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Do You Prefer Comfort Over Grit?

Teaching Brain Based Kids

Have you or your students changed over time? It sure is tempting to say ‘yes.’ We hear about more kids staying indoors, fewer two-parent households, and more screen time. Today, our kids grow up with fridges, cell phones, microwaves, Netflix, and maybe a car. Have we just all gotten soft and lazy? Is teaching grit to our students a lost art? Interested in how to foster a stronger mental toughness with kids?

Background

Your adaptive brain continually prioritizes survival while it adjusts your norms of risk and reward towards less energy.  To your brain, risk means threat and uncertainty; and both may require new energy expenditures. The solution? Many avoid risk, do less, and take fewer chances. Comfort is often chosen over hard work. In short, the more comfortable you become, the more comfort you’ll want. And it never ends.

If you’re working 55 hours a week, then 40 hours a week might feel easy and comfortable. “I’ll take that!” But if you work 40 hours a week, then 30 hours a week feels much better (more comfort), almost like retirement. But this process never quits in your brain. At one point, 5 hours a week will be too much work. Comfort never quits.

Want an example? Government data shows 52% of Americans (over 26 million) ages 18 to 29 are now living with at least one parent. That’s the largest recorded percentage in U.S. history, going back nearly 100 years and it includes World Wars, depressions, and widespread diseases. The numbers are stable across all ethnic groups, gender, and between city dwellers and residents of rural areas (Pew Research, 2020).

Let’s make some sense out of this.

In the broadest sense, your brain engages just two primary modes for your daily survival. They are “ON” (scan and search mode) and “OFF” (screen saver; you’re relaxing). At a raw survival level, your brain is either scanning the environment (assessing for threats, options, or goals) or it is resting.

So how do these two modes connect to your brain’s preference for comfort?

The prevailing old model (last 150 years) of human brains was stimulus and response. We get input (sight, touch, taste, sound, or smell), then we respond. But today, researchers believe your brain is not a stimulus-response organ at all. In fact, its much different. It’s all about survival in ways you never thought of. I am inviting you into a whole new way of understanding yourself and your students.

The Research

As an educator, the scanning or “ON” mode for your brain consumes much of your day. Let’s narrow our focus to your visual system. It is much different than an unbiased ‘camera.’ What you actually see is assembled and orchestrated in real time so fast that it appears as if it’s real.

In your scanning mode, your brain begins all searches in the area around you with a very high speed, well-prioritized system… before you even consciously see anything at all. Why? Your brain is scanning for threat and rewards. Remember, the goal is survival. Next, your brain makes multiple predictions (via accessing memories, mindsets, and biases) to fill in the visual scene you’re about to discover. The prediction helps you assess certainty vs. confusion. Finally, it is comparing your predictions with the actual input of real-time visual data and then it adjusts expectations with perceptions. This goal helps you assess potential energy needs.

Now that’s a sophisticated system for ‘just seeing’!

We think we see what’s present in the environment. But our brain biases what we see with critical filters. Optical illusions are a good example of you seeing what you want to see. Your three ‘survival’ filters are: 1) threat and reward, 2) relevance and bias, 3) energy expenditure/consumption. Let’s unpack these.

1. Threat and Reward. Your fastest processing is for survival; threat or reward wins out (Fox & Damjanovic, 2006) and (Gutiérrez-Cobo, et. al, 2019). As an example, a teacher in the classroom would likely notice a student’s physical threats faster than if a student is struggling with an assignment (Weymar, Löw, Ohman & Hamm 2011). This threat/reward filter is happening even before you fully process your visual image. It might sound almost sci-fi, but you live longer this way. Threats and rewards are your number one priority for what your brain directs you to see. Then, without skipping a beat, your brain begins to fill in what you will ultimately see.

2. Relevance and bias. In the next instant of time, your brain predicts. It uses relevant prior knowledge (memory) to predict, bias, and assemble the image of what will be seen (De Ridder, Verplaetse & Vanneste, 2013).

Your brain makes predictions constantly… about nearly everything. For example, when you walk into a familiar place, you will start with retrieving a memory of that place (classroom, landscape, etc.) This makes it far easier to orient quickly than if you had to pause, label, and sort every single item and detail. That would be exhausting!

What you see is influenced by your own memories of that environment, your intentions for the moment (finding an object), and your mindsets – such as “I am in a hurry.” (Freeman, 2003). A teacher can predict many of the items in her or his classroom using memory. It’s faster than figuring them out again and again. That’s relevance. A grumpy teacher may identify more student behavior issues than a joyful teacher. That’s relevance, too.

3. Energy Expenditure. The brain’s visual model is based on mostly predictions of the future and saved memories, with a bit of reality thrown in. After all, your brain’s main function is to reduce environmental uncertainty, which reduces likely energy needs. Finally, your brain is computing the potential energy consumption. Your visual perception is biased by the risk-reward ratio. There better be something in it for you or it may be a waste of energy. Decisions are made partly based on the energy needed to implement them.

This is the dominant, universal principle governing adaptive brain function and structure. Your brain does not ‘see’ in a pure sense. Your brain is a ‘probability factory’ that makes predictions endlessly about the world. But then it has to update them based on what reality your senses provide. While it seems weird, its capacity to help you survive is unmatched. For kids under 30, living at home is far cheaper, familiar, and convenient than being out in the unpredictable and often unsafe world.

Familiarity can mean safety. We have more trust in popular name brands (think autos, foods, technology, clothing, and appliances). In 15 out of the last 20 years, the top grossing US movie was a sequel. Why is familiarity and comfort a good thing for your brain? Using what’s familiar saves time and energy. Your brain wants to minimize its mistakes (less uncertainty and fewer predictive errors) in each environment so it can conserve energy (Friston, 2010). Less energy spent by you for each of your goals seems like a good idea to your brain. Why? Energy is a costly resource to your brain (it consumes over 20% of all your entire body’s energy.)

Want to put out less energy? Your bias is to avoid looking at work you have to do, problems you have to solve, the to-do list that’s undone. One could buy fast food, watch TV, Netflix, Hulu, or Disney (with a remote), check Facebook or Instagram, and postpone your gym exercising. Notice that none of these options even existed 100 years ago. Or instead, one could prepare home-cooked meals, read a book, and work your body daily.

Your brain works at constantly reducing environmental uncertainty (surprises and mistakes consume excess energy). We are more comfortable with seeing what we expect and when we can expect it. In the classroom, surprise student behaviors are rarely a good thing. On the other hand, familiarity lowers the surprise factor… and we prefer familiarity.

Let’s summarize what we have. What you see is partly dependent on what you bring to the experience (predictions and memories plus intentions.) Your brain is not a camera; it is a predictive processor. What you see, then experience, is biased by potential threats, your memories, intentions, and goals. And the less energy you expend, the happier your brain is (at least in the moment.)

Now let’s tie this to our opening premise: Your adaptive brain continually prioritizes survival while it adjusts your homeostatic norms of risk and reward. Every level of energy consumption, if maintained over time, becomes more familiar to your body. Biologically, it sets a new norm.

Same thing for your students at school; they get conditioned to listen for and see things in the frame of, “Is it easy or hard to do? Does it cost me time?” That’s why there is a never ending quest for comfort. Here’s what you can do to build greater grit and perseverance in your students.

ACTION STEPS:

1. Make simple language shifts. Most tasks have very few variables. The list may include degree of difficulty, time needed, relevance, accountability, emotional tone or social conditions (and a few more). Instead of saying, “This will be easy,” focus on the joy. “This might be fun for you.” Or, “All of us are going to love getting this done together” (social reward). Or, mention the outcome and say, “This will be a great brain builder.” Alternatively, focus on the short time it will feel like; “The time will fly once we get started” (less time = less energy expended).

Be explicit about sticking with the process. Create a common vocabulary for grit and perseverance. Tell kids what it is and what it is not. When providing feedback to a student on his/her performance, say “Doing THAT (be specific) shows me a lot of grit!” Define the grit traits. Reinforce it every time you see a student pushing through obstacles. “Love the way you’re being so gritty with that task.”

When students get a bit discouraged or start to hesitate, remind them, “You’ve got what it takes. I know you; you’re a hard worker, not a quitter. Many things are not easy, but ‘harder’ builds your brain. In fact, harder makes you smarter. Let’s give this task another three minutes and we’ll see how far we can get.”

Over time, you can create a call response: TEACHER: “This might be hard!” STUDENTS: “Bring it on. Harder makes me smarter!” When used with joy and repetition, tools like this may become embedded in memory for a lifetime.

2. Scaffold the hard tasks. Your long-term goal is to foster persistence and grit with an intention for accuracy and completion. For every task that may be perceived as difficult, provide support until students are ready to take it on by themselves.

Your types of support may include (but are not limited to): 1) create teams; give them a choice of team identities to embody (such as the creatives, the energy team, the grit group, etc.), 2) use the routine of pre-task planning, 3) engage team or class affirmations of identity of team name, 4) provide tools to chunk the tasks to micro tasks, 5) foster a fun error-correction strategy so mistakes are celebrated, etc.

Rewards are a critical behavior tool to mitigate the energy output risk required to do the task. Do micro-celebrations (smiles, high fives, thumbs up, or “Oh yeah!”).

3. Role Model the Mindset. Sprinkle stories of students like them who are succeeding with “grit in action”. Or you can be the role model (which students love the most). How are you embracing the mantra of “Harder makes me smarter” in your own life? Share with your students something you’re doing that’s hard every week.

You may be starting a long term project that has been hard for you in the past (doing more exercise, eating better, losing weight, etc.), but every week, you nibble at it and get better. Or, pick a short (but hard task) to share. For example, reducing complaining. First, erase complaints for ten consecutive minutes, then when you can do that, go for an hour without complaining. Soon, you’ll build up to a day and maybe to a week. Doing these small, but tough, tasks is hard. Sharing them with your class is priceless.

Each comfort level you or your students go to will soon lose its sparkle and we want even more comfort. That is, unless you choose to play the “long game.” With that mindset, you do things for your long-term well-being (eat better foods and exercise) and do the work to grow your mind and body.

That’s it; it’s closing time. Now for my biggest fear. Maybe you still use the “time bias.” Many will read this and then respond with, “I’m just too busy; I’ve got no time for those changes to help my students soar like an eagle.” If you feel that way, 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, life is short.” And they’re right. Life is about savoring the smell of plumerias, eating a great meal and enjoying hugs from friends and family.

But most everything in life that’s worth having over a lifetime also requires the ‘the long game.’ At school, it includes building relationships and fostering cognitive capacity. At home, the list includes maintaining relationships, appreciating the daily blessings and saving for retirement. Choose right now; what have you decided on… long or short? Then begin… right now.

CITATIONS
De Ridder, D., Verplaetse, J., & Vanneste, S. (2013). The predictive brain and the “free will” illusion. Frontiers in psychology4, 131.
De Ridder D, Vanneste S, Freeman W. The Bayesian brain: phantom percepts resolve sensory uncertainty. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2014 Jul;44:4-15.
Fox E. & Damjanovic L. (2006). The eyes are sufficient to produce a threat superiority effect. Emotion. 6, 534–539.
Friston K. (2010). The free-energy principle: a unified brain theory? Nat Rev Neurosci. 11, 127-38.
Friston KJ, Daunizeau J, Kilner J, Kiebel SJ. (2010). Action and behavior: a free-energy formulation. Biol Cybern. 102, 227-60.
Gutiérrez-Cobo MJ, Luque D, Most SB, Fernández-Berrocal P, Le Pelley ME. (2019). Reward and emotion influence attentional bias in rapid serial visual presentation. Q J Exp Psychol (Hove). 72, 2155-2167.
Pew Research (2020). Accessed at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/09/04/a-majority-of-young-adults-in-the-u-s-live-with-their-parents-for-the-first-time-since-the-great-depression/Weymar M, Löw A, Ohman A, Hamm AO. (2011). The face is more than its parts–brain dynamics of enhanced spatial attention to schematic threat. Neuroimage. 58, 946-54.
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.

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