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How Does Cognitive Energy Impact Learning?

Lack of Cognitive Energy can Lead to a “Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”
A picture of a girl with her hand on her chin who is visibly upset because her cognitive energy is depleted.

What is cognitive energy?

Collins online dictionary defines cognitive as relating to the mental process involved in knowing, learning, and understanding things. It defines energy as the ability and strength to do active, physical things. Cognitive energy is the willingness or ability to engage in learning activities.

How can cognitive energy impact student behavior?

Have you ever read the book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Alexander encounters one problem after another throughout the day. By the end of the day, he’s completely drained and unable to cope. Have you ever had a day like Alexander, where nothing seemed to go right? At the end of such a day, you probably felt like having a meltdown because you depleted your cognitive energy.

Your students have been there too.

Cognitive energy is also known as mental energy or working memory.  Think of cognitive energy as the amount of ‘brain space’ available to a student.  When much of a student’s brain space is focused on the morning argument or the excitement of the holiday party, less of that space is available for learning. Student behavior often declines as cognitive energy declines.

As with Alexander, many things can exhaust your students’ cognitive energy: a morning argument with Mom or Dad, a forgotten homework assignment, or a missed bus.  Students must have sufficient cognitive energy to manage behavior and maximize learning.  They are more likely to have behavioral or learning issues as a result of depleted cognitive resources.  

Even positive situations can deplete cognitive energy.  Changes in the daily routine such as holiday parties or field trips can impact a student’s cognitive energy and result in problems with behavior and reduced learning.

How can I help if my student is showing signs of depleted cognitive energy?

Two effective ways to restore cognitive energy are food and/or sleep. It’s important keep in mind that students don’t arrive at school as an empty vessel.  There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. As teachers, we know the importance of nurturing the whole child.

A healthy school breakfast or morning snack can help to set things right.  An opportunity to relax can help as well. 

Sometimes only a nap will do. We’ve all experienced young students falling asleep at some point during the day. There’s no fighting it when that happens. We just have to let them sleep.

A third approach to restoring cognitive energy is mindfulness. Many schools are instituting meditation and/or yoga into classroom routines.  These mindfulness practices are especially beneficial when they are instituted as part of a daily routine rather than only in reaction to behavioral issues. When mindfulness techniques become part of a classroom routine, students can be encouraged to draw upon them when needed.

The Child Mind Institute has an excellent article on practicing mindfulness in the classroom.

Kristina Scully @Pathway2Success1 has oodles of helpful tips and activities for helping students develop mindfulness. Be sure to give her a follow on Instagram!

Other than food, naps, and mindfulness, how can I minimize the drain on mental energy?

Establishing classroom routines helps to reduce stressors that can cause ‘brain drain’.  Familiarization with classroom procedures helps to ensure more of the students’ mental energy is available for learning.  Classroom routines such as transitions, distributing materials, and emergency drills all help to establish an educational atmosphere that results in fewer disruptions and more time on task.  

Posting schedules and assignments provides much-needed structure to the day. Visual reminders help students keep track of their day and as a result can reduce anxiety. A quick glance at the daily schedule can help students know what’s next on the schedule.

Implementing structured literacy lessons helps students get the most out of learning time. Structured literacy provides explicit, systematic instruction. It can be helpful to post the tasks within the lesson too. Below is a sample of a small group structured literacy lesson.

Is there anything wrong with mixing it up and presenting the curriculum in a game format?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with games, but establishing instructional routines is critical for maximizing learning potential.  Instruction that is systematic, cumulative, and explicit lends itself to making the most of students’ working memory.  As students become familiar with the procedural elements of the lesson, their working memory is freed up to focus on the content.

To illustrate this idea, recall the first time you learned to play a game.  As a new player, much of your attention was likely focused on the ‘how to’.   During the initial game, how often did you ask to have the directions repeated?  Did you seek clarification of the rules?  Unless you were a natural, you doubtless had to play the game several times before you were able to play strategically.  Even now, because I don’t play backgammon on a regular basis, I still have to refer to the instructions to set up the game board.  When learning a new skill or participating in a new activity, one’s attention is naturally focused on the ‘how to’ rather than the ‘what’.

Students face the same challenges whenever a teacher introduces a novel worksheet, game, or learning center.  Variety is the spice of life, but too much of a good thing can be just that: too much of a good thing.  If students are given a new worksheet format too often, too many games are introduced, or learning centers don’t have established routines, their working memory will be used on familiarizing themselves with the task rather than reinforcing the learning.

How can I maximize learning and still make it fun for the students?

Games can and should be part of a structured routine.  When learning is fun, students relax and learn more.  Our advanced decoding strategies resource begins each lesson with a syllable sort game, called “Get on the Grid”. 

This resource is designed to help students read multisyllabic words by recognizing syllable types.  The lesson plans are included and provide a structure to help students make the most of their cognitive energy.
This resource includes a game called ‘Get on the Grid’ that students enjoy playing.

Our students look forward to playing it daily.  They have fun sorting syllables onto the syllable grid and using the syllables to generate multisyllabic words.  We rarely skip this step so as to avoid student protests.  Again, because students are accustomed to the game, they can focus on learning how to apply syllable patterns to read multisyllabic words accurately. Students’ cognitive energy is used to read words accurately rather than learn the game’s rules.

Games are also part of our structured literacy lessons using decodable readers.  Sentence Scrambles build print concepts such as one-to-one match. They also build beginning reading skills such as sound stretching decodable words and recognizing sight words.  Our students giggle over the silly sentences created by the scramble while they practice reading.

In short, games definitely have a place in the learning environment.  The important thing to keep in mind is, ‘less is more’. 

A set of 10 short vowel decodable books written by Informed Literacy. These books are designed to help emergent readers distinguish between trick words and decodable words.
These decodable readers include the scaffold of sentence scrambles that help students distinguish between trick words and decodable words.

What are the key takeaways?

Cognitive energy is maximized when students’ basic needs are met (food, sleep). Mindfulness and social-emotional learning (SEL) can also support students. Established, consistent classroom and lesson routines also ensure that students’ cognitive energy is focused on learning.

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