Educators educating Educators

Jul 21

September 14 Safe/Secure Class

Welcome to a new school year! I trust you had a wonderful summer and are invigorated and energized for an outstanding school year. As educators well know, a classroom of students can quickly consume vast amounts of energy and require endless patience, endurance, and fortitude.

Upon meeting a person for the first-time, we intuitively develop a first impression of the person and this impression is important and lasting. Whether positive or negative, social scientists tell us that this process of developing a first impression takes an average of seven seconds.

Just like in a personal one-on-one meeting, students quickly develop their initial impressions upon meeting their teacher for the first time. Accordingly, I believe the first few days of class with a new teacher are critical in determining the learning environment and attitude of the class since students are developing their first impressions of their new teacher.

Educators must comprehend that emotions have a huge impact on learning by focusing on the relationship between psychology and the biology of emotions, especially stress, and to recognize that students cannot focus on the curriculum unless they feel they are in a positive learning environment.

For many learners, the classroom is a place where they feel vulnerable and find learning to be an unpleasant experience, and something hard and risky. During the process of learning, they experience unpredictable consequences and emotions of uncertainty caused by information overload leading to the possibility of failing, looking stupid, resulting in a sense of humiliation and defeat. When the cost of failure becomes too high for students, they will stop trying something new, stop exploring, and stop taking risks. The student will forget that the actual moment of learning results in high levels of reward and personal satisfaction.

According to Judy Willis, a board-certified neurologist who is an authority on brain research and author of numerous articles and books on this topic, a stressed mind reacts in one of three ways; fight (disruptive behaviors), flight (student withdrawal), or freeze (student zoned out). Many times bored students create novelty for themselves resulting in discipline problems.

To create a positive impression of the classroom in students’ minds, it is extremely effective and beneficial to strive to create a stress-free learning environment. In an optimistic and affirming classroom environment, students feel physically safe and emotionally secure, relaxed and respected, and therefore are willing to take risks. They perceive that teachers care and respect them, and believe they can learn and succeed. This is a huge step in establishing and creating excellent teacher-student relationships within the class.

One of the greatest impediments to learning is the fear of failure and it is the raging elephant in the classroom. The fear of failing and the fear of humiliation lead to avoidance motivation, a strategy of purposely not doing something. It can be viewed taking (or not taking) action to avoid something unpleasant.

No matter what age, we all use avoidance motivation. Did you ever not answer your phone after looking at caller ID or delay going to an event in hopes of avoiding a person who you don’t want to talk to? Has any one procrastinated?

In a classroom, some students will spend more time avoiding things as a method to protect themselves from situations that will lead them to failure and humiliation. Teachers attempt to minimize the fear of failure since students will do the most to avoid the feeling of humiliation. For many teenagers, particularly males, appearing bad is preferred to appearing stupid. And teachers should never forget the Adolescent’s Prayer, “Dear God, please do not let me be embarrassed or humiliated today.”

How does a teacher combat this problem? By directly addressing the issue with students through educating and demonstrating to them that mistakes are their friend and are to be embraced, not to be feared, and part of any learning process. Students must believe that mistakes are inevitable, are a useful part of the learning process, and errors are a useful signs of students’ needs. The classroom motto must be that that mistakes are experiences from which to learn from rather than feel defeated by. It has been said that if you’re not making mistakes, then you are not doing anything.

A short video from Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy that helps illustrates this point: How learning mindsets might be the most important thing we can teach today.

The best way to help students overcome the fear of making mistakes and failure is to openly discuss it with them the first day of class. Begin by asking, “Who in this class is not going to make a mistake and not understand something this year?” The first hand that goes up is the teacher’s hand. Tell them about a time you were embarrassed by a teacher or a time you were called on and you were really scared to answer.

I often tell the story when I was in fourth grade and the only thing I learned that year was fear. What caused the fear? Every Wednesday my fourth grade teacher would call students to the front of the room to spell the weekly spelling words. I wasn’t the best speller in the world and the teacher knew it. In spite of this, every Wednesday she would call me to the front of the room to spell some of the weekly spelling words. I still feel that fear today.

After telling the story, I assure students that they will not learn the same thing from me.

After this activity, continue the learning by then turning the discussion into a problem-solving exercise. Ask students what you can do as a teacher and what they can do as a student/class, so that no one will ever be afraid to make a mistake in class. Ask the students, “What can I do as your teacher to avoid you being afraid to make a mistake? And “What rules do you think we need in this classroom to learn best and to feel safe and secure.” I have found that students are more likely to follow rules if they have some say in the creation of those rules. You will find children will be hungry to talk about this. This exercise will lessen the fear of failure and humiliation and diminish resistance in children to take chances and risks in the classroom.

Children must understand that to increase intelligence, they must challenge themselves. That means taking on tasks that are a bit beyond their reach or understanding, and that they may fail, at least the first time attempting a task. Fear of failure can therefore be a significant obstacle to tackling challenging work. But failure should not be viewed be a major setback. Instill in students that failure means you’re about to learn something. You’re going to find out something you don’t understand or don’t know how to do. It is extremely helpful if the teacher models this attitude. When you fail let them see you take a positive, learning attitude.

In summary, when you remove the fear of humiliation a student will take the appropriate risk to learn and learn from you. This is part of feeling competent. Competent people know they are going to fail and fall on their face. Students have to learn they will not be judged harshly, accused, or considered stupid when they make a mistake.

Links to neuroscience, brain research, and psychology

Before the brain can attend to cognitive learning, students must feel physically safe and emotionally secure. Emotion is a strong force, and while learners experience strong negative emotions, the limbic system kicks in and both shuts down cognitive processing and enhances our memory of the negative event in order to support survival.

When first taking on a problem, a student processes information through the amygdala, the brain’s emotional center, which then prioritizes information going to the prefrontal cortex, the part responsible for the brain’s working memory and critical thinking. During stress that creates the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, there is more activity in the amygdala than the prefrontal cortex. As shown below, even as minor a stressor as seeing a frowning face before answering a question can decrease a student’s ability to remember and respond accurately. Cortisol is part of the survival system and doesn’t care whether you learn Algebra 1!

The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure and part of the limbic system, is the fire alarm of the brain. It plays a major role in instinctive emotional reactions and takes precedence over thoughtful reflection. It matures before the frontal lobes and results in adolescents responding with gut reaction rather than with reason, which may account for their impulsive and risky behavior. It is the emotional process center and vital for memory retention.

If amygdala is fear, hippocampus is memory. The hippocampus, also part of the limbic system, is located in the medial temporal lobe and is a scrolled structure. The hippocampus is the Grand Central station of memory and it is clear that the hippocampus is necessary for the formation of new memory, filing new memories as they occur, and critical in the formation of long-term memory.

A quick video synopsis provided by John Medina, author of Brain Rules, an excellent book, and a must-read for all teachers. Stress:

Stressors cause your body to release excessive levels of cortisol and adrenaline-the so-called “stress hormones,” which increase your heart rate, blood pressure and rate of breathing and that, over time, damage your health. Excessive amounts of cortisol have been found to kill cells in the hippocampus and hurt memory. In fact, people with Alzheimer’s have higher cortisol levels than normal aging people. “Your memory becomes imprecise the minute you start producing cortisol and adrenaline, the stress hormones in the brain,” posits Kathleen Hall, founder of the Stress Institute, Clarksville, Ga.

For the student-teacher relationship to be effective, teachers must attempt to see the world through a student’s eyes-to be empathetic. Students who experience caring relationships with a teacher learn better than students who do not.

A positive learning environment increases endorphins in the blood stream, which generates a positive feeling and stimulates the brain’s frontal lobes to support memory of the learning objective and of the positive situation

A negative learning environment leads to increased cortisol in the bloodstream which rises the learner’s anxiety level, shuts down processing of what is perceived to be low-priority information (the lesson content), and focuses the brain on what it perceives to be high-priority information (the situation causing the stress) so that the stressful situation is remembered rather than the lesson content.

Under stress, the amygdala hinders learning by limiting the flow of information to the PFC. Researchers (Pawlak, 2003), conducted an experiment where participants in a fMRI scanner saw a series of 10 faces that were either stressed or happy. Then they were asked to memorize 10 words. Immediately afterwards, they were shown a list of 50 words, and asked if they recognized any of the words from the original list by using a clicker.

The stressed impaired participants (those who viewed the stress faces) recognized 27% less words. This research is eye opening due to its simplicity, since looking for a few seconds at ten stressed or happy faces hindered mental recall by nearly one third.

The results revealed better recall by subjects who viewed the happy faces, and their scans during recall had higher activity in the PFC. Conversely, the subjects in the studies who viewed grumpy faces showed increased metabolic activity in the amygdala, but significantly lower activity in the PFC than was exhibited by the control group when recalling the words they were instructed to remember. The study suggests that when we are in a negative emotional state, the amygdala directs input to the lower, reactive (flight/fight/freeze) brain.

When subjects viewed pleasant faces, the metabolic activity was lower in the amygdala and higher in the reflective PFC, suggesting that nonthreatening conditions favor conduction of information through the amygdala networks to the higher reflecting brain.

Again, welcome to a new school year and trust that this information was insightful and potentially beneficial in your efforts to provide the best education for your students.


In case you get bored with the lazy days of summer and want to get a jump preparing for the coming school year, I added to Stuff4Educators a section called How to Study Better based on research from Harvard Medical School that highlights four science-backed ways towards better learning (Hint: drop the highlighter). Additionally, I posted a YouTube video under exercise from the Dana Foundation that won the Northwest Emmy award called Exercise and the Brain that explores the benefits of exercise on the brain and learning. Finally, some books that I have read this past year and found to be stimulating are listed.