Tuesday, September 04, 2012

"Tapping the Brain Out of Energy"

My intention with writing this post is to help parents know what is going on and to help homeschoolers realize that some changes they can make at home may improve their child's learning experience.

To the parents of schooled kids, I think you should know about this. It will help explain that your child is not just lazy or unmotivated.

To those whose child is struggling in school who are thinking about homeschooling maybe this post will help you see that it may make a big difference in your child's education, even if you have self-doubt or worry about your own ability to handle home education.


I noticed this phenomenon with my older son when he began struggling to learn. It was first apparent with reading text. He would hit a wall where he could not read any more. Whatever he read would not sink in. If I was reading aloud, he could listen longer but he would hit a wall eventually. Whatever he heard would go in one ear and out the other.

Later at homeschooling conferences I heard of this when talking about kids with various learning disabilities. Parents with kids who do this know it is real, not a joke, not a figment of the imagination.

It was not until we worked with a board certified neurofeedback therapist, a psycholgist, that we heard the biology behind this. Essentially what happens with people with various brain challenges, brain injury, neurological problems (Tourette's or others), or the list of learning disabilities is this. The brain does not know what to focus on and what to filter out. It is on a high alert state all the time. The brain is supposed to constantly judge what to focus on and what to filter out, what to forget vs. what is important, in order to conserve energy and to be efficient and not wasteful. When it is impaired it is on full alert all the time. This means that it runs out of energy fast, hours and hours before a neurotypical person's brain would. The biology behind this is the brain runs on glucose and when using a lot of energy it literally uses up all the glucose and is empty. It needs refueling then. And anytime a person hyperfocuses on something that they find challenging to grasp the energy level is increased and the fuel is used up at a higher rate.

After my son's neurofeedback treatments which lasted about 45 minutes long, his brain was so fatigued that it was empty of glucose. He would fall asleep almost as soon as we got into the car, and this was at noon, after being awake for only about four hours. We were counseled to eat a nutritious breakfast, then a protein and healthy carb (i.e. apple) snack right before the session, then to again carb load with fruit and a protein immediately after the treatment. My son would not always comply with this. The neurofeedback was so tiring to his brain that he could not learn for the rest of the day. We selected an 11am time slot due to traffic issues in Houston (a question of wanting to spend 40 minutes driving there or 90-120 minutes). A late afternoon appointment after a full day of studies was out of the question, and it conflicted with his sport practice too.

The recommendation we received for optimal learning on non-neurofeedback therapy days was this.

Go to bed at the same time each night.

Wake up in the morning at the same time each day.

(Sleep the number of hours he recommended based on what gave the most normal levels of delta and theta waves.)

Wake up, eat eggs for breakfast (protein and not a huge bread based carb) and get outside in the sun, do vigorous exercise 20-30 minutes to wake the body and brain.

Shower, get dressed.

Lessons for 50 minutes.

Eat snack with protein for 10 minute break.

Lessons for 50 minutes.

Eat snack with protein, for 10 minute break.

Lessons for 50 minutes.

Lunch break with a healthy lunch protein and carbs.

Lessons for 50 minutes.

Eat snack with protein for 10 minute break.

Lessons for 50 minutes.

East snack with protein for 10 minute break.

1 hour nap (approximately at 2pm). Do not sleep longer.

Wake up, eat snack with protein.

Lessons for 50 minutes.


Sport practice.


Eat dinner.

Relax in the evening.

With homeschooling we can focus lessons to be high impact and a low waste of time in order to not waste brain energy on dumb assignments. Homeschooling an LD child or a brain injured child or any child with something that causes this challenge should be tailored to them custom, not just using some time wasting program intended to be a one size fits all curriculum as that is not much better than using school. The goal is to be efficient and get the learning done when the brain is on, before the brain wears out.

As for my son, at fourteen and fifteen I am having a hard time enforcing this schedule. He wants to make his own decisions. His picky eating habits prevent him from having a large selection of foods to eat and he gets sick of eating the same thing all the time. When we did that schedule it worked great.

Other People's Kids

Once I learned that the "tapping out of energy" had a true biological basis it was a relief. However it was bothersome also as now I feel pity for the LD schooled kids. The schedule of early waking to catch the schoolbus and the wasting energy before the first lesson is even done is, well, a waste of their brain's energy. Later, they will tap out and tune out during the school day before the lessons are all finished. They will not be able to eat frequent snacks, and I question the nutritional value of the typical schooled kid snack that they eat, usually just one in the morning. They can't nap to restore the brain after lunch and before the afternoon lessons resume.

Then when they get home they have homework to do, so their learning day has not yet ended. Since naps in America are thought to have no need past age three or four, I bet elementary schooled kids and older kids are not napping when they get home. And if the parents do not understand the biology behind the need for the food to be a fuel then it is probable that the after school snack and perhaps the dinner (and dessert) also may be foods that do not restore the brain's glucose supplies quickly enough, thus setting up the brain for failure when the student needs to be able to focus and learn at homework time.

The American school system with its rigid traditional scheduling and with the mainstreaming of learning disabled kids does not allow for schedule alterations such as I have addressed here. Napping and more frequent snacks are not common in IEPs, not yet at least, except maybe for Diabetics with their easily measured insulin levels that are a mainstream medical diagnosis. This brain biology and emerging technology is so new that it has not tricked down to help change educational policy yet.

The fact is that school teachers' efficacy is limited if the children's brains are not turned on and engaged. Leaving nutrition and adequate rest (napping) out of the equation is a problem because it sets the student up for failure. If the brain is fried and has no glucose to pull from, nothing that is done via teaching in the classroom will be effective, not great teaching, not mediocre teaching, not differentiated instruction, and not IEPs. Instead kids will daydream, or appear to be listening but not really hearing, or they may just fall asleep! Later they will recall nothing that was taught which will lead to struggles with homework completion later that same day and it will negatively impact the learning in general and for the longer term.

I don't have an easy solution for the schooled kids but I think awareness of this can be the start of a conversation.

1 comment:

scimum said...

Christine, I am so thankful that you posted this sample 'routine'. I am about to start homeschooling my second son, who has sensory processing disorder and some behavior similar to ADD/ADHD. I have definitely noticed his energy levels fluctuating during the day. I really want our days to be productive and I have been thinking about how best to include exercise and snacks to this aim. I will use this blog post as a guide when I'm planning our daily routines.