Adversity, Stress, Poverty and Learning! Letter to our Community!

As parents, educators, students, and as a community, we can no longer ignore the research on the state of mental and emotional health of our families in Indiana, along with the high poverty rates at over 20 percent!  When it comes to mental health, a new state ranking has Indiana residents close to the worst in the nation. Mental Health America released its findings this week. According to the study, Indiana ranks 45th out of all 50 states and Washington D.C.

I am choosing to view this newest research as an opportunity for change in our city and state! There have been thousands of wonderful and well intentioned programs that have attempted to place social and emotional learning inside our communities and schools, and I hope this continues but we are neglecting to take a deep hard look at “how” we are preparing our children and adolescents for this new time in our world’s history! Education must change if we are to rise to the needs of our children adolescents and families!  At Butler and Marian University we are training our pre-service teachers and graduate students to understand how the research from neuroscience can inform our practices helping us to regulate a student before learning or discipline takes place! We also have to pay attention to the emotional needs of our educators as they are welcoming children from the most diverse backgrounds in our countries’ history.  We have to begin training our educators and our students about their own neurobiology and the strategies that lessen the stress response and prime the brain to pay attention and to learn! This is not another program that teachers or administrators are required to employ! It is a way of connecting and building relationships with one another and our content! In this state, we have many students walking through our classroom doors in pain! We cannot learn if we are not feeling safe, connected and “felt” by another!  Adversity greatly impacts our future world citizens. If we want those higher test scores and graduation rates, we must attend to the brain health of our students!

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 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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!

A brand new article from Edutopia about trauma and the brain is available at this link! The one for secondary educators will be published in the next few weeks!!


Brains, Discipline and Adversity! We have to look at how negative experiences shape the brain!

Social Brains, Discipline, and Regulation!

As I ponder, rethink and implement discipline supports and resources into our nation’s schools, I am reminded of the research from Dr. Bruce Perry. Our brains are social organs and we cannot survive without one another. When any individual feels isolated, rejected and disconnected from those around him or her, we tend to retreat to our reactive neurobiology within the brain stem and limbic systems. It is from this brain stem, the Locus Coeruleus, the nucleus of cells in the brainstem (pons) involved in the physiological response to stress and feelings of panic oftentimes causing a reactive defensive response that has become a new normal brain state.  It is here in the lower brain where the stress systems are activated and move through the limbic brain causing a sensitized reaction in the amygdala,  that if prolonged and extreme, can affect learning, motor skills, emotional regulation and the fundamental neural networks that are responsible for human kindness empathy and compassion.

In our schools across the nation, children and adolescents are walking through our doors carrying in patterned developmental stress circuits.  These activated stress systems initiate repeated negative dispositions and we sometimes see aggressive, defiant, oppositional, and violent or shut down behaviors in our students that can appear without warning!  We are seeing more and more students triggered by what seems like the most insignificant incidences! But these environmental triggers that might be a person, place, a conversation, an object, or content being taught are anything but insignificant. We know that adversity and trauma at any age, but specifically an early age, are held in our emotional implicit core memory systems and in the body! Our bodies actually hold these adversities like the unconscious mind! When the stress systems are activated the brain move swiftly to the fight flight freeze response creating a rapid heartbeat, respiration and higher blood pressure. Over time, these reactive repetitive limbic responses can literally kill brain tissue through the abnormal secretion of adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol stimulates extra calcium which leads to the production of free radicals that can injure and destroy nerve cells. The hippocampus, our memory center in the limbic brain is responsible for encoding memories and moving short term memory to long term memory storage. But the hippocampus also is the primary trigger to the parasympathetic nervous system which lessens heartrate, lowers blood pressure and respiration! When the hippocampus is compromised by cell death, its ability to ward off stress is diminished! We see up to 25% less gray matter in the hippocampal  areas because of excess cortisol secretion!


So when we treat pain based behaviors with pain… we escalate the stress response systems. When we suspend expel and diminish the ability to stay emotionally connected through conflict we unintentionally elevate the neurohormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that produce more reactive behaviors. When we punish in punitive actions, we unintentionally isolate and reject children and adolescents who walk through our classroom doors carrying in a brain that has rarely been exposed to healthy attachments and therefore has wired and mirrored its environment.

A child who has never been loved cannot love! A child who has not been the recipient of kindness and compassion has not formed the receptors in the brain responsible for showing kindness. Our relational neurobiology matters more than anything else to our mental, emotional and physical health!         


We are in a time where we must prepare our educators, schools and parents in understanding how early adversity changes brain architecture creating a hyper vigilant sensitized response in the lower brain.  Prefrontal cortex neuronal networks are taken offline and the cortical functions responsible for learning, emotional regulation, sustained attention, empathy, and kindness are left barren of an oxygenated glucose blood flow. Our brains are “use dependent” meaning that the more you take any neuronal network and activate it in patterned repetitive ways, the more we internalize… creating synaptic connections that become hard wired and change our brain architecture and blood chemistry. Adversity and trauma fundamentally reorganize the brain where negative emotion, feelings of rejection, isolation and a distorted perception reign supreme! The acts of defiance and aggression are often misunderstood by the adults who do not understand how “shame” and “depression” can manifest in children and youth. We can unintentionally create battlefields and explosive warfare against these vulnerable youth if we do not understand how the brain processes negative emotion or how to reduce the fight flight fear response ignited in pain.


Dr. Bruce Perry describes our two greatest gifts as a human species. These are the malleability of the human brain early in life, and the fundamental relational gift of connection as human beings. We are biologically wired to need one another for survival! We survive by forming collaborative groups and large parts of our brains are dedicated for relationships and connection. Yet, as a society we unintentionally disrespect our own evolution of connection and this happens way too often inside our nation’s schools.

Our discipline policies must begin to include brain science as it relates to negative behaviors and connections.  We must begin to mentor our educators, parents and community on the power of connection through conflict and how the parts of our brain that are humane, empathic and kind require experience to become fully developed and organized!

Empathy / Compassion

Human beings are contagious! We are contagious in cognition, affect and motor activity. We model what we see and this powerful contagion can be such a benefit for educators in the classroom! We need to model and teach the behaviors we want to see. When students observe us handling problems, challenges and adversity we are giving them an experience that is beneficial in developing new networks of higher cortical functioning!

What can we do?

Regulate and Reward

When disciplining youth, we must come from a regulated brain state as must the student. When we are regulated, calm, and clear with our thinking, we are better able to listen, respond, problem, solve, accept responsibility and process various viewpoints.  How do we regulate a child or adolescent? We know that to calm the amygdala stress response returning to the frontal lobes, we must use a language that the amygdala understands. That language is “feelings” and the actions taken to calm the stress centers are movement and breath. These have various forms and durations, but to regulate our negative emotions is a prerequisite to sustainable engagement, learning and discipline.

Chunks of time throughout the day that reward behaviors come from intentional acts of connection. When we reward a struggling child, we notice what they are doing well and right. We notice effort. We notice when tensions rise and we redirect them with choices and opportunities. We help them to envision possibility through a private assignment, artwork, music, a service project, or assisting another adult or child in the building with a problem. We invite them to co –plan and co-teach. We place them in a leadership role that helps them to feel connected and purposeful.

We begin by teaching all students about their neuro-anatomy!

  1. Teach students about their neuro-anatomy just as you would teach procedures, transition, classroom agreements and routines.
  2. Prefrontal Cortex
  3. Neuroplasticity
  4. Amygdala
  5. Hippocampus
  6. Social Brain/ Development / Peer Influences
  7. Stress Response/ Limbic Brain
  8. Self-Reflection


The integration of brain science turns discipline into a learning opportunity for both teacher and student! It is tailored to be proactive and a part of teaching procedures, transitions and rituals.  It uses our bodies to redirect behavior and never our mouths! (Never go public!!) It is self-reflective and created from these four guidelines!


  1. We Belong- Am I important to someone here?
    We Try- Am I good in my efforts here?
    3. We Shine- Can I influence my world here?
    4. We Serve- How can I share my gifts to help others here?

The goal is to not only stop the behaviors we don’t want… we are good at this, but start the behaviors we do want!

Class Guidelines

Assess and Change Often!

Reinforce with Social Incentives

  1. Be Safe-what does this look like in the classroom, hall, cafeteria, etc?
  2. Be Helpful- If you are helpful in the classroom what are two actions we would like to see?
  3. Be Respectful- If I am respectful, I am not talking when someone else is sharing, and even though I am angry or frustrated, I find a couple of ways to express these negative feelings without lashing out and hurting another.


  1. Be Responsible- If I am responsible, maybe I am doing my own work and following the directions? Maybe I am asking for help when I need it? Maybe I need to calm down, so I let my teacher know this!


What do these guidelines look like in the hallway, small groups, whole group, homework, late work, arrival and dismissal.


Truth Signs

  1. Everyone needs different supports, incentives and resources for learning and behavioral choices.
  2. Everyone needs time to think and learn.
  3. We each learn in our own ways by our own time clock.
  4. It’s intelligent to ask for help. No one needs to do it alone.
  5. We can be successful when we take risks and make mistakes.


 Often times, this isn’t enough and we need backup systems that provide the security of boundaries, structure and consistency. In- school suspensions have attempted to do this, but they are often delivered in negative and escalating tones, words, and behaviors. If I am to discipline with the brain in mind, I need for each student to connect with me but to also connect with other adults during a time of conflict and chaos.

  1. Do you have three or four colleagues in your building that can assist you in moments of conflict? These colleagues could include: custodial help, cafeteria workers, instructional assistants, older students, different department colleagues, grade level colleagues, special area teachers, administration substitute building teacher, volunteers, etc.? 
  2. Could you develop a discipline back-up plan where once the student is regulated after a few minutes or so… the students could move to different classrooms or areas in the building for affirmation and special service errands or jobs for this colleague who sits beside you giving emotional first aid? For every
  3. Could you develop a brain packet for this student to work through as they observe and learn about the science of their behaviors? (I am working on this now!)
  4. Back – Up Systems – are always to be used for the short term and never intended to start new behaviors we want to see!
  5. Types of Back- UP Systems (Get Back Up!!!)
  6. First Step/ Co-Regulation
  7. Amygdala First Aid Station
  8. Train of Thought Area
  9. Peer Mentoring
  10. Assigned Teacher Classroom or Brain Lab ( School wide)


 Validation and Questions

That must have made you feel really angry.-

  1. What a frustrating situation to be in!-

It must make you feel angry to have someone do that.-

Wow, how hard that must be.-

 That’s stinks! That’s messed up! 

How frustrating!

Yeah, I can see how that might make you feel really sad.-

 Boy, you must be angry.

What a horrible feeling.

 What a tough spot.


  1. What do you want?
    Do you have a plan?
    3. How can I help you?
    4. What are your resources?
    5. What feels difficult?
    6. What could be the best possible outcome?
    7. What is the worst thing that could happen?
    8. Is your interpretation really true?
    9. How do you know this?
    10. What is a first step in improving this situation?




Dual Reflection Brain Sheets


What did we see?

What did we hear?

How did we feel?

What guideline was not followed?

What are two adjustments we could make the next time?

What is one thing we both did well?


Reasonable Consequences

The brain loves to make sense out of experiences, information, and relationships that fit together. This is why we need to implement consequences that attend to the hurt or pain that one person has caused another. Consequences for poor decisions and the choices aligned with them will make sense and feel relevant and meaningful to students who are ready to process this information, responding from their frontal lobes in a calm brain state. This is the place in which they’ll experience and feel the connection between choices and consequences. Here are some examples of those connections:

For a student who interrupted whole-class learning, have him or her create an extra-credit assignment for the class on a specific topic or standard.

For a student who used unkind words to another classmate, have these two partner to create a special assignment, job, or favor for another class or the cafeteria or office staff, starting a “pay it forward” chain for a week of school.

For a student who showed disrespectful behavior toward an adult, have him or her write a letter of apology explaining what was beneath the hurt feelings that caused the behavior, accompanied by a plan of action to make amends for the hurt feelings that he or she caused.

There are many YouTube videos presenting kindness, empathy, and the tough struggles of others that students will enjoy and learn from. This activity helps us reach beyond our own stubborn egos and negative emotions to serve another. The following links take you to sources of short videos that will help your students create positive emotions and diminish anger:

Pennies of Time

Random Acts of Kindness

Kind Kids Club

What are other ways that we could align consequences to impact future behaviors with positive emotion?


Keep engagement high!! / Part of a Pro-Active Discipline Plan!

As I prepare for summer coursework and professional developments, I wanted to share these researched brain aligned strategies we will be exploring in the Butler educational neuroscience course in 10 days!

  1. Paying attention means using novelty!
    2. Keep the fun in learning and never save it for the end!
    3. Students who are constantly relating new standards and material to personal experiences perform better than those who memorize for the test!
    4. Brain Intervals not only create novelty, but they give the brain some incubation time to fix and form neural circuits!
    5. We need to rename “Testing” to “Retrieval Practice” as forgetting is important to learning and we need to create frequent conditions where students have the opportunity to retrieve information!

Developmentally students in upper elementary and middle school are walking in with heightened limbic brain activity which can look awful and ugly to adult and even other students. These years are so confusing and just as important as school and classroom rules are student and class “Strength and Action Plans!
1. What are my strengths?
2. What are my passions? How can I use these and show case these this year?
3. What do I enjoy?
4. What are my challenges?
5. How can I integrate these in my classrooms this school year?



Why Educational Neuroscience in the Classroom?

August 2016

Dr. Lori Desautels

After completing our initial educational neuroscience graduate course at Butler University, and completing a yearlong Brain Initiative with the Washington Township Schools this summer, while sitting beside teachers, administrators and students for the past three years inside K-12 classrooms and higher education, I wanted to reflect in this post how this practice/ discipline cannot be implanted, memorized, scripted or turned into an acronym! Educational Neuroscience embraces connection, engagement and a deepened understanding of brain development as it relates to education. People change people, not programs! To create a program or label and limit this emerging discipline, would be disrespectful!

What am I so excited about? What are educators so excited about after being introduced to this practice? Many educators are motivated and enthused because there is science and emerging research that aligns for how they are already engaging and connecting to students. There are so many social and emotional mindful programs that are clearly enhancing the child or adolescent’s or even the teacher’s stress response system, but it is time to begin mentoring and training our pre-service educators in brain development, as it relates to sitting beside 21st century brains who walk through classroom doors with an exorbitant mount of emotional social and cognitive needs! High achievement, academic success, and closing those  learning gaps occurs when we “prime” the brain for connection and purpose because many of our youth are coming from environments where emotional connection with a significant other and a sense of purpose have been lost, denied, or buried.

The human brain is wired for relationships! The human brain loves to learn. But if the conditions for these neurobiological states are not tended to, we all feel the negative effects.

“If you lack a deep memory of feeling loved and safe, the receptors in the brain that respond to human kindness fail to develop.”  (Van Der Kolk)

If we feel safe and loved, our brain specializes in cooperation, play,  and exploration! If we are constantly feeling unloved, frightened or unwanted, the brain specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.”

  1. Educational Neuroscience   helps us to understand the private logic and worlds of one another. We are feeling creatures who think.
  2. Attachment to adults is a prerequisite to learning from them! Attachment is the carrier of all development.
  3. Development is hot, messy chaotic and anything but linear.
  4. Students and adults who are angry, anxious, depressed or feeling negative emotion struggle with learning!
  5. Environment intimately affects our neurobiological states and we need to attend to the outer and inner environments of one another.
  6. Emotion is critical to the learning process.
  7. Movement and healthy sleep patterns intimately affect learning.
  8.  Helping students begins with teaching them about their neuro-anatomy! When we do, children and adolescents are able to begin self-regulation habits and priming their own brains for a strengthened memory, and learning connections.
  9. Our behaviors are driven by how we see the world. When you walk through life with a guilt or shame based lens, you recycle the negative feelings and behaviors you are trying to lessen!
  10. Children and youth want their own power and control, not another adult’s. Create islands of forced success and help them to discover their strengths, expertise and interests! Self-reflection is intimately connected to high levels of learning. Every child unconsciously creates a “social map” “How I see myself, becomes my experience.”
  11. Shame is beneath all acts of violence. Violence is the absence of love… for children; they make a clear connection violence, neglect and rejection!
  12. Humans are nurtured by love- this comes from two sources- self and others! If love cannot be experienced from one of these two sources, it cannot flourish! A person who has not felt loved, has no reserves of love or kindness to give and this leads to a lack of empathy!
  13. Four questions that drive our deepened understanding of educational neuroscience in schools.
  14. Am I important to someone here?
  15. Am I good at something here?
  16. Am I able to affect change or my world in here?
  17. Can I share my gifts with someone here?

The Adolescent Brain: Leaving Childhood Behind

Social and Emotional Learning Series for Edutopia


There isn’t a more profound scene in the film Inside Out than the death of Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend. As the main character approaches her 12th birthday, her brain is beginning to develop in ways that leave her imagination behind. This is the time when children between the ages of 10 and 14 begin dying to their childhoods to be born into their adolescence.

Redefined Purpose and Identity

Bing Bong represents innocence, imagination, creativity, and childlike joy mixed with love. This is the second greatest time of brain change, the first being birth to three years of age. Inside Out embraces this development in a very visual and meaningful way as Bing Bong intentionally jumps out of the rainbow wagon, watching Joy return to headquarters without the weight of childhood thought processes and feelings. As Riley’s brain begins exploring this adolescent stage of life, she begins searching for a new identity and social status, is confronted with intense emotions, and revisits many of her childhood core memories that begin to enrich this new developmental time in her life. Finding a new purpose and discovering who we are becoming characterize the great neurobiological changes that educators and parents need to deeply understand in this time of brain development.

The adolescent’s jobs are to question authority and search for an identity. As young people grow into these new responsibilities mandated by their personal development, their teachers and administrators need to understand how to create classroom cultures and relationships that promote creativity, as well as positive social interactions that play into the intense emotions which are an integral part of the adolescent brain. It is our responsibility to help our young adults see a bigger life picture filled with optimal choices and consequences, so that embracing hindsight provides foresight for these genius chaotic minds.

There are also significant changes in the secretion and baseline levels of neurohormones. The adolescent brain contains lower levels of serotonin, which declines in these years. This can contribute to increased aggression along with higher levels of testosterone, which can also contribute to angry outbursts and impulsive behavior. The baseline for dopamine, our feel-good neurotransmitter, is also lower, so more dopamine is required for a satisfying result. Additionally, we know that the frontal lobes of the brain are not fully developed in these years, which limits brain function in problem solving, discernment, emotional regulation, and sustained attention.

Easing the Transition

There are many brain-aligned strategies that strengthen the creativity and productivity of young adults as we emotionally attach to our adolescents securing a safe environment for them to explore, identify, and connect with one another. Below are some questions that open the frontal lobe for connection, memory, and metacognition:

  • What or who was your Bing Bong? Could it be an object (like a blanket or teddy bear) or something abstract?
  • What does Bing Bong symbolize?
  • Why is it important for Riley to let go of Bing Bong?
  • Why did Bing Bong jump off the wagon?
  • What makes it so sad for the audience (especially parents and adults) as we watch this part?
  • Do we really ever lose Bing Bong? Explain.
  • Do you have a core memory of an experience from your imagination? What is it like?

In The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development, researchers from Johns Hopkins University provide a powerful handbook to better understanding the adolescent brain and how we can prepare to sit beside these young adults in a time when the brain is hot, messy, and beautifully intelligent and complex.

What can we do as educators to ease the transition into healthy adolescence?

    1. Model the behaviors that we want to see. It’s chancy to assume that our adolescent students know what we want or are asking for regarding behavior, instruction, and expectations. We need to be specific with our models of instruction and assessment, even developing our own models to share with our students. Each semester, I create a project that’s similar to what I ask of my students. They enjoy my explanation and transparency, and they love to give me feedback, just as I do with their projects.
    2. Tap into the strengths, passions, and expertise of all students. Create expert days where students actually design a professional development individually or in partners to share their interests and strengths. This could take many forms.
    3. Give students choices and input into developing rules, consequences, guidelines, and class structure. Invite students to lead in morning meetings and class rituals.
    4. Provide safe and fair boundaries with explanations as to why these are needed. Our brains need structure and boundaries as much as they need novelty. When we explain the nuances of neuroanatomy, students begin to see discipline as a science.
    5. Teach students about the brain and how it is developing during this time in their lives. They need to understand why they’re feeling and acting in ways unfamiliar to themselves and others. Here are two excellent videos to help them reach this understanding:

      •’s Teen Brain

      • SciShow’s The Teenage Brain Explained

    6. Teach them how to calm their stress response system through focused attention practices and brain breaks that involve movement. I suggested some strategies in my Edutopia post Energy and Calm: Change It Up and Calm It Down!

Learn your students’ ecology. What does this age group like to do on weekends? What is their favorite music and clothing? How do they spend their free time? What is their favorite technology? What are their goals? What career and vocation choices could tap into their strengths and interests? When you show interest in their lives and intermix this data into your standards and topics, you’ve demonstrated equity in the teaching and learning relationship.

As Urie Bronfenbenner said, “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her.” This is the kind of support that adolescents require, too. How do you demonstrate understanding and guidance for your students during this challenging phase of their lives?



Contagious Emotions and Responding to Stress

Social and Emotional Learning Series for Edutopia

Neuroscience research suggests that emotions are contagious. Our brains are social organs, and we are wired for relationships. When we encounter or experience intense emotions from another individual, we feel those feelings as if they were our own. Mirror neurons in our brains are responsible for empathy, happiness, and the contagious anger, sadness, or anxiety that we feel when another person is experiencing these same feelings.

In the film Inside Out, 11-year-old Riley and her parents are sitting together at dinner in their new San Francisco home. As the three discuss the youth hockey team that Riley’s mother has discovered, Riley’s anger builds quickly because Joy has left headquarters (the frontal lobes in her brain), and Fear and Anger are on duty instead. As Riley’s anger grows, her father’s anger begins to match hers, and the dinner conversation ends in an explosive outburst of emotional contagion. This amusing dramatization of a very real family dynamic demonstrates how our brains can react and quickly jump into a conflict without our conscious awareness or conscious choice.

Students and educators need to understand how quickly this negative interaction can occur. Conflicts escalate unconsciously when our amygdala, the emotional control centers in the limbic system, are triggered and we instantaneously react. When two people are experiencing an active stress response, no one is thinking clearly as the frontal lobes are shut down, and behaviors and words can become painful and hurtful. In the end, we rarely feel better, because the amygdala’s language is feelings, not words. When we feel negative emotion, words are not heard or understood. This is why co-regulation is so important before we begin to problem solve or explain consequences for poor choices. Co-regulation or calming the stress response system is needed to prime the brain for broadened thinking, planning, and understanding. Research reports that movement and breathing are two significant ways to calm the stress response system. We’ll discuss these below as we delve into a few calming strategies for healthy brain functioning.

Calming the Stress Response

Focused attention practices and movement are the two neurological strategies for calming an angry and anxiety-ridden brain. When we are in this fight-flight-freeze response, we do not hear words or explanations because the neural pathway from the prefrontal cortex back to the amygdala is much like a dirt road — it’s underdeveloped, and messages in words are not heard or understood.

1. Get Some Distance

Give students — and yourself — a few minutes to step away from a conflict and de-escalate the limbic reaction. You can accomplish this with deep breaths, some physical space, a few push-ups, jumping rope, a walk, or listening to instrumental music while focusing on your breath.

2. Validate the Feelings

Once the negative emotions have calmed down and the brain has regulated, validation is critical for helping students know that they are heard and understood. Examples of validating statements include:

  • That must have made you feel really angry.
  • What a frustrating situation to be in!
  • It must make you feel angry to have someone do that.
  • Wow, how hard that must be.
  • That stinks!
  • That’s messed up!
  • How frustrating!
  • Yeah, I can see how that might make you feel really sad.
  • Boy, you must be angry.
  • What a horrible feeling.
  • What a tough spot.

3. Questions and Choices

Once the student feels heard and felt, we can gain a better understanding of his or her feelings. We then have an opportunity to implement questions and choices. Both questioning and choice assist in up-shifting an oxygenated glucose blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, where we are better problem solvers, to think clearly about choices and consequences. Here are some sample questions:

  • How can I help?
  • What do you need?
  • What can we do together to make this better?
  • What is a plan we can create together?
  • Is there anything you need from me now or later that would help you reach your goals?

Reasonable Consequences

The brain loves to make sense out of experiences, information, and relationships that fit together. This is why we need to implement consequences that attend to the hurt or pain that one person has caused another. Consequences for poor decisions and the choices aligned with them will make sense and feel relevant and meaningful to students who are ready to process this information, responding from their frontal lobes in a calm brain state. This is the place in which they’ll experience and feel the connection between choices and consequences. Here are some examples of those connections:

  • For a student who interrupted whole-class learning, have him or her create an extra-credit assignment for the class on a specific topic or standard.
  • For a student who used unkind words to another classmate, have these two partner to create a special assignment, job, or favor for another class or the cafeteria or office staff, starting a “pay it forward” chain for a week of school.
  • For a student who showed disrespectful behavior toward an adult, have him or her write a letter of apology explaining what was beneath the hurt feelings that caused the behavior, accompanied by a plan of action to make amends for the hurt feelings that he or she caused.

There are many YouTube videos presenting kindness, empathy, and the tough struggles of others that students will enjoy and learn from. This activity helps us reach beyond our own stubborn egos and negative emotions to serve another. The following links take you to sources of short videos that will help your students create positive emotions and diminish anger:

What are other ways that we could align consequences to impact future behaviors with positive emotion?



Islands of Personality and Trains of Thought


Social and Emotional Learning Series for Edutopia

In the film Inside Out, 11-year-old Riley holds several islands of personality in her brain. These islands were created from her past core memories, experiences, interests, and passions. Positive and negative core memories create these islands that make up our personality or sense of self. Riley’s included Family Island, Friendship Island, Soccer Island, and Goofball Island. Our brains form islands of personality (or, for the purposes of this discussion, islands of self) because of our interests, relationships, experiences, and how others in our lives have affirmed, supported, or possibly weakened our thoughts about who we are and our ever-developing life purposes. How can educators assist in building upon, repairing, and strengthening our students’ islands of self? When we take a few minutes to authentically share and reflect with our students, we cultivate a connection that sustains us through the difficult moments within our classrooms.

Validation is an effective brain-aligned strategy that tells a student, “I hear you and I understand.” Validating a child’s or adolescent’s feelings helps the student to “feel felt,” which is integral to every student’s emotional, social, and cognitive development. As I began delving into this activity, I interviewed several students age 7-17. Below are examples of their islands of self. Not only did they share the names of their islands, they also explained why and how these islands developed. The students loved this type of reflection, giving me a snapshot into their worlds of beliefs, private logic, and sense of self.

  1. People Island
  2. Laughing Island
  3. Scary Island
  4. Animal Island
  5. Intellectual Island
  6. Dancing Island
  7. Spiritual Island
  8. Not Good Enough Island
  9. Island of the Arts

Strategies to Develop Islands of Self

1. Ask students to identify and share their islands of self. As educators, we begin to model this activity by explaining to students that our islands are always changing based on our interests, passions, affirmations, experiences, relationships, and perceptions. Change is life, and much like real islands, our islands can grow healthier or diminish and weaken.

2. Create and display islands of self at the beginning of the year, explaining that these could change based on our experiences. This is a fabulous strategy for gathering perceptual data. The more that students know about themselves, the stronger learners they are. Self-reflection and self-observation are the building blocks for cognitive and academic growth.

Creating islands of self is an activity for all ages and grade levels as students begin to see analogies, contrast, differences, and similarities in and out of school. How many of our students would have an island of mistrust or an island of a broken heart?

3. Create a Future Island and encourage students to imagine, innovate, and begin planning what social and emotional topography will be a part of this island.

4. These islands could be integrated into language arts and history curricula, and of course into personal narratives.

Consider teaching a history, biology and geography lesson looking at changes in people, landforms, and our bodies, and how the environment and cultural shifts create and modify new islands of self.

5. Islands of self could be compared to building mathematical operations and algorithms.

6. Islands of self could assist in developing a thesis and the foundations for nonfiction writing, science research, and the development of a hypothesis.

Train of Thought

In Inside Out, we watched Riley’s train of thought run through her mind during the days and stop or slow down when she was sleeping. We know that the brain never stops working unless we are dead, and as my fourth-grade students suggested last week, maybe our trains take other routes when we are sleeping, and quite possibly our subconscious thought processes are the engineers. We saw fear take over Riley’s train of thought on her first day of school, followed by anger and sadness. Her changing feelings were distracting headquarters (the prefrontal cortex) in her brain and therefore her train of thought was derailed a few times. Students love to learn about their own neurobiology and when they understand what distracts or derails their train of thought in the frontal lobes, they can implement strategies to help them pay attention and focus.

Paying attention and being focused are prerequisites to sustainable learning. Sustained attention and working memory are executive functions that are not fully developed until early adulthood. If a child or adolescent has experienced some form of daily ambient trauma, these executive functions can be underdeveloped or stagnant. We know that emotions drive attention, and that many of our students walk into our classrooms in a hyper-vigilant brain state, constantly scanning the environment for feelings of safety and familiarity. Brain architecture is intimately affected when an individual is experiencing chronic levels of stress. In a stress response state, the neural circuitry is forming synapses in the limbic system, leaving the frontal lobes with very little oxygenated and glucose-rich blood.

For many students, what looks like inattentiveness or lack of focus is quite the opposite. They are paying close attention to the perceived threats in their environments.

Questions for Students

  1. When does your train of thought run smoothly with few stops?
  2. When does your train of thought struggle? Why?
  3. What can I do in the classroom to help your train run with great speed and accuracy?
  4. What can you do to help your train of thought stay on the tracks and reach its destination?


    1. For younger students, it is important to have a tangible train of thought in the classroom. This could be a larger model of chairs and cardboard boxes, or students could build individual models of trains. Images of trains posted in an Attention and Focus corner could help to prime the brain for focus and remembering.
    2. For older students, creating an analogy or visualization of the train of thought could support goal setting and planning. Where is your train heading right now? Is this where you want to go? What are two changes in planning this journey that you could make today?
    3. Teaching students about their neuroanatomy is empowering, as well as the foundation of learning and connection.
    4. Teaching students how to calm their minds through breath and movement will help them focus attention and become better learners. You can read more about this mindful approach in:

What other ways might you help students visualize their identity and how it shapes their cognitive processes?



Creating Core Memories in the Classroom

Social and Emotional Learning Series for Edutopia

We all create core memories. When we encounter an experience with heightened emotion, our memory systems remember the experiences because of the intense emotions associated with the event. We know that memories can become diluted or distorted with time and distance. When we remember an event from our past, our brains secrete the same chemicals from the same neurotransmitters called forth when the experience happened, creating the same feelings.

Your Classroom’s Environmental and Emotional Climate

When students spend many hours in a classroom, they develop an emotional relationship with it. And you have considerable control over the emotional climate of your classroom.

    1. What does the physical ecology of your classroom say to the students? Is it inviting? Are there areas for specific activities and enough space to move around comfortably?
    2. Is there an area with soft lighting and plants? A few plants and lamps are good for brain health.
    3. Could you create an imaginary circle of fear, sadness, joy, etc. within a specific area so that students can empty out or reflect on those feelings? Emotions can be an intense distraction to academic problem solving.
    4. Is there an area for imagination, innovation, choices, vision boards, or travel pamphlets for future careers and vocations?
    5. Could you create an area in your classroom or school for a brain lab?
    6. Could you capture and share two or three positive memories that you’ve noticed about our students (selecting one to three students a day)? Could you model handling a few challenging experiences from your own life and share those with students during a discussion or circle time?
    7. Make your class a memorable place for your students. Greet them sitting down or from a headstand. Declare an Opposite Day and intentionally change up your typical ways of “doing school.” For Do Nows and Bell Ringers, post questions from the list above or show a short video and have students reflect on serving another.

Below are lists of videos to strengthen students’ understanding of service, the anatomy and circuitry of their own brains, and the importance of creating positive core memories in your classroom.

Instruction and Neuroplasticity: Creating Strong Academic Core Memories

Research reports that when students are asked to explain something during a lesson, they are better able to connect new ideas with prior causes and effects. These student-created explanations don’t have to be accurate. The brain works hard when we feel heard and are close to solving a problem. When we teach what we need to learn, we form stronger memories.

    1. Have students predict the new topic before you begin teaching it. They can create a series of guesses based on clues that you provide even if the subject matter doesn’t feel exciting. Our brains love to predict and anticipate. Implement real objects, make signs or advertisements, create a skit, or wear clothing that hints at the subject area.
    2. Our brains are wired for patterns and context, which is why we love stories. What kinds of stories can you create that integrate what you’re teaching? The narratives can include personal information about the school or class, using students’ actual names. A story can make them care and wonder. Stories create anticipation and change up the ways that we traditionally learn.
    3. Brains hold the stories of our lives, and memories exist as networks of linked cells. These connections between cells thicken with repeated use of synapses. Brains don’t typically store facts — they store perceptions and thoughts, which are more subjective than facts. Brains hold onto what is relevant, useful, and interesting. Share these facts with students.
    4. Teach students about the power of their memories. Memories build and weaken quickly. They have two strengths: retrieval strength and storage strength. No memory is ever gone, but its retrieval strength weakens without reinforcement. This is why practicing any new skill or habit is so very important.
    5. If we lose information or a fact and we work hard to remember it again, we’ve deepened our learning. So forgetting is actually good for the brain! The harder we work at retrieving a memory, greater its strength will be.
    6. Teach in images and pictures — our brains innately remember them. No matter the subject area, start with a picture and let the guessing begin. Create a brain state of anticipation by breaking students into small groups with a visual clue about the topic. Students could even act out their clue and then combine the clues from all groups to assemble the lesson’s topic or standard. Here are some examples:
  • 6.RL.3.1: Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a work of literature and contributes to the development of the theme, characterization, setting, or plot.
  • 6.RL.3.2: Explain how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a work of literature, and how the narrator or speaker impacts the mood, tone, and meaning of a text.

Choose a sentence or paragraph from a piece of literature and act out, pantomime, show a video clip, or have the small group sit in chairs and dialogue their clue while the rest of the class observes and guesses.

How could you design brain states of anticipation to create academic core memories?



How Emotions Affect Learning, Behaviors, and Relationships


Social and Emotional Learning Series for Edutopia

We need all of our emotions for thinking, problem solving, and focused attention. We are neurobiologically wired, and to learn anything, our minds must be focused and our emotions need to “feel” in balance. Emotional regulation is necessary so that we can remember, retrieve, transfer, and connect all new information to what we already know. When a continuous stream of negative emotions hijacks our frontal lobes, our brain’s architecture changes, leaving us in a heightened stress-response state where fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, and sadness take over our thinking, logical brains.

The 2015 film Inside Out is an exceptional and accurate portrayal of our five core emotions. These primary emotions are joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust. This film depicts how we use these emotions when difficult and happy experiences arise, and how we need the negative emotions just as much as the positive. After reviewing the science behind Inside Out, I developed research-based educational neuroscience strategies, questions, and assessment ideas aligning with a few scenes from the film. In this post, we’ll explore four categories representing the conceptual and developing brains of all children and adolescents. There is no recipe for successful implementation of these strategies, and each will be based on the grade level, teacher preparation time, class time, and mostly the enthusiasm that we bring when introducing these concepts to our students.


Neuroplasticity is the brain’s capacity to rewire, strengthening pathways between neurons that are exercised and used while weakening connections between cellular pathways that are not used or retrieved. Rewiring our brain circuits is experience dependent — we can change the synapses or connections that are firing by changing a perception or behavior. Neuroplasticity includes reframing or reappraising an experience, event, or relationship so that we observe and experience a different outcome. What we perceive and expect is what we get! The brain sees and responds to perception, not reality. Negative lingering brain states can become neural traits that are hardwired into our circuitry. Neuroplasticity is the best news from neuroscience in recent years.

The processes that support emotional intelligence are addressed in the growing field of Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB). The theory behind IPNB provides a picture of human mental development and the potential for transformation that exists in changing thinking and processing of emotions, thoughts and behaviors (Siegel, 2001, 2006, 2007). The concept of emotional intelligence is interrelated with IPNB and the development of mindful awareness as a strategy for achieving healthy integration of emotional, psychological, physiological, and cognitive functioning (Davis & Hayes, 2011; Siegel, 2001, 2007).

In the film Inside Out, we are introduced to core memories. All of us are constantly creating memories, but what makes them core or significant are the emotions that we attach to these past events, experiences, and relationships. Emotions drive our attention and perception. We form positive and negative core memories because of the emotional intensity that we’ve attached to the event or experience.

The movie introduces us to the emotions mingling in 11-year-old Riley’s brain. Her joyful core memories are represented by golden balls. At the beginning of the film, Riley’s sadness interferes with these golden balls of joy-filled memories. When a core golden memory is touched by sadness, the gold fades to deep blue, and joy becomes frustrated. Later, we learn through Riley’s various experiences that the blue and gold tones representing sadness and joy can work well together, weaving beautiful contrast to create a lasting core memory. These core memories are stored in “long-term” and eventually become a part of our Personality Islands, or what I have labeled as the Islands of Self.

The questions below are designed to ignite your creativity and thought processes as you integrate topics and standards into morning meetings, afternoon circles, and subject matter — as you embrace the power of feelings and how they intimately affect learning, relationships, and behaviors.

Questions for Educators

1. What types of core memories could you create in your classrooms and buildings with students and teachers? These memories could be emotional, academic, or social, reflecting a new relationship, a novel way of attempting an assignment, or a collaboration project with others.

2. How can we create core memories that energize, pique curiosity, and bring joy to our students?

3. Are you teaching the students about their neuroanatomy?

4. Do students understand the negative role that stress plays in cognitive functioning with regard to learning, memorizing, and retrieving information?

5. How might we begin a class period or day with an emotional check-in? What is the weather in your brain? Could we use laminated notecards with the primary emotions for younger students and the primary and secondary emotions for older students? Students could display the feeling that they are holding as they begin class and note how it changes throughout the day.

Questions for Students

These questions were designed for promoting student discussion, self-reflection, and self-awareness. Dr. Dan Seigel’s research reports that, “What is sharable is bearable.”

Sadness helped Joy in the film, and your own Sadness can help you.

1. How do you cope with Sadness?
2. Can you use your Sadness to feel better? How?
3. What would happen if we never felt Sadness? Is it sometimes good to keep Sadness inside a circle so that it does not spread and get out of control? Why?

Fear and Anger can protect and motivate us.

4. When was Fear needed in your life?
5. How did Fear help you?
6. What is the perfect amount of Fear?
7. What happens to our thinking and problem solving when we carry too much Fear or Sadness?
8. How does Anger show up in your brain?
9. Has Anger ever helped you?
10. How do you typically handle your Anger?

Disgust keeps us from being poisoned physically and socially.

11. How has the feeling of Disgust helped you?
12. How has expressing Disgust hurt your relationships or experiences?

In the film, Joy plays the leading role among the feelings in Riley’s brain.

13. Does Joy always play the leading role in our brains?
14. What happened when Joy and Sadness left headquarters?
15. How do we see Joy in your brain?
16. What creates Joy to take over your brain?

Imagine having no feelings at all.

17. What would life be like if we didn’t have feelings?
18. Describe two positive changes in our life if we didn’t have feelings.
19. Describe two negative changes that could occur in a life with no feelings.

In my next post, we’ll look at core memories. Meanwhile, in the comments section below, please share how you help your students accept and explore their own emotions.



Creating Trauma Informed Instruction-Schools The Heart of Teaching and Learning

A Presentation by Dr. Lori Desautels- Marian University

trauma and brain powerpointPreview: Schools as Ecological Systems

Students who attend school from kindergarten through secondary school typically spend more than 13,000 hours of their developing brain’s time in the presence of teachers.

Their brains are highly susceptible to environmental influences – social, physical, cognitive, and emotional. And, more important, their brains will be altered by the experiences they have in school.

(Eric Jensen, Teaching With the Brain in Mind, 2nd Edition, 2005)

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How the Brain Works, Mindfulness and Meditation Pt. 2

In this episode we discuss How the Brain Works in regards to educational neuroscience with Dr. Lori Desautels of Marian University.  If you want to better understand the reasons behind student behavior and motivation while learning how to start training student’s brains to focus this episode is for you.

Reach out to Dr. Desautels on Twitter @Desautels_Phd





In This Episode You’ll Learn:

  • What a Brain Break is and why you should use them
  • How to validate emotional responses with students
  • How our role as educators has changed in the 21st century

Get Part 1

Park Tudor - Mental health and taking care of the whole student The Heart and Brain of the Matter Keynote: ISTA Early Educators Conference. Part 1.
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A message from the Authors of Unwritten, The Story of a Living System

Mark your calendars and come learn with us!
2019 Schedule
  • August 1 - Vincennes Community School Corporation - Vincennes, IN
  • August 2 - Scecina - Indianapolis, IN
  • August 6-8 - Atlantic County - Atlantic City, NJ
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  • August 13 - Hobart Schools - Hobart, IN
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  • August 19-20 - Warsaw Schools - Warsaw, IN
  • August 21 - St. Anthony's - Indianapolis, IN
  • September 3 - Neighborhood Charter Network Schools - Indianapolis, IN
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  • September 21 - Educational Neuroscience Symposium - Indianapolis, IN
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  • October 8 - School Administrators of Iowa - Clive, IA
  • October 10-12 - Virginia Education Association - Richmond, VA
  • October 14-15 - Ignite Achievement Academy - Indianapolis, IN
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  • October 21 - Richmond High School Career Center - Richmond, IN
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  • November 6 - Indiana Wesleyan, Marion, IN
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  • November 12 - St. Anthony's - Indianapolis, IN
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  • November 21-22 - Richmond High School Career Center - Richmond, IN
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  • 2020 Schedule
    • January 2 - Iowa-Williamsburg Community District, Williamsburg, IA
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    • January 13 - Madison Schools, Madison, IN
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    • January 27 - Madison Consolidated Schools, Madison, IN
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    • February 4 - Vincennes Community School Corporation, Vincennes, IN
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    • February 13-15 - Learning and the Brain: Educating Anxious Minds Conference, San Francisco, CA
    More to come!
    “This book is a refreshing look at our philosophy of education and a reminder of what is most important in teaching."

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