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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A young woman is sitting on a window sill in a dark room, looking outside the window.

Educators want nothing more than for our students to feel successful and excited to learn, and to understand the importance of their education. We want our students' attention and respect to match our own. I believe that most if not all of our students desire the same, but walking through our classroom doors are beautifully complex youth who are neurobiologically wired to feel before thinking.

Carrying In

Educators and students are carrying in much more than backpacks, car keys, conversations, partially-completed homework, and outward laughter. Buried deep in the brain's limbic system is an emotional switching station called the amygdala, and it is here that our human survival and emotional messages are subconsciously prioritized and learned. We continually scan environments for feelings of connectedness and safety. I am learning that the students who look oppositional, defiant, or aloof may be exhibiting negative behavior because they are in pain and presenting their stress response.

Over 29 percent of young people in the U.S., ages 9-17, are affected by anxiety and depression disorders (PDF). The thinking lobes in the prefrontal cortex shut down when a brain is in pain.

Trauma and the Brain

What is trauma? When we hear this word, we tend to think of severe neglect or abusive experiences and relationships. This is not necessarily true. A traumatized brain can also be a tired, hungry, worried, rejected, or detached brain expressing feelings of isolation, worry, angst, and fear. In youth, anger is often the bodyguard for deep feelings of fear. Trauma-filled experiences can be sudden or subtle, but the neurobiological changes from negative experiences cause our emotional brain to create a sensitized fear response. When we feel distress, our brains and bodies prioritize survival, and we pay attention to the flood of emotional messages triggering the question, "Am I safe?" We react physiologically with an irritated limbic system that increases blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration with an excessive secretion of the neuro hormones cortisol and adrenaline pumping through our bodies. Chronic activation of the fear response can damage other parts of the brain responsible for cognition and learning.

We are all neurobiologically wired for social connection and attachment to others. When children don't receive healthy connections in early development, the brain rewires and adapts just as readily to unhealthy environments. If brain development is disrupted by adversity at any age, but especially in early development (PDF), the skills of problem solving, reflection, and emotional regulation are compromised and diminished. Children and adolescents need stimulation and nurturance for healthy development and attachment. Students whose development is disrupted often walk through the doors of our schools mistrusting adults.

Prime the Brain

To learn and problem solve, we must prime the brain for engagement and feelings of safety. In recent years, there has been a significant emphasis on Common Core proficiency while teacher training has often lost sight of the impact of understanding brain development in students. The almond-shaped clusters of neurons resting deep in each temporal lobe must be quieted if learning and well-being are to be exercised and addressed. Educators too need to be aware of our brain states and subconscious emotional triggers that could throw us into a power struggle and a stress-response state as we interface with our students.

What can we do to create calm and safe brain states within ourselves and within the students who walk in with an activated fear response?

We first must understand that feelings are the language of the limbic system. When a student in stress becomes angry or shut down, he or she won't hear our words. Talking a student through any discipline procedure or thought reflection sheet in the heat of the moment is fruitless. Here are three ways to calm the stress response -- two of them through immediate action, and the third by a brief science lesson.

1. Movement

Movement is critical to learning while calming the stress and fear response. Teachers and students together could design a space, a labyrinth of sorts, where students can walk or move to relieve the irritation of the amygdale. Physical activities such as push-ups, jogging in place, jumping jacks, and yoga movements help to calm the limbic brain and bring the focus back to learning and reasoning.

2. Focused Attention Practices

Focused attention practices teach students how to breathe deeply while focusing on a particular stimulus. When we take two or three minutes a few times each day or class period and teach students how to breathe deeply, we are priming the brain for increased attention and focus. These practices might also include a stimulus such as sound, visualization, or the taste of a food. The focused attention increases an oxygenated blood and glucose flow to the frontal lobes of the brain where emotional regulation, attention, and problem solving occur.

3. Understanding the Brain

Teaching students about their amygdala and fear response is so empowering. When we understand that this biology is many thousands of years in the making, hardwired to protect us, our minds begin to relax through knowing that our reactions to negative experiences are natural and common. A middle-school teacher and her students have named the amygdala "Amy G. Dala." By personifying this ancient, emotionally-driven structure in our brains, the students are befriending their fear responses and learning how to lessen negative emotion. We cannot always control the experiences in our lives, but we can shift how we respond, placing the science of our brains in the driver's seat of discipline!

Have you recognized students experiencing emotional pain? How have you helped them overcome this?

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Patti Abney's picture

Trying this for the first time this year. Would be interested in hearing about others who are doing the same. Hope to follow up later with how things progress.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

Making an inviting environment where students feel safe to take healthy risks is important, as students with depression may avoid school if they feel threatened or insecure there. It is essential for teachers to believe that they can make a difference in the lives of students and that all students can learn in their classrooms, even when they are depressed.

All Students Thrive's picture
All Students Thrive
Changing the World One Conversation at a Time!

At our school in East Oakland, we encountered many (20-25) students with notable symptoms of trauma. The volume was too much for the contracted counselor to carry on her workload.

As the school principal I instituted several systems and programs to address the issue:

a) All students and staff were trained by a professional Mindfulness instructor. Mindfulness was embedded in class and school-wide activities.
b) A dance and arts program were funded with Title 1 money
c) A Coordination of Services Team (COST) was created with weekly meetings for counselors, district mental health professionals, after school program coordinators, and school leaders to create a process for early identification and intervention.


Chidinma's picture

Waoh! This is quite an 'Eye opener'
I like the part of focusing on something (stimulus). Nice one. Tnx.

JennM's picture

What a great read!
I teach first grade in an inner city school in Montreal, Canada and for the past few years now, our school has been implementing a Trauma -Based approach to teaching. We started very small by learning about how trauma affects the brain and learning, shortly after, we experimented with various self-regulation methods such as our school-wide, daily, breathing break (focused attention) as well as brain breaks (movement). We have incorporated classroom meetings into our routines and more recently we are learning about executive functions and how to help our students organize their ideas and thoughts and carry out tasks. (We noticed that many of our traumatized kids had major executive function deficits). Thanks for this post :)

ezachos's picture

It is wonderful how general awareness is growing around the idea of mindfulness, stress response, etc. At Brookline High School in Brookline, Massachusetts, the 21st Century Fund has funded a new program that teaches these practices to teachers as well as students. The anxiety can be overwhelming, whether we understand its causes or not. We owe it to our kids, our teachers, ourselves to find a way to make school a challenging AND supportive AND pleasant environment.

abigail_pollak's picture
Marketing Assistant

A 20-minute lesson about the brain was enough to improve knowledge of brain functioning.

Deborah Grandinetti's picture
Deborah Grandinetti
Mentor of teen inner city scholarship students

Amanda, for the last eight years, I have mentored inner city teens in Camden, NJ. The trauma many of my students have encountered is off the charts. In addition to your caring, many of these teens need help navigating the safety net and finding a professional counselor (typically one who takes Medicaid) who is trained to work with that age group. As for what you can do: One self-healing system I have found very effective in using with my students is Focusing (see http://www.focusing.org/chfc/index.html and http://www.focusing.org/chfc/index.html.) Focusing is a process that you can facilitate, and one that students can learn to do on their own. Essentially, it helps students learn how to meet their feelings gently, on THEIR timeline, release hurtful feelings, and draw on inner wisdom to understand the next best step for them to take. My experience shows that it is extremely effective. I have also recently learned about the Toolbox (social, emotional learning) program for children in grades six and under, and suggest you watch the excellent videos on that page (https://dovetaillearning.org/). I've looked at it closely and it's excellent. Finally, there may be support groups in the community you can help students find. I know there is an excellent national network for students dealing with grief due to loss of a family member, for instance. If you ever want to talk, you can email me at 18Deborah_Grandinetti@comcast.net and we can set a time. Best of luck to you and your students!

Amy Cataline's picture

I appreciate this post more than you know. Over the last two years I have been making a case at my school about the effects trauma has on the students' ability to learn. I have been advocating for our teachers to be trained how to effectively help our students who are acting out because of what they have seen or experienced. I will definitely be sharing your post with the leadership at our school. I am interested in reading a book about this that has come highly recommended, Trauma Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children's Lives by Susan E. Craig. I am wondering if you are familiar with this book?

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