How neurobiology informs classroom management is a special interest of mine—one that I recently researched and wrote about for TES in an ebook called, “What is Neuroscience-based Classroom Management?” The guide explores how neuroscience-aligned activities and strategies can help to prevent disruptive behavior in your classroom.

As you think about your last year of teaching, ask yourself. . . How much of the classroom disruptions occurred because of students' energy depletion? And how can you improve that phenomenon next year?

Even though the brain is only the size of a softball, it consumes 20% of our entire caloric intake, according to Scientific American author Nikhil Swaminathan. So when students grind through challenging work without taking a break, this leaves them feeling depleted, weakens their self-control, and leads to misbehavior. Here are some solutions:

Brain Breaks

To prevent disruptions before they start (which is the best kind of classroom management), give students’ brains a break.

Students of all ages enjoy periodic energizers, like Wink Murder. In this game, a secret killer is selected by the teacher. Students wander around the classroom, looking each other in the eye. If the mystery killer winks at someone, that “victim” must wait for a few seconds before dying dramatically. Participants guess who they think the killer is. If they’re wrong the accuser is ejected from the game. If they guess correctly, the accuser wins the game.

Energizers might not sound like a classroom management solution, but they increase dopamine—which improves focus, engagement, and creates a positive classroom atmosphere.

Relevant Curriculum

In order to conserve finite energy, learners resist cognitively demanding tasks, according to Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow. However, students become energized when they view curriculum as relevant to their lives. Jim Wright, of Intervention Central, describes how a special education teacher was able to win over a classroom of high school boys with challenging behavior problems by making the course content relevant to them:

[The teacher] had great difficulty managing the class-until she realized that each of [her students] wanted to learn to drive. So the teacher brought in copies of the state driver's education manual and that became the instructional text. The students were much better behaved because they were now motivated learners working toward the pragmatic real-world goal of learning to drive (R. Sarsfield, personal communication).

Another method of engaging students and reducing classroom friction is group work. In fact, research indicates that frequent cooperative learning activities decrease ‘harm-intended aggression.[i] In classrooms where bickering quickly escalates into outright fighting, I always begin any team activity with questions that build cooperative skills before letting kids proceed with the academic work. Examples:

  • What kind of body language shows that we care about each other’s contributions?
  • What can you say if a team member accidentally interrupts someone?
  • How will the group leader intervene if teammates disagree? 

That 3-minute exercise prevents battles that would have occurred later on.

Ultimately, we can overcome learners’ neurobiological fatigue and reduce classroom resistance, by enlivening our curricula with 1) games and energizers, 2) content that students perceive as functionally beneficial to their lives, and 3) more opportunities for kids to work with peers.

[i] Martin E. P. Seligman, Randal M. Ernst, Jane Gillham, Karen Reivich & Mark Linkins (2009) Positive education: positive psychology and classroom interventions, Oxford Review of Education, 35:3, 293-311.



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Todd Finley

Edutopia Blogger and Asst. Editor || ECU Ed Professor || Founder of Todd's Brain at www.todd-finley.com || Books: Dinkytown Braves and Rethinking Classroom Design.

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