Creating Core Memories in the Classroom

Social and Emotional Learning Series for Edutopia

We all create core memories. When we encounter an experience with heightened emotion, our memory systems remember the experiences because of the intense emotions associated with the event. We know that memories can become diluted or distorted with time and distance. When we remember an event from our past, our brains secrete the same chemicals from the same neurotransmitters called forth when the experience happened, creating the same feelings.

Your Classroom’s Environmental and Emotional Climate

When students spend many hours in a classroom, they develop an emotional relationship with it. And you have considerable control over the emotional climate of your classroom.

    1. What does the physical ecology of your classroom say to the students? Is it inviting? Are there areas for specific activities and enough space to move around comfortably?
    2. Is there an area with soft lighting and plants? A few plants and lamps are good for brain health.
    3. Could you create an imaginary circle of fear, sadness, joy, etc. within a specific area so that students can empty out or reflect on those feelings? Emotions can be an intense distraction to academic problem solving.
    4. Is there an area for imagination, innovation, choices, vision boards, or travel pamphlets for future careers and vocations?
    5. Could you create an area in your classroom or school for a brain lab?
    6. Could you capture and share two or three positive memories that you’ve noticed about our students (selecting one to three students a day)? Could you model handling a few challenging experiences from your own life and share those with students during a discussion or circle time?
    7. Make your class a memorable place for your students. Greet them sitting down or from a headstand. Declare an Opposite Day and intentionally change up your typical ways of “doing school.” For Do Nows and Bell Ringers, post questions from the list above or show a short video and have students reflect on serving another.

Below are lists of videos to strengthen students’ understanding of service, the anatomy and circuitry of their own brains, and the importance of creating positive core memories in your classroom.

Instruction and Neuroplasticity: Creating Strong Academic Core Memories

Research reports that when students are asked to explain something during a lesson, they are better able to connect new ideas with prior causes and effects. These student-created explanations don’t have to be accurate. The brain works hard when we feel heard and are close to solving a problem. When we teach what we need to learn, we form stronger memories.

    1. Have students predict the new topic before you begin teaching it. They can create a series of guesses based on clues that you provide even if the subject matter doesn’t feel exciting. Our brains love to predict and anticipate. Implement real objects, make signs or advertisements, create a skit, or wear clothing that hints at the subject area.
    2. Our brains are wired for patterns and context, which is why we love stories. What kinds of stories can you create that integrate what you’re teaching? The narratives can include personal information about the school or class, using students’ actual names. A story can make them care and wonder. Stories create anticipation and change up the ways that we traditionally learn.
    3. Brains hold the stories of our lives, and memories exist as networks of linked cells. These connections between cells thicken with repeated use of synapses. Brains don’t typically store facts — they store perceptions and thoughts, which are more subjective than facts. Brains hold onto what is relevant, useful, and interesting. Share these facts with students.
    4. Teach students about the power of their memories. Memories build and weaken quickly. They have two strengths: retrieval strength and storage strength. No memory is ever gone, but its retrieval strength weakens without reinforcement. This is why practicing any new skill or habit is so very important.
    5. If we lose information or a fact and we work hard to remember it again, we’ve deepened our learning. So forgetting is actually good for the brain! The harder we work at retrieving a memory, greater its strength will be.
    6. Teach in images and pictures — our brains innately remember them. No matter the subject area, start with a picture and let the guessing begin. Create a brain state of anticipation by breaking students into small groups with a visual clue about the topic. Students could even act out their clue and then combine the clues from all groups to assemble the lesson’s topic or standard. Here are some examples:
  • 6.RL.3.1: Analyze how a particular sentence, chapter, scene, or stanza fits into the overall structure of a work of literature and contributes to the development of the theme, characterization, setting, or plot.
  • 6.RL.3.2: Explain how an author develops the point of view of the narrator or speaker in a work of literature, and how the narrator or speaker impacts the mood, tone, and meaning of a text.

Choose a sentence or paragraph from a piece of literature and act out, pantomime, show a video clip, or have the small group sit in chairs and dialogue their clue while the rest of the class observes and guesses.

How could you design brain states of anticipation to create academic core memories?



How Emotions Affect Learning, Behaviors, and Relationships


Social and Emotional Learning Series for Edutopia

We need all of our emotions for thinking, problem solving, and focused attention. We are neurobiologically wired, and to learn anything, our minds must be focused and our emotions need to “feel” in balance. Emotional regulation is necessary so that we can remember, retrieve, transfer, and connect all new information to what we already know. When a continuous stream of negative emotions hijacks our frontal lobes, our brain’s architecture changes, leaving us in a heightened stress-response state where fear, anger, anxiety, frustration, and sadness take over our thinking, logical brains.

The 2015 film Inside Out is an exceptional and accurate portrayal of our five core emotions. These primary emotions are joy, sadness, fear, anger, and disgust. This film depicts how we use these emotions when difficult and happy experiences arise, and how we need the negative emotions just as much as the positive. After reviewing the science behind Inside Out, I developed research-based educational neuroscience strategies, questions, and assessment ideas aligning with a few scenes from the film. In this post, we’ll explore four categories representing the conceptual and developing brains of all children and adolescents. There is no recipe for successful implementation of these strategies, and each will be based on the grade level, teacher preparation time, class time, and mostly the enthusiasm that we bring when introducing these concepts to our students.


Neuroplasticity is the brain’s capacity to rewire, strengthening pathways between neurons that are exercised and used while weakening connections between cellular pathways that are not used or retrieved. Rewiring our brain circuits is experience dependent — we can change the synapses or connections that are firing by changing a perception or behavior. Neuroplasticity includes reframing or reappraising an experience, event, or relationship so that we observe and experience a different outcome. What we perceive and expect is what we get! The brain sees and responds to perception, not reality. Negative lingering brain states can become neural traits that are hardwired into our circuitry. Neuroplasticity is the best news from neuroscience in recent years.

The processes that support emotional intelligence are addressed in the growing field of Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB). The theory behind IPNB provides a picture of human mental development and the potential for transformation that exists in changing thinking and processing of emotions, thoughts and behaviors (Siegel, 2001, 2006, 2007). The concept of emotional intelligence is interrelated with IPNB and the development of mindful awareness as a strategy for achieving healthy integration of emotional, psychological, physiological, and cognitive functioning (Davis & Hayes, 2011; Siegel, 2001, 2007).

In the film Inside Out, we are introduced to core memories. All of us are constantly creating memories, but what makes them core or significant are the emotions that we attach to these past events, experiences, and relationships. Emotions drive our attention and perception. We form positive and negative core memories because of the emotional intensity that we’ve attached to the event or experience.

The movie introduces us to the emotions mingling in 11-year-old Riley’s brain. Her joyful core memories are represented by golden balls. At the beginning of the film, Riley’s sadness interferes with these golden balls of joy-filled memories. When a core golden memory is touched by sadness, the gold fades to deep blue, and joy becomes frustrated. Later, we learn through Riley’s various experiences that the blue and gold tones representing sadness and joy can work well together, weaving beautiful contrast to create a lasting core memory. These core memories are stored in “long-term” and eventually become a part of our Personality Islands, or what I have labeled as the Islands of Self.

The questions below are designed to ignite your creativity and thought processes as you integrate topics and standards into morning meetings, afternoon circles, and subject matter — as you embrace the power of feelings and how they intimately affect learning, relationships, and behaviors.

Questions for Educators

1. What types of core memories could you create in your classrooms and buildings with students and teachers? These memories could be emotional, academic, or social, reflecting a new relationship, a novel way of attempting an assignment, or a collaboration project with others.

2. How can we create core memories that energize, pique curiosity, and bring joy to our students?

3. Are you teaching the students about their neuroanatomy?

4. Do students understand the negative role that stress plays in cognitive functioning with regard to learning, memorizing, and retrieving information?

5. How might we begin a class period or day with an emotional check-in? What is the weather in your brain? Could we use laminated notecards with the primary emotions for younger students and the primary and secondary emotions for older students? Students could display the feeling that they are holding as they begin class and note how it changes throughout the day.

Questions for Students

These questions were designed for promoting student discussion, self-reflection, and self-awareness. Dr. Dan Seigel’s research reports that, “What is sharable is bearable.”

Sadness helped Joy in the film, and your own Sadness can help you.

1. How do you cope with Sadness?
2. Can you use your Sadness to feel better? How?
3. What would happen if we never felt Sadness? Is it sometimes good to keep Sadness inside a circle so that it does not spread and get out of control? Why?

Fear and Anger can protect and motivate us.

4. When was Fear needed in your life?
5. How did Fear help you?
6. What is the perfect amount of Fear?
7. What happens to our thinking and problem solving when we carry too much Fear or Sadness?
8. How does Anger show up in your brain?
9. Has Anger ever helped you?
10. How do you typically handle your Anger?

Disgust keeps us from being poisoned physically and socially.

11. How has the feeling of Disgust helped you?
12. How has expressing Disgust hurt your relationships or experiences?

In the film, Joy plays the leading role among the feelings in Riley’s brain.

13. Does Joy always play the leading role in our brains?
14. What happened when Joy and Sadness left headquarters?
15. How do we see Joy in your brain?
16. What creates Joy to take over your brain?

Imagine having no feelings at all.

17. What would life be like if we didn’t have feelings?
18. Describe two positive changes in our life if we didn’t have feelings.
19. Describe two negative changes that could occur in a life with no feelings.

In my next post, we’ll look at core memories. Meanwhile, in the comments section below, please share how you help your students accept and explore their own emotions.



Creating Trauma Informed Instruction-Schools The Heart of Teaching and Learning

A Presentation by Dr. Lori Desautels- Marian University

trauma and brain powerpointPreview: Schools as Ecological Systems

Students who attend school from kindergarten through secondary school typically spend more than 13,000 hours of their developing brain’s time in the presence of teachers.

Their brains are highly susceptible to environmental influences – social, physical, cognitive, and emotional. And, more important, their brains will be altered by the experiences they have in school.

(Eric Jensen, Teaching With the Brain in Mind, 2nd Edition, 2005)

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How the Brain Works, Mindfulness and Meditation Pt. 2

In this episode we discuss How the Brain Works in regards to educational neuroscience with Dr. Lori Desautels of Marian University.  If you want to better understand the reasons behind student behavior and motivation while learning how to start training student’s brains to focus this episode is for you.

Reach out to Dr. Desautels on Twitter @Desautels_Phd





In This Episode You’ll Learn:

  • What a Brain Break is and why you should use them
  • How to validate emotional responses with students
  • How our role as educators has changed in the 21st century

Get Part 1


How the Brain Works, Mindfulness and Meditation Pt. 1

In this episode we discuss How the Brain Works in regards to educational neuroscience with Dr. Lori Desautels of Marian University. If you want to better understand the reasons behind student behavior and motivation while learning how to start training student’s brains to focus this episode is for you.podcast=pt1




Reach out to Dr. Desautels on Twitter @Desautels_Phd

In This Episode You’ll Learn:
•The effects of chronic stress on students brains
•How parts of the brain cause and regulate emotional reactions
•What is the source of most negative behavior
•How to overcome students negative brain bias survival mechanism
•The three step process of bringing mindfulness brain training into the classroom

Links and Resources Mentioned in this Episode

Unwritten, The Story of a Living System: A Pathway to Enlivening and Transforming Education

Get Part 2 with Dr. Desautels


The Heart and Brain of the Matter Keynote: ISTA Early Educators Conference

We can change our behaviors: Strategies for the Social Brain. Keynote Presentation by Dr. Lori Desautels at the Indiana State Teachers Association(ISTA) Early Educators Conference.

The Heart and Brain of the Matter Keynote: ISTA Early Educators Conference- Part 1

The Heart and Brain of the Matter Keynote: ISTA Early Educators Conference- Part 2

The Heart and Brain of the Matter Keynote: ISTA Early Educators Conference- Part 3


Radio Interview: The Basic Needs Required for Any Student to Learn

Rae Pica with Kay Albrecht, Ph.D., Lori L Desautels, Ph.D., Peter DeWitt, Ed.D.

Our guests say that if basic students’ needs are not met, learning is difficult and in some cases impossible. What are the basic needs that must be met to enable learning?



Lessons From Nellie

Lessons from Nellie!
Troubled Youth Need our Presence

We think we know what we need. We think we know what our children and youth desire. We think we know what will create healthy attachments and relationships. We think we know what will bring our students and us happiness and peace. We subconsciously limit our visions to match only what we can see in the moment. Our agendas can sabotage and stagnate our growth. We think that by fixing or healing or leaving or entering the life of another affects only him or her. We are grossly mistaken. And we know this too…when we stop and feel, and let go of our repetitive habit minds and thought processes.

We do need our habit minds for survival but they can also defer us from embracing a much larger view. A little less than a year ago, my life was turned upside down in 10 minutes as a mom and as an educator. There was not a shining “aha” moment when insight stabs you in the heart or a dramatic change of scenery or a flash of experience leaves you with an exuberant knowing of what to do next. I could not see a “gift” of hindsight foresight or even a dilapidated sideways perspective! I was stuck and felt helpless and yes, a bit bereft of solutions. Living with questions and the unknown for me breeds great stress. I feel I am not alone. Suddenly the professional development presentations I was giving to schools felt void of meaning and even fake. I was talking the talk and had even been given a course release , entering as a co-teacher in the classrooms of students who wore and breathed in adversity and poverty in ways I could never imagine.

Unexpectedly, last summer, on a rainy Monday night, our oldest son brought a U-Haul, some significant sadness, anxiety and his recently adopted puppy Nellie, (who had walked into his home a few months prior with a history of abuse and neglect) into our home. On June 24th, left alone in our basement as Andrew went to gather the rest of his belongings, Nellie frantically panted, cried and mimicked Andrew’s distress along with my feelings of deep fear of what was happening and the looming questions of what was to come. I remember one moment that night. As Nellie finally calmed down enough to lie upon the ripped corner of a worn story-filled mattress, I lay next to her and petted her like a cat. She was not pleased. With one ear turned back, she abruptly looked into my eyes and pleaded understanding. There were no thoughts or words of reassurance for her. I didn’t want her or the circumstances that had driven her and Andrew into our home.

On this night, Nellie did not feel safe or attached to anyone or anything. She was as fearful and unsure as any living being I had ever seen up close and personal. As I reflected several days later, Nellie was the temporary victim of circumstances that had left an imprint of accumulated distress, fear and anxiety in the gut of her innocent fifteen month old life. Or was she?

I believe animals have so much to teach us about children and youth. We can read the statistics about adversity and how it affects the brains, emotions and learning of students, while we observe their demeanor in our classrooms, but to deeply feel their pain is where our work begins as educators.
Now, ten and half months later, I continue to learn at a speed that paradoxically has slowed me down. Tonight, Nellie and I took our 400th plus walk interspersed with abrupt sprinting, sniffing and ingesting every spring smell, sight sound and movement around us. I am remembering… and learning …
How can I affect change in my students’ lives that enter into our schools and classrooms from environments that exhaust and harden their young minds and hearts?

1. As a teacher or mentor in my student’s life, I need to be present and patient, allowing him or her to take the lead, although my gentle grip is felt and acknowledged. When there is tugging and pulling masked in resistance, I am “felt” on the other end, listening to learn, guiding and redirecting.

2. I am learning that a loving presence means…Nellie, as well as my students know I am not going away and if I do, I will prepare, plan and teach the behaviors I desire to see, over and over and over again. Slowly but deliberately, modeling release, while explaining that changes are life’s heartbeat.

3. I am learning that Nellie’s disposition, her agitation, anxiety and challenges are of no reflection on me. My encouragement and affirmation for noticing everything she does well, trumps the anxiety that seemingly dissolves with our time together. Nellie is teaching me to become quiet, to remember how very challenging our environments can be with regard to our everyday behaviors and shifting moods. When I feel and listen to her tugs, pulls and leads, I am laying a foundation for trust and acceptance which is very different than tolerance.

When troubled children walk into our classrooms carrying in their private logic, histories, beliefs and cultures, I am always amazed at my own “learning” that each student provokes. We don’t initially need a strategy, a technique, or plan of action with children who sometimes mistrust adults and life. First we need to be present, to notice, to listen as we feel our way around the landscape of the child. When an emotional connection is felt, we can then begin to ask: How may I serve you?

“However we treat the child,
the child will treat the world.”
― Pam Leo


Metacog…What? A new way to teach students about their own thinking!

Metacog…. What?
Metacogntion-I’m thinking about my thinking!

The one aspect of being human that sets us apart from all mammals in this time is metacognition! This is our brain’s ability and capacity to self-assess, think about our thinking, reshape our perspectives and self-reflect with emotion! Recent neuroscience research has concluded that our brains are not only wired to survive, but we are also biologically wired for cognition and emotion. There is this marvelous inherited executive function skill called working memory that all individuals can exercise and develop through brain isometrics. Working memory is one’s ability to take in information from the environment and manipulate and massage it to create new connections and meaning inside our worlds and experiences. What does all of this mean for educators in 2015 with such a heavy emphasis on performance, competition, and academic precision in our schools and classrooms?

We know that the more students understand how they think, process, connect and remember information, the better their learning. Recent research has also reported that working memory skills more than IQ are a better predictor of academic success.
When teachers model their own understanding of personal learning and coping strategies for their students, students pay attention! Story-telling, modeling, recognizing emotional interference and impact coupled with discussion are four powerful strategies creating brain states that grow! Our brains begin to process thinking and emotions with curiosity. Listed below are brain aligned metacognitive strategies that lay the foundation for metacognitive application while helping students to shift perspectives from an end result mentality to a process result emotional and mental state of mind.

1. Teach your students about their own unique neuro-anatomy! When children and adolescents understand the impact of emotions, stress, and memory ability on their learning, they are empowered and are given choices! Four neuroscience terms easily understood and shared can change the way students think about their thinking. These terms are neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to rewire and reshape its neural pathways based upon experiences, prefrontal cortex, amygdala and the hippocampus. The prefrontal cortex can be found when we place our hand on our forehead. It is here we problem solve, emotionally regulate and learn to pay attention. The amygdales are two neural shaped clusters of neurons in each hemisphere deep in the limbic system of our brains. When these are ignited we move to a fight flight freeze response and the prefrontal cortex shuts down. The hippocampus can be shown with our pointer finger curled down shaped like a seahorse. The hippocampus works beside the amygdala helping our brains to memorize and connect learning. In stress, the hippocampus cannot remember so well! Teachers need to know this but our students do too! Teaching our students what happens in our brains is intrinsically motivating. Knowing how stress distorts thinking is comforting to students. Students begin to understand stress and simply sharing their perceptions of stress lessens the stress while opening pathways to improved metacognitive thought processes.

2. How do you learn new information? How do you make connections with what you already know to what is being taught? As I stand before fifth and seventh grade students I begin to share. “For me, I need to read out loud while writing key words down in my notebook or textbook! I also use lots of colors to help address the most important parts I need to memorize.” Then the sharing begins. One student at a time begins to describe how he or she approaches new material and how they think and feel about it. We decide as a class that instead of a periodic chart, with listed elements, we will create a periodic table with learning strategies. We decide which wall to place this large colorful chart and then we discuss how seeing the different learning strategies will help us to choose one that we might have never considered.

3. How do you cope with emotional and social problems or challenges in your life? I begin to share and model a scenario with my students. “For me, I have a good talking to myself in private.” Here is what it may sound like. “Lori, take a deep breath or two and know that this problem has a solution somewhere in your brain. Let’s just list all the reasons why this might have happened and what you can begin to do with these options!” The students laugh a little and talk amongst themselves for a minute. We then slowly begin to share our coping strategies as a class! Some coping strategies discussed are: talking a walk, spending some time alone, talking the problem out with others, eating some ice cream or wheat thins and moving away from the challenge for a little while. This list begins to grow and purposefully we have created another colorful wall of metacognitive coping strategies in a periodic table format. The students understand that this colorful array of strategies allows them to choose a strategy that they might never have thought of in a heightened emotional moment.

4. Many of us use Do Nows to begin the day with students. The purpose of these short assignments is not to learn new content but to possibly review from the prior day or to even fill time while attendance and the logistics of the day are being tallied. Use this morning time to give each student a question on a colorful half sheet of paper accompanied with a fictitious problem to solve that is relatable to their experiences and worlds At the end of this time, create a class discussion around these questions . Not only will students begin to think about how they approach their thinking, but we will be given a valuable formative assessment tool! The Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching discusses the power of questions and self-assessment as we model metacognition for our students. Below are a few example questions.
A. What do I already know?
B. What confuses me?
C. What resources do I have?
D. What is a similar experience I have encountered?
E. How can I explore my mistakes to improve my understanding?


The Vortex of Feeling and Learning… What does Educational Neuroscience look like in our schools?

The Vortex of Feeling and Learning
Educational Neuroscience in our Schools
“We are feeling creatures who think.”
Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor

As I reflect upon and intentionally consolidate the work I am doing in our schools with students and teachers, I wanted to describe and define this and how I am integrating Educational Neuroscience principles and strategies into our classrooms and schools.

A. The educators and students are learning collectively about their own neuro-anatomy and how their feelings, thoughts and behaviors are intimately connected and affected to and by the CEO (the mind) while trickling into the body, (Emotional, Social and Cognitive Health). When we spend some time, understanding that a brain is not a machine. It is not outside of us working on automatic. It is a social organ that affects and directs every experience in our days, empowering us and the emotional academic and social outcomes of every experience and relationship. We are no longer the victim of our feeling and thought processes which can lead to strong accountability!

B. Students are exploring how they learn, how stress occurs in their brains, and how their emotions and thoughts affect every moment in their day. They are given specific strategies to help lessen the stress response, emotionally regulate, and while learning to empathize with other people. Focused Attention Practices are a critical and very well received strategy as we train and mentor the mind for attention and relaxation.

C. Students and teachers are given principles and strategies to assist with creating meaning and relevance to the content and subjects taught. They are learning how memory is processed in the brain, and how best to engage with the content for sustainable learning. The principles and strategies include: neuroplasticity, the development of executive functions, (sustained attention, emotional regulation, planning, organizing, flexibility, goal -setting and metacognition strategies,) and how to implement and weave emotion into new standards and topics drawing upon the strengths of every student profile.

D. We are implementing metaphors, visualization, analogies, associations, emotions, story chunking and imagery creating brain states of anticipation, curiosity, novelty, prediction, as we prepare; priming the brain for learning, low stress, and improved engagement.

E. Teacher Brain Development- The most significant aspect of this Professional Development is the attention and care of the educator’s brain! If teachers and administrators are to be transformative effective leaders and role models in the educational community, they need to employ the knowledge of brain engagement, brain health, the power of emotional contagion and how modeling is most effective knowing the roles of mirror neurons. Educators must tap into their triggers, personal stories and culture to deeply understand how conflict cycles are born and lessened through personal perceptions. Self-reflection separates effective and superior teachers and administrators and these educational neuroscience principles and strategies engineer these sustainable social and emotional skills.

Dr. Lori Desautels
School of Education and Exercise Science
Marian University

The Heart and Brain of the Matter Keynote: ISTA Early Educators Conference. Part 1.
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A message from the Authors of Unwritten, The Story of a Living System

Mark your calendars and come learn with us!
2017 Schedule
  • May 2- Samford University/ Birmingham
  • May 9- IPS School 4
  • May 10- Lafayette Schools
  • May 16/ 17- Jasper Indiana
  • May 19- Indianapolis Schools
  • May 26- West Lebanon Schools
  • May 31- Cleveland Schools
  • June 2- Adams ELementary
  • June 6- Mooresville Schools
  • June 12, June 13- Washington Township
  • June 14 Gary Indiana
  • June 27- Marriott East Indianapolis Indiana Health Network
  • June 29- The Butler Way
  • July 6 and 7th- Warsaw Community Schools
  • July 12- Elevate ED Conference Pike Township
  • July 28- Decatour Township
  • August 1- Jacksonville Florida
  • August 3- Fort Wayne Indiana
  • August 4- Zionsville Schools
  • August 8- Green Bay Wisconsin
  • September 8- Lafayette
  • September 11- Jasper
  • September 15- Cleveland
  • October 19-20- Baltimore Maryland
  • October 21- ISTA Indianapolis
  • October 28- Costa Rica with Butler
  • November 10- Fort Wayne
“This book is a refreshing look at our philosophy of education and a reminder of what is most important in teaching."

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