Getting inside their heads

1st April 2011 at 01:00
Teachers to learn neuroscience to cope with SEN `avalanche'

Teachers should be trained in neuroscience and its consequences on classroom behaviour so they can cope with the growing numbers of children with severe physical and mental disorders, a Government-backed report has found.

School staff will soon have the opportunity to learn about the inner workings of the brain in a training initiative inspired by the "avalanche" of special educational needs (SEN) seen in the classroom.

A two-year project led by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) found that "urgent action" is needed to help teachers adapt to a new generation of pupils with previously unseen special needs and disabilities like foetal alcohol syndrome.

As a result, a training programme is set to be available by the end of this year which aims to increase teachers' understanding of new conditions caused by genetic problems or premature births. It could see school staff altering lessons due to medical conclusions drawn from brain scans.

The study follows the publication of a Royal Society report earlier this year that called for increased neuroscience in teacher training.

Almost 100 specialist and mainstream schools were involved in the Government-funded SSAT study, which began in November 2009. Around 50 schools are currently trialling the training materials developed during the project.

SSAT associate director Barry Carpenter, who led the study, said: "Neuroscience gives us insights into conditions and, importantly for teachers, strategies they can use to help children learn.

"If a scan tells doctors that blood flows to the right hemisphere when a child is learning, teachers can change the way they work with the pupil, as different sides of the brain have different functions.

"We are not saying teachers have to be experts, but they should be aware of the way the brain works and the implications of any problems.

"There is a new generation of children who are `wired differently', but we still have schools approaching this in a 20th-century way. We need to move on to the 21st century. Neuroscience can help us meet children's needs and will help teachers profoundly personalise their work."

Amanda Kirby, professor of developmental disorders in education at the University of Wales, Newport, and teacher Rona Tutt will produce the training materials with Mr Carpenter.

Professor Kirby has been training teachers in neuroscience for a decade, and says it helps them make essential changes to the way they work. "They have used their new skills to make adaptations, for example seating children in a different place or a different way, using colour coding and changing equipment," she said.

The Government's recent SEN green paper also called for more specialist training for teachers. Children's minister Sarah Teather has supported the recommendations in Mr Carpenter's report.

NEUROSCIENCE - What's in a brain?

Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system and how the brain controls human thought, emotion and behaviour. Scientists analyse the brain by observing human behaviour, molecules, scans and nerve cells. They can then learn how the nervous system develops and what causes neurological disorders. Vision, hearing, learning and breathing are all controlled by the nervous system.

Source: Society for Neuroscience.

Original headline: Getting inside their heads: teachers to learn neuroscience to cope with SEN `avalanche'

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