Photo credit: zsrlibrary via flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
I notice several students listening to music while busy at work. I have no good reason to ask that they remove their headphones and turn off their devices. As I walk around the room, I admire the elegant, concise prose each produces.
I ask one student why music helps her concentrate. “It soothes me and makes me less stressed,” she says. “Plus, Ed Sheeran is just awesome.”
As a college student, I spent countless hours studying in a dark corner of the Brandeis University Library. Often, I would lose track of time and wonder about seeing the sun again. Once, my mother called to ask why I hadn’t yet returned home for Thanksgiving. I had forgotten about the holiday, focused on getting a jump-start on a major history paper while listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” on repeat.
Placing aside the issue of my self-induced exile, for me as well, music offered not only comfort but also increased focus — or so I thought, at least until coming across the work of Dr. Nick Perham, a lecturer in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff.
I recently spoke with Perham, who told me about the “irrelevant sound effect.” This involves a subject conducting a certain task, in this case recalling a series of numbers, while listening to different kinds of background music. If sound exhibits acoustical variations, or what Perham calls an “acute changing-state,” performance is impaired. Steady-state sounds with little acoustical variation don’t impair performance nearly as much.
I’m also interested by another of Perham’s conclusions. “We found that listening to liked or disliked music was exactly the same, and both were worse than the quiet control condition,” he says. “Both impaired performance on serial-recall tasks.”
Still, I’m curious how prevalent serial-recall is in everyday life, and if one could get by without developing this skill. Unlikely, Perham says, as one would have tremendous difficulty recalling phone numbers, doing mental arithmetic, and even learning languages.
“Requiring the learning of ordered information has also been found to underpin language learning. If you consider language, learning syntax of language, learning the rules that govern how we put a sentence together, all of these require order information . . . ” Perham says.
Perham asked his subjects how they think they performed when exposed to different tastes in music. Each reported performing much worse when listening to disliked music, although the study’s results showed no difference.
I presented Perham’s findings to my students, many of whom still refused to accept that listening to music while studying impairs performance. I even gave one of these otherwise bright and thoughtful individuals early access to my podcast interview with Perham.
“I enjoy listening to music while doing math,” she says. “It really helps me think, and I won’t stop listening even with the results of this study.”
SILENCE IS GOLDEN
My student is mistaken, but Perham explains that she should listen to music before getting to work, to engage what’s known as the “arousal and mood effect.” In fact, as long as she does something enjoyable before hitting the books — whether it’s listening to music or doing anything else — past studies have shown that this can produce the same positive effect on performance.
I ask Perham then about the so-called “Mozart effect,” which, in one early experiment, gave individuals who had recently listened to the famous classical composer enhanced spatial-rotation skills. When they stopped listening and were asked to cut and fold paper, they performed better than when listening to something else.
“Subsequent studies suggested that this wasn’t correct,” Perham says.
Instead, improved performance had more to do with the preference of sound one listened to before engaging in such work.
“They found it if you like listening to Stephen King’s stories,” Perham says. “It wasn’t anything to do with classical music or Mozart, it was to do on whether you liked [listening to] something or not.”
In one of his more recent studies, Perham says, he found that reading while listening to music, especially music with lyrics, impairs comprehension. In this case, it’s spoken lyrics, not acoustical variation that impairs productivity.
“You’ve got semantic information that you’re trying to use when you’re reading a book, and you’ve got semantic information from the lyrics,” Perham says. “If you can understand the lyrics, it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, it will impair your performance of reading comprehension.”
In conducting my own little experiment, I decided to write this article in complete silence. These days, I write while listening to Dave Matthews, John Mayer and other “chill” music. I’m not sure if or how this fits exactly into Perham’s findings, but I finished writing in about half the time it normally takes me for something of this length.
At the very least, here’s to hoping that my experiment will entice my students to also give it a try.
Editor’s note: A PDF transcript of David Cutler’s interview with Dr. Nick Perham is available on Spin Education, where this post originally appeared.
If your goal is to engage and educate students to the greatest extent possible, you need to consider the benefits of an innovative classroom. An innovative classroom will possess several key traits, including:
Innovative classrooms engage in constant reflection and inquisition. They think about what is working as a class and independently and what is not. Reflection can be uncomfortable, but for a class to be constantly evolving and innovating, this process must occur. Furthermore, an innovative classroom will always be asking itself, “what if?” Students won’t be satisfied with the status quo and will push themselves to be always learning more. Invite and encourage students to ask questions.
2. Constant learning
An innovative classroom never stops to catch its breath. Every event is seen as a teachable moment, and students will benefit from a fast-paced, ever-changing environment.
A creative classroom not only comes up with unique solutions to everyday problems, but it also develops the responses necessary to deal with future challenges. A creative classroom fosters innovation by encouraging students to think outside of the box.
An educator must always know his or her students, as well as the trends that are emerging in the profession. He or she will seek out new techniques and technologies and encourage students to do the same.
5. Principles and routines
You should exist and function on strong principles and routines. Incorporate strong values to guide the class. The teacher in an innovative classroom will encourage consistency and diligence by establishing hard-and-fast guidelines for how the day is run.
Innovative classrooms don’t wait for problems to appear to them–they actively seek out problems in the classroom, in their learning, and in the world. Innovation starts with a question–not with an answer. New technologies and understandings can only be developed when students begin to ask questions about “why” or “how.”
A collaborative classroom encourages innovation by pushing students to work with others who may be different from them, either in their beliefs, behavior, or background. Collaboration in the classroom encourages discussion, which is the father of all innovation.
Don’t rely on one teaching or learning technique to get a point across. An innovative classroom includes teaching strategies that are always evolving, and are different from day to day.
9. Goal setting
Innovative learners will set goals for themselves, and crush them. These goals may be large or small, or ideally contain some aspects of both types, but should guide learners towards innovation.
10. Opportunities for revision
Not only are innovative learners risk-takers, but they also recognize that nothing is ever perfect. As a result, an innovative classroom is resilient and pushes students and teachers to always be changing, adapting, and improving. Innovative learners will look to themselves and others to better every aspect of their performance.
These ten characteristics are important in establishing an innovative classroom. Although they don’t necessarily always come naturally, it is important for teachers to be aware of them and to incorporate an action to help develop each characteristic on a daily basis.
This lesson on empathy, perspectives, and collaboration is designed for middle grades, but can easily be adapted for 4th (maybe younger) or high school classes. This approach can be a great way to encourage students to practice civil discourse.
Laying strong foundations for emotional intelligence.
By Hazel Harrison | March 17, 2016
When children understand what’s happening in the brain, it can be the first step to having the power to make choices. Knowledge can be equally powerful to parents too. Knowing how the brain works means we can also understand how to respond when our children need our help.
Sometimes our brains can become overwhelmed with feelings of fear, sadness or anger, and when this happens, it’s confusing—especially to children. So giving children ways to make sense of what’s happening in their brain is important. It’s also helpful for children to have a vocabulary for their emotional experiences that others can understand. Think of it like a foreign language, and if the other people in your family speak that language too, then it’s easier to communicate with them.
So how do you start these conversations with your children, make it playful enough to keep them engaged, and simple enough for them to understand?
Here is how I teach children (and parents) how to understand the brain.
Introducing the Brain House: The Upstairs and the Downstairs
I tell children that their brains are like a house, with an upstairs and a downstairs. This idea comes from Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s book The Whole-Brain Child and it’s a really simple way to help kids to think about what’s going on inside their head. I’ve taken this analogy one step further by talking about who lives in the house. I tell them stories about the characters who live upstairs, and the ones who live downstairs. Really, what I’m talking about are the functions of the neocortex (our thinking brain: the upstairs), and the limbic system (our feeling brain: the downstairs).
The Brain House
Who Lives Upstairs and Who Lives Downstairs?
Typically, the upstairs characters are thinkers, problem solvers, planners, emotion regulators, creatives, flexible and empathic types. I give them names like Calming Carl, Problem Solving Pete, Creative Craig and Flexible Felix
The downstairs folk are the feelers. They are very focused on keeping us safe and making sure our needs are met. Our instinct for survival originates here. These characters look out for danger, sound the alarm and make sure we are ready to fight, run or hide when we are faced with a threat. Downstairs we’ve got characters like Alerting Allie, Frightened Fred, and Big Boss Bootsy.
It doesn’t really matter what you call them, as long as you and your child know who (and what) you are talking about. You could have a go at coming up with your own names: try boys/girls names, animal names, cartoon names or completely made-up names. You might like to find characters from films or books they love, to find your unique shared language for these brain functions.
Flipping Our Lids: When ‘Downstairs’ Takes Over
Our brains work best when the upstairs and the downstairs work together. Imagine that the stairs connecting upstairs and downstairs are very busy with characters carrying messages up and down to each other. This is what helps us make good choices, make friends and get along with other people, come up with exciting games to play, calm ourselves down and get ourselves out of sticky situations.
Sometimes, in the downstairs brain, Alerting Allie spots some danger, Frightened Fred panics and before we know where we are, Big Boss Bootsy has sounded the alarm telling your body to be prepared for danger. Big Boss Bootsy is a bossy fellow, and he shouts: “The downstairs brain is taking over now. Upstairs gang can work properly again when we are out of danger.” The downstairs brain “flips the lid” (to borrow Dan Siegel’s phrase) on the upstairs brain. This means that the stairs that normally allow the upstairs and downstairs to work together are no longer connected.
Flipping your lid
Sometimes, Flipping Our Lids Is the Safest Thing To Do
When everybody in the brain house is making noise, it’s hard for anyone to be heard. Bootsy is keeping the upstairs brain quiet so the downstairs folk can get our body ready for the danger. Boots can signal other parts of our body that need to switch on (or off). He can make our heart beat faster so we are ready to run very fast, or our muscles ready to fight as hard as we can. He can also tell parts of our body to stay very very still so we can hide from the danger. Bootsy is doing this to keep us safe.
Try asking your child to imagine when these reactions would be safest. I often try to use examples that wouldn’t actually happen (again so that children can imagine these ideas in a playful way without becoming too frightened by them). For example, what would your downstairs brain do if you met a dinosaur in the playground?
Everyone Flips Their Lids
Think of some examples to share with your child about how we can all flip our lids. Choose examples that aren’t too stressful because if you make your kids feel too anxious they may flip their lids then and there!
Here’s an example I might use:
Remember when Mummy couldn’t find the car keys and we were already late for school. Remember how I kept looking in the same place over and over again. That’s because the downstairs brain had taken over, I had flipped my lid and the upstairs, thinking part of my brain, wasn’t working properly.
When the Downstairs Brain Gets It Wrong
There might be times when we flips our lids but really we still need the upstairs gang like Problem Solving Pete, and Calming Carl to help us.
We all flip our lids, but often children flip their lids more than adults. In children’s brains, Big Boss Bootsy can get a bit over excited and press the panic button to trigger meltdowns and tantrums over very small things and that’s because the upstairs part of your child’s brain is still being built. In fact, it won’t be finished being built until the mid twenties. Sometimes, when I want to emphasize this point, I ask kids this question:
Have you ever seen your Dad or Mum lay on the floor in the supermarket screaming that they want chocolate buttons?
They often giggle, and giggling is good because it means it’s still playful, so they are still engaged and learning. I tell them parents actually like chocolate just as much as children, but adults have practiced getting Calming Carl and Problem Solving Pete to work with Big Boss Bootsy and can (sometimes) stop him from sounding the danger alarm when he doesn’t need to. It does take practice and I remind children that their brains are still building and learning from experience.
Ultimately, this is about enabling children to learn functional ways to manage big feelings, and some of that will happen from conversations about the things that went wrong.
From a Shared Language to Emotional Regulation
Once you’ve got all the characters in the brain house, you have a shared language that you can use to help your child learn how to regulate (manage) their emotions. For example, “it looks like Big Boss Bootsy might be getting ready to sound the alarm, how about seeing if Calming Carl can send a message saying ‘take some deep breaths.”
The language of the brain house also allows kids to talk more freely about their own mistakes, it’s non judgmental, playful and can be talked about as being separate (psychologists also call this ‘externalized’) from them. Imagine how hard it might be to say ‘I hit Jenny today at school’ versus “Big Boss Bootsy really flipped the lid today.” When I say this to parents, some worry that I’m giving children a free pass. “Can’t they just blame Bootsy for their misbehavior?” they ask. Ultimately, what this is about is enabling children to learn functional ways to manage big feelings, and some of that will happen from conversations about the things that went wrong. If children feel able to talk about their mistakes with you, then you have an opportunity to join your upstairs brain folk with theirs, and problem solve together. It doesn’t mean they escape consequences or shirk responsibility. It means you can ask questions like “do you think there is anything you could do to help Bootsy keep the lid on?.”
Knowing about the brain house also helps parents to think about how to respond when their child is flooded with fear, anger or sadness. Have you ever told you child to calm down when they have flipped their lid? I have. Yet what we know about the brain house is Calming Carl lives upstairs and when Bootsy’s flipped the lid, Calming Carl can’t do much to help until the lid is back on. Your child may have gone beyond the point where they can help themselves to calm down. Sometimes, parents (teachers or caregivers) have to help kids to get their lids back on, and we can do this with empathy, patience and often taking a great deal of deep breaths ourselves!
Where to Go from Here?
Don’t expect to move all the characters into the brain house and unpack on the same day; moving house takes time, and so does learning about brains. Start the conversation and revisit it. You might want to find creative ways to explore the brain house with your child.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
Draw the brain house and all the characters
Draw a picture of what it looks like in the house when the downstairs flips the lid
Find a comic, cut out and stick characters into the downstairs and the upstairs
Write stories about the adventures of the characters in the brain house
Use a doll’s house (or if you don’t have a doll’s house, two shoe boxes, one on top of the other works just as well) and fill it with the downstairs and upstairs characters.
If you find other creative ways to explore the brain house, I would love to hear about them.
Make it fun, make it lively, and kids won’t even realize they are learning the foundations of emotional intelligence.
Stanford professor Carol Dweck’s work is being used all over the world. When we look at what school should epitomize…the growth mindset should be at the center. Many adults who work in schools say we need to get away from a fixed mindset, because a student’s intelligence and future are not set. There is always room for growth.
But what if our actions in school contribute to the reason why a growth mindset has a low effect size?
Recently, John Hattie gave a keynote at the Annual Visible Learning Conference in San Antonio, Texas. Over 1,000 attendees from all over the world sat in the audience when Hattie gave a keynote focusing on The Science of How We Learn, which is the title of his book that was published 2 years ago.
As Hattie was going through the Skill, the Will and the Thrill of learning, he put up a slide that said, “Growth vs. Fixed mindset – .19.” For those of you who don’t know, and for full disclosure, I work with John as a Visible Learning Trainer. I gave up being a school principal in a community I loved to work with him. I write about his work from time to time because it provokes some of my best thinking. And because I’m such a huge fan of the growth mindset (I barely graduated from high school and was retained in elementary school), this slide poked my own hornet’s nest.
We usually look for effect sizes that are .40 or above, which is what Hattie refers to as the Hinge Point. The Hinge Point provides a year’s worth of growth for a year’s input. A .19 is concerning because it is so much lower than the Hinge Point. The beauty of Hattie’s work is that an influence with a low effect size (ex. Growth vs. Fixed Mindset) doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. The low effect size may be due to how the adults in the classroom or school building approach the influence, and we may have to change how we approach it.
As Hattie continued to speak, he said the reason why growth vs. fixed mindset has a low effect size is due to the fact that adults have a fixed mindset and keep treating students accordingly, so right now the effect size is low, and will continue to stay low unless we change our practices in the classroom. We put students in ability groups, they get scores on high stakes tests that help label them, and then we place them in Academic Intervention Services (AIS) which adds to their fixed mindset. Once students enter into AIS or Special Education, very few leave.
Students are conditioned to have a fixed mindset, and it’s due to us.
What can we do differently?
First and foremost, we have to get away from having a fixed mindset because it has terrible implications for how we treat students. We do not have a crystal ball, and we shouldn’t treat students who struggle like they will struggle for the rest of their lives. It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat students like they will always struggle…they may always struggle.
If students aren’t doing well in our classrooms it may not be due to them and may require that we change the way we teach. “Change the environment and not the child.” When we use ability groups, categorize students by test scores, and do not instruct in a variety of ways, we will continue to treat students with a fixed mindset. Our fixed mindset puts them at a greater risk of having a fixed mindset. We need to try to do the following:
Less Testing – Yes, I know. We don’t feel like we have control over this but we do have control over parts of it. We can continue to speak up about the harmful way that high stakes testing is being used, but we can also change the way we use the tests we create and use in our classrooms. First of all, use less summative testing. Formative assessment is the sweet spot. Be less concerned about grades and more concerned about formative assessment. Join Teachers Throwing Out Grades and read this blog by Shirley Clarke.
More feedback – If we want things like class size to matter more, than we need to change the way we provide feedback. Reflect on the feedback you provide to students. Does the feedback go deeper as the students gain more expertise in the topic? Or do we just slap a grade or a sticker on a paper and say “Great job!” Praise, although great to hear, does not move learning forward.
Flexible Grouping – When we put students in ability groups like Lions, Tigers and Bears, something I was guilty of, they know which group has the high achieving students and others who are not as gifted in the curricular area. Students, no matter their academic level, can provide effective feedback to each other if it has been modeled correctly.
Different Questioning – 95% of questions stay in the surface level. According to Hattie’s research, Experienced teachers ask 75% surface and 25% deep. Expertteachers as 75% that are deep and 25% that are surface. Check out SOLO Taxonomy for alternatives.
Stop talking so much – “Teachers ask more than 200 questions per hour,” which means wait time is low and students are not getting the opportunity to talk with one another. Try to do a Think, Pair, Share or cooperative conversations.
In the End
We talk a lot about the growth mindset but our actions may be counterproductive to putting it into action. A growth mindset is so vitally important for adults and students. Adults need to have that mindset for their own growth but more importantly for the growth of their students.
Talking about the growth mindset is not good enough. Our actions are where the rubber hits the road. If we believe the growth mindset is important, and believe that it should have a higher effect size, then we need to follow up with the actions to make it happen.
Students’ behavior is a form of communication and when it’s negative it almost always stems from an underlying cause. There are many reasons kids might be acting out, which makes it difficult for a teacher in a crowded classroom to figure out the root cause. But even if there was time and space to do so, most teachers receive very little training in behavior during their credentialing programs. On average, teacher training programs mandate zero to one classes on behavior and zero to one courses on mental health. Teacher training programs mostly assume that kids in public schools will be “typical,” but that assumption can handicap teachers when they get into real classrooms.
A National Institute of Health study found that 25.1 percent of kids 13-18 in the US have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders. No one knows how many more haven’t been diagnosed. Additionally between eight and 15 percent of the school-aged population has learning disabilities (there is a range because there’s no standard definition of what constitutes a learning disability). Nine percent of 13-18 year-olds have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (although the number one misdiagnoses of anxiety is ADHD), and 11.2 percent suffer from depression.
Minahan is usually called into schools to help with the most challenging behavior. She finds that often teachers are trying typical behavioral strategies for a group of kids for whom those strategies don’t work. However, she says after teachers learn more about why kids are behaving badly there are some simple strategies to approach defiant behavior like avoiding work, fighting, and causing problems during transitions with more empathy.
Anxiety is a huge barrier to learning and very difficult for educators to identify. “When anxiety is fueling the behavior, it’s the most confusing and complicated to figure out,” Minahan said. That’s because a student isn’t always anxious; it tends to come and go based on events in their lives, so their difficulties aren’t consistent. When we are anxious our working memory tanks, making it very difficult to recall any salient information.
Researchers surveyed a group of first graders none of whom had any reading or math disabilities. Those who had been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder were eight times more likely to be in the lowest achieving group in reading, and two-point-five times more likely to be in the lowest quartile in math achievement by the spring.
“Anxiety is a learning disability; it inhibits your ability to learn,” Minahan said. But it isn’t usually recognized as a learning disability and there is almost never a plan for how to address it in the classroom. “For kids with anxiety, the ‘can’ts fluctuate,” Minahan said. “When they’re calm they can. When they’re anxious they can’t. And that’s very deceiving.”
Anxiety isn’t about ability, it’s about interference, which means that traditional rewards and consequences don’t often work with this group of learners.
“Rewards and consequences are super helpful to increase motivation for something I’m able to do,” Minahan said. But an anxious person’s brain has shut down and they aren’t able in that moment to complete the task being asked of them. The best way to combat this tricky problem is to try to prevent anxiety triggers and build up students’ social and emotional skills to cope with the moments when anxiety sets in.
When kids are in the throes of bad behavior they have poor self-regulation skills, often get into negative thinking cycles that they can’t stop, have poor executive functioning, become inflexible thinkers and lose social skills like the ability to think about another person’s perspective. That’s why kids can seem so unempathetic when teachers ask, “how do you think that made Sam feel?” At that moment, the student acting out has no ability to take Sam’s perspective, but a few hours later or the next day, he might be able to show the remorse educators want to see.
ALL BEHAVIOR HAS A FUNCTION
Most bad behavior is connected to seeking attention and many kids seem to prefer negative attention because it works. “Negative attention is way easier to get and hands down easier to understand,” Minahan said. “It’s much more efficient.” Adults tend to be unpredictable with attention when a student is doing what she is supposed to do, but as soon as there’s a dramatic, obvious tantrum, the student has the teacher’s attention. And negative attention is powerful — one student can hijack a whole classroom.
A common teacher response to low-level negative attention seeking is to ignore the student. The teacher doesn’t want to reward bad behavior. “I want to caution you about ignoring someone with anxiety because their anxiety goes up,” Minahan said. Ignoring an already anxious student can accidentally conveying the message that the teacher doesn’t care about the student, and worse might escalate the situation. Perhaps a teacher can ignore a student tapping his pencil or banging on his desk, but threatening behavior can’t be ignored. And the student learns exactly what level of behavior he must exhibit to get attention.
TIP 1: Instead, “what you need to do is make positive attention compete better,” Minahan said. She often suggests that teachers actively engage the most difficult student at the beginning of class saying something like, “I can’t wait to see what you think of this assignment. I’m going to check on you in 5 minutes.” When the teacher actually comes back in five minutes, validates the student’s progress, and tells her another check-in is coming in ten minutes it sets up a pattern of predictable attention for positive behavior. And while it might seem unfair to take that extra time and care with one student, it ultimately saves instruction time when a teacher doesn’t have to deal with a tantrum that sends the student out of the room.
TIP 2: Often in an attempt to form a positive relationship with a student teachers will publicly praise positive behavior. That can backfire, especially with anxious kids who don’t want any extra attention from peers. Private or non-verbal praise is often better. Minahan recommends pulling students aside at the beginning of the year to ask how teachers can best tell them they’re proud. “It’s a gift to your February self if you can figure out a system now, otherwise you’ll get stuck on the negative attention scale,” Minahan said.
Tip 2.1: She also recommends fact-based praise as opposed to general praise. Vague praise is easy to dismiss.
ANTECEDENTS TO BAD BEHAVIOR
Many kids have predictable anxiety triggers like unstructured time, transitions, writing tasks, social demands or any unexpected change. Similarly the antecedents of fighting are fairly predictable: unfacilitated social interactions, interaction with an authoritative adult, being asked to wait, when demands are placed, being told no, writing, and transitions.
Tip 3: “Teach waiting now,” Minahan said. “When you are anxious, despite your age, it’s very hard to wait.” She was asked to observe a boy who constantly disrupted class. Minahan soon noticed the boy often did his work, but if he finished early or there was downtime in the class, he would start causing trouble. When Minahan pointed this out to him he had no idea what “wait time” was. She had to spell out to him that when he finished a task he should apply a strategy, like turning over the paper and doodling appropriately on the back. After this small intervention the student’s behavior was so improved that his teacher thought he’d gone on medication.
For kids with anxiety, there are a number of strategies teachers can employ. The first is not to take any student behavior personally. The student isn’t trying to manipulate or torture the teacher, his behavior is reflecting something going on internally. Often a short movement break can help relieve anxiety, but not the way they are commonly given.
Minahan described a seventh grade girl who was recovering from an eating disorder. The girl was scraping her arms so badly they would bleed. After lunch, predictably, the behavior was worse, so her teachers were letting her color and draw to relieve her anxiety. Another common break is to tell a student to go get a drink of water down the hall. The coloring break wasn’t working for this seventh grader and Minahan soon figured out why. “We accidentally left her alone to fester in her anxious thoughts,” she said.
Tip 4: Leaving class doesn’t give the student a break from internal negative thoughts like “I’m fat,” or “I’m not smart enough,” which paralyze thinking. But a break paired with a cognitive distraction does offer respite from the “all or nothing” thinking that’s so common with anxious students. An older student might take a break and record herself reading a book out loud for a younger student with dyslexia. It’s impossible to read out loud and think another thought. Other distractions could include sports trivia, sudoku or crossword puzzles. Little kids might do a Where’s Waldo or look through a Highlight magazine for the hidden picture.
Tip 5: When teachers want to wrap up a task they often use a countdown. “Silent reading time is going to be over in five minutes.” But counting down doesn’t support a high achieving anxious child who feels she must finish. And it takes a lot of executive function skills and cognitive flexibility to fight the urge to keep going after the time is up. So instead of counting down, a teacher might walk over to that student and say, let’s find a good stopping point. She may stop a minute later than the rest of the class when she reaches the designated point, but it won’t escalate into a tug-of-war.
Transitions are another common time for kids to act out. Younger students often don’t want to come in from recess, for example. But when a teacher says, “Line up. Recess is over. It’s time for your spelling quiz,” it’s no wonder the student doesn’t want to go from something he loves to something he hates.
Tip 6: The teacher can give students an in-between step to make the transition more palatable. Go from recess, to two minutes of coloring, to the spelling quiz. The intermediary step gives that non-compliant student behavioral momentum. He’s already sitting down, quiet, with pen in hand, so the jump to spelling isn’t as jarring.
For middle and high school students, school is all about being social, but the only times students get to see their friends are in the two to five minute passing periods between classes. Again, the transition is from something they love to something they hate, so don’t make that transition extra hard by collecting homework as they come in the door. The toughest kids are probably already not doing well in the class, and a reminder of the homework exacerbates feelings of inadequacy.
Tip 7: One high school geometry teacher started playing two minute YouTube videos about geometry as students came into class. It got students from the hallway into the classroom without thinking negatively and her class started to run more smoothly. She didn’t have the same interruptions she used to, which made the lost two minutes seem worth it.
Tip 8: Minahan also likes some of the biofeedback tools that are now available, like the EmWave. A wound up student puts a sensor on his finger and calming down becomes a game. He might start out with a picture of a black and white forest, but as he calms down (and the sensor monitors his heart rate) the colors start to pop in. It can take as little as two to five minutes to completely calm a kid down when they can see the feedback so clearly.
“I like it because it’s so concrete,” Minahan said. A student with high functioning autism might not even know what a teacher means by “calm down,” but with the biofeedback device she can see what it means.
Minahan says it’s very common for students to have trouble initiating work, persisting through work and asking for help, but there are strategies to help kids build the skills to get better in these areas.
“You can have really bright, able children whose anxiety is interfering so much,” Minahan said. The anxiety isn’t coming from nowhere; it’s coming from prior experiences of feeling frozen and stupid. In that moment the child’s working memory isn’t working, so teachers need to find ways to bypass it until the anxiety passes.
Tip 9: One way is to let students preview the work for the day. In the morning, an elementary school teacher might work on the first few problems with the anxious child so she knows she can do it. Then, when it’s time for that work later in the day, that child receives the sheet she’s already started and can go from there.
Tip 9.1: In high school, teachers can give students with trouble initiating the preview as homework. Students can start at home without any pressure and continue at school. “Fight or flight is the worst when they first see it,” Minahan said, so try to bypass that moment and prevent a breakdown.
Tip 10: At the same time, when the teacher names the strategies a student is employing, he is helping the student build a toolbox that can be used independently. Strategies might include, asking a teacher to help her start when she feels frozen, or asking to preview the homework. For perfectionist students, difficulty starting can stem from a fear of messing up. Give those students dry erase boards, where the mess ups can be easily erased. It helps when teachers treat the difficulty starting as a small problem and say something like, “Looks like you’re not initiating. What strategy are you going to use?”
Tip 11: Some strategies to build persistence include skipping the hard ones and doing the ones a student knows first, working with a buddy, and double checking work on problems that have been completed.
Giving help in class is often a tricky balance, especially if a student is too embarrassed to ask vocally. Instead of acting out because she can’t do the work, the student might raise her hand, pass the teacher a note or make eye contact. Then the teacher has to be careful not to give too much help. “We accidentally create dependency because we help so much,” Minahan said.
That goes for academics as well as behavior. Often a teacher will notice a student becoming agitated and dysregulated and tell him to take a short walk. But ultimately the student will be better served if he can learn to monitor himself and implement strategies when they notice early signs of agitation. “Kids have to learn how to catch themselves on the way up and calm down there,” Minahan said, because that’s when the strategies work. But kids need to be taught how to recognize the signs.
Tip 12: Teach kids how to do a body check. With younger students a teacher can describe the signs of agitation as they are happening so the student starts to recognize them. With older students, ask them where in their body they feel anxious, for example, “in your belly?” “Give them the data every day,” Minahan said. “This is your body on the way up.” After the groundwork has been laid, a teacher can just say “body check, please” to let a student know it’s time to check in with themselves and start using a strategy.
But what can you do when a kid is already exploding? Minahan says, not much because the child will have a very hard time reacting in a reasonable way once he or she is riled up.
Tip 13: What educators can do is anticipate those moments and rehearse self-calming strategies when the child is calm.
In one case, Minahan knew an elementary student she was working with was going to have a traumatic change in her life. The child’s mom was giving her up to foster care and the date had been set. To prepare for what would undoubtedly be a moment when the student couldn’t control herself, Minahan had her practice self-calming in the social worker’s office, where she would probably go on the day. Twice a day for five minutes she rehearsed a self-calming routine when she was already calm so her working memory was available and she was learning the strategies.
When the day came and the child did freak out, Minahan quickly got her into the office with very little touching or verbal interaction which might further set her off. Once there, the girl got into her routine, and started singing to herself as a cognitive distraction. “The rehearsal allowed for automaticity and did not require cognition or working memory in that moment,” Minahan said.
Tip 14: Rehearse replies to confrontations. Minahan worked with a high school student who constantly got in fights. If he felt disrespected he’d start swinging. Together they rehearsed over and over him saying, “I don’t have time for this,” and walking away. During the rehearsals, Minahan gave him something to hold in his hands as he said this. And soon, he stopped getting in fights. It gave him the moment he needed to make a decision not to use his fists and a go-to automatic reply.
Tip 15: Use data to disprove negative thinking. Writing is a common barrier for kids with anxiety, Minahan said. But one way to begin getting students past this hurdle is to ask them how hard a task will be before they start and again after they’ve completed it. Almost always the perception of the task is worse than the actual task. With several weeks of data you can show students the pattern in their responses.
Minahan worked with a girl who hated writing so much that she was skipping school twice a week. She would often say that writing was torture to her. Minahan broke writing down into component parts with corresponding strategies for getting started on each part. When the student worked on a writing task Minahan would ask her how many strategies she employed. Often the girl didn’t use that many strategies, which didn’t fit with her own conception of herself. “We reframed her whole thinking and she felt more empowered to solve her problems,” Minahan said.
In any interaction with students teachers can only control their own behavior, but that’s actually a lot of power. “We are 50% of every interaction with a child,” Minahan said. “We have a lot of control over that interaction.”
Tip 16: If a teacher gets off on the wrong foot with a student early in the year, try randomly being kind to the child, rather than only giving positive attention based on his or her behavior. This kind of noncontingent reinforcement helps the child to see the teacher likes him for who he is, not because he does math well or reads perfectly, Minahan said.
Tip 17: In areas where the difficult student is competent, give her a leadership role. Maybe let her take a younger child to the nurse or start an activity club. This helps change the child’s perception of herself and also her relationship to the teacher.
Tip 18: When demanding something of a student, don’t ask yes or no questions and teach kids not to ask yes or no questions. In that scenario, someone has a 50 percent chance of being disappointed with the answer. By changing the question, the teacher opens the door for the answer to be diffusing, rather than an escalation of defiance. For example, if a student asks, “Can I work with Jack?” The teacher can reframe the question: “Oh, did you want to know when you could work with Jack? You can ask: When can I work with Jack.” The student might not like the answer, but it likely won’t produce the same explosive reaction as getting an outright “no.”
Tip 19: Give kids time and space. For example, eye contact can be very bad for kids with anxiety. If a kid is humming in an annoying way, a typical teacher move might be to make eye contact with the kid and shake your head to get him to stop. But eye-contact is non-verbally asking the child for a response, which they may be incapable of giving at that moment. Instead, calmly walk over and put a note on their desk that says, “please stop humming.” Then run away and do not make eye contact with that student for a few minutes.
“The initial reaction is not pleasant and you have to wait for them to de-escalate before they can comply,” Minahan said. Sometimes the mere presence of the teacher prevents that de-escalation.
Tip 20: Reward practice or strategy use, not performance. “When I shift the reinforcement to skills, I’ve noticed the skills go up and that’s what makes the difference for the kids who have mental health difficulties,” Minahan said. Ultimately, educators are teaching kids the skills and strategies that they can then use throughout their life when they’re anxious, so rewarding practice makes sense.
The more teachers can empathize with students, teaching skill building and focus on preventing challenging behavior, the smoother the classroom will run. Often that means learning about the student in order to identify triggers and design new ways of interacting with even the most challenging students.
Research indicates that dyslexia is caused by biological factors not emotional or family problems. Samuel T. Orton, M.D. was one of the first researchers to describe the emotional aspects of dyslexia. According to his research, the majority of dyslexic preschoolers are happy and well adjusted. Their emotional problems begin to develop when early reading instruction does not match their learning style. Over the years, the frustration mounts as classmates surpass the dyslexic student in reading skills. Recent research funded by the National Institute of Health has identified many of the neurological and cognitive differences that contribute to dyslexia. The vast majority of these factors appear to be caused by genetics rather than poor parenting or childhood depression or anxiety.
Why is dyslexia discouraging and frustrating?
The frustration of children with dyslexia often centers on their inability to meet expectations. Their parents and teachers see a bright, enthusiastic child who is not learning to read and write. Time and again, dyslexics and their parents hear, “He’s such a bright child; if only he would try harder.” Ironically, no one knows exactly how hard the dyslexic is trying.
The pain of failing to meet other people’s expectations is surpassed only by dyslexics’ inability to achieve their goals. This is particularly true of those who develop perfectionistic expectations in order to deal with their anxiety. They grow up believing that it is “terrible” to make a mistake.
However, their learning disability, almost by definition means that these children will make many “careless” or “stupid” mistakes. This is extremely frustrating to them, as it makes them feel chronically inadequate.
The dyslexic frequently has problems with social relationships. These can be traced to causes:
Dyslexic children may be physically and socially immature in comparison to their peers. This can lead to a poor self-image and less peer acceptance.
Dyslexics’ social immaturity may make them awkward in social situations.
Many dyslexics have difficulty reading social cues. They may be oblivious to the amount of personal distance necessary in social interactions or insensitive to other people’s body language.
Dyslexia often affects oral language functioning. Affected persons may have trouble finding the right words, may stammer, or may pause before answering direct questions. This puts them at a disadvantage as they enter adolescence, when language becomes more central to their relationships with peers.
My clinical observations lead me to believe that, just as dyslexics have difficulty remembering the sequence of letters or words, they may also have difficulty remembering the order of events. For example, let us look at a normal playground interaction between two children. A dyslexic child takes a toy that belongs to another child, who calls the dyslexic a name. The dyslexic then hits the other child. In relating the experience, the dyslexic child may reverse the sequence of events. He may remember that the other child called him a name, and he then took the toy and hit the other child.
This presents two major difficulties for the dyslexic child. First, it takes him longer to learn from his mistakes. Second, if an adult witnessed the events, and asks the dyslexic child what happened, the child seems to be lying.
Unfortunately, most interactions between children involve not three events, but 15 to 20. With his sequencing and memory problems, the dyslexic may relate a different sequence of events each time he tells the tale. Teachers, parents, and psychologists conclude that he is either psychotic or a pathological liar.
The inconsistencies of dyslexia produce serious challenges in a child’s life. There is a tremendous variability in the student’s individual abilities. Although everyone has strengths and weaknesses, the dyslexic’s are greatly exaggerated. Furthermore, the dyslexic’s strengths and weaknesses may be closely related.
I once worked with a young adult who received a perfect score on the Graduate Record Exam in mathematics. He could do anything with numbers except remember them. The graduate students he tutored in advanced statistics or calculus had great difficulty believing that he could not remember their telephone numbers.
These great variations produce a “roller coaster” effect for dyslexics. At times, they can accomplish tasks far beyond the abilities of their peers. At the next moment, they can be confronted with a task that they cannot accomplish. Many dyslexics call this “walking into black holes.” To deal with these kinds of problems, dyslexics need a thorough understanding of their learning disability. This will help them predict both success and failure. Dyslexics also perform erratically within tasks. That is, their errors are inconsistent. For example, I once asked a dyslexic adult to write a hundred word essay on television violence. As one might expect he misspelled the word “television” five times. However, he misspelled it a different way each time. This type of variation makes remediation more difficult.
Finally, dyslexics’ performance varies from day to day. On some days, reading may come fairly easily. However, another day, they may be barely able to write their own name. This inconsistency is extremely confusing not only to the dyslexic, but also to others in his environment.
Few other handicapping conditions are intermittent in nature. A child in a wheelchair remains there; in fact, if on some days the child can walk, most professionals would consider it a hysterical condition. However, for the dyslexic, performance fluctuates. This makes it extremely difficult for the individual to learn to compensate, because he or she cannot predict the intensity of the symptoms on a given day.
What does the dyslexic person feel?
Anxiety is the most frequent emotional symptom reported by dyslexic adults. Dyslexics become fearful because of their constant frustration and confusion in school. These feelings are exacerbated by the inconsistencies of dyslexia. Because they may anticipate failure, entering new situations can becomes extremely anxiety provoking.
Anxiety causes human beings to avoid whatever frightens them. The dyslexic is no exception. However, many teachers and parents misinterpret this avoidance behavior as laziness. In fact, the dyslexic’s hesitancy to participate in school activities such as homework is related more to anxiety and confusion than to apathy.
Many of the emotional problems caused by dyslexia occur out of frustration with school or social situations. Social scientists have frequently observed that frustration produces anger. This can be clearly seen in many dyslexics.
The obvious target of the dyslexic’s anger would be schools and teachers. However, it is also common for the dyslexic to vent his anger on his parents. Mothers are particularly likely to feel the dyslexic’s wrath. Often, the child sits on his anger during school to the point of being extremely passive. However, once he is in the safe environment of home, these very powerful feelings erupt and are often directed toward the mother. Ironically, it is the child’s trust of the mother that allows him to vent his anger. However, this becomes very frustrating and confusing to the parent who is desperately trying to help their child.
As youngsters reach adolescence, society expects them to become independent. The tension between the expectation of independence and the child’s learned dependence causes great internal conflicts. The adolescent dyslexic uses his anger to break away from those people on which he feels so dependent.
Because of these factors, it may be difficult for parents to help their teenage dyslexic. Instead, peer tutoring or a concerned young adult may be better able to intervene and help the child.
The dyslexic’s self–image appears to be extremely vulnerable to frustration and anxiety. According to Erik Erikson, during the first years of school, every child must resolve the conflicts between a positive self–image and feelings of inferiority. If children succeed in school, they will develop positive feelings about themselves and believe that they can succeed in life.
If children meet failure and frustration, they learn that they are inferior to others, and that their effort makes very little difference. Instead of feeling powerful and productive, they learn that their environment controls them. They feel powerless and incompetent.
Researchers have learned that when typical learners succeed, they credit their own efforts for their success. When they fail, they tell themselves to try harder. However, when the dyslexic succeeds, he is likely to attribute his success to luck. When he fails, he simply sees himself as stupid.
Research also suggests that these feelings of inferiority develop by the age of ten. After this age, it becomes extremely difficult to help the child develop a positive self–image. This is a powerful argument for early intervention.
Depression is also a frequent complication in dyslexia. Although most dyslexics are not depressed, children with this kind of learning disability are at higher risk for intense feelings of sorrow and pain. Perhaps because of their low self–esteem, dyslexics are afraid to turn their anger toward their environment and instead turn it toward themselves.
However, depressed children and adolescents often have different symptoms than do depressed adults. The depressed child is unlikely to be lethargic or to talk about feeling sad. Instead he or she may become more active or misbehave to cover up the painful feelings. In the case of masked depression, the child may not seem obviously unhappy. However, both children and adults who are depressed tend to have three similar characteristics:
First, they tend to have negative thoughts about themselves, i.e. a negative self–image.
Second, they tend to view the world negatively. They are less likely to enjoy the positive experiences in life. This makes it difficult for them to have fun.
Finally, most depressed youngsters have great trouble imagining anything positive about the future. The depressed dyslexic not only experiences great pain in his present experiences, but also foresees a life of continuing failure.
Like any handicapping condition, dyslexia has a tremendous impact on the child’s family. However, because dyslexia is an invisible handicap, these effects are often overlooked.
Dyslexia affects the family in a variety of ways. One of the most obvious is sibling rivalry. Non–dyslexic children often feel jealous of the dyslexic child, who gets the majority of the parents’ attention, time, and money. Ironically, the dyslexic child does not want this attention. This increases the chances that he or she will act negatively against the achieving children in the family.
Specific developmental dyslexia runs in families. This means that one or both of the child’s parents may have had similar school problems. When faced with a child who is having school problems, dyslexic parents may react in one of two ways. They may deny the existence of dyslexia and believe if the child would just buckle down, he or she could succeed. Or, the parents may relive their failures and frustrations through their child’s school experience. This brings back powerful and terrifying emotions, which can interfere with the adult’s parenting skills.
How can parents and teachers help?
During the past 25 years, I have interviewed many dyslexic adults. Some have learned to deal successfully with their learning problems, while others have not. My experiences suggest that in addition to factors such as intelligence and socio–economic status, other things affect the dyslexic’s chances for success.
First, early in the child’s life, someone has been extremely supportive and encouraging. Second, the young dyslexic found an area in which he or she could succeed. Finally, successful dyslexics appear to have developed a commitment to helping others.
Both teachers and parents need to offer consistent, ongoing encouragement and support. However, one rarely hears about this very important way to help youngsters.
I believe encouragement involves at least four elements. First, listening to children’s feelings. Anxiety, anger and depression are daily companions for dyslexics. However, their language problems often make it difficult for them to express their feelings. Therefore, adults must help them learn to talk about their feelings.
Teachers and parents must reward effort, not just “the product”. For the dyslexic, grades should be less important than progress.
When confronting unacceptable behavior, adults must not inadvertently discourage the dyslexic child. Words such as “lazy” or “incorrigible” can seriously damage the child’s self–image.
Finally, it is important to help students set realistic goals for themselves. Most dyslexic students set perfectionistic and unattainable goals. By helping the child set an attainable goal, teachers can change the cycle of failure.
Even more important, the child needs to recognize and rejoice in his or her successes. To do so, he or she needs to achieve success in some area of life. In some cases, the dyslexic’s strengths are obvious, and many dyslexics’ self–esteem has been salvaged by prowess in athletics, art, or mechanics. However, the dyslexic’s strengths are often more subtle and less obvious. Parents and teachers need to find ways to relate the child’s interests to the demands of real life.
Finally, many successful dyslexic adults deal with their own pain by reaching out to others. They may do volunteer work for charities or churches, or choose vocations that require empathy and a social conscience. These experiences help dyslexics feel more positive about themselves and deal more effectively with their pain and frustration.
Many opportunities exist in our schools, homes and churches for dyslexics to help others. One important area is peer tutoring. If dyslexic students do well in math or science, they can be asked to tutor a classmate who is struggling.
Perhaps that student can reciprocate as a reader for the dyslexic student. Tutoring younger children, especially other dyslexics, can be a positive experience for everyone involved.
Helping dyslexics feel better about themselves and deal effectively with their feelings is a complex task.
First, caring adults must understand the cognitive and affective problems caused by dyslexia. Then they must design strategies that will help the dyslexic, like every other child, to find joy and success in academics and personal relationships.
About the author
Dr. Michael Ryan is a psychologist with a private practice in Grand Rapids, MI. He specializes in working with people with learning disabilities. A dyslexic himself, Dr. Ryan is a past president of the Michigan Branch of the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) and a former national vice president of IDA.
An abbreviated article by Evie Blad on March 14, 2016. View the full article on EdWeek.
“I fear that my work, which grew up to counter the failed self-esteem movement, will be used for the same purpose, trying to make kids feel good but not actually changing the process of learning,” Dweck said, explaining her concerns.
As people have embraced the growth mindset idea, they haven’t always fully understood every dimension of the research. Among the biggest misconceptions? That boosting students’ mindsets is simply a matter of praising effort rather than results or helping students develop new strategies for approaching content they struggle with, Dweck said.
“Sheer effort is highly important, but it is not the ultimate value; learning and improvement are,” Dweck said. “Effort is one route to learning and improvement.”
Here are six tips pulled from Dweck’s talk:
1. Acknowledge the nuance in the research.
Growth mindsets are not a magic trick that will solve every challenge in the classroom, Dweck said. The enthusiasm for the research sometimes leads to an expectation of unrealistic results, researchers have said. And that same enthusiasm can lead skeptics to dismiss them all together. Fellow mindset researcher David Yeager has even published a paper called “Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic,” which he just calls “The Magic Paper.”
“A growth mindset is not a panacea, but it does empower [students] and help them learn,” she said.
2. Everyone has a fixed mindset sometimes.
There’s a misconception that every student and teacher can be put into one of two categories: those with growth mindsets and those with fixed mindsets, Dweck said, but in reality, everyone “has a little bit of both.” The either/or mentality causes some people to ignore chances they have to address the fixed mindsets they do have about some areas.
“Let’s legitimize that fixed mindset, because we all have it somewhere; we are all a mixture,” Dweck said. “And watch for those fixed-mindset triggers.”
What sparks students’ fixed mindsets? It’s whatever makes them retreat to that place where avoiding “looking dumb” is more important than being vulnerable and learning a new idea, she said. Those triggers are different for different people. They could be struggles, setbacks, criticism from others, or even meeting someone who is smarter or more talented, Dweck said.
“Do you hate them just a little bit? Or do you say, ‘wow how did they develop those skills?’ Maybe I can learn from them.”
3. Name your fixed mindset.
Dweck told of a consultant in Australia who encouraged business executives to name their “fixed-mindset persona” so they could have a fun, comfortable way of discussing it with peers.
In schools, the name gives a quick identifier to the triggers students and teachers identify, and it helps them recognize their responses that might not be productive, she said.
“Name it, claim it, and talk about it,” she said. “And over time, recruit it to work with you on your growth mindset goals.”
For students, that might mean calling their mindset by their middle name or a goofy nickname.
“When we’re in a crunch, when we’re on deadline and I’m not sure we’re gonna make it, Duane shows up,” one Australian man told his coworkers, according to Dweck. His organization’s morale and productivity shot up as they adopted those strategies, she said.
Children can then move beyond just asking for answers when they don’t understand and instead ask “What can I do to help myself?” she said.
5. Put mindsets into a greater school-culture context.
The larger culture of a school can influence their mindset formation, Dweck said. Students are less likely to avoid “looking dumb” and more likely to try new approaches if they believe that their school is interested in their success, she said. Similarly, in workplaces, employees are more likely to display growth mindsets when they believe that the organization believes in developing abilities.
Social-emotional learning efforts and school climate initiatives that encourage students to build supportive relationships may help build this attitude in a school, Dweck said.
“What is the larger culture that allows teachers and students to feel safe? That we’re out for your development? We’re not here to sort you into who can succeed and who can’t.”
6. Don’t use mindsets to label students (or yourself).
Dweck said she’s been disappointed to hear that some teachers have used a student’s mindset as an excuse, saying things like “that child can’t learn; he has a fixed mindset.”
“We used to say kids don’t have the ability. Now we’re saying they don’t have the mindset? I think it’s protective. It’s our way of saying ‘It’s not my fault that child isn’t learning.'”
You can watch the whole address here.
Photo: Stanford Professor Carol Dweck speaks at Education Week’s Leaders to Learn From event. –Charlie Borst/Education Week