From the Principal
From the Principal 2019– Term 1, Week 4
This year, we have made changes to our offerings for students out of the Jabiru Café on Primary and the Grevillea Café on Secondary. I consider this to be part of playing a part in helping our young people have healthy habits, and it is something which I spoke to them about in assembly in Week 3.
Each morning between approximately 7:30 and 8:30 am, we have over 1100 students arrive at the College ready to learn. I am always pleased to see the smiles that they arrive wearing, and, in many cases, their keenness and pleasure at the opportunities which are ahead of them.
By 8:45, all of those children are engaged in learning activities of some sort.
At a recent assembly, I spoke with the students about this and about how ready they are to learn as they arrive. It is obvious to me that they are physically at school. Clearly, they are dressed in uniform and beautifully presented. They are carrying their bags, and have the resources and equipment they will need to learn …
But the real question is, how ready are their brains to engage in effective learning?
This issue of brain optimisation for learning is something that psychologists and doctors have debated for years. And, greeting our students as they arrive and sit down in class, myself and the teachers cannot know from the outside how ready their brains are.
There is common agreement about the four elements of brain readiness for learning, and these are dependent on factors which occur often before they arrive at school. In Secondary assembly, to prove the point and to test their brain optimisation for learning on a typical Tuesday morning, I asked each of the students to stand as I listed the four elements of brain readiness and for them to sit down if they had not met that element on that day. The results of this imprecise experiment were very interesting. For the sake of simplicity and with Year 11 on Camp, let’s say that there were 400 people in my experiment.
The first and most crucial element of brain readiness for young people is good sleep, with experts agreeing that, especially in the teenage years, young people need a minimum of 8 hours sleep if their brain is to be optimised for learning the following morning.
Sleep for young people is an often misunderstood notion, with their desire to sleep late often interpreted as laziness or anti-social behaviour. However, in actual fact, a young person’s need to sleep in the morning is due to a biological function, whereby their brains are releasing melatonin – the chemical that causes sleepiness – later in the evening than it is released in young children or in adults. In short, instead of feeling tired in the evening as adults do, teenagers, in the absence of melatonin secretion, are alert and wakeful. Melatonin is released in their brains later at night, and they are therefore still suffering with the effects of it in their system when the rest of the household are waking up the next day.
This is not to say that young people should just sleep all day. Clearly, studies show that there are routines which can be established at home to encourage a young person’s brain to secrete melatonin earlier. Key to this are going to bed at a similar time each night, arguments are presented that reading before bed can assist, and, crucially, that the total absence of screen time – phones, devices and televisions – in the hours before bed is vital, as those screens send alerting messages to the brain which do not assist with restfulness and which trick the brain into thinking it is not time to secrete melatonin.
So, Brain Readiness Element 1: 8 hours sleep. I was feeling a little generous in assembly however, and so for our experiment I called it 7 hours. When asked about this, about one third of the students on Secondary sat down to indicate that they had not had 7 hours sleep.
Let’s call it 240 left standing.
Research has been conducted into the importance of exercise in the morning, with many convinced by the benefits it can have on brain readiness. In particular, the work of Gregory Ferenstein is interesting in the clear demonstration that as little as 30 seconds high intensity work out – as little as one sprint, or running up and down the stairs in the house, even a very quick walk for the dog – can significantly improve brain function. In Ferenstein’s experiment, those people who undertook only 30 seconds of this type of exercise in the morning saw a 12% improvement in cognitive testing results later that day.
I spoke to the assembly about this – we had swimmers, dancers, runners and other types of exercises present, and of course the College attempts to assist in this by providing a number of co-curricular options before school, including creative arts and sports practice, but also Fitness Club to name but a few.
Brain Readiness Element 2: Exercise. I asked the students to decide whether or not they had done enough exercise that morning, of any form, to ‘elevate their heart rate until they were out of breath’, and only a small number of those still standing sat down. Clearly, exercise is something that they are in the habit of doing in the morning and I congratulated them on this.
Let’s call it 180 still standing.
Simply, brain cells require a delicate balance between water and various elements to operate. Made up of 80% water, the human brain requires hydrating to maintain that balance. When we don’t do so, our brain cells lose their efficiency.
Research is clear in results that show that when a person is dehydrated, they have difficulty in maintaining attention and focus, and that dehydration can impair short-term memory function and the recall of long-term memory.
Naturally, over the course of a typical day, the longest spell young people go without water intake is the hours they spend sleeping and so it is increasingly crucial to have water and to hydrate when they wake up.
In assembly, I was careful to point out the difference between hydrating and drinking. A drink of coffee or tea for example does have a mild hydrating effect, but it is not nearly as beneficial as drinking water.
Brain Readiness Element 3: Hydration. I asked the students to sit down if they had not had a glass of water, and this proved to be decisive with more than half of those standing having to take a seat.
Let’s call it 80 left standing.
The real purpose of my experiment was to get to this point for the students, to help them understand the ways in which what they eat in the morning is impacting on the way their brain works.
I explained to the students that the effectiveness of their brain was dependent on them putting certain things into their stomachs, and avoiding putting other things in.
For example, and as I explained, research is very clear on the importance of protein and complex carbohydrates in the morning diet of young people – with these things aiding memory, concentration and the slow and regular release of energy. To this end, eggs, dairy such a yoghurt and milk, oats, wholemeal bread and unsugared cereal are excellent meals to have at the start of the day. Of those things to avoid, sugar, saturated fat, salt and caffeine are the worst offenders as these have been demonstrated to create peaks and troughs of energy release, seriously inhibiting a person’s ability to concentrate, and, leaching the brain of other much needed vitamins and minerals.
As our nutritionist consultant Molly put it, ‘Nutritious wholesome foods are vital for children’s development and learning right from kindergarten through to their senior schooling. Research shows that children who consume a nutritious low GI breakfast are more attentive, less fidgety and recall more information in the classroom than when they don’t.’
Brain Readiness Element 4: Nutrition. I asked those students who had eaten protein rich foods and who had avoided excessive fat, sugar, caffeine and salt to remain standing and was very happy to see the outcome.
Let’s call it 50 left standing, all of whom had fulfilled the four elements of successfully optimising the brain for that day.
As you would expect, I encouraged the 350 or so who had not to try and make some changes to their habits over the coming weeks, so that we could see them at their very best.
I know that as parents you will be doing all you can to support your children in having a positive start to the day. To assist and support you in that and after consulting with Molly Goode – Accredited Practising Dietitian, Accredited Nutritionist, Nutrition Scientist and Public Health Nutritionist with Healthy Lifestyles Australia, we have made changes to the menus of our two cafes to ensure that we are only selling food stuffs which will aid their brain function and not detract from it.
As a result, on the menu before morning tea are some of the foods that aid brain function, such as yoghurt, fruit and unsweetened cereal. Before morning tea, students will also no longer be allowed to buy drinks which contain caffeine, or which are high in sugar. Replacing them are fruit and dairy based smoothies, and fruit juices. Of course, water remains an option.
In general, before and after morning tea, we have also made a concerted effort to ensure that our entire menu is more healthy. Being slowly phased out are some of those items traditionally sold in the Grevillea Cafe such as burgers, garlic bread, pies and sausage rolls. In their place, are a series of homemade menu choices which are rich in the good ingredients such as salads, sandwiches made with wholemeal bread and wholemeal pasta serves.
On Primary, in the Jabiru Café, the students are enjoying ‘hidden vegetable’ menu items such as Homemade Lasagne and Homemade Spaghetti Bolognese, whereby our chefs have grated and hidden zucchini and carrot into items such as Homemade Burger Patties so that we can be sure they are eating well, even if the children don’t know that they are.
Myself and the College staff are committed to seeing your child perform at his or her best, and I hope you will agree with me that these changes are in their best interests.
I am grateful for the work of Jackie McComb, Business Manager, and our Café staff Sarah Scott, Chloe Ditchburn, Katharine Taylor, Vanessa Jordanovich, Raewyn Tynan and Belinda Anderson for their help in developing menus and delivering such excellent food for our students.