Keeping the Brain in Mind

Last June, The Lutheran Schools Partnership hosted Ann Anzalone, a well-known educational speaker on brain development.  This November, Emmaus Lutheran School brought Anzalone back to Fort Wayne to speak to teachers and parents.  Anzalone demonstrates what she teaches – we all need to be active learners.  Anzalone led her audience through exercises as she spoke about how the brain develops, and how we support brain development in our classrooms.

Dr. Robert Sperry’s research in the 1960’s began to shed light on the functions of the two hemispheres, or sides, of the brain.  The right brain was believed to control imagination, intuition, rhythm, arts, and the like.  The left brain was tied to linear thinking, mathematics, logic, and facts.  Current research says that while certain parts of the brain do control certain functions, our brains are not set for us to be simply “right-brained” or “left-brained” people (Schmerling, 2017).

This fits with what research tells us about neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to make connections throughout life.  Research shows that brain development is not fixed in early childhood, as once believed (Merzenich, 2013).  We now know that while a tremendous amount of development happens in early childhood, we can help our brains close developmental gaps later in life.  Ann Anzalone’s presentations focused on activities that help the brain to close those gaps.

One method for helping the two hemispheres of our brain to communicate and close gaps is by using cross lateral exercises.  Cross lateral exercises are those in which parts of the body cross the midline.  The midline is an imaginary line that travels down the middle of our bodies, from the top of the head to between the feet.  Performing exercises that cause our body parts to cross that midline are important to helping the two hemispheres of our brain communicate with each other.  This communication helps to coordinate our learning and movements by strengthening nerve cell pathways.

All cross lateral exercises from toe touches to windmills are helpful.  One specific exercise suggested by Ann Anzalone is the Cross Crawl.  This is useful when you need to be alert and focused, such as before a test.  Try doing following the steps below as quickly as you are able, while sitting down:

  1. Puppet movements-touch your left elbow to your left knee, then your right elbow to your right knee. Do 28 sets.  
  2. Crossover movements-touch your left elbow to your right knee, then your right elbow to your left knee. Do 28 sets.
  3. Do 14 sets of puppets.
  4. Do 14 sets of crossovers.
  5. Do 10 sets of puppets.
  6. Do 10 sets of crossovers.

In addition to doing activities that force us to cross the midline, Anzalone also encourages frequent movement and activity of all kinds.  She suggests regular “brain breaks” that allow students to move to get their blood flowing and reduces stress.  Brain breaks that involve crossing the midline are ideal, but any exercise is helpful. She shares that one’s basic attention span is roughly equal to age plus 2, so movement is required more frequently for younger students.

As we seek to help our students develop strong minds and bodies, we can use these ideas from Ann Anzalone to guide our activities.  Remember, these things are not only good for students at school-they are useful for us as parents, helping our kids with homework.  They also apply to us as adults.  We need to get out of our chairs and move frequently, too!