Bluuuooop! Bluuuuoooop! Bluuuuuooooop!
One moment I was teaching, pointing out brilliant uses of figurative language in literature. The next moment, I was flustered, confused about the piercing noises. Once I remembered that the fire alarm was indeed scheduled to occur, I was able to locate the emergency backpack, line students up, and get them to their designated safety location.
By the time I got students back into our room, the class’ limitations became apparent. Learning for that period was over. Soon enough, the passing bell rang, desks were straightened, and students filed out.
Fire drills occur roughly once a month in schools across America. But what would it be like if these were daily occurrences at our schools? What if alarms sounded multiple times throughout your school day, often without warning? Would you switch schools? Would you contemplate a career change? At what point would you deem it intolerable?
This is, in fact, how many of our students experience learning in our classrooms. Despite their best efforts, students find that their learning is too frequently disrupted by internal alarms, rooted in childhood trauma. These early life experiences, some of them in-utero, have fundamentally changed their brain make-up and wiring. Working with these children, educators and leaders must work to recognize the look and sound of these alarms. We should also work to understand what sets them off, wherever this is possible.
Despite their best efforts, students find that their learning is too frequently disrupted by internal alarms, rooted in childhood trauma.
What Happens in the Brain
Daniel Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D, in The Whole-Brain Child describe two floors of our brains. The “downstairs” brain is formed at birth and functions for the purposes of survival. The “upstairs” brain isn’t fully formed until the age of twenty-one and is where thinking, decision making, emotional control, empathy, self-understanding, and morality happen. Humans need to access their upstairs brain to engage in deep learning and excel our classrooms.
The amygdala, an almond-sized part of the downstairs brain, is a key player in the limbic system. It functions as a watchdog, sensing possible danger and quickly alerting the body to either fight, run away or freeze. The amygdala pulls the fire alarm of the brain and effectively cuts off the upstairs brain. While this function is critical for human survival, it happens all too frequently for children who have experienced trauma in their lives.
Humans need to access their upstairs brain to engage in deep learning and excel our classrooms.
Impact on Learning
In our classrooms, hardly noticeable interactions or even environmental factors, set off alarms in the bodies of children. Students go from engaged learners to prehistoric dinosaurs, in a moment’s time. In the words of Siegel and Payne Bryson, “…not only is the upstairs under construction, but even the part of it that can function becomes inaccessible during moments of high emotion or stress.” It’s helpful for us to remember that this shift is often outside the control of our students. They are often stressed, anxious and dysregulated for reasons that even they are unaware of.
Students go from engaged learners to prehistoric dinosaurs, in a moment’s time.
Recognition is Key
If we, as educators and leaders, acknowledge that this dynamic is occurring frequently, for students we serve, then we are closer to supporting them. When we recognize fight, flight or freeze responses in our students, we know that self regulation is needed before deep learning can happen. And if we recognize that, “….kids are often doing the best they can with the brain they have,” then we are that much closer to increasing learning for our kids!
“Kids are often doing the best they can with the brain they have.”
Image by Jim Nix via Flickr.