Neuroscience – Or How Teachers Become Tigers

-by Krista Taylor

Saber-Tooth-TigerIt’s first bell Monday morning, and one of my students seems to have forgotten the procedures. Typically students enter my classroom, quickly settle, and begin working on the posted assignment, but on this day, Jason was out of his seat talking loudly with a peer.

“Jason, please have a seat and get started on the warm-up.”

“WHY YOU ALWAYS GOT SOMETHIN’ TO SAY TO ME?!?!”

Whoa. What just happened? I thought I was issuing a firm but respectful redirection, but Jason’s brain just perceived me as a saber-toothed tiger in the wilderness.

Humans are remarkable specimens of evolution. While our highly developed, pre-frontal cortex is uniquely human, our brains also retain the vestigial remains of our evolutionary ancestors, which have helped us to survive as a species.

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We are necessarily pre-disposed to scan our environment for threats – in essence, to seek out problems. This not only causes us to focus on the negative, it also requires us to determine whether to address concerns through the rational thought of the pre-frontal cortex, or through the “flight-or-fight” response of the reptilian brain. This determination is the job of the amygdala.

The problem is that the amygdala cannot always differentiate between imminent threats to life and limb — like a saber-toothed tiger, and modern day streScreen Shot 2016-02-21 at 8.46.38 PMssors — like tight deadlines, traffic jams, or teacher redirection. A stressed brain is flooded with chemicals in order to be physiologically and psychologically prepared for “fight or flight.”

People experiencing chronic stress have essentially had their brains hijacked. The increase in stress essentially places the brain on high-alert, causing it to potentially over-react to every concern. (Learn more here)

Unfortunately, chronic stress is far too common for many students in urban school settings. As educators, we must keep in mind that some of our students don’t know where they’re going to sleep that night, or how they are getting their next me#5al. They may rarely get enough rest due to caring for younger siblings, or simply being afraid to go to sleep at night. They may experience anxiety about not having appropriate school supplies, or the “right” clothes to wear. We often never know what it takes for our students to show up at school each day.

It is little wonder that chronically stressed children may respond to a simple redirection by shutting down or becoming disrespectful, disruptive, or even aggressive.  Their brains are flooded with stress hormones, which cause the unwitting teacher to suddenly become the saber-toothed tiger in the forest.

However, there are few situations in our modern-world where fleeing a situation, or responding to it with aggression, is in our best interest. Calming the amygdala is critical to the brain’s ability to resume executive functioning. A relaxed amygdala directs information to the pre-frontal cortex, so we can think clearly and make good decisions. This is true for adults and students alike. A calm classroom environment is essential for pre-disposing the brain for learning. The suggestions below can be helpful for establishing a classroom climate, which helps mitigate the impact of a stressed-out brain.

  • Be clear and explicit in what you want students to do
  • Use positive framing to correct behavior
  • Depersonalize correction, using anonymous, group correction wherever possible
  • Keep individual correction private
  • Regularly provide precise praise
    • Praise releases dopamine which improves learning and memory; conversely, criticism makes it harder to focus and learn
    • Use DLP – Describe what the student did, Label the action (helpful, generous, patient, industrious, etc), then provide Praise
    • Repeated praise reinforces positive behavior by strengthening neural pathways (In this same way, repeated criticism reinforces negative behavior)
  • Teach optimism, and provide regular opportunities to help students note what is going well
  • Provide instruction in mindfulness strategies
    • Taking a few deep breaths
    • Mental counting
    • Focusing on an image or a meaningful phrase
    • Practicing meditation
  • Don’t take student misbehavior personally; this will help you to stay calm and objective

These techniques help students to get their brains in the best possible state for learning to occur. Without them, all the time and energy a teacher spends crafting beautiful lesson plans may be wasted – no one can learn when there is a perceived saber-toothed tiger in the classroom!

3 thoughts on “Neuroscience – Or How Teachers Become Tigers”

    1. At the moment, I am not in the classroom but I am happy to have this information so that I am aware of when I am being that irrational saber tooth tiger or a rational human being with the people in my life. From my point of view, I understand that there may only be a split second between that choice. Thank you for putting the words together so that I may know the difference, especially when I am triggered with my own psychology.

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