& RESPONDING TO TRAUMA
When educators understand the brain and how it works, they can equip students will the same knowledge and skills to help them quiet their mind, relax, reduce stress and develop pro-social behaviours.
HOW THE BRAIN WORKS
In order to understand how the stress response affects students, we first need to know three key players in the brain: the amygdala, the hippocampus and the pre-frontal cortex.
The amygdala is your “at all costs” bodyguard. When the amygdala perceives a threat or danger to the body - from actual physical danger to a stressful testing environment - it will activate and send a distress signal to the command center of the brain.
The distress signal will shut down other areas of the brain and it will put you into a fight, flight or freeze mode.
Fight, flight or freeze can make you say things you do not mean to say, run away from the problem and remove anything that is in your path on the way out, or freeze and shut down.
The amygdala’s response disconnects your decision-maker, the pre-frontal cortex.
When the amygdala is calm, the pre-frontal cortex can do its job and help you weigh the good and the bad, choose between better and best and predict the outcome of your actions.
Watch as Baby Emerson react to his mom blowing her nose.
What is his initial response to her actions? Fight, flight, or freeze? How does his reaction change throughout the video?
Practicing mindfulness allows students to control their amygdala and calm their minds. An important consideration for educators in a classroom setting is that if a student is under stress, the hippocampus, the area that stores and recalls information, otherwise known as the librarian of the brain, does not work and students are not ready to learn.
Being able to recognize when they are in a low or heightened energy state and to understand the proactive steps to be able to return to a calm and “ready to learn” state of mind will increase student success.
THE REWIRED BRAIN
Every student has a story and it is important to know that while understanding the typical function of the brain, students that have experienced trauma in their lives may not react in the typical ways.
Repetitive trauma can result in rewiring the brain to feel as though stressful situations are the norm. When you have students like this, you will experience a classroom that seems ready to learn, attentive and calm and suddenly a student may sabotage the calm with an outburst, and creation of “drama” so they can retreat. These students are always in survival mode, learning to cope with the feelings of a calm brain.
Students may also experience historical trauma. For instance, Aboriginal children in Canada are still experiencing the effects Indian Residential Schools had on their parents and grandparents. The abuse and neglect that occurred have had enduring, long-term impacts on families and the culture’s dynamic.
Fortunately, the neuroplasticity of the brain allows us to retrain the brain and build relationships, resiliency and grit.
HOW DO WE (RE)TRAIN OUR BRAINS?
According to Dr. Stuart Shankar, author of “Self-Reg” and “Calm, Alert, and Learning”, there are five core steps to transforming behaviour.
Read the signs and reframe the behaviour.
Identify the stressors.
Reduce the stress.
Reflect. Become aware of when you’re overstressed.
Respond. Figure out what helps you calm, rest and recover.
The important take away from these core steps is not to approach a student like you are going to fix them. These steps are meant for you to reflect and adjust as an educator. “Sometimes the fixes are surprisingly simple - lowering your voice, tidying up a visual clutter in your classroom or changing the lighting” (Shanker, 2016, p. 41).
A dramatic change will result when educators start to think of misbehaviour and bad attitudes as stress and respond accordingly.
WHERE TO START!
Begin by assessing your classroom environment by using this great checklist!
Identify what you have in place and what you can adjust to make your classroom as Self-Reg friendly as possible.
Once you assess your classroom environment, you can check out the following resources below for more information and strategies to help you and your students understand how the brain works and how to train yourselves to control your stress response.