We don’t give much thought to our brain. I don’t anyway. I take it for granted most of the time. If you think about it, that 3 pounds of fat, protein and water (according to National Geographic ) is a truly miraculous organ. It spawned the Sistene Chapel, the International Space Station, the Gamma Knife, War and Peace, Swan Lake, Bethoven’s Fifth, the Hadron Collider and Magnetic Resonance Imaging. The list is wondrously endless. I even read recently that some of the brains at Batelle Labs developed an implant that made it possible for a paralyzed person to pick up a spoon merely by thinking it.
Of course, those are rare and exceptional examples of the brain’s potential when provided with an environment conducive to learning, creating, and innovating. Not every brain lives in those types of environments, and the brain is ultimately a survival organ. Centuries of real and imagined danger have honed its ability to recognize and respond to novel stimuli and threats. If you think about early settlers in the Americas for example, it makes perfect sense. A frontiersman, let’s call him Bob, mesmerized by purple mountain majesties, who couldn’t spot the grizzly racing down the slopes early enough to take defensive measures, probably ended up as the bear’s picnic lunch. While the bear was finishing Bob off, his more fear-alert neighbor was running off with his girlfriend to the nearest Justice of the Peace and subsequently consummating the union to pass on his fear alerting genes to the next generation. Mission critical to the brain is the preservation of the body and much of that happens subconsciously. You only have to touch a hot stove once. You don’t have to walk around saying, “Don’t touch hot stoves. Don’t touch hot stoves.”
While encountering bears is an unlikely threat nowadays (although my first high school lockdown was due to a bear wandering around behind the gym- more about that later), the truth is that children do encounter threats to their safety and it is easy to misinterpret a child’s behavior because we are unaware that an unconscious threat response is happening. I know. I have, regrettably, made that mistake more than once in my career. A couple of decades ago, when we were blissfully ignorant of the sheer magnitude of homeless children, I made that mistake and it has stayed with me as a painful reminder that I cannot know what motivates another person’s behavior. He was new and that alone made him standout. I knew how hard that was having moved around as a child, so I tried to connect with him. He always seemed to be looking over my left shoulder like that was as far as he could stand to make eye contact with me. I was suspicious. My dad always told me that looking someone in the eye was a sign of honesty and respect. So that was my lens. It didn’t occur to me that there could be another reason. His answers were monosyllabic and curt. He fidgeted like he was itching to get away from me. He kept bouncing his backpack on his shoulder as we talked- not rapidly but periodically like he was checking to see if it was still there. After a few minutes, I gave up trying to talk to him. He stomped away without a word. He was disheveled and dirty. It made me wonder if he didn’t care. Again, my lens came through, my dad always told me that you should dress nicely because it looks like you care about yourself and, if you care, others will. “If you dress like a bum, people will treat you like one,” he’d say. It didn’t occur to me that the condition of his clothes wasn’t his choice. I met him again, under even less jubilant conditions, a couple of days later when he was brought to my office for verbally attacking his teacher. When I was working on my Master’s degree, one of my professors, a wise and experienced administrator, once told me that every behavior has a positive intention even if I can’t see it. It was hard seeing the positive intention in his actions that day. It took some time, but eventually he meted out the information. It was like he was testing our trustworthiness with every morsel. The teacher had told him he had to leave his backpack in his locker. It was a common rule back then. That seemed reasonable to me, again through my lens. He had valuable things in his backpack. We have locks for the lockers, I told him. He didn’t trust the locks. That seemed silly but I didn’t say that outright. And then we got to the real issue. Everything he owned in the world was in that backpack. My lens shattered. I let that sink in. He was homeless. I think he was the first kid who had ever said that to me. Everything he owned was in his backpack. Chaos and uncertainty ruled his life. What was he going to do, explain to the teacher, in front of the other kids, that he was homeless? I could not imagine the burden of that for a young man. Of course he was angry, who wouldn’t be? Of course he attacked, he believed he was in danger of losing everything. In the end, we figured out a way for him to feel safe about his backpack. He taught me indelibly to ask first.
So, what does this have to do with the brain? Everything, it turns out. Whether we flee, fight or freeze when faced with danger (real or imagined), the brain takes over to protect the body. In the classroom, students may appear that they can’t learn or won’t learn when in fact they may be reacting subconsciously to perceived threats or to stimuli that reminds the brain of a past threat. Every child starts out curious. Every child wants to learn. They soak up the sights and sounds and taste and feel of a world that is new to them. They want to know how and why. Why is the sky pink tonight and not blue? Where does rain come from? How do fish breathe? Where do babies come from? Or my child’s personal favorite, what’s that smell like (usually asked at the most inopportune moments)? If you are a child, who merely by luck is born into a family with educated parents with financial resources, you will probably hear things like “what a great question”, “let’s look that up” or “I’ve always wondered that too”. You might even hear an actual answer to the question. You go to school confident that you ask good questions worthy of adult consideration. You learn that adults think you are smart enough to find or understand the answer. But what if you are born to parents who are not educated or who don’t have financial resources? What If you are homeless and survival is the most important thing? You might hear “enough with the questions”, “I have no idea” or “don’t bother me right now”. Exhausted people in survival mode are not always able to regulate their emotions. You internalize your parent’s emotions. You make those emotions mean something about you. You might feel like you have irritated, angered or offended your parent. You learn not to ask questions. You learn questions upset adults. You learn questions are dangerous.
These two children will look very different in the classroom. One will look engaged, ask questions, make eye contact and offer answers. The other will appear disinterested, not ask questions or offer answers. It is easy to mistake their learned response for not caring about school or for being less intelligent when, in fact, that is not true. This is why trauma informed practices and social emotional learning are so important in school. If we want all children to learn, we have to understand their behavior. We have to help them develop the social emotional skills needed to both keep them safe and help them learn, like growth mindset, grit, social awareness, self-management, and sense of belonging. We have to reignite their curious mind. None of that will happen overnight. It takes consistent, intentional behavior by influential, caring adults. It may not happen overnight, but it can happen. It happens in classrooms everyday across this country. Through our actions, we can communicate to every child that we believe they can learn. Through our actions, we can communicate to every child that we think their questions are valid and worth our time. Through our actions, we can reignite the curious mind. Through our actions, we can quiet the fear brain and make room for the learning brain to grow. If you are wondering just how to do that, ask yourself “What would I say right now if I were talking to my child?”
If you want to learn more about:
The Fear Brain – Read The ecology of human fear: survival optimization and the nervous system (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4364301/ Mobbs, D et al, 2015)
How class and race influence the classroom – Read: Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life (Lareau, 2011) https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520271425/unequal-childhoods
Trauma Informed Practices
– Check our Edutopia: https://www.edutopia.org/article/trauma-informed-practices-benefit-all-students
– Read: The Heart of Learning: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success http://www.k12.wa.us/CompassionateSchools/HeartofLearning.aspx
I chose these pictures because they remind me of the curious mind of the child. This was my daughter’s 5th grade Invention Convention project. She designed and made a cover to keep tennis shoes laces clean, dry and knotted. I think she is brilliant. The greater truth is that, by the luck of the draw, she was born into a home where education is important, her parents have the time and resources to help her, and every time she asked a question (millions of questions actually – just ask her third grade teachers who had to give her a daily limit) she was encouraged to find the answer. All of that helped her develop a curious mind. Every kid deserves that opportunity.