Science was never piqued my interest. Perhaps better stated, reading and answering questions at the end of the chapter didn’t do it for me. It wasn’t until just a few years ago, I found myself mesmerized by books citing scientific studies and research. Books like Drive by Dan Pink, Made to Switch by Chip and Dan Heath, The Brain Rules by John Medina, Teaching with Poverty in Mind and other works by Eric Jensen, everything Brené Brown, and so many others changed my worldview. Having found myself studying these and others, I did a Google search for “the scientific method.”
a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.
And I discovered science didn’t only pique my interest, I liked it. A lot. (And then I watched Breaking Bad. Twice. I’m addicted (at least to Breaking Bad).
Having spent my entire career working with children and schools with high numbers of children of poverty, I’ve always been drawn to the topic. When I discovered the works of Eric Jensen, considered one of the top 30 global gurus in education for his brain research and its practical applications for educators, which are captured in his bestselling books on working with students of poverty, I found more text highlighted than not when I finished reading each of the six of 29 of his works. Teaching students of poverty brings a whole new set of challenges; and having both taught and served as principal of high poverty campuses, I understood the what but not the why. (And after another “scientific” book, Start With Why, by Simon Sinek, I find myself always wanting to know why.) Because of Jensen, I now know why.
“Chronic exposure to poverty causes the brain to physically change in a detrimental manner.” Children of poverty are exposed to more stressors than their more well-off counterparts; and as a result of these constant stressors, “the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, crucial for learning, cognition, and working memory, are the areas of the brain most affected by cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone.’” According to Jensen in Teaching with Poverty in Mind, “experiments have demonstrated that exposure to chronic or acute stress actually shrinks neurons in the brain’s frontal lobes—an area that includes the prefrontal cortex and is responsible for such functions as making judgments, planning, and regular impulsivity—and can modify and impair the hippocampus in ways that reduce learning.” Much like a broken leg that has been casted for weeks atrophies (or shrinks) from lack of use, “the production of “fight-or-flight” stress hormones in these children atrophies the areas that control emotional regulation, empathy, social function, and other skills imperative to healthy emotional development.”
While there is so much more Jensen writes, he offers, “children raised in poverty rarely choose to behave differently, but they are faced daily with overwhelming challenges that affluent children never have to confront, and their brains have adapted to suboptimal conditions in ways that undermine good school performance. A child who comes from a stressful home environment tends to channel that stress into disruptive behavior at school and be less able to develop a healthy social and academic life.” Oftentimes, educators are frustrated with students’ disruptive behavior, impulsivity and exaggerated responses. Interestingly, these responses are actually “an exaggerated response to stress that serves as a survival mechanism: in conditions of poverty, those most likely to survive are those who have an exaggerated stress response.” This is where educators, unused to such stressors, find themselves stressed.
When principal, I would often talk to students about their behavior at home and at school. For one student sent to the principal for excess roughhousing, I handled it like so.
When he stepped into my office, I asked, “Do you like football?”
Perplexed and expecting punishment, he replied, “Yes.” I followed with, “Why?”
“Because I get to tackle people.”
“Oh, so you like tackling?”
He eyes lit, “Yeah!”
“What about basketball? Do you like basketball?”
“Um, hm,” he replied.
“What do you like about basketball?” I asked.
“I like to shoot the ball in the hoop,” he shared, to which I asked, “If you’re shooting a basket, and I tackle you, is that okay?”
“No!” he emphatically stated.
“Why not?” I prodded.
“Because you can’t tackle in basketball!”
“Ahhh,” I responded, “But in football it’s okay?”
“Yes, you can tackle in football, but not in basketball.”
To this I explained, “School is the same way. There are things you can do at home, but not in school.”
Our dialogue continued about the differences, and after dialogue over a number examples, he left; and he “got it.” The root of discipline is “disciple,” which means “to teach.” One of Jensen’s mantras is, “Don’t complain about it. Teach it.” But sometimes, this isn’t enough. At times, there are extenuating circumstances beyond reason.
I first heard of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough. I did a little research on ACEs, but it wasn’t until I heard the TED Talk by Nadine Burke Harris I began to understand the impact.
In the opening of her talk, she said something that caught my attention. “I started noticing a disturbing trend. A lot of kids were being referred to me for ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, but when I actually did a thorough history and physical, what I found was that for most of my patients, I couldn’t make a diagnosis of ADHD. Most of the kids I was seeing had experienced such severe trauma that it felt like something else was going on. Somehow I was missing something important.” Certainly, in schools, we see a number of children referred for ADD and ADHD. Understandably, many parents do not want their children medicated. But this leaves teachers, students, and parents perplexed.
Burke continues by explaining the ACEs study was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDD) who asked 17,500 adults about their “history of exposure to what they called ‘adverse childhood experiences,’ or ACEs. Those include physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental mental illness, substance dependence, incarceration; parental separation or divorce; or domestic violence. For every yes, you would get a point on your ACE score.”
She notes, “We now understand better than we ever have before how exposure to early adversity affects the developing brains and bodies of children. It affects areas like the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure and reward center of the brain that is implicated in substance dependence. It inhibits the prefrontal cortex, which is necessary for impulse control and executive function, a critical area for learning. The reason for this has to do with the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, the brain’s and body’s stress response system that governs our fight-or-flight response. How does it work? Well, imagine you’re walking in the forest and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary, which sends a signal to your adrenal gland that says, “Release stress hormones! Adrenaline! Cortisol!” And so your heart starts to pound, your pupils dilate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either fight that bear or run from the bear. And that is wonderful if you’re in a forest and there’s a bear. But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night, and this system is activated over and over and over again, and it goes from being adaptive, or life-saving, to maladaptive, or health-damaging.” And I think back to the movie, Precious. We have a lot of “Precious” children in our classrooms.
Burke closes saying, “This is treatable. This is beatable. The single most important thing that we need today is the courage to look this problem in the face and say, this is real and this is all of us.”
To learn more about ACEs, visit http://www.acestudy.org/home and http://www.samhsa.gov/capt/practicing-effective-prevention/prevention-behavioral-health/adverse-childhood-experiences. To take the ACEs Quiz, visit http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/03/02/387007941/take-the-ace-quiz-and-learn-what-it-does-and-doesnt-mean.
This is where educators find themselves asking, “So what? Now what?” On a positive note, Jensen tells us, “Because the brain is designed to adapt from experience, it can also change for the better.” Much like a broken leg that has atrophied, the brain can regain its strength with repeated use. Thus, it is possible to reestablish the connections within.
Having multiple tools in the tool belt is essential. As Abraham Maslow (he of the hierarchy) said, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Jensen highlights a number of strategies within his series of books on engagement and teaching strategies. Many of these strategies are good pedagogy for all. Yet for some of our hardest to reach students who undoubtedly have high ACE scores and/or a myriad of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, etc., these strategies are sometimes not enough. In my workshops, I explain it like so.
Imagine an empty, 8-ounce glass of water. Picture the glass as a student’s mind. Teachers see the clear glass coming to class everyday waiting to be filled with knowledge. Now picture a Sonic, Route 44, Styrofoam cup. By looking, one cannot see what’s inside. This represents the things happening behind the scenes in a student’s world. Holding the empty glass, I breakdown the events before school by pouring water from the Styrofoam cup into the empty glass. For example, the students is awakened with the harsh shouts of his father to get up. A couple of ounces of water fill his cup. Throwing on clothes, the student chases the bus as it pulls away; a couple of more ounces. The bus stops and lets him, but while walking to his seat, others poke fun at him for chasing the bus. Another ounce fills the cup. Someone in the seat behind, pulls his backpack away, wads up his homework, and tosses it out the moving bus. More ounces. Rushing to get breakfast, a teacher reprimands him for running in the hall; and water is to the brim. The teachers begins to fill her students with the opening lesson, he’s not fully focused, is redirected, and blows up. His cup runeth over. Water spills all over the floor.
“Once activated, the amygdala can take up to 30-90 minutes to calm down,” writes Jensen. For years, all educators could do is to give the student time to cool off. Yet, in today’s world of high-stakes accountability, teachers and students can’t afford to lose that amount of time. But until the cup is drained, there’s no getting around it. And then I discovered there is something we can do about it. By using diaphragmatic breathing and monitoring heart rate variability (HRV), the time to calm the amygdala is reduced from upwards of 90 to just 10 minutes!
The first, diaphragmatic breathing, an age-old, but oft forgotten technique in our fast-paced, hustle and bustle world, is breathing marked by expansion of the abdomen rather than the chest when breathing by contracting the diaphragm, a muscle located horizontally between the thoracic cavity and abdominal cavity. “Belly breathing” has been shown to not only reduce stress, but improve mental focus, help posture, lower cholesterol, decrease back pain, improve quality of sleep, improve symptoms of numerous diseases, flush toxins from body, and reduce the risk of cancer, etc.
HRV, the second technique, is the measurement of the continuous interplay between the body’s sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and their influences on heart rate. According to DanTest, a manufacturer of HRV products specializing in the development of state of the art biometrical software and hardware products (http://www.dantest.com/dtr_ans_overview.htm)
“The SNS triggers what is commonly known as the “fight or flight” response; and the following effects are seen as a result of activation:
- increased sweating
- decreased peristalsis (the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine or another canal, creating wavelike movements that push the contents of the canal forward (i.e. as in the digestive system)
- increased heart rate
- pupil dilation
- increased blood pressure
The PNS is sometimes referred to as the “rest and digest” system;” and “in general, the PNS acts in the opposite way to the SNS, reversing the effects of the fight-or-flight response. The following effects are seen as a result of activation of the PNS:
- decreased sweating
- increased peristalsis
- decreased heart rate
- pupil constriction
- decreased blood pressure
Dr. Horst Mueller, a registered psychologist with a special interest in clinical health psychology, applied psychophysiology, and biofeedback notes, “The mind and body are in constant two-way communication and neither can be considered in isolation from the other. Our thoughts and attitudes influence our perceptions and create our feelings. What people believe about situations they face, not the situations themselves, primarily determines how they feel and behave. Learning to change the way we think and behave can change the way we ultimately feel. Our thoughts create our feelings and our feelings directly affect our physiological self-regulation.” (Visit http://www.drmueller-healthpsychology.com/heart_rate_variability.html.)
Self-regulation is described as the ability to manage disruptive emotions and impulses, and to think before reacting by using one’s ability to observe self and make changes in one’s physiology, and ultimately, behavior. Self-regulation is further explained by Dr. Elena Bodrova and Dr. Deborah J. Leong to be “a deep, internal mechanism that enables children as well as adults to engage in mindful, intentional, and thoughtful behaviors. Self-regulation has two sides. First, it involves the ability to control one’s impulses and to stop doing something, if needed. For example, a child can resist his immediate inclination to blurt out the answer when the teacher poses a question to another child. Second, self-regulation involves the capacity to do something (even if one doesn’t want to do it) because it is needed, such as awaiting one’s turn or raising one’s hand. Self-regulated children can delay gratification and suppress their immediate impulses enough to think ahead to the possible consequences of their action or to consider alternative actions that would be more appropriate. While most children know that they are supposed to “use their words” instead of fighting, only children who have acquired a level of self-regulation are actually able to use them.” (See https://www.naeyc.org/files/yc/file/200803/BTJ_Primary_Interest.pdf.)
Again, educators ask, “So what? Now what?” Penny Haight, Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC)-Supervisor (http://www.counselingbypenny.com/) trained in both bio and neurofeedback offers a solution: use “biofeedback” software. (I use the term “biofeedback” loosely as it is similar in nature, but not exactly biofeedback in the clinical sense.) The software provided by Haight (http://calmurself.com/) is designed increase students’ diaphragmatic breathing and self-regulation. With the software, students use computer “games” to monitor themselves. The software developers designed an array of fun and engaging activities designed to help build the skills needed to improve mental and physical performance for kids to better regulate themselves, help their performance in school (both schoolwork and extracurricular activities such as sports), and enhance their ability to stay relaxed and balanced in challenging situations. By playing games engineered to help better manage stress, students achieve better emotional and mental balance of their internal SNS and PNS. Additionally, the software integrates coaching and performance tracking using active feedback technology. According to John Hattie, professor and Director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, after conducting the most far-reaching set of meta-analysis on achievement and student learning studies (involving more than 80 million students from around the world) determined, “The most powerful single modification that enhances achievement is feedback. The simplest prescription for improving education must be dollops of feedback.” Feedback is a critical component of the software. In fact, reports generated by the software can be utilized in the three tier model of intervention by providing hard evidence for educators and parents to examine.
Debbie Thornton, LPC and elementary school counselor, built her school counseling program around these methodologies. At her campus in Aledo ISD in Aledo, TX, an empty classroom was converted to be a room dedicated to these techniques, dubbed the “Calm Cats” room (after the school mascot).
Using four dedicated computer stations, students could come before school to start day of right, come after school before going home to ready themselves for the challenges that might await, or during the day when needed. Thornton established groups and used the software in a small group setting. In addition to the software, small student groups would work on a variety of activities addressing a variety of issues while the four stations were in use and rotate through the room’s offerings during group time. Additionally, the school nurse, one of the more popular destinations in any school, was trained to use the software. In doing so, the number of referrals for stomach aches, reduced. Such aches can often be psychosomatic symptoms that mask deeper emotional issues as opposed to physical illness. The school principal was trained as well. Emotional and mental issues manifest themselves through poor behavior. Instead of standing in line waiting to see the principal, students could utilize the software to calm themselves before having a more rational discussion of the behavior with the principal. The number of incidents on campus deceases. So popular was its use, the district superintendent raised funds through donations to equip every campus in the district with computer stations dedicated to the software and its use.
With a one-time cost of less than $1,000 per computer with unlimited users, an affordable solution is within reach. A myriad of funding sources can be tapped to pay for the cost. Special Education funds are allowable as are state and local dollars. I contacted both the Chief Grants Administrator and the NCLB Program Director at the Texas Education Agency to verify at-risk funding would be allowable (i.e. State Compensatory Education (SCE) funds and Title I funds). Both replied saying these funding sources are indeed allowable stating, “Costs on a Schoolwide Program are generally allowable as long as the LEA assures that the following requirements are met. Activities and/or resources are:
- identified in the Comprehensive Needs Assessments;
- included in the Campus Improvement Plan;
- necessary to carry out the intent and purpose of the Title I, Part A program;
- the Campus Improvement Plan addresses how the activity/resource identify will be evaluated; and the needs of students at risk of not meeting State Standards are being met.
- In addition, the LEA assures that the expenditure(s) meet all EDGAR requirements.”
Scientifically-based research has long been a required component for expenditure of federal funds. You can’t much more scientific. In the days, weeks, months, and years ahead, I look forward to its increasing use across the state and nation. With so much recent emphasis on the importance of “soft-skills” development in recent years, I’ve yet to find a more practical and affordable solution than what I’ve uncovered here.
For more information about the software, demos, pricing, and training requirements as well as more info on the Aledo ISD Calm Cat Program, visit http://calmurself.com/.