Educational Neuroscience/ Brain and Trauma Summation of first semester Dr. Lori Desautels 12/13/2016

The purpose of this summation is to share with educators, faculty and students how educational neuroscience was implemented in grades three, four, five and six at the Butler Lab School in the fall of 2016. It is my intention to outline not only the activities, strategies and feedback, but to share how the brain states of curiosity, anticipation, novelty and prediction were embedded in our time together. This summation will also support the strategies we implemented in de-escalating the stress responses both in students and in educators. I want to thank Mrs. Heather Williams for supporting this work as she assisted in these classes with co-teaching, feedback, and yoga instruction.


Fall 2016

Butler Lab School  

August- December

I began in two 5/6 classes this semester and ended the year in a 5/6 and ¾ class. The purpose of this summation is share the educational neuroscience topics and lessons that were introduced and hopefully these strategies and lessons will be further explored and differentiated this second semester. The staff at the Butler Lab School was wonderful to work beside and always open to new ideas! We encountered a challenging beginning to the academic year with two of the three 5/6 teachers leaving six weeks into the school year. It also became very apparent early on, that many of the students were struggling emotionally with a variety of significant adversity and the emphasis of my time in the classrooms each week was helping both teacher and student to understand the science  beneath behaviors, calming the stress response, and engaging those students who entered school internalizing behaviors or hyper sensitive to their environment, instruction and to school relationships.

In the first weeks, I introduced the “brain” and why I was there.  The students seemed very interested in this discipline and before we can ever truly model brain intervals, focused attention practices or engagement of standards and content, they needed to understand what was happening inside the science of their brains! Actually this age is ripe for the learning as their brains are developing in the most complex ways. To understand and have the awareness of why we feel the way we do is further calming and regulates the stress response system. In each of the three classes, there were approximately five to eight students who were not walking through the Lab school’s doors with a brain primed to engage emotionally, socially or academically. There may be more that are challenged, but consistently I observed about 18 to 20 students who are daily reactors to their environments. I know that the teachers are deeply aware of this. This makes our job even more important!

Topics from the First Semester



Prefrontal Cortex



Mirror Neurons/ Empathy


Core Memories

Islands of Personality

Focused Attention Practices

Brain Intervals

EFT Practices/ Tapping

Brain as a Social Organ

Myelination/ Repetition and Emotion

Multiple Intelligences

Images and Stories

90 second rule

Adolescent Brain


August/ September 2016

  1. In the 5/6 classes we observed paintings of  neuronal connections and the students predicted, discussed, and shared what they had learned about neuroplasticity, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. I wanted to see what they had retained from the first few weeks following an introduction of this discipline. I brought in almonds on a few occasions that resemble our amygdalae. They loved the treat and comparing the size and shape of this limbic brain structure.


  1. We know the brain learns best through visual images and stories so I implemented these brain aligned strategies weekly. Joseph was especially intrigued by the paintings and loved guessing what they resembled and the association to what was happening in his brain.  I shared the story of Nellie, our rescue dog, and how the brains of dogs in stress resemble our brains in stress… they made several connections and loved the framed picture of Nellie and the story I wrote about her.


In early September, in Courtney’s class, we also reviewed what the students had taken away from the past two weeks. The discussion was rich and engaging from this group as we focused this discussion on our feelings and how contagious emotions. We implemented the Sentis videos that discussed the working parts of the brain!   Courtney began teaching about magnetic power and this was a great introduction with :


  1. realia- magnetic objects from my house as they were amazed how my Butler name tag bar could pick up an entire picture frame!
  2. We used prediction, questions, discussion, and analogies as they made guesses and predicted the biggest magnet in the world and the smallest. They also discussed common every day magnets or occurrences that we all use, i.e. cell phones, electricity, (we talked about our recent storms and power outages). This discussion led to the HUMAN MAGNET!! We talked about how we too are magnets and we attract unintentionally the feelings of others because emotions are contagious. It was a simple but enjoyable introduction to the standard of magnet charges, poles, and the intricacies of what they would learn that week.
  3. In all classes, I introduced a new brain interval/ focused attention practice that combined movement and breath! We called this the domino effect…we breathed through our noses (warming up our bodies and brains)  as we began wriggling our toes, ankles, legs, shoulders, and arms;  then proceeded to do the reverse as they mimicked me. I will continue to help them to understand that the only ways we are able to calm down in negative emotion is through breath, movement and some space and time.


  1. In the 5/6 classes we honed in on “feelings.” We are feeling creatures that feel first and then think… Each day I invited students to lead with me and will continue this procedure next semester. We passed out colored straws that represented our feelings and chose various classmates to answer the questions based from the Inside Out curriculum. As they shared the questions they chose and their responses, there was lots of “red anger straws”   but also much joy and disgust shared too! I noticed fear and sadness were not mentioned much often. This was strong perceptual data for me as well. They were given six colored M n M’s representing the feelings in their prefrontal cortex. I modeled this exercise with photos and a story- two brain aligned strategies that stick to the brain like Velcro.
    1. In  the 5/ 6 class we took educational neuroscience into memoir writing. Here is an example we could use to teach the details of a memoir or story. When introducing this concept (details) we have one large piece of colored construction paper in the center of our group and hidden in the hands of the teacher is the same piece of colored construction paper that has been torn into 25 to 50 pieces!  We then begin the few minutes of direct instruction with a question: What would this large piece of orange paper (and then we toss into the air the tiny pieces) and these small pieces of orange paper have to do with our memoirs and the details that we write into our wonderful stories?  The students take a minute and share out their guesses with a partner and then we predict. We come to the conclusion that we would not have a story without all these wonderful details! Then we can begin showing the contrast.


    1. I brought in almonds, a pair of torn jeans, a hand written ten word poem. The students reviewed the amygdala and prefrontal cortex while we ate salted almonds. I then explained that we would move to our PFC as we predicted what was in the brain bag, observed the jeans and “wondered” about how the yellow poem, the torn jeans, and red sheets of paper could help us to think clearly. We reviewed details by having them listen to the words in the poetry and then after listening and observing… they took 30 seconds of quiet and returned to their seats where they tried to remember all the details from the poem and/ or the details observed from the pair of jeans! They wrote their details and words on red paper with black pens and then shared all the details of the observations. We honed in on active listening, details, prediction, analogy, working memory and even raised lots of dopamine as we guessed, laughed and shared!


    1. “How to Train Your Dragon” – we shared in this film clip and talked about trust and how we earn one another’s trust… these were questions for the teachers and students!



    There are so many ways to watch and implement this video clip! For me as a teacher… studying this, I am learning:
    1. Trust takes time and space with students who come into our classrooms not trusting adults!
    2. I am unable to connect with a child or adolescent until I have provided some modeling of calm predictable behavior! Mirror Neurons!
    3. I don’t always have to have a child look at me when I am redirecting or communicating!

    When I show this to my students this week, we will talk about the power of connection, empathy and mirror neurons!
    We will discuss the power of nonverbal communication and being patient with differences! Where are amygdalae in this clip? How do you know? How do Toothless and Hiccup move to connection in the prefrontal cortex? What did you notice about neuroplasticity from this clip? How can you apply the creation of this new friendship in your own life?


    Our circle times were spent together greeting one another, but also focusing on a topic or a question. Below are a few of our questions for community circle.


    1. What are your strengths?
    2. What triggers you?
    3. What do I do well now that I wasn’t able to do well in the past?
    4. What did I use to do that I don’t do much of anymore?
    5. Are you more like a cracker or a cookie? Why?
    6. When were you in your PFC recently?
    7. When were you in your amygdala?
    8. Which emotion from Inside Out do you relate to the most? Who shows up in headquarters more often?
    9. Name one personal goal you will change to show neuroplasticity? How will you do this?
    10. What is one school goal you will change to show plasticity in the brain? How will you do this?



    October/ November


    1. In these months, we took a hard look at the amygdala, memories, and neuroplasticity and our triggers. We also looked at how the brain is a social organ and we need each other. We revisited “Inside Out” and core memories discussing how many of our core memories are sad and filled with joy, but what makes them “core” are the emotions tied to these memories. The students were also given glass marbles as these represented their “sparks” their passions, interests and areas of expertise. Next semester, we will focus on creating “Islands of Future Personalities” keeping neuroplasticity in mind.
    2. Students created candy models of neural connections and we even made human models with students lying on the floor representing axons and dendrites connecting which shows learning in the brain.
    3. We delved into Multiple Intelligences and I hope next semester teachers will take off with this activity creating an MI wall reminding students of all the ways we are smart… focusing on the question- “How are you smart?” rather than “How smart are you?”
    4. Academically, in the ¾ class, Kate and I co-taught with great success (we laughed a lot too!) When we co-taught in writer’s workshop, we acted out immigration, fracking, and healthcare when students were creating their “candidate for presidency” work. Each candidate held a different stance on these issues, so Kate and I acted out the issues, while the students took notes, predicting, making associations, while excited to give us feedback. We did the same co-teaching model for teaching punctuation and editing. I wrote up a horribly misspelled paragraph with all kinds of punctuation errors and as we read this to the students, they assessed the work we had done! They loved finding the errors and sharing those with us.
    5. In teaching memoirs, we compared the main idea to the meat inside a cheeseburger! We discussed what might be the meat, what represented the cheese, lettuce and other toppings. We began to see how details do support the main idea.
    6. We also incorporated a brain interval and a focused attention practice each time I came to This is very important for teachers to implement every part of the day when I am not there. We taught the students (EFT, tapping), which they loved! In one format, they mimicked me and had to pay close attention to the areas I tapped so they would not get lost (mirror neurons). This went so well, that I began incorporating student leaders to lead the “Tapping” during each class. The students loved this leadership role.
    7. In our last week, I cut sentence strips into 25 questions for a review of the semester and hid them in stockings. The students broke into small groups and answered these with personal examples. I was happily surprised at how much they had remembered and shared during our last time together this semester.


    Goals for Spring Semester/ 2017

    Educational Neuroscience/ Brain and Trauma



    As we talked about the second half of the school year, we discussed creating a neuroscience fair for the younger grades, and a team of student leaders visiting classrooms to teach the lower grades about their brains. I am so excited to continue at the Lab School as take this work further into the students’ lives and into classrooms.



    Below are links to videos we used and Edutopia articles that include brain intervals, FAP, and brain aligned bell ringers.


    How we are born for kindness!!



    Brain Intervals and Focused Attention Practices

    Brain Lab in your Classroom!



    Sentis Videos



    With great respect,

    Dr. Lori Desautels

    College of Education,

    Butler University





Focused Attention Practices and New Research on the Stress Response System

Research from Dr. Bruce Perry

“Resilient children are made, not born!” 

Those 49 techniques that promise to get you into college are meaningless and short lived if we are not emotionally connected to one another meeting the student where the brain development has landed! 

The below research and strategies are not just for some youth…although critically important for those children and adolescence walking in with pain and adversity… but for all students and educators! 

As this summer season of presentations, teaching, and researching comes to a close… I have and am learning more about negative behaviors than I could have imagined. As I have delved into the pain and perceived stress beneath the oppositional, defiant, shut off, and apathetic brain states, I am beginning to understand that behavior management is about me!  It is not about our students and when I lead, mentor and sit beside students that carry in their worlds- their social maps; I am responsible for placing myself in a brain state that is co-regulated and coherent ready to explore the complexity of those maps. If I find… inside a tenuous encounter with another… that my resting heart rate is elevated, my fight flight freeze response can become activated and I can become and have become a clear unscathed mirror of the antagonistic and angry behavior in front of me. I can also unintentionally begin to personalize that which can only escalate the conflict that is budding!  I lead the way when disruptive behavior is present. Fear literally arises from the core of the brain affecting all brain areas and their functions with neurochemical activity. Two significant brain regions involved with the fear response are locus coeruleus- this is where the majority of noradrenaline neurons are located (brain stem area) and the popular amygdala located in the limbic area, the emotional center of the brain.     

More than desiring compliance and obedience, I want to stay emotionally connected with my students through the discipline process.  This is why understanding a child’s brain is critical to the teaching and learning process! 

Early childhood experiences (positive or negative) have a far greater impact than later ones and in the first years of life. If we have not developed the healthy neural circuitry that allows us to reach out and connect with others or to self-soothe inside acute negative experiences, we can easily become hard-wired and habitually reactive in those older and lower parts of the brain where the stress response system is chronically activated. One of the most important characteristics of memory, neural tissue, and development, is that they all change with patterned repetitive activity!   So the systems that are used the most will change and those that are not activated will not! What does this mean for many of our most troubled youth who are consistently being met with an array of discipline and punishment sanctions? Because our brains create unconscious implicit memories and make associations of our earliest experiences, we then subconsciously begin to predict what the world is like based on our personal schema and social maps. If those early experiences are negative and toxic to forming the healthy neuronal networks that breed connection and safety and the ability to self-regulate, our predictions can then guide us to very dysfunctional ways of relating to others, and being in the world in healthy purposeful ways.    

If you lack a deep memory of feeling safe and loved, the receptors in the brain that respond to human kindness fail to develop!


If we feel safe and loved, our brain specializes in collaboration, play and cooperation.

If we are constantly feeling unloved and unsafe, then our brain specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment

Brain Development – we have to know as teachers and administrators!

Early neglect and other environmental and relational adversities cause a dysregulation of body rhythms and a stress system that is overly sensitized to even minor stressors. Just the thought or memory of an aberrant childhood experience can trigger a hyper-aroused alarm in the emotional centers of our brains and this trigger can come out of nowhere because it is an internal perception of the past!    In many instances, this stress system can actually interfere with the other systems compromising the brain’s ability to regulate mood cognitively process and relate to others. What does this look like? In a classroom both disassociation and hyper-aroused responses can look like ADHD, ODD and anxiety. We can also see depressive symptomology.

What I am learning today is that at birth, human touch is not innate to the brain… it feels novel and can be perceived as a stressful stimulus! Only when consistent human touch or contact is provided does the brain respond in positive ways, but if this physical and emotional contact is not experienced, the brain stem sets off a stress response. If children especially in the first year of life are not given that human tactile connection consistently, they learn to numb and are unresponsive, creating associations in the brain that embrace toxic memory templates stagnating the later developing skills such as empathy and the ability to create options, be creative and employ cognitive flexibility. For when one lives in a survival brain state… one is very centered on the “Me!”   The survival brain state can look selfish, aggressive, violent and shut down!  And in the classroom what we forget as educators, is that harsh discipline, sudden movements, and yelling feels familiar to the student, and although it could escalate the conflict… there is certainty in misery because we have begun to associate these negative feelings with safety and the known! The survival brain has three components.

  • When we are living in survival mode, with our stress response turned on all the time, we can really focus on only three things!
  • Body- Am I ok?
  • Environment-Where is it safe?
  • Time- How long will this threat be hanging over me?

 Think how often, with especially younger children we have unintentionally  (during bouts of bad behavior) have escalated the encounter asking for eye contact, or brusquely and physically turned a child toward us or an adolescent desiring respect?  In our discipline systems, we have to remember that the language of the amygdala is feelings. The amygdala can only be regulated through movement, breath, and space. When both teacher and student have upshifted to the prefrontal cortex where are thinking is clear, we feel emotionally calmer, and we can listen to one another to learn… 

Within the Discipline Process…all children need

  1. Slow approaches
    2. Gentle movements
  2. Very little to no eye contact
  3. Teach a child or adolescent how to calm the amygdala… modeling techniques that use movement or breathing. These strategies from Psych Central could be incorporated into an Amygdala First Aid Station. We could also use a metronome to help to mimic a heartbeat that has become sporadic! 

Hand Massage

I learned this one in both the MBSR program and in Brukner’s book. What’s great about it is that you can do it while attending a lecture, listening to your kids fight, or sitting at your desk working. No one will notice. Simply use the thumb of one hand and press around the palm of the other hand. It’s very soothing.

  1. Palm Push

By pushing your palms together and holding for five to ten seconds, you give your body “proprioceptive input,” according to Brukner, which “lets your body know where it is in space.” I like this one because it reminds me of tree position in yoga, which is the last of the standing series postures in Bikram yoga. By then, I am quite happy to hold the tree position. The palm push is like a mini, portable tree position I can pull out any time to calm down.

  1. Close Your Eyes

Aron says that 80 percent of sensory stimulation comes in through the eyes, so shutting them every now and then gives your brain a much-needed break. She also says that she has found that highly sensitive persons do better if they can stay in bed with their eyes closed for nine hours. They don’t have to be sleeping. Just lying in bed with our eyes closed allows for some chill time that we need before being bombarded with stimulation.

  1. Mindful Sighing

During the MBSR class, we would take a few mindful sighs when transitioning from one person speaking to another. Basically you breathe in to a count of five through your mouth, and then you let out a very loud sigh, the sound you hear your teenager make. I was always amazed at how powerful those small sighs were to adjust my energy level and focus.

  1. Mindful Monkey Stretch

A couple of times during the MBSR class, we would stand in back of our chairs, move at least an arm’s length from each other in a circle, and do these exercises that I call mindful monkey stretches. We brought our hands, arms extended, in front of us, then brought the arms down. Next we brought our arms (still extended) to our sides, and then down. Next we brought our arms all the way past our heads and then swooped down, our head dangling between our knees, and hung there for a second. This exercise is extremely effective at releasing the tension we hold in different parts of our body. Our teacher said she does it before her lectures and it works to release the jitters.

  1. Hug Yourself

Did you know that a ten-second hug a day can change biochemical and physiological forces in your body that can lower risk of heart disease, combat stress, fight fatigue, boost your immune system, and ease depression? You can begin by giving yourself a hug. By squeezing your belly and back at the same time, you are again giving yourself proprioceptive input (letting your body know where you are in space), which can help stabilize you.

  1. Wall Push

Another great exercise to ground kids (and I add adults) with sensory integration issues, according to Brukner, is the wall push, where you simply push against the wall with flat palms and feet planted on the floor for five to ten seconds. If you’ve ever experienced an earthquake, you can appreciate why this gesture is calming … placing the weight of our body against a solid, immobile surface and feeling the pull of gravity is stabilizing, even on a subconscious level.

  1. Superman Pose

If you do Bikram yoga, the superman pose is basically the full locust position (airplane position), except the arms and the hands are stretched out in front of you, not to the sides. “Lie on your belly on the floor,” explains Brukner. “Extend your arms in front of you, and hold them straight out. Extend your legs behind you and hold them straight out.” Hold that pose for ten seconds. It’s a great exercise if you are groggy, overexcited, distracted, or antsy.

  1. Shake

Did you know that animals relieve their stress by shaking? Lots of animals like antelopes shake off their fear after being frozen in panic to escape a predator. In the MBSR program, we practiced shaking, for like 15 minutes at a time. I can’t say it looked all that pretty, but neurologically, I do believe it was beneficial.

  1. Bubble Breath

My favorite exercise in Brukner’s book is the Bubble Breath, because it is so simple and calming. Brukner explains:

Breathe in for five seconds, out for five seconds.

Imagine you have a wand of bubbles. When you breathe out, be careful not to pop it.

Place one flat palm on your heart, one flat palm on your belly.

Breathe in through your nose and hold your breath for five seconds.

Breathe out a large “bubble” though pursed lips, blow out for five seconds.


  1. Routines and procedures that are created for the specific negative behavior and are put into place each time to calm the stress response system.
    5. A rocking chair in the amygdala first aid station with an option of gentle movements and breathing as these experiences will regulate the brain stem and limbic brain for positive emotions and the ability to respond.
  2. Teach children and adolescents about their neuro-anatomy as this will bring relief to misunderstood behaviors and responses while also empowering students that they have the neuroplasticity to change old worn out ways of reacting and relating!

  1. Trauma is carried through for three generations and because of our growing understanding of epigenetics…we know that trauma can be inherited like eye color but we also know that our genetics is not our destiny!

As educators when we ask these questions setting up a proactive discipline/ brain system… we begin to help students to discover their well-being!

Purpose + Connection = Well-Being

  1. Am I important to someone here?
  2. Am I good at something in here?
  3. Can I affect the world here?
  4. Can I share my gifts here?

Adversity Trauma and What we Can do in the Classroom!!

Trauma, Adversity and the Stress Response Systems!

Brain Hijack!

Dr. Lori Desautels

College of Education

Butler University

Spring 2017

Trauma often times occurs in the context of relationships, disturbing people’s relationships long after the trauma while landing in the body. The body acts as the unconscious mind holding these negative emotions and sensations long after the adversity has passed.

Trauma fundamentally changes the brain. The front part of the brain is where we develop socially, where we pay attention and emotionally regulate and the back of the brain is about taking care of the body. Sleeping, sexual drive, eating, heart rate, breathing and all of the automatic functions that occur without conscious thought are held in the back parts of the brain. In times of adversity, the back of the brain becomes agitated and active and people literally begin to feel uncomfortable in their own skin! Bodies develop a new normal where they are on constant alert scanning the environment for danger.

In this type of trauma, the front part of the brain becomes sleepy- not fully online ( like ADD) For many people, this unsafe feeling feels like living in a room with the lights turned off!

Trauma creates a disturbance in perception. People will superimpose their own perceptions of the world on everything! There is a fundamental reorganization of how the brain perceives which leads to an impairment of imagination and mental flexibility!

People affected by significant or chronic adversity live “halted lives”… where it is difficult to learn from past experiences becoming stuck, and replaying the same experiences over and over again!

Trauma changes the brain so much that many people do not feel fully alive in the present moment! We completely lose our sense of present moment living!

To change the brain, we have to understand the importance of how adversity is held in the body and words are not heard! When we move, breathe rhythmically, act, and use art,  these bring us back to the present moment.

The essence of trauma is physical immobilization and helplessness because our brains and therefore our bodies are neurobiologically wired to fight back or flee! This immobilization becomes a conditioned response as brain circuits become rewired causing panic, fear anger, and feelings of being paralyzed. Trauma is stored in the deep sensations of the body, the unconscious mind.

The insula and mPFC which is responsible for our feelings of self-awareness goes offline. This part of the brain is necessary for healthy living because it helps us to understand what is going on inside of us! It is through these brain parts and functions that we learn to pay attention to ourselves and begin to self-reflect.

In trauma, the rational brain cannot quiet the limbic brain! There is not a smooth circuitry going from the prefrontal cortex back to the limbic brain! We cannot talk ourselves out of hunger, sleeplessness, agitation and uncomfortable primal feelings that have become embedded in circuits that have become reactive in the brain. We cannot own and be in control of ourselves without feeling a sense of self-awareness.

Trauma is a reaction to the event! It isn’t out there somewhere looming in our environment. It is held in our perceptions and the stories we keep retelling ourselves day after day, hour after hour! It is held in the body. Treatment begins when we begin to integrate the different parts of the brain! When we bring back the communication between the front of the brain and the back of the brain, healing occurs.

A traumatized brain can be tired, hungry, worried, rejected, or detached, and these states are often accompanied by feelings of isolation, worry, angst, and fear. The neurobiological changes caused by negative experiences trigger a fear response in the brain. When we feel distress, our brains and bodies are flooded with emotional messages that trigger the question, “Am I safe?” When will this end? We react physiologically with an agitated limbic system that increases blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration as the levels of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline increase in our bodies. Chronic activation of the fear response can damage those parts of the brain responsible for cognition and learning.

What can we do in our classrooms?

We have to begin the day or class period with a releasing exercise that primes the brain for cognition, attempting to bring the PFC back online!


How do we begin to control the reptilian and limbic brain? We enter the back door!   

  1. Teaching our students to take deep intentional breaths with longer exhales begins to quiet the limbic and reptilian brain.
  2. Movement and massage- hand lotion and hand massage
  3. Tapping on acu-points quiets the limbic brain- will be explained
  4. Movement – each day, we could incorporate specific movements through dance, exercise or even chair dancing!
  5. Talk in a funny voice for 30 seconds. This could be a deep, high slow drawn out, laughing, or voice with hiccups interspersed, etc. Let the students decide!
  6. Art and writing for 90 seconds before the day begins. I am going to have students draw and paint with their eyes closed this semester as this brings attention back to the present moment!
  7. Drumming- on our laps, with cups, etc.
  8. Stretching exercises- hold and breathe!
  9. Talisman/ and object to hold and remember
  10. Yoga movements / holding postures increase endorphins- there are certain postures that can trigger the feelings of trauma so we need to be aware. Warrior is excellent as are seated postures with twisting, and standing postures where we can see our environments.
  11. Legos and building materials


  1. Inhale four counts, exhale with lips pursed through the mouth for 8 counts—initiating the parasympathetic stress response.
  2. Place your fingers in front of your mouth just an inch or two. As you breathe in through your nose and breathe with your shoulders in a shallow breath feel the air… Now breathe in through your nose and exhale through your mouth as you blow up your belly with a deep diaphragm breath. Feel how much warmer this air is against your fingers.
  3. Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest. Breathe in and out normally and see which hand rises and falls… how do you normally breathe? Deeply or in a shallow way?
  4. Inhale and lift your forefinger of your left hand and lower this finer as you exhale. Go through these breathing movements raising and lowering each finger on both hands. You can use other parts of your body to match the inhale and exhale with 10 deep breaths always exhaling a bit longer than the inhale!
    • Movement is critical to learning, as it activates several areas of the brain at once while calming the brain. I will usually lead with a rhythm, using a plastic cup or my body, and students will mimic me by drumming the pattern on their legs and arms. The collective sound brings a sense of community to the classroom.
    • Once a day, I pass out a drop of lotion, and for 90 seconds students give their hands and fingers a massage, noticing their palms, fingertips, and any sensations that feel uncomfortable or stiff. We always reflect afterward.
    • For a few minutes, I have the students rock along their spine to help them feel present in their bodies. This also provides a soothing rhythm that subtly grounds them with sensation and movement.
    • Placing our fingers on our throats, we begin the day with a sound or class chant and feel the vibration of our vocal cords. This gives everyone a chance to participate and to see how we can mimic different animals, instruments, and random classroom sounds such as papers crinkling.
    • The students sit with their legs straight out and begin wiggling their toes and ankles, shaking knees and thighs, rotating shoulders, arms, and finally their heads, keeping all body parts moving at the same time. Then we reverse the process and stop our heads, arms, shoulders, and on down. This gives children a great body scan and a sequence for working memory.
    • Sometimes I’ll put on music and give the students old scarves, and we’ll dance around the room waving the scarves and feeling the soft sensation as we dance and pass by one another. When the music stops, we freeze and notice our postures and movements. This strategy can be led by the teacher or a student to see if we can mimic a movement or create our own.
  • Noticing Sheets–  ( I can send you an example of a Noticing Sheet or there is one on my facebook.)  With older students, this “noticing can be reciprocal with ground rules. If you notice details, behaviors, moods, students can mark on your sheet too! Students love homemade worksheets from their teachers! Even if there is an off day with many challenges, we can always notice very specific behaviors moods or actions!! This also allows us to track patterns of behaviors! Very simple but very effective when we pass these out each day! Even with 30 students as we walk the room we can jot down a quick note or even a “thank you!” When we see a positive in the moment!
  • Ultra Natural Pain Relief Gel- when we place a drop in an area on our bodies that feels tense, anxious, tight or uncomfortable, we teach our students how to pay attention to one particular spot and notice sensations! This is a great way to prime the brain for attention as we hold a quiet time for about 2 minutes while students smell, feel the texture and place a drop on their hands, arms neck, or shoulders. These two minutes integrate the senses, bring us to the present moment and rejuvenate our frontal lobes so they are ready to learn!
  • Write a letter to someone who has been especially kind. This could be once a day, once a week or whenever the time feels right. This doesn’t have to be a fully written letter, but a few sentences that can be shared after they are written! Nothing moves us so swiftly and steadily to positive emotion more than gratitude!





Adversity, Stress, Poverty and Learning! Letter to our Community!

As parents, educators, students, and as a community, we can no longer ignore the research on the state of mental and emotional health of our families in Indiana, along with the high poverty rates at over 20 percent!  When it comes to mental health, a new state ranking has Indiana residents close to the worst in the nation. Mental Health America released its findings this week. According to the study, Indiana ranks 45th out of all 50 states and Washington D.C.

I am choosing to view this newest research as an opportunity for change in our city and state! There have been thousands of wonderful and well intentioned programs that have attempted to place social and emotional learning inside our communities and schools, and I hope this continues but we are neglecting to take a deep hard look at “how” we are preparing our children and adolescents for this new time in our world’s history! Education must change if we are to rise to the needs of our children adolescents and families!  At Butler and Marian University we are training our pre-service teachers and graduate students to understand how the research from neuroscience can inform our practices helping us to regulate a student before learning or discipline takes place! We also have to pay attention to the emotional needs of our educators as they are welcoming children from the most diverse backgrounds in our countries’ history.  We have to begin training our educators and our students about their own neurobiology and the strategies that lessen the stress response and prime the brain to pay attention and to learn! This is not another program that teachers or administrators are required to employ! It is a way of connecting and building relationships with one another and our content! In this state, we have many students walking through our classroom doors in pain! We cannot learn if we are not feeling safe, connected and “felt” by another!  Adversity greatly impacts our future world citizens. If we want those higher test scores and graduation rates, we must attend to the brain health of our students!

Educators and students are carrying in much more than backpacks, car keys, conversations, partially-completed homework, and outward laughter. Buried deep in the brain’s limbic system is an emotional switching station called the amygdala, and it is here that our human survival and emotional messages are subconsciously prioritized and learned. We continually scan environments for feelings of connectedness and safety. I am learning that the students who look oppositional, defiant, or aloof may be exhibiting negative behavior because they are in pain and presenting their stress response.

Over 29 percent of young people in the U.S., ages 9-17, are affected by anxiety and depression disorders (PDF). The thinking lobes in the prefrontal cortex shut down when a brain is in pain.

Trauma and the Brain

What is trauma? When we hear this word, we tend to think of severe neglect or abusive experiences and relationships. This is not necessarily true. A traumatized brain can also be a tired, hungry, worried, rejected, or detached brain expressing feelings of isolation, worry, angst, and fear. In youth, anger is often the bodyguard for deep feelings of fear. Trauma-filled experiences can be sudden or subtle, but the neurobiological changes from negative experiences cause our emotional brain to create a sensitized fear response. When we feel distress, our brains and bodies prioritize survival, and we pay attention to the flood of emotional messages triggering the question, “Am I safe?” We first must understand that feelings are the language of the limbic system. When a student in stress becomes angry or shut down, he or she won’t hear our words. Talking a student through any discipline procedure or thought reflection sheet in the heat of the moment is fruitless. Here are three ways to calm the stress response — two of them through immediate action, and the third by a brief science lesson.

  1. Movement

Movement is critical to learning while calming the stress and fear response. Teachers and students together could design a space, a labyrinth of sorts, where students can walk or move to relieve the irritation of the amygdale. Physical activities such as push-ups, jogging in place, jumping jacks, and yoga movements help to calm the limbic brain and bring the focus back to learning and reasoning.

  1. Focused Attention Practices

Focused attention practices teach students how to breathe deeply while focusing on a particular stimulus. When we take two or three minutes a few times each day or class period and teach students how to breathe deeply, we are priming the brain for increased attention and focus. These practices might also include a stimulus such as sound, visualization, or the taste of a food. The focused attention increases an oxygenated blood and glucose flow to the frontal lobes of the brain where emotional regulation, attention, and problem solving occur.

  1. Understanding the Brain

Teaching students about their amygdala and fear response is so empowering. When we understand that this biology is many thousands of years in the making, hardwired to protect us, our minds begin to relax through knowing that our reactions to negative experiences are natural and common. A middle-school teacher and her students have named the amygdala “Amy G. Dala.” By personifying this ancient, emotionally-driven structure in our brains, the students are befriending their fear responses and learning how to lessen negative emotion. We cannot always control the experiences in our lives, but we can shift how we respond, placing the science of our brains in the driver’s seat of discipline!

A brand new article from Edutopia about trauma and the brain is available at this link! The one for secondary educators will be published in the next few weeks!!


Brains, Discipline and Adversity! We have to look at how negative experiences shape the brain!

Social Brains, Discipline, and Regulation!

As I ponder, rethink and implement discipline supports and resources into our nation’s schools, I am reminded of the research from Dr. Bruce Perry. Our brains are social organs and we cannot survive without one another. When any individual feels isolated, rejected and disconnected from those around him or her, we tend to retreat to our reactive neurobiology within the brain stem and limbic systems. It is from this brain stem, the Locus Coeruleus, the nucleus of cells in the brainstem (pons) involved in the physiological response to stress and feelings of panic oftentimes causing a reactive defensive response that has become a new normal brain state.  It is here in the lower brain where the stress systems are activated and move through the limbic brain causing a sensitized reaction in the amygdala,  that if prolonged and extreme, can affect learning, motor skills, emotional regulation and the fundamental neural networks that are responsible for human kindness empathy and compassion.

In our schools across the nation, children and adolescents are walking through our doors carrying in patterned developmental stress circuits.  These activated stress systems initiate repeated negative dispositions and we sometimes see aggressive, defiant, oppositional, and violent or shut down behaviors in our students that can appear without warning!  We are seeing more and more students triggered by what seems like the most insignificant incidences! But these environmental triggers that might be a person, place, a conversation, an object, or content being taught are anything but insignificant. We know that adversity and trauma at any age, but specifically an early age, are held in our emotional implicit core memory systems and in the body! Our bodies actually hold these adversities like the unconscious mind! When the stress systems are activated the brain move swiftly to the fight flight freeze response creating a rapid heartbeat, respiration and higher blood pressure. Over time, these reactive repetitive limbic responses can literally kill brain tissue through the abnormal secretion of adrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol stimulates extra calcium which leads to the production of free radicals that can injure and destroy nerve cells. The hippocampus, our memory center in the limbic brain is responsible for encoding memories and moving short term memory to long term memory storage. But the hippocampus also is the primary trigger to the parasympathetic nervous system which lessens heartrate, lowers blood pressure and respiration! When the hippocampus is compromised by cell death, its ability to ward off stress is diminished! We see up to 25% less gray matter in the hippocampal  areas because of excess cortisol secretion!


So when we treat pain based behaviors with pain… we escalate the stress response systems. When we suspend expel and diminish the ability to stay emotionally connected through conflict we unintentionally elevate the neurohormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that produce more reactive behaviors. When we punish in punitive actions, we unintentionally isolate and reject children and adolescents who walk through our classroom doors carrying in a brain that has rarely been exposed to healthy attachments and therefore has wired and mirrored its environment.

A child who has never been loved cannot love! A child who has not been the recipient of kindness and compassion has not formed the receptors in the brain responsible for showing kindness. Our relational neurobiology matters more than anything else to our mental, emotional and physical health!         


We are in a time where we must prepare our educators, schools and parents in understanding how early adversity changes brain architecture creating a hyper vigilant sensitized response in the lower brain.  Prefrontal cortex neuronal networks are taken offline and the cortical functions responsible for learning, emotional regulation, sustained attention, empathy, and kindness are left barren of an oxygenated glucose blood flow. Our brains are “use dependent” meaning that the more you take any neuronal network and activate it in patterned repetitive ways, the more we internalize… creating synaptic connections that become hard wired and change our brain architecture and blood chemistry. Adversity and trauma fundamentally reorganize the brain where negative emotion, feelings of rejection, isolation and a distorted perception reign supreme! The acts of defiance and aggression are often misunderstood by the adults who do not understand how “shame” and “depression” can manifest in children and youth. We can unintentionally create battlefields and explosive warfare against these vulnerable youth if we do not understand how the brain processes negative emotion or how to reduce the fight flight fear response ignited in pain.


Dr. Bruce Perry describes our two greatest gifts as a human species. These are the malleability of the human brain early in life, and the fundamental relational gift of connection as human beings. We are biologically wired to need one another for survival! We survive by forming collaborative groups and large parts of our brains are dedicated for relationships and connection. Yet, as a society we unintentionally disrespect our own evolution of connection and this happens way too often inside our nation’s schools.

Our discipline policies must begin to include brain science as it relates to negative behaviors and connections.  We must begin to mentor our educators, parents and community on the power of connection through conflict and how the parts of our brain that are humane, empathic and kind require experience to become fully developed and organized!

Empathy / Compassion

Human beings are contagious! We are contagious in cognition, affect and motor activity. We model what we see and this powerful contagion can be such a benefit for educators in the classroom! We need to model and teach the behaviors we want to see. When students observe us handling problems, challenges and adversity we are giving them an experience that is beneficial in developing new networks of higher cortical functioning!

What can we do?

Regulate and Reward

When disciplining youth, we must come from a regulated brain state as must the student. When we are regulated, calm, and clear with our thinking, we are better able to listen, respond, problem, solve, accept responsibility and process various viewpoints.  How do we regulate a child or adolescent? We know that to calm the amygdala stress response returning to the frontal lobes, we must use a language that the amygdala understands. That language is “feelings” and the actions taken to calm the stress centers are movement and breath. These have various forms and durations, but to regulate our negative emotions is a prerequisite to sustainable engagement, learning and discipline.

Chunks of time throughout the day that reward behaviors come from intentional acts of connection. When we reward a struggling child, we notice what they are doing well and right. We notice effort. We notice when tensions rise and we redirect them with choices and opportunities. We help them to envision possibility through a private assignment, artwork, music, a service project, or assisting another adult or child in the building with a problem. We invite them to co –plan and co-teach. We place them in a leadership role that helps them to feel connected and purposeful.

We begin by teaching all students about their neuro-anatomy!

  1. Teach students about their neuro-anatomy just as you would teach procedures, transition, classroom agreements and routines.
  2. Prefrontal Cortex
  3. Neuroplasticity
  4. Amygdala
  5. Hippocampus
  6. Social Brain/ Development / Peer Influences
  7. Stress Response/ Limbic Brain
  8. Self-Reflection


The integration of brain science turns discipline into a learning opportunity for both teacher and student! It is tailored to be proactive and a part of teaching procedures, transitions and rituals.  It uses our bodies to redirect behavior and never our mouths! (Never go public!!) It is self-reflective and created from these four guidelines!


  1. We Belong- Am I important to someone here?
    We Try- Am I good in my efforts here?
    3. We Shine- Can I influence my world here?
    4. We Serve- How can I share my gifts to help others here?

The goal is to not only stop the behaviors we don’t want… we are good at this, but start the behaviors we do want!

Class Guidelines

Assess and Change Often!

Reinforce with Social Incentives

  1. Be Safe-what does this look like in the classroom, hall, cafeteria, etc?
  2. Be Helpful- If you are helpful in the classroom what are two actions we would like to see?
  3. Be Respectful- If I am respectful, I am not talking when someone else is sharing, and even though I am angry or frustrated, I find a couple of ways to express these negative feelings without lashing out and hurting another.


  1. Be Responsible- If I am responsible, maybe I am doing my own work and following the directions? Maybe I am asking for help when I need it? Maybe I need to calm down, so I let my teacher know this!


What do these guidelines look like in the hallway, small groups, whole group, homework, late work, arrival and dismissal.


Truth Signs

  1. Everyone needs different supports, incentives and resources for learning and behavioral choices.
  2. Everyone needs time to think and learn.
  3. We each learn in our own ways by our own time clock.
  4. It’s intelligent to ask for help. No one needs to do it alone.
  5. We can be successful when we take risks and make mistakes.


 Often times, this isn’t enough and we need backup systems that provide the security of boundaries, structure and consistency. In- school suspensions have attempted to do this, but they are often delivered in negative and escalating tones, words, and behaviors. If I am to discipline with the brain in mind, I need for each student to connect with me but to also connect with other adults during a time of conflict and chaos.

  1. Do you have three or four colleagues in your building that can assist you in moments of conflict? These colleagues could include: custodial help, cafeteria workers, instructional assistants, older students, different department colleagues, grade level colleagues, special area teachers, administration substitute building teacher, volunteers, etc.? 
  2. Could you develop a discipline back-up plan where once the student is regulated after a few minutes or so… the students could move to different classrooms or areas in the building for affirmation and special service errands or jobs for this colleague who sits beside you giving emotional first aid? For every
  3. Could you develop a brain packet for this student to work through as they observe and learn about the science of their behaviors? (I am working on this now!)
  4. Back – Up Systems – are always to be used for the short term and never intended to start new behaviors we want to see!
  5. Types of Back- UP Systems (Get Back Up!!!)
  6. First Step/ Co-Regulation
  7. Amygdala First Aid Station
  8. Train of Thought Area
  9. Peer Mentoring
  10. Assigned Teacher Classroom or Brain Lab ( School wide)


 Validation and Questions

That must have made you feel really angry.-

  1. What a frustrating situation to be in!-

It must make you feel angry to have someone do that.-

Wow, how hard that must be.-

 That’s stinks! That’s messed up! 

How frustrating!

Yeah, I can see how that might make you feel really sad.-

 Boy, you must be angry.

What a horrible feeling.

 What a tough spot.


  1. What do you want?
    Do you have a plan?
    3. How can I help you?
    4. What are your resources?
    5. What feels difficult?
    6. What could be the best possible outcome?
    7. What is the worst thing that could happen?
    8. Is your interpretation really true?
    9. How do you know this?
    10. What is a first step in improving this situation?




Dual Reflection Brain Sheets


What did we see?

What did we hear?

How did we feel?

What guideline was not followed?

What are two adjustments we could make the next time?

What is one thing we both did well?


Reasonable Consequences

The brain loves to make sense out of experiences, information, and relationships that fit together. This is why we need to implement consequences that attend to the hurt or pain that one person has caused another. Consequences for poor decisions and the choices aligned with them will make sense and feel relevant and meaningful to students who are ready to process this information, responding from their frontal lobes in a calm brain state. This is the place in which they’ll experience and feel the connection between choices and consequences. Here are some examples of those connections:

For a student who interrupted whole-class learning, have him or her create an extra-credit assignment for the class on a specific topic or standard.

For a student who used unkind words to another classmate, have these two partner to create a special assignment, job, or favor for another class or the cafeteria or office staff, starting a “pay it forward” chain for a week of school.

For a student who showed disrespectful behavior toward an adult, have him or her write a letter of apology explaining what was beneath the hurt feelings that caused the behavior, accompanied by a plan of action to make amends for the hurt feelings that he or she caused.

There are many YouTube videos presenting kindness, empathy, and the tough struggles of others that students will enjoy and learn from. This activity helps us reach beyond our own stubborn egos and negative emotions to serve another. The following links take you to sources of short videos that will help your students create positive emotions and diminish anger:

Pennies of Time

Random Acts of Kindness

Kind Kids Club

What are other ways that we could align consequences to impact future behaviors with positive emotion?


Keep engagement high!! / Part of a Pro-Active Discipline Plan!

As I prepare for summer coursework and professional developments, I wanted to share these researched brain aligned strategies we will be exploring in the Butler educational neuroscience course in 10 days!

  1. Paying attention means using novelty!
    2. Keep the fun in learning and never save it for the end!
    3. Students who are constantly relating new standards and material to personal experiences perform better than those who memorize for the test!
    4. Brain Intervals not only create novelty, but they give the brain some incubation time to fix and form neural circuits!
    5. We need to rename “Testing” to “Retrieval Practice” as forgetting is important to learning and we need to create frequent conditions where students have the opportunity to retrieve information!

Developmentally students in upper elementary and middle school are walking in with heightened limbic brain activity which can look awful and ugly to adult and even other students. These years are so confusing and just as important as school and classroom rules are student and class “Strength and Action Plans!
1. What are my strengths?
2. What are my passions? How can I use these and show case these this year?
3. What do I enjoy?
4. What are my challenges?
5. How can I integrate these in my classrooms this school year?



Why Educational Neuroscience in the Classroom?

August 2016

Dr. Lori Desautels

After completing our initial educational neuroscience graduate course at Butler University, and completing a yearlong Brain Initiative with the Washington Township Schools this summer, while sitting beside teachers, administrators and students for the past three years inside K-12 classrooms and higher education, I wanted to reflect in this post how this practice/ discipline cannot be implanted, memorized, scripted or turned into an acronym! Educational Neuroscience embraces connection, engagement and a deepened understanding of brain development as it relates to education. People change people, not programs! To create a program or label and limit this emerging discipline, would be disrespectful!

What am I so excited about? What are educators so excited about after being introduced to this practice? Many educators are motivated and enthused because there is science and emerging research that aligns for how they are already engaging and connecting to students. There are so many social and emotional mindful programs that are clearly enhancing the child or adolescent’s or even the teacher’s stress response system, but it is time to begin mentoring and training our pre-service educators in brain development, as it relates to sitting beside 21st century brains who walk through classroom doors with an exorbitant mount of emotional social and cognitive needs! High achievement, academic success, and closing those  learning gaps occurs when we “prime” the brain for connection and purpose because many of our youth are coming from environments where emotional connection with a significant other and a sense of purpose have been lost, denied, or buried.

The human brain is wired for relationships! The human brain loves to learn. But if the conditions for these neurobiological states are not tended to, we all feel the negative effects.

“If you lack a deep memory of feeling loved and safe, the receptors in the brain that respond to human kindness fail to develop.”  (Van Der Kolk)

If we feel safe and loved, our brain specializes in cooperation, play,  and exploration! If we are constantly feeling unloved, frightened or unwanted, the brain specializes in managing feelings of fear and abandonment.”

  1. Educational Neuroscience   helps us to understand the private logic and worlds of one another. We are feeling creatures who think.
  2. Attachment to adults is a prerequisite to learning from them! Attachment is the carrier of all development.
  3. Development is hot, messy chaotic and anything but linear.
  4. Students and adults who are angry, anxious, depressed or feeling negative emotion struggle with learning!
  5. Environment intimately affects our neurobiological states and we need to attend to the outer and inner environments of one another.
  6. Emotion is critical to the learning process.
  7. Movement and healthy sleep patterns intimately affect learning.
  8.  Helping students begins with teaching them about their neuro-anatomy! When we do, children and adolescents are able to begin self-regulation habits and priming their own brains for a strengthened memory, and learning connections.
  9. Our behaviors are driven by how we see the world. When you walk through life with a guilt or shame based lens, you recycle the negative feelings and behaviors you are trying to lessen!
  10. Children and youth want their own power and control, not another adult’s. Create islands of forced success and help them to discover their strengths, expertise and interests! Self-reflection is intimately connected to high levels of learning. Every child unconsciously creates a “social map” “How I see myself, becomes my experience.”
  11. Shame is beneath all acts of violence. Violence is the absence of love… for children; they make a clear connection violence, neglect and rejection!
  12. Humans are nurtured by love- this comes from two sources- self and others! If love cannot be experienced from one of these two sources, it cannot flourish! A person who has not felt loved, has no reserves of love or kindness to give and this leads to a lack of empathy!
  13. Four questions that drive our deepened understanding of educational neuroscience in schools.
  14. Am I important to someone here?
  15. Am I good at something here?
  16. Am I able to affect change or my world in here?
  17. Can I share my gifts with someone here?

The Adolescent Brain: Leaving Childhood Behind

Social and Emotional Learning Series for Edutopia


There isn’t a more profound scene in the film Inside Out than the death of Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend. As the main character approaches her 12th birthday, her brain is beginning to develop in ways that leave her imagination behind. This is the time when children between the ages of 10 and 14 begin dying to their childhoods to be born into their adolescence.

Redefined Purpose and Identity

Bing Bong represents innocence, imagination, creativity, and childlike joy mixed with love. This is the second greatest time of brain change, the first being birth to three years of age. Inside Out embraces this development in a very visual and meaningful way as Bing Bong intentionally jumps out of the rainbow wagon, watching Joy return to headquarters without the weight of childhood thought processes and feelings. As Riley’s brain begins exploring this adolescent stage of life, she begins searching for a new identity and social status, is confronted with intense emotions, and revisits many of her childhood core memories that begin to enrich this new developmental time in her life. Finding a new purpose and discovering who we are becoming characterize the great neurobiological changes that educators and parents need to deeply understand in this time of brain development.

The adolescent’s jobs are to question authority and search for an identity. As young people grow into these new responsibilities mandated by their personal development, their teachers and administrators need to understand how to create classroom cultures and relationships that promote creativity, as well as positive social interactions that play into the intense emotions which are an integral part of the adolescent brain. It is our responsibility to help our young adults see a bigger life picture filled with optimal choices and consequences, so that embracing hindsight provides foresight for these genius chaotic minds.

There are also significant changes in the secretion and baseline levels of neurohormones. The adolescent brain contains lower levels of serotonin, which declines in these years. This can contribute to increased aggression along with higher levels of testosterone, which can also contribute to angry outbursts and impulsive behavior. The baseline for dopamine, our feel-good neurotransmitter, is also lower, so more dopamine is required for a satisfying result. Additionally, we know that the frontal lobes of the brain are not fully developed in these years, which limits brain function in problem solving, discernment, emotional regulation, and sustained attention.

Easing the Transition

There are many brain-aligned strategies that strengthen the creativity and productivity of young adults as we emotionally attach to our adolescents securing a safe environment for them to explore, identify, and connect with one another. Below are some questions that open the frontal lobe for connection, memory, and metacognition:

  • What or who was your Bing Bong? Could it be an object (like a blanket or teddy bear) or something abstract?
  • What does Bing Bong symbolize?
  • Why is it important for Riley to let go of Bing Bong?
  • Why did Bing Bong jump off the wagon?
  • What makes it so sad for the audience (especially parents and adults) as we watch this part?
  • Do we really ever lose Bing Bong? Explain.
  • Do you have a core memory of an experience from your imagination? What is it like?

In The Teen Years Explained: A Guide to Healthy Adolescent Development, researchers from Johns Hopkins University provide a powerful handbook to better understanding the adolescent brain and how we can prepare to sit beside these young adults in a time when the brain is hot, messy, and beautifully intelligent and complex.

What can we do as educators to ease the transition into healthy adolescence?

    1. Model the behaviors that we want to see. It’s chancy to assume that our adolescent students know what we want or are asking for regarding behavior, instruction, and expectations. We need to be specific with our models of instruction and assessment, even developing our own models to share with our students. Each semester, I create a project that’s similar to what I ask of my students. They enjoy my explanation and transparency, and they love to give me feedback, just as I do with their projects.
    2. Tap into the strengths, passions, and expertise of all students. Create expert days where students actually design a professional development individually or in partners to share their interests and strengths. This could take many forms.
    3. Give students choices and input into developing rules, consequences, guidelines, and class structure. Invite students to lead in morning meetings and class rituals.
    4. Provide safe and fair boundaries with explanations as to why these are needed. Our brains need structure and boundaries as much as they need novelty. When we explain the nuances of neuroanatomy, students begin to see discipline as a science.
    5. Teach students about the brain and how it is developing during this time in their lives. They need to understand why they’re feeling and acting in ways unfamiliar to themselves and others. Here are two excellent videos to help them reach this understanding:

      •’s Teen Brain

      • SciShow’s The Teenage Brain Explained

    6. Teach them how to calm their stress response system through focused attention practices and brain breaks that involve movement. I suggested some strategies in my Edutopia post Energy and Calm: Change It Up and Calm It Down!

Learn your students’ ecology. What does this age group like to do on weekends? What is their favorite music and clothing? How do they spend their free time? What is their favorite technology? What are their goals? What career and vocation choices could tap into their strengths and interests? When you show interest in their lives and intermix this data into your standards and topics, you’ve demonstrated equity in the teaching and learning relationship.

As Urie Bronfenbenner said, “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy about him or her.” This is the kind of support that adolescents require, too. How do you demonstrate understanding and guidance for your students during this challenging phase of their lives?



Contagious Emotions and Responding to Stress

Social and Emotional Learning Series for Edutopia

Neuroscience research suggests that emotions are contagious. Our brains are social organs, and we are wired for relationships. When we encounter or experience intense emotions from another individual, we feel those feelings as if they were our own. Mirror neurons in our brains are responsible for empathy, happiness, and the contagious anger, sadness, or anxiety that we feel when another person is experiencing these same feelings.

In the film Inside Out, 11-year-old Riley and her parents are sitting together at dinner in their new San Francisco home. As the three discuss the youth hockey team that Riley’s mother has discovered, Riley’s anger builds quickly because Joy has left headquarters (the frontal lobes in her brain), and Fear and Anger are on duty instead. As Riley’s anger grows, her father’s anger begins to match hers, and the dinner conversation ends in an explosive outburst of emotional contagion. This amusing dramatization of a very real family dynamic demonstrates how our brains can react and quickly jump into a conflict without our conscious awareness or conscious choice.

Students and educators need to understand how quickly this negative interaction can occur. Conflicts escalate unconsciously when our amygdala, the emotional control centers in the limbic system, are triggered and we instantaneously react. When two people are experiencing an active stress response, no one is thinking clearly as the frontal lobes are shut down, and behaviors and words can become painful and hurtful. In the end, we rarely feel better, because the amygdala’s language is feelings, not words. When we feel negative emotion, words are not heard or understood. This is why co-regulation is so important before we begin to problem solve or explain consequences for poor choices. Co-regulation or calming the stress response system is needed to prime the brain for broadened thinking, planning, and understanding. Research reports that movement and breathing are two significant ways to calm the stress response system. We’ll discuss these below as we delve into a few calming strategies for healthy brain functioning.

Calming the Stress Response

Focused attention practices and movement are the two neurological strategies for calming an angry and anxiety-ridden brain. When we are in this fight-flight-freeze response, we do not hear words or explanations because the neural pathway from the prefrontal cortex back to the amygdala is much like a dirt road — it’s underdeveloped, and messages in words are not heard or understood.

1. Get Some Distance

Give students — and yourself — a few minutes to step away from a conflict and de-escalate the limbic reaction. You can accomplish this with deep breaths, some physical space, a few push-ups, jumping rope, a walk, or listening to instrumental music while focusing on your breath.

2. Validate the Feelings

Once the negative emotions have calmed down and the brain has regulated, validation is critical for helping students know that they are heard and understood. Examples of validating statements include:

  • That must have made you feel really angry.
  • What a frustrating situation to be in!
  • It must make you feel angry to have someone do that.
  • Wow, how hard that must be.
  • That stinks!
  • That’s messed up!
  • How frustrating!
  • Yeah, I can see how that might make you feel really sad.
  • Boy, you must be angry.
  • What a horrible feeling.
  • What a tough spot.

3. Questions and Choices

Once the student feels heard and felt, we can gain a better understanding of his or her feelings. We then have an opportunity to implement questions and choices. Both questioning and choice assist in up-shifting an oxygenated glucose blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, where we are better problem solvers, to think clearly about choices and consequences. Here are some sample questions:

  • How can I help?
  • What do you need?
  • What can we do together to make this better?
  • What is a plan we can create together?
  • Is there anything you need from me now or later that would help you reach your goals?

Reasonable Consequences

The brain loves to make sense out of experiences, information, and relationships that fit together. This is why we need to implement consequences that attend to the hurt or pain that one person has caused another. Consequences for poor decisions and the choices aligned with them will make sense and feel relevant and meaningful to students who are ready to process this information, responding from their frontal lobes in a calm brain state. This is the place in which they’ll experience and feel the connection between choices and consequences. Here are some examples of those connections:

  • For a student who interrupted whole-class learning, have him or her create an extra-credit assignment for the class on a specific topic or standard.
  • For a student who used unkind words to another classmate, have these two partner to create a special assignment, job, or favor for another class or the cafeteria or office staff, starting a “pay it forward” chain for a week of school.
  • For a student who showed disrespectful behavior toward an adult, have him or her write a letter of apology explaining what was beneath the hurt feelings that caused the behavior, accompanied by a plan of action to make amends for the hurt feelings that he or she caused.

There are many YouTube videos presenting kindness, empathy, and the tough struggles of others that students will enjoy and learn from. This activity helps us reach beyond our own stubborn egos and negative emotions to serve another. The following links take you to sources of short videos that will help your students create positive emotions and diminish anger:

What are other ways that we could align consequences to impact future behaviors with positive emotion?



Islands of Personality and Trains of Thought


Social and Emotional Learning Series for Edutopia

In the film Inside Out, 11-year-old Riley holds several islands of personality in her brain. These islands were created from her past core memories, experiences, interests, and passions. Positive and negative core memories create these islands that make up our personality or sense of self. Riley’s included Family Island, Friendship Island, Soccer Island, and Goofball Island. Our brains form islands of personality (or, for the purposes of this discussion, islands of self) because of our interests, relationships, experiences, and how others in our lives have affirmed, supported, or possibly weakened our thoughts about who we are and our ever-developing life purposes. How can educators assist in building upon, repairing, and strengthening our students’ islands of self? When we take a few minutes to authentically share and reflect with our students, we cultivate a connection that sustains us through the difficult moments within our classrooms.

Validation is an effective brain-aligned strategy that tells a student, “I hear you and I understand.” Validating a child’s or adolescent’s feelings helps the student to “feel felt,” which is integral to every student’s emotional, social, and cognitive development. As I began delving into this activity, I interviewed several students age 7-17. Below are examples of their islands of self. Not only did they share the names of their islands, they also explained why and how these islands developed. The students loved this type of reflection, giving me a snapshot into their worlds of beliefs, private logic, and sense of self.

  1. People Island
  2. Laughing Island
  3. Scary Island
  4. Animal Island
  5. Intellectual Island
  6. Dancing Island
  7. Spiritual Island
  8. Not Good Enough Island
  9. Island of the Arts

Strategies to Develop Islands of Self

1. Ask students to identify and share their islands of self. As educators, we begin to model this activity by explaining to students that our islands are always changing based on our interests, passions, affirmations, experiences, relationships, and perceptions. Change is life, and much like real islands, our islands can grow healthier or diminish and weaken.

2. Create and display islands of self at the beginning of the year, explaining that these could change based on our experiences. This is a fabulous strategy for gathering perceptual data. The more that students know about themselves, the stronger learners they are. Self-reflection and self-observation are the building blocks for cognitive and academic growth.

Creating islands of self is an activity for all ages and grade levels as students begin to see analogies, contrast, differences, and similarities in and out of school. How many of our students would have an island of mistrust or an island of a broken heart?

3. Create a Future Island and encourage students to imagine, innovate, and begin planning what social and emotional topography will be a part of this island.

4. These islands could be integrated into language arts and history curricula, and of course into personal narratives.

Consider teaching a history, biology and geography lesson looking at changes in people, landforms, and our bodies, and how the environment and cultural shifts create and modify new islands of self.

5. Islands of self could be compared to building mathematical operations and algorithms.

6. Islands of self could assist in developing a thesis and the foundations for nonfiction writing, science research, and the development of a hypothesis.

Train of Thought

In Inside Out, we watched Riley’s train of thought run through her mind during the days and stop or slow down when she was sleeping. We know that the brain never stops working unless we are dead, and as my fourth-grade students suggested last week, maybe our trains take other routes when we are sleeping, and quite possibly our subconscious thought processes are the engineers. We saw fear take over Riley’s train of thought on her first day of school, followed by anger and sadness. Her changing feelings were distracting headquarters (the prefrontal cortex) in her brain and therefore her train of thought was derailed a few times. Students love to learn about their own neurobiology and when they understand what distracts or derails their train of thought in the frontal lobes, they can implement strategies to help them pay attention and focus.

Paying attention and being focused are prerequisites to sustainable learning. Sustained attention and working memory are executive functions that are not fully developed until early adulthood. If a child or adolescent has experienced some form of daily ambient trauma, these executive functions can be underdeveloped or stagnant. We know that emotions drive attention, and that many of our students walk into our classrooms in a hyper-vigilant brain state, constantly scanning the environment for feelings of safety and familiarity. Brain architecture is intimately affected when an individual is experiencing chronic levels of stress. In a stress response state, the neural circuitry is forming synapses in the limbic system, leaving the frontal lobes with very little oxygenated and glucose-rich blood.

For many students, what looks like inattentiveness or lack of focus is quite the opposite. They are paying close attention to the perceived threats in their environments.

Questions for Students

  1. When does your train of thought run smoothly with few stops?
  2. When does your train of thought struggle? Why?
  3. What can I do in the classroom to help your train run with great speed and accuracy?
  4. What can you do to help your train of thought stay on the tracks and reach its destination?


    1. For younger students, it is important to have a tangible train of thought in the classroom. This could be a larger model of chairs and cardboard boxes, or students could build individual models of trains. Images of trains posted in an Attention and Focus corner could help to prime the brain for focus and remembering.
    2. For older students, creating an analogy or visualization of the train of thought could support goal setting and planning. Where is your train heading right now? Is this where you want to go? What are two changes in planning this journey that you could make today?
    3. Teaching students about their neuroanatomy is empowering, as well as the foundation of learning and connection.
    4. Teaching students how to calm their minds through breath and movement will help them focus attention and become better learners. You can read more about this mindful approach in:

What other ways might you help students visualize their identity and how it shapes their cognitive processes?



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?


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