"There's books and big blocks and a painting place and a Lego table and a set of dinosaurs and two computers." A 5-year-old describing her new classroom to her mother.

The human brain is designed to learn. Yet in order to learn, our brain must first attend to, focus on, and then absorb new experiences.

Learning is difficult when there is a problem with any of these three steps. During the first weeks of school, the new environment, objects, and people in a young child's life can overload these steps. Understanding how the brain responds to new experiences can help you use these first weeks of school to set the stage for a productive and enjoyable year.

Key Steps to Learning

First Step: Getting Their Attention

In a familiar environment with predictable routines, such as a child's home, the brain tends to filter out repetitive and familiar signals such as the sound of a fan or street sounds. What gets children's attention are new signals that are judged to be "important" (Mom's expressions, words, and actions) or unfamiliar things (a new toy, the visiting neighbor's baby).

Sometimes, with a sudden change, familiar or not, attention will shift. This might be the result of someone dropping book, a police car with siren blaring roaring down the street, or a car alarm going off. Most children will quickly process these distractions and move on. Some children, however, do not handle this well. They have a difficult time sorting and determining what is most important. Their attention shifts rapidly from one minor distraction to the next.

In a new environment, however, most children appear distracted as they shift their attention from one new experience to another. A child's brain is flooded with new input as he starts a new school year. Until this new environment become familiar, he will find it difficult to focus-which is the second key step to learning.

Second Step: Finding a Way to Focus

Interest is a key factor in a child's ability to focus. There are individual differences in children's learning styles and in what kinds of activities they find appealing. Some children prefer the spatial challenges of working with blocks, while others prefer the tactile stimulation of art projects. Some children can sustain their attention by having a story told to them, while others require visual images presented at the same time (seeing the pictures in a picture book as they listen to a story). This, of course, can make it difficult to find one activity that will sustain the attention of all of the children.

Third Step: Absorbing the Experience

The final step in learning involves memory. Memory is, of course, a complicated process. There are different "components" to memory. As the child explores a new game, the new information is being processed by "active-working" memory. Here, the new information is mixed in with and compared against previous memory (This is just like my game, but it has a different board and it uses a spinner.) When the child moves to another activity, some, but not all information from active-working memory goes to short-term memory. At the end of the day, the child can tell his mother about the new game at school. But if the game was taken away, and the child never saw it again, he might not remember it several months later.

Not all information from short-term memory finds its way to long-term memory. The brain stores new experience based on repetition. For example, 10 five-minute exposures to a new experience leads to more learning than one 50-minute exposure.

Finally, the more complex the sensory input from an experience, the more "solidly" it will be absorbed. In other words, an activity that allows a child to see, hear, hold, and smell leads to a rich sensory experience that helps her learn. Seeing a photo of a chick is much less powerful than seeing, hearing it chirp, stroking its back.

What You Can Do: Introducing New Experiences

When there are too many new things for a child to experience and absorb, the potential for learning decreases. And, of course, the first weeks of school are loaded with new experiences. Teachers are well aware that it is very difficult to "teach" new concepts and rules in the first weeks of school. It's important to help children settle into the routines of the day and the structures of the classroom. As you do, several children in your classroom will have a wide range of capacity to attend, focus and absorb. But when the environment is new and over-stimulating, learning efficiency goes down for all children. Here are some things you can do to help children attend to, focus on, and absorb the new experiences you introduce:

  • The brain's system for attention is very visually biased. Moving visual stimulation, such as people entering the classroom or walking in the hall, will draw the attention of almost everyone. Children with less capacity to focus will be much more vulnerable to these visual distractions. When you begin to identify children most vulnerable to these distractions, structure their interactions so they are less vulnerable to these things. You might partner them in activities with another child who is quiet and calm or remove too many visual distractions from their working area.
  • Consider "growing" the complexity of your classroom. Minimize the number of toys, posters, and learning centers that fill the classroom environment at the start of the year. Start simply, and, as the weeks progress, add posters, learning centers, materials, and so forth. This can help children feel responsible for shaping their learning environment and give them the opportunity to absorb these new experiences gradually.
  • Remember that repetition rather than duration is the major factor in learning. Six 10-minute opportunities to try something new will lead to more learning that one non-stop half hour in that activity.
  • Develop some familiar and simple activities that can be used to "re-anchor" your classroom after introducing new experiences. Pick a song and make it the "class" song. Every time that song is played, invite children to sit in a circle and clap in rhythm.
  • Keep in mind that children focus on and absorb new experiences when they are rested, full, and feel safe. Anything that makes children feel unsettled, hungry, or tired out will interfere with learning.
  • Give the children some control over the classroom environment. Having some control of an environment makes a child feel safer more quickly. The process of adding new and/or different materials to the classroom can take place each month as you use new images, posters and materials with various seasonal or educational themes.
  • Take one poster and move it to a new spot every week. See how long it takes the children to notice and comment. This can be modified by using smaller objects (such as a vase or a bookstand) and become a class game of hide and seek.
  • Use children's names frequently. One of the quickest ways for children to become familiar with each other and safe with you is to use their name. It helps the child feel special and safer and the repetitions will help the children learn each other's names.



Bruce Duncan Perry, M.D., Ph.D., is an internationally recognized authority on brain development and children in crisis. Dr. Perry leads the ChildTrauma Academy, a pioneering center providing service, research and training in the area of child maltreatment (http://www.childtrauma.org/). In addition he is the Medical Director for Provincial Programs in Children's Mental Health for Alberta, Canada. Dr. Perry served as consultant on many high-profile incidents involving traumatized children, including the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado; the Oklahoma City Bombing; and the Branch Davidian siege. His clinical research and practice focuses on traumatized children-examining the long-term effects of trauma in children, adolescents and adults. Dr. Perry's work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain. The author of more than 200 journal articles, book chapters, and scientific proceedings and is the recipient of a variety of professional awards.