3 Brain-Based Strategies Every Teacher Should Use

Early on in my teaching career, I was fortunate to discover how our students' brains work- literally HOW they learn. This opportunity changed the way I think about my instruction and classroom environment, which ultimately has significantly increased student success in my classroom. I'm here to share what I've learned with you.

But first, how many times have you felt like this?

If you're anything like I was back then, then the answer is: A. LOT.

Years ago as a new teacher, I quickly learned all of the things about my students that I was NOT in control of, like their family's financial situation, their family issues including dual parent households & court concerns, illnesses, and in some cases, even shelter.

 If I was ever going to reach these students, really REACH them, then I needed to find out more about them. It didn't take long for me to learn what I could control.

So the question became:

How can we teachers maximize our instructional impact and prepare our students' brains for optimal learning?

Here's the most critical piece of knowledge that I gained from my experience so many years ago.

Without going into too much detail*, our brains consist of THREE major parts: the brain stem, which controls primal feelings like hunger and involuntary movements like breathing or sleeping; cerebellum, in control of movement, mobility, & communication; and cerebrum, or controller of intellect. Part of what separates humans from other animals is our cerebrum, or the part of the brain that controls logic, intellect, and memory. Why does this matter to educators? Of course, as teachers we want our students to remember what we tell them.

Brain researcher and educator Susan Kovalik says what separates humans from other mammals is our capability to access our cerebrum, or our center of logic. 

You see, inside the cerebrum are millions of neurons. These oh-so-vital neurons store particulars like how to spell your own name, or the formula for area of a triangle. There are dendrites - think of these like pathways - which connect to the neurons. The key to learning is building dendrites. Without building new dendrites then human brains are just like other primates and mammals, instinctively in survival mode. In order to create a new memory, or program, research states the messages, or new learning, must be transferred to the cerebral cortex, and stay of out the brain stem where the primal fight or flight response shuts down building of new dendrites.

 So, how can we help our students build dendrites? 

We must keep them out of their brain stem, so to speak. In order for students to activate the cerebrum (the part of the brain where learning takes place, also known as the cerebral cortex), we educators must create a feeling of trust, positive emotion, and respect for our students.  If we don't build an environment where students want to learn, then students are thinking about where their next meal comes from, if they are going to be threatened on the playground, or "feel" threatened in the classroom by a new or difficult concept taught to them. It's fight or flight for these little learners. After all, trust is a pretty primal instinct, wouldn't you say?

So, now what?

Here are 3 easy brain-busting fixes that I've implemented into my classroom based on what I've learned about my students' brains and how they access new information

1. Create a welcoming and calm environment.

 Include soft lighting like a lamp, or use natural light if you have windows. If you have a theme in your classroom, then make sure you're including colors which are considered calming, like greens and blues. Display plants (real or fake), rugs, floor pillows, or anything else that might remind students of the feeling of home. We want students to feel something when they walk into our classroom. Remember: Emotions are the gatekeeper to learning!

2. Keep students out of their brain stem.

Our most basic instincts, raw emotions, and involuntary movements stem from this part of the brain. Depending on how rough our students' morning routine or home life could be, the odds are that you have at least a few students who come into school each day "in the brain stem". They are in that "fight or flight" survival mode. Their brains are not chemically ready to receive, process, and transfer information to the cerebral cortex yet. Things such as small physical contact like a high five, hug, fist pump, or handshake at the door shows our students that they can feel safe in our classroom. Like other mammals, humans are more likely to engage in new activities (thus learning more) if they feel safe. Keep your voice calm. Smile often. Praise your students. You'd be surprised at how much small actions such as thesevwill improve your students' level of anxiety, and take them out of their brain stem.

3. Use the body-brain connection.

Teachers can capture students’ attention and keep them actively involved in the learning processActivities such as brain gym or kinethetic learning send signals to the brain that the information is important, and worth creating a permanent mental program.  So keep moving! Give short, frequent breaks to students to allow those positive emotions to come back, and allow information to be transferred out of the brain stem. In short, get some exercise, dance, sing songs, create a rhyme, a nemonic, or anything else to make learning fun!

I hope you found this helpful and can't wait to hear your thoughts and experiences.

*I am NOT an neurologist, nor do I claim to be an expert in the brain...

Happy Teaching!


  1. I just came across this post from a link another teacher posted on Facebook. I'm sorry that no one has commented on this post because it is spot on. I have been a teacher for 20 years and even though I haven't studied brain based learning indepth I know from experience this is exactly what kids need. Whenever I am asked what is the number one thing that makes a difference in the classroom I say it's the relationships you build with the students. They have to feel loved in order to reach them. Thank you for an excellent post. I will be following you from now on!

  2. Thank you so much! You are absolutely right. Building relationships and making our students feels safe in our classroom is one of the most efficient ways to build confidence and bring out the best in our kids. Thank you for stopping by to read :)

  3. Great post! I love how you give straightforward information that is meaningful and easy for this old gal to understand! :) I was just thinking how a few years ago our district had everyone trained in Capturing Kids Hearts, and yet not once do I recall the trainer making the brain research connection for us. Thanks so much!

    1. I am thrilled that you found this post helpful! Thank you so much for reading.

  4. Excellent post! I look forward to sharing this with my FB followers. :)

  5. After dealing with a very difficult student last year, I needed to hear this. I need to keep this in mind as Intry to reach each student.

  6. I appreciate your post. It's the beginning of the school year, and kiddos are more nervous than at any other time of the year. You just reminded me of the importance in making the classroom a comfortable, inviting environment. Thank you.

  7. Love the ideas in this post! I have been hearing a lot about brain based learning and it is definitely something I am interested in reading more about!

    The Math Maniac

  8. I am unable to see the yellow to read your comments. Would you be willing to re-post with a different color.Thanks!

  9. I love this! It also gives me an excuse to keep buying decor for my classroom :)

  10. This is spot on! I keep trying to explain this idea to some of the "older" teachers. I find the teachers with no kids need to learn these too. Thank you for the post!

  11. this is great. i can't wait to try the strategies. thanks and more power!

  12. i'm about to launch out into the world of ESL teaching and I thank you so much for this post. You give me a lot of courage that I am doing the right thing.

  13. You are absolutely right "Emotions are the gatekeeper to learning". Providing students with a safe and nurturing environment is crucial. I love what I see on this blog, definitely spot on. You're awesome! Thanks, Maria Paz

  14. This post was a great reminder for me. I had the privilege of learning from Susan Kovalik on several different occasions many years ago and I needed this reminder! I'm going to PIN this so I can refer back to it as needed. Thanks for your time and energy with this post! :)

  15. Thank you for this post. I've been through several trainings on brain research, poverty etc and you are spot on. I like the way you chose the main most important points and made it easy to understand

  16. Hi Karri! I just shared this blog post with the teachers in my building! I linked them back to your original post. :-) Your piece is a wonderful, easy read with powerful ideas. Love the simplicity and practicality of it.
    You can read my summary here:
    Thank you for sharing!

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