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Safety

Teacher readiness series #8

I’m not nearly as concerned about student readiness for school as I am about teacher readiness.  If a student feels unsafe, there is an immediate physiological response which changes how their brain works.  In an extreme example, if your student was attacked by a vicious dog, their body would be flooded with chemicals called glucocorticoids that increase their heart rate and breathing, shut down digestion, turn on quick glucose creation for energy, and create a host of other changes.  Of these changes, it is most interesting what takes place in the brain.

The freeze, fight, flight mode is the response of the brain to these chemicals.  To understand one aspect of these changes in the brain, it helps to know there are high-affinity and low-affinity glucocorticoid receptors in the frontal cortex (as well as elsewhere in the brain).  The frontal cortex is the part of the brain that gives us our higher thinking ability. It figures out the math problems and creates the interesting short story twist.  The high-affinity receptors function is such a way that when a small amount of glucocorticoids enter the blood stream, the high-affinity receptors are activated, and the frontal cortex actually works better.  This can happen when students are appropriately challenged and energized to solve a problem, or they are anticipating some event.  The low-affinity receptors activate when lots of glucocorticoids enter the blood stream, and these actually shut down the activity of the frontal cortex.  This is what we see when we get upset with a student and they freeze, unable to give us a reasonable answer or make sense.

This makes it very important to keep our students emotionally and physically safe.  Depending on the student, different levels and types of danger can set off the flow of boatloads of glucocorticoids.  When this happens, the results are fairly consistent, the student is ready to fight, run (flight), or freeze.  Their brain is saying we are in danger, and the number one priority is to get out of danger.  This means it is not time to solve geometry problems, write a fantastic conclusion to your article, or put the art project together.  The brain under these conditions is not capable of doing these higher level thinking tasks.

This reaction can happen with an emotionally unsafe situation such as we discussed in the last article, as well as when a student perceives they are in physical danger.  It is easy to see how a student who has been beaten at one point in their life could easily shut down entirely when we get upset at them.  We’ve never hurt them physically in any way, but they associate being upset with anger, and anger with getting beaten.  The same thing can happen with raising our voices.  Sometimes an intense voice can set a student off though we’ve never harmed them, because an intense voice has been at the beginning of some very bad situations for them.  Someone who has been hurt deeply by embarrassment can easily shut down from minor embarrassment we might not notice.

When kids experience the fight, flight or freeze reaction, they can’t just shut it off. It takes time to recover, sometimes as much as an hour or two.  The amount of control they have varies from student to student, but as teachers we must realize they need to feel safe again.  Until they feel safe and calm down, learning is not going to take place.

How to do this varies with the student.  We need to remove the threat as much as possible.  After the threat us removed, deep breathing helps. Physical movement/exercise helps.  In one of an associated teacher’s classrooms a normally progressing kindergartener had his father put in jail and his sister commit suicide in the same month.  The student’s learning stopped.  Two months later he was still on the same letter and he hadn’t added one letter more even though he was in school every day.  Since physical movement and exercise has an amazing ability to reduce the effects of stress, we talked and this teacher decided to have an aid teach letters to this student on the basketball court.  Letters went on the floor and shots we’re made from the various letters.  Learning started again immediately.  While we can’t know for sure that this was the change that made the difference, we know for certain from research that exercise and movement reduce stress.

I hope that you can see how important it is that your classroom be an appropriately challenging environment (this makes the brain work better) which is free from emotional and physical danger.  As you also know each student is different and we need to be aware that their stress reaction can be more or less sensitive than other students.  These variations can be challenging.  However I trust that you can understand how something as simple as a morning routine that is consistent, doable, and enjoyable can be the type of activity which works to lower stress and increase learning.  The same can be said for regular movement activities throughout your instructional day.  If you are at one of those mixed up schools that has gotten rid of recess, make it happen whenever, wherever, and however you can.  Then be aware that individual students may need a customized approach to help them handle their stress reaction.

Rick Doughty is a parent of three young adults and the Vice President of Administrative Services at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. His wife Sally is a second grade teacher at a Title I school in Beaverton, Oregon. Rick is a Certified Trainer in brain-based learning through the Jenson Learning Corporation and has a master’s degree in communication studies. His passion is helping to make complex material and ideas useful and understandable. This passion is reflected in his book Fulfilled Kids, Fulfilled Parents which takes principles from neuroscience and helps us put them to use in parenting.

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