Engage… Not Manage! ( A New Discipline Model for our Students that Inspires)

Engage… Not Manage

Who are we? As teachers, students, individuals and members of our communities, who are we? What creates the thoughts we have, the challenges we perceive, the celebrations of connections we experience and the grief we feel when those we love have left our lives? Why does “rejection” sting so much? Why is attachment to one another such a significant facet in our survival as a human being?

After much reading and pondering of the research on how the brain is challenged with perceived stress, relationships and learning, I can now comfortably postulate that our discipline/ behavior models in our schools must forge and place a huge emphasis on social connection. Who are we? We are social brains who need connection with one another as much as we need food, water and sleep. Dr. Matthew Lieberman suggests that our need for connection is linked to our survival. The lack of a social connection is defined as “felt rejection” and Lieberman’s research suggests through fMRI scans that the same areas in the brain where we experience physical pain are where our social pain circuitry exists. Social pain hurts and “rejection felt” diminishes our sense of self-efficacy and self-worth.

When I think of our most struggling and troubled students, social pain and rejection have been a part of their young and developing personal and social worlds. When a stable sense of belonging and connection are not present in our environments, we begin to distrust those around us and teachers are often times the recipients of the pain based behaviors we experience when a student is in “social pain.”

If we asked anyone what their two most painful experiences have been in their lives, the majority of responses would probably not be, “my broken leg or the time I fell and had 20 stitches.” We would most likely recall a time when we had lost a loved one or a relationship. Many of our students walk into our classrooms with experiences of social attachment pain. We need to speak to this type of distress, as a child or adolescent in social pain is reacting from a chronic stress response and his or her brain is primarily activated from within the emotional centers of the limbic system. Our need to belong and to feel liked, loved, and approval from those we care about is central to our well-being. What does this have to do with a new model for behavioral engagement in our schools? Everything!

We are so focused on school performance in so many moments, that we sometimes have lost sight of the dire importance of connecting emotionally with our most troubled students (and all students) in ways that engage their minds, interests and hearts. This aforementioned connection creates a coherence of an exchange of information and communication. When teachers feel this connection, they too are responding from the higher cortical regions of the brain and their dopamine reward centers are activated when feelings of connection are present. I see and feel these positive and negative encounters every day in our inner city and township schools. My interactions with students are intimately connected with my own feelings and agendas. When my efforts in the classroom are met with frustration, opposition and defiance, I can inadvertently take on and mimic the emotions exchanged through the negative encounters my students are emitting. There is an unspoken and subtle feeling of distrust from many of the students who have experienced too much social pain in their young lives. Right , wrong, good or bad, I have found that teaching is first and foremost about connection and building relationships with those students who dare us to teach them but especially care for them.

Many of our most troubled youth are suspended and expelled every second and a half in the United States. Ninety-five percent of these expulsions and suspensions are for non-violent minor disruptions such as tardiness or disrespect. Students of color are suspended three and a half times that of white students and in many state take over and newly created charter schools, we have moved to a zero tolerance policy ignoring the neural circuitry and the evolution of our brains. When we are frozen in fight flight freeze response, (stress response state) our frontal lobes shut down and off. The prefrontal cortex is the location where are executive function skills are developing through childhood and young adulthood. We are unable to respond to instruction, direction, discern or create a better solution.

Dr. Matthew Lieberman reports on studies from researchers from Cal Tech who examined the neural responses of individuals through an MRI with regard to “fairness.” Fair treatment implies that we are valued and connected, and although this is an abstract part of connection, these researchers discovered that our reward system in the brain was firing when we perceive fair treatment. We are willing to work towards a goal if we feel validated and valued.

As educators we need to prime the brain state for a cohesive response. Our brains seek pleasure and also seek experiences that avoid pain, but in the moment of heated conflict, we react. After a while of chronic survival reactions, our neural circuitry becomes hard wired for lingering reactive paths of least resistance and paths of self-destructing cycles. As educators, we don’t have the luxury of sitting beside every student that is crumbling with negative emotion, but we can derail, creating a discrepant event that assists in changing the momentum of a downward spiral of behavior, thoughts and feelings.
Two weeks ago a student in second grade at a large public elementary school in Indianapolis walked into his classroom and saw that the morning breakfast was pizza and not cereal! He observed, became tense, ran to the teacher and shouted his disappointment. The exchange became conflictual with a temper tantrum, tears, shouting and a very tenuous start to the school day! His teacher was left feeling depleted and unsure of how to regain the trust, stability and the motivation of not only this one student, but the class as a whole. It wasn’t about the breakfast pizza.

So many of our children and youth are: “carrying in.” Children in pain bring into our classrooms the disappointments and accrued patterns of reacting to feelings originating from environments that have been filled with developmental every day traumas and stressors. Students in trauma and heightened levels of stress carry within them a hyper-aroused baseline state- navigating their world in a continuous mode of fight or flight. The impact of these chronic levels of negative emotion significantly impair brain function with decreased volume in the hippocampus, the area in the brain where memories are formed and transferred to long term storage. Research has also discovered irregular levels of neurotransmitters and an overproduction of neural connections associated with fear, anxiety, and impulsive responses leading to significant cognitive challenges. What can we do to lessen the feelings of rejection that our brains are so sensitive to that they treat it as a painful event?

I am proposing a video game model of behavior and emotional engagement that incentivizes students to self-assess, and reflect; choosing options that are socially rewarding. When students begin to feel anxious, angry and frustrated, they can begin to notice these emotions, choosing an experience that lessens the growing anxiety, boredom and anger. So many of our children and adolescents do not have the social modeling in their environments or the social opportunities to try out and assess a different way of approaching a perceived negative event; especially in those moments when negative emotion is growing stronger.
The problem with many of our current systems of behavior management is management. When we try to manage one another, we all end up feeling defeated because people are living beings with feelings thoughts with ever changing minds. Our brains are attracted to social rewards and when we create a model of engagement that is founded on social rewards and saliency, we pay attention to the novelty and new opportunities in our environments. We pay attention to information that is selected by our RAS filter which picks up environmental stimuli that feels different or unusual- novel. The Reticular activating system (RAS) in the lower part of the posterior brain and picks up and filters incoming stimuli from our environments. The RAS pays attention to movement, novelty, and danger. When we tap into a novel student driven model of choice and movement plan -with a focus on the process of improving behaviors and positive emotion; the information we are sharing stands a far better chance of reaching the higher brain cortical pathways. Pleasurable changes in patterns =engagement. This model requires “us” to make the changes. We will need to self-reflect on our own triggers and what behaviors from our students cause us to jump or even begin to enter into the conflict cycle. When we model our own thought and feeling processes in front of our students, we are indirectly teaching and sharing with them ways to approach a different solution or pathway to an emotional or cognitive challenge. Our nonverbal communication will need to be transparent and aligned with our words and behaviors. If we are feeling a disconnect with our students, we will need to also step away and calm our own brains so that we may enter into the communication process and dialogue with our students embracing a broadened perspective and a careful balance of emotional receptivity.

Every behavior, thought and feeling we have occurs with electrical chemical communication. All behavior is a form of communication. When we expect uncertainty; dopamine levels rise in the brain and we have the initial engagement and attention of our students. Discipline models need to be salient because a salient event activates the attentional systems of the brain. When we enjoy one another’s choices, interactions and are affirmed by the positive emotions we feel in the exchange within this model, we are rewarded in lasting ways- socially motivated communication.

We begin by placing an emotional or feeling value on a number with one being content and ready to begin and seven representing the point of “no return.” Just as we model procedures and guidelines in our classrooms at the beginning of a school year, we will also need to teach students about this model with much discussion and questions shared. This model will look different based upon grade level, class dispositions Teachers and students agree in a neutral time and place about how they will communicate his or her growing frustration with a signal or gesture that signals a choice needs to be made. For example, at a level 4, the student chooses a little air movement or time away from the task. All behavior is a form of communication and when we pay attention to the needs underlying the words expressed, we discover increased engagement and well-being. This model is pliable and is meant to be a guideline for your students and classrooms. No one knows you or your students better than you. Play with it, mold it, and change it according to the growing and ever changing needs of you and your students.

The first aspect of this behavior engagement model is to teach our students about their own neuro-anatomy! When we understand how the brain learns, how it processes and changes so quickly with every word thought and experience-we empower our students with the life time tools and experiences that enhance their lives. We also begin to understand how we can sabotage our own neural circuitry with choices of behaviors, words and the attention or lack thereof to our brain’s health and reward system.

A. Creating a mutual goal is the first step in this process of creating achievable challenges and immediate feedback with the goal of “forced academic and behavioral success.” This goal must be clear, malleable, specific and measurable. “John will work on the assigned project for 15 minutes without distracting is classmates by talking, gesturing or interrupting the learning of others in the classroom.”
B. Students’ interests and expertise are key components to this model. Each student will have a learning interest profile that he or she will build as their interests, passions and expertise are shared.
C. All interests will be tied intimately into subject matter and standards with “the use of questions” driving this discipline / engagement model.
D. This model is focused on effort and process as students are always able to begin again and self-assess the levels of their performance and engagement.

Incentivizing One Another …Engagement Based Discipline Model

Levels 1__________________________7

Level 7- Students engaged, in the flow, teaching and learning from both student and educator are occurring. (Social intrinsic rewards work well here because when someone notices what is going right and well, we continue on)

Level 6- Engaged, and trying to complete tasks (We continue to implement affirmation, noticing the effort and sharing our observations about the high engagement.)

Level 5- Less engaged but there is still effort and collaboration (We continue to implement affirmation, noticing the effort and sharing our observations about the high engagement.)

Level 4- Slightly engaged, a bit distracted, and the flow of learning is interrupted
(It is at these levels (4 and 3) we move in closer to the student, touching a shoulder, showing authentic interest while observing all forms of communication. Notice with words, tone, use of questions and affirmation) What could I do to help you? What do you need? How can we come up with a plan? Do you need me to check in with you in five minutes? Maybe taking a 90 second brain rest or break is also good to recharge at this level.
Level 3- Distracted but willing to try another option to begin again… students and teacher may begin to feel frustrated, irritated and antsy.
Level 2- All learning has ceased, student is feeling somewhat oppositional and shutting off and down to feedback and learning. Student is reacting from lower brain and emotional centers. There is increased irritation. Student needs choices to recharge and begin again.

• Time to choose ( these have been previously discussed during an a neutral time with students)
• ( Movement, stretching, water, a snack)
• Focused attention practice
• Minutes off the task with an activity that de-escalates the stress response such as running an errand for the teacher
• Moving to another classroom to assist another teacher or serving another student)
• Design instruction in an area of choice and expertise for a few minutes

Level 1- Has reached the point of no return- angry, closed off, disengaged and feeling hopeless and desiring to fight, freeze or flee
At this level, the focus is twofold. We need to drain off the negative emotion with some space and time and then we provide encouraging feedback. We emphasize process, effort and the big and small goals for the student once the negative emotion has been cleared away.
Goals and Higher Levels of Attainment

The social rewards can be many and varied for students who have acquired the higher levels of this Behavioral / Engagement model on a daily or weekly basis. Depending upon age of student, grade level, and severity of reactions during stress responses, the higher levels attained can offer:
1. Time to design a special project and teach this to a younger class or another teacher
2. Choice of outside speaker aligned with student’s interest to learn more about a vocation or life passion.
3. Music choices for a class website or blog
4. Organize a service event for the classroom
5. Teacher is asked to do homework over a weekend that directly ties in the student’s interests and passions. “What would you like to learn more about?”
6. Positive Referral Certificates
7. Develop a class newspaper
8. Lead discussion groups
9. Bring in college or vocational students to share different majors and minors

Consequences for repeated lowered levels of engagement are still enforced, but they need to be logical and fair. If a student is not working during class time, we need to think about an alternate environment and time where they can continue to work once the negative frantic emotion has been drained off. This is creative thought at its best. Instead of suspending and removing students to sit in hot emotion following a negative encounter, we need to think about how the brain can readjust and recharge so that the students are neurobiologically primed to begin again. We also must redefine how we perceive errors and mistakes with regard to behaviors. Can we create learning experiences with these perceived hijacked amygdala responses? What feels oppositional to us is really a very clear crying out for communication where a deeper need may not be being addressed? I loved the title of a new book I saw at the Brain and Learning Conference last week: “Yelling does not grow dendrites!”

Lori L Desautels

I want to thank from the bottom of my heart, Dr. Judy Willis, educator, neurologist and my forever friend and mentor who through her creation of a video game model for academic success inspired these ideas and notions for a Behavioral/ Engagement Discipline Model for students who distrust and feel such great social and inner pain so much of the time.

2 Responses to “Engage… Not Manage! ( A New Discipline Model for our Students that Inspires)

  • Jodi,
    I just saw this!!! Thank you so much!!
    Lori Please feel free to e-mail me anytime at ldesaute@butler.edu

  • The article was so informative. I am going to immediately look to purchase the book. This knowledge Will benefit the student the teacher and the success of the class. Thank you

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