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Is the modern American lifestyle hampering children's brain development?

Tom Shenk, (, is a former classroom and physical education teacher. He was a 2012 Virginia Regional Teacher of the Year

Unfortunately, I believe the answer to the question posed in the article headline is "Yes." My study of recent brain research tells me that students today have more brain development issues than did children of past generations. (Melillo, 2012; Hannaford, 2005) If you've been working with children for more than 20 years, you may have seen this trend playing out in your classroom. Even if you haven't, consider these statistics:

* In the 1940's, only 1 in 5,000 children was diagnosed with autism. Today that number is a jaw-dropping 1 in 50! (Melillo, 2012; Blumberg, et. al, 2013

* In the US, 11% of school aged children and 25% of high-school boys have ADHD (Kopicki, 2013)

These are just a few examples. If you do a little research, you'll find the same dramatic increases in dyslexia, Asperger's, Tourette's Syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other learning disabilities. In 2009, "1 out of every 6 five or six-year-olds was diagnosed with some form of neurological disorder that affects the ability to learn and socially interact," and from 1999 to 2009, the number of special education students increased 46.9 percent. (Melillo, 2009) Many attribute this to healthcare professionals being better equipped to identify disorders, or to over-diagnosing, but this isn't the whole story. A recent study found that those two factors account for only 40 percent of the increase in neurological disorders, which means the other 60 percent is real. (Melillo, 2012)The bottom line is that more and more of your students are entering our schools with less-than-healthy brain development-and the trend is likely to get worse.

"That's pretty depressing," you may be thinking, "Is there anything we can do to change all that?" Luckily, new brain research is showing we can, and Physical Educators are in a unique position to make it happen. To understand how, we need to understand what type of environment nurtures proper brain development. I'll explain in two steps.

For step one, travel back with me in human history to the period before we learned to farm--when we hunted and gathered our food. What was life like in those days for a society of hunter-gatherers? Did they eat differently than we do today? What did they do for fun? How much physical activity did they get? What kind of social life did they experience? How did children (and adults) learn new things? Compare your ideas to mine on the following list.

Hunter-Gatherer Lifestyle

* Recreation

* Games

* Dancing, singing, instruments

* Storytelling

* Conversation

* Art

* Handicrafts

* Physical Activity

* Hard physical labor

* Walked an average of 12 miles/day

* Social/Emotional

* Family/clan

* High level of social interactions daily

* Cooperated to survive

* Nutrition

* Mostly meat, fruits, veggies, eggs and nuts

* Fresh foods with no additives

* Drank mostly water

* Environment

* Natural sunlight

* Fresh air

* Regular sleep patterns from sunset to sunrise

* Learning

* Real world, hands-on experiences while moving (work and play)

* Exploratory and experimental

* Self-directed and spontaneous

* Personal and emotional connection

* Multi-sensory

* Often through stories

* 1-on-1 or small groups, mixed ages

* Very social: done while talking and interacting with others

* Through observation & looking for patterns in nature

* Naturally learned things when developmentally ready

For step two, take a look at the next list. It's a list of "stimulators" that brain research shows is critical for proper wiring of the human brain.

Needs for Healthy Brain Development

* Movement: by far the most important!

* A rich sensory environment

* Proper nutrition

* Proper hydration

* Proper sleep

* Low stress levels

* A safe, loving environment

* Exploration of emotions

* Hands-on experiences

* Self-directed exploration

* Music experiences

* Dancing

* Storytelling

* Free play

* Imagination experiences

* Social interaction

* Conversation

* Personal connections to what's being learned

* Learning when developmentally ready (Hannaford, 2005; Medina, 2008; Jensen, 2005; Ratey, 2008)

Did you notice how similar the two lists are? They are almost an exact match. I believe this indicates that we still have the brain of a hunter-gatherer!

But how is that possible? We left the hunter-gatherer lifestyle behind a very long time ago. Well, here's a little-known fact that will help explain how this is true. How much of our human history do you think we spent as hunter-gatherers? Let's pretend that all of human history has been condensed into one year, with January 1 as the day when early man first came on the scene, and December 31 as the present. At what point do you think humans learned to farm during that "year" of human history? February 7? November 24? July 13? Are you ready for the surprising answer? If all of human history were condensed into one year, we would've learned to farm...early this morning, December 31! (Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History website, 2013) That's right! We've spent 364 "days" as hunter-gatherers and only 1 "day" as farmers. That means that for the vast majority of our history, our brains had wired themselves to be most successful in a hunter-gatherer environment. So, our brains simply have not had a chance to adapt to modern life, especially the past fifty years as TV and computer technology have dramatically changed our lifestyle. Look again at the first list. How many children do you know that grow up in an environment like that? Not many, and I believe that's why so many children are developing these brain dysfunctions. And the problem is probably even bigger. This lack of healthy brain development is most certainly affecting more than just the children who have been diagnosed with a learning problem. The teachers I talk to tell me that for every diagnosed student they teach, they have two or three more "weak learners" for whom school is a constant struggle.

Allow me to support my hunter-gatherer theory with this amazing story comparing city and tribal children from Kwa Zulu, South Africa. The city children grow up much like children in the U.S., but the tribal children grow up in a very different way. This is what their tribal environment is like:

The nuclear family is very close, and there is a very high level of social harmony in the tribe. Newborns receive lots of love and touch from all the adults, who take personal responsibility for all tribal children. As they grow, their time is spent carving, weaving, taking care of animals, painting, singing, dancing, gathering firewood, storytelling, and playing creatively. All tribal members come together for evening meals, which are filled with conversation, tribal news, storytelling, and singing. Not surprisingly, they have no exposure to books, educational television, or educational technology. (Hannaford, 2005)

And how does this hunter-gatherer environment affect the tribal children's brains? Well, at the start of the school year approximately 10,000 city and tribal children are given a series of learning readiness tests. Check out these results:

* The two groups tested the same on two tests.*

* City children outscored tribal children on one test only: close-up visual focusing.

* Tribal children scored far superior on 47 of 50 tests! (Hannaford, 2005)

That's pretty compelling.

New brain research confirms that our modern lifestyle is wreaking havoc on our children's brains. Neurologists have discovered that ADHD, dyslexia, autism, Asperger's syndrome, Torette's syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, oppositional-defiant disorder, and many other learning disabilities all have the same underlying cause--Functional Disconnection Syndrome which is the imbalanced development of the two brain hemispheres (Melillo, 2009). Three factors are combining to create these imbalances.

First, the new field of epigenetics has found that our genes have small "switches" on the surface, called epigenes, that turn the gene On or Off, and it's our environment that flips the switches. (Cloud, 2010) If positive stimulation like movement is missing, or if negative stimulation like environmental toxins are present, a brain building epigene can be switched Off, preventing the next stage of brain development from taking place. The second factor is our flip-flopping brain development. Most people don't know that our brain hemispheres don't develop together. In the womb and during the first 2-3 years of life, primarily the right hemisphere is growing. Then development flips to the left hemisphere for 2-3 years. This flip-flopping continues until age ten. The third contributing factor is our modern American lifestyle, which has strayed very far from our hunter-gatherer roots. Here are the environmental factors that most inhibit healthy brain development:

* Lack of physical activity (biggest issue by far)

* Overweight & obesity

* Absentee parenting

* Television & computer games

* Stressful pregnancies & births

* Stressful lifestyles

* Environmental toxins

* Inadequate nutrition (Melillo, 2012)

Here's how these three factors combine to create a brain hemisphere imbalance. If a child's brain building genes are Off because their environment isn't providing the proper stimulation, the next stage of brain development won't take place properly. If this occurs from conception to age 2-3 when the right hemisphere is developing, the child will have a right side weakness, which means it will process information more slowly than the left. If it occurs when the left side is growing, the child will develop a left hemisphere weakness. The only differences between all of the neurobehavioral issues mentioned earlier are: 1) the side of weakness and 2) the severity of the weakness. These differences will determine the symptoms a child has, and in turn, which label they will be given. They are:

* Right hemisphere delays: ADHD, Asperger's, autism, Tourette's, OCD, ODD, etc.

* Left hemisphere delays: dyslexia, processing disorders, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, learning disabilities, reading & language disorders, etc. (Melillo, 2009; Hoeft et al, 2006; Stefanatos et al, 2006; Ozonoff, 1996)

Functional Disconnection Syndrome also helps explain a phenomenon that has baffled teachers for a long time: uneven skill development. How can a student be intelligent enough to solve complex math equations, but not write a coherent paragraph? How can a child read words, sentences and paragraphs, but not comprehend them? The answer is now clear. The functions that are controlled by the slower brain hemisphere will be weak, while the functions controlled by the other hemisphere will be normal or even above average.

It is important to make clear that no blame should be placed on parents of children with these issues. First, no one can be responsible for information they are unaware of. Second, epigenes can be passed on in the Off position, to successive generations. (Cloud, 2010) so a parent may give their children the perfect environment and still have neurobehavioral issues arise due to the environments of previous generations.

Knowing what we know about the hemispheres of the brain gives us the information we need to turn the tide of neurobehavioral issues. First, we can now offer dramatic help to children with ADHD, learning disabilities, autism, etc. We now have the ability to identifying which hemisphere in a child is the weak one and then design a custom program of physical, sensory and mental exercises that stimulate the weak side only. In just 3-12 months most brain imbalance can be resolved, causing the symptoms of these disorders to dramatically improve, and in many cases, disappear completely. (Melillo, 2009) There are thousands of documented cases of children who have overcome their neurological issues in this fashion.all without medication. This is big news!

Second, we now have a road map for prevention. Television and technology are fine in moderation, but if we can teach parents to create more of the healthy stimulation of a hunter-gatherer environment in their homes, we will likely see a significant decline in the numbers of these neurobehavioral disorders in the future.

Education has a huge role to play as well. We can make our classrooms brain-friendly by mimicking a hunter-gatherer environment at all grade levels. However, we have a unique opportunity from pre-K through second grades that we can't afford to squander. Recognizing that not all children will enter school with healthy, well-balanced brains, we could steal a page from the playbook of Denmark (the highest student literacy rate in the world) and Finland (the #1 education system in the world). Their students don't start school until age six or seven, they don't start learning to read until age seven or eight, and many children attend "Forrest Kindergarten" between the ages of 2 !/ and six. Forrest Kindergarten is non-academic. Children run, climb and play creatively outside for four hours every day, rain or shine. They sing, dance, talk, explore and use their imaginations. By the time they reach school, very few of these children have learning problems. We could do the same. By dramatically reducing or eliminating academics in pre-k, kindergarten, first grade, and possibly even second, we can make these formative years more like Forrest Kindergarten, giving all children three or four years of proper brain stimulation. This would also provide time to test all children for a brain imbalance and correct it. Can you imagine what the next generation of students would be like if every single child hit third grade with a powerful, attentive, emotionally mature, balanced brain? Amazing things would happen for these children, their families, and society as a whole!

By now, I'm sure you can see why Physical Educators are in a unique position to help reduce the rates of ADHD, learning disabilities, & autism. We, more than any other group, are the ones promoting the active lifestyle that builds healthy brains. With this knowledge we should be the most vocal advocates for affective education reform. I believe students, parents, teachers, administrators, educational leaders, and politicians are hungry for a new direction in education. Our national experiment with high-stakes testing is proving ineffective (Finland uses virtually no standardized testing). This time, as we set a new course, let's not try something just based on unproven theories. Brain research is giving us exciting new facts that have direct implications for education. Let's listen. We also have the "facts" of successful education techniques from places like Denmark and Finland. Let's listen. We can work together to bring about educational reform that actually works. Will you join me?


Blumberg, S.J. et al. (2013). Changes in prevalence of parent-reported autism spectrum disorder in school-aged U.S. children: 2007 to 2011-2012. National Health Statistics Report, Center for Disease Control, report 65.

Cloud, J. (2010). Why your DNA isn't your destiny: The new field of epigenetics is showing how your environment and your choices can influence your genetic code--and that of your kids. Time.

Hannaford, C. (2005). Smart moves: why learning is not all in hour head. Salt Lake City, Utah: Great River Books.

Hoeft, F. et al. (2006). Neural basis of dyslexia: a comparison between dyslexic and nondyslexic children equated for reading ability. The Journal of Neuroscience.

Human evolution timeline interactive. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, human-evolution-timeline-interactive

Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Kopicki, Allison. (2013). ADHD seen in 11% of U.S. children as diagnoses rise. The New York Times.

Medina, J. (2008). Brain rules: 12 principles for surviving and thriving at work, home, and school. Seattle, WA: Pear Press.

Melillo, R. (2009). Disconnected kids: the groundbreaking brain balance program for children with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other neurological disorders. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Melillo, R. (2012). Autism: The scientific truth about preventing, diagnosing, and treating autism spectrum disorders--and what parents can do now. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Ozonoff, S. et al. (1996). An exploration of right-hemisphere contributions to the pragmatic impairments of autism. US National Library of Medicine, 52(3): 411-34.

Ratey, J. J. (2008). Spark: the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Stefanatos, G. A. et al. (2006). Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder as a right hemisphere syndrome. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.
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Author:Shenk, Tom
Publication:VAHPERD Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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