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  • Writer's pictureAlan David Pritchard

THE PRAISE MODEL PART 2: Reducing Negative Stress

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

I first heard about negative stress in Alastair Smith’s book on Accelerated Learning some years ago, in which he draws attention to the role of the Reptilian Brain to learning. It was the first time I had heard about the concept of a Triune Brain – the theory that we have 3 areas of the brain corresponding to the evolution of our species.

Very simply put, the most primitive part of our brain (the part that evolved first) is called the Reptilian Brain, and is responsible for our most basic ‘fight or flight’ subconscious responses.

The second area to have evolved is the Mammalian Brain, which is responsible for emotional bonding and emotional meaning, and the third, the Neo-Cortex, is responsible for our conscious decision-making processes. It is the Reptilian Brain which is the source of negative stress and which can be called into play in the classroom.

At the risk of extreme over simplification, the Reptilian Brain is responsible for, amongst others, the following:

a) Survival – our ‘fight of flight’ responses, which are subconscious reactions to our environment. An example of this is when we scream when given a fright.

b) Defence – our response to having our space invaded, or our possessions under threat. An example of this is when a stranger stands too close to us, making us feel instantly uncomfortable.

c) Mating rituals – where we respond to people we are attracted to by showing off, or letting them know about our presence. An example of this is our getting jealous when someone makes moves on the person we desire.

d) Hierarchies – where we respond to people in authority, or those in power. An example of this is the subconscious need to be accepted by a gang-leader, or someone whose acceptance we seek.

e) Rote-behaviour – where our responses are conditioned, repetitive and predictable. An example of this is when we berate ourselves when we make mistakes, using expressions like “You fool!” or “You always do this!”

The Reptilian Brain has other responsibilities too but this post will not address those. Instead, we shall examine how situations in the classroom can call into play the notion of negative stress.

Negative stress – and again I am simplifying things here – is a subconscious reaction to our environment whenever we feel our survival is threatened. So, if we are threatened by a intruder, for instance, our conscious mind almost shuts down to allow the Reptilian Brain to take over, to flood our bodies with adrenaline, to move our muscles so that we may escape the situation we are in.

In the classroom, these are the sorts of situations that create negative stress in students, and which cause them to react/ respond subconsciously to their reality. In other words, their reactions are not the result of a conscious decision, but rather a subconscious need to protect themselves.

These situations are often the result of subconscious fear, and may include:

• fear of losing face • fear of being punished • fear of being bullied • fear of having shortcomings exposed • fear of being called names / being branded/ being ignored • fear of being bumped into / competing for personal space.

The following situations may also result in negative stress:

• not having clear routines and boundaries set by teacher • not having completed work / homework • not having understood instructions / tasks/ explanations • not being listened to • not having a good relationship with the teacher

The problem with negative stress is it takes the pupil’s attention away from the business of learning and their subconscious reactions cause their conscious mind to focus on their emotional state, rather than allowing them to immerse themselves in the learning situation.

Here are some tips to alleviate negative stress in the classroom. Obviously, this list is by no means exhaustive.

1) Teach students relaxation techniques.

It may not surprise teachers to note that not many students know HOW to relax, how to calm themselves and ready themselves for their lessons. If a teacher acts as gatekeeper, and barks at students to remove their jackets as they enter, then the tone is being set for what is to follow. Some teachers like to play relaxing music as the students enter so as to embed a calm and peaceful atmosphere before the students have actually sat down.

Other techniques which can be useful are:

- get students to sit up straight as the lesson begins, with their hands in their laps, making their spines as straight as possible, looking at a fixed point in front of them, and taking slow and deep breaths

- get students to breathe using their diaphragms – so, when they inhale, their bellies rise, and when they exhale, their bellies drop

- have a focus activity on the board for them to pay attention to – these can be optical illusion pictures, how-many-faces pictures or even ‘Where’s Waldo’-type pictures

2) Develop rituals and routines.

This involves being consistent about what is expected from the students before the lessons begin. At some schools, teachers like to have their students stand beside their desks and wait till they are asked to be seated. Others have their students take off jackets, take out books and ‘look ready’ to begin.

Whatever routine you have, ensure that you are consistent in expecting and making it happen. In my previous blog, I spoke about your being a gatekeeper and your saying a positive comment as students enter – this is an example of a consistent routine. I know some teachers who raise their hands, which indicate that the students have 5 seconds to settle down and face the front – and then count down on their fingers before greeting them and starting the lesson.

3) Be consistent in your expectations and rules.

Consistency is probably one of the most important features of any teacher’s behaviour, because lack of consistency very often leads to classroom stress and even resentment amongst pupils. Reprimanding one person for doing something and not reprimanding another for doing the same thing is a sure-fire way to create negative stress in the classroom.

Students will feel safer and more secure if they have had some input into the classroom behaviour policy and their taking ownership of such a policy does go a long way to creating a positive classroom atmosphere. A negotiated and agreed behaviour policy applied with utter consistency will make students feel acknowledged and allow those who step over the mark to take responsibility for their actions.

At all costs, avoid artificial deadlines and empty threats.

4) Build and maintain self-esteem.

Think of how you are treated by the Heads of Departments, Heads of Year or Head Teacher in your school – are you made to feel valued and supported? Do they make you pleased to be part of their team? Now think about your students. How often do you thank, praise or say nice things about them? Are there students whom you don’t get to speak directly to in a lesson? How many lessons go by where this happens? When you do speak to a student, is it to criticise, complain or berate him/her? How do you make your students feel good about themselves?

Praising your students for their work is one way to build self-esteem, as is frequent, constructive feedback.

Another way is to make use of “I-statements” rather than “You-statements”.

Here is an example. Say you see a pupil (Jane), taking someone’s pen without asking. A “you-statement” response would be something like: “What’s the matter with you, Jane? Why can’t you learn to be more polite? Don’t you know that taking things is a form of stealing? You’re so impolite!”

Note how this kind of response is almost an attack on the person. Changing it to an “I-statement” involves the following steps:

a) Mention the pupil’s name, then wait for eye-contact b) Label the behaviour: “You took her pen without asking.” c) Mention the effect on the peers: “When you do that, she feels you are stealing and gets upset.” d) Mention the effect on you: “I have to stop helping X to sort this out and I feel this is an inappropriate use of my time” e) Direct the expected behaviour: “Please return her pen, and then ask politely if you may borrow it.”

Using “I-statements” takes away the feeling that the person is being judged by focussing on the behaviour that needs to change, rather than sounding like an attack on the person’s character.

5) Foster early team building.

Encouraging team success is another way to alleviate negative stress in the classroom. For instance, instead of having your top group do an exercise that has, say, 12 questions ... invite the group to finish their task in a given time and explain that the only way the task can get done is if each person tackles different questions.

So one person will do the first three questions, the next, the following three ... and so on. Then ask the group to listen to each of the answers and agree on whether the answers are correct before submitting the work as complete.

Praising and/or rewarding the group for working together and completing the task on time will promote good team spirit and a sense of group accomplishment.

We will be examining the concept of group work in Part 5 entitled ‘Structuring Social Interaction.’

In my next post, I shall explore ways to get to know your students more. In the meantime, if you would like to say something about this post or share your own good practice, feel free to comment below.

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