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BRAIN POWER: What does a brain need to learn? 

Research is now showing that a child’s sense of physical and emotional safety needs to be established to ensure their brain has optimal conditions for learning. Essentially brains that are distressed are less able to learn. As we understand more about how the brain works it creates an opportunity for educators to adapt current teaching strategies to maximize each child’s capacity to realise their educational potential. It is an exciting time in education and the new emerging research is creating opportunities for the application of easy to apply simple strategies that will make a grand difference to educational outcomes. Before we can talk about strategies it is important to understand how the brain learns.


In ‘Debunking the myths of brain research, Amy Saleh states that;


‘All information, is transmitted to the thalamus which sorts information to send to the various parts of the cerebral cortex. If information is perceived to be important, it is transmitted to the hippocampus. The information is analyzed and identified in terms of patterns or meaning by the neocortex.


The hippocampus is responsible for sending information from the short-term memory to the long-term memory and is affected by hormones and proteins that are released according to the emotional value attached to the information (Earlauer, 2003).


Learning takes place when a dendrite from one neuron attaches to another neuron, forming a synapse. The synapse is strengthened by protein which settles around it and is a function of the emotions attached to the information (Howard, 2000).


When individuals are exposed to new information, the thalamus and hypothalamus determine the action needed to process it. The thalamus might decide to downshift to the “fight or flight” state if it feels stressed or threatened or move the information to the amygdala and the cortex for further action. On the basis of the emotional value that the amygdala attaches to the information, the cortex will sort and classify the information to be stored in the long-term memory (Earlauer, 2003; Wolfe, 2001).”


Now we understand the function of the brain in relation to learning we can see that the key ingredient here is emotional value the student attaches to the information. The learning process is also affected if the student feels stressed or threatened. Given this understanding the emotion that a student attaches to the information and the way they feel as they learn become central ingredients, not an adjuncts; to the learning process.


The next question is then:

How do we help students to attach positive emotions to the information they receive in the classroom?

How do we help children to feel safe and positive when they are at school to maximise their learning outcomes?




BULLYING: What is it and what impact is it having on our students and communities?

Bullying is often misunderstood as physical violence and verbal taunts between children and adolescents. Cyber bullying is now understood to be a prevalent and far reaching issue. There is a further form of bullying though that can easily be overlooked. It can easily be missed as it can be subtle and hard to detect. This is a form of bullying defined as peer relational aggression.


Peer relational aggression occurs mostly between girls and is most commonly seen as ignoring and social exclusion from the group, gossiping, giving the “evil eye” and sending messages from one bully to the victim usually via a messenger. These behaviours can begin as early as kindergarten and there have been incidences as early as pre school.


Children who are bullied can experience negative mental health, physical and social issues. They are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, increased feelings of loneness and social isolation, physical health issues and decreased academic achievement. A small percentage of children who are bullied may retaliate. Out of 15 shooting cases in the 1990s in the US, 12 of the teenagers had been bullied historically.


Children who bully others are more likely to engage in other anti social behaviour in adulthood. Without effective intervention, children who bully as they move into adolescence and adulthood are more likely to use alcohol and other drugs, get into fights, vandalise and disengage from school, engage in early sexual activity and be abusive in their adult relationships.


Children who witness bullying are more likely to experience higher rates of mental health issues, have lower rates of attendance at school and use alcohol and other drugs.

Teachers reflective practice exercise to explore your beliefs and values about bullying.

As a teacher your responses to bullying or peer relational aggression in your classroom will be influenced by your own experiences, values and beliefs about bullying. Your own experiences may influence you to either under react or over react to a bullying incident in the classroom.


Self awareness is a key element when addressing any area of practice. Exploring your own personal views, values and experiences is critical to assist you to respond in a more proactive and appropriate way.


As you look over the following points of reflection know that whatever your response may be it is completely understandable. It is just your current way of understanding and dealing with bullying behaviour.


Whilst a review of your current beliefs, values and experiences can be a confronting it can also be such a helpful self refection exercise to help you understand any bias that you may have. The best professionals constantly review their practice. It ensures we are accountable and demonstrates a commitment to authentic professional development.


Here are 3 points of reflection to help you explore your own views and experiences with bullying. 


1.     Victims of bullying need to develop resilience.


A belief that the victim of bullying needs to develop resilience may mean that we are more likely to be dismissive of a child when they report bullying. Resilience is a positive life skill that can only be developed once a construct of safety has been established (ie the school has responded effectively to directly address the bullying behaviour). Once safety has been established for the child then they will feel safe to further develop their resilience. There is no place for resilience unless safety ahs been established first.



2.     Children who bully will never change.


When you are working with children who engage in acts of bullying it is easy to lose hope. All professionals lose hope when faced with children who express their distress through behaviours that hurt others and ultimately themselves.

One of the best ways to address bullying behaviour is to increase a child’s sense of empathy through social and emotional learning. Programs that increase empathy are now seen as to be the most effective way to reduce bullying and increase emotional well being and learning outcomes at school.



3.     Have you ever experienced bullying as a child or adult?


If you were bullied yourself as a child you may be either desensitized or hypersensitive in your response when one of your students is bullied or engages in bullying behaviour toward another student. How you dealt with your feelings about your own bullying experience is likely to impact upon how you now respond when you are faced with a bullying situation at school.


That is why it is important to explore what happened to you, what feelings you had both at the time and now about your experience of bullying.


Everyone who has been bullied has had their own individual experience. The way they felt and the way they coped is determined by the way the bullying took place and the kind of support they received or did not receive at the time.


For example, people who have had to repress their feelings when they were bullied as a youngster are more likely to be dismissive now as an adult. And people who felt unprotected and are living with a sense of the injustice of their own bullying experience may be likely to be more reactive when dealing with a bullying experience in their classroom.


It is therefore important to explore your own experiences so that you can mindfully consider how they impact on the way you respond now in your teaching role.


5 simple steps you can take to build better relationships with your students.

When I recently conducted a quick quiz on social media I asked people to tell me about their favourite classroom teacher. The question was;

 QUIZ: Who was your favourite school teacher and why? What was it about them that made them seem special to you?

 As each person answered their responses clearly showed that it was the teachers ability to show that they cared, and communicate to the student that they are valuable and they believed in their potential to achieve and be good people – that struck the strongest chord.

 Some of the answers were;

 “encouraged me to be me”

“made me realise I was special”

“treated me like an individual”

“I remember feeling like she really cared about me”

“They were a tower of trust”

“Showed so much care for us and always believed in and encouraged the kids in their care”

“she was nice to me and was kind”

“ believed in me “

“She showed me kindness, caring, gentleness and encouragement. She brought out the best in me.”

She showed so much care for us and always believed in and encouraged the kids in her care.”

As a teacher, if I asked you to tell me about your best experience with a superior; you would more likely describe a relationship where you felt encouraged and validated. You would then go on to describe how well you performed in your role whilst under the leadership of that person, because you felt so valued and supported to perform your teaching duties.

 Research clearly tells us that the singular, most important factor that will have the strongest impact on a students level of academic achievement and pro social behaviour (being a positive, kind and caring human being) at school – is a caring relationship between a teacher and their student.

When a student feels like they belong in your classroom, that you understand their story and most importantly that you value their presence, then they will engage in learning with greater success.

 A supportive relationship with you as their teacher will encourage your students to try harder and persevere with their learning. Additionally; when you give your students lessons that they perceive as having value then you are providing a positive learning experience and behavioural outcomes are consequently further enhanced.

We all know that building a positive and connected relationships with your students makes such a different however how to connect with your students is not something that comes easily to us all.  Some people are naturally good at relationship building. The truth is though that building better relationships is a skill that we can all further develop. So to assist you; here are 5 techniques you can use to build better relationships with your students.

 1. Greet your students at the door every morning.

This small act of connection goes a long way to communicate to each child in your class that they are of value.

 2. Check in after the weekend and throughout the week.

You may call this a Caring Class meeting.  When you facilitate a conversation with your students where they have an opportunity to share events that are going on in their life; then you are creating an opportunity to develop a real relationship with each child.

 Rather than only ask about what they did on the weekend you can be creative and ask other questions such as;

How did you heart feel on the weekend?

Did you feel bored on the weekend and what did you do about it?

What does your body and mind need today?

3. Look for opportunities for connection

When you have a student that seems to be struggling it can make a real positive difference if you communicate you care by taking an interest in one of their favourite sports or hobbies. I know of a teacher who had a child in her class that was really struggling. She knew he really like football and made a point of finding out who was his favourite team.  Every Monday she would make a point of mentioning the score from the weekend game and would ask him to tell her why they won or why they lost the game. This quick 2 minute conversation made a real difference to the way the student felt in her class and build a strong relationship between them.

4. Validate your students feelings

Some of the most powerful words you can ever say to a child or a teenager is that their feelings are understandable and ok. When you say this to your students you are role modeling empathy, developing a meaningful relationship with them and creating a sense of safety. The safer, more connected and validated they feel; the greater capacity their brains have to learn.

 5. Be committed to figuring things out even when it is not easy.

Teachers who care are willing to stay connected even when learning and behaviour becomes challenging demonstrates that the student is worth the extra effort. When you remain committed to figuring things out even when its not easy you also are role modeling to students that it is possible to overcome obstacles.

Empathy: how to bring the most important tool into your classroom.

Empathy has the power to change lives, schools, families, and communities. Creating a culture of empathy in your school and classroom supports your students to feel safe and builds the best conditions for learning to take place.  There are numerous research results that link increased empathy with increased learning outcomes. Empathy is no longer in the domain of wellbeing; it is as essential to the curriculum as literacy and numeracy. We now understand that without empathy, students will not realise their learning potential.


Research also demonstrates that when you increase empathy then there are lower rates of bullying and better mental health outcomes. Programs in schools that focus upon building empathy further help to create an environment where students feel safe to learn.


Kindness On Purpose (KOP) is a developmentally tailored program that provides clinically based interventions that promote empathy based responses in children and adolescent’s.


Kindness On Purpose uses kindness as the access point to empathy where every child in the school builds a connection with empathy through engaging in acts of kindness on purpose. In addition this program provides teachers with strategies for individual children who may be engaging in bullying through clinical consultation.


Even if your school is not yet a Kindness On Purpose school there are active steps you can take to bring some kindness and therefore empathy into your classroom. Here are some ideas for you to consider.


Ways you can role model empathy and kindness in your classroom


1.     Create and maintain a safe feeling in your classroom

Your students need to feel emotionally safe before their brains will be calm enough to learn. They also need to feel safe to be able to connect with their own empathy for others.


2.     Develop emotional competency

Learn to understand and manage your own emotions so as to be able to identify and interpret the emotions of your students.


3.     Role model empathy

Reflect upon what kind words and kind actions you can undertake in the class room to role model to the students how to put empathy into action through acts of kindness on purpose.


4.     Encourage your students to step into another person’s shoes through story telling.  

Stories offer us an opportunity to appreciate and experience another persons experiences and perceptions in a gentle and creative way. Stories also help students to appreciate and value differences.


5.     Facilitate action

Create opportunities for your students to practice empathy in action. What can they do to help another who is in need; to help them feel better?