Archive for EDUTOPIA

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.


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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2019 Schedule
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