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!!

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