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Classroom Management to Understand Kids’ Brains

James Paterson

More than once a day, every teacher is likely to ponder what is going on in a student’s brain – the bright, engaged student who suddenly withdraws and struggles, the tentative student with potential who won’t take the next step, or the disruptive and self-destructive one for whom no strategy has an effect.

But experts say educators may not know enough to really think about brain activity of their students, even as they try to understand and stimulate it. They say having that knowledge might help them use classroom management to connect with their students and lower their levels of frustration and their befuddlement.           

Child psychologist Mona Delahooke, author of a new book on using brain science to unlock behavioral challenges with students, says that she doesn’t believe enough teachers have an opportunity to learn about brain science and the motivations of their students.

“We are failing to help children with disruptive behaviors because our understanding and approaches are not consistent with current brain science,” she says.

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She points out it might help to end the use of discipline systems that don’t seem to work. She notes that 3.5 million students are suspended from U.S. public schools annually, according to the U.S. Dept. of Education, and that preschoolers were suspended, too, at an alarming rate, according to the Center for American Progress. But seldom do such punishments change behavior.

Classroom Management that Considers the Brain

“Instead of focusing on eliminating behaviors, we need a new (classroom management) approach that considers the big picture while demonstrating that relationships are the key to helping all children grow and thrive,” Delahooke says.

She notes, for example, that even traditional awards, classroom management techniques, and consequences are not always effective.

“Approaches that focus on managing surface behaviors aren’t necessarily grounded in current neuroscience and our understanding of emotional development,” she says. “When we shift to an approach that is grounded in neuroscience, we find that children’s challenging behaviors decrease, because we are meeting their relational, emotional, and physiological needs.”

Using rewards and consequences assumes a child is acting intentionally to get a response or avoid behaving or doing their work, she says.

“That oversimplification misses an entire category of behaviors that are not purposeful and are reactions to a child’s subconscious triggers and experiences,” she says, noting that it can cause even another level of challenging behavior or result in punishment a student for something they can’t control.

Brain Learning

“Teachers should be society’s experts on human development,” Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, president for the International Mind, Brain and Education Society, told EdSurge. “Teachers are major orchestrators of social, cognitive and cultural experiences for children. They need to understand the way students are engaging with those experiences.”

But how can teachers in a busy classroom with ever-increasing class sizes and more responsibilities – even calls for them to differentiate instruction – find time to learn more about brain science and consider deeper reasons for their students’ choices? They often sometimes even are under scrutiny for how they handle increasingly complex student behavior issues – or are criticized for “Coddling” them – all of which encourages them to use traditional methods.

There are some shortcuts, she and other experts say, and some ways they can improve their understanding.

The first step, says Adriana Galvan, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Brain Research Institute at UCLA who has spoken on the topic of brain science as it relates to children and adolescents, is for educators to understand the brain is changing all the time -- rapidly and differently in young people. It changes the most before the age of 20, when and is very different before we enter adulthood, and those differences make it hard for adults to understand how the younger brain responds.

A key part of her research shows that the prefrontal cortex, the region that helps us think about consequences, is the last portion to develop – usually finally maturing after we have left high school, making avoidance of risk less important, for example, and peer approval more so, two major reasons for misbehavior.

It’s complex, but it is important for educators to know that the brain is very different in school age kids, she says, and while they should be accountable, they should also be understood, particularly their connection to reward seeking.

“Rather than thinking about their risk-taking behavior as rebellion, for instance, try thinking about it as an opportunity to learn through trial and error,” she says, noting that we often create and stick to a narrative about student behavior, and the behavior of certain visible students in particular, when we should think about how and why they respond a certain way.

Delahooke says that teachers also should recognize that students display two broad categories of behaviors – stress-related and intentional.

“A stress behavior is not driven by intention, it’s a response to stress. We can find cues of these behaviors in the child’s body language,” she says. “The truth is that most significant challenging behaviors are stress responses, not intentional misbehavior, but most teachers aren’t trained to recognize the difference.”

She says teachers can be familiar with and pay attention to the physical signs of stress reactions, which are the same for persons of all ages, including uncharacteristic nervous activity or withdrawal. School counselors can help.

“Teachers should understand that the behavior is a stress response from the child, and not incentivized. They should first help them feel safe, which is the opposite of what we are traditionally taught with discipline coming first and connection only once the child is more in control.” 

Learning More

Other experts say that while classroom management, and specifically behavior monitoring, is such a big part of teaching, it often isn’t pursued in college education training programs. Some argue for more coursework in such skills with real practice with trained professionals, while others suggest professional development opportunities to provide information about brain science. They note that not only would it help with understanding and improving behavior, it would help with instruction.

A 20-year old Whole Brain Teaching group focuses on teaching techniques that benefit instruction, but also promotes the idea of brain science being used with challenging students and suggests that it is critical for teachers to understand them specifically  – and help them become more dedicated to learning.

“We believe that the primary problem in American education, contrary to newspaper reports, is not improving test scores, but teaching disruptive students,” the three teachers who started the grassroots effort say, noting that teachers need to find new ways to work with them. “If scolding worked, we’d have no problems,” they write.

Stress issues are increasingly confronted in many schools, especially through initiatives such as trauma-informed education, and prompting them to consider alternatives to discipline. Experts say school counselors are a good resource for teachers trying to consider brain science, and they should request professional development on the topic.

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Here are a few brain science concepts that teachers might want to understand:

Neuroplasticity. The brain changes throughout life through a process where it grows and is “Pruned,” creating pathways based on experience and learning. Some ideas and behavior get very deeply rooted because they have been powerfully introduced – good and bad ideas. But the brain can change dramatically over time, especially if we are helped to reinforce and acknowledge positive patterns and discourage unfavorable ones. Neurogenesis is about how brains grow and change.

Emotions and cognition. Teachers should understand how negative emotions hamper learning and, of course, result in bad behavior – sometimes through self-destructive behavior or acts that would seem to fuel bad responses the student wouldn’t want. “Emotion has a substantial influence on the cognitive processes in humans, including perception, attention, learning, memory, reasoning, and problem solving,” a group of researchers studying emotion and learning found. “Emotion has a particularly strong influence on attention, especially modulating the selectivity of attention as well as motivating action and behavior.”

The Role of Stress. We know that stress causes all sorts of health issues, but it also causes behavior problems in school and poor performance, and teachers should be conscious of the things that can produce it. While we think of having too much work or an important test as causing stress, but it is often a result of a personal issue – from bullying or social anxiety to a serious problem at home or with health. PTSD is more common than we think.

Social Neuroscience. There is a lot that goes on in our brains related to our social circumstances and events, and teachers should know more about it. Then they will better understand the value of class friendships, teams and collaborative work.

Family Matters. They do, but genes may determine less than half of who and what we are – and the environment (including a good teacher) can “Switch on” or “Switch off” the expression of individual genes. Teachers are “Sculpting their student’s brain” with their influence and have much more to do with how students change and turn out than they often think. That’s often why students come back to express their gratitude or later talk about how a good teacher influenced them.