Brain Bites

Brain Bites

The Surprising Strategy that Gets Students Motivated, Increases Productivity, and Improves Health!

by Janet Zadina on 10/03/18

Do your students put off starting long-term projects, such as writing a paper or reading a book, or doing a research project?  They wait until the last minute usually because they have trouble starting. Starting is the hardest part! Well, this decades-old technique can get them on their way and help you improve your productivity and your health.

In the late 80’s, Francesco Cirillo developed a time management method called the Pomodoro Technique. This technique broke work tasks into intervals separated by brief breaks.  Typically the intervals were 25 minutes in length with a 5 minute break The method has become so popular that timers are available online and there are apps for it. (see below).  

Much more recently, research has shown that after sitting for only 20 minutes, your chemistry changes.  Metabolism can slow down. Thinking can become sluggish, as well. In fact, some studies indicate that it doesn’t even matter how much you exercise; it matters how long you sit! One study said that 60-75 minutes of exercise a day could counteract that but other studies say the sitting is harmful regardless of exercise.  

Being sedentary is bad for your health and your brain.  You need to get the body moving and get blood flow to the brain. I am not saying this method will prevent the effects of sitting so much.  I am saying that it is helpful to get blood flow to the brain and to prevent extended periods of sitting.

In light of the above, I have been using a technique I call 20/10, although it could be 20/5, because the most important fact is that you don’t sit longer than 20 minutes without getting up.  I have found that by setting the “up” length to 10 minutes I can accomplish many tasks a day on my break. However, I work at home, so that is easier. For those in an office, 20/5 may be the best length.  In five minutes you can get water (a good idea!), go to the restroom, walk something to another office, speak with a colleague rather than emailing, or just take a brisk walk around the hallway. For a while, I had an energetic song on my desktop and would dance wildly to it as my break and then get back to work. ?  You may not want to do that in a public office, ha ha. I bought a standing desk and I use it the first 20 minutes of the day and occasionally thereafter, depending upon whether I went to the gym. You might prefer the following method, especially if you have a standing desk. Sit for 20, stand for 8, and move around and stretch for 2 minutes.  

Now you may think that 20 minutes isn’t enough time to get anything done.  Actually, I have found that it dramatically improves my productivity. I have a loud kitchen timer ticking away and so, knowing that I am working in a brief segment, I work much more quickly than before, rushing to get to a good stopping point.  Many times I finish a task and have 5 minutes left. That is great for all those little sedentary tasks like filing, clearing off a desk, making a phone call, or tackling an email. Speaking of email, this strategy also “limits” you to 20 minutes on email because when you return you realize that you need to get started on those big tasks.  And here is where it really helps you and where it links to students.

Since the hardest part is getting started and because you can agree and get students to agree that they can stand anything for 20 minutes.  It’s shorter than being in a dentist’s chair, right? So that big deadline or that long report or complicated project that you never have time to do because it will take a few hours gets started.  You tell yourself you will just work on it for 20 minutes and then do the other things you have to do. Tell students that if all they do is stare at the paper for 20 minutes it is a start! Commit to only 20 minutes!

Watch what happens.  More often than not, once I got started, I would be so engrossed I wouldn’t hear the timer and an hour would go by.  (That’s ok occasionally ?). I had accomplished the hardest part- getting started. Then I can keep working on it in 20-minute intervals.

The same thing is true of students.  When you assign a large task, after a day or so, get students to commit to spending 20 minutes on it before the next class and report back how that went.  See what happens. You can teach them this method and check in with them. Keep asking for those intervals.

Try this method or use the Pomodoro Technique as described on the internet.  You will be surprised at the results. Oops, my timer went off. I finished the entire first draft and will come back to add some resources and proof it. And time flew by! Probably two intervals to finish the newsletter and I will have completed this task that I put off for a couple of months because I didn’t have time.

Stop! Your Stress is Changing my Brain!

by Janet Zadina on 04/16/18

You probably know that stress changes your brain.  In a remarkable study published in one of the most prestigious journals in the world, Jaideep Bains and colleagues found that stress from others has the same effect on your brain as your own stress does!

Okay, this study was done on mice, as much research is, because other studies have shown that in most cases results do translate to humans.  But we already had a pretty good idea that this was happening from research on mirror neurons and emotional contagion.  This research actually shows that it altered neurons in the brain.

Students are stressed.  Teachers are stressed.  Each affects the other.  Sadly, student stress has negative effects on learning and achievement.  Teacher stress can lead to burnout.  Both cause retention issues and absenteeism.  Stress changes your brain in harmful ways.  Not only does it cause problems in thinking and learning, but it can lead to chronic mental conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Prolonged stress can cause health issues as well.

Even worse than stress, we are seeing more trauma in schools.  Recent school shootings are raising levels of anxiety and stress in students.  Students can be traumatized by a variety of factors.  It is important to understand trauma and to create a trauma-sensitive classroom.

The good news is that schools can incorporate practices that reduce stress and to create trauma-sensitive classrooms. To do so, they need to understand about hidden triggers for stress and what practices might make it worse.  They need to understand how stress impacts behavior and learning. They need to understand how trauma affects behavior and learning. Finally, they need strategies that are low-cost, easily implemented, and don’t take much time.  Fortunately, these needs can easily be addressed.

To explore this topic in enough depth to be useful requires about 1-3 hours of information, beyond the scope of a blog, but available in workshops.

(Topics can be geared to your audience and needs and information can be combined.)

But one handy tip that you may find useful is that anxious people tend to focus more on negative triggers than non-anxious people.  What they are paying attention to increases their anxiety. One way to reduce anxiety is to change what you pay attention to.  How can you do that?  The new science of positive emotion has revealed that writing down 3 things a day that you are grateful for reduces anxiety and stress. Why?  When you know you have to do this every day (or every class period) you have to start hunting for things to be grateful for.  You have to start paying attention to the good things.  I did this with my students with great results in having a more positive and calmer classroom.  I had them do it the first few minutes of class while I took roll or handed out papers.  They never questioned why they had to do it.  I would save the explanation for later and maybe ask them whether they have noticed anything different after they have done this for a month.  Try it and see!

Additional tips are available in an earlier blog .

You can find resources on post-traumatic stress disorder at

Becoming an Educational Neuroscientist

by Janet Zadina on 03/05/18

I am often asked “how can I do what you do?” or “what is the path to your specialty?”  This is a very difficult question to answer and requires a lengthy explanation, so I am putting it here for those who are curious.

The reason my path is hard to explain is that it is very nontraditional and nonreplicable.  I came in at the very beginning of the field of educational neuroscience – there wasn’t even a name for it then!  Teachers were reading material and presenting about the brain and learning when we knew very little and most of the research was done on rats!  That is when many of the neuromyths got started. Untenable leaps were made from the research to the classroom.

My path started when I was teaching developmental reading.  I was a reading specialist with a Master’s in education. I was frustrated with the research on dyslexia that was leading nowhere.  Then I saw an article about Christiana Leonard’s work giving brain scans to students with dyslexia. Wow! A new window! I said “I am going to do that”.  Of course, that was greeted with scoffing. But I was determined!

The path that followed was somewhat miraculous and impossible to follow.  I enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Education at University of New Orleans.  At first hey were not in favor of my doing my program in “brain research” because all they knew at the time were those neuromyths that were still perpetuated but incorrect.  So I laid low and began my plan. I just started studying that while enrolled in “computers in education”.

Coincidentally, Dr. Leonard herself came to Tulane Medical School for Grand Rounds and by some fluke of fate, I found out about it.  I just showed up and took copious notes. Then I introduced myself and told her I was a reading specialist getting a Ph.D. and loved her study.  The head of the lab at Tulane, Anne Foundas, said, “oh, maybe you could replicate her study for your dissertation.” So I got contact information.

At that point nothing happened with the lab. I started my literature review for my qualifying exam. About a year later I took the literature review to Dr. Foundas and she said maybe you can start coming to lab meetings and just sit and listen.  I continued learning on my own.

I just proceeded as if it were going to happen.  I wrote five Internal Review Board applications to different institutions and started recruiting.  Once the lab saw that I could get students, things started moving forward. Dr. Foundas joined my committee at UNO and set up a collaboration for my dissertation. The lab trained me in neuroanatomy and in measuring language regions of the brain.  They trained me in testing the subjects and in conducting the brain scans. Then the research began.

I was hired as a research assistant at Tulane Medical School and completed my dissertation on the neuroanatomy of dyslexia.  Then I was award a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Tulane to continue my studies, much as a residency in medical school. We started a similar study on child stuttering.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit and I evacuated to Florida where I remained for 12 years.  The scanners were destroyed except for one in the city. There wasn’t anyone to run them for research and no volunteers.  Members of the lab began moving away. That part of my life was over. I began focusing on PTSD research in Tampa, something I was interested in and participating in at VA hospital while doing my other research.

So how would anyone replicate that path?  Impossible. However, in the meantime, several universities designed programs in educational neuroscience.  Some are for scientists who want to get involved in bridging to education. Some spring from the psychology department.  A few begin with education.

I suggest you start by attending Harvard Graduate School of Education:  Mind, Brain, and Body Institute in the summer. See what you think. Determine what your specialty would be – what question do you have?  What do you have to offer the lab that others wouldn’t? Find the relevant research articles and see who the researchers are and where they are located.  See what programs might be offered at those institutions. Other institutions offering programs include Brown, Vanderbilt, and University of Texas at Arlington.  Be very careful of online programs. Many presenters are still presenting misinformation and have no scientific background in which to place and understand current research.  

Be sure to check credentials and experience. You want to be credible and make a contribution, right? I actually had someone tell me, after giving her this explanation, “oh, no, I don’t want to go to school.  I just want to become a famous brain presenter.”

Yikes! So do your homework, find a credible program, and get started. It really is never too late!

If you have any questions please feel free to reach out on my contact page!

Want to Jump-Start Your Creativity in the Coming Year?

by Janet Zadina on 11/20/17

Why not read a book on creativity over the holidays?  Sometimes just one idea can really spark creativity or motivate us to jump into that creative project we have been putting off.  Occasionally, when I don’t want to start my weekend house chores, while I am having my coffee, I read a little bit in a book on organizing, feng shui, or decorating to get one idea about how to make a simple improvement.  That gets me motivated and makes mundane chores more interesting as I make an improvement here or there. Perhaps you need motivation to start writing or to begin a creative project. You could jump-start your creativity by reading one of the books in the list below.  

We are all so busy these days. Maybe you don’t have to have a big block of time to read nonfiction or you enjoy reading fiction to relax.  Keep a few nonfiction books near where you drink your coffee, or eat lunch, or by your bed. I keep an eclectic assortment near where I have my coffee. I read a few pages from whatever book strikes me every morning with coffee.   Sometimes I will come across an idea that sparks my creativity and gives me a rush of energy as I add new information to a talk or get motivated to work on my next book.  I feel that if I get one good idea from a book or a book motivates me to make a change or get started on something, it was well worth the money and the time.

This blog sounds like I am trying to convince you to read books!  No, most of you probably love to read!  I am suggesting books on topics outside your usual realm of interest or non-fiction books about your field, your brain, your health, or your lifestyle and taking them one bit at a time.

Here are some books on creativity.  I haven’t read most of them but they all came recommended.  Maybe one of these will fire you up to be more creative in the upcoming year!  They would make great Christmas gifts for your writer or artist friends!

Recently I gave a talk on creativity to faculty about how the creative brain is different from the logical brain in terms of function and activation.  Then we explored how to create the opportunity for creativity both in themselves and in their students.  CLICK HERE for more on that.

Books on Creativity (including writing and art)


Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

Austin Kleon, Steal Like an Artist

Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmuli, Creativity, Inc

Robert Henri, The Art Spirit


Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Annie Lamott, Bird by Bird

Stephen King, On Writing

Ben Shahn, The Shape of Content

Grace Bonney, Company of Women

The following were suggested by author Gretchen Rubin

Bob Dylan, Chronicles

Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being:  Letters

Edward Weston, The Flame of Recognition

Twyla Tharp:  The Creative habit:  Learn it and Use it for Life

W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up

Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary

Mason Currey, Daily Rituals:  How Artists Work (includes many occupations, including scientists)

If a Bilingual Brain is a Better Brain, Why Are My Students Struggling?

by Janet Zadina on 10/25/17

Learning a language makes you smarter!  Learning another language early is associated with better reading skills, something that serves children well in school.  Fluent bilinguals may have better learning, more complex thinking, better multi-tasking skill, more creativity, better attentional control, and some protection against age-related mental decline.

Then why do my students struggle, you ask.  Because they are not yet fluent.  The same things that are an advantage later, are actually a disadvantage when they are learning another language. Becoming bilingual makes more demands on attention and working memory, skills critical to academic success.  Struggling with two languages can create cognitive load, leading to mental fatigue and more difficulty multi-tasking.  Many language learners are immigrants, migrants, may live in poverty, or have increased stress in the home.  Anxiety, stress, and trauma create a hidden “learning disability” and increase all of the difficulties just mentioned.  

Teachers must adjust the presentation of material to address the issues with attention, working memory, cognitive load, and stress.  Because anxiety, stress, and trauma diminish attention and working memory and increase cognitive load, addressing stress in the classroom should be the first step.  Start from day one and have your students begin class with a few deep breaths.  Smile and greet students by name when they enter.  Keep things predictable by letting students know what to expect.  Give them some choice (a way of giving them some control) whenever possible.  

Learn about the science and strategies of the hidden threats to learning in attention, working memory, cognitive load, and anxiety-stress-trauma in this keynote or workshop.

Recently presented at the ELL Mini-Regional Conference in Buffalo, NY October, 2017.

with Dr. Janet Zadina
Copyright 2013 Janet Zadina, Ph.D. All rights reserved
Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D
Brain Research and Instruction

Science and Strategies
Janet N. Zadina, Ph.D
Brain Research and Instruction
Bridging Neuroscience and Education​

"Science and Strategies"
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