See discussions, stats, and author profiles for this publication at:
A neuroeducation informed perspective on effective classroom management
Conference Paper · February 2018
2 authors:
Aaron Green-Mitchell
Emily Jaskowiak
University of Portland
University of Portland
All content following this page was uploaded by Aaron Green-Mitchell on 25 February 2018.
The user has requested enhancement of the downloaded file.
A neuroeducation informed perspective on effective classroom management
Aaron J. Green-Mitchell
Emily Jaskowiak
ORATE 2018
Among the many challenges contemporary educators face today, structuring classroom
instruction and routines to encourage the success of all students is of growing importance.
Historically it has been acceptable to exclude students who demonstrated social or academic
behavior that didn’t match a classroom teacher’s expectations (Simson, 2013). However,
exclusionary practices have faced significant challenges recently. For example, critics of
exclusionary practices in education have pointed out that such practices often disproportionately
affect students of color and sexual minority youth (Himmelstein & Bruckner, 2011; Shah, 2013).
In place of exclusionary practices many teachers, and even whole schools, have begun
adopting programs that utilize rewards based systems for classroom management.
One program in particular used in place of exclusionary practices, Positive Behavior
Interventions and Supports (PBIS), has achieved significant popularity in recent years
(Swain-Bradway, Swoszowski, Boden, & Sprague, 2013). Literature on effective PBIS
implementations prescribes a number of practices for effective classroom management,
including the use of public praise and token or incentive programs (Sugai & Horner, 2002).
Token and incentive programs allow students to either receive incentives directly or provide
students the opportunity to earn token currencies that can be redeemed for incentives. Within
PBIS programs, students are ranked and assigned to one of three tiers based on their
performance in meeting school or classroom behavioral expectations. Students on the first tier
receive base levels of support. Tiers two and three are reserved for students who are judged to
need greater support and/or more specifically tailored interventions to help them match their
behavior to school or classroom expectations. According to PBIS instructional literature,
typically fewer than 20 percent of students qualify for those higher tiers (Sugai & Horner, 2002).
Despite its high rate of adoption by individual teachers and even whole schools, a variety
of concerns have been expressed about the use of PBIS. While some concerns relate to the
use of rewards themselves, others relate to questions about whether PBIS truly represents the
pinnacle of effective classroom management methodologies. Critics of the use of rewards in
education point out that the efficacy of rewards can decrease over time and that the presence of
rewards can actually exacerbate anti-social behavior (Arwood, 2011). Questions have also
arisen about whether the use of PBIS systems can mask deficits in pro-social concept
acquisition among young people (Green-Mitchell, 2016).
Fortunately, contemporary advancements in neuroscience, overlapped with research
from cognitive psychology and linguistics, combine to offer a theoretical alternative to the
behaviorist learning theory that many classroom management strategies, like PBIS, have been
based on. That alternative, the neurosemantic language learning theory (NsLLT), can be
applied effectively to facilitate classroom management strategies that are non-rewards based
and that work to raise the underlying social-cognition of students. This difference in practice is
due to the distinction between behaviorist learning theory and the NsLLT. While behaviorist
learning theory treats learning as a two part, input-output process, the NsLLT holds that learning
can in fact be a four part process.
The four part process of the NsLLT designates the first step in learning as the intake of
sensory information, typically through the visual or auditory system. Sensory information is then
overlapped in the subcortical region of the brain where patterns are identified. As those
patterns are refined, concepts are formed and represented as neural circuits in the brain’s
cerebral cortex .The brain’s networking and integration of those circuits is then represented in
an individual’s language (Arwood, 2011).
To be clear, the NsLLT’s treatment of language as the highest level of the theory’s four
levels of learning reflects a deeper understanding of language than is typically found in
contemporary education (Arwood, 2011). This is because the NsLLT differentiates between an
individual’s acquired language structures and their acquired language functions. An individual’s
acquired language structures reflect the surface level acoustic or visual patterns that an
individual can imitate or repeat. An individual’s language functions reflect the language they’ve
acquired and use for cognitive tasks like reading, writing, viewing, calculating, and
problem-solving. The NsLLT’s differentiation between language structures and functions is
reflective of decades of work by linguists emphasizing the importance of language functions
(Arwood, 2011; Fraser, Bellugi, & Brown, 1963; Lenneberg, 1969; Vygotsky, 1962). The use of
such a functional, rather than structural, approach to understanding language is also in keeping
with recent developments in neuroscience as researchers in that field have revised their views
of how language works in the brain.
Contemporary neuroscience authors note that language is represented in the brain by
widespread networks involving multiple brain regions (Poeppel, Emmorey, Hickok, & Pylkkanen,
2012). This is a departure from a more traditional model that held only very specific brain
regions were involved in language processes. Thus, rather than neuroscientists viewing
language acquisition as being a process of hearing and repeating acoustic patterns, language
acquisition is believed to involve brain areas previously linked to other sensory inputs such as
movement and vision. This change in view is particularly important and matches with recent
findings that indicate most individual’s metacognitive processes are decidedly visual rather than
auditory in nature (Zeman, Deward, & Della Sala, 2015).
Historically, many of the educational methods practiced in the US have relied on an
auditory transmission model for introducing to students new ideas and concepts (rather than a
process considering visual overlap and pattern acquisition). The auditory bias in US
educational culture may be a reflection of the auditory nature of the English language; however
it may also be less suited to successfully engaging students with visual metacognition who
make up the majority of today’s learners (Arwood, 2011). This mismatch between educational
practice and learners’ metacognitive function may particularly exacerbate educational
challenges faced by youth from lower socio-economic status backgrounds. This is because
research findings show that those youth are more likely to experience impaired auditory
processing at the neural level (Kraus & Anderson, 2015).
Rather than relying on behaviorist strategies for classroom management to affect
student engagement with auditory-based classroom instruction, more success may be found by
changing instructional practice to better match the visual metacognition of today’s learners.
Given that most learners today think using visual metacognitive styles, teaching that is more
visual in nature promises to better engage these learners potentially leading to a reduction for
additional classroom management measures. To that end, the authors of this paper have
developed a number of suggestions, incorporating principles from the NsLLT, to more effectively
align teaching practices to learners’ visual metacognitive strengths, as well as to more
effectively address behavior concerns if such do arise.
Since students with visual metacognition overlap visual patterns to form concepts,
classroom layout should be organized to facilitate students’ visual intake of information. To set
up a classroom to permit students to visually acquire information, it is important that all students
be able to see the location(s) where information is to be presented. This means including the
opportunity for them to see screens where information is projected as well as the teacher’s face.
The ability to see the teacher’s face is important because when teachers present information
orally, visual thinkers can make mental pictures from the changing shape of the teacher’s mouth
as it makes words. If students are expected to take turns in speaking with each other, setting up
the room so that each student can see each other is also advantageous. Again, this allows
them to see the face of the person speaking and provides an opportunity to use the shape of the
other person’s mouth to overlap visual sensory information.
In addition to seeing the speaker and the information presented, teachers should also
consider how to visually portray the concepts they intend for their students to acquire. Some
NsLLT-minded practitioners cartoon out stories in order to provide a visual context for concepts
(Robb, 2016). Cartooning of stories can also show the relationships among concepts and even
the relationship of those concepts to the students themselves. Another visual method that
allows teachers to provide context for and relationships among various concepts is the use of
I-stories. I-stories consist of a personal event that may be drawn out by the teacher or students.
I-stories provide context for the teacher and students to share a visual referent. This visual
referent can be used to introduce an academic unit or as a language learning activity meant to
be shared among students in the classroom.
Stories can be engaging tools to use in the classroom, whether cartooned or told orally
with the help of an I-story. This is because stories typically provide multiple instances of a
specific concept, address a specific concept in multiple ways, and allow for learners to begin to
overlap the patterns related to a concept by permitting the learner to build their own semantic
understanding of the given concept. Stories provided to the learner in a visually appropriate
format also provide an opportunity for the learner to acquire concepts, neuro-semantically
growing the student's language functions in addition to the language structures used to
communicate about those concepts.
Utilizing cartooning or I-stories for instruction is also advantageous because it can lower
the displacement of a given concept. Lowering the displacement of a concept and connecting it
to the here and now makes concepts more accessible to learners (Arwood, 2011). This is
because concept acquisition follows the cognitive path first described by Piaget (1952). As
such, concepts are acquired initially at the pre-operational level and then with further
refinement, a learner may develop an understanding of the concept at the concrete or even
formal level (Arwood, 2011). By making concepts and materials more accessible to all students,
students are more able and more likely to fully engage themselves as learners in the classroom.
Making concepts and materials more accessible also reflects a core component of the
neuro-educational perspective on motivation. Many teachers may be familiar with behaviorist
inspired motivational philosophy that suggests motivation is a function of extrinsic rewards;
however, contemporary research indicates that motivation may, in fact, be a product of factors of
purpose, autonomy, and mastery. By lowering the displacement of concepts and providing
greater opportunity to overlap visual patterns to form one’s own specific semantic understanding
of a particular concept, teachers begin to incorporate both purpose and opportunity for mastery.
Purpose is addressed as topics and concepts are related to oneself and one’s community while
the opportunity for mastery is addressed by having instruction that works with one’s own
learning system. The final component of motivation, the issue of autonomy, may also be
addressed via adjustments to curriculum.
Autonomy for learners means, in part, that they are supported in the development of
their own concepts and understanding. Thus each learner may use a unique process and arrive
at a unique answer when facing a task or challenge. Over time teachers can work to assign
meaning to a learner’s choices and help the learner to develop their own cognition about a
particular task or challenge. This is a stark contrast from expecting a learner to simply copy a
teacher’s vision of the correct answer. Where the latter is done the learner does not get the
opportunity to refine their own cognition, but instead may be parroting the oral or written
language structures of the teacher. Educational approaches and philosophies that include lack
of autonomy between the student and teacher can sometimes be referred to as authoritarian
Whereas historically teachers may have been instructed to approach teaching from an
authoritarian standpoint, in which students were expected to copy the teacher’s thinking,
research suggests that learners do better socially and academically when teacher’s use
authoritative approaches instead (Arwood & Young, 2000). Authoritative approaches provide
support for each learner as an individual. They involve give and take in communication and
respect for learners and their choices.
Because authoritative approaches involve learners having autonomy and choice, there
may still be times when teachers find themselves wishing for different behavior(s) by a student
in the classroom. However, the same principles of making things visual and providing context
still apply. Practices influenced by behaviorist theory may encourage brevity, such as the use of
reminders or cues regarding rules or rule violations. In contrast, neuro-educational principles
support the use of rich visual language instead (Arwood, Brown, & Kaulitz, 2015). Such rich
visual language provides context and meaning for an individual’s behavior and can support an
individual in adding others to their metacognition. Figure 1 provides an example from literature
of such rich visual language (as well as cartooning) used to aid a student in increasing their
understanding of their role in the classroom, which can then result in better overall classroom
experience for themselves and other students.
Figure 1. Rich visual language example. This figure shows an example of rich visual language
as well as how that language may be used with cartooning to help students better understand
their classroom experience and their impact on others (Arwood, Brown, & Kaulitz, 2015).
Overall, neuro-educational principles offer a promising new framework for addressing
social and academic behavior in the classroom. When teachers are able to implement
neuro-education based practices, they may find success beyond what can be achieved through
traditional behaviorism based practices. By applying neuro-educational principles to curriculum
and classroom design, teachers may also find less time devoted to resolving classroom
management issues. Similarly, by using neuro-educational principles when issues do arise,
they may be more effectively resolved. Finally, because neuro-educational approaches focus
on providing learners the opportunity to grow their own concepts and thinking rather than
competing to copy the teacher’s, they hold the promise of creating more equitable opportunities
for classroom success.
Arwood, E. (2011). Language function: An introduction to pragmatic assessment and
intervention for higher order thinking and better literacy. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley
Arwood, E., Brown, M, & Kaulitz, C. (2015). Pro-Social language: A way to think about behavior.
Tigard, OR: APRICOT.
Arwood, E. & Young, E. (2000). The language of RESPECT: The right of each student to
participate in an environment of communicative thoughtfulness. Portland, OR: Lightning Print
Faser, C., Bellugi, U., & Brown, R. (1963). Control of grammar in imitation, comprehension, and
production. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 2(2), 121-135.
Green-Mitchell, A. (2016). An investigation of language acquisition as an antecedent to
pro-social development for secondary students at risk for behavior disorders (Doctoral
Dissertation). University of Portland, Portland OR.
Himmelstein, K. E., & Brückner, H. (2011). Criminal-justice and school sanctions against
nonheterosexual youth: A National Longitudinal Study. Pediatrics, 127(1), 49-57.
Kraus, N., & Anderson, S. (2015). Low socioeconomic status linked to impaired auditory
processing. The Hearing Journal, 68(5), 38-40.
Lenneberg, E. H. (1969). On explaining language. Science, 164(3880), 635-43.
Piaget, J. (1952). The origins of intelligence in children. (M. Cook, Trans.) New York:
International Universities Press.
Poeppel, D., Emmorey, K., Hickok, G., & Pylkkänen, L. (2012). Towards a new neurobiology of
language. The Journal of Neuroscience, 32(41), 14125-14131.
Robb, B. (2016). A paradigm shift in classroom learning practices to propose methods aligned
with a neuroeducation conceptual framework (Doctoral Dissertation). University of Portland,
Portland OR.
Shah, N. (2013). Discipline policies shift with views of what works. Education Week. Retrieved
Simson, D. (2013). Exclusion, punishment, racism, and our schools: A critical race theory
perspective on school discipline. UCLA L. Rev., 61, 506.
View publication stats
Sugai, G., & Horner, R. (2002). The evolution of discipline practices: School-wide positive
behavior supports. Child & Family Behavior Therapy, 24(1-2), 23-50. Swain-Bradway, J.,
Swain-Bradway, J., Swoszowski, N. C., Boden, L. J., & Sprague, J. R. (2013). Voices from the
field: Stakeholder perspectives on PBIS implementation in alternative educational settings.
Education and Treatment of Children, 36(3), 31-46.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language, (E. Hanfmann & G. Vakar, Eds. Trans).
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Zeman, A., Dewar, M., & Della Sala, S. (2015). Lives without imagery–congenital aphantasia.
Cortex, 73, 378-380.