• Charles Williams

The Brain's Response to Perceived Threats

I have spent 15 years as an educational professional and I cannot recall dedicating time to learning about the role the brain plays in education. Sure there were classes about human development and how the brain matured over time. And of course there were courses about the various sections of the brain and how short- and long-term memories are processed.

But what I have recently come across, and something that is fascinating to me, is how the brain works to not only process information but how it responds to external stimuli and how these two factors have drastic impacts on a child’s learning.

Let me explain.

While reading Chapter 2 of Zaretta Hammond’s book, “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” I was intrigued by the concept of the brain having layers as a result of our human evolution.

The first layer, consisting of the brainstem and the cerebellum, is referred to as the lizard brain. This is because these two sections are the only two parts of a reptilian brain. These structures do not think; they react. They are always on. Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night because of a loud noise? Lizard brain. Have you ever stopped to think about breathing, digesting, seeing? Nope. The lizard brain does all of that automatically. The key to these structures responding to our environment is something called the reticular activating system or RAS, which continuously scans our environment for any relevant changes that may signal a potential threat or a reward.

Have you ever watched the show “Brain Games”? One of my favorite parts of the show is when the host would make changes to a person’s environment to see if they would notice. For example, he might duck behind a counter to grab a pen and emerge with a different color shirt. Sometimes, he may have someone else come up. As you could imagine, some people would not notice while others would sense that something was different while others would call out the change. While all of our brains are hardwired to detect changes in our environment, the way our brains have learned to process that information and the sensitivity to those changes vary by our experiences.

When our students exist in environments that present frequent threats to their physical, emotional, or social well-being, their brains are hypertuned to assess shifts in their surroundings.

The second layer, one only found in mammals, is the limbic region, or the emotional brain. This region’s function is to store memories of events that resulted in a positive or negative outcome to best determine how to respond in future scenarios. Within this layer exist three structures - the thalamus, the hippocampus, and the amygdala.

The thalamus sends all incoming sensory information to their respective locations in the brain to be processed.

The hippocampus is responsible for both short-term memory, or working memory, and long-term memory. It’s important to note that working memory is critical because it is during this time that the brain is trying to connect new information with existing knowledge, or long-term memory, to create relevance. If it does not “stick” it is lost.

The amygdala is responsible for processing fear. It has the capacity to bypass the thalamus and send a stress hormone called cortisol directly to the lizard brain resulting in the fight, flight, or freeze response. When this happens, all cognitive functioning stops. No learning. No problem solving. Nothing.

Think about this for a moment. We already know that many of our students have sensitive reticular activating systems conditioned over time by consistently experiencing environmental threats. Now consider that the part of the brain responsible for responding to those threats has the capability to override the entire brain to respond to a perceived threat. It should be no surprise then that our most “at-risk” students are those who are prone to entering these uncontrolled learning stopping moments.

The third layer, the neocortex region, is home to executive functioning. Known as the command center of the brain, it is here where thinking and working memory is managed. This is where planning, abstract thinking, and other higher order cognitive skills are relegated. While this region is critical to understanding how learning occurs, I want to focus on another brain structure, the nervous system.

The nervous system is an extension of the brain in that it continuously receives signals from the environment and relays that information to the brain for processing. Working with the RAS and the amygdala, the brain system engages in a process known as neuroception, or our safety-threat detection system. For this to happen, the nervous system has three major branches - the parasympathetic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system, and the polyvagal nervous system.

The parasympathetic system focuses on keeping us relaxed and attempts to satisfy our basic needs for food, shelter, and community. This system is responsible for releasing endorphins, like dopamine. The sympathetic system focuses on keepings us alert and prepared to respond to perceived threats. This system is responsible for releasing adrenaline and cortisol. The polyvagal system focuses on connectedness or social engagement with others. This system is responsible for releasing oxytocin.

So what does this all mean? How does this all fit together?

We, as educators, need to be cognizant of our students’ environments. While we cannot control every aspect of each day, we can do our best to create settings that are conducive to learning by minimizing potential perceived threats.

We can create classroom settings and school cultures that promote positive relationships among all individuals. There are a few ways to accomplish this.

Be alert of possible microaggressions. These subtle, and thus often overlooked or misunderstood, attacks can be verbal and/or nonverbal. Without understanding your students and their unique backgrounds, seemingly innocent comments or behaviors can, in reality, be intentionally damaging.

Take, for example, the popular term in hip-hop “wop.” My students would frequently break out in dance moves while chanting “wop, wop, wop” until the day that I explained to them that the word is also a deragortory term for those of Italian descent. While we did not have any students who met that demographic, I felt that it was important for them to understand that their words could be misconstrued if used in a different environment.

Students also have an interesting way of developing nuanced methods of bullying. I recently had a student who enjoyed posting selfies with a very large smile. She became the target of cyber bullying unbeknownst to the staff and we started hearing students say “cheese” in the building. Initially, we chalked it up to kids being … well … kids and that they had adopted yet another colloquialism that would soon pass. It was not until we noticed our student visibly upset and investigated the issue that we realized what was truly happening.

Another method of establishing positive relationships is demystifying the unknown. Remember that the polyvagal system thrives on social connections, a natural need for all humans. But you may also remember how awkward it was to be a child or teenager. While we strived to be connected to others, we were often deeply afraid that our traits and interests were unique and that being different was not acceptable. This internal conflict is the source of much of the anxiety felt by students which, as a result of the perceived threat of not being accepted into a community, can interfere with the natural learning process.

To combat this, there are a number of activities that are designed to reveal these often secret aspects of our students lives. One of my favorites is very simple. Students record something on a sheet of paper which they think would only apply to them and drop the paper in a container. The statements are then read aloud and students are encouraged to stand when one applies to them. I encourage teachers to participate with their students and when observing the activity, I too jump in. I can recall the surprise students had when I stood to a statement about playing a particular video game. Not only do activities like this result in unexpected connections but it also reinforces the concept that while we are all unique, we are not alone.

We can also create established classroom routines and processes to minimize perceived threats. When students know what to expect, there is a sense of security and their RAS is less likely to be triggered. This can include simple daily routines on how to submit assignments, collecting needed materials, or entering the classroom. School-wide routines can also exist. For example, we begin every morning by gathering in the cafenasetorium (our multi-purpose room) after breakfast for announcements, the pledge, and our school creed. I can sense the tension in the building on those rare occasions that we are forced to start without meeting or if I was not there to lead it.

Understandably, there are times that routines may be disrupted. Whenever possible, these should be communicated to students in advance so that they can mentally prepare themselves for the shift in expectations. When that is not possible, staff members need to be prepared to address the various responses students may exhibit due to their heightened levels of anxiety as opposed to being frustrated for their inability to adjust.

Finally, while we cannot always prevent threats in the environment, we can control how we respond to them. One of the most threatening instances that can occur in a classroom is a verbal or physical altercation. I have seen staff members respond to these intense situations in a variety of ways.

Some, in an attempt to get a classroom that now may be riled up, have started yelling. Not surprising, this typically has little to no effect on the classroom which, in turn, only upsets the teacher even more. We need to remember that students may respond to a shift in their safety by becoming hostile or attempting to be perceived as such so that they too do not become victims, even if there is little chance of that actually happening.

I have also witnessed staff members attempting to resume class as if nothing has happened. Again, this typically does not end with the desired result. As discussed earlier, students whose amygdalas are triggered by the fight, even if they do not show signs of hostility or aggression, can be experiencing flight, the desire to leave the space immediately, or even freeze, the body’s refusal to respond to external stimuli. Regardless, their brains are no longer primed for learning.

Instead of adding to the stress in the classroom or attempting to ignore the situation, the best response is to address the situation. My preferred method is holding a circle and it has done wonders for my school. After an altercation in the classroom, students and staff have the opportunity to share how they are feeling. This process, one that should be practiced beforehand, allows students to process their emotions, and engage in self-regulating practices like breathing exercises for mindfulness activities. These allow the brain time to realize that the threat has passed and for the adrenaline and cortisol to pass through the body’s system.

It is imperative that we, as educators, understand that these basic biological functions are present in all of our students. We must also remember, however, that groups of our students are far more susceptible to these natural responses as a result of frequent exposure to perceived threats. We commonly refer to this as trauma. As such, some of our students may respond in unexpected ways and may do so to situations we do not fully understand. However, by building strong relationships with our students, fostering environments that promote positive interactions, and embedding social emotional practices into our buildings, we can better prepare all of our students for success.

Get curious, not furious.