"Eee, arh, san, ssue…" Those were the decidedly foreign sounds I heard from the sixth-grade classroom as I walked down the hall the very first week we opened our doors in 1997 to the Academy of the Pacific Rim, a public charter school in Boston. Most people thought we were crazy to require every child to study Mandarin. This seemed particularly preposterous given that in our first year of operation close to one-third of the 100 incoming students were three to five years below grade level in reading and math. Yet, at the end of our first year, we were one of the highest-performing middle schools in Boston.
We know much more today than we did in the 1990s about how brains develop. The research is compelling, not just on the importance of studying a second language, but also on other subjects, such as learning to play an instrument or the developmental benefits of an aerobic-based PE program. Yet these programs are often the first to disappear with budget cuts.
Studying a second language literally restructures the brain, a restructuring that lasts into adulthood. The cortex, which undergoes the greatest changes when a second language is learned during childhood, influences thought and consciousness. Even memory is impacted. Knowing that information, it is not far-fetched to argue that learning a second language could also help a child memorize their multiplication facts or read in their native language.
Learning an instrument
Given recent research, we now know that playing the piano or another instrument for 30 minutes a week can make your child calm, alert, interested in learning, playful, and more able to see the whole picture. These traits, found in musicians, are also common among world-class athletes and top-level managers. Children only need to play an instrument for 30 minutes a week for 14 months to see visible changes in their brain structure.
Perhaps the most riveting example is a fitness-based physical education program. New cognitive science research reveals children who get aerobic exercise can transform their bodies and their brains due to a protein that is elevated during exercise, acting as a sort of "Miracle-Gro" for the brain.
Naperville School District in Illinois, a district of 19,000 kids that has been experimenting with a mandatory mile run at the start of the school day, is a prime example. Since Naperville has implemented this approach, it has seen huge jumps in academic scores. In fact, the kids in Naperville are not only outperforming neighboring districts, but whole countries. Eighth-grade Naperville students who took the TIMSS test in science came in first, ahead of Singapore! As a comparison, U.S. students typically rank 18th in the world, with some districts such as Jersey City and Miami ranking dead last. Naperville credits much of its remarkable academic results to a smartly organized, fitness-based PE program. Yet only 6 percent of schools across the United States have PE classes five times a week.
What you as a parent can do
- Check that your school's music program is not at risk. If it is or has been cut, ask to have some very basic music integrated into your child's classroom. With YouTube, even a regular classroom teacher can help facilitate music instruction. Recorders are great options for schools mindful of budgets because they are very inexpensive and easy for a non-music teacher to pick up and learn.
- Check to see if your school's PE program is a fitness-based program, and ask your kids when they do PE during the day. Research shows, the earlier the better!
- If you are a parent who runs, consider taking your son or daughter along on your morning jog or help organize volunteer runs at your school during the "zero" hour.
- Take advantage of technology. Look for apps on phones or tablets that focus on language education for kids. One of our favorites is DuoLingo.
- Do an easy fundraiser to get these programs back in your school. Schoola, a fundraising platform for schools, can help you do a clothing drive to fund programs. Parents send in their children's gently used clothing in prepaid-postage bags. Schoola tags, photographs, and sells the clothes on its site, and the school receives 40 percent of the proceeds. Twenty-five bags of clothes can buy recorders for a school of 500 kids, five licenses of Little Pim (a series that introduces a foreign language for children), or 1,000 jump ropes.
Stacey Boyd is the founder of Schoola, a fundraising platform for schools. In 1997, she built an inner-city charter school from the ground up. A year later it was one of the highest-performing middle schools in Boston. She is the founder of the Savvy Source for Parents, a nationally renowned website helping parents select the right preschool for their child.