Learning Systems – How to Improve, Build, and Develop Compensatory Strategies

View the webinar’s corresponding slides here

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Presenter: Dr. Sarah Levin Allen, PhD, CBIS

Dr. Allen reviewed the essential systems for learning including those related to the cognitive, executive, emotional, and behavioral aspects of functioning in a classroom. She made recommendations for how to improve children’s functioning, build skills, and develop strategies to promote learning.


  1. Pearl B says:

    Does the central sulcus do anything itself or is it just the center dividing line?

    • Dr. Sarah Levin Allen, PhD, CBIS says:

      We use sulci and gyri (grooves and bumps) in the brain as location markers. Although the parts of the brain look very easy to identify in our images, real brains are all very different. We use markers like the central sulcus to determine where the frontal lobe and parietal lobe divide in brains that are all different shapes and sizes.

  2. Cathy Fiore says:

    I’m confused about the neurons and how they affect learning. At what age do they engage? Are they considered a negative – a positive or either depending on how they interact/behave?

    • Dr. Sarah Levin Allen, PhD, CBIS says:

      Neurons are brain cells. They create a form of wiring in our brains and are the way in which messages are sent and communicated. There are billions of neurons, each one looks like the image below. The dendrites connect with other cells and look like the branches we discussed. The synapse is the place in which the neurons (specifically the dendrites and axons) connect.

      Neurons are engaged at all times and can either be excited or inhibited. The result of their stimulation is what we see behaviorally. For example, if you move your hand, the neurons in your brain responsible for movement were triggered. This includes those responsible for deciding to move your hand, starting the movement, and completing the movement. See this resource for a more detailed explanation of the neuron (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qS83wD29PY).

  3. George Englehardt says:

    Explain a little more about the brain base used in keeping learning in – specifically where does the base come from? Does it exist literally – what makes it up – or figuratively?

    • Dr. Sarah L. Allen says:

      There is no one particular location for learning or memory in the brain. The hippocampus is associated with bringing in the new learning, but your brain is a function of experiences and it remembers things using the same parts of the brain it did during the experience. So if your reading, the visual information of the word activates your occipital lobe, your temporal lobe helps with phonics and to determine what the words mean, the frontal lobe helps to put the information in a context and, if you’re reading out loud, with speech production. This is just a simple overview of what happens with reading. When it comes to learning and memory (or keeping learning in), the brain takes that experience and codes it. So, when you remember what you read, the brain re-experiences it and is activated in a similar way as it was when the experience happened the first time.

      The “base” could be considered all the experiences you’ve had up to this point. Your brain is anticipatory in nature, and so it scaffolds new learning onto old learning. In other words, it codes experience one, and then adds experience two to it. This is similar to a file system in an office. You may want to organize material by when it happened or by what type of event it was, or maybe by the person to which it pertains. Your brain creates a “base” in this way and then adds material (or learns) by adding to this file system.

  4. Dale E. says:

    Are you aware of any studies involving teenagers learning to drive? Are the learning skills the same and how does their anxiety affect their outcomes behind the wheel?

    • Dr. Sarah L. Allen says:

      This is a bit outside of my area of expertise. I would say, however, that the brain really only works in one way. So, the learning skills should be the same, and anxiety would impact teenagers in the same way as I described in the talk. When anxious, your frontal lobe is clogged with managing this emotion. Therefore, it cannot think as well and problem solve. The more anxious a teenager is, therefore, the harder it would be to navigate traffic laws, respond to other drivers, and do other things (like talk on the phone or listen to music) while driving. That being said, once driving becomes a more automatic task through practice and rehearsal, the brain becomes more efficient and the frontal lobe is taxed less.

  5. Angelina Stack says:

    Regarding the dopamine reaction to rewards:
    Is the reward more “pleasurable” and thus effective within certain age groups?
    If you reward a 7 year old for doing something that the parent feels is part of being a responsible member of the family, where does it end. Won’t they want and expect to be rewarded for everything they do? Should there be a distinguishable line between “regular” things you do and other rewardable things you do?

  6. Dr. Sarah L. Allen says:

    “Pleasure” is different for every student and every age group. There are some general rewards that work best for different ages (e.g. stickers/stars/checks for younger students, access to more recess time or a preferred activity for upper-elementary and middle school students, and homework passes, money, access to using a phone for upper middle and high school students), however, the key to a reward being effective is that it is both wanted and liked. If a student wants a reward, they will begin to feel pleasure from the idea of obtaining it. If they like the reward once they receive it, they will continue to do the behavior again. See this link for an excellent list of classroom reward options for various age groups: https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=0ahUKEwj33o_4x_HZAhUJWN8KHbPSCyUQFghCMAI&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.wisconsinpbisnetwork.org%2Fassets%2Ffiles%2Fresources%2FFree%2520or%2520Inexpensive%2520Rewards.pdf&usg=AOvVaw1CNNebqBr5zmRATIOGU5US

    (7 YO?) Yes and no. Our economic system is set up on rewards, likely because that’s the adaptive way our brain works. Animals continue to do things that feel good and stop doing things that feel bad. You go to work to earn money and time off. You seek praise and want to feel good about the work you are doing, which acts as its own reinforcer.
    That being said, with kids, behavior systems are best used to “jump start” a behavior. As I mentioned in the talk, once a child has reached the goal in the plan, expectations should be increased and/or the plan should be faded. Two things happen when you use a behavior reinforcement system. First, kids typically get into a routine of doing the behavior (e.g. a chore), which makes it easier to do and uses different parts of their brains. Second, kids feel good about doing the behavior (e.g. “Look mom, I made my bed every morning!”).
    As a parent, I tend to pick two-three things I would like my child to work on, and reward them for that. Then, I either fade the reward system, or I change the expectation and pick two to three new things to work on. You can put general items on the list such as respect for family members, listening to parents, etc. to cover major topics. This works fairly well for typical children. Should your child have a disability or specific skill deficit, these plans would need modification. I would also say that you can make it clear that a child is doing “regular” things in order to receive “regular” privileges.
    In general, behavior systems are only necessary if you want to build additional skills or prevent negative behaviors (like fighting about getting ready in the morning or doing chores). Praise and love go a long way to naturally reinforcing your child’s learning. You do not need to reward things your child is already doing or even something you’re asking them to learn to do unless they need a little extra brain power push to get there!