By LeAnn Nickelsen, M.Ed.
Written with Bryan Harris, Ed.D.
Most of you know that we (LeAnn and Bryan) have been deeply involved in the world of brain-based teaching and learning for a long time. For over 20 years we’ve been obsessed with learning about how the brain works and what it means for classroom teachers and school leaders.
For the majority of that time, we’ve been connected with Dr. Eric Jensen. Eric is widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities in mind-brain education. His ground-breaking book Teaching with the Brain in Mind was first published in 1998. During his career, he has published over 30 books, conducted seminars for educators all over the world, provided resources and supports for teachers, and mentored both of us. In fact, we were two of his very first certified brain-based learning trainers, and we’ve had opportunities to collaborate with him throughout the years.
You may have heard that Dr. Jensen conducted his last public seminars in June and July 2020. These events marked the end of over 25 years of providing top-notch seminars for educators (he is still doing workshops in school districts, by the way). We attended one of those seminars – as a way to celebrate our many years of learning about the brain with Eric – and as a way to soak up new knowledge and understanding of how the brain works.
As we reflected on what we’ve learned over the past 20 years (and what we continue to learn), we wanted to share a few highlights. For this special newsletter, we combined forces to share important ideas that we believe all educators will need to embrace in this upcoming (very unique) school year.
While there are many ideas and concepts from cognitive science that are important for educators to understand, we are going to focus this newsletter on a topic that is immediately relevant – chronic stress and trauma greatly impact learning and behavior.
Stress can be defined as a physiological response to a perception of a lack of control over an adverse situation or person (Calabrese, et al, 2007). Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience or situation which overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, leaving them with a feeling of powerlessness (Center for Non-Violence & Social Justice, 2014). Over the past several months of school closures due to COVID-19, many of your colleagues, staff, and students have experienced stress and trauma from dealing with many unknowns. From having to figure out how to deliver online instruction to not knowing when life will get back to “normal,” it’s all been very stressful. Going forward, every educator will need to be equipped with tools and mechanisms to cope with their own stress as well as help students to cope with their stress.
When stress levels stay elevated due to trauma, or because we are dealing with things beyond our control, the brain changes. Trauma and chronic stress change the brain for the worst: brain cells shrivel, the hippocampus can decrease in size (memory storage site), and behavior can change drastically (Kim, et al, 2015; Ressler KJ, 2010; Yuen et al, 2012). Some students demonstrate hypervigilant behaviors (in your face, impulsive, aggressive) while others shut down completely (hyporesponsive behaviors such as apathy and learned helplessness). We can’t just hope for the best or ignore it away. We should become aware of how stress or trauma impacts our students; then we can implement a plan for addressing the needs of our students.
Consider what you’ve heard airplane flight attendants tell passengers during the pre-flight safety announcement – “In case of a loss in cabin pressure….” You know how it ends. Place your oxygen mask on first; then help those around you. Why? If you are passed out because the pressure becomes too low, you can’t help those around you.
And there is another, perhaps more important, reason that educators need to take care of themselves – stress is contagious (Oberle & Schonert-Reichl, 2016). You read that correctly –we can spread our stress to the people around us. In other words, if I’m not coping well, my students will be impacted. If stress can be contagious, so can calm.
So, what do we do? First, we must care for ourselves by creating a stress response toolkit so we can cope more effectively. Here, we’ve listed some of our favorite coping tools:
- label stressors as challenges instead of crises
- exercise and move your body
- journal and write; express gratitude every day and throughout the day
- connect with friends
- make time to do ordinary things that give your brain a break
- get adequate sleep
- do something that you are passionate about each day
Combined, these “tools” and practices help to build our resilience. When we have tools for resilience, and we model them and teach them to our students, they are more apt to create their own stress response toolkit.
After we have a Stress Toolkit designed for ourselves, the next step is to share some of the tools with our students and model how to use them. Here is a possible example of a student Stress Toolkit:
Student Stress-Response Toolkit
- I will spend quality time getting to know my teacher better since she cares about me. I’ll try to be more open about my stress when I get time with her.
- I will use the special 4-7-8 Breathing Technique to calm down when I get upset (3 times in a row).
- I will visit the classroom Chill Zone (behind the bookshelves) when I’m about to get angry or aggressive.
- I will reframe my thinking when I experience something negative. I’ll view a situation as a challenge versus a problem.
- I will focus on helping and serving others around me (my grandma, my neighbor, my mom, volunteer at Boys and Girls Club).
- I will “change the channel” when I get angry. I’ll remember that I can control my actions. I’ll change the channel to gratitude when I’m really mad at someone.
Finally, we must teach our students valuable socio-emotional learning skills that will guide them through the stressors. Consider creating mini lessons, integrated into the curriculum, that demonstrate concepts such as empathy, compassion, forgiveness, humility, and respect. The good news is that these skills are teachable. We will need to make them a top priority this year. Professor Marc Brackett, the director of Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence, urges educators to find ways to teach these emotional skills, “If you don’t know how to deal with the lack of control of your future or the feelings of uncertainty that you’re having, your brain is going to stay in a ‘fight or flight mode.’ And if your brain is in that mode then it’s not in learning mode.”
Want to Learn More?
- Dr. Daniel Amen just published his new book called The End of Mental Illness (Tyndale Momentum, 2020). This new book reinforces what can happen when stress and trauma get out of control. It will give you so many solutions to life’s intense stressors.
- Dr. Kelly McGonigal wrote a great book titled The Upside of Stress. The fact is, you want some stress in your life. Stress is actually a good thing when you have coping mechanisms and resiliency skills.
- Dr. Eric Jensen’s book Poor Students, Rich Teaching: Seven High-Impact Mindsets for Students from Poverty (Solution Tree, 2019) offers tons of relevant and practical strategies for supporting students.
- Bryan also has a book coming in November titled 17 Things Resilient Teachers Do (and 4 things they hardly ever do) (Routledge, 2020).
Provide training opportunities for your colleagues and staff. Both LeAnn and Bryan have ready-to-go resources, trainings, and webinars focused on trauma, stress, and resiliency. We’d be honored to talk with you about how to share this information in your school, district, or organization.
Download my FREE Trauma–Ready Schools: A Response Plan. This is a guide to helping schools and staff navigate questions and topics surrounding trauma. It provides key principles, reflective questions, and action steps so you can begin to move forward with confidence.
In case you are interested, we have created an up-to-date training that outlines specific strategies and methods for implementing these concepts along with many other brain-based learning principles. We have sifted through the research and isolated key drivers that rapidly improve outcomes for students and teachers. We can help you implement powerful, research-based strategies that increase academic achievement, improve student behavior, make teaching and learning fun, and reduce stress.
If you are intrigued, be in touch so we can discuss how to best share this information with your colleagues and staff. Combined, we have trained tens of thousands of educators in hundreds of schools in both the U.S. and abroad. We know the path to success for students, and we’d be thrilled to share it with you. In addition to in-person training, keynotes, and coaching, all of our services can be provided virtually as well.
What else does LeAnn have to offer your school this year? Check out some of her in-demand professional development series below!
They are 90-minute sessions that would equal a whole day of training (customized with breaks in between based on your scheduling needs.)
Check out Maximize Learning’s complete set of Virtual Professional Development options here!
- What is Trauma and How Does it Affect the Brain: Learning and Behaviors
- Meeting the Needs of the Whole Child: Creating a Year-long Trauma Response Plan for Your District
- Trauma Tools to Cultivate Calm Quickly
- How Creating Empathy-Centered Schools Changes Everything
- Collective Teacher Efficacy Virtually… Are you Kidding Me: The Power of One Person’s Beliefs and Mindsets on Teamwork
- Cultivating Collective Teacher Efficacy within a Team
- Coaching Towards Collective Teacher Efficacy: Laying the Foundation with Positive, Trusting Relationships
- Coaching Towards Collective Teacher Efficacy: Measure and Move with Reflective Feedback Questioning Techniques
- Four Steps to Make Learning Stick – The Instructional Cha-Chas: Double the Speed of Learning Every Day!
- Four Steps to Make Learning Stick – The Instructional Cha-Chas: Chunk & Chew
- Four Steps to Make Learning Stick – The Instructional Cha-Chas: Check & Change (Differentiation) – Part 1
- Four Steps to Make Learning Stick – The Instructional Cha-Chas: Check and Change (Differentiation) – Part 2
- Top Tools to Motivate the Most Reluctant Students: Low Prep, High Impact Lesson Plan Changes
- Top Tools to Motivate the Most Reluctant Students: Student Agency Through Voice and Choice
- Top Tools to Motivate the Most Reluctant Students: Student Agency Through Student Self-Assessment
- Top Tools to Motivate the Most Reluctant Students: Our Feedback
Brackett, Marc. (April 7, 2020). It’s a Critical Time for Student Well-Being. Education Week.
Calabrese, et al. (2007) Biological stress response terminology: Integrating the concepts of adaptive response and preconditioning stress within ahormetic dose-response framework. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 222, 122-8
Kim, Eun Joo et al. “Stress effects on the hippocampus: a critical review.” Learning & memory (Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.) vol. 22,9 411-6. 18 Aug. 2015, doi:10.1101/lm.037291.114
Ressler KJ. Amygdala activity, fear, and anxiety: modulation by stress. Biol Psychiatry. 2010;67(12):1117–1119. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2010.
The Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice. (2014). https://www.tfec.org/wp-
Yuen, Eunice Y et al. “Repeated stress causes cognitive impairment by suppressing glutamate receptor expression and function in prefrontal cortex.” Neuron vol. 73,5 (2012): 962-77. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2011.12.