A discussion with Dr. Lori Desautels about neurodiversity and behavior engagement
As interviewed by Clay Whitehead for SEEN Magazine
When we teach students about the amygdala, the hippocampus, neuroplasticity, and prefrontal cortex, it gives the brain a scientific context.
Neurodiversity is the idea that students have natural differences in brain function and behavior traits just as they have differences in academic skills and personalities. By understanding how the brain develops and works, and how this impacts students’ behaviors in the classroom, educators gain valuable insight into students’ strengths, weaknesses, interests, learning styles, and behaviors and are better able to cultivate and foster a positive learning environment.
During a recent webinar, I had the opportunity to discuss the important topic of neurodiversity and how the brain impacts student behavior with Dr. Lori Desautels, a renowned scholar and author on educational neuroscience, trauma, and special education. She advocates for teaching students about their own brains, and provides strategies and resources to help educators, clinicians, and administrators focus on behavior engagement, rather than behavior management.
Q: How does teaching students about their own brains affect their behavior?
Desautels: “When we teach students about the amygdala, the hippocampus, neuroplasticity, and prefrontal cortex, it gives the brain a scientific context. It objectifies their behavior. That’s why we ask students even as young as kindergarten questions such as, “What’s the weather in your brain today? Are you having a tsunami? Is there a thunderstorm? Is it partly cloudy?”
“Many of my undergraduate students said they wish they would’ve known neuroscience in middle school because students think something is wrong with them when they exhibit negative behavior. When students understand the science behind it, it intrigues them and they’re challenged to change those hard-wired circuits. That’s the beauty of this.”
Q: What are some ways educators can teach students about their brains?
Desautels: “There are so many resources, but first, it’s important that we tap into the student ecology and learn how to emotionally connect with them. What does that mean? When I started teaching seventh grade a couple of years ago, it had been a long time since I had lived with a seventh grader so, I studied what they do on the weekends, what songs they were listening to, what type of clothing they wear and what’s new in stores.
“There’s a wonderful video series called “The Sentis Brain Animation Series” that I’ve been using as a resource. They are short animated videos that discuss emotions in the brain and neuroplasticity. We share them with students in grades K-12. Dr. Eric Chudler of the University of Washington has a neuroscience club and newsletter. There are also many wonderful documentaries. Students also love the National Geographic show called Brain Games.”
Q: What are the best ways for students and teachers to reduce cortisol levels to help their stress levels?
Desautels: “First, it’s important to address the teacher brain state because there are many things for teachers to stress about. Merit pay, test results, over-packed curriculum and meeting standards are just a few. Even when teachers try to incorporate important things like brain intervals into their classes, they can’t because the day is just so packed.
“To help regulate cortisol levels, you can take 10 deep breaths, go for a little walk, or just turn your back and take some breaths. I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough. Students are so savvy at reading nonverbal communication, so even if you have a smile on your face, they know exactly how you’re feeling. Also, it models for them that it’s OK to take a break if they’re frustrated and then they can come back to a challenging task once they’re ‘back in’ their frontal lobe.
“That’s the beauty of teaching students about their neuroanatomy, because we can actually say, ‘I can’t talk to you right now, I’m in my amygdala.’ Some teachers may say, ‘Students might take advantage of that,’ but they really don’t. It’s so powerful when you teach them what cortisol does to brain tissue, and how they can use breath and movement to regulate and reverse those effects.”
Q: What are some simple brain-aligned activities that help students succeed as learners?
Desautels: “Teaching students brain intervals and using those brain-aligned bell-ringers are best. I wrote an article in Edutopia called ‘Ring Their Bells.’ It lists 10 bell work activities that use novelty, anticipation, and curiosity to start off the day. These 10-minute exercises engage students because novelty is what the brain craves.
“Here’s an example of a bell ringer activity that works for elementary, middle or high school students. I bring in a pair of torn blue jeans with a note in the pocket, and I lay them out at the front of the classroom. When the students walk into the classroom, I give them a half-sheet of paper and ask them to answer three questions I wrote on the board:
Who has worn these pants?
Where have they traveled?
What does the note say?
“They can work individually or in partners, and they can write down the answers to these questions or draw them — but they will have to share with the class in six or seven minutes. At first, they look at me like I have 10 sets of eyes and laugh, but I can’t tell you how excited they are and how much they want to share at the end of those seven minutes. It takes them into that creative, cognitive flexibility mode that can so easily be shut down by stress.”
To learn more about educational neurodiversity and to watch a full recording of the “Big Ideas in Neuroscience: Brains, Behavior and Engagement for Students and SPED Leaders” webinar, visit https://www.presencelearning.com/sped-ahead-webinar/big-ideas-in-neuroscience-brains-behavior-and-engagement-for-students-and-sped-leaders/.