March 13, 2017

R. Elaine L. Smith

"At-Risk" Brains and Games

Topics: Kids And Creativity, STEM Education / Play, Learning Through Play


Mary and I are two teachers, who have been teaching science in some form or another since dinosaurs roamed the earth (at least that is what we tell our students).  Personal communications changed dramatically with the advent of an affordable personal computer.  Social media, such as Myspace, appeared facilitating communication across long distances, classrooms, age and gender gaps.  At the same time, cell phones became cheap and available.  Now there is opportunity for constant communication from a variety of platforms ranging from Facebook to Twitter to Snapchat. During this time period, we have observed that social communication has become a premier driver of the adolescent brain at the same time that the focus and effort required for academic success has been diminishing.  Coupled with these cultural changes, the number of students who live in poverty has also increased.  During the last 10 years we have seen a decrease in regular attendance, a decrease in attention span, and increases in misbehavior, verbal profanity, and tardiness.  In class work, there are more students who cannot remember what we are doing from one day to the next. This is the background which sparked our desire to research the cause of these changes in our students. 


We began to investigate and to educate ourselves to improve our methods for dealing with the changing student populations of today and discovered that the toxic stress associated with living in poverty changes the architecture of the brain. The effects of constant stress on children’s brains have been documented by modern imaging techniques (Reardon). The hypothalamus and hippocampus regions of the brain (involved in memory functions) are smaller in these children (M.H. Teicher) than these regions in the brains of children with more resources and parental support.  Students with constant toxic stress often exhibit behaviors such as acting out, belligerence, or withdrawal (Ruby Payne and Eric Jensen).

Physical and emotional stress on the brain minimizes learning and inhibits the formation of new connections between neurons.  The good news is that this type of brain damage can be overcome.  It is not accomplished easily or quickly, but there are learning strategies that teachers can use which will increase neuron connections and build memory.

Armed with this information, we have applied certain strategies to learning with our at-risk students and have been excited by the results.  We have focused on increasing academic vocabulary hoping to increase working memory and thereby improving standardized test scores.  Our steps always include:

  1. Using no more than five words at a time
  2. Creating a deck of cards that include picture, word, and definition
  3. Adding movement and/or hand signals to chants or songs about the words
  4. Repeating 10-15 minutes of activities daily for 5-6 weeks
  5. Working in collaborative groups
  6. Creating competitions
  7. Providing opportunities for students to write using the vocabulary words


Research reported by Eric Jensen indicates that this process will improve working memory. After 6-8 weeks of this process, many at-risk students make better grades and remain engaged with class activities. 

Other vocabulary development can be enhanced with scrambled words that students rearrange into vocabulary words.  We have also taught complex processes using a story line or sentence strips.

We have seen great improvement in behavior and grades in the at-risk populations of 9th graders by using these processes.

About the Author

Elaine Smith (Ph.D.)  and Mary Howell (M.A.) participated in developing a summer program for “at-risk” incoming ninth graders at A&M Consolidated High School, College Station, Texas.  We have successfully conducted two of these programs and plans for the third session are in progress.  Elaine directs GED tutoring classes, and teaches science at Allen Academy, Bryan, Texas.  Mary is the At-Risk Coordinator at A&M Consolidated High School and has been a science teacher, cognitive coach, and mentor teacher.  We work together to develop teacher training on combating the effects of poverty on the brain and on learning.  We consult with school districts and administrators as

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