Every now and then it seems like there is an “it” book that everyone in my reform-y education circle is reading. No doubt about it, How Children Succeed by Paul Tough is hot. The book begins by exploring a collection of studies that point to a child’s “character” (as defined by her ability to self-regulate, to persist, to bounce back from failure, etc.) rather than her IQ as the key aspect to her future success. Another name for this understanding of character is “executive functions” which are like “a team of air traffic controllers overseeing the functions of the brain.” Executive functions regulate impulse control, emotional stability, and focus. However, research suggests that low-income students or those from troubled homes begin school with reduced executive functions which dramatically impedes their ability to self-regulate both thinking and feelings. Why?
Tough describes how our physiological ability to regulate stress is centered around the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which uses various signals and hormone releases to prepare us for catastrophe. It rases our blood pressure so our muscles can move quickly, it conserves fluids so we survive attack, and it produces antibodies in case we are wounded. This system works great if we are trying to survive on the African savana – not so much if we are just trying to get through a “How To” talk in our high school speech class. The HPA does not know the difference between the two. Additionally, if your HPA has been overstimulated as an infant or young child it can cause actual physical damage to your body as well as limit your ability to respond appropriately to future stress. To this end, Tough underscores the importance of a stable, safe childhood; but, as we teachers know, this is not always possible. Tough writes:
It is hard to argue with the science behind early intervention. Those first few years matter so much in the healthy development of a child’s brain; they represent a unique opportunity to make a difference in the child’s future. . . . Pure IQ is stubbornly resistant to improvement after about age eight. But executive functions and the ability to handle stress and manage strong emotions can be improved, sometimes dramatically, well into adolescence and even adulthood.
The remainder of the book is dedicated to exploring programs working to teach underserved students critical character traits, or executive functions, that will dramatically increase their ability to be successful both at school and in their future lives. These include college readiness classes that teach soft-skills, character report cards (check back tomorrow for my take on these), youth mentoring, and middle school chess programs. On the whole, I was extremely compelled by Tough’s argument for the importance of teaching character or executive functioning skills. We must do this. However, I am less sure about the methods he highlights as possible solutions (more on that tomorrow).
As educators, what can we do to help our students regulate their HPA reactions? Here are some thoughts:
- The younger the student, the bigger the opportunity: It is clear young children are particularly impressionable and able to increase these skills. This underscores the importance of teachers and parents working together to create safe, stable environments as well as consistant rules and expectations. I know this is stating the obvious and is what many of us already do but I put this book down with a renewed commitment to making the school/home relationship stronger.
- Don’t give up on teenagers!: It is important to remember that executive functions are malleable and not fixed; you can become more self-regulated regardless of age.
- Teach students about the HPA and their fight/flight instinct: Help students understand how their bodies respond to stress. Help them to recognize when they are having an intense reaction or becoming frustrated and then give them a set of tools to use in these situations. Count to 10. Take 3 deep breaths. Ask for a “time out” and return to the situation after calming down. Learning about fight/flight helps students feel more in control of their bodies; sure, they might be freaking out but they can at least name what is happening and put some distance between themselves and their reaction. I have done this before with high school students but I think it could work even as far down as upper elementary. Heck, I am even teaching these coping strategies to my 2 year-old.
- Make room for teaching conflict resolution in your curriculum: Providing students with scripts for navigating common conflicts (sharing, feeling betrayed, feeling hurt) can empower them to solve their own interpersonal issues and reduce their stress. Teach them to use I statements (i.e. “I felt angry when you said that about my friend”), model how important it is to listen rather than talk in a conflict, and show them how yelling and escalation are never solutions. The great news is there are 1000s of opportunities to teach these lessons naturally over the course of a school year. Kids will get mad at each other, kids will be disrespectful, kids will be unable to control their own impulsiveness and you will have the opportunity to show them a different way.
How do you teach self-regulation in your classroom?