5 Paths to Student Success this Year… Where do you start?

Brain Based

The correct answer for you is… it depends. Every teacher, student, school, and community is different. So let’s re-introduce you to your “Top 5 Brain-based Paths” this month. These are what your students need most (you may already be engaging several of these options). But it’s the one you’re missing that will matter the most.


Here is this month’s insight. The human brain can put up with a lot of mistakes in the classroom. But for optimal learning, just 5 things matter. Whenever we design, formulate, or imagine a way of learning, remember the question, “What do our brains truly need?”

Biologically, the following five may be considered as essentials for school: safety, belonging, sense of control, spirit, and self-regulation. Ensure that every day you enhance at least one of the following in your classes. At this moment, your natural inclination is to roll your eyes and say, “I just don’t have the time.” I understand that; these “big five” could each be (and maybe should be) a life-long pursuit. But start with one small step.

1. Sense of control (lowers stress & increases self-efficacy)
2. Sense of belonging (acceptance & friends provide support)
3. Sense of safety (from pandemic, bullying & “isms”)
4. Sense of spirit (curiosity, interest, and relevance in learning)
5. Self-regulation (hopefulness, gratitude, and mind/body health)

Having said that, this monthly newsletter will help you focus on just one thing you can do each day to foster progress. All we are after is the right trajectory. With that in play, students feel progress and embrace the progress with joy and optimism. Let’s get started.

The Research

Sense of control lowers stress and increases self-efficacy. In fact, stress is a physiological response to a perception of a lack of control over a relevant, aversive person or situation. So, increasing your sense of control is truly a strong source for managing unwanted stress. In the classroom, too much stress or too little stress can impair learning and memory formation (Zoladz & Diamond, 2008 and Godoy et al. 2018).

Sense of belonging (acceptance & friends provide support). Students behave in groups with a sense of “risk vs. reward” analysis. Having others on “their side” is a crucial step for willingness to take academic risks (e.g. put out effort for the long haul such as grades). While friendship instability can compromise academic functioning in middle school, the reverse is true. Friendship reciprocity is highly relevant for children’s self-worth and peer identification (Maunder & Monks, 2019). Plus when students lose friends, their academics often suffer (Lessard & Juvonen 2018).

Sense of safety (from COVID, bullying & isms). Safety is tantamount to school attendance and participation. Every potential risk (bullying, sexism, discrimination, etc.) reduces effort and increases discomfort and hope (Williams, Schneider, Wornell & Langhinrichsen-Rohling, 2018).

Sense of spirit (curiosity and interest in learning). Humans have a natural curiosity and learning. Our learning “spirit” or curiosity is a trait that drives students to ask exploratory questions and find creative ways to solve problems at school. But many teachers suppress the natural curiosity and interest by focusing on the “right” path. Curiosity is linked with both academic and personal outcomes (Cain 2019 and Clark, Harbaugh & Seider, 2019). The good news is that curiosity can be fostered and it can have a measurable impact on student learning.

Self-regulation (hopefulness, gratitude, and mind/body health). Managing your stress response is critical for health. There is a significant correlation between self-regulation and educational performance (Sahranavard, Miri & Salehiniya, 2018). In elementary students, evidence supports substantive links between self-regulation and academic achievement in young children (McClelland & Cameron, 2011).

Practical Applications

In the short space we have, there will be just one or two options for you. Each will take from 30” to as much as three minutes. Remember two things. One, it is the aggregate of what you do that matters most, not just one thing. Second, doing the one crucial thing adds up to the aggregate. They both matter! Here are the brain-based things you can do to boost effort, motivation, and learning.

1. Sense of control
Teach students how to calm nerves, stress, or upsets. Begin with slow inhales of 2 breaths, hold for the count of 2, then exhale with 2 breaths, hold for the count of 2, repeat. Do this beginning with mouth breathing, then shift to nose-only breaths. Do this 3-4 times and notice the calming effect (it’s all about control).

2. Sense of belonging
Say to each student sometime during the first week of class, “I am so glad you’re in our class. You belong here and I’ve got your back.”

3. Sense of safety
Clearly state your policy about being safe, bullying, and discrimination in 3 minutes or less. Include students (ask them to repeat it to a neighbor or add a suggestion to it). Make this part of your daily class culture read of 7 statements of your class values.

4. Sense of spirit
Initially use the short-term buy-in tools of the A-B-Cs (anticipation, behavioral relevance, curiosity). “In just 20 seconds, you’ll learn… Or, “Here’s why you might care about this…” And, “Have you ever wondered how… or if…?” Over a longer time, use the personal values of relationships, affiliation, autonomy, status, and mastery.

5. Self-regulation
Teach students the power of reframing. Role-model the process to turn obstacles into opportunities, setbacks into lessons, failures into insights. Then give students examples to reframe with partners or in a team.

Now, for my biggest fear. You have just heard me saying, “Do this differently and you’ll get better results.” Your easiest bias to activate would be the familiarity bias (“Yup; heard this before. Nothing new here. Everybody go home.”) If you do, I am sorry; I have failed you. I failed to activate your choice of playing the ‘long game.’ Biases are shortcuts to save time and are often about the ‘short game.’

You see, life goes by so fast that many would say, “Live in the moment, smell the roses since life is short.” And they’re right. Life is about savoring the smell of fragrant flowers, eating a great meal, and enjoying hugs from friends and family.

But most everything in life that’s worth having over a lifetime requires the ‘the long game,’ too. This includes great health, a solid retirement, bills paid, great friends, and a loving partner. Learn to do the small things today that cost you almost nothing (except maybe a moment of satisfaction) in the short haul.

But over the long haul, you’ll have a chance to extend the number of sunsets you’ll see, have the joy of far more hugs, savor more extraordinary meals you cook or find in a great restaurant.

So, what’s it going to be? Complain or take a deep breath and make small crucial changes? Choose right now. Tell me and your colleagues what you decided on. Then begin.


Cain J. (2019). We should pay more attention to student curiosity. Curr Pharm Teach Learn. 11, 651-654.
Clark S, Harbaugh AG, Seider S. (2019). Fostering adolescent curiosity through a question brainstorming intervention. J Adolesc. 75, 98-112.
Godoy, L. D., Rossignoli, M. T., Delfino-Pereira, P., Garcia-Cairasco, N., & de Lima Umeoka, E. H. (2018). A Comprehensive Overview on Stress Neurobiology: Basic Concepts and Clinical Implications. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 12, 127.
Knifsend CA, Camacho-Thompson DE, Juvonen J, Graham S. (2018). Friends in Activities, School-related Affect, and Academic Outcomes in Diverse Middle Schools. J Youth Adolesc. 47(6):1208-1220.
Lessard LM, Juvonen J. (2018). Losing and gaining friends: Does friendship instability compromise academic functioning in middle school? J Sch Psychol. 69:143-153.
Maunder R, Monks CP. (2019). Friendships in middle childhood: Links to peer and school identification, and general self-worth. Br J Dev Psychol. 37(2):211-229.
McClelland MM, Cameron CE. (2011). Self-regulation and academic achievement in elementary school children. New Dir Child Adolesc Dev. 133, 29-44.
Sahranavard S, Miri MR, Salehiniya H. (2018). The relationship between self-regulation and educational performance in students. J Educ Health Promot. 28,154.
Williams S, Schneider M, Wornell C, Langhinrichsen-Rohling J. (2018). Student’s Perceptions of School Safety: It Is Not Just About Being Bullied. J Sch Nurs. 34, 319-330.
Zoladz, P. R., & Diamond, D. M. (2008). Linear and non-linear dose-response functions reveal a hormetic relationship between stress and learning. Dose-response: a publication of International Hormesis Society, 7, 132–148.
Eric Jensen is a former teacher with a real love of learning. He grew up in San Diego and attended public schools. While his academic background is in English and human development, he has a real love of educational neuroscience. For over 20 years, he has been connecting the research with practical classroom applications.

Leave a Reply