After years of watching some of her high school students struggle, reading specialist Janet Zadina returned to school to study how neuroscience can shed light on dyslexia. Now an assistant professor of neurology at Tulane University, Zadina studies the effects of stress and trauma on learning in school children. Outside of the lab, she lectures teachers on classroom strategies derived from new findings about the brain. She is the winner of the 2011 Science Educator Award from the Society for Neuroscience for her efforts to bring practical applications of neuroscience to teachers and students around the world.
Janet Zadina is an assistant professor of neurology at Tulane University.
What first interested you in brain science?
When I first started teaching high school, I saw that many of my students couldn’t read. At that time, I was frustrated with the progress being made to treat dyslexia. Then, one day I saw an article describing how researchers used brain scans to explore the differences between the brains of children with dyslexia and children without the disorder, and I thought to myself, “That’s what I’m going to do!”
I enrolled in a graduate program when I was 52 that would allow me to merge my interest in addressing reading problems in children and neuroscience. I wanted every child to have a love of learning, and I turned to science to look further into it.
When you went back to school, you studied dyslexia, using MRI scans like the ones that originally inspired you. Can you tell us what how dyslexia affects brain function?
There’s a typical pathway in the brain for reading. People with dyslexia appear to activate different parts of the brain than people who don’t have reading problems. This has nothing to do with intelligence or effort — it’s just a matter of brain wiring.
What do you think neuroscience can offer educators?
Neuroscience can inform teachers about how learning takes place in the brain, the different ways students learn, and more. Right now, we’re at the beginning of building a bridge that I hope will become a two-way thoroughfare between neuroscience and education. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg of what this new field of educational neuroscience can be.
What is the greatest challenge in convincing teachers that neuroscience can be applied to teaching practices?
Teachers are hungry for information. The caution is that there are people that are presenting glib answers and misinformation. This is a disservice to teachers.
My goal is to bring credibility and care to this field of study while helping teachers to see some of the applications and suggestions for the classroom based on neuroscience research.
In addition to your work bringing neuroscience findings to teachers, you study the effects of traumatic experiences on learning and classroom dynamics. What can you tell us about your research?
My new focus is on teaching and learning in the presence or aftermath of stress and trauma, particularly with populations after a natural disaster. I talk to students and teachers about how their brains are affected by the high stress. I went through Hurricane Katrina, so I’m speaking as someone who has experienced this kind of trauma, and as someone who understands all of the literature and the classroom environment.
Under high stress, the brain goes into survival mode — you’ll be able to do your daily functions, but you may not be able to keep track of assignments or concentrate. It’s associated with sleeping disorders, and sometimes substance abuse. So people think they’re losing their minds because they can’t think the way that they were thinking before. But if you understand what’s happening, it removes some fear and anxiety which only exasperate the problem.
If you could give one piece of advice to a teacher who is suddenly faced with a student who went through some sort of trauma, what would it be?
The best way to reach the student is through emotional engagement and activity. Expect disorganization, forgetfulness, day-dreaming, and working memory problems. It may look like a student is angry, or bored, or disengaged, but that may be the trauma. Rework your lessons to temporarily require less demand on planning, critical thinking and organization. And change your expectations.