Month 8: Brain Science
"It becomes imperative to understand how to build positive social relationships that signal to the brain a sense of physical, psychological, and social safety so that learning is possible" - Zaretta Hammond
Did You Know?
Brain Science is an important component of Equity Work. Chronic stress and trauma, which can be the result of systemic oppression and other adverse experiences, has an effect on one's body, mind, and health. Without intervention, chronic stress makes the body more vulnerable to disease and illness, impairs relationships, and decreases academic performance. One particular hormone that is produced when stressed, called cortisol, can even stop all learning in the body for a period of time and makes it virtually impossible to retain information!
The Importance of Brain Science
Learning about the structure of the brain is helpful to everyone. The brain affects our behavior, our ability to feel safe, and our ability to learn. When we understand how it works, we also understand how to improve relationships and connections with our friends, family, staff, and students; we learn how to better cope with stressors and regulate the body; we learn how to minimize messages of threat we inadvertently send to others; and we improve learning conditions and the learning process.
Resources for Learning:
Staff Corner - The Impact of Educational Professionals:
Hopefully you will spend some time exploring the resources above to get a basic understanding of the brain and body's fight, flight, or freeze system. It would be impossible to effectively summarize Zaretta Hammond's important work in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students, but it builds on the understanding of that system and gives educators a lot to think over.
An extremely illuminating point Hammond makes is that in order to effectively build what she refers to as intellective capacity (learning at a higher level), a student's (or person's) brain needs to get "past the brains' two emotional gatekeepers: the reticular activating system...and the amygdala" (Hammond, p.41). What this means is that if a student is marginalized in the school space, or is dealing with any number of survival issues that make learning difficult (think ACEs or Adverse Childhood Experiences), or simply doesn't feel connected or welcome, the student is not ready to learn. One particular stress hormone, cortisol, can stop all learning in the body. We call that an amygdala hijack (Hammond, p.40).
Moreover, the uncomfortable truth is that sometimes educators, even though the are often very loving and well-intentioned, can create danger cues in the environment and/or stir up feelings of mistrust because of microaggressions or real or perceived attitudes about students and their families. We know this profession is hard work, and that usually the educational professional is not intentionally causing any harm but is instead doing their best out of love for their students. It is also true that harm and stress in school exists. That's where awareness and trauma-informed pedagogy comes in, so we can be honest about these challenges and grow from them.
We also know that teachers and staff need to know how to regulate themselves, too. They are also human beings doing their best to respond to cues from the environment and dealing with life's challenges. We are all in this together.
Through learning about brain science and building an awareness of how to create connection and safety, teachers, families, and school staff can get their kids ready to learn. Then we can do the hard work of building intellective capacity and skyrocketing students' success.
Activities for Further Learning and Reflection:
1. Using Strategies to Demonstrate Emotional Regulation
According to Hammond, "[Our] brain is more than 20 times focused on negative experiences than on positive ones" (p. 66).
How do we calm our body to avoid an amygdala hijack?
- Identify what sets you off (p. 67)
- Label your feelings when they come up (p. 67)
- Create an "Early Warning System" (P. 67)
- Adopt the S.O.D.A. Strategy (Stop, Observe, Detach, Awaken). More information is available in Hammond's book.
Consider buddying up with a trusted co-worker to practice emotional regulation or hold yourself accountable for when you need a break, to take a breath, and to rest. Practice handling difficult scenarios in staff meetings.
2. Read the recommended resource: 'Culturally Responsive Teaching': An Interview with Zaretta Hammond
Discuss the findings with your team.
3. (Highly Recommended for Teachers) Explore a number of Stuck Not Broken Podcasts to learn more about the brain and body and how specifically to regulate a classroom space so that it is trauma-informed. Some highlighted episodes below:
Reflect on aspects within and without your control that are affecting your class space. Commit to a few ways t build a safer environment (whether that's physically, emotionally, or intellectually safer).
Recommended Readings: In Fostering Resilient Learners and Relationship, Responsibility, and Regulation, educators can build their awareness on trauma-informed pedagogy.