Lack of Cognitive Energy can Lead to a “Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”
Have you ever read the book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day? Have you ever had a day like Alexander where nothing seemed to go right? At the end of such a day, you probably had, or felt like having, a meltdown. You felt exhausted because your cognitive energy was depleted.
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.
As with Alexander, lots of things can deplete 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 ways to restore cognitive energy are food and/or sleep.
A healthy school breakfast or morning snack can help to set things right. An opportunity to relax can help as well. Many schools are instituting meditation and/or yoga into classroom routines. 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.
Other than feeding my students or letting them take a nap, 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 that 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 also provides much needed structure to the day.
Is there anything wrong with mixing it up and presenting 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 every time a teacher introduces a new type of 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, or 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 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 curriculum begins each lesson with a syllable sort game, called “Get on the Grid” . Our students look forward to playing it daily. Students 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 protest. Again, because students are accustomed to the game, they are able to focus on the learning and meet with success.
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’. Students can learn more when teachers ensure that games are part of the routine so that cognitive energy can be maximized.