Wednesday / May 29

Creating Brain-Friendly Classrooms

Did you know that your brain has to be made “ready to learn”? Your job as a classroom teacher will be to create a “brain friendly” environment. A happy, friendly environment will allow two chemicals to be released: dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals are neurotransmitters- chemicals released by nerve cells to send signals to other nerve cells. Dopamine increases feelings of reward and pleasure, while serotonin affects happiness and learning. These chemicals are key components in getting a message to travel to brain cells. Learning is the result.

Meanwhile, students who are fearful of their teachers, or in a stressful environment, release adrenaline. Adrenaline engages a “fight or flight” reflex, which shuts down other functions to concentrate on the body’s most important job of self-defense. The moral of the story: your classroom needs to be a safe, happy environment for learning to take place.

How will you create this happy environment? Here’s my list of the three MOST IMPORTANT things that you can do each day to insure classroom learning:

1. Greet Each Student.

As a middle school teacher with 120 students, this may seem like an impossible task. Then again, think about each student, as they maneuver through their schedule of 7-8 classes a day. It is entirely possible that no one would acknowledge them during a school day. This scenario actually happened to my daughter when she was in the 7th grade, and I became determined from that point forward that it would not happen to any of my students. How did I do it? Greeting at the door as they enter is a nice option, but not always possible (especially as a science teacher preparing labs, lessons, manipulatives, etc.) every day. As I walked around the room, I would quietly say things like “I like your handwriting…Those are great notes…Great job…Is that a new pen?” Anyway, I hope you get the point: touching base with each child is entirely possible within each class period.

2. Play Music

Teachers can control the environment each day with music. When I had an active lab where I wanted students to get involved, I played upbeat music as they entered. Classical music always provided a quieter entry and students were more subdued. During activities, you could try country, rock, new age, rap (be careful of lyrics!) or popular music. Sometimes, we would create songs or poems using new vocabulary from our upcoming science lessons. My Sing Along Science songs ( all were written out of necessity to teach a topic and emphasize vocabulary that would be remembered using familiar music. Often, the song became a way to start or end an activity. Music shouldn’t be played all class period, but it can become an integral part to your teaching. Later, students will remember your lessons when they hear the songs that you played in class.

3. Start With A Positive Message

All too often, teachers begin class by admonishing students, telling them to take out homework, or to quiet down. This introduces adrenaline, and is not conducive for learning. Instead, in an effective learning environment, teachers should heap them with praise for quieting down quickly (even if they didn’t, SOME students can be acknowledged for coming in quietly, opening their notebook, having their materials). Tell them how excited you are for them to learn their lesson today. Turn to each other and say “You are the BEST!” Tell a story the leads into learning today’s lesson. Or, start with a quick game that introduces the lesson. I used a scramble-the-letters game often, using a vocabulary word or introducing a strange animal or plant. This often leads to a discussion, which you can artfully steer into today’s lesson. All of these strategies introduce serotonin and dopamine to the environment, and the students are learning without realizing it!


You may not think that these things are important, but young minds retain most of their information in the amygdala, a part of the brain that controls emotion. If they LOVE your class, they may retain your lessons for life! I call this emotional learning, and it is what I strive for in every lesson. I’ve been teaching for 40 years and many of my former students tell me about specific lessons and songs they remember from decades ago!

Once the lesson begins, use humor, music, movement, visualizations, and many other teaching strategies to your teaching. In our next issue, we’ll explore 20 teaching strategies that should be part of every teacher’s instruction. See for free resources and more information about brain-based learning and service learning.

Want to see more? Here’s a video from the National Teacher Hall of Fame about my teaching and its effect on my students:

Written by

Warren Phillips has taught science for 35 years for the Plymouth Public Schools in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Currently, Phillips travels around the country doing keynote speeches and teacher professional development for Developing Minds,inc., Blue Ribbon Schools Of Excellence, etc. He is a contributing writer for the Prentice-Hall Science Explorer series and has written curriculum for Northeastern University’s Project SEED and the Plymouth Public Schools science curriculum. He’s also been a certified teacher for the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS). He received an Earthwatch fellowship to study elephant behavior at Tsavo East National Park in Kenya. Phillips has a B.A. in Earth Sciences, an M.A.T. in Teaching Physical Sciences and an M. ED. in Instructional Technology from Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, Mass. He is the co-author of Science Worksheets Don’t Grow Dendrites, a Corwin bestseller.

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