On a mid-December morning at Butler University Laboratory School 55, a fifth-grade classroom falls silent. The shouting and chatter fades, little by little, replaced by the chime of calming music.
Around the room, students lie flat on the floor, blinking up through the cucumber slices pressed to their eyes. Some sprawl out, arms spread wide, as others fold their hands together or reach up to feel the fruit’s coolness.
Cucumbers do more than signal a spa day in the movies, the students are learning. Rather, the slices can act as an anti-inflammatory for a stressed-out brain in the same way that ice treats injuries. They can calm the mind and prepare it for learning—a perfect addition to the collection of relaxation strategies Lori Desautels has brought to classrooms in Indianapolis and across the nation.
Throughout fall 2019, the College of Education Assistant Professor visited those fifth-graders every week to teach them about the brain, how it works, why we experience stress, and how to regulate emotions. Students learned that the prefrontal cortex is the brain’s center of learning, decision making, and problem solving. They learned that the amygdala, formed by a small set of deep-brain neurons, causes powerful emotions such as anger and fear that can make it difficult to concentrate. And they learned that, through a range of activities that incorporate breathing, movement, or sound, they can control those emotions and relax their minds.
It’s all part of Desautels’ work in a field known as educational neuroscience, which focuses on finding the most effective strategies for working with students who have experienced adversity or trauma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 60 percent of American children will experience at least one adverse childhood experience—or a potentially traumatic event—by the time they turn 18. About one in every six children will have four or more of these experiences, which can include circumstances such as violence, abuse, neglect, poverty, mental illness, food insecurity, or drug use, to name a few.
Beyond causing long-term consequences for overall health, trauma can affect a child’s ability to succeed in school as stress inhibits the brain from making decisions and building relationships. Some students respond to pain with aggression, while others exhibit high rates of absenteeism or keep their heads down during class.
“As the research points,” Desautels says, “anxiety has kind of become our nation’s new learning disability.”
Desautels tackles this problem from multiple fronts. Based on her research, she develops new strategies to help kids heal from trauma. She visits schools across Indiana, talking about the importance of caring for mental and emotional health in the classroom. Desautels works directly with children to help them succeed, and through leading workshops and teaching classes, she shows current and future educators how they can better support their students.
How to stay sensitive to trauma in the classroom
Desautels teaches a variety of strategies for responding to trauma in schools, but she says rethinking the discipline is the first step. When educators react with punishments based on frustration and arbitrary consequences, this usually reactivates a student’s stress response, leading to new trauma instead of new healing.
Change starts with teachers modeling the behavior they want to see from their students.
When a child’s actions require discipline, Desautels says the adult should always take some time to cool off. After reflecting on how the incident made them feel, they should explain to the student how they plan to calm down before addressing the situation.
I’m really frustrated, so we aren’t going to talk about this right now. I’ll count to four, and then I’ll take my two deep breaths, and then I’ll wait. And if my amygdala is still feeling angry, I’ll count to four again, until my cortex feels calm.
Teachers should also consider the power of non-verbal communication. Desautels says tone of voice is critical in calming a child’s nervous system, along with facial expressions, posture, and gestures.
“Emotions are contagious,” she says. “When a teacher is able to model a calm presence, students are less likely to react defensively.”
Once everyone feels relaxed, the teacher and student can discuss what happened, why it happened, and how they can repair the damage together. Consequences should follow naturally from the action in a meaningful way, Desautels says. For example, if the student was mean to a classmate, they could create something that shows kindness.
Desautels also stresses the need for listening to and validating the student throughout the process. If a child says, ‘This isn’t fair’ or ‘You are always picking on me,’ a validating comment might be, ‘That must feel so frustrating.’
“In the moment of rising tension,” she says, “when you feel someone hears you, that’s calming.”
But these strategies aren’t only for when there’s a problem. Building strong connections with students can help with easing their anxiety and preventing negative behavior from arising in the first place.
At Butler, Desautels has created a graduate certificate in Applied Educational Neuroscience to teach these strategies to educators, medical professionals, and others who work closely with children who have experienced trauma. The nine-credit-hour program launched in 2016 and has grown from just six students in the first cohort to more than 70 today. The classes explore the most recent research in neuroscience and attachment, then shift to how that research can be used to help students.
“And these strategies aren’t just useful for working with children,” Desautels says. “We are all dealing with more and more adversity and stress. Everyone taking this certificate is trying to improve on their professional practices, but I often hear feedback about how helpful it has been personally.”
A new way of teaching
Until a couple years ago, Emily Wilkerson didn’t know anything about neuroscience. She didn’t think she needed to.
Then, as an Elementary Education major at Butler, she met Lori Desautels.
“It wasn’t until my junior year of college that I realized teaching isn’t just about math, reading, writing, science, and social studies,” Wilkerson says. “Kids need so much more than academic content.”
So shortly after graduating in 2018 and taking a position with the then-new Butler Lab School 55, Wilkerson enrolled in Butler’s Applied Educational Neuroscience certificate. Right away, she started practicing the techniques in her fifth-grade classroom—the same classroom Desautels worked with last semester.
Together, Desautels and Wilkerson taught the students about three key regions of the brain and what it looks like to “be” in each one. In the prefrontal cortex, located near the forehead, the mind feels calm and creative. In the limbic system, closer to the center of the brain, you might start to be distracted by emotions such as fear, irritation, or embarrassment.
On the back of the neck, near the hairline, is the brain stem. Once here, you’re basically frozen. You might feel hopeless or disconnected. You might lash out, or you might run away.
“When a student has experienced trauma, we know that their brain is most likely not in the prefrontal cortex throughout the day,” Wilkerson says. “There could be triggers in the classroom, or they could just think about something traumatic that happened to them, and that could completely spiral their day. If they are locked into that anxiety or fear, they are inclined to stay in that brain state—unless they know that they can regulate their brain.”
So, the students learned how to do just that.
Every time Desautels visited Wilkerson’s class, she brought a new focused attention practice. These activities quiet the mind by having kids focus on a specific stimulus, whether that is a sound, a sight, a taste, or a breath—similar to meditation. This helps soothe the nervous system in a way that makes it easier to cope with challenges.
For example, the class could spend a few minutes with a breathing exercise that matches movement to the rhythm of the breath, lifting their arms high on the inhale and dropping them on the exhale. They could place their non-dominant hands flat on pieces of paper, tracing the outlines repeatedly until their minds feel calm. Or, the students could put ice cubes in their mouths, imagining their stress fading as they feel the ice slowly melt away.
Desautels also uses “brain breaks.” These exercises introduce new challenges or novel sensations to help break up the routine of a school day, training the mind to see things through new perspectives.
Desautels always carries a bag of assorted household objects—markers, paper, shoelaces, and so on. After picking an item, students imagine two ways it could be used for something other than its intended purpose. Another brain break involves asking the kids to peel a tangerine with their eyes closed, then to eat the fruit while focusing on its smell and taste. The more senses these activities draw on, the more effective they will be for regulating the brain.
The students learned to be more aware of how they feel throughout the day. Desautels introduced brain reflection sheets, which help both students and teachers evaluate their current brain states and figure out what they might need to feel better in that moment.
“If I’m feeling frustrated,” Wilkerson says, “I’m going to go sit in the reset corner and take 10 deep breaths, or roll playdough in my hands, because that might be something that feels good to me. But you can regulate a brain in a thousand different ways.”
Most of the fifth-grade students now use the language of neuroscience throughout the school day. And since Desautels first visited, Wilkerson has noticed an overall shift in classroom culture.
“We as elementary school teachers have the opportunity, if we are using the language of neuroscience in our classrooms, to really set students up for a greater level of success throughout their whole lives,” Wilkerson says. “I can’t imagine, if I could go back in time and learn about all this neuroscience during fifth grade, how that would have impacted me in middle school, high school, college, and adulthood.”
Beyond her work at Butler and in Indianapolis classrooms, Desautels visits schools across the state to speak about the trauma-responsive strategies she has developed. She’s also published three books about the human side of education, with a fourth expected to release in 2021.
Nationally, Desautels’ work has inspired hundreds of schools to build what she calls amygdala first aid stations. Typically set up at a designated table or corner of the classroom, these spaces give students a place to go to calm down or recharge. They might offer stationary bikes, yoga mats, art materials, or headphones. Others have bean bag chairs where students can relax with weighted blankets while smelling lavender-scented cotton balls.
Since she first started co-teaching six years ago, Desautels has worked with 13 classes ranging from preschool to 12th grade. It has become more common for schools to address mental and emotional wellbeing, but Desautels says her work is unique for its focus on actually teaching kids the science behind how their brains work.
“Teaching students about their amygdala and their fear response is so empowering,” she says. “When we understand that this biology is thousands of years in the making, hardwired to protect us, our minds begin to relax through knowing that our reactions to negative experiences are natural and common. Many of our children report a sense of relief to know there’s nothing wrong with them.”
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