Back to school with the brain in mind

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Brain Fuel You may still be shaking sand from your beach towels, but those catchy T.V. commercials and colorful newspaper ads are gently reminding us all that school days are again just around the corner.  If you haven’t already, you’ll soon be getting information about schedules, bus routes, homeroom teachers, and of course, that list of supplies.   Your kids may remind you that their shoes are getting a little tight.  You may realize how short their jeans have gotten over the summer.

Back-to-school is a busy and exciting time of year.  There’s so much to do that it’s easy to overlook the most important thing: preparing your child’s brain to learn.  The following tips can help ease the transition back to school.  Making them a habit will support quality learning all year long.

One of the biggest issues during that first week of school is fatigue.  Even before students tackle that first spelling word or math equation, there is a lot of new information to process.  New schedules, new teachers, new rooms, new lockers, new friends, lunch money, and much more will demand attention and tax your child’s brain.  Sorting, analyzing, and assimilating all that new information takes energy.

Still, one of the biggest reasons for fatigue is lack of sleep.  Many of our students’ sleep schedules are different during the summer months.  Start to gradually adjust your schedules now. Getting up and going a little earlier now will make those first few hectic mornings run a little smoother.

But that’s not even the most important argument for an earlier bedtime.  In order to successfully cement information into long-term memory, the brain depends on frequent amounts of adequate sleep.  New learning creates disturbances in the brain’s neural networks.  To adapt, brain cells need to build and grow new connections.  This neural growth can only happen during periods of rest.

Studies have shown that our brains are not built for continual stimulation.  Learning becomes much easier when the brain takes breaks, pausing to connect new information to prior knowledge.  Brain researchers call this resting period, “settling time,” and it’s an absolutely essential phase during the creation of new long-term memory pathways.  In order to learn at our highest levels, the brain needs to rest.

It also needs nourishment.   Take some time now to plan your meals for that first week of school.  What are you going to do for breakfast?  Will your student be packing a lunch?  And if possible, cook up a few evening meals, and throw them in the freezer for easy (but healthy) heat-and-eat dinners later.  The last thing you want to do is step onto that slippery fast-food slope.  Planning for that first week of meals can eliminate huge amounts of stress and will result in a much healthier diet—something we can always use, but especially during back-to-school.

Foods that specifically support learning include leafy green vegetables, salmon, nuts, lean meats, and fresh fruits.  Researchers have also found that the vitamin A in sweet potatoes and other orange vegetables support memory.  In order to work quickly and efficiently, brain cells also need a fatty coating called myelin.  A diet rich in protein, iron, and selenium will support the production of this vital sheathing.

Hydration is also essential for normal brain development and function.  A well-hydrated brain will also have more energy and better focus.  If your kids have fallen into the soft drink trap over the summer, cut back now and replace it with water.  Then encourage plenty of water that first week.  Find a good water bottle and make it a habit to always have it nearby.

Preparing for that first week of school can help get your kids off to a great start.  But developing good routines around rest and nutrition does more than recharge and refuel of your child’s energy reserves; it literally shapes your child’s brain.

Image Credit: Robert Fornal

Founder of, Chris Wondra is just another Wisconsin public school teacher. Find We Teach We Learn on Facebook and Twitter for daily tips on learning, teaching and getting the most out of your brain.

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