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The developing brain and behaviour

Research

Combining different disciplines, Leiden University researchers work together to formulate innovative solutions to societal problems. Below is an example from the field of fundamental sciences.

Overview research dossiers

Smarter learning for better opportunities

The more opportunities a child has to learn and develop, the stronger his or her future position in society. Leiden University investigates how the brain picks up information, and how learning processes can be influenced positively.

From birth onwards your brain acts as the ‘engine’ behind your behaviour and your ability to learn. Diverse complex processes in the brain determine among other things how you process information and solve problems, your concentration, and how you position yourself in relation to others. Behaviour and the ability to learn are in turn greatly influenced by how children and adults develop, and ultimately determine their position in society.
The more we know about how our brain works, the more insight we gain into learning abilities and behaviour. These insights can be used to help people develop from a young age onwards.


Diverse perspectives
Researchers investigate human learning processes within the context of social and behavioural sciences. They study all phases of life, but their research focuses primarily on children and young adults. This research encompasses a wide range of perspectives. For example, much attention is devoted to the physiology of learning: how does our brain process information? And how do brain processes translate to how children and young adults behave?
But our researchers do not focus solely on children’s learning; they also devote attention the people who have to provide the teaching materials, namely teachers and schools. How can they best achieve their objective?
Research on the development of the learning child brain is also important for other reasons: the more a child learns and develops, the better he or she will be able to reach well-informed decisions, and the better professionals can involve him or her in decision-making. The legal position of children should be brought more in line with their abilities. Legal experts investigate in what circumstances  children should be consulted  on medical decisions, and how they can best be heard in decisions concerning them.


Research at home and in the classroom
Leiden University research operates at the heart of society. Not only are children and adults invited to take part in studies at the University’s various laboratories, but researchers are often to be found ‘in the field’: in people’s homes, or in classrooms. With the insights they gain, they offer children and adults opportunities to learn and develop more effectively. This provides them with an important basis for a strong position in society.


Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences
Leiden University Graduate School of Teaching (ICLON)
Faculty of Law

The adolescent brain

Fundamental insights into the working of the adolescent brain help lecturers and parents to teach adolescents to function better. Professor Eveline Crone studies executive functions – such as planning and behaviour – in the adolescent brain.


From rebellion to lack of interest: the behaviour of adolescents often causes their parents and teachers concern, and their learning performance sometimes suffers greatly. Much of this behaviour can be explained thanks to detailed brain research. Eveline Crone and her research group look at the so-called executive functions (such as planning and behaviour), which are expressed in the prefrontal cortex. Crone: ‘We believe that these functions are crucial in learning, sometimes even more important than the ability to remember something. These functions form your toolbox for problem-solving. What we’ve discovered is that these functions take a fairly long time to develop. But the length of the process differs per function. Your working memory, for example, which helps you remember assignments, continues to develop until the age of 20. Your ability to inhibit behaviour in time already develops in early childhood.’


Adolescents can learn from negative feedback
Crone found out a lot about executive functions in the adolescent brain, and about how adolescents react to specific input. One of her most surprising discoveries is the fact that from adolescence onwards, the brain can learn from negative feedback. In this context, positive versus negative means that a specific method for solving a problem worked, while another method didn’t. Crone: ‘Young children learn primarily from positive feedback, they tend to remember what went well. As they grow up, they increasingly learn by testing hypotheses and checking what works best in 

completing a task. This insight is now frequently used in the field of education.’ Crone guided this study as PhD supervisor to her colleague Sabine Peters. Crone’s colleague Berna Güroğlu is now moving even deeper into research on feedback. She wants to know whether adolescents learn better from a good friend, a ‘neutral’ person, or someone they don’t like. The results of this study have a very practical application for schools: it can help teachers create optimal groups in situations where students are expected to learn from one another.

Young children learn best from positive feedback, but adolescents can also learn from negative feedback, such as an experiment that didn’t work out. They have a greater capacity for learning through investigation.

Young children learn best from positive feedback, but adolescents can also learn from negative feedback, such as an experiment that didn’t work out. They have a greater capacity for learning through investigation.


You can train your working memory but not your creativity
Crone also discovered that cognitive training is very effective with adolescents: after six weeks of training, the adolescents’ working memory clearly improved. Training is less effective for other processes, such as creativity. ‘We asked our subjects to find unusual uses for objects, such as a brick or a bicycle pump. We discovered that adolescents can complete this task, but their ability to do so doesn’t improve with training. It seems that creativity is something you have to have a predisposition for.’


Finding the best moment to learn
In 2017 Eveline Crone was awarded the Spinoza Prize, the highest scientific award for the Netherlands, to proceed with her work. She was awarded €2.5 million for research, which she can spend as she sees fit. ‘In the coming months we want for example to look at the timing of interventions for teaching children specific skills, such as learning a language.

 

We know from experience that young children can learn a language very quickly. Now the question is: are there specific periods when the brain is particularly receptive to training working memory or learning to plan? This knowledge can in turn have implications for school systems and their timing in offering children certain lesson materials.’ Crone also wants to further investigate the role of social background in learning: do adolescents with a difficult background mature more quickly, or does their background on the contrary slow them down in their learning?

Gaining insight into the period when a child is most receptive to certain learning materials, means that school systems can be improved.

Gaining insight into the period when a child is most receptive to certain learning materials, means that school systems can be improved.

Braintime is a large-scale and unique research project led by Eveline Crone, in which the brain development of nearly 300 adolescents was studied over a long period of time (from 2011 to 2015). The study focuses on learning, risk-taking behaviour and forming of friendships.


Brain and Development Research Centre
Spinoza Prize winner Crone wants to investigate impact of social media
Spinoza laureate Eveline Crone (NWO)

Better reading comprehension

How can we help children and adults to acquire better reading comprehension? Paul van den Broek and his colleagues at the Brain and Education Lab are searching for an answer to this question by investigating reading and the related brain activity.


Reading is a very complex process
The ability to read well is an essential condition for learning. Approximately ten to fifteen percent of the Dutch population have problems with reading comprehension, i.e. problems understanding the content of a text. This is why Professor Paul van den Broek studies the relationship between reading comprehension and our brain: what happens in the human brain when we read a text? And once we manage to map these processes, how can we help people acquire better reading comprehension?

 

‘After years of research, we’ve reached the conclusion that we still understand very little of what happens in the brain when we read,’ says Van den Broek. ‘Each phase in reading activates a different part of the brain, that much we know. So there is not a single area - or even a few areas - where reading “happens”. This is why we try to first understand separate components of the process, to ultimately bring them all together.’

More than one out of ten Dutch people has problems with reading comprehension.

More than one out of ten Dutch people has problems with reading comprehension.


Different kinds of problems with reading comprehension
Van den Broek is head of the Leiden Brain and Education Lab. In the Lab’s studies, children and adults are asked to read text excerpts while their eye movements and brain activity are being measured. Bit by bit Van den Broek is coming to understand more about how reading comprehension works. ‘We have by now been able to distinguish between different groups of children, each with their own problems. Firstly there is a group that when asked to understand the meaning of a text focuses on a couple of very specific sentences. Instead of looking at the entire text, they get stuck on a small part. A second group does look further than a few specific sentences, but unfortunately focuses on sentences that are not particularly relevant to understanding the text.’

‘A third group of weak readers try to understand sentences by linking them to their own experience. This is in principle a good strategy – it’s also what good readers do – but they use the wrong associations. For example, if you read a text about how the gear on a bicycle works, a person who reads well might think: that reminds me of my uncle’s boat, which also has a wheel to move the boat along. A less useful association would be: “My uncle also has lots of bicycles.” The first association helps you understand the meaning of the text, which is about how a gear works. The second one doesn’t.’

Over the next few years Van den Broek and his colleagues hope to investigate and compare the brain activity of these specific groups. And to map these, together with other forms of reading behaviour.


Applications in schools

The lab’s researchers are in ongoing contact with schools in the Netherlands and abroad, to apply their newly discovered ‘pieces of the puzzle’ in education. They, for instance, train people to work in schools with children from the above-mentioned groups and to apply interventions. ‘We see that these interventions work. We asked different children to read a short text, and discovered that the children who were offered an intervention understand the text better than those who didn’t. We’re now investigating whether the children who are offered an intervention learn from it and are later better able to understand other texts.’

In this study, school pupils are asked to read a text in pairs. The children who are offered an intervention ask each other specific questions. This question-and-answer dialogue turns out to improve reading comprehension.

In this study, school pupils are asked to read a text in pairs. The children who are offered an intervention ask each other specific questions. This question-and-answer dialogue turns out to improve reading comprehension.

More efficient learning thanks to sleep

Young children, adolescents and students may experience learning difficulties as a result of lack of sleep. Dr Kristiaan van der Heijden investigates sleep problems and solutions for various age groups.


Sleep plays a central role in human life; we sleep in total an average of 26 years. During sleep, all kinds of important processes take place in the brain, including repairing damaged cells, eliminating waste and processing information in memory. Ten percent of the Dutch population suffer from sleep problems, and researchers have identified more than 80 different sleep disorders. Kristiaan van der Heijden investigates disruptions in the biological clock, and their consequences for children and adults, one of which is a reduced ability to learn. Below are a few important discoveries regarding sleep, by age group:


From 6 to 12
Together with other researchers, Van der Heijden discovered that when children aged 6 to 12 don’t sleep enough they primarily experience problems with planning, behaviour, and multi-tasking. ‘It’s interesting: unlike adults, sleep deficit in children of this age seems to have no effect on memory and learning ability. It’s unclear why this is the case. Maybe children need that ability to learn so much that their brain processes information equally well during the day.’

Van der Heijden also discovered that children aged 10 to 12 perform less well in the early morning. ‘They perform less well on complex tasks at 8.30 a.m. than an hour and a half later. These children also performed better at 1 p.m. than at 8.30 a.m. Incidentally, performance may also be related to children’s temperament, as is apparent from one of his other studies. ‘We looked at the relationship between sleep duration and how well children were able to complete tests. For introverted children in particular, it turned out that long periods of sleep were detrimental; when they slept too long they performed less well on tasks.’

A possible explanation for this finding is that these children have a high alertness and anxiety level. ‘Sleeping a lot further increases your sensitivity to environmental stimuli. Children with a high level of alertness are already sensitive to environmental stimuli, and a long night may ‘double’ this effect. They become even more alert, and therefore unable to focus on completing a task.’


Adolescents
Many parents will recognise the problem of the adolescent who has trouble getting out of bed in the morning. ‘In adolescence the bio-rhythm shifts by one hour, 

as a result of hormonal changes,’ explains Van der Heijden. ‘This shift is problematic for social reasons, because even though adolescents are becoming more night owls, they’re still expected to get up early for school. The biological clock can be shifted using light stimuli. If you have trouble waking up in the morning, it helps to use a bright light with a blue spectrum in the morning.’ An additional tip from Van der Heijden: don’t let adolescents sleep in too long after a night out with friends. 'This shifts the biological clock even further, and it’s difficult to shift it “back”.’

Adolescents can’t help enjoying sleeping in; it’s their hormones.

Adolescents can’t help enjoying sleeping in; it’s their hormones.


Students: performance suffers from poor sleep hygiene
Van der Heijden has shown that students who sleep less well get poorer grades. This is due among other things to the fact that students are often unaware of healthy and unhealthy sleeping habits. ‘One of the most important misunderstandings is that it’s good to exercise shortly before going to sleep. Exercise is great during the day, but if you do it shortly before going to sleep it will keep your system awake and alert. If you do it on a regular basis, you will shift your biological clock and have trouble waking up in the morning.’
Van der Heijden also investigates sleep problems in babies and older people. In the coming months he will be focusing more on the relationship between sleep disorders and children with psychological disorders such as ADHD.

Gaming at school

How well children learn depends to a large extent on good teachers and effective learning materials. Wilfried Admiraal investigates such issues as gaming as a modern learning tool. He concludes that this tool has little to offer less talented students.


Technological tools and learning
Wilfried Admiraal, Professor in Education and Child Studies, investigates among other things how technology can help students and children learn better. He has devoted a number of research studies to the didactic effect of gaming for secondary school students. For example, the mobile game ‘Frequency 1550’, which sends school students with smartphones into Amsterdam. While walking through the mediaeval centre, students learn about the city’s history. Admiraal compared the effect of such games with that of ‘regular’ lessons, where the same material is offered in a classroom by a teacher.

He concludes that as a teaching method, gaming is a mixed blessing. ‘The didactic effect of gaming is greater for well performing pupils,’ he explains.
 

'This is due to the game element and the competitive element. But for less high-performing students – and it is precisely this group that would most benefit from new learning methods – no such advantage was observed. These students benefit more from conventional teaching methods, with a teacher who offers them structure. The ‘free’ structure of a computer game gives them too little grip.’ The same conclusion can be drawn for other technological tools, such as computer games to practise maths sums.

Not all students benefit from learning via gaming. Source: Waag Society 2007

Not all students benefit from learning via gaming. Source: Waag Society 2007


Letting teachers to learn from teachers
With his research Admiraal also wants to support teachers in secondary education to be as effective as possible. He is currently investigating the problems surrounding the concept of the Professional Learning Community (PLC), a hot topic in the education sector. This concept presupposes that teachers working at the same school can learn a lot from each other’s knowledge and experience. ‘This not only improves the quality of teaching, it also makes for better professionals,’ says Admiraal. He is also the director of ICLON – the Leiden University centre for didactic research and teacher training – which guides schools in creating PLCs and helping them function.

Many schools struggle with how to create and maintain PLCs, as is apparent from the research of PhD student Loes de Jong and Admiraal’s own research, conducted in collaboration with the Kohnstamm Institute. The structure of schools and the of education limits the opportunities for teachers to join forces. ‘Teachers simply have too few hours to make this possible. Most of their time is spent teaching and there is too little time left to meet with colleagues or to sit in on each other’s lessons. That’s a pity, since this kind of peer review is an essential component of a PLC. And even when teachers do manage to make a first appointment, the initiative usually petres out within six months as a result of time pressure.’

A second obstacle to forming PLCs is that teachers often have little faith in sharing knowledge with colleagues. ‘Many teachers feel the need for knowledge from outside. It’s all between the ears. At ICLON we’re often asked to give a lecture on a specific topic or for one of our experts to come by. If we tell people: you are a group and you are experts for one another, after a while things it still doesn’t go well.’ Admiraal thinks the solution may lie in the academies now increasingly being formed by schools, where teachers teach their own colleagues in order to improve each other’s professional skills. ‘If schools keep it up, they may come to understand how much in-house knowledge they already have.’


Leiden University Graduate School of Teaching (ICLON)

The rights of the developing child

As children learn, develop and acquire more skills, their legal position also changes. Professor of Children’s Rights Ton Liefaard works closely together with Leiden social sciences researchers to shed light on these growing capacities and their implications for our legal system. ‘Our ideas about children’s rights are still very inconsistent.’


As children grow, learn and develop, so does their ability to assess situations and take decisions. According to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by nearly every country in the world, this changes children’s legal position in relation to their parents, 

doctors, and others. In practice, this principle still leaves many questions unanswered. For example, a recent court case in Alkmaar centred on whether a twelve-year-old boy should be allowed to decide whether to undergo chemotherapy. The boy didn’t want to, but this would have greatly diminished his chances of survival. His father took legal action to force his son to undergo treatment. ‘In the Alkmaar case the judge ruled that we cannot ignore a child’s ability to make decisions, even if his decision inconveniences others. In my opinion, this is also the crux of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child.'

How much say should children have in their medical treatment?

How much say should children have in their medical treatment?


Improving children’s legal position
Ton Liefaard and his research group investigate among other things the strength of children’s legal position in various countries; to what extent are their rights recognised and implemented in practice? Liefaard: ‘For example, we recently presented a report to the European Council on the legal position of children in biomedical decisions. We observed great differences across Europe, for instance in the legal recognition of transgender and intersex children. Countries also have very different ideas about the extent to which children should be allowed to decide on medication and medical treatment.’

In the report, researchers offer leads for recognising transgender and intersex children as a group, or guidelines to help states support medical professionals. The report is intended to help shape the European Council’s agenda in the years to come.


Participation
Legal position is not the only issue. Countries often struggle with the question of  to what extent and how children can be given a say in current legal procedures. ‘Our ideas around these topics are highly inconsistent. For example, in the Netherlands we believe children’s rights are important, but as soon as a child might be involved in an ethical decision with important consequences – for instance medical treatment – we suddenly have qualms. And also on a ‘smaller’ scale, you can have your doubts about our legal principles. For example, according to Dutch law, in case of a divorce, children aged 12 and older are heard by the judge. However, it’s unclear why the legislation uses this particular cut-off point. Furthermore, the question is how the rights of children are protected in daily reality. For example, children have the right to be heard in decisions involving youth assistance and child protection, but how is this given form in practice? With our research we want to challenge current legal practice and check that our assumptions are correct. ‘We also use our research on children’s rights to train legal professionals and social workers, for example in the context of juvenile justice. Our recent training programme, developed at European level, proved to be a great success,’ says Liefaard. ‘It’s already been followed by around a thousand people from 11 different countries, and it’s been translated into a number of languages.’


Collaboration with social sciences
One of the important underlying questions in research on children’s rights concerns the extent to which children are able to make their own decisions and effectively take part in procedures and decision-making. ‘We often underestimate children’s abilities,’ Liefaard says, ‘hich is why the research of people like Eveline Crone is so important. Thanks to her research and that of her colleagues at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences and our researchers at the Faculty of Law, we can gain better insight into children’s development and capacities.’


Institute of Private Law, department Child Law
More about Ton Liefaard’s research
UN Convention on the Rights of Children (in Dutch)
Report Ton Liefaard for the European Council
Training ‘Can Anyone Hear Me? – Child-friendly justice

 

Experts

  • Eveline Crone
  • Michiel Westenberg
  • Berna Güroğlu
  • Sabine Peters
  • Hanna Swaab
  • Paul van den Broek
  • Kristiaan van der Heijden
  • Christine Espin
  • Maartje Raijmakers
  • Marga Sikkema-de Jong
  • Wilfried Admiraal
  • Jacobiene Meirink
  • Nadira Saab
  • Sophie van Rijn
  • Dietsje Jolles
  • Judi Mesman
  • Mariëlle Bruning
  • Stephanie Rap
  • Ton Liefaard

Eveline CroneProfessor of Neurocognitive Developmental Psychology

Topics: Adolescence, brain development, cognitive neuroscience, social development

+31 (0)71 527 3681

Michiel WestenbergProfessor of Development Psychology

+31 (0)71 527 3628

Berna GüroğluAssociate Professor

Topics: Adolescent, brain, developmental neuroscience, peer relations, social decision making

+31 (0)71 527 1825

Sabine PetersUniversity lecturer

Topics: Adolescence, alcohol, brain development, depression, learning

+31 (0)71 527 1844

Hanna SwaabDean / Professor of Neurocognitive Development and Developmental Disorders

Topics: ADHD, autism, behavioral problems, cognitive development, developmental disorders, ODD/CD, social development

+31 (0)71 527 4003

Paul van den BroekProfessor of Cognitive and Neuro-biological Settings of Learning and Teaching

Topics: Cognitive development, discourse processes, literacy, reading, reading comprehension, reading interventions, reading strategies, text comprehension

+31 (0)71 527 3391

Kristiaan van der HeijdenDirector of Studies / Associate Professor

Topics: Adhd, aggression, behavioral problems, biological clock, child psychopathology, circadian rhythm, executive function, light therapy, melatonin treatment, neuropsychology, self regulation, sleep

+31 (0)71 527 6628

Christine EspinProfessor of Learning Problems and Specialised Interventions in Education

Topics: Curriculum based measurement, progress monitoring, reading comprehension, secondary-school students, special education

+31 (0)71 527 6630

Maartje RaijmakersAssociate Professor

Topics: Brain development, cognitive development, creativity, learning processes, numeracy

+31 (0)71 527 3436

Marga Sikkema-de JongAssistant Professor

Topics: Attention disorder, emergent literacy, language development, reading comprehension, storybook reading

+31 (0)71 527 3881

Wilfried AdmiraalDirector / Professor of Educational Sciences

Topics: Secondary education, teacher learning, teaching

+31 (0)71 527 6081

Jacobiene MeirinkAssistant Professor

Topics: Secondary education, teacher professional development, teaching

+31 (0)71 527 6568

Nadira SaabAssistant Professor

Topics: Collaborative learning, formative assessment, secondary education, teaching

+31 (0)71 527 5726

Sophie van RijnAssociate Professor

Topics: Autism, brain and behaviour, cognitive development, eyetracking, klinefelter syndrome, psychophysiology, social development, trisomy x, trixy

+31 (0)71 527 1846

Dietsje JollesAssistant Professor

Topics: Brain connectivity, brain development, cognitive development, mathematical skills, numeracy

+31 (0)71 527 6683

Judi MesmanDean LUC/ Professor of Diversity in Parenting and Development

Topics: Diversity, parenting, child studies

+31 (0)71 527 3482

Mariëlle BruningProfessor of Children and the Law

Topics: Child abuse, child law, child protection, children's rights in The Netherlands, juvenile justice

+31 (0)71 527 8913

Stephanie RapResearcher/Lecturer

Topics: Adolescent development, child participation, children's rights, juvenile justice, qualitative research, teen court

+31 (0)71 527 3625

Ton LiefaardProfessor of Children's Rights

Topics: Children in detention, children's rights, juvenile justice, participation of children, violence against children

+31 (0)71 527 6109

Education

Focus on practice

Whether discussing the learning abilities of children or adolescents, or investigating what makes for good education, Leiden University master’s students are always closely involved in ongoing research projects. They accompany researchers to the lab, to families or to the classroom. This practical experience is incredibly valuable, no matter what work the students end up doing. It goes without saying that researchers also integrate their newest insights on learning processes in their teaching.

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