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.

Reading the Road

thoughtful seniorSoon after watching me work with her daughter Julie, 24, to help overcome Julie’s qualms about getting her driver’s license, Geri brought her husband, Gary, to see me.

Gary, 67, had experienced a health crisis last year that left him minimally disabled. Having completed physical therapy, he was beginning to drive the family car everywhere. Yet, when he came in to my office, he had failed a special driver’s exam twice due to his freezing up under stress. As sometimes happens with seniors who have been active all their lives and then experience a setback, he had become impatient and discouraged with himself, afraid that he might not regain previous abilities.

As I’d previously explained to Julie, our attention for driving is similar to our attention for reading comprehension, which is more than just focusing on words. Defensive driving requires this global scope of vision, not just near-point focus.

When Geri heard my thinking and saw the difference in Julie’s ability to keep her focus as she drove, she realized that this might be Gary’s issue, just as it had been their daughter’s.

I reminded Gary that driving requires continual reading of ever-changing situations. I pre-checked him on the ability to focus on the details of driving and simultaneously keep his perspective—which he was unable to do. With the goal of driving his car with a DMV examiner present, Gary role-played at steering the car into a right turn out of the DMV parking lot while being aware of the flow of cars coming from the left. In his concentration, he quickly became overfocused on steering, inhibiting his head-turning ability and losing track of himself within the traffic pattern. He experienced a delayed ability to listen, to think, and to plan ahead as to where he was going so that he could blend into the flow of traffic.

I then shared with him the widely accepted model of neural processing of vision, described by researchers Ungerleider and Mishkin as two visual systems working continually together for attentional skills: the what stream concerned with more focal object recognition (a ventral, or occipitotemporal system) and the where stream concerned with more global spatial abilities (a dorsal, or occipitoparietal system). Without both streams working together, one’s depth perception is compromised and it’s hard to hold the “big-picture” or ambient awareness that is the context for anticipating possibilities and, in this case, defensive driving.

An in-depth pre-check for tracking across his visual midline revealed that he was inhibiting ambient information on his left side as he looked to the right, depending for information solely on the focal object-recognition stream on his right side. He wasn’t integrating both fields on the midfield of attention.

I taught Gary the Double Doodle, one of the 26 basic activities of the Brain Gym® program. This activity calls for drawing with both hands at the same time while soft-focusing with the eyes. Gary was delighted to discover that he was able to draw in this way extremely well. The Double Doodle emphasizes combined use of the two hemispheres through the visual system. We then did the Cross Crawl, the Elephant, and the Footflex—three activities that, like the Double Doodle, create focal awareness within a whole-body context.

After doing these activities, Gary was able to hold his focus without losing his ability to “read” the big picture. An in-depth post-check found Gary easily crossing the visual midfield. As he drove his imaginary car, he was relaxed and alert, looking around effortlessly, clearly holding an ambient awareness as he proceeded carefully and mindfully into traffic. He noticed his improvement, and agreed to do the recommended Brain Gym movements with Geri every day.

Yes, Gary called to let me know that on his third driving test, he finally did well, and his new driver’s license has now been issued to him.


The distinctions of what and where, along with their implications for underfocus and overfocus, are taught in Brain Gym® 101: Balance for Daily Life © 2007.

© 2013 by Paul E. 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 your area.

Extrinsic Discipline or Intrinsic Self-Control?

A 12-year-old middle school student I’ll call Aaron had several times been sent to the principal’s office for hitting his classmates and otherwise causing disruptions in his sixth-grade classroom. After repeated warnings, Aaron had been suspended for two weeks. This incident was related to me by  a Brain Gym® Instructor, who learned of the episode shortly after it happened, when she was invited to teach the Brain Gym program in the boy’s classroom.

In each of the hour-long sessions, the instructor led the youngsters through the PACE  activities, ending with Hook-ups. She added a new Brain Gym activity each visit—for reading, handwriting, and other academic skills—and the kids did these while either sitting or standing next to their seats. At the end of each session, she asked the students which activities they liked, and why.

The Brain Gym Instructor said that Aaron at first just sat in his chair passively and observed, refusing to do the activities or to share. She said that she emphasized to the children that they could use the activities, especially Hook-ups, to develop choice-making skills and the ability to stop and think, rather than  losing self-control and being at the effect of their stress or anger.

As the six weeks of sessions went on, Aaron began joining in to do the movements, and eventually started commenting on various activities. During the last session, he said, “I like doing Hook-ups. It helps me stop and think, and I don’t get angry over nothing.” Aaron’s teacher told the Brain Gym Instructor sometime later that, as the school year continued, Aaron went on to become a model young citizen at the school, one who took pride and pleasure in helping others to learn the Brain Gym activities.

Through the years, I’ve heard hundreds of similar reports, from parents and educators alike, and in some cases even from formerly difficult children themselves. One teacher said that the Brain Gym activities had replaced use of the rod at her school. In some juvenile detention centers, Hook-ups has been offered for years as an alternative to “take down.” Many classroom teachers have told me that they use Hook-ups to address discipline problems, freeing them to do the quality teaching for which they entered the profession.

I believe that children are naturally loving and cooperative. It’s been my experience that few people of any age enjoy losing control of their feelings or actions. Most people would rather have self-control and talk things over, instead of lashing out (either physically or verbally) without thinking and then having to deal with the unhappy consequences of their actions.

While it isn’t a subject area in most schools, the nurturing of self-discipline underlies the whole development of a child. What if Aaron had continued being punished by being blamed or shamed in front of his classmates, or even spanked or otherwise physically reprimanded? Would he then have learned self-restraint and how to calm himself? It’s unlikely.

In many public and parochial schools, the practice of hitting students is still seen as an acceptable form of discipline; in many states, it’s actually still legal for teachers and school administrators to paddle children. The latest report by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights showed that in 2006 (the last year data was available) more than 200,000 students received some sort of physical punishment at school. Fashion designer Marc Ecko has initiated a campaign to end school spankings, or, more precisely, corporal punishment. Ecko makes a good point: in all 50 states, it’s illegal to hit a prisoner or an animal, but in 19 states it’s allowable to deny children due process before they go over a teacher’s knee.

For more information, see Ecko’s Unlimited Justice website.

Photo credit: © Greenland |, used with permission.

© 2013 by Paul E. Dennison. All Rights Reserved.

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

Just Do Your Best or “I Thought I Could, I Thought I Could”

LittleEngineFrom my earliest teaching of Edu-K, I have delighted in showing people that they can be effective learners when they don’t try, but simply do their best. Often trying harder simply intensifies the stress learners already feel when they haven’t yet developed a skill. Yet most learners, when doing their personal best, discover their capabilities on their own, once they’re encouraged to explore the physical skills related to the task at hand. In Brain Gym® and Me*, I described it in this way:

“Ultimately, we don’t want to be struggling all the time, but dedicated effort of the right kind is always needed until it’s no longer needed. If you’re learning the piano, you stick to your lessons until you master the instrument so well that you can forget you’re playing the piano and simply enjoy the music. If you’re going to run a marathon, you train hard and follow a schedule so that, on the day of the meet, you can enjoy the bliss of reaching that exquisite state in which you’re effortlessly in the flow.

Life is a continual process of going from low gear to high gear. Low gear is the appropriate state for new experiences, as we consciously and methodically do whatever is necessary to learn them, code them, and follow through on them. It’s the phase in which we climb the mountain with care until mountain climbing is installed in the body. Finally, when we reach the pinnacle of high gear, we enjoy the “I thought I could, I thought I could” experience of The Little Engine That Could as detailed in the well-known 1940s storybook by Watty Piper, that came with a phonograph record; as a child, I played that record so often that I wore it out).

What gave effort a bad name is that, as children, we were expected to try hard for no reason—at least none that we could see or understand. When adults fail to nurture, at home or at school, a child’s intrinsic interest in learning, they are compelled to replace it by external motivators that co-opt the soul in the name of education. This disconnection from our own inner sense of purpose and destiny carries on into adulthood and accounts for the well-known ‘mid-life crisis,’ triggered mainly by the heart’s rising need to have its own frustrated purposes listened to.”


This passage is excerpted is from Brain Gym® and Me: Reclaiming the Pleasure of Learning, by Paul Dennison, © 2006.

© 2013 by Paul E. Dennison. All Rights Reserved.

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


Research Nugget: The Energy Yawn

~ The Energy Yawn ~


Neuroscientist and therapist Mark Waldman, co-author with Andrew Newberg, MD, of How God Changes Your Brain, says that, in culling research on the brain, he found that yawning is one of the top five things we can do to exercise the brain. In fact, yawning about 10 times has been seen to be as effective as doing 10 to 15 minutes of relaxation exercises.

According to the research cited in the book, yawning increases blood flow and oxygen in key areas of the brain. Yawning has been shown to calm an overly active frontal lobe, release busy thoughts, heighten consciousness and relaxation, generate the sensorimotor rhythm or “coherent state” that happens when the mind is both relaxed and alert at the same time, and build intimacy with those around us.

Further, the act of yawning is said to stimulate alertness and concentration; optimize brain activity and metabolism; improve cognitive function; increase memory recall; enhance consciousness, introspection, and athletic skills; lower stress; improve voluntary muscle control; fine-tune one’s sense of time; increase empathy and social awareness; enhance pleasure and sensuality; and relax every part of the body. Who knew?!

So get your yawn on with The Energy Yawn, an activity that we’ve been doing with our students in Edu-K for more than 30 years! Make a yawning sound and begin to open wide (pretend to yawn a few times) as you gently massage or stroke away any tight facial areas near your jaw, just below your cheeks by your back molars. Continue until you induce a few real yawns and tears come to your eyes. Make some long, deep exhalation sounds.

For a lovely story and illustrations of animals doing the Brain Gym activities, check out Into Great Forest: A Brain Gym® Journey, by Shelley Petch.

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