When students feel successful, educators feel successful. To arrive at success, we educators must acknowledge the neurobiological fact that all brains are wired to process experiences through feelings before they’re ever able to think, reason and actually learn.
Brain science of FEELINGS BEFORE LEARNING
Amygdalae, small almond-shaped areas of the brain located deep within the limbic system, receive all incoming signals from the environment in about 20 milliseconds. The pre-frontal cortex, where logic and self-regulation reside, receive those same signals about 280 milliseconds after the amygdalae… The pre-frontal cortex of our young students’ brains will not be fully formed until their early 20’s. Meantime, their amygdalae, formed at birth, are continually engaged – scanning for feelings of safety and security.
Feeling undervalued = Emotional HIJACK
When children don’t feel safe, which can include feelings of not being ‘seen’ or respected or acknowledged, they’re highly susceptible to amygdala hijacking, which most commonly presents as lack of engagement / cooperation, resistance, defiance, hot tempers, insecurities, and isolation.
All attempts at reasoning are futile! We all know it… yet how many times have we tried to force our way past that hard and immutable fact? When young children’s prefrontal cortex has been overwhelmed by their amygdala’s reaction to whatever it is in their environment that makes them feel undervalued, no progress can be achieved until that underlying trigger has been genuinely, collaboratively and constructively addressed.
Fear and stress look like anger when …
… negative experiences cause emotional responses that prioritize – though granted, not very efficiently: self-preservation, however that is personally defined (and protected) by each child. Along with the amygdalae going into overdrive, blood pressure, heart rate, respiration, cortisol and adrenaline contribute to the mix.
Making best use of this physiology lesson
Hopefully, this information can help us separate outward behavior from negative judgements about, and reactions toward, our students. Hopefully, this information can motivate us to identify and implement real, and truly nurturing solutions that, with consistency, provide positive experiences that help to make our students feel genuinely safe and valued… if for no other reason than the fact that we all need, want and deserve to feel safe and valued… and, oh yes: a whole lot more learning will happen during the school year.
Build belonging for learning to happen
One very powerful way to build an authentic sense of belonging for our students is to provide them with consistent opportunities to preemptively experience shared values with their peers. This is not achieved, in any deep and life-altering way, with lectures, songs, posters, or puppets – SORRY.
It is, though, achieved with facilitated shared-thinking opportunities based on an approach that honors a Socratic method of engaging students’ creative and collaborative problem-solving abilities around challenges that are relevant to all of them. Discovering shared values, insights, concerns, feelings and solutions goes a long, long way towards building belonging – a need that, when satisfied, to whatever degree – counter-balances the fear, anger and stress that short circuit students’ ability and willingness to engage in learning.