The Back-to-School Brain is the Best "School Supply"
When we think about all the changes around the transition back to school, we usually focus on the external, such as new clothes, school supplies, lunch boxes, backpacks, teachers, and classrooms. But what if I told you that the best “supply” your child has heading back to school is right inside their head? Yes, it’s their brain. You can guide your child to make the most of these weeks before the school year starts by connecting with their brain’s internal responses. And it all begins with a fresh start.
Why the Brain Likes Fresh Starts
Remember a time when you really looked forward to returning to school, and were excited about seeing your friends again and opportunities to participate in new clubs, sports, arts music and annual bug events? Even if those bubbles of excitement didn't last beyond early elementary school, you likely had them and so do your children. This is because of the brain's clever programming to seek out favorable opportunities accompanying a fresh start. Our kids’ brains like what’s new. But why? To answer simply, dopamine.
Dopamine is the brain chemical most associated with pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. When dopamine levels rise, so does one’s sense of satisfaction or pleasure. In addition, other beneficial mental processes also improve with increased dopamine, including attention, positive mood, memory storage, comprehension, and higher-level thinking.
Most young children have a curiosity-driven passion for discovering, questioning, exploring, imagining, and creating. We've now learned that many of these drives are fostered by a dopamine release. When children follow their curiosity, especially with opportunities to make predictions and discover more about where their curiosity has been directed, they are rewarded with a great surge of dopamine pleasure and satisfaction. Repeated positive experiences initiated by curiosity, novelty, and prediction trigger the brain to release dopamine. Further, even just the awareness that there MIGHT be something novel and curious to investigate initiates a positive response.
This means that when their brains become aware of something new, interesting, or curious impending, a prerelease of dopamine sets up a positive state of expectation and motivation. You can take advantage of their brain’s state of expectation and curiosity about the upcoming school year to promote a positive outlook and even restore their young childhood experiences of eager motivation. Here’s how:
Stimulate curiosity and predication for what’s ahead.
Stimulate curiosity in your children around topics they'll be learning about in the coming school year. Focus on topics related to their personal interests and prime their brains by discussing these topics using curiosity and prediction. Curiosity-driven predictions and optimism particularly promote a positive mindset to embrace and encourage sustained, motivated effort in the transition to the new school year.
Ask questions like, "When you think about doing science this year, what experiments might you do?" "What projects do you think you'll get to do in robotics?" and "You'll get to choose your own reading for your book reports much of the time this year. What do you think you'll want to read about?" Keep up their enthusiasm by checking in as the year progresses and continue encouraging their predictions about things they do at school. The brain really loves its dopamine, and will become more responsive to topics of study as you particularly preheat their dopamine response. Ignite their curiosity and predictions, but especially be an attentive and active listener to their experiences.
Inspire optimism for the new school year.
Optimism is one of the most powerful dopamine releasers. It makes sense (and works) to preset the brain with the dopamine boost that accompanies optimistic thinking. This allows an ideal motivated state for transitioning back to school (e.g. the dopamine response of increased attention, positive mood, memory, pleasure, perseverance).
The brain is wired for heightened interest and attentive focus when it foresees the pleasure of the dopamine reward response. If children's brains anticipate possible pleasure from learning and other school experiences, it will dedicate more effort to the learning or activity about which they are optimistic. Try these tips to make it happen.
- Summon up their memories about the good friends, advisors, principals, or coaches that will be there this year
- Provide reminders (and photos if available) about special yearly school events they enjoyed previously that will be included this year
- Encourage looking forward to participating in their favorite sports, arts, music, clubs, plays, or other activities that will be resumed this year
- Endorse the new opportunities will be available in the new year related to things they really like (e.g. robotics, more choice of projects or books, having "little buddies," getting to choose their seats in some classes, or other things you can find out from other parents about their upcoming teacher).
Visualizing a tennis swing or soccer kick primes the brain networks that control those actions. Similarly, a student’s visualization of success in challenge areas (or memories of previous successes) will increase their brain’s confidence that success is possible and thus motivate effort in the face of future challenge.
On the flip side, dark clouds of pessimism, discouragement, sustained boredom, anxiety, and frustration can accumulate in students after repeated negative school experiences. We now recognize that when the brain is stressed from fear, anxiety, being overwhelmed or embarrassed, it does not have the same access to its dopamine release system as an unstressed brain. If they express any of these pessimistic thoughts for the school year ahead, counter that with some of the optimistic tips above. We must reframe kids’ negatively towards school, as the brain relies on it. These interventions boost their dopamine responses, which can help reset their expectations from negative to more optimistic.
Prepare for success in advance.
If organizing, keeping up, or planning ahead have been hindering your children from doing their best in the past, you can intervene before school begins. You'll reduce their stress and boost their confidence and skills by providing opportunities for them to use these executive thinking skills in activities of high interest.
For example, they'll build brain skills of analyzing, organizing, planning, and prioritizing by helping organize a trip, planning and cooking a family meal, or evaluating the advantages of a variety of new backpacks or computers for the new school year. If you plan to do some redesigning of their rooms, such as new paint, furniture, or poster-boards, have them participate in the choices so they will enhance their organizational skills as they prepare their rooms for the change.
Help them practice coping strategies.
You can also prepare them to learn more effective emotional management for stress if you guide them to practice self-relaxation strategies. If they have practiced calming breathing, stress-busting visualizations, optimistic thoughts, or other mindful strategies, these will be more readily accessible for quicker activation when falling into a high-stress state.
Your guidance will make a difference in preparing your child's brain for success and joy in the transitioning back to school. By enhancing their curiosity, optimism, and positive expectations for the new school year, you'll see anxiety and negativity decline as their confidence grows in their abilities. They—along with their brain—will look forward to the new opportunities awaiting them in the school year ahead.