Epigenetic Activity in Adolescents

Teaching Methodology to Assist Brain Development and Modulate the Stress Response



Geoff M. Ayling, Qianhuang International College, No.6 Guang Dian Dong Road, Changzhou City, Jiangsu, 213161, China; email address geoff.ayling@theforrestproject.org

First submitted for publication: 16 June 2008


Epigenetics has advanced to the stage where it is at the epicentre of the field of medicine. Many alterations programmed in the epigenome have been shown to be characteristic of specific diseases. The alterations occur throughout the life cycle of a person and his antecedents. The epigenome is dynamic and depends upon a person’s exposures to epigenetic environmental factors, which include diet, social relationships, experiences, chemical and biological stimulants. Here teaching conditions are described, which were previously hypothesised to epigenetically modulate brain development and the stress response. When trialed with 90 eighteen-year old students, 82 experienced a significant increase in self-esteem and internal locus of control. These changes are known to be associated with functions of the hippocampus which modulate the stress response. The teaching conditions might constitute an intervention for managing the epigenome. They need to be clearly understood to reveal any epigenetic environmental factors involved.

Keywords: Epigenetic, behavioural, adolescent, hippocampus, stress response, developmental disease, education

The newest science, epigenetics, has advanced far beyond a collection of reports of non-Mendelian genetics. The epigenome is now recognised to be a dynamic interface between an individual’s DNA and his environment, whereas the genome constitutes a static foundation of inherited alleles. A version of the epigenome exists for each type of body tissue. It is constantly being reprogrammed in response to exposures to epigenetic environmental factors throughout the developmental life cycle.

The epigenome arises from parental gametes, which contain alterations to gene expressions programmed during the lifetimes of antecedents. Removal of these programs is known to occur during gametogenesis and in the earliest period of zygote life. Yet, there is clear evidence that alterations due to exposure to endocrine-disrupting agents can be transmitted transgenerationally (Skinner 2007a). Intrauterine exposure of the embryo and fetus, as a result of the mother’s diet and habits, is known to result in lifelong alterations to the epigenome, which govern susceptibility to diseases throughout the life cycle (Burdge et al 2007; Dolinoy et al 2007a; Nafee et al 2008; Gicquel et al 2008). Alterations that occur during the neonatal period (Meaney and Szyf 2005; Szyf et al 2007; Weaver 2007), early childhood and primary school age (Waterland 2005, Mustard 2006), during adolescence (Weinberger et al 2005; Ernst and Mueller 2008; Blakemore 2008ab) and in aging (Simons 2007; Fraga and Esteller 2007; Yung and Julius 2008), have also been documented.

The epigenome and its respective alterations may now be identified in different types of tissue. Alterations that are characteristic of particular diseases may be determined during the life cycle. They may be used for both diagnosis and to indicate a person’s susceptibility to diseases (Feinberg 2007; Peedicayil 2007; Dolinoy et al 2007b; Dolinoy and Jirtle 2008). Characterizing alterations in the epigenome has as a result, given considerable encouragement to the search for interventions, both preventative and therapeutic. There is even speculation on the possibility of strategic interventions to reprogram the epigenome and avert certain diseases altogether.

Management of the epigenome now appears to be feasible, upon the identification of epigenetic environmental factors responsible for reprogramming specific alterations. From the outset there has been a priority to elucidate the etiologies of diseases and to identify dietary and other agents, which can reverse the status of an epiallele. From these studies it has been concluded that development of the epigenome is both dynamic and plastic, the result of numerous environmental exposures throughout the life cycle (Dolinoy and Jirtle 2008; Szyf et al 2008). Management of components of a person’s development therefore appears to be an attractive possibility upon appropriate interventions being identified.

An interest also exists in the possibility of assisting programming of the epigenome, to enable a person to progress successfully through each developmental stage of the life cycle. Maintaining normal development could even be speculated to offer a means of averting susceptibility to some diseases. Failure to receive the full complement of environmental exposures during maternal care for example, could render a person susceptible to obesity, diabetes type 2, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, autoimmune dysfunction, neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers (Gluckman et al 2005; Godfrey et al 2007). Likewise, abuse during childhood could result in the brain developing so as to predispose the person to suicide in adult life (McGowan et al 2008).

Unwanted environmental exposures e.g. due to lead particulates in early life, have been shown to be a factor for stress (Cory-Slechta et al 2008) and decades later, for Alzheimer’s disease (Wu et al 2008ab). Exposure to nickel compounds (Zhao et al 2004), pesticides (Perry 2008), diesel exhaust (McClellan 1987), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (Upham et al 1998; Ghoshal et 1999) and other environmental contaminants, have been shown to result in characteristic types of cancers. A wide range of chemical compounds, capable of mimicking or disrupting endocrine functions, have been confirmed as the sources of numerous diseases that are communicated transgenerationally (Skinner 2007ab; Nilsson et al 2008). Management to avert this type of epigenomic programming is urgently needed.

Development of the brain early in the life cycle would appear to present opportunities for intervention (McEwen 2007; Keverne and Curley 2008). The hippocampus and its role in modulating the stress response appears to present one of the most promising avenues. The hippocampus has a primary function concerned with learning and memory. As well, it has been shown through maternal care, to provide a foundation for modulating the stress response (Meaney and Szyf 2005). An association has also been demonstrated between hippocampal functions, self-esteem, internal locus of control and health (Seeman et al 2002; Pressman et al 2005; Steptoe et al 2005). Higher levels of these characteristics correlated with concentrations of cortisol, have been shown to be associated with reduction of the stress response (Kirschbaum et al 1995; Pruessner et al 199920042005), i.e. glucocorticoids circulating in the bloodstream as a result of stress activation of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis (Sapolsky et al 1986).

Self-esteem and internal locus of control are both well known to sport coaches, who are primarily occupied in devising training programs that enable an athlete to modulate the stress response. A formidable array of such techniques has been amassed by athletes to fulfill their aim to produce high-level performances. As well, behavioural scientists have been concerned with means of increasing self-esteem and internal locus of control, which are known to be associated with higher academic achievements of students, the result of learning and memory functions of the hippocampus having been enhanced.

It was shown in 2007 in a trial with 90 students, that self-esteem and internal locus of control were in fact dynamic characteristics, which appeared to be significantly enhanced upon the application of specific teaching conditions, hypothesised to include epigenetic environmental factors (Ayling, 2011). They consisted of experiential and social conditions, the latter devised by behavioural scientists to enhance self-esteem. Self-esteem and internal locus of control have for decades been considered by researchers to be static developmental characteristics.

This finding was important because it illustrated the fact that upon the identification of epigenetic environmental factors, they may in principle be used to induce specific developmental changes. In this case, there was a particular benefit from the advantage offered to students in their education. They had been assisted to attain the development needed to undertake educational studies and successfully compete for places in university degree courses, which could lead to a hope-for career and lifestyle. A whole generation of adolescents could be assisted in this way, with simultaneous benefits for national economies.

The health benefits that also result from this intervention might be used to enable populations to develop normally and at the same time, avert certain diseases. The possibility of remedying the handicaps of insufficient development, must therefore be considered to be of major importance to countries that seek to provide health care for their populations.

This approach to human development could also be of value to multilateral agencies, which seek to assist developing countries by raising the potential for their peoples to gain an education and ultimately break the poverty cycle. A need exists however to confirm the exact nature of these apparently permanent developmental changes experienced by adolescents.

The changes are without doubt epigenetic, but this needs to be demonstrated through:

  • Identification of specific alterations that occur in the epigenome as a result of the enhancement of self-esteem and internal locus of control
  • Measuring changes in structure and functions of the hippocampus and other brain structures, utilising magnetic resonance imaging techniques
  • Monitoring the course of changes in cortisol concentrations associated with stress activation of the HPA axis
  • Standardised techniques for measurement of learning, memory capacity, self-esteem and internal locus of control.


There is at the present time a priority need, to clearly document the teaching conditions and hence, any epigenetic environmental factors involved in the intervention. It is of critical importance to do this, because the environmental factors may be embedded in an interrelated mix of experiential and social factors. This will enable each step in the process to be better understood while replicating in future studies.

The aim of this report is then to describe the teaching methodology used in the trial to enhance self-esteem and internal locus of control in students and thereby, assist brain development and modulation of the stress response.


Summary of Method:

Students with an average age of 18 years, enrolled to study university-entrance subjects, were selected for the eight-month trial. Enhancement of self-esteem and internal locus of control was undertaken according to Shindler’s approach (1998, 2009). The trial was demonstrated through the teaching and learning of physics.

Monitoring of self-esteem and locus of control was based upon estimations by the teacher, using behavioural criteria as shown in Table 1 (Ayling, 2011). Students’ study notebooks and formal testing provided the basis for estimating changes of these characteristics as they occurred in each student.

Shindler’s program of enhancement involved the development in students of behaviours, which were considered to provide a practical means of achieving self-esteem: locus of control, acceptance/belonging and self-efficacy. Shindler emphasised that the role of the teacher was critical to the process.


Control measurements:

For any experimental study of the relationship between a dependent and an independent variable, it is necessary to include control measurements. This will confirm that no result is obtained in the absence of the independent variable. That is, a blank value is obtained in the absence of the critical steps of an experimental procedure. For a fully conclusive result in a trial, double blind or blank values should be obtained.

Where there are numerous factors which can influence the results, the value of a control measurement can however be reduced. For a trial which involves the performance of students many independent variables can be involved. This is a well known problem, when results of a public examination are published for a large number of schools across a state or region. The effectiveness of teachers is a critical factor. The capabilities of students, enrolled by schools that do not use the same selection criteria, can result in widely different examination performances. It is not uncommon for one percent of a total number of schools, with an unchanging student source and teaching staff with proven skills, to record performances each year that are nearly two magnitudes better than the vast majority of schools.

It should be noted that a decision by a school to deny a proportion of students an intervention, which could make a significant difference to their future lives, could invoke a parental response sufficient to put the future of the school in jeopardy.

The differences between schools due to a large number of independent variables are indicated in the graph shown in Figure 1. It shows the numbers of schools in 2004 that presented high-achieving students, who recorded 90 percent or better in the public university-entrance examinations of NSW, Australia (Board of Studies 2005). A small number of schools recorded between 25 and 71 percent of their exam papers marked 90 percent or better. However, the vast majority were unable to produce more than five percent of examination papers written by high-achievers. The NSW Higher School Certificate course, in which students competed to gain entry to universities, appeared in that particular year to have resembled a race between hares and tortoises. That is, the students appeared to have been sourced from a number of populations.

Control measurements involving half of a class treated to an intervention, while the other half received no treatment, would therefore necessitate an attempt to identify other variables and to make all things equal, except for the particular variable being tested. Measurements without such care, involving two individual teachers or split classes of students, could then be of limited or no value.

In Figure 1 a small population of schools was able to present a significant number of high-achievers. A graph such as this could be used as the baseline to indicate the population in which students of a school belonged. If a school participating in a trial produced say 25 percent of students, who performed at the high-achiever level, then the school might be concluded to have had a considerable advantage over the vast majority of schools. It is suggested that such a comparison would be more relevant as a control, than the use of double blind or blank controls.



The program of teaching involved:

  • An experiential component of teaching and learning, assessable coursework and examinations specified by a public education authority
  • An experiential component of private study, taught to students and closely monitored by a teacher
  • A social environmental component, from the field of behavioural science, implemented by the teacher specifically to induce enhanced self-esteem and internal locus of control
  • Monitoring and management of students’ responses and the appearances of developmental changes.


The aim of this program for the teacher was then to simultaneously teach the syllabus devised by the education authority and to enhance the development of students, to enable them to best cope with their educational studies. The program differed from that normally practised by many teachers, in that the students were also taught to study, while undergoing a year of changing developmental attitudes. Many teachers otherwise rely entirely upon presenting a subject syllabus without teaching students how to study. An experienced teacher will often possess skills that lead to students becoming motivated and thereby, opting to study using methods they devise themselves.


Students’ range of development:

At the age of 18 years students who enrol to study subjects needed to pass university-entrance examinations have completed 11 or 12 years of primary and middle school. They are nominally at the end of adolescence. The majority of students will often have progressed well into adolescence and possess an ability to think abstractly. However, a significant proportion will still exhibit the cognitive thinking described by Piaget (193019521960), a characteristic of primary school children, i.e. concrete thinking instead of abstract thinking.

In this program the aim is to enhance adolescent thinking toward that of adults, through building self-esteem and internal locus of control. That is, students are assisted to acquire the level of confidence and motivation, together with the internal desire to take charge of their futures, through willingness to perform the actions which they soon realize will enable them to do this. A child who still experiences concrete thinking will on the other hand, tend to lack the confidence to learn through study. In particular, he will have little or no willingness to decide for himself that he wants to take the steps to study, even though he understands that this will be necessary if he is to pass the examinations for admission to a university degree course.

A teacher should expect to find a number of students in a class at the age of 18 years who exhibit both types of thinking. Numerous studies over many decades have shown the broad populations of various countries contain ~65 percent of people with concrete thinking.

Teaching classes of students at the end of adolescence should then be structured so as to provide for a wide range of developmental capabilities. The 2007 trial however, showed that this developmental range is dynamic, not static. The methodology described enables the teacher to follow the changes exhibited by every student. In the trial, 90 students were comfortably taught, monitored and managed by the teacher.

The effectiveness of the program is indicated by the fact that the trial was undertaken with students studying in their second language, to enable them to compete for places in overseas universities. These were Chinese students at the Qianhuang International College in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province, China, who had learned English as a normal subject in the Chinese national education curriculum. They had undertaken to study English, physics, chemistry, mathematics and higher mathematics as required by an Australian state education authority.

These students were then at a significant disadvantage in competing with western students to gain entry to degree courses in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK and the US. Teaching had then to be undertaken with the language and developmental disadvantages of these students fully considered.


The experiential component specified by a public education authority:

The state education authority provided a syllabus for each subject together with matching textbooks and other study materials, which left no room for guesswork as to what needed to be studied and to what standard. The course included assessments undertaken throughout the year and in a final end-of-year examination. A key component of the coursework assessment was a requirement to test students on each topic studied. In the case of physics there were 16 topics, laboratory practical and other exercises, all of which were assessed with one test every three weeks during the eight month period.

Students were adamant in their desire for testing to consist of a formative test followed by a summative test, with only the latter counting toward the total year assessment. The students were very conscious of the need to manage their levels of confidence and nervousness. The preliminary formative test for each group of topics, taught over a three week period, was intended to alert them to topics for which they were less well prepared. They then had a few days to repair any deficiencies, then sit for the summative test, which counted at the end of the year.

The students gained experience through this system in preparing themselves for examinations. As well, they received immediate feedback on the effectiveness of their study efforts. Throughout the year they were able to learn in this way that they were responsible for the study effort that would eventually decide their futures.

The experiential component of a student’s private study taught by the teacher. Teaching students how to study, monitoring and managing their efforts, proved to be an indispensable experience at each level of development.

Students who commenced the year with a level of development ahead of their classmates, found the tried and proven approach to study enabled them to learn with confidence. They were then able to perfect the study skills they would continue to use during their university degree studies. These students rapidly became confident in their study abilities, which were confirmed by the results of testing. Nearly all showed increasing independence and skills in study as the year progressed.

The majority of students in a class, who constituted the upper and lower middle quartiles, had few skills in study and were prepared to rely on the teacher in everything they did. That is, they were prepared to wait and be told before commencing any task.

Hence, when presented with a program of study which required them to daily:

  • Prepare private study notes, assembled from class notes and material given in the prescribed textbook (and wherever possible an alternative reference book)
  • Practise end-of-chapter physics calculations and conceptual questions
  • Add words to a subject-specific vocabulary


Soon found they had acquired a healthy study habit. These students acquired confidence in their abilities, confirmed by their results in regular testing. Study for many was then an experience for the first time, having in the past always completed homework set by a teacher. These students found the beginnings of a skill many never knew they possessed, i.e. to independently perform a task which they could see would affect their futures.

Students whose thinking processes resulted in bottom-of-the-class test results required a range of management techniques. Characteristically, these students were not prepared to undertake any work unless told by the teacher. If there was any chance of the teacher not noticing, then they would do nothing. Hence, they would sit at the back of the class hoping to be less noticeable. Their writing was in most instances barely legible and scrawled over a page with little effort to put words and calculations on ruled lines.

For this group of students, independently assembling private study notes, practising problems and entering words into a vocabulary, was a completely foreign request. They were most comfortable sitting in class with the teacher looking on while they merely copied information. Hence, many would resort to plagiarizing exercises and study notes from classmates.

The cycle of study experience for each group of students was completed when the teacher called in their private study notebooks, the practise-problems notebooks and the vocabulary books. In this way, the efforts of students with concrete thinking were immediately identified by the teacher, who was then in a position to devise appropriate management initiatives to assist them.

The social environmental component to induce self-esteem and internal locus of control

The following behavioural initiatives implemented by the teacher were initially designed by Shindler to create a learning atmosphere of success. The atmosphere was understood in the field of behavioral science, to establish the necessary conditions, in which students could most likely experience enhancement of their self-esteem. It was hypothesized in the trial however, that this atmosphere would provide for students the epigenetic environmental factors, needed to induce both self-esteem and internal locus of control.

Self-esteem was considered by Shindler to be understood in different ways, each pointing in the same direction. He noted in particular that the feelings of a student had very little to do with self-esteem. It could best be described as a set of unconscious self-beliefs formed over a lifetime. They reflect perceptions of one’s abilities and how cause is understood. This decides events in a person’s life. Such unconscious perceptions are so deeply engrained, that they can only be altered by significant reconditioning of the heart and mind.

Shindler proposed that self-esteem should be defined in terms of a practical meaning, which relied upon a student responding to the three behaviours: internal locus of control, acceptance/belonging and self-efficacy. In addition there was a component that arose from the actions of a teacher, who was in a position to either manufacture or detract from his students’ self-esteem.

Self-esteem is otherwise a well known concept, having been studied over several decades and shown to be directly related to academic performance (Auer 1992; Solley and Stagner 1956; Klein and Keller 1990; Rennie 1991; Lester 1992; Benham 1993). There was therefore very good reason why self-esteem should be encouraged to develop in students, i.e. in addition to its role in modulating the stress response.

Internal locus of control is achieved through promoting a clear understanding of cause and effect within the student. Each individual needs to see for himself, that an achievement for which he is accountable, is directly related to his level of effort. This is in contrast to another orientation that views cause as an external factor, where things ‘happen to us.’ An internal locus of control results from a causal understanding of behaviour and effect. It is learned from freely making choices and taking responsibility for the consequences of those choices. Through responsible action and accountability for those actions, a young person learns within himself to attribute the cause of success or failure.

Internal locus of control has, like self-esteem, been studied over many years. It has as a result been shown by a number of researchers, that internal locus of control correlates with level of academic achievement (Auer 1992; Wang and Stiles 1976; Bar-Tal and Bar-Zohar 1977; Tanksley 1994). It has even been shown to be a more significant indicator of academic performance than intelligence or socioeconomic status (Hagborg 1996).

One of the most effective methods of promoting internal locus of control in a student, is through emphasizing that he has a free choice in applying himself to a clearly defined study process. The method relies upon providing the student with a choice and a consequence. When the student finds that upon having not applied himself, he receives the expected test mark or a teacher’s offer to assist him to overcome his difficulty. On the next occasion he may then prefer to take the alternative choice, which avoids the embarrassment that he knows will result from having made little effort.

It is essential that the student learns to make this choice himself, without coercion or fear. Punishment only delays the day when he will make a choice of his own will. It helps if a nonjudgmental atmosphere is established where there are no excuses. The student needs in this way to learn that any excuse should be to himself. After all, he is the one doing the work for his own benefit, not that of the teacher. Excuses are as a result unnecessary in this learning atmosphere. The student needs to see that his achievement is directly related to his level of effort. He can in this way learn the meaning of accountability.

Problem solving in physics, chemistry or mathematics affords an excellent discipline through which to learn about study effort and consequence. Coupled with regular testing, a student can get into a daily routine as each new study topic is introduced. The tests provide the measure of accountability, particularly if they are known to count toward the end of year final examination result

Acceptance and belonging are fostered among students through the behaviours that are accepted, assessed and managed, together with the attitudes and values that create reality in classes. In an environment where there is emotional support and a minimum of destructive criticism, students can feel empowered to take risks, express themselves and persist in the face of difficulty.

A student who has never studied physics before needs to feel, that despite the difficulties which sometimes occur, there will be help available to show each person the right path to pursue toward success. A student who has for example, been earlier diverted to study the humanities because physics was considered to be beyond his capabilities, will find in a classroom atmosphere of acceptance and belonging, that he can successfully face apparently insurmountable study difficulties. He has in this way been relieved of the negative effects of the stress response.

Without experiencing the acceptance and feeling that one belongs, a student can find it difficult to feel the self-acceptance he needs, which is a foundation for self-esteem. It has been shown that a relationship exists between a sense of acceptance and belonging and self-esteem (Davis and Peck 1992; Katz 1993; Washinawotok 1993).

As well, building a sense of self- and peer-acceptance, together with a sense of classroom belonging, has been shown to promote academic performance (Washinawotok 1993; Dembrowsky 1990; Rhoades and McCabe 1992).

The climate of a classroom can otherwise be one of the most destructive inhibitors of self-esteem. All of the possible interpersonal interactions contribute, i.e. the strong oppress the weak and the popular oppress the unpopular.

A classroom is then an environment that is very much a result of management. Without management it can deteriorate into an atmosphere of hostility, fear and social alienation. Cooperation can be fostered between all members of the class, not just between friends within a clique.

 Sense of self-efficacy is generated from evidence that confirms to a student that he has done something well. When a young person obtains sensory feedback that he has succeeded in a given task or demonstrated a talent, he will be confident in applying that ability in the future.

It is important for a teacher to remember that self-efficacy derives from first-hand evidence, not praise or verbal complements. The exhortation before an event that ‘you can do it’ does not fool a student, who will make his own assessment based upon previous experience.

Self-efficacy has also been described as the degree of expectancy that a particular task can be performed successfully. A student who lacks confidence will as a result view his actions with self-doubts. On the other hand, a confident student possesses subconscious concrete images that support his ability to perform a particular task.

Students who lack confidence, competence or self-efficacy can display a wide range of behaviours, from introverted doubt to extroverted braggart or displays of showing-off.

Self-efficacy has not only been positively correlated with self-esteem and internal locus of control, but most importantly with academic performance (Auer 1992; Rennie 1991; Bandura 1977).

A teacher can contribute directly to a student’s self-efficacy by providing clear feedback on the results of his efforts, whether in compiling private study notes, writing reports or helping analyse his performances in tests. A student needs to know specifically what he did well, what was incorrect and how to remedy weaknesses.

If a student has performed well, it is important for the teacher to let him know when this has happened. Targets need to be established and the student’s preparations to reach a target need to be confirmed as being realistic. If the preparations are not realistic, then the teacher can advise the student, recheck and confirm that he is on the right track.

A teacher who assists his student to build self-efficacy is then far more than a deliverer of lessons who stands remotely in a classroom.

The role of the teacher was described by Shindler as critical to the process. Too often many teachers’ practices destroy the foundations of self-esteem without being aware. Unhelpful practices may be ‘working’ on some level, but in essence they are working against the teacher’s ability to teach and students’ ability to achieve long-term growth.

The teacher can directly contribute to classroom acceptance of students through his own behaviour. A sense of cooperation can easily be established, whether between students or between students and the teacher. The teacher has the opportunity to demonstrate this each day.

Acceptance can be particularly generated through respect demonstrated by the teacher toward each member of the class. This behaviour requires that negative talk and ‘putting a student in his place’ are unacceptable. The atmosphere is therefore non-judgmental.

The differences between students’ abilities need to be appreciated, with recognition given for unique effort or achievement, whether a leader of the class or a genuine ‘tryer’.

Above all, the teacher needs to establish that he is caring, approachable, genuine and able to support the feelings and sentiments of individual students. In this respect, he needs to demonstrate to his students that he understands their needs and pressures, with repeated effort to assist individually, privately and at any time. Checking drafts of work being done, providing comment on how to improve private study notes and particularly, checking assessment work before being handed in (advising on how to improve upon the likely marking result), will all contribute significantly to acceptance and belonging. Providing an email address, through which to receive and send checked work, has been found to result in a group of students approaching their teacher, who might otherwise not do this in front of others.

From the above discussion it is clear that in order for a teacher to be effective in enhancing his students’ self-esteem, he needs to:

  • provide exercises such as practice problems and testing on a regular basis, which will enable a student to get into a daily routine with each new study topic, performing tasks for which he will be accountable for the end result
  • Demonstrate daily that there will be help available for each student to understand that he will be shown the right path to pursue, which will lead to success
  • Provide clear feedback on the results of each student’s efforts, so that he knows specifically what he did well, what was incorrect and how to remedy weaknesses.


On the other hand the teacher who habitually puts students in their place, treats them with lack of respect, finds ways of demeaning their efforts by marking down their work for petty reasons, shames those who have not responded with the necessary study effort, remains aloof from opportunities to put a student on the right track or who leaves students unsure about where they missed out on earning marks, will not contribute to their self-esteem.


Monitoring and management of students’ responses and developmental changes:

Monitoring is the key to understanding developmental progress and devising the most appropriate management initiatives required to assist students’ efforts. All students require assistance at some time during the year, the result of monitored indications of their performance abilities.

However, nothing can give a better indication of a student’s level of development than the effort and skill he displays in his private study and test results. A teacher who is alert to the range of developmental stages of his students, who require many different approaches to assist them, will need the best possible indications of students’ different levels of performance as they change throughout the year.

A student who commences the year clearly well ahead of the development of his classmates, will for example, benefit from being reassured that his study efforts are effective. If such a student is left to his own devices, he can spend much time trying to perfect his own study method, i.e. reinventing the wheel. Many students for example, are content to highlight key passages in a textbook and make notes in margins, in the belief that this is a substitute for study. This practice does not assist a student to progress through the stages of learning, which the mind needs to go through when mastering a new topic. Neither does it enable the particular benefits of practice problems to be achieved in physics, chemistry and mathematics. Practising new subject-specific words in a second language requires far more than marginal notes in a textbook.

The study of physics by students in the trial, 50 percent of whom had earlier been diverted to study humanities, because their teachers had considered physics to be beyond them, were particular able to benefit from the management initiatives suggested from monitoring.

Monitoring consisted of a call-in of study notebooks and assessable exercises (laboratory reports, information searches, laboratory skill exercises and essays), together with regular tests upon the completion of study topics. In order not to burden students with excessive intervention in their physics study program, a requirement was established whereby there was not more than one call-in or test each week. Tests occurred about every three weeks. This enabled private study notebooks and practice problem notebooks to be each examined monthly.

The teacher was able, between lessons in one day, to comfortably scan one of these notebooks for each of 90 students. A positive comment was given in each book at the end of the student’s work, advising a particular need, through which the work could be improved. This step was of great importance because of the value of the feedback to each student. The student was able to see first-hand that his efforts had led to the carefully constructed feedback. This tended to discourage students from failing to undertake the work or indulging in plagiarism.

Upon examining each study notebook or marking a test paper, the teacher is easily able to record scale values for self-esteem and internal locus of control for each student. Table 1 lists the criteria for these scale values. All 90 students were readily assessed within the self-esteem values from 3 to 7, which are in effect measures of their displayed levels of confidence and nervousness. The highest value for self-esteem shown in Table 1 represents an adult master in his field. Likewise, students’ internal locus of control can be readily assessed on the scale of 0 to 7, with room shown for increments.

As the record of self-esteem and internal locus of control assessments is accrued for each student, the teacher will in most cases begin to see changes occurring. For some students a marked change appears over as small a period as one month, when childish attitudes are left behind and a more mature approach to study is commenced. Once this level of performance is reached, no student has so far been found to go backward. There appears to occur a permanent change. It is not uncommon however for students to exhibit false starts.

The most valuable aspect of monitoring student performances, is the opportunity available to the teacher to identify students’ stage of development and their priority needs, e.g. one-on-one assistance. Such a list of students can be assembled, following the inspection of a complete set of study books or when test papers are marked, upon which self-esteem and internal locus of control scale values are recorded.


Case studies cited in the trial:

These descriptions should be read in conjunction with the graphical representations for each of the case study students, as shown in the initial report of the trial (Ayling, 2011).

The case studies illustrate an important aspect of the teacher’s role during the hypothesised biological change that occurred in the students. Each student exhibited the change according to factors within his own biological make-up. The teacher appeared to have no influence upon the timing or rate of change. His responsibility was to maintain the atmosphere of success for the student and most importantly, to intervene when a student in a more childish frame of mind, was being distracted and forgetting his study responsibilities.

The student Mary, exhibited a false start in the first month of the course. Then after three months and over a period of about two weeks, she suddenly began performing with the high level of self-esteem and internal locus of control that she would consistently maintain for the rest of the year. The teacher had to assist her in the first month, to adjust the effectiveness of her standard of private study and to get into the regular habit of performing practice problems.

Tom exhibited a false start in the first month of the course. Throughout the year he wrote his private study notes and regularly did his physics problems calculations, but with a mediocre attention to detail. He performed in tests with results that would indicate that he would pass the final examinations, but not well enough to be accepted for degree courses of most universities. Then, in the eighth and final month, over a period of one week, he began producing results which appeared to be well above his capability, i.e. he was at the top of his class. His final result in the public examinations confirmed this was indeed the case. Throughout, there was not much the teacher could do, except encourage him to take more care with the detail of his studies and the ways that he presented answers in tests. Something within him appeared to suddenly come to life.

Rose was in many respects similar to Tom, experiencing false starts. However, it was not until the end of the sixth month that she suddenly appeared among the leaders in her class. Her performances in the last two months were of a very high standard. The teacher was in her case only able for the first six months to ensure that the study she undertook would result in acceptable test results. Again, it was a case of waiting to see what would result following her period of regular study.

The student Dick experienced false starts over the first 2.5 months and responded well to the teacher’s encouragement until the final eight month. Although his self-esteem had reached the scale reading 7, attained by the leading students, he still had a fundamental difficulty in being fully in charge of his own decisions to take responsibility for the results of his work. He had in fact been progressing throughout the year, but would need further time (beyond the eight month period) to reach the level of his more successful classmates. There was nothing more the teacher could do, because he responded well to encouragement, performing his studies as thoroughly as he could.

The student identified as Cinderella commenced the study course with what appeared to be chronic lack of confidence. She appeared to be afraid during class and in discussion, revealed that she could not believe that she could study physics. Her test results early in the year were among the lowest in her class. The teacher monitored her study books and gave her one-on-one help to master difficult concepts. Then, in the fourth month her confidence appeared to resemble that of the average of her classmates. At the end of month 6 both her confidence and internal locus of control had increased, to such an extent that she could achieve results in tests which were among the best students in her class. By the time she sat for the final examination, she was a quietly confident girl, happy and fully aware of her capabilities. She has since been accepted to study for a degree course at an overseas university.

Harry was in complete contrast to Cinderella, having commenced the course with apparently chronic lack of confidence. He was monitored throughout the year and similarly assisted by the teacher, but did not appear to experience any increase in internal locus of control. He maintained a tendency to be dependent upon both the teacher and his classmates. It appeared at the start of the year that his level of thinking development was still in the concrete formative stage, i.e. primary school. He had difficulty in understanding many of the abstract physics concepts, even though considerable effort was made to render them as tangible as possible.

Monitoring can be seen from these descriptions to provide the opportunity for the teacher to be aware of the status of every student. He is then able to apply appropriate management initiatives to identify when distraction is occurring and to bring a student back on track. Most importantly, the students are aware that the teacher knows exactly how each is performing throughout the year, which in itself provides an incentive for less-developed students to make the decision to work diligently.


Future research:

The report of the trial (Ayling, 2011) together with this report, demonstrate a new field of research. It involves the sequential study of an epigenetic environmental factor, the relevant human behavioral change and epigenomic alteration. These reports however describe a well understood human behavioural area (self-esteem and internal locus of control), which not only enhances students’ educational potential, but affects their susceptibility to the metabolic group of diseases and certain cancers later in life. That is, the same broad group of epigenomic alterations are involved, which concern learning/memory and modulation of the stress response through the hippocampus.

There still remains however a need to confirm that alterations to the epigenome, which result from the application of an epigenetic environmental factor, are in the same broad group responsible for development of the hippocampus and modulation of the stress response.

This is a demonstration of a proposed line of research, in which naturally-occurring epigenetic environmental factors should be systematically studied and correlated with human behaviours and alterations to the epigenome. If epigenomic alterations also match alterations that are characteristic of particular diseases, then these findings need to be known by those concerned with disease etiology.

The line of research has the potential to also identify epigenetic environmental factors responsible for initiating disease-causing epigenomic alterations. As well, it has the potential to offer a means of managing a person’s development and susceptibility to diseases, i.e. through monitoring the status of the epigenome.

Further trials of this teaching methodology should not only lead to a better understanding of how to induce such beneficial changes in students, but even reveal other factors that contribute to the process.


In future research studies should include:

  • The age range for which this methodology can be used to advantage
  • Synergistic benefits from simultaneous sporting activities and academic learning, as joint means of inducing developmental change
  • The feasibility of this methodology being used to induce developmental change from Piaget’s concrete to abstract thinking
  • The feasibility of social epigenetic environmental factors being used early in the life cycle, to correct instances of abnormal neural development, particularly ADHD and schizophrenia
  • The possibility of managed adolescent development being used to avert the metabolic syndrome of diseases, which to a large extent originates during prenatal development
  • The feasibility of such methodology being used to repair the development of students removed from schools because of behavioural problems
  • The use of such methodology to rehabilitate inmates of corrective institutions
  • The feasibility of such methodology being used to induce normal development in indigenous peoples, whose younger generations often do not have the development to grow and live a lifestyle better than that of their cultural forbears
  • The feasibility of such methodology being used to induce normal development in developing countries, to enable otherwise culturally handicapped young people to live a lifestyle better than that of poverty-ridden communities.



This teaching methodology was used in a trial in which students’ self-esteem and internal locus of control were enhanced. It had been shown earlier that this could assist brain development and modulate the stress response. The strategic approach enables a teacher to enhance the development of students, so that they may cope with an educational course of study without the handicap of insufficient development. It is hypothesized that students undergo an epigenetic change as a result of being exposed to social and experiential environmental factors. The methodology has now been used for four consecutive years for the teaching of Year 12 physics in schools and has been found to be routinely feasible. It involves no additional workload for the conscientious teacher who is interested in the welfare of his students.


 Table 1. Criteria for evaluation of students’ self-esteem and locus of control

Figure 1. Graph of number of schools with students recording 90 percent or better for all exam papers marked for the 2004 Higher School Certificate, NSW, Australia
Table 1 Criteria for evaluation of students’ self-esteem and locus of control




Self-esteem Locus of control
10 A highly confident, unshakeable person, happy when performing, because he knows that he will not succumb to nervousness and expects to achieve at a higher level than all others present A thoroughly experienced practitioner in his field, who has prepared himself for the occasion and is thereby, able to perform with the highest level of skill, under complete control, unperturbed by a large audience of skilled observers
7 The level of self-esteem desired: happy, confident, working well Skilled in routinely looking after his own responsibilities, independent of all others in his class, trying to attain 100% marks in exams


6 Progressing and building confidence


5 Level where 50% of all others are above or below him in self-esteem


Well in charge of his own future, trying to get the highest marks he can manage
4 Needs further practice in study to build self-esteem


3 Needs remedial teaching to improve confidence Progressing well toward full responsibility for his future, but still much development yet to occur


1 Starting to show interest in his own responsibilities


0 Lacks confidence, seriously




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