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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Tracy Schiffmann's picture
Tracy Schiffmann
Using brain science to equip teachers of trauma-impacted adult learners to touch hearts, change minds and transform behavior

Thanks for this great article. I work with trauma-impacted adult learners in prisons and in the community, yet I've come to a place where I've decided to use what I refer to now as a universal set of trauma-informed strategies whenever and wherever I teach because I've encountered trauma-impacted students in the graduate classes and professional development trainings I've taught. This has become my passion and I have find that a great resource for understanding the impact of trauma on the brain and ways teachers can support and nurture learning in trauma-impacted students is a special issue of New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education called The Neuroscience of Adult Learning, Number 110, Summer 2006 I have been blogging about these strategies and creating strategy cheat sheets to move this science into my own practice and to share these strategies with others who teach trauma-impacted adult learners.

Amy R.'s picture

I currently teach 10th grade. Two weeks ago two of our students died in a car accident, and a third one is fighting for her life. Five boys witnessed the accident. There has been an outpouring of love and support for the families who lost the girls and for the girl who is still in the hospital. My concern is, how can we help and support the other 5 victims of that accident? One of the girls who died was my student, the one who survived as well, and two of the boys who witnessed it. So four of my six classes were directly impacted by this event. Can anybody suggest how I can better help my students? I am currently providing for movement and we do brain breaks as well. I regularly stand by the two boys during class because lately they zone out, but I want to be better equipped to help them. Any feedback will be much appreciated.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Amy, I'm so sorry for this terrible loss in your community and for you personally. It sounds like you're already doing some great things for your students. Two main things I'd suggest: first, don't go it alone! Is there a school counselor in your building? Is there a local mental health nonprofit agency that you can contact? These people will know your particular context the best and can partner with you in long-term support of these students. Additionally, they will provide community and support for *you.* You want to make sure you build in those supports early rather than waiting until you burn out along the road, and take good care of yourself from the start.

Second, I would suggest that you look into trauma-informed teaching strategies in general. I have a blog post I've put together with a bunch of basic resources that you can use to get started, it has links to a bunch of other resources:

With students who have experienced trauma, often the impacts come days, weeks, months or years after the event, so the best thing you can really do is what you're doing now, which is being there for these students and developing a caring relationship.

Feel free to message me if you want to chat more and thinking of you and your school community during this time.

nstifel's picture

Thanks for this article. It serves as a refresher for those of us teachers who are trying to stay on top of brain-based learning issues. One question: can you please cite the research for "Over 29 percent of young people in the U.S., ages 9-17, are affected by anxiety and depression disorders (PDF)?" I couldn't find the empirical info in that 16-year oldPDF. Thanks!

Dr. Lennette A. Coleman's picture
Dr. Lennette A. Coleman
Principal, Ariel Community Academy

This should be mandatory PD at all schools!
We tend to neglect what we don't see or understand.
Very young children cannot always articulate what is wrong and older students are often too ashamed to acknowledge problems, fears, etc.
We have to be vigilant about being tuned in to their "brain pain".
But we should not forget that far too many adults, parents, teachers and administrators too that are walking around in pain, suffering from depression, stress and anxiety.
We live in a complicated over-stimulated world where there is a lot to cope with being vigilant and sensitive to others' problems and issues. We need to take care of and heal ourselves also, we need to be sensitive to our colleagues, parents,students as well as ourselves.

Jill's picture
Special Education Teacher, Writer, Blogger

Thank you so much for this article. It is so important!!

reshyam's picture

Hi Friends.
Well come to forum site.Thanks for this great Brain was enough to improve. we work with trauma-impacted adult learners in prisons and in the community. We love come the brain was enough to improve knowledge of brain functioning. A place where decided to use what I refer to now as a universal set of trauma-informed strategies whenever and wherever.



Nick Schumacher's picture

Fantastic, Thank you.

I particularly appreciate the section on Priming the Brain for learning. I have shared this article with our faculty. In rural Alaska, we have an extraordinarily high number of students with high ACEs scores/toxic stress. We have been working towards becoming a trauma-informed school. Thank you for your work with these kids.

Mzinformed's picture

Many students I encounter have dealt with real-world issues that most adults could never relate to. I often use motivational videos to assist the students with overcoming obstacles in their lives. Many times, I would also play soothing meditative music in the background just to get my students settled in class, and allow the brain to "normally" function. I do work in a school that has many issues that have yet to be addressed, and many of the students have witnessed or experienced great difficulties. The last thing they are thinking about is learning when they are just in survival mode. When will school administrators begin to understand the issue of the total child?, especially those who live in violent prone communities. Too often, all the bureaucrats are concerned about is test scores and nothing else. I have students who are experiencing poverty and homelessness, and often just come to school because it is a place to keep warm and buy time until school let out for the day. Of course, their brains are compromised for instruction. Lets just think about the many adults having difficulties remembering information when experiencing overwhelming stress, what about the adolescent brain under extreme stress? Does a test score really matter anymore?

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