and the workplace, and expand our collective repertoire for identifying and solving big challenges.”

How can we accomplish this in our STEAM lessons?

  • Keep the goals of exploration, emotional engagement, and flexibility at the forefront when designing STEM lessons and incorporate hands-on lessons whenever appropriate.
  • De-emphasize curricular boxes – although there will inevitably be certain topics and lessons that fall within our definition of science or math more than others, help students to be holistic thinkers by encouraging them to answer questions using whatever knowledge and tools they have available, as opposed to sticking to the confines of one traditional subject.
  • Try metaphorming – a form of brainstorming that involves making multi-dimensional, freeform, symbolic models and can lead to deeper insights and more creativity.
  • Promote the arts – students who learn to play as part of an orchestra, who gain confidence in ballet class, or who become comfortable getting their hands dirty with a pottery wheel will take those lessons and mindsets with them to the science classroom.
  • As a teacher, take some creative liberties when planning science lessons. Students will learn best by observing a role model who incorporates arts and science (for inspiration, check out the #sciart hashtag on Twitter).

One intuition might be that the key to improving STEM education is to focus students’ time more on STEM subjects and less on the arts. However, we have solid evidence suggesting that STEM and arts aren’t incompatible ends of a spectrum, but instead can – and should – be integrated. When we integrate arts, and more broadly, an artistic mindset, into science lessons, we open the door for exploration, emotional engagement and ownership, and flexibility; indispensible skills for success in science and in life more generally.

The STEAM movement suggests that arts and sciences may have a synergistic relationship – even better when combined than each in isolation. The movement reminds us that when it comes to treasured school subjects – arts and sciences – we can have our cake and eat it too.


References & Further Reading

  1. Chappell, B. (2013). U.S. Students Slide In Global Ranking On Math, Reading, Science. NPR. [Article]
  2. Desilver, D. (2015). U.S. students improving – slowly – in math and science, but still lagging internationally. Pew Research Center. [Article]
  3. Zakaria, F. (2015). Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous. The Washington Post. [Article]
  4. Williams, Y. (2014). Rhythm and bruise: How cuts to music and the arts hurt kids and communities. Huffington Post Education. [Article]
  5. Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-Determination Theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78. [Paper]
  6. Stefanou, C.R., Perencevich, K.C., DiCintio, M., & Turner, J.C. (2004). Supporting autonomy in the classroom: Ways teachers encourage student decision making and ownership. Educational psychologist, 39(2), 97-110. [Paper]
  • Beilock, S. (2015). How the body knows its mind: The surprising power of the physical environment to influence how you think and feel. [Book]
  • STEAM to STEAM [Organization]

Can – and should – young children really meditate?

child meditate

When picturing a kindergarten classroom in America, chances are you imagine messy finger paint on tables, blocks clinking on the rug, oversized read-aloud books, and little kids climbing through colorful Rubbermaid jungle gyms. (Perhaps you imagine a young Arnold being trampled by 5-year-olds in Radio Flyer wagons).

When picturing mindfulness meditation, you might imagine a serene-faced adult seated cross-legged on an amber silk pillow. Her eyes are closed and she is perfectly impervious to distractions in her surrounding environment.

Most young children have loads of rambunctious energy, hungry for answers to curious questions. And with or without silk props, many meditation practices are designed to cultivate stillness and silence within.

It’s therefore natural to question not only if young children should meditate, but also if young children can meditate. In this article, we’ll explore the evidence for both.

Brain Development in Early Childhood

The first years of a child’s life are crucial to setting up a strong foundation for relationships, learning, and mental health. According to the Center on the Developing Child, neuroscientists have found that typically 700 synaptic connections between brain cells are created every second in a child’s beginning years of life.1 (If you’re trying to do the math, that’s about a few hundred trillion connections by age 3.) Eventually, this period of synaptic exuberance subsides as the brain naturally prunes away unused connections, a mechanism popularly referred to as “use it or lose it.”

Brain development is shaped by biology, environment, and external experiences and is studied in a number of ways, including a growing field of research known as s. Epigenetics is a subfield of genetics that studies things like how non-genetic factors, typically at the cellular level, can affect the way a given DNA sequence, and therefore the way a gene, is expressed. According to the Center on the Developing Child, “positive experiences, such as exposure to rich learning opportunities, and negative influences, such as malnutrition or environmental toxins, can change the chemistry that encodes genes in brain cells — a change that can be temporary or permanent. This process is called epigenetic modification.”2

Young children experiencing adversity such as neglect, poverty, parental substance abuse, or prolonged periods of stress may be susceptible to a “toxic stress response.” Toxic stress can be as harmful as it sounds, destroying brain cells and significantly disrupting brain circuitry in foundational years, leading to emotional and mental health complications such as anxiety and depression in childhood or even later in adulthood.3

Development in early years often predicts emotional, academic, and social well-being and even physical health in adulthood. Jack Shonkoff, M.D., professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and Director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child explains, “Biologically, the brain is prepared to be shaped by experience. It’s expecting the experiences that a young child has to literally influence the formation of its circuitry…If a child is preoccupied with fears or anxiety or is dealing with considerable stress, no matter how intellectually gifted that child might be, his or her learning is going to be impaired by that kind of emotional interference.”4

Learn more about the basics of early childhood brain development with Dr. Shonkoff in this short video from the Center on the Developing Child.4

Shonkoff recognizes that supporting healthy cognitive development in children is not separate from social and emotional development, making the case for intervention for children in early years. So is mindfulness the type of intervention that might help?

Mindfulness as Early Childhood Intervention

Contemplative practices – an umbrella term for practices like yoga and mindfulness meditation – have been studied primarily in adult and adolescent populations over the last few decades and are associated with increased activation in brain regions related to executive functioning.5 Executive functions (EFs) are a range of activities such as planning, decision-making, and self-regulation of attention, emotions and behaviors. As a result of positive findings in older populations, new research investigates the effectiveness of mindfulness interventions on executive functioning in elementary and early childhood settings.

Self-regulation, a type of executive functioning, is broadly considered to be the integration of flexible attention, working memory, and ability to inhibit one’s impulses. Self-regulation in preschool-aged children has been strongly correlated with academic success as measured by progress in emergent literacy and math. An even stronger predictor than IQ, self-regulation in beginning years of life is one of many functions that can predict math and reading achievement in elementary and middle school.6

Mindfulness practices have had mixed results in effectiveness on executive functioning in child populations, in part due to weaker design without control groups for comparison and due to reliance on self- or parent-reported data. Without a control group that receives alternative or no treatment, it’s hard to determine if any changes are linked to the actual mindfulness treatment or whether the changes would happen regardless. And with self-reported data like questionnaire and survey responses, it’s hard to calibrate if one person’s perception of “strongly agree” is the same as another’s. It’s utility as a measure of effectiveness, however, is revealing trends and prompting further precision investigation.

In a recent study by Lisa Flook et al. (2010), for example, early elementary children received training Mindful Awareness Practices that included breathing awareness, body awareness and movement, and awareness of environment. Results revealed that, according to teacher and parent reports, children who started the program with difficulties in self-regulation showed significant improvement.7

This preliminary study call for more research on mindfulness as an effective intervention in even younger child populations – a way to offer children experiencing adversity a way to self-regulate their emotions and behaviors, potentially preventing disruptions to healthy brain development.

But can young children really meditate?

Given what we know about young children’s development and naturally quick shifts in attention, even 10 minutes of seated silence with children ages 3-5 seems unrealistic. To manage the concern of long periods of quiet, shorter adaptations of meditation practice have been designed to help introduce children to meditational techniques by reading a related story, participating in walking and observation meditations, playing games like “breathing buddies,” as well as reflective activities.8

It’s important to remember, however, that in many Eastern classrooms, children are often introduced to more traditional meditational practices at an early age. In a recent research study by Tang et al (2012), 4.5-year-olds in China were trained in integrative body-mind therapy (IBMT) sessions adapted from the original Zen training program for adults. Standard IBMT sessions consist of 5 minutes of modeling and directions by an instructor, 20 minutes of silent meditation or meditation with soothing music, and 5 minutes of reflection. Young children participated in twenty 30-minute sessions – a total of 10 hours of mindfulness practice – over the course of a month. In contrast to a control group, the mindfulness group’s performance on two stimulus-discrimination Stroop Tasks to measure attention significantly improved. The mindfulness training group also showed significant increases in effortful self-control (an executive function) as reported by their parents.9

Research is still required to confirm the beneficial impact of integrative body-mind therapy (IBMT) on child brain development, though preceding neuroimaging studies of IBMT in adults demonstrated promising results. After just one month of practice, fMRI on adult participants revealed enhanced functional connectivity between the anterior cingulate cortex and striatum as compared to a control group receiving relaxation activities, suggesting that the mindfulness training may enhance focused attention.10

Yi-Yuan Tang and her team plan to study IBMT in American settings in order to determine the impact of mindfulness on self-regulation in early childhood across cultures.

What does meditation with young children look like?

Mindfulness can take various forms, silence in a seated posture being one of them. Paying attention to the breath or sounds within our outside of the body is another form. Walking mindfully with each step is another. Mindfulness is simply paying attention, without judgment, to the present moment.11

In the last decade, various organizations and programs have emerged to support mindfulness in classrooms. One such organization begun in 2008, Mindful Schools, offers certification and video resources on how to teach mindfulness to elementary-age children. The following sample video offers student-friendly listening to the sounds of bells and sharing their experiences, and it all takes less than fifteen minutes: K-5 Mindfulschools.org Lesson.12 Scroll down and click on the K-5 Curriculum Demo. At 5:33, you can get a sense of how students receive scaffolding support to move from listening to sounds outside of themselves to listening for sounds inside of themselves).

If meditating silently on external or internal sounds feels less appropriate as a mindfulness introduction to your students, consider adapting mindful practice ideas to meet your young students where they are. For example, you might play a familiar song and have your students gently tap their noses each time they hear a particular note or word. To help encourage awareness and regulation of attention, perhaps sing overlapping rounds of “Row, row, row your boat,” allowing children to learn strategies for how to focus their attention on their part. Equally important is supporting children as they learn to re-focus their attention when they’re momentarily distracted (if you’ve played this singing game before, you know how challenging it can be!). Mindfulness is not simply sitting perfectly still; music and movement often make ideal mindfulness entry points for elementary-age children.

As mindfulness research in early childhood settings continues to grow, so shall science-based, kid-friendly resources for the classroom. Improvement of programs and refinement of research is undoubtedly the ongoing goal, but waiting for perfected materials means waiting to offer potentially life-altering resources to our children while they’re still children. Let’s help them evolve into healthy adults by offering them simple mindfulness tools now.


References & Further Reading

  1. Center on the Developing Child (2009).Core Concepts in the Science of Early Childhood Development. [Multimedia Article]
  1. Center on the Developing Child (2009).Deep Dive: Gene-Environment Interaction. [Article]
  1. Shonkoff, J., & Garner, A. (2012). The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress.Pediatrics, 129(1), E232-E246. [Paper]
  1. Shonkoff, J. (2009, October 1). Center for the Developing Child: The Science of Early Childhood Development. [Video]
  1. Lazar, S. W., Bush, G. L., Gollub, R., Fricchione, G., Khalsa, G., & Benson, H. (2000). Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation. NeuroReport,11(7), 1581-1585. [Paper]
  1. McClelland, M. M. and Cameron, C. E. (2012), Self-Regulation in Early Childhood: Improving Conceptual Clarity and Developing Ecologically Valid Measures. Child Development Perspectives, 6: 136–142. [Paper]
  1. Flook, L., et al. (2010). Effects of mindful awareness practices on executive functions in elementary school children. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 26(1), 70-95. [Paper]
  1. Elizabeth Willis & Laura H. Dinehart (2014) Contemplative practices in early childhood: implications for self-regulation skills and school readiness, Early Child Development and Care, 184:4, 487-499 [Paper]
  1. Tang, Y., Yang, L., Leve, L., & Harold, G. (2012). Improving Executive Function and Its Neurobiological Mechanisms Through a Mindfulness‐Based Intervention: Advances Within the Field of Developmental Neuroscience.Child Development Perspectives, 6(4), 361-366. [Paper]
  1. Tang, Y., Lu, Q., Geng, X., Stein, E., Yang, Y., & Posner, M. (2010). Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America,107(35), 15649-52. [Paper]
  1. Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future.Clinical Psychology-Science And Practice, 10(2), 144-156. [Paper]
  1. Cowan, M. K-5 Curriculum Demo: Class One – Mindful Bodies and Listening – 1st Grade Classroom. [Resource]

The New Understanding of IQ

IQ book

Many believe that intelligent quotient (IQ) tests tell you something about an individual’s inherent, and perhaps unchanging, intellectual capacity. But is intelligence really fixed? Current research suggests it’s not.

IQ was once thought to be stable across the lifespan. Then, in 2011 a study tested participants twice in adolescence and found substantial changes in IQ across time for a third of the sample1. There was an overall increase in the group’s IQ between early adolescence (12-16 years) and late adolescence (16-20 years), with some individuals gaining or losing as much as 18 IQ points! This is substantial, as by many scoring standards, that’s more points than make up a full standard deviation (for reference, approximately 68% of the population is within one standard deviation of average IQ).

These changes in IQ were also associated with changes in brain structure, suggesting an underlying neural mechanism for changes in intelligence across adolescence1. This finding has since been replicated in a larger group of individuals covering a wider age range2.

The roles of nature and nurture

Both genetics and the environment have an influence on IQ. However, this influence changes across development, with genetic influences generally becoming a greater influence as we get older3. There is also some evidence that individuals with high IQ are influenced by the environment longer than individuals with low IQ4.

In a study of children aged 4-12 years, both low and high IQ children showed similar levels of environmental influences on their IQ. However, the teenagers (aged 12-18 years) with low IQ were much less influenced by the environment than high IQ teenagers, who showed similar levels of environmental influences as high IQ children4. Both low and high IQ adults (aged 18+ years) showed similar (low) levels of environmental influence on IQ.

In other words, according to this research, the environment may have the greatest impact on IQ in childhood, have a continued impact on IQ for high scoring teenagers in particular, and then balance out again to have a lower impact across adults.

It has been suggested that the extended period of heightened environmental influence in high IQ individuals might reflect an extended period of neural plasticity in these individuals. This idea seemed to be supported by an early study investigating brain development in groups of individuals with varying IQ levels5. This study appeared to find evidence for more protracted brain development in groups of children with higher IQs, suggesting that children with higher IQs showed a longer period of “cortical thickening” compared to children with lower IQs5. Cortical thickening is related to the grey matter (made of primarily of neuronal cell bodies) of the outermost layer of tissue in the brain, which is involved in many complex cognitive functions. However, the methods involved in this study have been recently been called into question6,7, and the results have not replicated8. This sort of trajectory is common in research, and a reminder to look across studies and time for potentially useful patterns.

A more recent study similarly found a relationship between cortical development patterns and IQ, but with different patterns than what was observed in the earlier study8. In children, cortical thinning is associated with higher IQ, whereas in adults, cortical thickening is associated with higher IQ8. These results highlight the importance of timing in our understanding of how brain changes could relate to cognitive changes, as one type of brain change in childhood could mean something completely different in adulthood. Indeed, changes in cortical thickness was a better predictor of an individual’s IQ than the actual thickness8.

Overall, the individuals with the highest IQs in this study also showed the largest changes in brain structure across the lifespan8. This could suggest that greater neural plasticity at any age is associated with greater intelligence.

Moving Forward

So how can we increase our neural plasticity? It has been suggested that continued education keeps the brain plastic longer9. This could be true, but the needed studies to test this hypothesis are lacking. To see if prolonged education affects the development of our brain, we would need longitudinal studies tracking individuals with differing education levels between childhood and adulthood.

Until that study exists, the best we can do is draw from existing studies examining changes in intelligence in relation to changes in brain structure and function. While education could theoretically change our level of brain plasticity and intelligence, recent work suggests that our genes also play a large role. One longitudinal study of twins found a relationship between changes in total brain volume and IQ, which appeared to be driven by genes influencing both IQ and brain volume10. A different twin study found evidence for the same genes that influence an adults general intelligence level are also involved in the structural integrity of brain networks11.

In the meantime, it seems fair to conclude at least one thing: intelligence is not set in stone. And behaving as though our own and our students’ brains can continue to improve and learn with the proper supports certainly can’t hurt.

References & Further Reading 

  1. Ramsden, S., Richardson, F. M., Josse, G., Thomas, M. S. C., Ellis, C., Shakeshaft, C., … Price, C. J. (2011). Verbal and non-verbal intelligence changes in the teenage brain. Nature, 479(7371), 113–116. [Paper]
  2. Burgaleta, M., Johnson, W., Waber, D. P., Colom, R., & Karama, S. (2014). Cognitive ability changes and dynamics of cortical thickness development in healthy children and adolescents. NeuroImage, 84, 810–819. [Paper]
  3. McClearn, G. E., Johansson, B., Berg, S., Pedersen, N. L., Ahern, F., Petrill, S. A., & Plomin, R. (1997). Substantial Genetic Influence on Cognitive Abilities in Twins 80 or More Years Old. Science, 276(5318), 1560–1563. [Paper]
  4. Brant, A. M., Munakata, Y., Boomsma, D. I., Defries, J. C., Haworth, C. M. A., Keller, M. C., … Hewitt, J. K. (2013). The nature and nurture of high IQ: an extended sensitive period for intellectual development. Psychological Science, 24(8), 1487–1495. [Paper]
  5. Shaw, P., Greenstein, D., Lerch, J., Clasen, L., Lenroot, R., Gogtay, N., … Giedd, J. N. (2006). Intellectual ability and cortical development in children and adolescents. Nature, 440(7084), 676–679. [Paper]
  6. Ducharme, S., Albaugh, M. D., Nguyen, T.-V., Hudziak, J. J., Mateos-Pérez, J. M., Labbe, A., … Brain Development Cooperative Group. (2015). Trajectories of cortical thickness maturation in normal brain development – The importance of quality control procedures. NeuroImage, 125, 267–279. [Paper]
  7. Mills, K. L., & Tamnes, C. K. (2014). Methods and considerations for longitudinal structural brain imaging analysis across development. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 9, 172–190. [Paper]
  8. Schnack, H. G., van Haren, N. E. M., Brouwer, R. M., Evans, A., Durston, S., Boomsma, D. I., … Hulshoff Pol, H. E. (2014). Changes in Thickness and Surface Area of the Human Cortex and Their Relationship with Intelligence. Cerebral Cortex. [Paper]
  9. Steinberg, L. (2014). Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence. Mariner Books.
  10. Brouwer, R. M., Hedman, A. M., van Haren, N. E. M., Schnack, H. G., Brans, R. G. H., Smit, D. J. A., … Hulshoff Pol, H. E. (2014). Heritability of brain volume change and its relation to intelligence. NeuroImage, 100, 676–683. [Paper]
  11. Bohlken, M. M., Brouwer, R. M., Mandl, R. C. W., Hedman, A. M., van den Heuvel, M. P., van Haren, N. E. M., … Hulshoff Pol, H. E. (2016). Topology of genetic associations between regional gray matter volume and intellectual ability: Evidence for a high capacity network. NeuroImage, 124, Part A, 1044–1053. [Paper]
  • Fjell, A. M., Westlye, L. T., Amlien, I., Tamnes, C. K., Grydeland, H., Engvig, A., … Walhovd, K. B. (2013). High-Expanding Cortical Regions in Human Development and Evolution Are Related to Higher Intellectual Abilities. Cerebral Cortex. [Paper]
  • Tamnes, C. K., Fjell, A. M., Østby, Y., Westlye, L. T., Due-Tønnessen, P., Bjørnerud, A., & Walhovd, K. B. (2011). The brain dynamics of intellectual development: waxing and waning white and gray matter. Neuropsychologia, 49(13), 3605–3611. [Paper]
  • Neuroskeptic. (2012) How intelligent is IQ? [Blog Post]

Same Word, Different Meanings: Common Miscommunications between Neuroscience and Society


Academics have a reputation for using overly technical language. Just as any career comes with its own terminology, scientific fields often use highly precise and specialized vocabulary that is not easily comprehensible to anyone else. Unfortunately, in science this poses a unique issue because findings are often interpreted and applied outside of the field.

It’s a problem with a relatively straightforward (though incomplete) solution: explanation in simpler terms.

In addition to traditional science journalism, efforts such as Ten Hundred Words of Science, The People’s Science Forum, and our very own Learning & the Brain blog address this communication barrier in part by explaining and reducing jargon in sharing scientific research.

However, for educators and scientists looking to communicate about the science of learning, there’s another complicated language issue: when academics and educators use familiar words, but with different meanings attached. Subtle differences in how these professional worlds tend to use key terms may, inadvertently or not, overstate the findings of scientific work and lead to miscommunication.

Let’s take a look at three examples.

Example 1: Self-directed learning

How do educators think about the term “self-directed learning”? Here’s how Mindshift, a popular education blog affiliated with National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), has used the term “self-directed learning” in a several 2015 articles:

  • An article about Nick Bain, a student who experimented with taking a completely self-taught trimester of his junior year in high school.
  • Examples of how teachers in Boise, Idaho, are structuring their classes to release responsibility to students, teaching them lead and guide their own learning even in a low-income school. This includes implementing Google’s 20% time to allow students to pursue their own interests and learning.
  • A two-part series about learning environments that offer the world’s most marginalized children tremendous choice and autonomy in their schooling, from egalitarian school structures to experiments in radical un-schooling.

These articles reflect how educators use and understand the term “self-directed learning”—as a kind of learning in which students take on a high level of personal responsibility and face a broad array of choices.

How do cognitive scientists use the term “self-directed learning”?

A recent review on self-directed learning was published in Perspectives on Psychological Science1 (results of this paper are summarized here, and point to potential pros and cons of self-directed learning). Notice how the same term is used in this context:

  • In traditional cognitive science memory tasks, study participants are often presented with flashcards one at a time. As a more self-directed alternative, study participants choose the timing and order of the terms they wanted to study.
  • Cognitive scientists are interested in how people learn to identify different categories, like how to tell the difference between a cat and a dog, or a nail and a bolt. Typically, this takes place by presenting people with lots of examples of objects, one at a time. Some scientists studying self-directed learning instead gave study participants the opportunity to select the objects they wanted to learn about.
  • Another major topic in cognitive science is causal learning—how do people figure out causal relationships between different things? Some causal learning occurs just by observing when different variables seem to change together. Studies of more self-directed approaches to causal learning allowed participants to change one variable and observe the consequences.

Here, the term “self-directed learning” generally refers to a highly limited set of learning choices. Rather than having almost no choices as an entirely passive learner being presented with material, people in studies of self-directed learning are typically given a small number of simple choices.

While this might seem like an impoverished view of “self-directed learning,” even these simple choices introduce many new variables for scientists to study. For example, when study participants choose which flashcards to use, scientists were faced with many additional considerations—what aspect of how people used the flashcards explained how well different people learned the material? Was it the order, timing, and/or spacing of how people chose to study that made a difference?

Example 2: Executive functions

“Executive functions” is an umbrella term for cognitive processes that regulate thoughts and actions. The usage of this term in educational contexts tends to focus on higher-level processes like planning, judgment, decision-making, and self-regulation.

However, much of the work on executive functions in cognitive neuroscience focuses on more basic processes.2 For example, one commonly studied component of executive functions is called inhibition, or how people suppress simple impulses. One common way of studying inhibition is called the “go/no-go task”. In this task, participants are instructed to press a button in response to some stimuli, and then not to press the button in response to other stimuli (I’ve previously written about a study using this task).

Much research on executive functions does not directly report on some of the higher-level regulatory skills educators might be interested in. Many executive functions, like inhibition, are thought to be building blocks of higher-level tasks, like planning. However, they’re not identical; while these skills are likely related, it doesn’t always make sense to lump them together.

Example 3. Musical ability

The perception of pitch is thought to have a genetic basis. On average, identical twins sharing nearly their entire DNA perform more similarly on a pitch recognition task than fraternal twins, which share approximately half of their DNA.3 And this tends to be true even when one identical twin has invested a lot more time in musical practice than the other.

Does this mean that musical ability is inherited?

It’s tempting to say so, and some articles reporting on similar findings do take this route.

But in an interview with Carry the One Radio, neuroscientist and professional musician Indre Viskontas says that using these lower-level perceptual skills to judge musical ability is “a little like testing the eyesight of a painter to gauge whether or not they’re a good painter, a good artist…I wouldn’t even say that that gets really even that close to what we’d call musicality.”4

What we consider a musically gifted performance of course relies in part on the artists’ sensitive hearing, but these two “musical abilities” are quite different in their level of complexity.

Tomato, tomahto. So what?

What’s the pattern here? Some of the same terms that represent highly simplified concepts in the cognitive sciences tend to signify or are mistakenly equated with very complex versions of that idea in the education world.5 Exaggeration occurs if conclusions from research in the cognitive sciences are, inadvertently or not, generalized to a much higher level without an empirical basis.

When cross talk happens, it’s not always clear the extent to which people are talking about the same thing. But they’re using the same words—and often nobody clarifies (or knows to)!

Preventing misunderstanding

While new studies can be incredibly exciting, we should interpret them cautiously. Neuroscience reporting is frequently exaggerated, particularly if the initial press release at all overstates the results.6,7 Even when the reporting is accurate, plenty of published results aren’t replicable, meaning that new researchers repeating the same study don’t find the same results.8

In “Combating Neurohype,” Mo Costandi asks researchers to take responsibility for accurate reporting of their results.9 I’d argue that part of this responsibility is actively taking into account how readers might interpret word choices with varied emphases in different spheres.

For educators and others reading and talking about science, it’s important to develop a healthy skepticism with regard to the headline. Going beyond it usually reveals that the exciting result is a bit more nuanced and perhaps limited, raising critical questions about when and where such research might be applicable (or not). Developing these critical questions and getting them in front of scientists might propel what we know about learning and the brain even further.10


References & Further Reading

  1. Gureckis, T. M., & Markant, D. B. (2012). Self-Directed Learning: A Cognitive and Computational Perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5), 464–481. [Paper]
  2. Miyake, A., & Friedman, N. P. (2012). The Nature and Organization of Individual Differences in Executive Functions: Four General Conclusions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(1), 8–14. [Paper]
  3. Drayna, D., Manichaiku, A., de Lange, M., Snieder, H., Spector, T. (2001). Genetic Correlates of Musical Pitch Recognition in Humans. Science, 291, 1969-1972. [Paper]
  4. “The Sound of Music(ality)”. (2015). Carry the One Radio. [Audio Podcast]
  5. Howard-Jones, P. A. (2014). Neuroscience and education: myths and messages. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 15(12), 817–824. [Paper]
  6. O’Connor, C., Rees, G., & Joffe, H. (2012). Neuroscience in the public sphere. Neuron, 74(2), 220–6. [Paper]
  7. Sumner, P., Vivian-Griffiths, S., Boivin, J., Williams, A., Venetis, C. A., et al. (2014). The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study. Bmj, 349 (December), g7015. [Paper]
  8. Open Science Collaboration. (2015). Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science. Science Magazine, 349(6251). [Paper]
  9. Costandi, Mo. (2015). Combating Neurohype. The Neuroethics Blog. [Blog]
  10. Christodoulou, J. A., & Gaab, N. (2009). Using and misusing neuroscience in education-related research. Cortex, 45(4), 555–557. [Paper]
  • Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University (2011). Building the Brain’s “Air Traffic Control” System: How Early Experiences Shape the Development of Executive Function: Working Paper No. 11. [Organization]

Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education by Ken Robinson, Phd and Lou Aronica

To better serve more students and encourage creativity, inquiry, a diversity of skills, and the ability to live a fulfilling life, we need teachers, principals, and policy makers to charge forward with the revolutionary idea of personalized and holistic learning. Authors Sir Ken Robinson, who delivered a TED talk about creativity and schools that has been viewed more times than any other TED talk, and Lou Aronica make these claims in their new book, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. After explaining clearly the shortcomings of our current education reform narrative, Robinson and Aronica offer a compelling vision for a new educational system and a theory of change that can be implemented either from outside of or within school systems.

Robinson opines that, since the introduction of the No Child Left Behind legislation, the federal government’s role in education has increased significantly. The current focus, however, on raising standards and accountability is misplaced because the problems can be addressed only by larger scale changes in the type of learning experience we provide to students. The increased amount of standardized testing that accountability measures require of students, for example, is exacerbating our problem of teaching to too narrow a skill set, killing creativity and entrepreneurialism, and leading to the deprofessionalization of the teaching profession.

Robinson urges that, as we think about educating students for the future, we need to face several concerning trends: the decreasing monetary value of a college degree and the rising cost of earning one; a bifurcated academic and vocational class system contributing to rising income inequality; the social and financial drain of having nearly 1.5 million students (who are disproportionately racial minorities) drop out of high school each year; and the boredom and demoralization of those who remain in school.

One way to address these issues, according to Robinson and Aronica, is by shifting our educational system from one modeled after industrial revolution era manufacturing practices to one more analogous to mass farming practices. Doing so would better serve the economic, cultural, social, and personal purposes of education. Our current model has a pyramidal structure in which only a select few students—those who have most successfully conformed to the “student mold”—make it all the way through the educational system to earn advanced degrees. To keep pace with changing economic demands and to foster a wise citizenry that can support a healthy democracy, schools need to: serve the whole student (not just the student-reader, writer, or mathematician) and cultivate his multiple intelligences; recognize the interdependence between students and their community and allow them to pursue their interests in an authentic, self-paced, and playful way; and serve all of its members regardless of their home or financial circumstance.

Robinson and Aronica offer advice for teachers and principals about how they can effect change within the educational system. The core objective of the art of teaching is to facilitate learning, and yet teachers get bogged down in so many extraneous responsibilities. The authors urge teachers to focus on building strong relationships in which they engage their students, enable their students’ curiosity and help them find their passion, maintain high expectations, and empower their students. Principals can help by giving equal weight in the curriculum and culture to subjects like art and physical education, offering opportunities for interdisciplinary learning, and letting students have a voice in decisions about curriculum content while also ensuring that the ideas presented in the curriculum are diverse and taught with depth and dynamism. The strongest leader has a vision and a plan of implementation, but also empowers all members of her community to be innovators who generate ideas for improvement. The authors provide an alliteration of the 8 skills schools should try to promote: curiosity, creativity, criticism, communication, collaboration, compassion, composure, and citizenship.

The authors note also that supporting student learning is not the responsibility solely of the school; it occurs through an interactive partnership among the school, family, and community. Parents, for example, should take a keen interest in their children’s learning while resisting the urge to become overbearing and controlling about school work.

Robinson and Aronica conclude that, even among individuals with good intentions to support educational reform, combatting entrenched thinking about standardization and conformity rather than personalization and creativity is a challenge. They urge reforms to keep students’ enthusiasm for learning at the forefront of their efforts. With a vision for the future, the belief that change is possible, an understanding of why change is good, the resources necessary to catalyze reform, and an action plan, the revolution for which this book cries is eminently possible.


Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2015). Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education. New York, NY: Viking Penguin.

Overcoming Stereotypes in the Classroom through Values Affirmation

overcoming stereotypes

Education is intended to be a great equalizer, one that provides everyone with the resources that they need to be successful. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence suggesting that it might not be as equalizing as many would like. There are still academic achievement gaps, for example between men and women and between European Americans and African Americans1,2. These performance gaps can’t be entirely explained by differences in background experience. Instead, the stereotypes that students have internalized likely play a significant role.

One pivotal study by Steven Spencer, Claude Steele, and Diane Quinn10, for example, found that simply telling women that men do better on a particular math test results in worse performance, a phenomenon referred to as “stereotype threat”. Another study found that just telling a black athlete that a golf task was a test of “sports intelligence” significantly decreased his performance11. Countless studies since have replicated these findings for everything from working memory capacity to test anxiety to high blood pressure. When people expect that they should have some flaw or difficulty, the expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Studies have also found that teacher expectations can have a significant impact on student performance. For example, a series of influential studies from the 1960’s showed that after teachers were told that randomly selected students were about to experience an “intellectual boom,” those students experienced major improvements in their performance, even though nothing had changed aside from their teacher’s opinion of them12. Subtle features of the environment can shape students’ behavior and self-perception, so it’s essential that we identify ways to minimize stereotype threat in the classroom.

The Power of Values Affirmation

Combating deep-rooted stereotypes is no light task, but research has shown that there are subtle interventions that may at least begin to do this. They’re often called values affirmation interventions because they encourage students to reflect on their personal values. The most common implementation of values affirmation involves writing about one’s values, but the crucial ingredient is that students are conscious of the things that are important to them personally. In one study, half of the males and half of the females in a college physics class participated in a values affirmation activity at the beginning of the semester, while the others did not1. By the end of the semester, there was a marked difference in the two groups. In the control group (students who did no special intervention), males significantly outperformed females. In the affirmation group, however, this gap was eliminated. This suggests that simply being mindful of one’s values can combat stereotypes that may otherwise hamper girls’ performance.

A similar study examined the effects of a values affirmation intervention in African Americans and European Americans2. This study looked at change in GPA over the course of two school years. While the intervention didn’t affect European Americans — there was no difference in GPA change in the affirmation group compared to the group who did not do the affirmation — the GPAs of the African Americans who participated in the intervention increased by .24 points by the end of the two years.

The intervention was especially effective for low-performing African Americans, who experienced a GPA increase of 0.41 points on average and whose chances of repeating a grade or being placed in a remedial class were slashed from 18% to 5%.

Why do these value-affirming interventions work?

They are incredibly simple, involving only a short writing activity that is sometimes repeated a few times, but sometimes only done once. Yet the simplicity might be a key to the success of values affirmation interventions. The authors of the study investigating their effects for African Americans point out that there is often a recursive process at work: students have initial mental states or stereotypes that are compounded over time. The intervention, though small, seems to alter that recursive trajectory, leading to substantial long-term consequences2.

Values Affirmation & the Brain

Work by Lisa Legault and colleagues suggests that effects of self affirmation can be seen at the neural level3. The brain’s electrical patterns can be recorded through electroencephalography (EEG), and different cognitive processes have different signature patterns. One well-known pattern is called the Error-Related Negativity (ERN). Just 100ms after people make an error on a task, there is a negative electrical spike, as their dopaminergic neurons (those that encourage us to keep doing more of what we’re doing) stop firing. They hypothesized that when we feel affirmed, we are more sensitive to our errors (in order to learn from them), and therefore that people who had undergone a self-affirmation measure should show an increased ERN response to making errors and an improved performance on a task. On the flip side, people whose self-affirmation was undermined might show a blunted ERN response and a decreased task performance.

All participants received a list of 6 values and rated them in terms of their importance to themselves. Those in the affirmation condition then wrote about their top value, while those in the non-affirmation condition wrote about their lowest one. They then performed a straightforward task: when they saw an M on the screen, they had to quickly press a response button; when they saw a W on the screen, they were to do nothing. This type of task is often called a go/no-go task. They did indeed find that participants who completed the values affirmation task had both increased performance and “neuroaffective sensitivity to task errors” compared to those in the non-affirmation group.

This research adds to our understanding of why values affirmation improves performance in groups facing stereotype threats. It seems to reduce depletion by improving our detection of and sensitivity to errors, reduce defensiveness, and motivate people to succeed.

A values affirmation intervention has also been effective for attaining weight loss goals4, demonstrating that the mechanism through which it works affects motivation and empowerment beyond the classroom. Another research group investigated neural activity while people were exposed to messages about ways to improve their health by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)5. Participants who had completed a values affirmation exercise before hearing the mentions showed more activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (a region of the brain associated with self-related processing and positive valuation) than those who did not reflect on their values before receiving the same message.

Together, these studies suggest that after reflecting on our values, our brains may process incoming information differently, allowing us to make the best of constructive feedback and motivating us to improve our performance the task or goal we’re focused on.

Facebook as an Unexpected Tool for Self-Affirmation

Are there other ways to tap into the benefits of self affirmation? Recent work suggests that Facebook may provide one way of doing so6. College undergraduates were placed in one of four groups: (1) the Facebook self-affirming group had 5 minutes to explore any aspect of their own Facebook profile they chose; (2) the Facebook non-affirming group had 5 minutes to explore someone else’s profile; (3) the values affirmation group wrote for five minutes about something they valued; and (4) the values control group wrote about something they valued very little. After doing the associated task, participants received feedback on a speech they had done at the very beginning of the experiment. Everyone received the same generic negative feedback, and they were then asked to rate different aspects of that feedback, like how useful it was and how competent the person who gave it to them was. If participants were self-affirmed before receiving their feedback, they should be more accepting of the negative feedback they received. This was exactly what the researchers found, regardless of whether the affirmation came in the form of the traditional writing intervention or by looking at their own Facebook profile. In fact, both forms of affirmation were equally effective. This study still leaves the mechanistic question unanswered; that is, why does viewing our own profile encourage us to reflect on our values? Is it only important that we focus our thoughts on ourselves, or is there something about a Facebook profile that reminds us of what we believe in and value?

In a second experiment, these same researchers asked whether people actually seek out Facebook’s self-affirming abilities after a negative experience. Again, they performed a speech and received generic feedback. This time, half of the participants received negative feedback, while the other half received neutral feedback. They were then invited to take place in a second experiment online and could choose which experiment they wanted to take place in: one that involved Facebook, YouTube, music, news, or games online. Those who received the negative feedback chose to go to Facebook significantly more often than those who received the neutral feedback, suggesting that Facebook is one outlet that people seek out to affirm themselves after an injury to their ego.

While students can certainly use Facebook to engage in many activities that are not affirming (some of which may in fact be the disaffirming), current research suggests that we may not want to dismiss the platform as solely a hindrance to education. Instead, we may want to entertain the counterintuitive possibility that it may be affirming for students, especially when looking at their own profiles.

Incorporating Affirmation in Education

Fortunately, values affirmation activities take little time and no money to implement. They help those who are most likely to be battling stereotypes without hurting others. So far, they seem to be a win-win. But there are still lots of aspects of affirming interventions that need to be better understood. Is an intervention as effective if students are aware of its intentions as if they are unaware? Is more affirmation always better? What other ways can it be implemented – perhaps by looking at photos, listening to music with positive messages, or engaging in an activity that one is good at?

Until more of these questions are addressed, teachers who want to reduce the role of harmful stereotypes in their classrooms can consider one of the forms of affirmation that we know to be beneficial. Whether students are affirmed through Facebook, writing about values, or other unknown sources, keeping the power of self-affirmation in mind may help us bring education closer to the great equalizer it was intended to be.


References & Further Reading

  1. Miyake, A., Kost-Smith, L.E., Finkelstein, N.D., Pollock, S.J, Cohen, G.L, & Ito, T.A. (2010). Reducing the gender achievement gap in college science: A classroom study of values affirmation, Science, doi: 10.1126/science.1195996. [Paper]
  2. Cohen, G.L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive processes in self-affirmation: Intervening to close the minority achievement gap. Science, doi: 10.1126/science.1170769. [Paper]
  3. Legault, L., Al-Khindi, T., & Inzlicht, M. (2012). Preserving integrity in the face of performance threat: Self-affirmation enhances neurophysiological responsiveness to errors. Psychological Science, doi: 1177/0956797612448483. [Paper]
  4. Logel, C. & Cohen. G.L. (2011). The role of the self in physical health: Testing the effect of a values-affirmation intervention on weight loss. Psychological Science, doi: 10.1177/0956797611421936. [Paper]
  5. Falk, E.B., Brook O’Donnell, M., Cascio, C.N., Tinney, F., Kang, Y., Lieberman, M.D., Taylor, S.E., An, L., Resnicow, K., & Strecher, V.J. (2014). Self-affirmation alters the brain’s response to health messages and subsequent behavior change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.1500247112. [Paper]
  6. Toma, C.L. & Hancock, J.T. (2013). Self-affirmation underlies Facebook use. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, doi: 10.1177/0146167212474694. [Paper]
  7. Gonzales, A.L. & Hancock, J.T. (2010). Mirror, mirror on my Facebook wall: Effects of exposure to Facebook on self-esteem. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, doi: 10.1089/cyber.2009.0411. [Paper]
  8. The Value of “Values Affirmation”: Stanford Graduate School of Business [Article]
  9. Pedersen, T. (2013). Facebook profile often used for self-affirmation. Psych Central. [Article]
  10. Spencer, S.J., Steele, C.M., Quinn, D.M. (1999). Stereotype threat and women’s math performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 35, 4-28. [Paper]
  11. Stone, J., Lynch, C.I., Sjomelin, M., Darley, J.M. (1999). Stereotype threat effects on black and white athletic performance. Journal of Personality and Psychology, 77(6), 1213-1227. [Paper]
  12. Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L. (1966). Teachers’ expectancies: Determinants of pupils’ IQ gains. Psychological Reports, 19, 115-118. [Paper]

4 Reasons Imagination is Important for Development


Psychoanalysts and theorists like Freud or Piaget believed that imagination and fantasy let children retreat from reality into a whole new world of make-believe. They thought that because children could react emotionally to fantasy worlds or to made-up entities (e.g., characters, monsters, imaginary friends), they were sometimes incapable of distinguishing what was real from what was fictional1.

From a developmental perspective, imagination actually contributes to children’s cognitive and emotional functioning and helps them grow into adults who are able to make sense of the world that surrounds them.

Children’s gift for imagination and fantasy helps them immerse themselves in make-believe, which may actually help them to better understand reality and make inferences about the world.

Here are a few reasons why:

1. Imagination fosters creativity

Imagination is typically seen as a mental activity that involves the representation of objects or events that are not really present. Cognitive psychologist Lev Vygotsky explained that imagination is a slow and complex process that builds on things that we experience in reality. The more varied a child’s experiences, the richer his or her imagination2. Vygotsky added that if we, as educators, want to build a good foundation for children’s creativity, we need to expose them to different experiences. That can also involve imagining things that they have not see or never directly experienced.

2. Imagination helps us think about alternatives

Weisberg described children’s (and adults’) ability to think about stories and pretend games as the “what-if mechanism” (WIM)3. It is a cognitive mechanism that allows human beings to explore—through imagination—possibilities that do not exist in reality, and that also allows them to learn about reality from fiction by understanding emotions, exploring others’ experiences, or learning new information. WIM is a cognitive property that is essential to children as they develop. Since much of reality is not accessible for them to explore directly, children use their imagination to learn about things “from a distance.” Weisberg argues that the WIM is “an engine for learning” because fiction allow us to step out of reality in order to figure it out better; and it is therefore one of the primary tools that children use to make sense of the world.

3. Imagination lets us experience emotions

The role of emotions is essential in the imaginative thought process. Harris talked about it using the example of children’s imaginary companions1. Children can create an imaginary entity and intensify that invention by feeling connected to it. They can then start to react as if these fictitious elements were real, and can become afflicted by them. We tend to forget it, but we adults, can also react emotionally to fiction (just think of a movie, a novel, or a character that has impacted you). Harris explained that childrens’ reactions and emotions to imaginary friends and monsters do not mean that they confuse fantasy and reality, but simply that they, like us, can get absorbed in an imagined world and experience new emotions.

4. Imagination can lead to empathy

Perspective-taking is a first step leading to human empathy. Taking different perspectives, or empathizing with others implies imagining how it feels to be in their shoes. For instance, in a functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment, Jackson’s participants were shown images of people in physically painful or non-painful situations4. Participants were instructed to imagine and rate their level of pain. Participants’ perspectives were linked with activation in the pain-processing neural network, but showed distinct activations between when they were thinking about their own pain or the about the person in the pictures. The experiment showed an important aspect of human empathy: we can distinguish between empathic response to others versus to our own personal distress. In other words, when we imagine others’ perspective, we do not necessarily merge ourselves with them, but we can identify with their emotions or sufferings. Empathizing doesn’t necessarily apply only to physical reactions, but also relates to emotions, desires, and mental states.

Imagination in the classroom

Albert Einstein said “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world.” In a world that sometimes feels out of balance, we need to prepare a generation of students who are open to imagining alternatives, to different perspectives, and to human empathy. Here are a few tips to foster imagination in your classroom:

● Generate “what if” scenarios
● Enable collaborative problem-solving activities
● Encourage divergent thinking, pretend-play, and role-play
● Embrace creativity as part of students’ learning process
● Expose students to different perspectives on a topic
● Motivate students to read stories that differ from their usual experiences

How do you try to encourage imagination in your classroom? Share your experiences in the comments below.

References & Further Reading

  1. Harris, P. L. (2000). The work of the imagination. Oxford: Blackwell. [Book]
  2. Vygotsky, L. S. (2004). Imagination and creativity in childhood. Journal of Russian & East European Psychology, 42(1), 7-97. [Article]
  3. Weisberg, D. K. (2009). The vital importance of imagination. In M. Brockman (Ed.) What’s next: Dispatches on the future of science. Pp. 144-154. New York: Vintage Books. [Book]
  4. Jackson, P. L., Brunet, E., Meltzoff, A. N., & Decety, J. (2006). Empathy examined through the neural mechanisms involved in imagining how I feel versus how you feel pain. Neuropsychologia, 44(5), 752-761. [Article]

Yes, It’s Important that Your Students like You

students like you

It’s an age old debate. Does it matter if your students like you? Ask any teacher, anywhere, and you will most likely get answers split down the middle. In Aaron Podolner’s book, “How Would You Handle It: Hundreds of Answers for Classroom Teachers”, this very question was asked. One teacher responded with the following:

“Do you want your students to like you? The answer is yes, but with a qualifier. It matters why you want your students to like you… If they like you because you genuinely like them and show a real interest in their growth, then they will also respect you and work hard for you. Students do not learn because of teachers, they learn for teachers.”1

While it’s been viewed as mostly a personal choice, research seems to suggest that it is important that students like their teachers. The teacher in Mr. Podolner’s book may have been onto something with her statement that students don’t learn because of teachers, but rather for them. Improving students’ relationships with their teachers have not only academic implications, but social implications as well.

Why it Matters that Your Students Like You: The Research
The brain is a social organ and close relationships, such as a positive student-teacher relationship, encourage learning, in part, because they promote a positive learning environment2. From birth, we learn from our interactions with other people; this includes, family, friends and yes, teachers. Positive teacher-student relationships in the school setting have positive implications not only for students, but for teachers and the school climate as a whole.7

For this reason, students who are in classrooms with teachers that they like and have a close relationship with may learn more. For teachers, teaching students who like you makes their job easier. Teachers who experience close relationships with students report that their students have better attendance, cooperate more, are more engaged and are more self-directed3.

These little things can make a big difference.

In a recent study done in Germany4, kindergartners were shown a picture of different teachers before solving a problem. Students performed faster when they were shown a picture of a teacher they had a close relationship with before solving the problem versus a teacher they didn’t have a relationship with. While this study shows the direct effect of students thinking about teachers that they are close to prior to solving a problem, it also gets at a deeper message.

When students have positive relationships with their teachers, it affects how they view school and how engaged they are. Students who have these kind of relationships have more positive feelings about school, are more engaged, and in turn, are often higher achievers5. Think for a minute about any high achieving student you know. More than likely, this student enjoys school, or at least likes it. Now, think about that students’ relationship with his/her teachers. I’m sure at least one teacher that student has a positive relationship with will come to mind. While positive student teacher relationships can result in more engagement, and higher grades among students, negative relationships can have the opposite effect6.

Positive student-teacher relationships also have the power to positively improve school climate, something that can affect everyone involved in a school. School is, in a very general way, student and staff perception of their school. We can think of it this way: Students who have positive relationships with their teachers tend to be more engaged. Students who are more engaged typically are more likely to succeed. Being successful in school leads to positive educational experiences which in turn, creates a positive perception of school. Of course there are exceptions and limitations to this logic and not all students, teachers, and schools are the same – but the research suggests it’s worth paying attention to. Teachers play a huge role because they can very well shift the climate of their school by building stronger relationships with their students.

What Do Positive Student-Teacher Relationships Look Like? And How Can You Build Them?

Positive student-teacher relationships are characterized by low-conflict, feelings of closeness and support and independence2. Positive student teacher relationships benefit both the students and the teachers. Students feel safe, supported and cared for, while teachers feel competent and important. Here are a few more examples of what positive student teacher relationships look like:

“A high school student chooses to share the news that he recently got a part in a community play with his teacher because he knows that his teacher will show genuine interest in his success.

A fourth grade boy who is struggling in math shows comfort in admitting to his teacher that he needs help with multiplying and dividing fractions even if most of the students in the class have moved beyond this work.

A middle school girl experiences bullying from other students and approaches her social studies teacher to discuss it because she trusts that the teacher will listen and help without making her feel socially inept.”3

While the importance of student teacher relationships seems rather straight forward, building relationships with students isn’t always so easy. In most cases, our students who could benefit from these relationships the most are the hardest students to deal with. Below you’ll find a few tips I’ve found helpful in building relationships with my students.

Note: These tips are rooted in my personal experiences, not peer-reviewed research.

1. Sincerity
When building a relationship with your students it’s important to be sincere. Ask yourself why you want to have a better relationship with the student. If your reason is simply because you have him/her in your class and you don’t want it to be a miserable experience for both of you all year, be honest about that. In my experience, students have an amazing ability to detect when someone is not genuine. Keep in mind that even if you are approaching a student with sincerity, he/she may have his/her defenses up, especially if he/she has not had many positive relationships with adults. Keeping your intentions pure and being honest with the student about why you want to get to know him/her and conveying that you truly care are important first steps.

2. Consistency
This may be the most important factor. In any relationship, consistency is key. Showing your students that you are going to show up and be there for them every day by actually doing it says a lot. Conveying the message that you care over and over again may eventually reach even the most stubborn students.

3. High Expectations
A hard lesson I learned in my early years of teaching is the importance of having and keeping high expectations. If you truly care about your students, you hold them to a high standard because anything less would be a disservice to them. I used to think that taking it easy on my students by accepting excuses when they didn’t do their homework, or turning a blind eye when they occasionally misbehaved, was showing that I cared. I’ve learned that in holding high expectations of my students I’m conveying the message that I believe you are capable of doing something great and so, I’m not going to accept anything less than greatness from you.

Where to Go from Here
While there are great implications for having a positive relationship with your students, the fact of the matter is that it’s not possible to have a great relationship with every student. As teachers, what’s most important is that we hold every student to high expectations and put forth an honest effort to show support and genuine interest in as many of our students as we can. While we may not have amazing relationships with every student, the ones we really take the time to nurture can make all the difference in the world.


References & Further Reading

  1. Podolner, A. S., Matuch, J. B., Nemeth , M. M., Royston, L. S., …Shah, N. (2014). How We Handle It: Hundreds of Answers from Classroom Teachers. [Book]
  2. Cozolino, L. (2013). Nine Things Educators Need to Know About the Brain. [Book Excerpt]
  3. Riff-Kaufman, S. & Sandilos, L. (n.d.). Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Supports for Learning. [Guide]
  4. Ahnert L,Milatz A, Kappler G, Schneiderwind J, and Fischer R. (2013). The impact of teacher-child relationships on child cognitive performance as explored by a priming paradigm. Dev Psychol. 49(3):554-67. (Paper)
  5. Van Maele, D., & Van Houtte, M. (2011). The quality of school life: Teacher-student trust relationships and the organizational school context.Social Indicators Research, 100, 85–100. (Paper)
  6. Pianta, R., Hamre, B., & Allen, J. (2012). Teacher-student relationships and engagement: Conceptualizing, measuring, and improving the capacity of classroom interactions. In S. L. Christenson, A. L. Reschly, & C. Wylie (Eds.),Handbook of research on student engagement (pp. 365–386). New York: Springer. (Book Chapter)
  7. Larson, A. (2014). How Student-Teacher Relationships Influence School Climate: A Literature Review. (Review)