Teach them how their Brain works
This is something I have seen and heard about often in the primary years but have not experienced myself in the high school. I do remember some training when I first graduated in which we explored the bascis around the reptilian brain. However, I can see real benefits in empowering students to understand why the behave the way they do and how much it has to do with genetics. The fight or flight response is a strong thing, it’s real and it’s programmed in.
Of course, we’ve all been in situations where students are lost in a fight or flight response. There is little to no point in reasoning with them or in expecting a polite reponse. When in this defence mode, their sense of reason is simply switched off. If we can teach them about how their brain is operating to protect them and how they’ve can recognise that, about what happens when our primitive brain kicks in (we can’t think, we can’t process etc) perhaps we can coach them to recognise signs before it escalates? We can help them to understand the early physiological changes – tension in your shoulders right up to a panic attack. (According the Kirrilie, 25% experience them.) they’re not uncommon and it’s ok to understand that these emotional responses are normal.
Teens May Need to Learn how to Connect
Another interesting point, was that, although we a programmed to connect, we might not always know HOW to do that. We can go some way to coaching and helping them through this. Our questioning can be used to help them to understand their actions and the results of them. These soft skills are so very, very important. I know that, in my experience as a teacher in the UK, these skills were often taught and support was also often given to do things like write an apology or, if applicable, to help find a way to start a conversation with a person who was involved in the events leading to the emotional distress.
Some work was done around this field in the Sandwell Local Education Authority (LEA). This was the authority where I started my teaching career. A low socio-economic school with many students who found it hard to settle and focus to work and were dealing with significant difficulties. The LEA produced a whole series of resources to help us to create learning environments which encouraged self-regulation. A CD was provided to each classroom teacher which contained music proven to create a calming environment. This really worked! Students that were often distracted were really impacted by entering a calm and soothing environment. We also experimented with lighting levels. I would see students who would often be distracted, turn away from their work, stare into space for a moment, connect with the environment we’d created using these resources, and settle themselves back to their task.
We also had the PLTS (Personal, learning and thinking skills) which empowered educators to focus on essential life skills such as these. When assembly wasn’t on, our form time (care group) was spent working through these skills with students. Of particular relevance to this PD, were the areas of Self-management, Effective Participation and Team Learning. Our school, had a reward system that would allow us to reward students who showed strength in these areas. Different weeks in the term would have different focuses where double points would be awarded by teachers who saw students demonstrating strength in these areas. This reward system was linked to vouchers for local shops, prom dress/suit hire etc, and gave real and intrinsic rewards that motivated the students. Whilst not all of the points shared in the PLTS document are valid for mental health. Many of them do link back very strongly and in cases where we are working with students in distress, this framework could be used to support their learning in these areas. Most importantly, they allowed for time in the curriculum for these things to be discussed, shared and taught explicitly where needed. A similar program, run in care groups could work well.
It is vital that we see these life skills as part of the education we provide for students and that we don’t simply dismiss the difficulties they are facing. If a student is anxious about returning to school it’s not ok to tell them to get on with it. They may not have the skills to do that! Instead we need to give them strategies, phrases etc. to help them. If they’re struggling with a certain person let’s work on a sentence they’re going to say to them and then coach them through things like where are their eyes going to be when they say it. This preparation reduces to anxiety a little and empowers the young person to move forward. There are other strategies shown in the image to the left.
Of course, we may need to give them more opportunities to practice these skills. That could be in the form of part time work, sports, mentoring, connections inside and outside of school.
Take care of you
Kirrilie’s final message to us all was to make sure that take care of our selves. That it was vital to remember to care for yourself, to know your limitations and to get assistance when you need it. Make room for the knowledge that the world isn’t always roses.
“Life is difficult. Once we accept that life is difficult, life is less difficult”
M Scott Peck.