Schools have a core duty to promote academic development. It’s becoming increasingly clear however, that schools’ responsibility goes beyond academic skills: supporting students’ mental health is also critical. It is encouraging to see school systems starting to build mental health resources directly into their strategies.
The rationale is indisputable: mental health issues can be devastating for an individual both during and well beyond their school years. All too often, these issues persist and lead to serious mental health disorders, impacting the individual, their family and community, and society at large.
While the origin of mental health issues is complex, there’s no doubt a component of our social and emotional well-being comes from our cognitive capacity. Core brain processes responsible for judgement, decision making, comprehension, reasoning and non-verbal processing can directly contribute to an individual’s mental health.
This blog will invite educators to consider: how can I support my students in building foundational capacities necessary for positive mental health and strong social and emotional skills?
The answer: through the application of neuroscience and neuroplasticity – the brain’s remarkable capacity to change. This way, educators can enable students to directly improve their self concept, core learning capacity, and mental health.
Let’s examine the theory, practice and research behind neuroplastic programming: targeted training that improves cognitive functions.
Grounded in Science
Studies show there is a direct correlation between one’s mental health and the ability to learn, and the burden of this is wide ranging. Neuroscience has also revealed the brain is at the heart of this interplay.
Indeed, over the decades of working with students and schools, Arrowsmith has observed a relationship between mental health and one’s cognitive profile:
- struggles to keep up with their peers and curriculum demands for those dealing with learning issues negatively impacts self esteem, the ability to self advocate, and school attendance; and
- specific cognitive functions directly responsible for judgement, cause and effect reasoning, self-reflection, emotional regulation, interpreting social situations – are all essential in healthy mental states. Therefore, students with weak cognitive functioning are at a much greater risk of having mental health issues.
“The insula, part of the cerebral cortex, is set deep within a large fissure that separates the frontal and parietal lobes from the temporal lobe. This small part of the brain plays a critical role in the process of understanding our emotional states, and in feeling and interpreting emotions. The insula also allows us to make connections between our physiological states and the emotions that give rise to them. It’s no surprise then, that increased activation of the insula leads to better emotional clarity.” (The Woman Who Changed Her Brain, page 271)
Of course, there are also psychological and environmental impacts that are not directly cognitive in nature. Even in these situations - the question remains - could an individual better cope with these factors if they were equipped with a stronger cognitive profile?
Practice – From Laboratory to Classroom
If educators and school leaders are asking themselves, how do we equip our students with the building blocks necessary for positive mental health? The answer lies not just in building a better curriculum, but in building a stronger brain.
Along with improving academic performance through cognitive training (see our recent blog on building the 21st century brain), this approach can be integrated into school populations to enhance the mental health of students.
Arrowsmith has examined the impact that an individual’s cognitive profile has on their mental health. Researchers have measured the impact of cognitive programming on students’ experiences in school and beyond, and some remarkable shifts have been observed.
Studies demonstrated participation in Arrowsmith led to:
- increased independent and self-directed learning
- increased emotional and social well-being
- independence in activities of daily living
- reduction in feelings of depression, anxiety, aggression
- a shift to a growth mindset
- increased sense of locus of control (seeing oneself as an agent of change in one’s life)
- a greater sense of happiness
- heightened optimism
- increased self-esteem
Cognitive changes lead to functional, behavioural and emotional changes. With a stronger cognitive profile, a stronger mental health profile can be developed.
Our brains mediate our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world, so it is not surprising that the research is finding these changes. One of the researchers described it this way:
“There seems to be a story here about cognitive efficiency, which includes working memory and attention and learning -- the capacity, in other words, to learn new things. These cognitive skills seem to be important for success at school and life in general.”
Dr. Weber, Researcher, University of British Columbia
In cases of students who have had more chronic mental health issues, requiring support outside of their schooling, professionals have noted that after Arrowsmith’s intervention, these individuals move through the therapeutic process with greater ease:
“Once they were liberated from the cognitive deficits, they could go back and deal with other garden-variety psychotherapeutic issues and make progress at times much more quickly.”
Dr. Norman Doidge, Psychiatrist, Author of ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’
Students themselves recognize the shift in their own social and emotional health, after participation in cognitive programming:
“I can talk to people now - even tough conversations. I can share how I feel. Even better - I can understand how I feel. Arrowsmith training has given me clarity I haven’t felt before. I can relax. I can say no. I know my worth.”
Arrowsmith participant, grade 11
Next Steps in Advancing Student Mental Health
The world is changing at an incredible pace. A changing economy, workforce, climate and global system – means that now more than ever, students and youth face an incredibly unpredictable future. It is no wonder that mental health is a concern for so many educators and school leaders.
We are at a watershed moment in education, when learning and neuroscience can intersect. By applying neuroplastic principles, structural and functional brain change is possible, leading to significant positive change for individuals who previously struggled.
Cognitive intervention can directly target and strengthen the brain processes responsible for reasoning, judgement, decision-making, emotional regulation, nonverbal thinking and processing.
With stronger brains, comes a capacity for students and youth to become more active, productive, and happier learners and world citizens.
Compelling research has important implications for our educational and societal systems. Building cognitive training into schools, therapeutic settings, and community agencies, changes the well-being of the future’s most important resources: children and youth.
Interested in learning more about the impact of neuroplasticity on strengthening the brain and improving student well-being? Get in touch with the Arrowsmith team of brain change experts today.
November 1, 2023