Brain Power

Schools combine meditation and brain science to help combat discipline problems

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A table of students in Deanna Nibarger's fifth grade class at Crooked Creek Elementary School participates in an attention exercise centered around gratitude.

It was the Friday morning before spring break, and Deanna Nibarger’s fifth-graders were noisily chatting and enjoying their breakfast of milk, granola bars and raisins when a woman’s voice crackled over the school intercom:

“Sit up straight and close your eyes,” the woman on the intercom said.

The room immediately went silent as the woman’s command was followed by a series of short, high-pitched “dings,” as if someone were hitting a key on a metal xylophone and letting the sound reverberate.

A trance settled over the class for nearly a minute. Then, the daily morning announcements resumed, and the class sprang back to life as everyone stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Rarely do such moments of calm appear in elementary school classrooms, but it’s exactly this kind of focus that Crooked Creek Elementary School in Washington Township is looking to build in its students. The dings over the intercom are one example of ways teachers at the school have armed students with meditation-like practices to help increase focus and attention.

It might sound strange, but in a fast-paced classroom, teachers at Crooked Creek say just having their students close their eyes and listen for a minute can help them improve their ability to focus. It’s part of the school’s efforts to incorporate the tenets of the growing academic field known as “educational neuroscience” into the classroom.

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The field of educational neuroscience is at the intersection of cognitive psychology, education and neuroscience, and some of its teachings suggest findings from brain research can be applied to classroom management and discipline techniques.

Some trend toward the area of “mindfulness,” such as attempting to sharpen students’ focus through meditation. Other facets of the field that Crooked Creek teachers employ in the classroom include taking short breaks from instruction to ward off boredom and teaching children explicitly about parts of the brain and how they respond to stress.

Crooked Creek has been working with teacher and college professor Lori Desautels to help infuse elements of educational neuroscience into the classroom.

Desautels isn’t just teaching brain science to the teachers. She’s also helping children understand how their own brains work to in an effort to help them learn to change their behavior.

The educational neuroscience field is in flux, and some of its teachings — especially ones that directly tie student learning outcomes to brain science — still leave neuroscientists skeptical. But that’s not at the core of what Desautels is doing in Indianapolis schools. Rather, it’s about using what experts know about the brain to build stronger relationships and classroom culture.

“We are in a new time in education,” said Desautels, who works with teachers and students in several Indianapolis schools. “We hear about reform every day in the paper. We read it, we hear it in the news, but what’s really at the crux of all of this is educational neuroscience. Students are learning about their own neuroanatomy, and they are loving it.”

A growing field

Researchers have been exploring how brain science and education work together for about 50 years, but Desautels said the field has recently morphed into something new that is taking off across the country and outside the U.S.

“It’s a brand-new discipline that is catching on fire right now,” Desautels said.

The idea is to introduce both teachers and students to a basic understanding of how the brain works. If teachers have an idea of what’s going on behind the bad behavior, they can more effectively reach their students because they know it might not just be a child choosing to be defiant or difficult. When students know how parts of their brains work, they might better understand why they might feel frustrated or aggressive. That can help them develop strategies to lower stress so they can work to improve behavior in the future.

“Neuroanatomy knowledge eases their stress because they know they are not alone and can have control over that,” Desautels said.

Deanna Nibarger leads her class in a "morning meeting" where they can check in with each other and build relationships as a class.
Deanna Nibarger leads her class in a “morning meeting” where they can check in with each other and build relationships as a class.

The exact relationship between the how the brain works and how kids learn — and how teachers should teach — isn’t fully fleshed out, said Lise Eliot, a neuroscience professor from Chicago Medical School and Rosalind Franklin University.

“The so-called ‘neuroscience of education”… it’s not ready for prime time yet,” Eliot said. “There are a lot of very good neuroscientists who are interested in translating our understanding to how our brain learns to better educational practices, but I would say that at this point, improvements in educational practice have come only from the behavioral level.”

And that’s mainly where Desautel’s work lies — in using new strategies and information to improve behavior. The methods are especially relevant as schools look to correct disparities in instances of school discipline. Indiana, like many places across the country, has acknowledged racial differences in the way that suspensions, expulsions and other punishments are meted out.

Nibarger, the fifth-grade teacher from Crooked Creek, had a background in special education and behavior management before she ever met Desautels. The year she came to Washington Township just happened to be the first year Desautels piloted her approach with the Crooked Creek fifth-graders.

Since she started working with Desautels three years ago, she’s seen school culture begin to change, and she’s more sure of her own teaching. The very first year of the pilot, no students were suspended, and school office referrals decreased, she said.

Understanding what her kids’ brains might be going through during moments of stress or frustration has helped Nibarger make sense of a lot of disparate classroom management concepts she’d already learned.

“It has kind of affirmed a lot of what I already knew to be best practice,” she said. “When people asked me what I was doing for behavior, I didn’t have research or knowledge to do that. Now I know why I do what I do.”

Educational neuroscience, Desautels said, is the intersection of cognitive psychology, education and neuroscience. The element of it that encourages building relationships through better understanding of how emotions and stress impact the brain informs some of the philosophies behind discipline strategies becoming popular in the U.S, she said.

At Crooked Creek, Nibarger has taken the lessons to heart and uses them on a daily basis.

“If you were to come to room 18, we talk a lot about emotions being contagious.” Nibarger said. “We do morning meetings, and we talk through conflict. I teach the kids about neuroplasticity; their brains being able to change because of their experiences in life.”

Using brain knowledge to better behavior

One of the first things Desautels teaches students and teachers is “the 90-second rule,” which admittedly has a much larger following in psychological circles than neuroscientific ones.

“Our body rinses clear and clean of negative emotion in 90 seconds,” she said. “Why do we stay irritated for so long? We keep thinking about it, replaying it and generating more negative emotions.”

The premise is championed by Harvard-educated brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor, who essentially says the chemicals that course through the brain during a stressful experience dissipate after 90 seconds. Eliot said she wasn’t familiar with the concept. But while emotional recovery time is likely different from person to person, the point, Desautels said, is to let kids know they can have a hand in controlling their emotions.

Things don’t always run smoothly in classrooms, between teachers and students or between kids themselves — conflict is inevitable. But rather than focusing on just being reactive, Desautels said, teachers and students can arm themselves with strategies early on so moments of stress don’t turn into meltdowns.

There are three key ways to de-escalate a conflict that are known to reduce stress as well: movement, time and breathing.

When kids can release energy by moving around, take some time away from the stressful moment or just breathe, Desautels said, they can calm down and actually think about what’s going on around them. Otherwise, they stay stressed out and might lash out more, she said.

The same goes for teachers — those strategies can ease their tension so they can respond constructively to a student. Desautels recommends asking these questions: What do you need? How can I help? What can we do to make this better?

“Consequences don’t need to be immediate,” Desautels said. “That, neurobiologically, is the worst thing we can do.”

When the brain is under stress, Desautels said, the part that controls problem-solving, logic, planning and organizing — known as the “prefrontal cortex” — isn’t getting enough blood and oxygen. Instead, all the blood is heading to the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotion. That’s why feeling upset might make a child yell or hit before it makes them sit back and talk a problem through. Plus, the prefrontal cortex is one of the last parts of the brain to develop, so children are already more likely to respond emotionally to stress than adults.

“We have to prime the brain for discipline and learning before we can do anything else,” Desautels said. “Unless we teach the behaviors that we want to see, many times emotional regulation, which is what negative behavior is all about, it’s not there. And we just assume everybody is born having great ability to emotionally regulate.”

Fifth-graders at Crooked Creek Elementary School in Washington Township eat breakfast before their morning announcements.
Fifth-graders at Crooked Creek Elementary School in Washington Township eat breakfast before their morning announcements.

Teaching neuroscience to kids isn’t quite as hard as it sounds — First, they’ll start with model that lets them learn each part of the brain and what it does.

In Nibarger’s class, it’s clear the teaching has taken hold. Her students use words and phrases like “neurons” and “brain trauma” in regular classroom conversation. On the day before spring break, she asked them to tell her what happens when you have “hidden anger.”

Almost immediately, one boy piped up. He said a lack of sleep can cause trauma in the brain that blocks synapses from firing, which mean the brain works more slowly. Another girl said keeping anger to yourself means you can’t connect well to your friends.

“If you don’t talk about it and get it out of your system, you get frustrated and isolated,” she said.

Aside from the three basic strategies of movement, time and breathing, Desautels encourages teachers to use “brain breaks” to keep kids from drifting off during class.

“The brain pays attention to novelty,” Desautels said. “It’s a good way to change up because the brain is lulled to sleep with routine.”

A brain break could be almost anything — kids can get up and balance on one foot or play coordination games that ask them to hold out both hands and switch between making an “L” with one hand and a Sign Language “I” with the other. Or, it can be chimes on the intercom to give children a moment of calm in the morning.

Using the brain breaks and attention exercises throughout the school day not only helps kids shake things up if they need to refocus, but they are strategies they can turn to in times of stress.

The approach isn’t magic — managing behavior can still be slow-going, Desautels said, especially if kids become aggressive and don’t yet trust their teachers.

One third-grade class she’s working in this year at Washington Township’s Greenbriar Elementary School is particularly challenging — many of the students come from low-income families, and some have parents in jail.

Sometimes, they’ll yell or swear or even knock over a desk. Desautels said that can be typical for students constantly living in a state of stress, but the class is making progress. She encourages teachers to carve out areas of their classrooms where kids can go to take a break and calm down. Teachers at the school are partnered with each other so they have extra hands if one needs to the leave the classroom with the student or contact a parent.

How to deal with frequently disruptive, or even violent, students is a question common to most all classroom management or discipline techniques. There isn’t an easy answer Desautels said — it takes time for teachers and students to build trust. Incorporating aspects of educational neuroscience can help ensure that when confrontation does happen, frustration and rash decisions aren’t king.

“For teachers who say it’s too gentle, I say absolutely not,” Desautels said. “What we have to do is set up those procedures and transitions and boundaries, and the hardest part is we have to stay connected emotionally to those students during the worst of conflicts.

And regardless of the particular field you’re in, Eliot said, that connection piece is paramount to success in the classroom.

“What we know about human brain function is that it can’t be divorced from social environment,” Eliot said. “The more teachers appreciate how crucial that is to have healthy positive, nurturing relationships and extensive bonding and connecting and mentoring of their students, the more successful they’ll be, the healthier their students will be and the better they’ll learn.”

First Person

I’m a Chicago teacher who has watched many Javions fall through the cracks. Here’s what would help.

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
A mural inside the Community Youth Development Institute.

As a Chicago Public School teacher and librarian for the past 15 years, I’ve seen many students fall through the cracks.

I remember the young man who sat in my class at the beginning of his senior year, eager to learn. By the end he was failing, having missed over 30 days of school for reasons unknown to me. Or the sophomore girl who transferred out after displaying behavior and academic problems. I saw her years later on the Chicago Tribune’s mugshot webpage.

Both of these students came to mind when I read Adeshina Emmanuel’s story about Javion Grayer, a 16-year-old Chicago student who reads at the second grade level.

What struck me about Javion’s story was that his educational experience was as disjointed as his home life. He switched schools several times, and his family wished someone could help him. But many of the schools he attended did not provide adequate special education services or reading specialists.

This is not a problem unique to Javion. In Chicago Public Schools, a district that prides itself on its variety of choices for families, Javion’s story is an illustration of how little all of those schools can have in common and how little they work together. The result can be students getting a patchwork education within one school district, with little horizontal alignment among schools that serve the same grades, and little vertical alignment among its K-8 schools and high schools.

At Lindblom High School, where I am a teacher librarian, we see transfer students who want to come to Lindblom in search of something better. I watch many transfer students who come with grass-is-greener hopes struggle because of differences in curriculum, instruction, expectations, and school culture. Lindblom is a selective enrollment high school, and many that transfer in are not coming from other selective enrollment schools, which may exacerbate this. But Javion’s experience was probably somewhat similar, watching schools right next to one another operate in very different ways.

Elementary schools that once acted as feeder schools to neighborhood high schools are now feeder schools for every high school in the city. That leaves elementary schools not knowing much about the expectations of the high schools their students will go on to attend, and high schools not knowing exactly what students learned during their elementary experience.

When I taught freshman English for a couple of school years, not once did I know any information about the curriculum my incoming students had used. I didn’t even know what elementary school they came from, let alone their specific struggles or strengths. Think about how much more effective our high schools would be if we actually had that information.

Javion also missed out on something that many CPS children are missing — access to a reading specialist. Reading specialists have been disappearing in the last decade thanks to student-based budgeting, where schools receive budgets based on their enrollment and principals decide how to allocate their funds. If their school’s enrollment is declining, principals often decide to forego a reading specialist to save a teaching position. This does not mean that those positions are not needed; on the contrary, they are very much needed in schools that serve high-needs students like Javion. Those are also often the schools declining in enrollment.

When I started teaching, I experienced the benefits of a reading specialist myself. I was not prepared to teach reading, as much of my teacher education taught me to become a teacher like the ones I had in high school — ones that assigned texts, held discussions, and gave feedback on essays. I knew little of what to do when students didn’t or couldn’t read the assigned text. I quickly discovered that holding a discussion on a chapter that only a few students have read or understood didn’t make for an effective classroom.

It was my school’s reading specialist who taught me how to help students access unfamiliar texts and incorporate a slew of strategies into my classroom.  She also let me know that it’s OK to use class time for reading, and that my students would benefit from me reading aloud to the class, too. My students become better readers, and many of my classroom management issues disappeared, too.

In 2019, to help students like Javion, the district should prioritize addressing both problems. Chicago Public Schools needs to make sure students are learning the same basic reading skills in every school, and that high schools understand what’s being taught to younger students and vice versa.

The district also needs reading specialists to return. I wish that Javion had attended a school where such a specialist could have helped his teachers and worked one-on-one with students who are grade levels behind in reading. He would have been noticed; he would have been helped. I have that same wish for students and teachers across the district.

Gina Caneva is a 15-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and writing center director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She is also a certified reading specialist. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva.

This Colorado history teacher sees the effects of immigration policy every day — in her worried students

PHOTO: Kelly Cvanciger
Kelly Cvanciger, at left, poses with students from her AP government class last year.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Some of Kelly Cvanciger’s students at Bear Creek High School in Lakewood live with constant worry — about the possibility of deportation, arrest, or being separated from their families. They are immigrants legally residing in the U.S. through the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era initiative that the Trump administration has sought to end.

“Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system,” said Cvanciger, a history teacher. “It’s just not fair.”

Cvanciger, who was one of six finalists for the 2019 Colorado Teacher of the Year award, talked about how current immigration policies distract students from their studies, why she moved her desk to the back of the classroom, and what she learned from her son, who has autism spectrum disorder.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I have had some amazing teachers in my life who inspired me as a student. In elementary school it was my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Strong. In high school, it was my French teacher, Ms. Nasvitis. In college, it was Dr. Harry Swanhart. They made me fall in love with education and never want to miss a day. I would cry if my parents told me I was too sick to attend school. I thought teaching was the coolest job because they made teaching look so fun and loved their students. While I temporarily flirted with majoring in veterinary medicine in college, my love of history lured me back to teaching and by my second year of college I was sure that it was my future. I have not looked back since.

Has having a child on the autism spectrum shaped your approach to teaching? If so, how?

Having a son diagnosed with autism opened up an entire new world in terms of understanding how education needs to look different for individual students. My son has taught me that too many people know little to nothing about autism spectrum disorder and that includes the vast majority of teachers who instruct students diagnosed with the disorder. Most do not understand sensory triggers and how students with autism learn. Every child with autism spectrum disorder is unique and their learning styles are more varied than the average mainstream learner.

Because of my son, I have become a better teacher. I taught for 13 years before he was born. He has opened my eyes to learning obstacles that I was otherwise not tuned into, especially for children with developmental disabilities who do not learn from the archaic model of “sage on the stage” teaching.

How do you get to know your students?

I constantly talk to my students and ask them questions so I can cater my examples in class to topics that they can relate to in their lives. Making a connection with each student is important so that they know people care about their lives. Most students are very willing to talk to teachers about their life, family situation, and goals for their future. Some people discredit the relationship-building piece in a classroom, but I believe fostering positive relationships is really the start to opening students up to a world of learning.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I love to start teaching with Hammurabi’s Law Code. It is an insightful look into the social and political ideals of the ancient river valley civilization of Mesopotamia. The reason it still has relevance today is that many of the social rules that existed related to birth rights, marriage, gender roles, and societal norms have changed little in over 3,000 years. It provides a useful glimpse into how inflexible social hierarchies really are and defines a foundation for right and wrong for millennium within those societies.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

This sounds so simple, but I have a pen in my hand the entire time, and write notes everywhere in my room. It is crucial to document everything in education down to the smallest detail and I always find that I could have taught a lesson differently so I write it down as I am teaching. I have entire notebooks full of “fixes” from years of teaching the same subjects. I always feel an urgent need to record thoughts before they slip away. A pen also helps when teaching as I can make comments specific to each child while students are working.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

I have a lot of students that have “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status” in my classes. The news affects my students on a daily basis. They worry about being deported, being arrested, and being separated from their families. It is impossible to end their worries with our existing immigration policies. Trying to convince kids to actively participate in their education and learn geography when they face an uncertain future cripples our education system. It’s just not fair. We have to find a way to teach students so that they understand their role in society and how they can change their future.

What part of your job is most difficult?

The most difficult part of my job is talking to students who have difficulties in their family situations. It breaks my heart when students come to school and face significant hardships at home through no fault of their own. For students, this presents an obstacle to learning and is a challenge to overcome.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

I used to think that all students wanted to learn and come to school since I always wanted to go to school to learn. But when I became a teacher I realized that was the exception, not the norm. Some students grow up with a conception of school as a necessary evil, something they are forced to do because the law says so or their parents say so. Not all students want to learn (at least the subjects they are offered in school), they have too many obstacles to learn, and most dread coming to school for a variety of reasons. No matter how hard I try to get every student to love history, some just never will, and that was a tough lesson.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

I have always been a reader, since I was a little girl. I find that it is the only way to calm my brain in the evenings. I only read two types of books: historical fiction and historical non-fiction. Reading allows me to keep up in my field. Right now, I am reading “The Gulag Archipelago” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar” by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Both are challenging reads in their own right, and discuss polarizing views on Stalin’s purges of Soviet-era Russia.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

I was reading a study about a decade ago that came to the conclusion that your teacher desk should be at the back of the room. The study concluded that students have a fear of approaching teachers who place their desk at the front of the room because it creates a psychological barrier between the student and teacher, making the student feel inferior to the teacher as a human being. I immediately moved my desk to the back of the room. This was an eye-opening change as students wanted to talk to me more often as I navigated the classroom rather than coming to my desk with questions. By removing the barrier, I built closer relationships between myself and my students.