Brain Power

Schools combine meditation and brain science to help combat discipline problems

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A table of students in Deanna Nibarger's fifth grade class at Crooked Creek Elementary School participates in an attention exercise centered around gratitude.

It was the Friday morning before spring break, and Deanna Nibarger’s fifth-graders were noisily chatting and enjoying their breakfast of milk, granola bars and raisins when a woman’s voice crackled over the school intercom:

“Sit up straight and close your eyes,” the woman on the intercom said.

The room immediately went silent as the woman’s command was followed by a series of short, high-pitched “dings,” as if someone were hitting a key on a metal xylophone and letting the sound reverberate.

A trance settled over the class for nearly a minute. Then, the daily morning announcements resumed, and the class sprang back to life as everyone stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance.

Rarely do such moments of calm appear in elementary school classrooms, but it’s exactly this kind of focus that Crooked Creek Elementary School in Washington Township is looking to build in its students. The dings over the intercom are one example of ways teachers at the school have armed students with meditation-like practices to help increase focus and attention.

It might sound strange, but in a fast-paced classroom, teachers at Crooked Creek say just having their students close their eyes and listen for a minute can help them improve their ability to focus. It’s part of the school’s efforts to incorporate the tenets of the growing academic field known as “educational neuroscience” into the classroom.

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The field of educational neuroscience is at the intersection of cognitive psychology, education and neuroscience, and some of its teachings suggest findings from brain research can be applied to classroom management and discipline techniques.

Some trend toward the area of “mindfulness,” such as attempting to sharpen students’ focus through meditation. Other facets of the field that Crooked Creek teachers employ in the classroom include taking short breaks from instruction to ward off boredom and teaching children explicitly about parts of the brain and how they respond to stress.

Crooked Creek has been working with teacher and college professor Lori Desautels to help infuse elements of educational neuroscience into the classroom.

Desautels isn’t just teaching brain science to the teachers. She’s also helping children understand how their own brains work to in an effort to help them learn to change their behavior.

The educational neuroscience field is in flux, and some of its teachings — especially ones that directly tie student learning outcomes to brain science — still leave neuroscientists skeptical. But that’s not at the core of what Desautels is doing in Indianapolis schools. Rather, it’s about using what experts know about the brain to build stronger relationships and classroom culture.

“We are in a new time in education,” said Desautels, who works with teachers and students in several Indianapolis schools. “We hear about reform every day in the paper. We read it, we hear it in the news, but what’s really at the crux of all of this is educational neuroscience. Students are learning about their own neuroanatomy, and they are loving it.”

A growing field

Researchers have been exploring how brain science and education work together for about 50 years, but Desautels said the field has recently morphed into something new that is taking off across the country and outside the U.S.

“It’s a brand-new discipline that is catching on fire right now,” Desautels said.

The idea is to introduce both teachers and students to a basic understanding of how the brain works. If teachers have an idea of what’s going on behind the bad behavior, they can more effectively reach their students because they know it might not just be a child choosing to be defiant or difficult. When students know how parts of their brains work, they might better understand why they might feel frustrated or aggressive. That can help them develop strategies to lower stress so they can work to improve behavior in the future.

“Neuroanatomy knowledge eases their stress because they know they are not alone and can have control over that,” Desautels said.

Deanna Nibarger leads her class in a "morning meeting" where they can check in with each other and build relationships as a class.
Deanna Nibarger leads her class in a “morning meeting” where they can check in with each other and build relationships as a class.

The exact relationship between the how the brain works and how kids learn — and how teachers should teach — isn’t fully fleshed out, said Lise Eliot, a neuroscience professor from Chicago Medical School and Rosalind Franklin University.

“The so-called ‘neuroscience of education”… it’s not ready for prime time yet,” Eliot said. “There are a lot of very good neuroscientists who are interested in translating our understanding to how our brain learns to better educational practices, but I would say that at this point, improvements in educational practice have come only from the behavioral level.”

And that’s mainly where Desautel’s work lies — in using new strategies and information to improve behavior. The methods are especially relevant as schools look to correct disparities in instances of school discipline. Indiana, like many places across the country, has acknowledged racial differences in the way that suspensions, expulsions and other punishments are meted out.

Nibarger, the fifth-grade teacher from Crooked Creek, had a background in special education and behavior management before she ever met Desautels. The year she came to Washington Township just happened to be the first year Desautels piloted her approach with the Crooked Creek fifth-graders.

Since she started working with Desautels three years ago, she’s seen school culture begin to change, and she’s more sure of her own teaching. The very first year of the pilot, no students were suspended, and school office referrals decreased, she said.

Understanding what her kids’ brains might be going through during moments of stress or frustration has helped Nibarger make sense of a lot of disparate classroom management concepts she’d already learned.

“It has kind of affirmed a lot of what I already knew to be best practice,” she said. “When people asked me what I was doing for behavior, I didn’t have research or knowledge to do that. Now I know why I do what I do.”

Educational neuroscience, Desautels said, is the intersection of cognitive psychology, education and neuroscience. The element of it that encourages building relationships through better understanding of how emotions and stress impact the brain informs some of the philosophies behind discipline strategies becoming popular in the U.S, she said.

At Crooked Creek, Nibarger has taken the lessons to heart and uses them on a daily basis.

“If you were to come to room 18, we talk a lot about emotions being contagious.” Nibarger said. “We do morning meetings, and we talk through conflict. I teach the kids about neuroplasticity; their brains being able to change because of their experiences in life.”

Using brain knowledge to better behavior

One of the first things Desautels teaches students and teachers is “the 90-second rule,” which admittedly has a much larger following in psychological circles than neuroscientific ones.

“Our body rinses clear and clean of negative emotion in 90 seconds,” she said. “Why do we stay irritated for so long? We keep thinking about it, replaying it and generating more negative emotions.”

The premise is championed by Harvard-educated brain researcher Jill Bolte Taylor, who essentially says the chemicals that course through the brain during a stressful experience dissipate after 90 seconds. Eliot said she wasn’t familiar with the concept. But while emotional recovery time is likely different from person to person, the point, Desautels said, is to let kids know they can have a hand in controlling their emotions.

Things don’t always run smoothly in classrooms, between teachers and students or between kids themselves — conflict is inevitable. But rather than focusing on just being reactive, Desautels said, teachers and students can arm themselves with strategies early on so moments of stress don’t turn into meltdowns.

There are three key ways to de-escalate a conflict that are known to reduce stress as well: movement, time and breathing.

When kids can release energy by moving around, take some time away from the stressful moment or just breathe, Desautels said, they can calm down and actually think about what’s going on around them. Otherwise, they stay stressed out and might lash out more, she said.

The same goes for teachers — those strategies can ease their tension so they can respond constructively to a student. Desautels recommends asking these questions: What do you need? How can I help? What can we do to make this better?

“Consequences don’t need to be immediate,” Desautels said. “That, neurobiologically, is the worst thing we can do.”

When the brain is under stress, Desautels said, the part that controls problem-solving, logic, planning and organizing — known as the “prefrontal cortex” — isn’t getting enough blood and oxygen. Instead, all the blood is heading to the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotion. That’s why feeling upset might make a child yell or hit before it makes them sit back and talk a problem through. Plus, the prefrontal cortex is one of the last parts of the brain to develop, so children are already more likely to respond emotionally to stress than adults.

“We have to prime the brain for discipline and learning before we can do anything else,” Desautels said. “Unless we teach the behaviors that we want to see, many times emotional regulation, which is what negative behavior is all about, it’s not there. And we just assume everybody is born having great ability to emotionally regulate.”

Fifth-graders at Crooked Creek Elementary School in Washington Township eat breakfast before their morning announcements.
Fifth-graders at Crooked Creek Elementary School in Washington Township eat breakfast before their morning announcements.

Teaching neuroscience to kids isn’t quite as hard as it sounds — First, they’ll start with model that lets them learn each part of the brain and what it does.

In Nibarger’s class, it’s clear the teaching has taken hold. Her students use words and phrases like “neurons” and “brain trauma” in regular classroom conversation. On the day before spring break, she asked them to tell her what happens when you have “hidden anger.”

Almost immediately, one boy piped up. He said a lack of sleep can cause trauma in the brain that blocks synapses from firing, which mean the brain works more slowly. Another girl said keeping anger to yourself means you can’t connect well to your friends.

“If you don’t talk about it and get it out of your system, you get frustrated and isolated,” she said.

Aside from the three basic strategies of movement, time and breathing, Desautels encourages teachers to use “brain breaks” to keep kids from drifting off during class.

“The brain pays attention to novelty,” Desautels said. “It’s a good way to change up because the brain is lulled to sleep with routine.”

A brain break could be almost anything — kids can get up and balance on one foot or play coordination games that ask them to hold out both hands and switch between making an “L” with one hand and a Sign Language “I” with the other. Or, it can be chimes on the intercom to give children a moment of calm in the morning.

Using the brain breaks and attention exercises throughout the school day not only helps kids shake things up if they need to refocus, but they are strategies they can turn to in times of stress.

The approach isn’t magic — managing behavior can still be slow-going, Desautels said, especially if kids become aggressive and don’t yet trust their teachers.

One third-grade class she’s working in this year at Washington Township’s Greenbriar Elementary School is particularly challenging — many of the students come from low-income families, and some have parents in jail.

Sometimes, they’ll yell or swear or even knock over a desk. Desautels said that can be typical for students constantly living in a state of stress, but the class is making progress. She encourages teachers to carve out areas of their classrooms where kids can go to take a break and calm down. Teachers at the school are partnered with each other so they have extra hands if one needs to the leave the classroom with the student or contact a parent.

How to deal with frequently disruptive, or even violent, students is a question common to most all classroom management or discipline techniques. There isn’t an easy answer Desautels said — it takes time for teachers and students to build trust. Incorporating aspects of educational neuroscience can help ensure that when confrontation does happen, frustration and rash decisions aren’t king.

“For teachers who say it’s too gentle, I say absolutely not,” Desautels said. “What we have to do is set up those procedures and transitions and boundaries, and the hardest part is we have to stay connected emotionally to those students during the worst of conflicts.

And regardless of the particular field you’re in, Eliot said, that connection piece is paramount to success in the classroom.

“What we know about human brain function is that it can’t be divorced from social environment,” Eliot said. “The more teachers appreciate how crucial that is to have healthy positive, nurturing relationships and extensive bonding and connecting and mentoring of their students, the more successful they’ll be, the healthier their students will be and the better they’ll learn.”

take note

Aurora is rolling out new curriculum to catch up with how teachers teach writing

A fourth grader in Aurora's Peoria Elementary takes notes while reading. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

After fourth-graders at Aurora’s Peoria Elementary read “Tiger Rising” as a group last week, several excitedly shot up their hands to explain the connections they had made.

“It’s not just a wood carving, it represents their relationship,” one student said about an object in the book. Others talked about another symbol, the lead character’s suitcase, while one student wondered about the meaning of the story’s title.

Nick Larson’s class rushed back to their desks, excited about what they had learned and ready to look for symbols in their own books during independent reading time. As they read, students filled their books, including the “Lost Treasure of the Emerald Eye,” “Because of Winn-Dixie” and “Super Sasquatch Showdown,” with sticky notes about what they were noticing in the text.

It’s one small way Aurora teachers are integrating writing and reading, a practice officials refer to as “balanced literacy.” It means reading about writing, and writing about reading. It’s not a new teaching practice, but the district has spent $4.7 million on new literacy curriculum from two different sources — schools get to pick one — to help teachers combine those lessons.

The materials replace curriculum adopted in 2000.

At Peoria, a school of about 429 students, of which approximately 90 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, teachers were using some of the new curriculum last year. Larson, who also coaches other teachers half of the day, said he pushes students to think about what the author might have wanted them to feel. He asks students to write about the characters in the books they read, to better understand them.

“We’re trying to make connections throughout the day,” Larson said.

The previous literacy materials called for teaching reading and writing separately, and some didn’t include writing. They also no longer aligned with standards that the state changed in 2010.

An internal Aurora audit found different schools using a wide variety of resources as they supplemented the out-of-date curriculum.

And this fall, district staff found another reason why the new curriculum was necessary.

In dissecting state test results, Aurora discovered that about 40 percent of its third-through-eighth-graders earned zero points on certain writing sections of the test.

“We’ve got to address that,” said Andre Wright, Aurora’s chief academic officer. “You can’t leave that level of opportunity on the table. We just can’t do that.”

Starla Pearson, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, explained that she expects to see changes soon.

“With the literacy curriculum that is in place right now, I have great confidence,” Pearson said. “We did not have something that specific, looking at writing instruction.” All of the curriculum now, she said, does include writing resources.

“This gives me such encouragement on the one hand because it’s a pretty simple fix … you’re seeing a real clear path to increasing points,” said Debbie Gerkin, an Aurora school board member. “The discouraging part is why wasn’t this happening?”

But about three-quarters of Aurora schools were already using the writing half of the curriculum before this year. Now all elementary and middle schools will use both the reading and writing parts of the district’s newly adopted curriculum. The district is now reviewing potential changes to high school curriculum.

District officials told the board that it’s possible the change in state tests in 2015 may have also contributed to the low scores. Previously, students took separate reading and writing tests and earned separate scores. The new state tests ask students to read a passage, and then respond to it in writing, combining the subjects.

Aurora officials said they didn’t have a way to compare the results they found with other districts. Colorado and most districts do not have comparable detailed results on segments of the state tests.

Wright said this information has prompted him to ask many questions internally. For starters, Aurora will focus training for teachers on combining reading and writing lessons. The district has spent $180,000 to provide teacher training on using the new resources.

But Bruce Wilcox, the president of the Aurora teachers union, said that teachers have been concerned about the limited time they had to learn and explore the new materials, which were only provided to them a few weeks before classes started.

Pearson said early anecdotal feedback has been positive.

“Teachers are saying, ‘thank you, we have a resource,’” she said.

Larson, who was one of 36 teachers from 10 schools who got to review and recommend which curriculum the district should adopt, said he likes several aspects of the materials.

“I feel like I’m being pushed as a teacher,” Larson said.

The district plans to survey teachers about the materials, and will look at internal test data throughout the year, as well as writing results next year to look for improvements.

“We will see a difference,” Pearson said.

Talent office

With the alarm sounded statewide over shortages, Chicago forges ahead with a teacher experiment

PHOTO: Getty Images

Katrina Johnson was working as a special education classroom assistant in a Greater Grand Crossing school when she received an email several months ago with an intriguing proposal. Chicago Public Schools was seeking applicants for a pilot program that, in two years, would earn her full-fledged teacher status and a master’s degree. 

But there was a hitch. Johnson, who’s 41, would have to juggle graduate-level courses while teaching in a classroom four days a week under a mentor teacher. And she’d be picked out of a pool of applicants to train in one of several high-poverty, “opportunity” schools — places where fewer teachers apply, and educators come and go at rates higher than the district average.

Undeterred, she put in an application. So did about 200 others for 26 positions. And in the end, CPS selected Johnson for the test run of a teacher residency pilot it plans to scale in conjunction with National Louis University and Relay Chicago’s Graduate School of Education. The latter has developed similar programs in charter schools.

Teacher residencies are the shiny new thing in education, with programs up and running in at least a dozen states. But in Illinois, where education advocates say the teacher shortage has become dire, residencies have the potential to address a host of problems, from filling critical vacancies in special education to building an on-ramp for career changers and community members who have deep ties to their neighborhood schools.  

“I thought, I can’t pass this up,” said Johnson, who grew up in a family where you went either into education or the family funeral business. Johnson did neither, choosing finance and only later hearing the call of the classroom.

For career changers like her, the teaching profession can be difficult to crack despite shortages in Chicago and rural areas downstate. A sober report called Teach Illinois, shared this week with the Illinois State Board of Education, stresses that relying on traditional teacher preparation programs to crank out annual batches of freshfaced hopefuls is not enough: The statewide percentage of candidates completing teacher prep programs declined by half from 2000 to 2016.

And while school enrollment statewide is dipping, the number of teachers is declining at an even steeper rate, leaving thousands of vacancies even as students return this fall. When school started last week, 4 percent of the positions in Chicago were unfilled compared with slightly more, 5 percent, at the start of 2017, according to a district spokesman.

Like other districts, Chicago struggles to fill vacancies in special education and bilingual instruction. It also is challenged to find and retain diverse candidates. The residency pilot presents an opportunity there, too. Of the initial 26 Chicago residents, 20 identify as persons of color, according to CPS.

Matt Lyons, CPS’ chief talent officer, said the first cohort drew primarily from paraprofessionals, special-education assistants, and other people who’ve been working in Chicago schools; only a handful came from the community. “There was far more interest among our current employees than we anticipated,” he said.

But as the program grows, he expects it could draw more broadly from the communities around the district’s highest-need schools — another strategy that education experts are hopeful can quell turnover in high-poverty districts.

“Let’s think about how school districts have typically acquired talent,” said Kent Fischer, the communications director for the National Center for Teaching Residencies, which is based in Chicago. “They put out an online notice. Go to college and job fairs. Collect resumes that come in and sift through them. The residency model flips that and puts the school district in charge of creating its own talent pipeline.”

***

Chicago has big plans for its teacher residency pilot, which so far works this way: Residents start master’s-level courses over the summer, then apprentice in classrooms the first year alongside a master teacher. They teach Monday through Thursday and attend grad courses on Fridays and in some evenings, depending on the program. The second year, they teach on a provisional license and finish their coursework and specialty endorsements to earn the master’s.

The first year of the pilot has no strings. But for the 2019-20 class (for which applications are currently open), residents must agree to stay with the district for two years.

“The goal is to grow the program to 60 then to 80 then to 100 in three years,” said Lyons, whose pilot group is currently concentrated in 14 Chicago schools.

Fischer, from the national center, points to early research that shows retention rates above 80 percent among grads from residency programs, compared with closer to half from traditional programs. That stat is welcome news to talent officers like Lyons. “When we looked at the data of the 50 hardest-to-staff schools, they experienced two times as much turnover and were two times as likely to start the school year with vacancies” than the district as a whole, he said.

Residencies, he acknowledged, are but one strategy to address the problem. The district is hiring earlier than usual at its 50 opportunity schools, staffing them with teacher coaches, and building an exclusive professional development program for staff.

Despite all the potential, it’s too early to definitively call residency programs a categorical success. They are costly to establish, and costly to maintain. There’s also conflicting research about how adequately they prepare teachers.

Chicago pays each participant an initial stipend of $35,000, but that’s not enough to cover living expenses plus tuition. There are grants that can chip away at the cost for those who qualify, but some participants have to take out loans to fund tuition.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Yesenia Francois
Chicago teacher resident Yesenia Francois

The stipend doesn’t fully cover Yesenia Francois’ tuition at National Louis, but she’s still “forever grateful.” A resident this year in a bilingual first-grade classroom at Marvin Camras Children’s Engineering School in Belmont-Cragin, Francois, 37, gets a discounted rate at NLU, she says, and she’s on a three-part payment plan.

A former paraprofessional at a North Side magnet school, she’s fine with that — she stresses the opportunity to fast-track her career, boost her earning potential, and finally get the master’s degree she’s been trying to earn for a decade, while practically having a job guaranteed on the other side. Her son has special needs, and the responsibility of caring for him has twice derailed her education. This time, it feels different, she says.

“I’m like a sponge,” she said. “As a paraprofessional, I supported diverse learners, but there was a general-education teacher who laid the foundation. As a resident, I’m working with a mentor and starting from scratch. I’m building the lessons and adding in these layers. I have ownership.”

***

Unlike other cities that have relied solely on philanthropy to foot the bill, Lyons said Chicago’s program is designed to be sustainable, with a portion coming from CPS in combination with a federal grant and a small group of philanthropies. “We’re cognizant that we are building something,” he said, “and we want to be intentional about it.”

The other crucial ingredient is cooperation from a traditional teacher prep program, one aspect of the residency model that could limit adoption by districts in, say, more rural areas that don’t have access to colleges.

Chicago split its pilot group into two, with bilingual teachers attending classes at National Louis University, which is building something similar in East St. Louis, and special education teachers going through Relay Chicago.

Janet Lorch, the resident program director at National Louis, thought carefully about how to refashion her general curriculum to fit into summers and Fridays, when resident teachers were available for classes. She stresses building off actual experiences — one assignment, for example, requires residents to organize a family engagement event at the school. She also places high importance on coaching mentor teachers.

“Instead of a traditional (teacher prep) supervisor going in and saying something, like, you need to smile more, we go in and work with the mentor teacher so there is recursive feedback role. There’s a core practice of modeling — we spend time talking to mentors about that.”

Robert Muller, the dean of the College of Education at National Louis, said professors want to guard against burnout. After all, the teacher hopefuls can end up fried by the prospect of the dueling demands of graduate school and their day jobs. That’s where a four-day program design — four days in the CPS classrooms, with Friday as a day at NLU — appears to ease the pressure.

“It’s the design here that is powerful. It’s practice, theory, practice, theory. In some ways, what we do with residencies could inform our more traditional program.”

In fact, it’s Fridays that Yesenia Francois looks forward to — and not just because TGIF. She says her cohort, which started its classes over the summer, has formed an intense bond that extends to chat sessions midweek over group texts. “We’ll share if we have a successful lesson or an experience with a book or video,” she said. “It’s like an extended family.”

Recently, one NLU resident heard about an organization that was giving away classroom supplies. That resident shared it with Francois and the others, and the request snowballed. Just like that, the residents were able to do something good for a district that’s investing in them.