If no student is lazy, then what are those students who aren’t prepared for class, don’t complete their assignments, and haven’t used their abilities to their fullest extent? What is the cause of those lazy-like behaviors that drive every teacher crazy? The answer lies in the brain.
It is well-known that the brain doesn’t reach full maturity until about the age of 25, and that the last part of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex. If this part of the brain has yet to reach maturation, then the functions it is responsible for or contributes to won’t be available to the individual. But, it does not mean that those functions won’t be available later on when they do develop. This fact is important when considering our students.
The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that distinguishes us from other primates. It is responsible for many complex tasks: focusing attention and noticing changes; monitoring and anticipating consequences and stimuli; setting, planning, and monitoring tasks; initiating and sustaining activity; and regulating emotions. Any of this sound familiar? All of these are tasks that a successful student does, but that “lazy” students struggle with.
I have two personal examples to share since I was considered to be one of those lazy students who consistently underperformed and did not rise to my ability.
I started studying German as a freshman in high school and continued all the way through university. Frau Shope, my high school German teacher, would have us bring a picture once a week and explain it to the class. It was a great exercise for developing vocabulary and fluency. I don’t think I brought a single picture to class. I would get to school; one of my friends would ask about it; and I would quickly make a drawing to stumble through.
It wasn’t because I didn’t want to do it. It was because I didn’t remember it when I got home. Literally. It was a regular weekly assignment, and I never remembered it. Not once. Every week it was the same thing… another drawing from Jon. And every week, Frau Shope had the same comment, We will expect better next week, her voice dripping with condemnation and echoing with hollow conviction. We both knew full well, there wouldn’t be anything better. I felt like a schmuck.
Often we recommend homework planners for students like me. Write it down so you can look at it at home, we tell them. By writing it down, you’re more likely to remember it, we continue. Remember to check your planner when you get home, we call to the student cheerfully as he or she leaves school for the day.
By the time I got home from school, I could barely remember anything that had happened at school that day much less any homework assignment. If I had a homework planner, I wouldn’t remember to check it; it would remain in my book bag forgotten, unused, and unopened until I got to school the next day.
Do you have any homework? my mother would ask. I would think for a minute, and nothing would come to mind. I couldn’t remember anything that had happened in class. I couldn’t remember the topic of the lessons. I couldn’t remember what had been said, the section of the textbook we were studying. Nothing. Why not?
Mostly, it was because there were no environmental cues at home to spark my memories of school. School and home were very different. The appearance, the sounds, the smells, the emotions, all were very very different. Without the environmental cues of the school and classroom, I couldn’t recall much of anything. But, as soon as I walked into the classroom, though, I would remember the assignment that I hadn’t done at home.
How did Frau Shope and other teachers describe me? Lazy, apathetic, indifferent, sleepy. What did they think would help? Punishment. Shame. Embarrassment. Humiliation. Contempt. Did any of those strategies help? No. Those reactions just increased my anxiety, which made it more difficult to form memories. They just caused homework to be associated with anxiety and made it more difficult to both remember and complete homework.
I knew something was wrong, but instead of seeking help to resolve it, I just tried to cover it up. Hide it. Feared it. I developed an anxiety of forgetting. With every forgotten task, I felt like a failure. Every time one of my forgotten tasks was exposed, I knew I was a failure.
I’m better now as an adult, but it is still a struggle to remember the things that I have to do. I’m always surprised at how quickly the screen can become blank. I’ve developed some techniques that help me, but all of them take awareness that this is something I’ll likely forget before taking steps to ensure that I won’t.
I inherited low self-esteem and a tendency towards anxiety. My environment reinforced my poor self perception, deepened my already low self-esteem, and heightened my anxiety. I was awash in anxiety and had to swim upstream against its almost overwhelming current. The harder I swam; the more anxiety I produced; the worse I felt.
The other incident was geometry. I took geometry (Euclidean for all of you nerdy-types out there who know what that is) between my freshman and sophomore year in high school in an attempt to graduate a year early and escape the cesspool of anxiety that I was floundering in. Be that as it may, the course was just a confusing mess of lines and angles and protractors. It made absolutely no sense to me no matter how hard I worked at it.
During graduate school, I worked at a residential treatment center for adolescents. The residents would transition out of the treatment center when they reached 18 and their parent’s insurance coverage was terminated, so we provided one-on-one support in the community as they got established. I was following one of these kids, and he was taking a Euclidean geometry course in university. Why any university was offering a geometry course then, I don’t know, but his was, and he was struggling with it. So, I had a look in an attempt to help him.
What had changed? Euclidean geometry hadn’t changed substantially in a millennia much less in the decade that I struggled with it. My brain had changed. What had my high school geometry teacher (and my university calculus teachers) think of me? I was lazy, apathetic, indifferent, sleepy. But, I wasn’t. I was struggling with the functions that my as yet undeveloped prefrontal cortex was supposed to help me with. Until my brain developed fully, I didn’t have the neurological real estate necessary to think abstractly enough to understand Euclidean geometry, remember my assignments, or initiate and sustain work on my assignments.
High school students that appear to be lazy, aren’t lazy. It doesn’t help to punish them. It doesn’t help to up the stakes and threaten them with failure now and forever more. These students are struggling with prefrontal cortex issues that often resolve themselves through maturation. And, if you realize this, then your goal is to ensure that negative associations with school, assignments, and accomplishing tasks are not produced. Your goal is to support them to produce the best work that they can. And, trust that when they get into university, their performance will improve.
It really is all about the development of the prefrontal cortex, and its relationship with the rest of the brain. The brain is a complicated organ with 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections between neurons. With such complexity, it is easy for things to go wrong. When things go wrong in the wiring of the prefrontal cortex and its connections to the rest of the brain, then these students can need even more help.