Teaching What Matters
Updated: Feb 25
In my 19 years of education, I was never explicitly taught how to maintain equanimity; but I did learn that an equilateral triangle was equiangular. We spent hours learning geography, but rarely were we invited to explore the topography of the inner landscape. I could map America, not my own brain. I learned how to compose a logical argument, but was never taught how to mediate conflict. I studied chemistry, but was never taught how to take care of my body's chemistry to optimize well-being. We discussed books but were never invited to deconstruct the streams of our own inner narratives or identify and challenge our own cognitive distortions.
How about you? When governments around the world issued lockdowns, what practical skills were you taught as a child during your 13-21 year career as a student or graduate student to maintain equanimity? What strategies were you taught as a child that you use as an adult to budget, to manage your portfolio and hedge against inflation, or grow your investments? Of all the frameworks you were taught, which do you use to mediate conflicts, decouple identity from thought, or manage strong emotions? When you are stressed, which specific techniques did you learn as a child to self-regulate? Of all the recipes that were shared with you to promote health, which nutrient-dense meals were your favorite? Which are your go-to foods for reducing inflammation or improving athletic performance? When a friend or loved one hurt you, what specific techniques did you use to mend the breach and heal the heart? Of all the strategies imparted to ensure you got a good night's sleep, which have you found most effective? What exercises were you encouraged to practice daily to build strength, flexibility, and endurance?
Few, if any, can answer these questions in detail. Few likely received explicit instruction in the core competencies that matter. While some may have had a teacher who inspired and influenced their development, I doubt if any reader attended a school where communication, personal finance, self-regulation, mindfulness, nutrition, or the science of well-being were sequenced, explicitly taught, or embedded in the curriculum. You may have studied some of these topics in college or graduate school, but few learned any of this in their formative years. Rather, you learned the names of state capitals, the names of presidents, and the causes of the Civil War. You learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr had a dream. You learned the Pythagorean Theorem. You learned that i comes before e except after c, and that objects at rest remain at rest. You learned how to read, how to multiply, how to say "Good morning!" in a foreign language. You were assigned homework and committed many facts and formulas to memory. You were tested on these things. They were given great importance. But in all of those years of schooling, did you ever learn how to maintain your seat and listen to an adversary or partner with empathy, how to change your body's chemistry without drugs, alcohol, or pharmaceuticals, express what was alive in you with authenticity, learn what and when to eat to optimize your health, or dial down brain activity and rest? Were you ever encouraged to explore your own mind? You learned all about outer space; did you ever have a module for exploring your inner space? Have you ever ventured to realms of stillness and bliss that exist beyond thought?
I am grateful to my teachers. They followed the best practices of the time. Today, thanks to advances in brain imaging technology, biology, and neuroscience, we have a better understanding of how the developing brain works.
Adolescence is a period of profound brain structuring and reorganization. Infancy is the only other time during life where such dramatic brain changes occur. The most profound changes occur in the prefrontal cortex (which organizes high-order thinking and is the seat of executive functioning), the corpus callosum (a thick bundle of nerve fibers that ensure that the left and right hemispheres can communicate with each other), and the amygdala (associated with the body's fear and stress responses). The habits and identities we adopt as adolescents often remain with us through adulthood.
I focus on training core competencies and attend to fundamentals. Breathwork is part of our morning routine. I introduced students to the Wim Hof Method several weeks ago. They learned about the neuroscience and physiology of breathing. Call it breathology.
Two clusters of neurons help regulate the breath. One site is the pre-Bötzinger complex (preBötC) which generates respiratory rhythms (frequency and amplitude) to meet behavioral and metabolic demands- i.e, when stressed or calm, healthy or ill, moving or still, etc. These respiratory signals travel via the vagal nerve which branches out to most of the organs of the body. Within the brain, there is also a pathway that connects the preBötC to brain regions associated with emotion, arousal, and motivation. "The Pre-Botzinger complex appears to play a role in the effects of breathing on arousal and emotion," noted UCLA neuroscientist Jack Feldman. Indeed, by paying attention to the breath, we can detect signature patterns when stressed, angry, sad, calm, or excited... and do something about it!
We can also dial down the sympathetic nervous system, or "fight-flight-freeze" stress response with the breath. Diaphragmatic, rhythmic breathing improves vagal tone and turns up the parasympathetic nervous system, sometimes called the "rest and digest" response. Scientists have found a frequency of 5.5 to 6 breaths per minute to be restorative, triggering the “relaxation response." It may take several minutes of controlled breathing to experience this. The more we practice, however, the faster and deeper we drop into relaxation.
The second site for breath control is the parafacial nucleus. The parafacial nucleus coordinates breathing and speaking and controls non-rhythmic breathing via the phrenic nerve. The phrenic nerve is a faster highway than the vagus. Breathing techniques mediated via the parafacial nucleus/phrenic pathway often produce immediate changes to the body and mind. Effects are felt within seconds, not minutes. With the Wim Hof Method, for example, students can change their oxygen/CO2 levels and adjust their ph balance in seconds. They induce a hypoxic/hypercapnic state which they may experience as tingling, light-headedness, heat, etc. After the exercise, they experience a deep state of calm as ph balance becomes more alkaline; breath and heart rates slow.
These breathing exercises are similar to physical exercises. Both are stressors and place demands on the body. Students learn to regulate stress top-down and develop a tolerance. By introducing mild stressors, students learn how to take control of their bodies and minds at the physiological level. There is also a close correlation between anxiety and our ability [or inability] to manage stress. This is a skill that can be trained.
There are added benefits to breathwork exercises like the Wim Hof Method. Increasing CO2 tolerance helps dilate blood vessels, allowing more significant blood flow to the brain and organs. CO2 tolerance increases the amount of oxygen that moves from the hemoglobin to the cells. This is known as the Bohr effect. CO2 in the body lowers blood pH (which becomes less acidic and more alkaline), increasing the body’s ability to absorb oxygen. CO2 tolerance is linked to breathing mechanics. Improvement in CO2 tolerance helps our breathing pattern and improves VO2 max. For the student-athlete, this confers the advantage of high-altitude training. It's like bringing the mountain to the athlete.
Learning to control the breath to regulate physiological and psychological responses is like learning how to hack into a computer at the assembly or machine level. Indeed, we can adjust baselines to stress and change our default settings.
Many physiological responses can be measured (e.g. ph Balance, SpO2/CO2 levels, VO2 max, cortisol levels, biomarkers, etc), but students are not tested in these domains. Ironically, the tests we do give cause some students so much anxiety that their abilities to remember or think are severely compromised.
The ability to self-regulate, to manage stress and strong emotions is on everyone's curriculum. And every human who attends Planet Earth Academy is tested. A student with the grasp of the fundamentals can handle the inevitable vicissitudes of life with a greater sense of self-efficacy and skill.
Last week, I brought in heart rate variability sensors. Heart rate variability, or hrv, is a measure of the beat to beat alterations of the heart. Clinicians use hrv to measure heart health. HRV is a biomarker for the health of the autonomic nervous system (which regulates heartbeat)- and the tone of the vagal nerve which mediates parasympathetic activation. HRV is also used as a marker for stress. Many variables affect HRV: diet, rest, and physical activity, for example. Psychological factors affect hrv as well like stress, fear, or anxiety. HRV, then, can offer an unparalleled window into our emotional well-being. We can use the breath to improve coherence, the orderly and harmonious synchronization of the cardiovascular and respiratory system and blood pressure rhythms.
Attention is another skill I teach explicitly. I don't ask children to pay attention, I share the science and introduce protocols for improving concentration. This week, I'll introduce the attention cycle; we'll begin attentional training next week. Sleep, stress, and preconditions (e.g. time of day, cognitive demands) affect attention. Attention can be optimized, but there is a vigilance decrement which is influenced by the circadian cycle. Attention is not constant; the ability to sustain attention fluctuates. This influences the pace, duration, sequencing, and intensity of lessons.
I launched and developed a program at the Boys and Girls Club that focuses on attentional training and self-regulation. We use electroencephalograms (eegs) to measure brain wave activity. Brain waves occur at the following frequencies (from slowest to fastest): delta (0.5–3 Hz), theta (3.5–7 Hz), alpha (8-–13 Hz), beta (13–30 Hz), and gamma (30–100 Hz). Brain waves are measured in hertz (Hz) or cycles per second. The more demands on the mind, the faster the cycling. These oscillations, from slow to fast, are a key factor for attentional selection. They fluctuate several times per second. Researchers in Germany found that coupling lower frequencies of oscillations with higher ones allows for finer-tuning and is the basis for higher cognitive functions, such as selective attention (Esghaei, 2022). Slower rhythms, like delta, theta, and alpha modulate the strength of faster rhythms (beta and gamma). This is known as cross-frequency coupling. In our program, students learn different techniques to cycle the brain up or down. This is a degree of cognitive and attentional control not taught in schools.
One technique to dial brain activity all the way down is called yoga nidra. Yoga nidra (or yoga sleep) is a state of deep, non-REM rest. The brain falls into a delta wave state (<4 hz), consistent with deep, non-REM sleep, yet the practitioner remains conscious. There are 4 levels to the practice. Level 1 represents a state of deep relaxation. The brain is in an alpha state (8-13 hz). It may drop to a theta state (4-8 hz), Level 2, during the deepener practice. In Level 3, thought ceases, but awareness remains. We experience a deep state of rest, but remain aware of our surroundings. At Level 4, a practitioner remains in a simultaneous state of sleep and conscious awareness.
There are many profound benefits to this practice.
Benefit One: restores wakefulness.
A 30 minute yoga nidra session restores wakefulness and promotes performance and learning. Children who attend the after-school program at the Boys and Girls Club are often tired. This simple exercise restores them to wakefulness.
Benefit Two: improves attention, learning, and motivation
A 2002 research paper ("Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness," Kjaer et. al) found increased endogenous dopamine release in the ventral striatum during yoga nidra meditation. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that influences learning, attention, and motivation. Increases of as much as 65% were recorded after yoga nidra. It's like a mental reset. After yoga nidra, the brain is resourced for demanding cognitive tasks we offer, like programming and 3D modeling.
Benefit Three: reduced anxiety
In a 2018 study, researchers took 60 college professors, between 30-55 years old, and assigned them to different experimental groups. There were significant reductions in anxiety and stress levels in those who practiced yoga nidra (Ferreira-Vorkapic, 2018).
Benefit Four: improved memory, learning, and executive functioning
Time-of-day modulations affect performance on a wide range of cognitive tasks measuring attentional capacities, executive functioning, and memory (Schmidt, et. al., 2007). In their study, they found a variety of benefits: memory consolidation, preparation for subsequent learning, executive functioning enhancement, and a boost in emotional stability."
Benefit Five: Improved metabolic function
Our circadian clock serves as a timepiece. It synchronizes our physiology. The master clock resides in the superchiasmatic nucleus. As the sun rises, particular wavelengths of light are emitted. Shorter wavelength colors like blues and violets get scattered. This leaves colors with longer wavelengths- the yellows, oranges, and reds. Specialized, photosensitive ganglion cells in the eye prime the suprachiasmatic nucleus to set the circadian clock. There are subsidiary clocks in other brain regions and peripheral clocks throughout the body. Each cell in our bodies contains a built-in timer, or series of clock genes (PER, BMAL, CLOCK, etc), that regulate cell function. These processes are entrained, or fixed, to light cycles. Each cell has its own circadian rhythm. A number of processes throughout the entire gastrointestinal tract and liver appear to be under circadian control- such as nutrient uptake, processing, and detoxification (Reinke, 2016). The intestinal microbiome is also regulated by circadian rhythms, which can significantly impact immune function and metabolism (Voigt et al, 2016). Following our circadian rhythms, which are as predictable as the tides, we can learn to rest body and mind when the tide is low.
Unfortunately, children and young people today are not getting enough rest. The lack of rest and sleep is severely compromising their cognitive, emotional, and physical well-being. No drug is as beneficial as sleep is for health. Neither therapy nor pharmaceuticals will avail us much if our sleep is consistently compromised and our habits and sleep patterns are not addressed or corrected. A good night's sleep helps with memory and learning. Neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain's capacity to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience, occurs during sleep. Knowledge and memory are consolidated after a good night's sleep.
During sleep, the glymphatic system clears out toxins and metabolic waste from the brain. Neurotoxins like amyloids are transported out by cerebrospinal fluid, but cerebrospinal fluid is stagnant most of the time, except at night when you lie down to sleep. Ze Wang, an associate professor of diagnostic radiology and nuclear medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine explained: "Because our brain has a fixed size, the reduction of cerebral blood flow creates space for cerebrospinal fluid and the inhomogeneous change of blood flow creates power for cerebrospinal fluid to flow and then transport the neural waste out."
Many hormones that modulate mood and regulate hunger and appetite are replenished after a good night's sleep. Sleep upregulates the satiety hormone, leptin, and downregulates the appetite-stimulating hormone, ghrelin. By contrast, hunger and appetite increase after a poor night's sleep. Not only do we eat more, we crave the kinds of nutrient-poor, sugary foods that compromise sleep, which leads to more stress on the body and mind which leads to more bingeing which leads to weight gain, increasing our risk of stress and illness which further compromises sleep, mood, and affect. Like this, we can easily fall into a negative feedback loop.
When our rhythms are entrained, or fixed to diurnal cycles of night and day, our cells function optimally. When they are disrupted, our hormonal schedules become dysregulated, our mood suffers, our health is compromised. If sleep deprivation becomes chronic, we increase the risk of cancer, obesity, heart disease, anxiety-disorders and depression, Type II diabetes, and the kind of neurodegeneration typical of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
Instead of addressing lack of sleep, however, many children are being misdiagnosed with anxiety or A.D.D. and are being prescribed powerful psychotropic medications to treat symptoms but not root causes. Sadly, most educational institutions are slow to adopt protocols that could help. Indeed, some school cultures are taxing children with meaningless busyness and burdening them with adult-like schedules that leave little room for rest.
In an article by Eric Dolan, the author wrote:
The Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development research project is a 10-year-long longitudinal study that launched in 2016 and has enrolled nearly 12,000 youth aged 9 to 10 at 21 research sites around the United States. The study found that “a lack of sleep in teens is associated with altered connections between and within two important brain networks: one is the dorsal attention network, which is mainly responsible for attention, memory, and inhibition control; the other is the default mode network, which has been shown to have an important role for facilitating general brain function."
Greater sleep deficits were associated with greater mental health problems, as measured via the Child Behavior Checklist, a widely-used diagnostic questionnaire. The relationship between sleep deficits and mental health problems was bidirectional. In other words, greater sleep deficits predicted subsequent increases in mental health problems one year later and greater mental health problems also predicted subsequent increases in sleep disturbance.
“Nowadays, teenagers are getting less and less sleep because of all kinds of excitations,” Wang said. “Unfortunately, this comes with consequences. One possible consequence is the harm to mental health, which may reciprocally impact sleep quality and start a worse-to-worse cycle. Another possible consequence is the change of brain connections. These consequences may last for a long time. Because the adolescent brain is still under rapid development, sustained sleep deficits may lead to permanent impairment to the brain and to the cognitive functions.”
“Getting good sleep back is crucial to teens’ brain and mental health. In extreme cases where sleep quality is difficult to improve, an alternative potential approach can be some intervention that can specifically improve brain function connectivity.”
For neuroplasticity and learning to occur, conditions are important. Sleep, diet and exercise are behaviors that promote cognitive and emotional well-being. The gut is sometimes called the enteric brain or the "second brain.” It has its own independent nervous system and a network of over 100 million neurons.
Our bodies are home to trillions of bacteria. They outnumber our own cells 10 to 1. They’re spread across the digestive system. Most live in the intestines and colon, commonly called the gut. This community of gut bacteria is called the microbiome. The gut microbiome not only regulates digestion, vitamin supplementation, and metabolism, but affects brain function, neural development, immune function, pain perception, and mental health. It also plays a key role in the stress response.
Research has shown that gut microbiota modulates gut and brain functions. Gut bacteria produce neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate physiological and mental processes which affect learning, memory, mood, and by extension behavior. 90 percent of the neurotransmitter serotonin, for example, is produced in the gut. Serotonin, sometimes called the calm molecule, influences both mood and gastrointestinal activity. When serotonin levels are elevated, we feel a sense of contentment. It's the serotonin secreted in the raphe nuclei of the brain, however, which modulates mood. But how well it performs in the brain is impacted by what happens in the gut.
Maintaining gut health is important for both physiological and psychological well-being.
Nutrient-dense foods provide the body with the macro and micronutrients the body needs. The integrity of the nerve cells in the brain depends on fats, amino acids, and other nutrients which we get from the foods we eat. We eat until we reach our amino acid threshold. When the body's dietary needs are met, the brain signals satiety. We experience fullness. One reason Westerners tend to overeat is because the foods are so nutrient poor. As a result, we eat more to supply the brain and body with the nutrients we need. Many of the foods in the Western diet are engineered to taste good. Good for profits, bad for kids. Processed junk is shamelessly marketed to children, finding its way to cafeterias and vending machines on campuses around the world. And many of us in positions of influence do little to educate those entrusted to our care on nutrition.
Inflammation is the body's response to a problem. And much of what children are eating is the problem. Many of the foods we eat trigger inflammation. "All processed foods can cause inflammation," asserts Dr. McDonald. "They can alter the bacteria that live in our gut, and that alteration has the ability to interact with our immune system and eventually trigger it in a way that leads to chronic inflammation." Once these molecules cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain, microglia are activated. Microglia, the resident immune cells of the central nervous system, respond to neuronal damage and remove the damaged cells by phagocytosis. Chronic microglial activation is a hallmark of brain pathology. The brain gets flooded in an inflammatory bath. Over time, inflammation causes neuronal damage through the release of toxic molecules such as proinflammatory cytokines, reactive oxygen intermediates, proteinases, and complement proteins (Dheen, 2007). Exercise, sleep, and a proper diet are simple lifestyle choices that reduce pro-inflammatory microglial states (Casaletto et al, 2022).
We each have our own unique biochemistry; I don't prescribe what to eat. I eat nuts; some children may have nut allergies that would provoke inflammation. I eat plain Greek yogurt; some children are lactose intolerant. What we know unequivocally, however, is that processed foods marketed to children are bad for them. Whole, organic, and plant-based foods are better for developing bodies and minds.
When I was an adolescent, Jack LaLanne, the Godfather of Fitness, was one of my heroes. He promoted exercise and diet. His example continues to inspire me.
We take regular rest and fitness breaks in the classroom. I introduced kids to yoga and the pull-push-leg training split. We did push-ups one day, pull-ups the following day, and a light run/walk or dance with lateral movements to strengthen the fascia the next.
Walking promotes optic flow which promotes calm. I highlighted some of the cognitive and physiological benefits of dancing, walking, and running. There is an additional benefit from walking outdoors in the morning. There is a particular wavelength that comes from natural sunlight which triggers photosensitive cells in the retina to prime the body's circadian clock. So, we have the virtuous loop of exercise which promotes cardiovascular fitness, cognition, and a good night's sleep- all of which enhance mood.
Managing strong emotions is another skill students are taught explicitly. Ekman's Atlas of Emotions is a useful visual tool for understanding the emotional timeline. I introduce the concept of emotional granularity to help them better understand the nuances of emotional experiences. There is evidence to suggest that the more nuanced one's understanding of emotional tone (even so-called negative ones), the more thoughtfully we can regulate them. We learn to use language to describe the contours of emotion, to describe feelings, and identify the needs they point to.
Communication (mediation, negotiation, empathy) is another pillar of our morning routine. Weekly, I introduce specific, actionable strategies they can use in their day-to-day interactions. Lessons are sequenced and developmentally appropriate. We practice in dyads or groups of 3 or 4. Last week, I shared John Gottman's 4 Horses of the Apocalypse. These are the negative communication patterns that undermine relationships: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. We also reviewed and practiced the antidotes: "I" statements, identifying feelings and needs, appreciation/gratitude, radical responsibility/accountability and resets. We looked at hypotheticals and the children brought in their own examples. We deconstructed conflicts, guessed feelings and needs, practiced role play, and enemy image work. Next week, we will look at cognitive distortions and practice intensity exercises. In the intensity exercise, we introduce a mild trigger (a comment or word that provokes a negative reaction). Students learn to stay grounded and aware even when triggered so that they can respond, rather than react, more thoughtfully. This is a snapshot of one week, not the whole of what I teach.
The techniques are tools. The more tools we have, the more versatile we can be in our day-to-day interactions with others. Hammers are the right tool for some jobs, and a specialty tool, like a lipping planer, might be perfect for another. Communication tools are similar. People are complex. Culture and context influence how and what we say. Trash talking, for example, can be fun, but if a teammate was just diagnosed with a serious physical condition, empathy might be the best way to support him or her. And empathy must be explicitly taught. Correcting, evaluating, advising, fixing, or judging are not empathy. Empathic communication is a way to connect, a route to the heart. Sometimes people want advice or seek correction, but knowing what approach to apply when takes skill. And most teachers and students were never explicitly taught these skills.
Every morning, students meet with their teams to trade stocks. We're playing the Stock Market Game. Students apply their negotiation and listening skills. They practice managing their emotions. They work together to build and manage their investment portfolio in a real-world, dynamic marketplace.
The purpose of the game, however, goes beyond investing. Many of the most pressing societal challenges are rooted in economics (or more accurately in our lust for more to satisfy a longing that cannot be met with things): global warming, civil unrest, social inequity, gender inequality, environmental degradation, famine, and conflicts between nations. The ultimate goal is for children to index their values with their investments and to better understand macro events.
I am the Director of Academic Technology. The content I teach is secondary; the core competencies are primary: cultivating resilience, attentional regulation, adopting a growth mindset, increasing frustration tolerance, failing forwards, monitoring self-talk, leveraging the child's inclination toward play, and cultivating joy.
This week, fifth graders are learning Sonic Pi, a Ruby-based programming language. Music is produced and coded line by line. In the process, students learn about the physics of sound and how electronic sounds can be engineered, filtered, and produced. In the code below, students modify a sawtooth wave. They slice and phase it, add reverb, assign a root chord, octave, and a chord type. They modify envelopes and cutoff values. They create variables to pan the sound and detune it. There are rudimentary elements of artificial intelligence in the code that allows the machine to choose a start and end note. Panning and detuning are also randomized.
with_synth :dsaw do
with_fx(:slicer, phase: [0.25,0.125].choose) do
with_fx(:reverb, room: 0.5, mix: 0.3) do
start_note = chord([:b1, :b2, :e1, :e2, :b3, :e3].choose, :minor).choose
final_note = chord([:b1, :b2, :e1, :e2, :b3, :e3].choose, :minor).choose
p = play start_note, release: 8, note_slide: 4, cutoff: 30, cutoff_slide: 4, detune: rrand(0, 0.2), pan: rrand(-1, 0), pan_slide: rrand(4, 8)
control p, note: final_note, cutoff: rrand(80, 120), pan: rrand(0, 1)
To guide a 10 year old here, I encourage a growth mindset. I tell them they will make mistakes and get runtime errors every few lines. As in meditation, how they approach errors matters. If they approach syntax errors with the same matter-of-factness as they would a puzzle, in the spirit of play, or as a challenge, they will grow. I leverage the child's propensity for play. We learn specific techniques, like reframing or cognitive reappraising, to train the ability to recover from negative events.
Programming is challenging. A high frustration tolerance and a stomach for failure promote learning. It's a matter of reframing error. This can be explicitly taught and encouraged. After acknowledging the complexity, I invite students to approach errors the way they might look for Waldo in those illustrated puzzle books. Programmers call the process debugging. I let them sit with their frustration and ask them to search line by line for the bug. If they associate this experience of failing repetitively with something good, they will receive a dopamine hit when they solve it. Often, I see arms shoot up in the air in victory. "Got it!"
In programming, the end goal- a game, an app, a utility- must be compelling enough to push them past frustration. If they are passionate about the idea they want to bring into physical form, they will work past frustration. The projects, therefore, are often open-ended. I show the how, but they must provide the what and bring the why.
I pitch instruction to what psychologist Lev Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development. As in Goldilocks, the lesson can neither be too hard nor too easy. Research suggests an 85:15 success to error ratio is most effective. Instruction is short and sequenced. I monitor body language. I listen for sighs and self-talk. I am not quick to relieve them of their discomfort, but coach them past it until it becomes automatic. The goal is to leverage frustration so that they can drill deeper into learning.
Errors are gateways to plasticity. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with focus and attention. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with alertness. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that amplifies activity of brain circuits associated with pursuing goals, motivation & reward. If all three neuromodulators are present, accelerated learning can occur.
Additionally, there are 4 independent neural networks that promote well-being: the ability to maintain positive states, the ability to avoid mind wandering, the ability to be generous, the ability to recover from negative states. Now, I am in a position to effect change and to teach what matters as explicitly and carefully as I can.
We focus on what matters. By prioritizing student well-being, we do not compromise rigor. Nothing mentioned in the above paragraphs is superficial or shallow. The parent of a third-grader approached me recently to thank me for explaining dopamine schedules to his 8-year-old. My language was developmentally appropriate; she both understood and could communicate what she had learned in class that day. She also suggested self-regulatory protocols they could follow as a family- like reducing time on screens- which she thought up after synthesizing the science. These are higher-order thinking skills.
When we put first things first, we strengthen the core competencies- meta-cognition, attention, memory, emotional management, and executive functioning. Cultivation of these soft skills sustain life-long learning, resilience and grit, passion, and inner fortitude. As a culture, however, we focus more on the acquisition of facts and things than on those habits that research suggests enhance well-being. In our misguided pursuit for top grades, admission to top universities, promotions, and material possessions, we miss the happiness and fulfillment that can be lived now and embodied daily. We compromise the very things that contribute to a life well-lived: rest, health, our friendships and social connections, and the balance of our own minds.
As a result of this misplacement of priorities, more and more children are being diagnosed with depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders. More and more children are being prescribed powerful psychotropic medications at younger and younger ages.
There is a medical school axiom that addresses the need for broader, systemic thinking: if 100 people drink from a well and 90 get diarrhea, you can treat the symptoms or you can treat the water. We're treating symptoms and diagnosing millions of children with pathologies without addressing root causes. Maybe it is time to change the sclerotic educational system imported from Prussia in the 1800s. Two years of lockdowns, uncertainty, and quarantine have emphasized the need reimagining what education could be.
But when educators, researchers, doctors and other clinicians who might influence change themselves boast 60-80 hour work weeks, limited time with family and friends, citing lack of time for exercise, meditation, or hobbies, it is not likely that any meaningful structural changes within those institutions will occur- which translates to superficial mission statements on well-being. It will take bold leadership to challenge teams to reimagine what is possible based on what we know. But there is opportunity in challenge.
This essay is not prescriptive. In penning this, I hope to show both how important it is to put first things first and how practical and beneficial these disciplines can be. I'll close with an email I received from a student:
I enjoyed listening and learning about the cognitive distortions and the 4 horsemen. The stocks game was also amazing (even though my team didn't win), but it was all in good fun, right? I have been working more and more on Inkscape projects in my free time. I am surely getting there. Thank you so much for being there when others weren't, understanding when people didn't want to listen. When you taught me about all of these communication skills I was a bit overwhelmed but then I realized that they really work. THANK YOU!