5 Teaching Strategies To Keep Students From Turning Off Their Brains

Dr. Judy Willis is a neurologist turned educator whose work (much of which can be found on her own blog, radteach.com) focuses on the brain–how it works, and how teachers can respond.

The video below shows Dr. Willis talking about how boredom and fear cause students to literally switch their brains off. The video is only about 10 minutes long, and is worth a watch. Listen to Dr. Willis give specific examples about how to implement the following in your classroom.

1. Use indirect signals rather than “telling”

As an example, you might use different color font, ink, or highlighter to indicate content priority rather than saying “This is super important and will be on the test.”

2. Make sure all students respond in some way

They can attempt an answer, ask a question of their own, or make some related prediction or evaluation. They can also respond to a non-content related question from the teacher (e.g., “Where would you start answering this question? What information would you need to form an intelligible response?)

Predictions and responses force the brain to engage at least on some level. That, or they make it clear there is zero engagement to begin with.

3. Protect students from fear of mistakes or failure

This can happen in a number of ways, including making student practice responses (rather than just “test” answers) private. To accomplish this, you can use individual whiteboards, or even twitter, texts, etc.

Fear is a powerful “demotivator.” Put students in situations where they believe they can be successful.

4. Resist placing students “on the spot” unless responding “on the spot” is what you’re assessing

You might fee like you’re preparing students for the “real world” by asking them to stand and articulate a complex response–and you might be right. But what you’re also assessing is simply their ability to resist fight or flight response.

5. Promote curiosity not as a thing, but the thing

Strategies that make students curious–such as breaking routines–is important to not only keep students engaged, but to allow them to “activate” their brains. Research about the relationship between curiosity and learning isn’t entirely clear, but connection is. Curiosity activates background knowledge, promotes comfort and activity, engages the brain, helps students persist in the face of failure, and countless other desirable academic behaviors.

Source: Judy Willis M.D., M.Ed., radteach.com


More Back to School Activities…

Taking a minute to get to know your students (and for them to get to know each other) is an important part of showing respect and building a team. Here are some activities submitted by teachers across the nation:

2 Truths, 1 Lie
Submitted by Leah from Massachusetts
Fifth Grade

I play a game called 2 Truths and 1 Lie and have students tell the two most wildest facts about themselves and one wild, but untrue fact, is among the three total. It is up to the class to guess which fact is untrue. I usually begin and tell the class:

I water ski frequently.
I used to have pink hair.
I love the Jonas Brothers.

It’s then up to them to choose which “fact” is really fiction!

Back-to-School Time Capsule
Submitted by Susan from New York
Special Education Teacher

I do a Time Capsule every year with my students as one of my first activities. It includes their favorite color, book, tv show, sport, animal, school subject, etc… One they have each completed one, they fold it up and seal it and it goes in a box that I have labeled Time Capsule. In May, they compete the same form and then they open the one from September and compare their answers. To much of their surprise many things have changed over the course of eight months. They even notice a difference in their handwriting. This activity is always a winner with my students. I have been doing it for years!

Filling Bags with Things that Represent Us
Submitted by Natalie from Florida
Third Grade teacher

The first day of school I bring in a paper bag with 3 – 5 items (i.e. family picture, a picture of my pets, something purple (my favorite color), A Clifford book (my favorite story character), etc.). I stand in the front of the room and take out one item at a time, show it to the class and tell the about myself. I give the children a chance to ask me questions after each item.

Then I give the children a bag with a short typed note explaining the assignment and ask the children to bring in 3-5 items that tell about them that they would like to share with the class. After each child presents their bag the audience is allowed to ask questions. By the end of the first week the students and I have learned a lot about each other.

Friendship Web
Submitted by Jennifer from Michigan
7th Grade

The first day of school in lieu of going over the rules, I do an activity where we sit on top of our desks and take one spool of yarn and throw it to each other holding on to our piece and telling something about ourselves. At the conclusion, we are all connected by this web of yarn, and I discuss that we are going to be a web of learners who need each other to create a learning atmosphere appropriate for learning. We discuss how this might happen, for example, respecting each other, listening to each other, supporting each other, etc.

Microphone Mania
Submitted by Rinita from New Jersey
2nd Grade

I have the students pair up with one another and make microphones. After making microphones, they interview each other and give a news report about that student.

Beginning of the Year Activities

So…the lack of posts since March shows how busy school psychologists get in the spring time with referrals! I am going to do my best to actually post something each month so we’ll see how that goes.

Happy summer to most of you and happy “clopening” to the year-round folks. Even though year-round school already started, it’s never too late to do this activity.


At an open house or conference, you can get parents to write their address on an envelope and send a positive note home for each student at some point in the year! It’s always so easy to call home about negative behaviors, but imagine receiving snail mail about your child’s positive behaviors…definitely something for the scrapbook 🙂

Look for next month’s post with even more beginning of the year activities.

K-W-L – A Reading Comprehension Strategy

The K-W-L strategy stands for what I Know, what I Want to learn, and what I did Learn. By activating students’ background knowledge, it improves comprehension of expository text. This is best used by grades 3-12.

You can have students create their own KWL chart, or simply google image search it and you’ll find tons of examples. I have included this chart as a good starting point.

A. “Know” Step:

  • Initiate discussion with the students about what they already know about the topic of the text.
  • Start by using a brainstorm procedure. Ask the students to provide information about where and how they learned the information.
  • Help them organize the brainstormed ideas into general categories.

    B. “Want to Learn” Step:

  • Discuss with the students what they want to learn from reading an article.
  • Ask them to write down the specific questions in which they are more interested.

    C. “What I Learned” Step:

  • Ask the students to write down what they learned from the reading.
  • Ask them to check the questions they had generated in the “Want to Learn” Step.
  • Mental Math

    This intervention comes from: K-5 Math Teaching Resources

    Mental math is the main form of calculation used by most people and the simplest way of doing many calculations. Research has shown that in daily life at least 75% of all calculations are done mentally by adults. However, unfortunately due to the emphasis on written computation in many classrooms, many children believe that the correct way to calculate a simple subtraction fact such as 200-3 is to do it in the written form.

    Through regular experiences with mental math children come to realize that many calculations are in fact easier to perform mentally. In addition, when using mental math children almost always use a method which they understand (unlike with written computation) and are encouraged to think actively about relationships involving the particular numbers they are dealing with.

    In order to be effective Mental Math sessions should:

    •occur on a daily basis (5-10 minutes per day)
    •encourage ‘having a go’ on the part of all students
    •emphasize how answers were arrived at rather than only whether they are correct
    •Promote oral discussion
    •allow students to see that there are many ways to arrive at a correct answer rather than one correct way
    •build up a dense web of connections between numbers and number facts
    •emphasize active understanding and use of place value

    Following are some possible activities for K-5 classrooms:

    Fill the Hundreds Chart:
    On day one display a Hundreds Pocket Chart with only 5-6 pockets filled with the correct numerals. Leave all other pockets blank. Select 3 numerals and 3 students. Ask each student to place his/her numeral in its correct pocket and to explain the strategy they used to help them complete this task. Repeat the above with 3 numbers and 3 students per day until all pockets are filled. Take note of students who use a count by one strategy and those who demonstrate an awareness of the base ten patterns underlying the chart. Select numbers based on your knowledge of individual student’s number sense (e.g. you may select a number immediately before or after a number that is already on the board for one child and a number that is 10 or 11 more than a placed number for another child who you feel has a good understanding of the base ten pattern).

    Possible questions to involve other students:
    Yesterday we had __ numbers on our number chart and today we added 3 more. How many numbers do we now have on our number chart? How do you know?
    If there are __ numbers on our number chart how many more numbers do we need to add to fill our chart? Ask several students to explain the strategy used to solve this problem.
    We now have ____ numbers on our number chart. If we continue to add 3 numbers every day how many more days/weeks will it take to fill our number chart? Explain your thinking.

    Today’s Number is…
    Select a number for the day (e.g. 8) and write it on the board or chart paper. Ask students to suggest calculations for which the number is the answer. Write students’ suggestions in 4 columns (addition examples, subtraction, multiplication and division). After 8 or 10 responses, focus in on particular columns or types of responses that you would like more of. For example,”Give me some more addition examples”, “Give me some ways which use three numbers”, “Give me an example using parentheses” etc.

    What’s My Number
    Select a number between 1 and 100 and write it down without revealing it to your students. Have students take turns to ask questions to which you can only answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Record each question and answer on chart paper. For example:

    Is it greater than 30? No
    Is it an even number? Yes
    Is it a multiple of 3? No
    Does it have a 4 in the ones place?…

    After 3 or 4 questions ask, “What is the smallest number it could still be? What is the largest? Discuss why it is better to ask a question such as “Is it an odd number?” than “Is it 34?” early in the game. To ensure that all students are involved have them use individual laminated 100 charts with dry erase markers to mark off numbers after each question is asked. Keep going until the number has been named correctly. During the game you may also want to keep track of how many questions are asked before the number is named. Next time you play challenge students to guess the number with fewer questions.

    ‘Friendly’ number activities
    Give a number less than 10. Students must respond with an addition fact that will make the number up to 10. For example, if today’s target number is 10 and you say 6 the student must respond with “6 + 4 = 10”. Vary the target number e.g. 20, 50, 100, 200, 1000 etc. to suit students’ ability level.

    Ready-made Social Stories

    Social stories are an easy intervention to implement; however, they can sometimes be difficult to start. This website provides a variety of social stories for you to edit to fit your student. Social stories are particularly helpful with children on the autism spectrum in understanding social norms and expectations, but they can be used with any child having difficulty.


     File Choices and HaveTo Do.pdf(PDF -160 KB)

    Being First(DOC -542 KB)

    Lunch time in school(DOC -93 KB)

    Going to Art(DOC -124 KB)

    My Body(DOC -555 KB)

    File Taking Turns.ppt(PPT -364 KB)

    Halloween(DOC -418 KB)

    Picking my fingers(DOC -198 KB)

    Saying Hello(PPT -203 KB)

    I am mad social story(PPT -0.98 MB)

    Passing Gas(PPT -223 KB)

    Proximity when talking(PPT -900 KB)

    I need a tissue(PDF -122 KB)

    Places to scream(PDF -188 KB)

    Places to draw(PDF -269 KB)

    Playing Games(PDF -884 KB)

    Sneezing and Coughing Social Story(DOC -1.49 MB)

    My Body(DOC -556 KB)

    What I can lick(PDF -1.33 MB)

    Kissing Social Story(PPT -146 KB)

    Power Card – Picking fingers(PDF -102 KB)

    File Dominos.ppt(PPT -9.32 MB)

    File Bowling Social Story.doc(DOC

    Outsmarting Explosive Behavior

    This intervention comes from http://www.positivelyautism.com/ , which was forwarded to me by my mom–a special education teacher in Kansas. Outsmarting Explosive Behavior is a visual system of support and intervention for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD); however, as with many interventions, this can also be used for children not on the spectrum.

    Tantrums and meltdowns are among the greatest challenges presented by ASD, often leaving parents and educators searching for answers. Outsmarting Explosive Behavior is a visual program, laid out as a fold-out poster, that can be individualized for each user. Four train cars (other options also available…see below) represent the four stages of explosive behavior:

    Starting out, Picking up Steam, Point of No Return, and Explosion

    By using visuals to appeal to children with ASD (again, also for children not on the spectrum but this would typically appeal to younger children), this program makes it easy to help them identify their current state and take steps to decrease the chances of a meltdown.

    Here are links to various point/token systems available by digital download, or feel free to save $1.99 and create your own!