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The toxic stress cascade

Today I want to dive deeper into our discussion of how stress can physically alter the brain and explain how long term exposure to stress can be toxic.  In fact, the response of hormones and neuro-transmitters to habitual stress can damage the hippocampus.

The hippocampus, named for its resemblance to a seahorse, is a region deep within the brain which is integral to learning and memory. The hippocampus is particularly vulnerable to stress because of its abundance of glucocorticoid receptors.  Glucocorticoid receptors are the site of cortisol binding.  Hormones can’t be effective until they are bound to a receptor, so when the cortisol finds a glucocorticoid receptor, it gets to work.

Cortisol is rapidly becoming a household name.  It is a stress hormone.  More stress = more cortisol.

High levels of cortisol keep the body primed for fight-or-flight response which means, among other things, a decreased immune system.  When we need it, this is an important redistribution of resources.  But, too much can be toxic.  Sustained, elevated cortisol levels have been linked to atrophy in the hippocampus.  In other words, flooding that region with cortisol causes drowning; the brain cells there die.

With the hippocampus under attack, the potential for learning and developing new memories is diminished.  You see, our emotions do influence our ability to learn.

As educators we wear many hats and have an increasing number of responsibilities.  I hope that these details about the influence of stress on the brain will convince you that providing emotional wellness to your students is the foundation upon which learning occurs.




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Conversation Starters: How to spark creativity in young minds

January is International Creativity Month, so that will be the focus of this month’s conversation starters.

As I mentioned, teasing answers out of students for whom self-reflection is a new skill will require patience and practice.  To begin, let’s start with something safe and a little bit silly.

“What new law should the President write?”

By shifting the responsibility to someone outside themselves, children will feel safer expressing their thoughts because, well, they aren’t doing it – the president is!

Objective: Get the student to think about what feels unjust/unfair to them or what is an area in society that should be improved.

If you are facing an army of blank stares try these:

Some helpful prompts:

  • Has anything ever happened to you or a loved one that was so awful it should be illegal?
  • When’s the last time you became really angry?  If something were different, would you have been less angry?  Could there be a law written to stop that from happening?
  • Do you wish you had easier access to things?
  • Is there something everyone should be able to get or have?
  • Think about what makes you happy?  Should it be mandatory?

For littler ones, consider changing the prompt to: “What’s a new rule we should have in our classroom?” In their micro-world the teacher may be more powerful than the president!

Tip: To keep the ideas flowing, ask students to write down their answers.  Collect them.  Hand them back later in the week and have students defend their answer by writing 3 sentences about why they picked this law.

Let me know what they come up with!




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Conversation Starters: Super Powers (Part II)

Last week you asked your students to invent a superpower that would help them.  This week, let’s find out how they would like to help others.

Ask your class:

“What superpower would you like to have that would serve others?”

Objective: This week’s objective is to guide students into a reflection on how they would like to and/or enjoy supporting others.  Their role they play with others will be integral to their happiness as adults.  This is a nice way to help them begin to ask how they will shape that role.

Because this prompt asks students to be selfless, it will be less difficult for them to come up with canned answers.  (Ex: I would like to fly/be invisible/eat endless amounts of candy.)  This may mean they are more uncomfortable.  Be wary of this as you begin this conversation with them.

Some prompts to get their idea juices flowing:

  • What is a service the world/our neighborhood/our school needs?  What is a superpower that could provide that?
  • Reflect on the superpower you chose to serve yourself?  Could it be tweaked to serve others?
  • Have you ever been unable to help someone who was struggling/upset/needy?  What power would you have needed to be able to support them through a difficult time?

For younger students, ask:

“How would you like to be able to help your classmates/friends/parents/siblings?”

Let me know what they come up with!


– AK

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Conversation Starters: Ground Rules

Before beginning any new routine in your classroom, it’s important to establish the ground rules.  How will students participate?  What is expected of them?  When and how often will the new routine take place?  When the routine asks students to talk about themselves, the ground rules become even more important.  Requesting vulnerability from your students must come with the security that you are there to mediate the discussion and protect them.

Surely you have already established routines for respecting the different opinions in your classroom.  Maybe you have an object students are given which signals their turn to talk or you ask them to jump in, not over.

Be sure to take the time to lay out the ground rules for these conversation starters.  Ask your students to tell you what rules would help them to feel safe.  And, always explain to them why you are asking them to complete a task.  In this case, tell them that you are leading them through a journey of learning about themselves, of self-awareness.

Remember to refresh their memories every so often about the rules that they all agreed to.  I like to write down the class rules on a poster and ask students to sign as a pledge of their intent to honor the rules.

What strategies work in your classroom?  What makes your students feel safe?



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