My Struggle as a Second Grader: How I Learned to Notice

I now ask children to help me by being “world class noticers; by taking note of and collecting the wisdom that lies around them.”
                                                                            —Angela Meiers, educator and author

Paul at age 6 1/2.

Paul at age 6 1/2.

My fingers shook and my eyes ached as I tried to print the letters of the alphabet and stay on the line, as the other kids were doing so successfully.

As she walked around the classroom, my second grade teacher, Miss Murphy, would make quiet comments about each student’s work. “Stephen is making beautiful, round o’s. I like how Sylvia is holding her pencil. What perfect, even, neat circles Nathan is making for his o’s.” Miss Murphy never commented on my work, though, and I knew that this was because my o’s were never round enough, no matter how hard I tried.

I felt bewildered during writing lessons. Everything went so fast; I couldn’t seem to slow time down enough to master and control the pencil. When I tried to coordinate my eyes with my hand movements, I would often get stomachaches and double vision.

I wondered how the other children moved so quickly. They made it look so easy! What was wrong with my o’s? My work just didn’t come out the way I wanted it to. In my mind’s eye, I could see the o’s as smooth and round; yet, on the page, each one I drew came out jerky and uneven.

Observing My Own Experience
I tried to shut out much of what I experienced in school, for it didn’t seem of any use. My wooden desk, too big for me, was uncomfortably hard and awkward to sit in. I felt lost in it, my feet barely able to touch the floor. Things and people in the room felt far away, and I longed to move and use my muscles. My stomach often hurt, and the most I could hope for was that no one would notice me.

As a left-hander in a right-hander’s world, I always felt that I was swimming against the tide. In my inner listening, I could sense Miss Murphy and the other children moving together in a rhythm all their own—one that was foreign to me. I felt myself falling behind, and tried to move more rapidly to keep up.

I still hold vividly in my memory that long-ago struggle with the pencil. As that particular second-grade lesson transpired, I suddenly began to notice myself and my anxious situation with the detachment of a kindly observer. This was a pivotal, living-dream memory that I sensed would stay with me, like a jewel in a treasure chest, for the rest of my life. Although I still felt alone and helpless in my awareness, this moment was a gift.

As each new lesson took place, I now began to experience my situation and notice the whole scene taking place before me. This ability to self-observe was my prefrontal cortex—the brain’s center of self-awareness—in action.

The brain’s prefrontal cortex holds the essence of our humanness and is an integral part of every learning experience. When we can witness our behavior and evaluate it, we can act on it and change it. Otherwise, we keep repeating the same behavior ad infinitum and never learn. These frontal lobes of the cerebrum develop simultaneously with the rest of the brain as we grow through childhood, through our teenage years, and on into adulthood. As we learn to sense, move, feel, and think for ourselves, thanks to the prefrontal cortex we’re able to notice and code our experience of these various functions.

I couldn’t know, back in Miss Murphy’s class, what I know now—that, when I picked up the pencil, I was focusing too hard on that one fragmented piece, unable to sense or feel the whole spatial context of my body and hand motions, unable to stop and think. I was still in a stressed state—withdrawing and contracting as if I were trying to become invisible in the room.

I was experiencing common stress responses: Dizziness, muscular tension, breath holding, increased heart rate, a sense of accelerated time, and, as the pupils of my eyes dilated, an inability to access peripheral vision.

As my tension increased, I remember tightening my grip on the pencil. I was seeing more and more of what stressed me—the pencil moving on the page—and experiencing less and less of myself. Everything seemed reduced to a fast moment—one with which I could never catch up. I repeatedly felt the sense of something rushing toward me—the teacher; noisy, pushy classmates; or a test—yet I could never work quickly enough to feel ready for what was coming. Years would pass before it occurred to me that I could never, ever go fast enough to get ready for learning, and that what I really needed was to slow down. My attention was too much on time and not enough on space.

Until that first moment of self-aware noticing, I had felt completely overwhelmed and unable to follow what was going on in classroom. Soon after my new experience of self-reflection, I began to examine my abilities, plan my own learning steps, and take responsibility for teaching myself. And this was only the beginning: within the next three years I would discover how to connect this noticing with my sensory processes. For instance, such things as the movement of my hands and my tactile experience as I formed letters would eventually help me with my handwriting, and there were innumerable other instances of such useful new connections.


Paul Dennison, author, movement educator, and authority on reading instruction.

Paul Dennison, author, movement educator, and authority on reading instruction.

Author’s note: Some forty years later, in the early 1990s, I developed the four-step PACE process that students in more than 80 countries use today to help them notice, experience their spatial awareness, and feel ready to learn.

Excerpted from Brain Gym® and Me: Reclaiming the Pleasure of Learning, © 2006 by Paul E. Dennison.

© 2014 by Paul E. Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Brain Gym® International/the Educational Kinesiology Foundation. Click here for the name of an instructor near you.

Choosing Best-Case Scenarios in Uncertain Times

Paul Life happens: a disagreement, an illness or loss, a frustrating email, a rise in prices. Such challenging events happen to everyone.

Times of major change or transition can seem especially daunting, and even endless. Like everyone, I would prefer to feel safe and secure and to keep my life the same as it was when all seemed well and easy. And, as a senior in today’s fast-paced technological age, I find myself in a world that sometimes moves too quickly. Nowadays it seems I’m looking for information when few answers are comforting and there are always still more questions.

As a movement educator, I know how to connect with my positive thoughts. When I’m feeling frightened, frustrated, or angry, I’m also aware that my human brain has the capacity to be a worst-case thought machine. Sometimes I need to remind myself to notice when the words and feelings coming up for me are very old and all too familiar—not even based in my current day-to-day reality.

Why am I thinking such thoughts? Why am I so ready to defend, run away, or simply ignore it all? This isn’t me. Oh yes, it is! I realize from my experience with these issues that it works best if I don’t attach to these feelings or attempt to control them. Rather I allow myself to see them as part of a clearing of things from the past, and give myself as much loving kindness as possible. I find that the less I resist, the quicker and smoother the transition will be.

I best remember this by doing the Hook-ups exercise, which I have shared with parents, educators, and students in more than 20 countries during the last 40 years. I find that doing Hook-ups for myself is a good way to shift my state of mind, in a minute or so, from one of stress, tension, or anxiety to one of calm and ease.

Here’s how to do Hook-ups, Part 1: Sitting or standing, cross your ankles. Extend your arms in front of you and cross one wrist over the other; then interlace your fingers and draw your clasped hands up toward your chest. Breathe, holding your tongue against the roof of your mouth as you inhale deeply, releasing your tongue as you exhale.

At this point in the Hook-ups process, I often notice that my shoulders, which might have been taking on a raised posture of defense, are now relaxing down. My hands are resting over my heart, allowing my breathing to deepen and expand into the back of my rib cage. I can breathe and let go of my concerns as I rest my arms and legs and settle into my body’s relaxed center, experiencing a feeling that all is well.

I imagine that my brain reads my body language and says to itself: I must be calm and safe or else Paul would be holding his breath and reflexively using his arms and legs to fight, push away, or run. Instead, I am tending to and befriending myself: resting and restoring in my inner spaciousness. I sigh, my muscles relax, the stream of words subsides. I appreciate the calm equanimity of a resilient physiology that keeps providing for me even during challenging times.

Here’s how to do Hook-Ups, Part II: Placing your feet flat on the floor, untwine your arms and put your fingertips together. While I’m enjoying the profound relaxation of Hook-ups, I can trust my inner guidance to help me create best-case scenarios. In this place of conscious awareness, I can visualize and imagine the best outcomes for my life. I notice the old thoughts slowly fading away as I see new possibilities before me. I’m often then inspired to take action or to do something I might never before have thought about doing.

Many of my best ideas and insights for work, family, and play—those that have filled my heart and brain with light, peace, and gratitude for all my life’s blessings—have occurred during a minute or two spent doing Hook-ups. I owe much to this simple activity and the space it provides me for positive growth, allowing me to feel surrounded by love and support even during times of the most uncertainty.


***For more information about Hook-ups as well as the other Brain Gym activities, see Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Paul and Gail Dennison, © 2010.

Hooks-ups and other Brain Gym® activities are taught in Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Life, and other Edu-K courses.

© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved. 

Brain Gym® is a trademark of the Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym® International. Click here for the name of an instructor in your area.



Cramming, or Relaxed Test Taking? Succeeding at the College Level, a third-year college student, summarized his recent private session with me in this way: “I’m thinking about the midterm now without having a knot in my stomach. I can see that it’s only a test—no problem. I know the material in a new way.”

According to the American Dream 2.0* report, 46 percent of college students fail to graduate within six years. Many of these are gifted individuals with much to offer society, yet apparently the stress of competing in an academic environment with tedious reading assignments, driving demands for term papers, and the need to cram for comprehensive exams can be so overwhelming that it breaks the spirit of many.

Tyler was referred to me by his college advisor, who had suggested that a Brain Gym® session might help him get back on track with his academic program. On the phone, Tyler said he had been an all “A” student who consistently did well in his reading and test scores throughout high school and his first college years. Adept at using his iPad and computer, and a fast typist, he had recently hit an impasse and was rereading his nightly assignments two or three times in order to understand and remember the material.

When Tyler arrived for his session, he explained that in the last few weeks he had felt tense and often unable to sleep at night. Before exams, he needed to stay up all night rereading his books and cramming, yet when an exam was in front of him he often couldn’t think what to write: “It’s like my brain shuts off and I can’t think or remember.”

Tyler’s goal for the session was to enjoy his studies and remember what he learned, especially during tests. I asked him to read aloud from one of his history textbooks. He read the words without thinking, and then was unable to tell me in his own words about what he’d read.

I used Edu-K’s 5-Steps to Easy Learning, including seven in-depth assessments, to help Tyler become aware of key aspects of his sensorimotor intelligence. Surprisingly, he was able to cross the midline, which is usually the challenge for readers who word call without thinking. The mechanics of information processing were easy for Tyler. Clearly he had integrated the physical skills for reading, yet he was still finding challenges in meeting the demands of the academic world.

Next I asked Tyler to think of his examinations. He immediately held his breath, and then said he was breaking out in a cold sweat.

“Tyler,” I said, “I can see that you’re bright and capable. Is it possible that the stress at school is getting to you to the point of shutting down your senses and your ability to physically participate?” Tyler agreed that this was a concern for him, and that he had lately become fearful about his memory and his health.

I responded: “Do you get that when your stress level goes up, your ability to think goes out?” I explained that when we’re anxious, often we can’t think and remember because the sympathetic nervous system is preparing us physiologically for a life-threatening danger, like a grizzly bear. We have no time to reflect on the situation or analyze it. We must be ready to either fight for our life or run away. Only when we’ve restored the ability to logically process our circumstances can we let go of the negative stress that we no longer need, coming back to a state of body/mind integration that lets us play, laugh, relate to others, and experience the pleasure inherent in our work.

After he did several Brain Gym activities, the big “aha” came for Tyler when I asked him to think of a test again while holding his Positive Points with his fingertips. The Positive Points are two places on the forehead, above the center of each eye and midway between the hairline and eyebrows. Behind these points are the prefrontal poles, the foremost points of the prefrontal cortex—locus of the executive functions of planning, choice making, and intentional social behavior.

According to John Ratey, MD, and neuroscientist Elkhonon Goldberg, when the prefrontal cortex is engaged, it helps to regulate the fight-or-flight hyperarousal response.** Holding the Positive Points for a minute or two increases the vascular pulsations (which are palpable) in this area.

After his Positive Points process, Tyler laughed and said that he felt like he was back in his body.

“What happens now when you think of the test?” I asked. Tyler responded, “It’s no big deal. When I did the Positive Points, I could feel my thoughts getting organized in a more cohesive way.”

As Tyler read for a second time, he was anticipating where the text was leading, and afterward his summary showed good comprehension. He commented that he could also now feel the movement of his body, which he had somehow not been doing for a long time (sensation often diminishes during a long-term stress response).

For homeplay, I taught Tyler two more activities from the Brain Gym 26***—Hook-ups and Balance Buttons—that he agreed he could use in calming himself back in the classroom. The Hook-ups activity helps one to slow down and breathe while experiencing the comforting containment of crossed arms and ankles. Balance Buttons help to release tense neck muscles and reestablish the balance of the head over the torso, and so allow one to feel safe moving in space without losing stability.

“Wow. I’m going to do Hook-ups, Balance Buttons, and the Positive Points every day before I study, and especially before exams,” Tyler declared. “Now I can study without freaking out. Maybe I’ll enjoy learning at the same time. That would be awesome!”


* “The American Dream 2.0” report of January 2013 was created by a coalition of educators and leaders and sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. For more information:

**Ratey, John, with Eric Hagerman, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008, p.159; Goldberg, Elkhonon, The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a Complex World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 119.

***For more information about the Positive Points, Hook-ups and Balance Buttons, as well as the other Brain Gym activities, see Brain Gym®: Teacher’s Edition by Paul and Gail Dennison, © 2010. To see a photo of the Positive Points and description of how to do the activity, click here.

The photo is © Anniwalz |, used with permission.

© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym® International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.


Playing “the School Game”

Paul_HonfleurI met Jack, 16 and a high school junior, in October of last year. when he was feeling ready to give up on school and quit. On the phone, his father told me that Jack hated school, was falling down in his attendance, and was struggling just to get passing grades.

Later that week, Jack walked into my office with his dad, shoulders slumped and looking discouraged. After the introductions, I talked with Jack about what he liked and didn’t like about school. He said that he didn’t do well because he was afraid of his teachers and didn’t think they liked him. I asked Jack what he would do if he didn’t have to go to school every day. His eyes lit up as he promptly said he would work for his uncle, building houses, and he smiled when I suggested that school is just a game we play so we can graduate, get a diploma, and eventually, as adults, do the work that we enjoy doing.

Jack said that it was his dream to design houses like the ones his uncle built. We came up with a goal for him to trust himself to succeed in his own way.  So, for his pre-activity, I suggested that he draw a house as he imagined it. His three-dimensional perspective was amazing. “Wow, I see you really could be an architect!” I said, adding, “I’m sure you realize that school tests measure information retrieval, not drawing ability or imagination. When you get to graduate school, your gifts in this area will be recognized. Right now, I want to help you discover how to stop trying so hard, let go of your anxiousness, and just do your best to hang in there and play the school game.”

I explained that, when we’re afraid and feeling down, we are more likely to move in compensatory ways—even taking on postures that don’t help us to feel good or support our best learning abilities. Moving in new ways, I said, can shift how we feel and learn. Together we did some Brain Gym® activities: PACE, Lazy 8s, the Double Doodle, and the Lengthening Activities. After the balance, Jack’s growing self-esteem was evident in his improved physical alignment and focused vision as he now laughed and made eye contact.

A few months later, Jack came for a follow-up session. He had been doing his PACE activities every day, as well as the Footflex, to help him stay on track with his goal. He was now doing better in his classes, felt more comfortable with his teachers, and said that it helped him to remember the reward that “the school game” would offer him after he graduated.

As an educator who stays current on the research in neuroscience, I know that students are able to learn better when they can self-calm and be at peace within their environment the way Jack learned to do. Being in such harmony means feeling safe—feeling that we belong, that we have a place in life and are valued.

Unfortunately, the focus on standardized requirements has pulled many public schools away from whole-child teaching and learning. Fear of the negative results of measurement and evaluation has too often changed the school environment from a place of engaging mentors and stimulating learning activities to one of burdensome homework and anxiety about test performance. Less time is spent on interactive art, music, and outdoor activities that honor a diversity of learner skills and interests.

The Brain Gym® program, when offered for even a few minutes a day, has been found to help students let go of stress and fear, move purposefully toward their goals, and attend to the joy of learning that is the natural focus of every child.


To discover more about Paul’s approach to teaching, see Brain Gym® and Me: Reclaiming the Pleasure of Learning, by Paul E. Dennison, © 2006.

Note: Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D., the director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development and the author of 15 books including Neurodiversity in the Classroom:  Strength-Based Strategies to Help Students with Special Needs Succeed in School and Life, argues that there is no ‘normal’ brain or ‘normal’ mental capability, and that it’s a disservice to learners to assume that their differences involve only deficits. Armstrong instead describes learners in terms of their diverse gifts and intelligence, which he refers to as neurodiversity. 

© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym® is a trademark of Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym® International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.

Freedom in Learning: The Gifts of a Child-Centered Education

Paul I first became interested in multi-modality education in the 1960s while teaching at the Malabar School in East Los Angeles. I quickly realized that, for my third grade students for whom English was a second language, movement and the senses provided a universal language, a communication that crossed cultural and social differences, as well as differences in abilities.

In the 1970s I was introduced to Montessori education, and my experience of Montessori learning has continued to be one of the most influential elements of my work. Dr. Maria Montessori recognized that children have an innate intelligence, as well as specific needs at each stage of their development. She saw that they are natural learners, becoming bored when the learning doesn’t address their developmental needs or, worse, when they’re robbed of the joy of self-discovery.

I sought to find a way that, by including short breaks for some easy-to-do activities, such child-honoring, intrinsically rewarding experiences could be called upon in the traditional classroom setting. The way that I found to do this, a methodology on which I base my Edu-K workshops, can be simplified into a few key intentions:

1. Connect with learners’ needs and gifts of the moment, as they can best express them.

Goal setting, with a few minutes of sharing needs and values within a group, boosts the motivation for everyone (even if not everyone shares). The teacher might engage directly with a learner to support her individual goal, or might connect with him within the larger group; in either case, I find that incentive, learning, and creativity are commensurate with such self-expression.

2. Teach learners to notice their own stress and sensorimotor experience as the measurement of their needs and learning; offer simple activities (such as the Brain Gym 26) that learners can choose from as they feel so called.

Learners, whether individually or in groups, can quickly discover how to self-monitor their levels of tension and physical, emotional, and sensory ease and address their challenges of the moment, by either sitting, standing up by their desk, or stepping over to a workstation to do an activity. For example, they can notice when they feel stressed and then use an activity like the Cross Crawl to relax whole-body tension, Lazy 8s to relax their eyes, or Hook-ups to quiet or clarify thoughts or feelings. As learners become self-calming and able to cultivate appropriate social behavior, they’re not disruptive when moving about freely in a classroom.

3. Allow for group discussion, cooperation, and interaction to anchor new learning and support learners in transferring the learning to new areas.

When talking, conferring, and discussion is encouraged, learning shifts from competition to playful collaboration: the emphasis goes from comparing, shaming, flattering, belittling or praising, based on a hierarchy of skills, to connection, with an emphasis on unique interests, contributions, doing one’s personal best, and collective celebration of both group and individual wins. It shifts from external rewards and punishments to the resolving of conflicts through peaceful and independent means; children often begin mentoring and supporting one another.

4. Support learners in achieving a level of self-teaching and having the freedom to choose their own projects. Over time, they can reclaim the ability to initiate their own behavior, just as they once did in infancy and early childhood. Self-organization can extend to caring about the classroom environment.

Learning is a search for structure; discontinuity is a search for growth. People feel empowered by a sense of structure, order, and routine. Once they experience the joy of monitoring their own learning at a base level, they naturally want to challenge themselves at new levels. There’s less need for busy work, distractions, or entertainment, less need for worksheets, star charts, progress charts, or work and job lists. There is then more space for the teacher to nurture the learner’s abilities, and less need to increase the workload. Learners naturally want to help maintain such a space of ease and safety. When they can move with less strain and tension, they become more interested in helping out. As the joy and ease of the learner-centered classroom takes precedence, everyone naturally participates in maintaining their own elements of the ordered learning environment, and there’s less need for the teacher to require and uphold social order.

I find that by adding these few elements, a classroom environment can expand from one of passive students who think school is only about rote learning—about taking in and mechanically reproducing information—to one of active, hands-on participants whose school experience is about seeking ways to explore and innovate.

In my role as the teacher, I can then put my attention on how to best interact with each person to draw out their gifts. I can more readily be kind, patient, and heart-based by understanding teaching and learning as a collaborative venture. Δ


These guidelines of effective classroom management are included in Edu-K’s Five Principles and Five Steps, as described in the basic course manual Brain Gym 101: Balance for Daily Life.

Note: During the last century, educational theorists John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Maria Montessori, and others have reported on the benefits of experiential, hands-on, student-centered (as distinct from subject-centered) education. Psychologist Carl Rogers, in his many books, including Freedom to Learn, described the value of this approach in the classroom. More recently, educators Howard Gardner and Thomas Armstrong have written about the need young learners have for learning through everyday life experiences. 

To discover more about Paul’s approach to teaching, see Brain Gym and Me: Reclaiming the Pleasure of Learning, by Paul E. Dennison, © 2006.

© 2013 by Paul Dennison. All rights reserved.

Brain Gym®  is a trademark of Educational Kinesiology Foundation/Brain Gym International. Click here for the name of an instructor in you area.

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