You are a teacher. You have one of the most influential and important professions on the planet. You are a role model, the choices you make have the power to change a student’s life. As an educator in high school and now college, I understand the importance of our own empowerment in setting the stage for ourselves and our students. To be effective, we must also understand the power we hold physiologically within our own brains. We used to believe that our brains were set. We now know that in fact, the brain is malleable, a concept described as “neuroplasticity.” This means that we have the ability to rewire our brains to become more responsive in times of stress. Who needs this ability more than our teachers?
As you all know, there are many stressors in K-12 education. Whether from overcrowded classrooms, classroom management challenges, lack of supplies, demands from parents or administrators, or compassion fatigue, teaching can be hard. Even those professional development “flavors of the month” that teachers are expected to both buy into in addition to all of the other expectations (We promise, this is not one of them - ha ha) can be daunting.
We need to be able to balance our brain in the midst of these challenges. To do that, we must understand both the responsive and reactive brain.
Physiologically, the brain has three generalized regions: Brainstem (oldest portion, controls autonomic features like heart rate and respiration), limbic (second oldest portion, controls emotional neural connections and contains the amygdala, our gatekeeper to fear and anxiety) and neocortex (newest portion, controls critical/abstract thinking).
When all three regions of the brain are working together (balanced), the nervous system is in something called parasympathetic. This is known as the rest and digest response because it is where all of the organ systems are working effectively. Anti to this is the sympathetic, known as the flight, fight or freeze response.
The brain is designed to keep you safe. It is continually bringing in data from the surrounding environment via your senses and analyzing that data to ensure your survival. When your brain feels safe, the nervous system is in parasympathetic but, when it perceives a threat, it shifts to sympathetic and moves into a reactive mode.
The key term in this is perception. If you walked outside and a T-Rex came at you, that is clearly a threat, and you would shift into sympathetic, reactive mode and run as quickly as possible! But, rarely, is that the stressor we are responding to. For us, it can be an interaction with a student, a text message, traffic, bills, and all those other stresses of life that keep us in ongoing reactive mode. The problem is that if we stay in reactive mode all the time, we face chronic stress and it can be unhealthy. So, how do you deregulate, become responsive and shift back to parasympathetic, a balanced brain? Mindfulness. Mindfulness is the ability to purposely pay attention to what is happening right now to you physically and psychologically so that you can move forward responsively.
We will be covering more content in later tips about mindfulness to help you balance the brain as you respond to the amazing and sometimes difficult work as an Arizona teacher.
Once I fully understood the power of the brain in psychological behaviors, I started to understand the tools. These tools not only help me to balance my brain, they were also helpful in teaching my students to deregulate their emotions as well.
Many of my students suffered from anxiety associated with performance, especially assessments. As I was completing my graduate work, I started to see the correlation of test/quiz anxiety and scores. Anxiety puts the brain into that unbalanced mode, triggering a sympathetic, reactive response which is a survival response, not one that is conducive to taking an assessment. Knowing this, I began to have my students do simple breathing exercises anytime we were going to take an assessment. I would explain to them that they were reconnecting all three portions of their brain so that they would have full access to their neocortex and critical thinking/abstract thought. Remarkably this made a tremendous difference in scores and empowered students to take this tool and use it in other aspects of their lives.
I also took it a step further and began simple meditations with them by explaining that the data had shown that as little as three weeks of a ten minute meditation done daily, physiologically increased the density of the neocortex (more focus and responsiveness) and shrank the amygdala (fear and anxiety). We began with Mindful Mondays and would try different 10 minute meditations each week with my challenge being that they continued the practice outside of class. The students fell in love with this and not only shared how meditation was helping them with responsiveness in their lives, but it also helped them with sleep. It was beautifully empowering to see them take control of their anxiety and other reactive emotions.
Arizona State University
The two types of breath that help us both immediately and longer term with brain changes (neuroplasticity) are the informal and formal breath.
The informal breath is a quick way to deregulate the brain when we begin to move into sympathetic, reactive mode. Think about what we ask people to do when they are having a panic attack or are in pain...to breathe. This is excellent to help with anxiety regarding assessments or presentations as well as deregulating strong emotions. Examples of breath work can be found at the following link: https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/stress-anxiety/breathing-three-exercises/.
The formal breath (meditation) is a practice which literally goes in and rewires the brain for increased responsivity. Data has shown that as little as three weeks of a ten minute breathing meditation done daily actually changes the brain, increasing the density of the neocortex (focus and responsiveness) and shrinking the amygdala (fear and anxiety). There are numerous meditations on YouTube and through sites such as UCLA (https://www.uclahealth.org/marc/mindful-meditations) as well as apps that guide through different timed meditations.
This week, try the app “Calm” which has a goal of getting guided meditation into as many classrooms as possible https://www.calm.com/school. The program is currently being offered FREE to educators.
Remaining mindful is a big part of the heart of a teacher, maybe we are saying that heart-plasticity is a thing too!