Heavy Heart

I decided to start writing after reading this tweet and many others like it flooding my feed:


My heart is heavy. I can feel the stress of this situation so close to my home and being the second mass shooting in my town this month.

This, after I spent the morning thinking about the negative affects that stress has on thinking and learning. All of the people living in this city must feel it to some degree.

There is no blame to place, just a deep sadness that so frequently, individuals end up loosing touch with humanity. And its frequency seems to be increasing at an increasing rate.

Do you think that if schools more proactively taught and had students practice empathy that it would increase peace in our country? How can we teach empathy and help it to develop in our future adults?

We have to do something.

Notes and scattered thoughts from Learning & the Brain Conference

I attended the conference on Learning and the Brain: The Science of Character in Boston, MA on November 13-15 2015. Below are my notes and thoughts from sessions that really stood out to me during the conference.

Executive SkillsMargaret (Peg) Dawson and Richard Guare

Students need to be taught to practice executive skills which include (in order of development):

  • Response Inhibition
  • Working Memory
  • Emotional Control
  • Flexibility
  • Sustained Attention
  • Task Initiation
  • Planning/Prioritization
  • Organization
  • Time management
  • Goal directed persistence
  • Meta cognition

Executive skills, like any other skill can be improved through explicit practice and reflection. These skills are negatively impacted by fatigue and stress, which means when students are not getting enough sleep or are under stress at home or in school, they lose the ability to efficiently and successfully complete tasks – which then adds to the stress. I know by experience that this also is true of adults. A most basic example is that when you are running late for work you can’t find your keys, but if you are calm finding your keys is not difficult. Stress really hurts our thinking and development. More on that later.

There are two periods where children have a highly increased development of synapses in their brains (making many connections and developing executive skills): ages 3-5 and 10-12. From approximately ages 14-20 adolescents go through a synapse degenesis where brains basically complete a “pruning” of skills. Adolescents keep or lose synapses to make way for new learning and solidify important skills.  

Another interesting fact is that context affects executive functioning. For example, a student may be very good at planning and organizing at school but then in a social situation, they lose the ability to even be aware of the time of day. This is because their brain is still developing, not because the adolescent wants to make their life more challenging.

Strategies for teaching students executive functioning skills:

Include a time in the school schedule for daily coaching, setting and reflecting upon sub-goals is critical. Often students goals will not align to the goals that teachers may want for these children. This is ok, do not force them to adapt your goals for them but instead try to build in your goals using their interests where possible.

When coaching students:

  • Adapt common terminology when working with students around executive functioning.
  • Create a structure where students daily:
    • Review their goal
    • Evaluate their progress
    • Anticipate possible challenges
    • Plan strategies to achieve goal
  • Check out www.efintheclassroom.net to see examples of an alternative school and their developed curriculum developing executive functioning skills with high school students.

How does the frequent use of cell phones & technology impact student self control? Interesting insight from Walter Mischel, author of The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control:

With technology, temptation increases, which also causes an increase in the need for executive functioning. Students get more opportunities to practice planning, adaptability, flexibility, sustained attention and emotional control.

I’m sure teachers and coaches can leverage students ability to develop executive skills with technology  to help students translate it to other aspects of their life. This is another example of context as mentioned above. Students executive functioning skills are not easily translated between contexts (school, home, with peers, online) but through coaching and helping them to make these connections, adolescents can be use their strengths in different arenas to support their weaknesses.

Building ResilienceRick Hanson

Two conditions are important for any learning to occur:

  1. an activated state (we are good at this)
  2. Time for information to stabilize and take root. (This is very hard to do)

As teachers it is important to slow down from time to time in order to encourage and protect installation.

The brain has a negativity bias. When I heard this I realized I already knew this was true. For example, if I have a great day teaching and my students all were successful, then I am happy, but I don’t really think about it beyond that day. If I have a bad incident with a student or get a negative evaluation, it is all I can think about for weeks. The impact of the negative event is much more profound than the positive event. Think about how people developed surviving – if you failed at making a positive event, such as killing a rabbit for food, you  probably got to live another day whereas failing at a negative event – being chased by a lion, for example – your life ends. As a result, brains developed to scan for and focus on bad news & overreact to negative stimuli.

Here’s why this matters: Focusing on negative events increases stress. Prolonged exposure to stress negatively impacts our ability to learn, to think clearly and our physical health. It is critical for our health and growth as individuals and as a society that we sensitize ourselves to the positive and support this in our students: Here’s how –

  1. Notice when positive experiences are happening
  2. Help the experience last through thinking about the event, reflecting on its personal relevance, reliving its intensity in your mind, etc.
  3. Allow yourself to absorb its warmth
  4. Link it to any related negative experiences, while keeping the positive more prominent in your mind.

If as individuals and as a society we repeatedly internalize positive experiences then we will become harder to manipulate through fear, greed and consumerism.

Some related thoughts:

Educating Hearts & Minds – Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl

She opened with this video:

  • acts of kindness improve happiness
  • rewards decrease motivation for altruism (I read this once before.. I think it was in Drive)

Practical Interventions for students with AnxietyJessica Minahan

Anxiety is often misdiagnosed as ADHD.

Behavior is a symptom of a different problem:

  • it is a way of communicating.
  • it has a function.
  • it occurs in patterns.
  • it can be changed.
  • We can only control our own behaviors.

Stop for a second and re-read those. Think about your students. This is deep stuff.

Negative behavior results in more predictable responses than positive behavior. This is comforting particularly to students with anxiety.

An example: Swearing or annoying tapping or fighting will generate a predictable response in 2-4 seconds. Doing the expected work may or may not come with some brief audible feedback from a teacher. Maybe a “nice” or a “good job” or no response at all. Students with anxiety like & seek predictability.

As teachers we need to make positive attention just as predictable, efficient, obvious and dramatic. Some students prefer private praise and it  is important that we as teachers understand and value this. we can also teach students how to wait by giving them strategies such as coloring or doodling.

Triggers for students with anxiety: (be prepared with a plan)

  • unstructured time
  • transitions
  • writing tasks
  • social demands
  • unexpected change

Support students at these times by making it predictable. This is a great reason to have a Warm up Routine. If you notice a student who finished their work sitting anxiously, make them busy ask them to help clean up, sharpen pencils, push in chairs…

Students with anxiety struggle with:

  • self regulating
  • positive thinking and stopping negative thoughts
  • social skills
  • executive functioning
  • Flexible thinking

Anxiety and homework: It is helpful to have homework include a preview or preteaching of the content  because student anxiety (and related behaviors) is reduced if they know what to expect next class.

Teaching executive functioning skills and growth mindset helps students learn to self monitor and identify their areas of stress. Help students build skills in order to manage behavior. ASCD article

Building ResilienceKen Ginsburg

“Stop looking at the child in front of you and start looking at the 35 year old that you are growing.”

  1. people matter
  2. young people need to feel valued
  3. young people are watching adults

Nothing discourages mastery more than an adult who steps in and says: “Let me do that for you.”

Resilience is a mindset.

Young people are most resilient if they know that adults genuinely believe in them, know them and have high expectations for them – but it has to be genuine.

Adverse childhood experiences (abuse, neglect, racism, violence) increase cortisol in their bodies which over prolonged periods increases likelihood to develop addictions, health problems, learning challenges.


If a child had adverse experiences, but there is a loving & caring adult in their lives, the adult protects the child’s from developing hyper cortisol affects.

Developing Resilience


Find competences and build confidence.

Adolescents who abuse substances are trying to become numb. This is because they are SENSITIVE PEOPLE.

Talk through what if’s when a child makes a bad decision. Allow them to conclude for themselves the best path to happiness.

Distinguish real problems from fake problems: Recognize when bad things are temporary and when good things are permanent.

General Themes

  • Be patient, kind, empathetic, accepting, tolerant and compassionate with everyone.
  • Promote kindness & teach empathy basic human needs
  • Students will learn more if they feel valued
  • Support student development of executive functioning skills through a comprehensive school-wide plan including daily coaching, goal setting & reflection.pft-0330

What ideas in these notes stand out to you?

How do you address them with your students?