Explore Nueroscience in Education with Dr. Lori Desautels

Questions? We’re Ready for the Answers!


We’re Ready for the Answers  

This morning I sat in two middle school inner city classrooms in Indianapolis as I do most weeks, but something struck me deeply in the center of my chest as I was observing the boredom, apathy, detached, sleepy and seemingly sad faces of many of these seventh grade students. It was an arrow filled with questions…as I literally sensed and felt a feeling of “ask me” from all parties in the classroom.  The teachers were cheerfully present, the standards were posted, the paperwork was almost completed, there were no overt disruptions, and compliance was at hand.  The procedures, rules and transitions were hard wired into the brain of these middle school students and adults, but an “inner” inspiration and deep subconscious yearning for something else attached to the notion of the” purpose of school”  were nowhere to be found.  Ironically, just an hour before this first observation, the Dean of our School of Education had just sent an article to the entire faculty regarding “Effective Teachers and Schools” that I had pulled up on my phone.

There is much talk in Indiana and across the nation about the effectiveness of charter, public school, voucher initiatives and private schools, but in reality, our children most in need are often the first to be rejected, (socially and emotionally), the first to be expelled and the first to be relegated to sub-standard services where parents are uninformed, misinformed or unaware of their options, rights and responsibilities.  Often times, children with learning and emotional challenges when entering a charter or private school option, naively discover that the services and /or in house systems are set up in ways that are unable to meet the legal, let alone the emotional, cognitive and social, least restrictive environment needs for these students. When we look inside the minds and hearts of troubled youth, zero tolerance policies and coercive behavior management practices that have un-trained and unaware adults… basically are fighting pain based behavior with more pain.   I am there… My students, first and second year teachers are seeing this every day! Turn around schools create mottos,  class chants, encasing notions that an effective teacher can change the entire trajectory of a troubled and impoverished student’s school success, but is this accurate? Is this the end point, the true marker of successful education? Have we taught our students to reach within, to listen to their hearts, to their intuitive knowledge, to live outside the walls of school?  We create slogans and repeat statements such as “College or Die” and we evaluate student and teacher success on assessment scores, state created rubrics, student growth models, and curriculum development; yet, is six hours of compliance, a tucked in shirt, walking in a straight line quietly through a hallway while toggling through the standards  the telltale signs of emotional engagement and passionate and question filled learning, positing  the product of creative problem searching and questioning.

What we do know is chronic stress intimately affects learning, long and short term memory and our immune systems. We know that deep learning is held in long term memory when it is experienced and self –assessed.

School stress levels may be getting worse. Let’s start with kids. Over 20% of adolescents nationwide (ages 11-17) have some type of a stress disorder (depression, reactive attachment disorder, learned helplessness, bipolar, etc.) Top 3 kids stressors are 1) school academic pressures 2) family pressure and 3) bullying (kidshealth.org). Among kids from poverty, 60-95% have chronic stress.

Chronic stress hurts student achievement. It is well known that chronic stress contributes to over half of all school absences (Johnston-Brooks, et al. 1998). The ways to reduce this in the classroom include: a) more physical activity, yoga or stretching, b) greater sense of control, including decision-making and responsibility, and c) improved coping skills. (Share everyday incidents with your students and let them suggest how they would solve the problem.)

We do know that the brain processes questions long after they have been asked and we know that when an individual is given a question filled with optimism, a bit of hope or affirmation, noticing one small thing going well, perspectives broaden and the frontal lobe of the developing brain, the seat of our higher thought processes engages as we slowly leave the fight flight freeze response of our lower more primitive brain. We know every moment we encounter a conversation, an experience, a novel way of attempting an assignment, and being in a relationship, the brain structurally and functionally changes!

So as teachers, school leaders and parents, what can we do? We begin by asking questions. What do you need? How can I help? We begin to inquire and take notes from a heart and mind combination. Just for a moment or two, we observe beyond the behaviors into the eyes of an injured heart.  We listen to understand rather than listen to respond.

My graduate students, second year teachers in the Indianapolis public schools are doing just this. They are changing it up this semester presenting their students these questions in a self-assessment format  These teachers are learning about many aspects of their students’ lives as one teacher reported , that her adolescent student responded with frustration with a few of the questions on the self-assessment  “I don’t like people trying to get into my heart!” Together, this teacher and student shared a moment of insight inside unknown territory and a precipice for where to begin as this relationship unfolds. We ask the questions, listen and then take those responses and sit beside our students where we can together build an “action plan of hope,” implementing small steps, feedback, self-assessment and a collaborative process that begins with the courage to ask, to sit for a while with the unknown… as teachers, we open the door and then then we wait, affirm, proceed, remind, guide, show consequences, and learn.

Below are lists of questions that might begin to lessen these emotional and cognitive chasms that are developing in this time of heated, chaotic school reform debates. These questions do not solve problems; they explore what cannot be seen with only the eyes. They propel  self-reflection and social and emotional self-assessment initiating dialogue, carrying to the surface  some long held negative emotions and beliefs  that have barricaded  learning, blocked active school motivation while  hijacking  feelings of well-being.   Choose two or three and work from a few questions with those students who trigger your emotions and leave you sleepless on many nights. These social and emotional  questions  have the potential to raise those test scores and close those gaps, but more importantly raise the curious creative thinking patterns our brains were and are wired to hold and expand;  when we mentor and question from the inside out…

What do I need?

What resources (people, activities or things) could assist me in reaching my small and larger goals?

How can I show that I am progressing to bigger goals?

What can my class do to assist me?

What can my teacher do to assist me?

How do I handle negative situations? When these situations occur, what do I typically say to myself?

What would be a statement that would encourage me?

Who are my heroes?  What are the character traits I admire in these people that make them my heroes?

How will I personally know I am on the right track? What will tell me I strayed off the track of my goals?

What are three negative emotions I feel most often?

What are three positive emotions I feel often or sometimes?

How could creative visualization help me?

How could I learn to begin again even after a day of small mistakes?

Name three strategies that my school-teacher could begin that would assist me in moving toward my goals?

What are two or three challenges or obstacles that prevent me from reaching small or big goals?

What are my strengths?

What are my challenges?

How will I plan to focus on these strengths knowing that my thoughts and feelings drive all my behaviors and words with others?


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