Brain Bites

Brain Bites

The first 5 minutes that improve learning, especially in millennials

by Janet Zadina on 10/30/18

Turns out that millennials (ages 18-33) are more stressed than older adults.  In fact, their stress levels are well above the national average. The factors contributing to that stress level are work and finances.  If they are in school, then that would contribute even more to those levels. School shootings are also a factor. To make matters worse, they are stressed about being stressed!  Almost half felt they were not managing their anxiety well.

This article is also relevant for K-12.  Children as young as 4 can have anxiety and depression.  About 8-10% of students ages 13-18 have an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety and stress impair learning.  They use mental resources that could be used for learning.  It is like having a virus scan running on your computer slowing down the other processing.

The worst effect of anxiety and stress is the effect on the frontal lobes. They inhibit the activation of the frontal lobes where higher-order thinking take place.  This would impact the type of thinking that we would want to focus on most in education. It makes it harder to plan, organize, carry out long-term projects, and to engage in metacognition. Critical thinking is impaired.

Furthermore, stress impairs working memory.  Working memory is what you are able to hold “online” in your mind while working with the information.  It is limited to a few seconds. For example, if you ask someone directions and by the time they finish giving them you have no idea where to start, then you have experienced the limitations of working memory.  Working memory is hugely essential to academic success. It is required for working math problems, for reading comprehension, and even for writing. It can hurt students’ test-taking ability because lengthy questions are highly dependent upon working memory.  

Additionally, anxiety and stress affect attention.  They change the focus of attention and make it harder to pay attention when learning.  Attention drives learning! It is attention that creates the plasticity that enables the brain to change.

Finally, anxiety and stress impact the ability to self-regulate and to regulate emotion.  This can lead to behavioral issues in class.

Millennials and older adults feel that health care practitioners are not helping them manage their stress.  You, as faculty, are first responders. There is much that you can do in the classroom without much time away from academics to help students reduce stress in the moment so that they can learn better.  They come in the classroom unavailable to learn. If you spend 2-5 minutes at the beginning of class providing an opportunity to reduce their stress, you are making their brains available to learn for the rest of the class period.  I would say that is a significant return on investment.

You have to set the table before you can eat. Use the first 2-5 minutes to set the table for better learning.  First, as students walk in have appropriate music playing.  The music should be upbeat and positive with a beat-per-minute a little higher than concentration (70-90 bpm) or at concentration levels (60-80, heartbeat rate). Don’t worry too much about that.  Just don’t play anything too slow or too energetic. The recent song Today is Going to Be a Good Day or Three Little Birds or Don’t Worry Be Happy are some options you could start with. You could use the same song every day, like a theme song, or change it up.  I suggest you stay in charge of the music or preview it if they want to bring it because you are creating an arousal level and a mood change and you want that to be optimal for learning, not just for enjoyment. You turn it off when class starts so that is zero class time used.

Secondly, consider the practice of having students keep a gratitude journal in which every day they write down three things they are grateful for that day.  This practice has now been shown through research to improve mood and reduce anxiety because it changes the focus of attention. When someone knows that every day he or she will need to come up with three things, the brain starts looking for positive things and, over time, this changes the brain.  I had them do the gratitude journal while I took roll and/or handed out papers, so it really didn’t take much away from classroom time. Even if you just focused on the gratitude journal, you are looking at about 2 minutes after they initially get the hang of it.

A third measure to reduce stress is to take a few deep breaths. To be brief, slow deep breathing tells the brain that you are safe and relaxed.  By forcing that, you send the message to the brain to turn off the flight or fight chemicals.

Finally, engage in one minute of mindfulness meditation.  Meditation is no longer cutting-edge in schools: it is becoming prevalent as the research is very convincing.  Mindfulness meditation is focused attention. The easiest one is to ask them to think the words “breathe in” and “breathe out” as they pay attention to their breath.  When their mind wanders, and tell them it is normal that it will and to gently bring attention back to the breath. Start with 20 seconds and then 40 and finally, one minute.

Now you have set the table for learning.  They are mentally and physically available to learn!

Find more resources at and


by Janet Zadina on 10/04/18

Faculty stress is contagious to students!  Teachers and students drop out due to stress.  50% of students have enough anxiety, stress, depression, or trauma to impair learning. Let’s do something that benefits both!

Give your faculty

  • Renewed energy

  • Strategies for reducing anxiety and stress in themselves

  • Awareness of stages of burnout and how to prevent it

  • Strategies for creating a trauma-sensitive classroom

  • Strategies for reducing anxiety, stress, and trauma symptoms in students

  • A day to experience numerous methods scientifically shown to reduce anxiety, stress, depression, and trauma so that they can find an ongoing practice

Proposed Agenda

8:30-11:30 Presentation/Workshop by Dr. Janet Zadina on Anxiety, Stress, Trauma, Brain and Learning:  Science and Strategies

Attendees learn the science and the strategies for creating a trauma-sensitive classroom and for reducing stress in themselves and their students.  They learn the process of burnout and how to prevent it.

11:30-12:30 Lunch

12:30-3:30 Exploring Multiple Methods for Reducing Stress In Faculty And Students And Improving Health

Attendees will explore practices such as yoga, tai chi, and varieties of meditation. Attendees will learn how yoga improves their frontal lobes and reduces anxiety, stress & depression.  They will practice simple movements and poses that they can continue with at home and even teach to students on a “brain break”.

Attendees will learn about how tai chi works to increase concentration, reduce stress, and improve health.  Attendees will practice simple movements that they can continue to use.

Attendees will learn about the many varieties of meditation and practice some of them, including mindfulness, dance, drumming, and visualization.  Meditation is almost a “magic bullet” for reducing anxiety, stress, and trauma symptoms. Many schools are incorporating mindfulness meditation in pre-K through college.  Attendees will learn how to use this in the classroom to improve frontal lobe functions and to reduce anxiety, stress, and trauma symptoms.

All instructors are experienced in working with trauma survivors.  The practitioners are all employed by a hospital wellness center. Dr. Zadina is renowned for her work with trauma survivors and with educators in understanding how to raise achievement using brain research findings.

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!

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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