A Neuroscience-Based Health Curriculum to Promote Academic Success
Co-Principal Investigator: Wilkie Wilson
Purpose: Although many states mandate health education courses in schools, existing health curricula often lack a strong theoretical grounding in successful health behavioral change models, limiting their potential for improving students' health behaviors and overall academic functioning. Furthermore, adolescents could benefit greatly from learning about the role of the brain in healthy lifestyle choices and the basic neuroscience of motivation and learning, topics that could be integrated easily into existing high school health curricula. In this project, research on adolescent brain development and functioning will be integrated into an existing ninth-grade health curriculum, the North Carolina Healthful Living course. The new neuroscience-based health course will use pedagogical principles based on social cognitive theory and theories of intelligence to promote the development of a growth mindset in students (i.e., the belief that brain function, or intelligence, can be improved with practice and effort) and eventual adoption of healthy lifestyle practices to enhance success in school. The specific objectives of this new health curriculum are to: a) increase students' understanding of brain function; b) facilitate students' understanding of lifestyle changes that maximize brain function, such as proper sleep, nutrition, and exercise; c) provide interactive learning experiences to demonstrate the benefits of positive health behaviors linked to academic, athletic, and life success; and d) increase students' self-regulation skills and sense of self-efficacy, thereby contributing in the long-term to academic achievement.
Project Activities: The research team will first work with content experts, curriculum developers, teachers, students, and parents to develop a brain-based health curriculum that meets mandated National Health Education Standards to replace the existing Healthful Living ninth-grade curriculum currently required in North Carolina. The new curriculum will then be pilot tested with teachers and their students to determine feasibility and inform further modifications to the course. In the final year, a larger pilot test will be conducted in which teachers are randomly assigned to implement the new brain-based health curriculum or to continue to implement the existing Healthful Living curriculum to determine the promise of the new course for increasing targeted student outcomes.
Products: The products will include a fully developed, standards-based health education curriculum in ninth grade that integrates information about adolescent brain development and functioning. These pedagogical principles are informed by social cognitive theory and growth versus fixed mindsets. Preliminary evidence of the impact of the curriculum on students' health behaviors, self-regulation skills, sense of self-efficacy, and academic achievement will also be collected. Peer reviewed publications will also be produced.
Setting: The research will take place in two large public school districts in North Carolina.
Sample: Approximately 750 ninth-grade students will participate in this three-year development project. This includes approximately 600 students who will participate in the pilot test during Year 3. In addition, approximately 38 teachers and over 700 parents will participate by providing feedback on the development of the health curriculum. Twelve of those teachers will participate in the pilot test in Year 3.
Intervention: The proposed intervention builds upon the current, state-mandated Healthful Living course being taught in North Carolina at the ninth-grade level. The current course consists of 45 class sessions equally distributed across five content units: (1) mental and emotional health; (2) personal and consumer health; (3) interpersonal communications and relationships; (4) nutrition and physical activity; and (5) alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. This is a year-long course offered in a regular or block schedule, with half of the instruction covering the standards listed above and the other half dedicated to physical education. The new neuroscience-based course will be designed for the block schedule and to meet all state and national health education requirements to facilitate implementation with minimal effort by the participating schools. The new curriculum will build on the existing lessons in the five content units by integrating explicit instruction about adolescent brain development and functioning and concepts from social cognitive theory such as observational learning, reinforcement, self-control, and self-efficacy to enhance the course's potential to promote actual health behavior changes (e.g., better nutrition and sleep) in students, thereby supporting their success in school over time.
Research Design and Methods: In Year 1, the research team will develop a prototype of the neuroscience-based health curriculum through an iterative process of review with content experts and focus groups of teachers, students, and parents. In Year 2, fidelity measures will be developed as the prototype is tested for feasibility with approximately six teachers and their students. Weekly student surveys and biweekly coaching sessions with teachers will provide feedback on this preliminary version of the curriculum to make revisions for the full pilot test in Year 3. The full pilot test will include 2 teachers in each of six schools (12 teachers in total) randomly assigned to implement the new neuroscience-based health curriculum or to continue to implement the existing health curriculum.
Control Condition: The teachers in the control group will deliver the Healthful Living curriculum for ninth-grade currently in use in the North Carolina school districts.
Key Measures: Measures of proximal outcomes include: (1) a researcher-developed assessment of knowledge of brain structure and function; (2) the Theory of Brain Abilities and Effort Beliefs Measure to assess a growth mindset (3) the Children's Multidimensional Self-Efficacy Scales; (4) the Regulatory Focus Questionnaire; and (5) the Adolescent Risk and Health Behavior Survey. Distal outcomes will be assessed using the North Carolina Education Research Data Center that includes scores on end-of-course tests.
Data Analytic Strategy: Focus groups will be audiotaped, transcribed, and analyzed to identify themes. Multilevel modeling will be used to analyze the pilot data to determine potential impact of the intervention on proximal and distal outcomes.