The need for protection
(The following is a sample chapter from an upcoming book I'm working on called Take CHARGE. It looks at six steps to set up successful classroom management and six steps for deescalating behavioral outbursts. The first part of successful classroom management is confidence and the third part of confidence is protection. The second part of positivity can be read in the previous post.)
Confidence is the first step in taking charge of the classroom.
So far we’ve looked at how both your purpose and students’ purpose for coming to school each day can give you a strong core to guide you through the trials of learning.
We’ve also looked at how positivity can shape everything you do, fueling your classroom with energy and acceptance.
While these first two aspects of confidence, purpose and positivity, are characteristics that teachers direct and guide with student involvement, the third aspect is one that only you can provide for your students.
If you want to get a handle on student misbehavior, to help students successfully inhibit their unproductive urges, you must provide protection. Without a felt sense of safety in your classroom, nothing positive is going to happen.
The brain needs protection
In an article she wrote titled Trauma Informed Teaching Strategies in the journal Educational Leadership, author Jessica Minahan shares that neurobiologically speaking, students can’t learn if they don’t feel safe, known, and cared for within their schools. This is a strong statement. We’re not talking about choosing not to learn, or students willfully ignoring instructions or goofing off. In our brains, certain conditions must be met before the parts of our consciousness responsible for learning can be accessed.
Art Willans and Cari Williams in Freedom to Learn share that in the presence of aversive stimuli, the hippocampus and amygdala, responsible for memory and emotion respectively, remain on high alert for continuing distress. These brain systems are designed to keep us safe when danger is sensed.
For example, if you are walking down a wooded path and you hear a growl and a blood-curdling scream about 50 yards behind you, what you don’t want to do is analyze. If you continue strolling down the path, quietly musing to yourself, “Hmm, that’s strange, I wonder who that person is and why she’s screaming?”, you could be putting yourself in danger. Your natural instinct is going to be to turn around, look for the source of the sound, and make a split-second decision as to what to do.
This stress is pumping cortisol and adrenaline through your body as your senses seem to be on overload, taking in more information that you can cognitively process. The cortisol is increasing sugars to your bloodstream and curbing functions that are non-essential, such as idle thoughts about the rare flower you just saw before you heard the scream. Adrenaline is also elevating your heart rate, your blood pressure, and your energy. With increased perception, you can instantly act in a way that will keep you safe, whether that be fight, flight, or freeze.
What you can’t do, unfortunately, is use logic, think abstractly, or do anything that doesn’t immediately assist you. Trying to match the growl to a specific species (e.g., “Was that a mountain lion? Cougar? No, too throaty. Something deeper...maybe a bear. Are bears native to this area? If so, I wonder if it’s a brown bear. I read somewhere that those are pretty large....”) would not happen because it’s non-essential.
Trying to identify the woman by her size and outfit would also be non-essential (e.g., “That looks like my aunt Sara. What’s she doing here? She lives down in Houston and I know she would have called me first. She’s not much of a walker, maybe it’s not her. Sure looks like her, though…”). Your first and best instinct would be to evaluate the danger and figure out how to stay away from it. If you took your Superman vitamins that morning, maybe you rush in to help the stranger. Either way, you’re reacting on instinct because your brain is designed to do just that when danger is sensed. Analysis and reasoning can come later. First, make sure you’re not eaten.
So, here’s the really scary question.
What if every time a student walks into your classroom he feels like there’s a wild animal in there?
What if his stress levels are so high that he’s continually in a fight, flight, or freeze frame of mind?
First and foremost, learning isn’t going to happen. That’s completely out of the picture. You’ll also probably see some erratic behavior. A classmate might do something or say something innocuous and the child suddenly snaps, losing it for no apparent reason.
That’s a reaction due to stress and anxiety. If schools are to provide an appropriate learning environment for children, they must strive to keep anxiety to a minimum.
Lack of protection
So, unless you are harboring any wild animals in your classroom, you can probably knock that off your list. But what else causes students to live in chronic stress, a term used to describe the emotional pressure suffered for prolonged periods of time in which people feel unsafe and/or powerless?
Lots of things.
Some factors are out of your control. Poverty, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, neglect, homelessness, hunger, mental illness, and discrimination simply start the list. The chains of stress, if somehow made visible, that children bring in with them every day would stagger us if we could see them. That’s one of the reasons why teachers are mandated reporters for suspected child abuse and neglect. It’s that important and we are in a position to learn things that other adults can’t.
But there are some factors that teachers have a great deal of influence over. Think back to the previous discussion about positivity. Take a moment and think back to when you were in school. We all had that one teacher, or maybe more than one, that we know simply hated us. For whatever reason, that teacher was either distantly cold or outright hostile to us. If you can, bring back the feelings you had when being in that room.
What did you learn from that class? How open were you to receiving corrective feedback from the teacher? My guess is that both answers would be little or none. Now consider the one student you’ve had, either in the past or currently, that drives you bonkers. The one that you pray falls ill (though not dangerously ill, obviously) so that he’s out of your class for two weeks. What are your interactions like with him? What does he perceive your feelings toward him are?
If he feels that you don’t like him, disapprove of him, or sit in judgment on his every action, then you’re creating an anxiety-filled environment for him. That’s pumping him full of cortisol and adrenaline, two hormones that are useful for getting away from brown bears but not helpful for learning. That’s why positivity is so vital. Keeping positive intent in mind for those students can do much to reduce their stress and anxiety.
Additionally, peer interactions can damage learning prospects. If a student has a neutral or positive relationship with you, but feels as if he’s going to be ridiculed or shamed by his peers, then he’ll still be anxious. Cognitive processing and memory functions will be unavailable as he tries to identify the psychological threat, doing his best from being eaten by the wild animal.
One final word on the power of our brains, both for helping us to not be eaten and potentially keeping us from learning. If, for some strange reason, you decided to walk down the same trail a week later, you’d be on the lookout for danger. As you passed by the portion of the trail that was so dangerous last time, your brain would automatically start pumping stress hormones through your body, getting you ready for an impending attack.
This reaction, called priming, is described by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson in The Whole-Brain Child. Implicit memories cause us to form expectations about how the world works based on previous experiences. The last time you walked down that path, something horrible happened. Thus, walking down the same path would cause those memories to resurface and the same reaction to occur again. This isn’t done consciously but subconsciously, as a defense mechanism, to keep you safe. It would probably take many more trips down the same path with no incidents for those alarm bells to stop ringing every time you walked it.
Priming keeps us safe and out of danger because it frees us to be able to react quickly or even automate our responses in moments of danger without having to actively or intentionally recall our responses in similar situations. These repeated experiences, or in some cases of trauma, the single experience, help us predict what will happen next. We don’t have time to go through the start-up process of getting ready for danger every time we walk down that path. Priming automates that for us.
This wonderful survival feature, however, can work against students that habitually face stress and anxiety from school. When the relationship with the teacher is cold and/or their peers are critical or even hyper-competitive, that influences their expectations for the classroom. With enough repeated experiences of stress and anxiety, priming can trigger that child’s defense mechanisms every time he walks into the classroom. This means that even on days in which nothing overtly hostile might happen, the student’s ability to learn would have been severely compromised because of his anxiety.
Thus, classrooms must offer protection to students. If we, as teachers, want to prepare students to participate in learning as healthy individuals, to communicate with us and their peers in open and trusting ways, we need to nurture within them a receptive state instead of a closed, reactive one. If a student’s entire focus is on self-defense, the wonders of our lesson delivery and the excitement of the activities will do no good. Instead, the child’s whole focus will be on staying safe.
So if this resonates with you, if you can envision a particular student when thinking about this defensive state, what’s the solution? How do you shoo away the brown bear so that the student’s cognitive processing doesn’t go on hiatus every time he enters your classroom?
Put simply, trust deactivates the amygdala.
In Freedom to Learn, Art Willans and Cari Williams share that, in order for students to inhibit negative behaviors, one necessary environmental factor is a sense of trust that the teacher will protect the student from injury and psychological pain. Walking down a lonely path, fearful of bears jumping out of the woods, would make anyone anxious. If, however, you were driving a tank down the path, then any bears that stumbled into your way would be annoying but not dangerous.
More than being a friend or a buddy, teachers first and foremost must be protectors. They do not know all of the invisible chains of stress that children bring with them every day nor can they eliminate all of them. What they can do, though, is make their classroom a fortress of protection. Students can be primed not for fear but for relief, safety, and openness if they know that they will be protected from shame when they cross your threshold.
Protection is not control. It is not dominance. If teachers try to eliminate threats by exerting ultimate authority over students, theoretically keeping the fragile ones safe from the hooligans, compassion is thrown out the window. Effective relationships, between the teacher and students and between the students themselves, thrive on trust. They wither in the face of power imbalances.
Brene Brown, in her book Dare to Lead, shares her decades of research on shame and how it affects all of us. The feeling of shame has many adverse effects, one of them being a loss in our belief in our own ability to change. When students are shamed by their teacher, criticized for their deficiencies in their academic or behavioral prowess, they start to lose hope. They begin to believe the claims made about them, internalizing them and short circuiting their prospects for improvement. This downward spiral becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as students begin to live out the critical remarks of others.
The antidote is trust. When students trust their teachers, they feel free to take off the armor they carry around to protect them from wounds. Protection offers them the possibility of being seen, being known, warts and all, and still being accepted. When trusting relationships put this option on the table, students are now, finally, in a position to learn.
Because learning can actually be quite dangerous.
Zone of proximal development
For those of you not familiar with the common educational term zone of proximal development, it was coined by a Russian psychologist named Lev Vygotsky and refers to the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can achieve with guidance from a skilled partner, usually a teacher.
In other words, it’s the sweet spot of teaching.
Some tasks are too easy. Students can do them on their own and, already having mastery, are not really adding anything to what they already know.
Other tasks are simply too hard or complex. Even with adult guidance, it simply is beyond their ability to process. Teaching calculus to a 1st grader would be an extreme but fitting example.
In between, though, is where learning happens. Not so hard that the learner can’t get there even with significant support. Not so easy that the brain can coast through the task on autopilot.
The zone of proximal development (ZPD) is an area of stretching, risk, and the possibility of failure. Students won’t go there without trust and a sense of protection.
Students naturally care about their identity and how they are perceived by others. Wrapped up in that identity is a host of factors, such as physical appearance, social standing, and skills. In the school setting, another factor rears its ugly head - academic reputation.
If you put 25 random students into a room within an hour they would have a pretty good sense of who the smart kids are and who are the dummies. It’s a type of sixth sense that students develop, the ability to quickly and accurately identify their place in the academic pecking order. In classroom atmospheres that do not provide a feeling of protection, students are loath to enter the ZPD.
It’s simply too risky. Failure is a possible outcome, and with that failure all the shame and verbal abuse that accompanies being wrong in an unsupportive environment. Resistance to stretching the limits of knowledge decreases the learning of new skills, thus making academic achievement stagnant or declining.
Let’s revisit the mantra I introduced earlier.
Teacher: Why are we here?
Students: To learn as much as we can.
Teacher: How do we best learn?
Students: By helping each other succeed.
Teacher: Who is responsible for learning?
Students: I am - we are!
Maximum learning happens in the ZPD. That’s a scary place for many students because it’s high risk/high reward. That level of risk might be too much for them unless they feel safe. While emotional protection is necessary for quality relationships and social-emotional well-being, it also plays into academics, the underlying reason for education. Without trust and safety, learning simply isn’t possible.
Many students drag in the invisible chains of anxiety and stress from their homes every day. Their lives outside of school may be filled with trauma, uncertainty, and fear.
But your classroom can be an island of hope in a sea of chaos.
You have the ability to set a positive tone and steer your class toward a mastery goal orientation, favoring community over competition, growth over grades. When students feel supported by their teacher and their classmates, they can take their armor off, even if it’s only temporarily. Peter Brown, Mark McDaniel, and Henry Roediger, in their book Make It Stick, share that it isn’t failure that’s desirable but the dauntless effort that students can give despite the risks. Sometimes only failure will allow students to discover what works and what doesn’t work. Trial and error, continuous growth, and exploratory learning are all hallmarks of a sense of safety.
If you, as a teacher, can create and sustain a safe environment for students, if you can banish the bears lurking in the woods, then students will feel safe enough to percolate in the ZPD, opening themselves to learning and to being seen.
This is the true outcome of confidence. When students can cast off their anxiety and stress, they are only then ready to begin learning.