Deserving of a gold star: Actress and local neurologist collaborate on innovative project for children


Two amazing women, each with completely different talents and skills, have teamed up to teach students about their brains so they can lead smarter and happier lives.

One is actress Goldie Hawn, the other is Dr. Judy Willis, who had a successful practice in Santa Barbara as a neurologist for 15 years and then decided to become an elementary and middle school teacher in Santa Barbara schools to implement her strategies for more effective learning.

Ms. Hawn had started the Hawn Foundation "to equip children with the social and emotional skills they need to lead smarter, healthier and happier lives. We need to rethink our approach to classroom education, integrating neuroscience with the latest social and emotional learning techniques." "Someone sent Goldie an article that I had written titled 'The Neuroscience of Joyful Living.' said Dr. Willis during an interview in the Santa Barbara foothills home she shares with her husband, Dr. Paul Willis, also a neurologist and former colleague before his wife made the dramatic career move to teaching. That began my work consulting on the Hawn Foundation Board of Directors.

It was more than 10 years ago, while she was still a neurologist, that Dr. Willis, the mother of two adult daughters, had her epiphany about the way children learn.” I began to see a definite increase in referrals in the late 1990s of children for ADD (attention-deficit disorder), OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and oppositional defiant syndrome," she said. "Teachers were telling parents, 'I think your child might have a neurologic problem.' I had a big jump in referrals — from five a month to 25 a month."

She decided to observe classrooms in elementary schools and found students "staring straight ahead or causing distractions. I saw how many kids could be perceived as having neurological problems. They weren't interested because they were being force-fed that teachers were mandated to teach due to newly implemented high financial stake testing. Material was being crammed through really fast. There was no time for enjoyment."

As a neurologist who dealt with all aspects of the brain, Dr. Willis said she knew strategies that children could use to make them learn faster, retain the information, and have fun in the process. But the only way she could tell if her methods worked was to become a teacher herself, so in 1998, she gave up her medical practice and went on to earn a master's degree in education and a teaching credential at UCSB.

According to Dr. Willis, when the brain is stressed, the "emotional switching station sends information to the lower brain and three things happen — fight, flight or freeze. This is true in people and animals. In the classroom, students who are staring are in the freeze mode, those who are bothering others are in the fight phase and those who are entertaining themselves are in the flight mode.” When there is no stress, the emotional filter allows information to get to the thinking part of the brain, so students don't have to act out," she said.

After her stint at McKinley School, Dr. Willis continued to use her strategies with fifth-graders for three years at Laguna Blanca School in Hope Ranch. "It was very successful, but my husband encouraged me to try a new challenge and apply my strategies to middle school students, so I decided to teach math at Santa Barbara Middle School, an age group undergoing many changes. And the subject they hate most is math, especially the girls," she said with a smile. "I taught with seventh-grade math, and sometimes the response was 'I hate life, I hate math and I hate you.' "

Within a short time, their attitude began to change, and the five years she taught there from 2004 to 2009, she said, were very successful, inspiring her to write the book "Learning to Love Math: Strategies That Change Student Attitudes and Get Results" (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, $24.95).

As she began to write articles in professional publications about her successful methods, the word spread, and Dr. Willis was invited to speak at conferences and seminars around the country and world. Dr. Judy Willis, local neurologist/teacher, has written several books to teach parents, educators and students strategies for more effective learning by showing them how the brain works.

Among her strategies are guiding students in activities that help them focus and achieve positive moods to prime themselves for learning. "We practice techniques to increase focus and emotional control. For example, students learn to do visualizations, deliberately recalling a place where they felt happy, calm and safe," said Dr. Willis. "Students discover that when I guided them to visualize historic events, to picture vocabulary words with images that depict their meaning, or to see math procedures acted out in their mind's eye with 'dancing numbers,' they could better recall history, vocabulary or math lessons."

She also has students do relaxation breathing before a test or challenging lesson.
"They reported that they feel calmer, more alert and more focused — and they did understand and remember more," Dr. Willis said.

Traveling to eight different countries in one year plus trips in the United States became too difficult to juggle with her classroom schedule. Reluctantly, she gave up her teaching position last year.

"I miss teaching, but I am thrilled to teach educators at all levels how information flows to the brain and what they can do to make this happen optimally. It is not a mystery," she said.

Explaining how the brain works is especially important for students who believe that they are not smart and that nothing they can do can change that, Dr. Willis believes.

"Many children, and even some parents and teachers, think that intelligence is determined genetically and that even intense effort will not budge their academic abilities," she said. "The realization that they can literally change their brains by improving how they approach learning and how they study is liberating. Genius is not in your genes. Environment is huge."

Dr. Willis’ life has become a whirlwind of travel to spread the message around the world. Before the end of the year, she will be presenting in Dubai, Geneva, Jakarta, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Vancouver and Alberta as well as throughout the United States.

"I want every teacher in every school around the world to know enough about how the brain works and to share it with their students," she said, adding she wants parents to understand, too, which is why she is writing her latest book "A Brain Owner's Manual for Your Child," due to be published in 2011.

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