Brain Function

and Children's Behaviour



Watching Panorama last night reminded me of an important point about how the brain works.

Many people think that the function of the brain is to perceive - to take in information about the outside world. This is completely wrong. In fact, the function of the brain is exactly the opposite - its job is to filter/ignore information from the outside world! Every moment of every day, a person's senses are sensing trillions of little bits of information about the outside world - sight, sound, smell, taste, touch. Information overload!!! The brain is a sense-MAKING mechanism which decides which information is important and then creates/builds up - i.e. MAKES UP - its model of what the world round about is like.

Thus, when you talk to a boy in the playground, your brain is focussing on the sounds coming from his mouth, and the look on his face etc., and it is paying reduced attention to other senses (e.g. the shouting and movement of other pupils) and filtering out some senses altogether (e.g. the feel of your socks on your feet).

Different Worlds
The importance of this, of course, for teachers, is that we REALLY DO all live in our own different worlds!!! There is no guarantee that the 'world' as perceived by your brain is anything AT ALL like the world conceived by your pupils. To take a very extreme example, that is what autism is - a child on the autistic spectrum simply filters out different information to you or I; where we may be focussing on the pupils walking down the corridor, the autistic pupil may well be focussing on the colour of the ceiling - or, indeed, the feeling of their socks on their feet. What it is important to understand, however, is that EVERYBODY has a different focus to some degree or another. Thus, when you look at a page of print and the one-word answer to a question simply leaps out of a sentence, for most of your pupils it simply will not be doing so, and the dyslexic pupil may be 'seeing' a printed page which looks very different to anything you or I 'see'. And a pupil whose brain is a less honed/sensible filter than yours or mine may well be bewildered, confused, overwhelmed...

Thus the whole point of - not only education - but of every interaction we have with the pupils is to first get them 'seeing'/focussing on what we are 'seeing'/focussing on. In a sense, this is what everyone of us knows and automatically does - 'Look at me, please'/ 'Look at the page! - you won't get the answer looking at my face' - but now you know why. It is not necessarily the pupil being perverse!

Stated in such terms, this may not seem very earth-shattering, but the implications for how we might most effectively get the children to LEARN are enormous. It certainly explains why for 'ordinary' pupils, a boring lesson is less effectively that an interesting one, which draws them into its world of leaning' and causes them to 'forget' their itchy eczema and prodding the child next to them with a ruler. It also explains what I have long said about teaching SN pupils - that the most effective way is to create a calm lesson, without peripheral distractions, which focuses relentlessly on the one thing that you want the pupils to com away with.

Under Stress
What the Panorama programme taught me, however, was an associated fact that - when we are under stress - one of the functions of adrenaline in the brain is to cut out EVEN MORE sensory information (which the brain thus regards as 'irrelevant') than normal, and to focus wholly on the stimuli linked to what it regards as the danger. Thus, in a shoot-out, armed police frequently genuinely cannot remember where they were standing, what the person they have just shot dead looked like, how many shots they fired etc. All they DO remember is what HIS gun looked like, how his hands moved, the sight of the sight on the end of their gun etc.

I thought that this was very important for teachers. We deal most days with pupils who are under stress. Perhaps they have had a fight, or lost something precious. Sometimes their stress is of our making - we are shouting at them - for not doing homework etc.!!! We need to remember that - in such situations - it is the NATURAL FUNCTION of the brain to obsess about what it sees as the 'danger', and to freeze out what it sees as irrelevancies (e.g. the pain caused because they thumping the wall/ what you are saying). It is the NATURAL FUNCTION of a child's brain to STOP THINKING STRAIGHT when you are getting cross with them. Again, most teachers naturally know when faced with such a pupil how to de-stress the situation, to get them to 'calm down', to gain their attention etc.

I am not saying never shout at a child!!!! But, again, most of us know empirically that a short-sharp bellow, followed by calm instructions get you much further than 'ranting'. And it doesn't do any harm to realise that when you are shouting indiscriminately, YOU ARE CREATING the circumstances whereby they are unable to think straight and do efficiently what you are demanding; in a situation where you want pupils to focus quickly on something you have 'seen'/perceived - creating a stressful situation is counter-productive.


Posted on: Oct 20 2006, 11:19 AM




To cite this page, use:   CLARE, JOHN D. (2006), 'Brain Function and Children's Behaviour',  at Greenfield History Site (