You are here

Saber-toothed Tigers and stressed-out students

An examination of the neuroscience behind safe, secure learning environments

The human brain is notable for its ability to support cognition, communications skills, consciousness and plan appropriate behavior for future occasions.

This was evidenced millions of years ago as our ancestors’ brains alerted them to life-threatening risks, as well as to life-enhancing opportunities. Consider early man foraging for food in the same space as a saber-toothed tiger. The man needed to take fast action to avoid being that predator’s next meal. Although he went hungry, he avoided an early demise by focusing on a probable fatal encounter.

Fast forward to a school anywhere in America today. A student fearful of being attacked by a modern-day version of the saber-toothed tiger will find it difficult to devote full attention and thought to academic achievement. It’s reflective of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which asserts basic physiological and safety needs must be met before any other can be considered. Fundamentally, the human brain directs our behaviors toward opportunities for survival, and away from dangers that may jeopardize this biological imperative.

It is crucial to recognize the purpose of a brain is not to remember the past. Instead, the human memory system aids us in navigating the present and planning for the future by making connections, recognizing “patterns,” and storing that information. The stored information is retrieved as needed and serves as the foundation for future planning.

Along with memory systems, there are structures in the brain supporting those systems, which play a central role in processing and storing all emotional information and reactions including fear, anxiety, fight/flight behaviors, and love.

Being capable of foreseeing possible outcomes inside future contexts gave our ancestors a distinct advantage over other beings. The part of the brain in which this capability resides is the amygdala, also referred to as the “fear center.” It contributes to one’s chances of survival by providing quick emotional reactions. (Often a quick response is not always the most intelligent response.)

The lengthy decision-making process can prove fatal during an emergency.  So, time-consuming processes get suppressed. With these idiosyncrasies of the brain in mind, educators must realize classroom management must begin with an examination of the emotional climate of the school and the classroom. That climate sets the stage for all learning and will impact the likelihood of positive student achievement outcomes.

The Neuroanatomy of Fear

Any effort to gain insight into school safety cannot occur without a look at the underlying neurobiology responsible for our fear reactions. The human nervous system has two primary components: the central nervous system (CNS); and, the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The CNS is composed of the brain and the spinal column. The PNS consists of all other nerves that extend beyond the brain and the spinal cord. The PNS is further divided into the somatic nervous system (SNS), which governs the parts of the body under voluntary control, like muscles, and the autonomic nervous system (ANS), which regulates what our internal organs are doing at any given moment.

The ANS is largely an involuntary system that regulates the activity of vital internal organs. The brain monitors the surrounding environment assessing dangers and opportunities. The ANS is responsible for responding to signals projected from the brain that direct internal organs to either rest or go into activation mode because “a battle may be brewing.”

When encountering any perceived threat, our body-brain searches for an appropriate response to the potential hazard. Will it be “fight” or “flight?” In reality, the decision goes beyond this binary choice. The two options are sandwiched in between “freeze,” psychologically-based immobilization, and “fright,” a severe state of panic. Research indicates prolonged fear can be more detrimental to the human body than smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.  A prolonged fear state often leads to cognitive confusion and decline, along with a host of immune system illnesses.

School Safety and the Brain

Whether you are paging through “Too Scared to Learn,” a study by Johanna Lacoe of the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California or speaking to experienced educators, the message is clear: the best teaching efforts can be ineffective when students do not feel safe.

Like our food-rummaging ancestors concerned about an encroaching tiger, students not feeling safe, spend the majority time surveying their surroundings to identify possible threats. Students who sense vulnerability will have difficulty paying attention in class. Scolding students for not paying attention compounds feelings of fear. They are paying attention…just not to the teacher.

Students survey their environment to observe what may jeopardize or enhance their well-being. When a student enters a school building, his/her brain scans everything and everyone to determine the environmental safety level.

A safe physical environment boosts the likelihood of student academic achievement. A safe, secure environment can increase the ease of learning allowing every student to concentrate, learn, and remember, maximizing his/her academic performance. If learning environments are not made safer, we impede learning, as well as normal brain development and the development of healthy bodies and well-adjusted individuals.

What Can Be Done?

A school district cannot exclusively target content mastery and test score increases with little consideration given to the environment in which that content is delivered by teacher and received by student. There is strong neurological evidence supporting the notion that if students do not feel safe, secure and comfortable in a learning environment, their ability to learn is compromised, regardless of the quality of instruction or the level of instructional expertise.

Stressed-out brains are physically incapable of establishing and maintaining the requisite neural connections inside the brain necessary to support content-related learning as well as long-term memory formation. As I detailed in “Education in the Real World: Six Great Ideas for Parents and Educators,” there is much research supporting the view that a set of environmental preconditions for learning must be present in any school environment. If we want students to achieve academically, work cooperatively and make intelligent decisions, it is paramount that an atmosphere that addresses safety needs first is provided.

Every school district can improve the physical, emotional, mental and social safety of every school, allowing each student to prepare for 21st century learning in what should be a supportive 21st century school environment. Here are steps that can be taken.

The school:

  • Make it a place where safety is never in question
  • Begin the day with a musical ritual signaling: “You are now in the ‘safe space’ for learning”
  • Have firm boundaries for students
  • Provide a healthy diet with fruits, juices, water, and vegetables daily

The teacher:

  • Model respectful interpersonal dialogues
  • Set goals that center on academic growth, not an arbitrary performance level
  • Take advantage of PERC3S, the brain’s inclination to respond to:
    • Patterns
    • Emotions
    • Relevance
    • Content that has a context and is cognitively-appropriate for each learner
  • Offer sense-making opportunities
  • Present challenges that promote critical thinking
  • Uses humor appropriately

The classroom:

  • Reduce stress producers
  • A non-judgmental place
  • Is governed by the notion there is no emotional risk taken when participating in learning
  • A place where students engage in physical activities several times a day
  • A place where supportive relationships that facilitate learning are the norm

The students:

  • Allowed to express themselves
  • Can make errors without a fear of being punished or humiliated
  • Able to participate in mind-body relaxation techniques
  • Engaged in learning by doing, not by listening
  • See learning as an achievable challenge, but within students’ zone of proximal development
  • Operate in an environment where instruction “surprises,” not demoralizes
  • Gain academic knowledge, learn coping skills and stress-relieving techniques to persevere when challenged.

It makes sense for all involved within today’s students to be as focused on cultivating a safe, secure environment for learning just as much as on the learning itself.

Kenneth Wesson is a former higher education faculty member and administrator. He delivers keynote addresses on the neuroscience of learning for educational organizations and institutions throughout the United States and overseas.